Pic of system during evaluation. The Kondo system is connected to the loudspeakers on top, whereas the LS3/5A's below are driven by Flying Mole CA-S10 digital amp to the left of the M7. And No, the Pioneer's are not trapezoids (just lens distortion). Click to enlarge.
Kondo System Bookshelf Loudspeaker Matching: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP, 47 Lab 4737, TAD TSM-2201, KEF LS50, LS3/5A and JBL Subwoofer
My Kondo System, Part V
Review: Audio Note M7
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM, Part II
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-VP
Review: TAD TSM-2201, Part II
Kondo Ongaku SP (S-18) and Biyura
Letter from NYC (61) 2016 (17)
Revised Feb 3, 2017: For the last two weeks I inverted the loudspeakers, that is with the tweeter down. The effect is dramatic, and I am very pleased. This is added to the discussion in "Sonic Impressions: Effect of Placing Loudspeakers High Up"
Links to My Kondo System, Part I (background info on Kondo and Ongaku); Part II (all about M7); Part III (the most important one, detailing set up and listening experience); Part IV (largely phono related, and Kondo preamp/amp were not used; skip if you are digital only)
pic: R: Kondo S-18 prototype from Positive Feedback CES 2007 Report; L: S-18 leaflet. Click to enlarge.
What Kondo san himself used and/or designed This must be what we ask first. YL I believe, in his earlier days, even before Ongaku, he was a horn user and involved in YL horn designs (my YL horn system here; I have yet to write more extensively on these marvelous creations and their superb sound). I have done a bit of research on YL, but there is not that much on the internet. I believe, like JBL and Altec, there were few official enclosures). Branded Kondo Since YL, Kondo san had designed many smaller loudspeakers but they are virtually unheard of. Kondo's official site has discontinued loudspeaker model names (but not info) accessible only via its Japanese page (here). Ongaku SP (S-18) The S-18 is composed of the M-18 full range unit (many Japanese designers, like 47 Lab, Sparkler, Air Tight etc, favor fullrange loudspeakers) and the M-1 tweeter (likely a first order crossover - just a cap). I did hear the S-18 many many years ago, when Kondo san himself attended a HK hifi show (organized by the now-useless magazine 發燒音響). In the smallish hotel room, it was among the best sound I have ever heard in a show. The Positive Feedback pic shown above looks however bigger than I remember. Also, this German site's Las Vegas 2008 report must be virtually what I heard. BiYura (Field Coil) Kondo san passed away in 2006. In 2011 the Biyura Field Coil loudspeaker was unveiled in various hifi shows, including that in HK, which I covered (here). As you can read, I did not like the sound then. For this article, I did an exhaustive search and it seems the Biyura made apperances in quite a few hifi shows, but none after 2014. As there is not even a mention in Kondo's Japanese page, I assume the BiYura remains a prototype, if not an abandoned project. I am curious whether Kondo san himself had a hand in its conception, or if it is solely Masaaki san's effort.
It appears: 1) Kondo loudspeaker systems are perpetually in a state of flux, almost always in prototype stage, then and now. There may be multiple reasons for this: it is in keeping with most artisanal designer's tendency to forever tweak; also, many Kondo dealers also distribute other horn systems/efficient loudspeakers and hence may not be that interested in a Kondo loudspeaker (think Avantgarde in HK and Living Voice in the UK); 2) Kondo san likely was never completely satisfied with his loudspeaker creations (under the Kondo name). None ever remotely achieved sustained production (The S-18 and the Ruthy 4 perhaps were better known and had sold a few). Maybe Masaaki san is like that too with his field coil.
What Users and Dealers Use Aside from a few appearances by Kondo themselves using the S18 and Biyura, all manners of loudspeakers (not just horns) have been used in audio shows (to get an idea, google images using "Kondo hifi show"). My friend JC, Australian dealer (Audio 101) for Kondo, uses Avantgarde Trio and Tannoy Westminster. I have also heard an acquaintance's Kondo gears with Audio Note UK loudspeakers (sacriledge!). What I Use In my old house, I did not get to play that much with the Kondo's, but they did well with my Canterbury. In my current small abode, I could only manage to do it the way in the pic, which is why I actually carried out this not inconsiderable project of bookshelf loudspeaker matching, of which this is only the first report.
Equipment used in Evaluation:
Digital: 47 Lab Shigaraki Transport/DAC
Analog: Pro-ject RPM1.3/Clearaudio Concept MM
Preamp: Audio Note (Kondo) M7
Amp: Kondo Ongaku
Loudspeakers: as titled
Subwoofer: old JBL active subwoofer
Audio Note M7
The now discontinued M7 went through many iterations and is the most famous preamp of Kondo design (for the difference in versions, see my article here). All generations have similar chassis, internal structure and bespoken silver laden parts. This M7 you see in the pic is actually my second one. A few months ago I chanced upon this early unit and grabbed it because it is a full function preamp with a smaller footprint that actually slots into my IKEA shelf with room to spare/ventilate. As opposed to my other one (line only, 12AU7x2; last version), this one is a much earlier design, branded Audio Note but made in Japan, before Kondo san and Qvostrup split up and the latter founded AN UK (this is also why there are M6 and M8, but not M7, in their made in UK preamp lineup). This one uses 6072 in both the phono and line stages.
For info on these 86 db, 4 ohm sealed enclosure loudspeaker (8" woofer, the largest in this group), see my previous detailed TSM-2201 review. That review was when I first got them, and they were used upright. Subsequently I took them to my current abode and have actually also used them with Kondo (go to end of this sprawling article; used horizontally, on the same IKEA shelves but with them lying down, long sides parallel to the floor). The sound was excellent then but later I had to reconfigure, so the top of the shelves are higher now and I could only use them disadvantageously upright.
R pic: -PM; Lower L pic -VP
Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP
My initial impressions of S-A4SPT-PM, especially when compared with the legendary Yamaha NS-10, was not entirely favorable. They were likely not quite run-in at the time. Recently, after I decided to re-make my Kondo setup, I brought them to my current abode, where I first used them very satisfyingly on the desktop with 47 Lab Gaincard for quite a while. Sound was much better than at my old place, so they were probably finally run-in.
As I took to the PM more, I decided to acquire a used pair of its sibling, the S-A4SPT-VP. This is a slightly later and more expensive version with a different woofer (alleged to be TAD, though given the Pioneer/TAD duality, imho it is just a matter of semantics and marketing) and more luxurious finishing of ebony color. Both loudspeakers are likely of somewhat limited production, so in the West they are now only largely available through the internet (for a reasonable sum). The VP sold well in HK, but unlike the PM did not have any coverage in the West (only real online review is in Chinese, from Singapore).
Both are 84 db, 6 ohm loudspeakers with a 4" woofer, real wood enclosure and a small rear port. They differ in that the -VP reaches lower (spec'ed at 50-40k Hz vs the 60-40k Hz of the -PM). The -VP also has a higher crossover point than the -PM (4,500 Hz vs 3,500Hz). Despite similarity, they turn out to be surprisingly different in character (see below).
47 Lab 4737
These are also called the Lens Alnico or Lens II. All else being the same, it differs from Lens (also called Lens I or Lens MkII) (4722) in that the driver magnet is alnico. My initial impressions was favorable. Since then, there has only been one review in dagogo. It is an 85 db, 4-ohm 4" fullrange with MDF enclosure and a small front port. My pair is well used, obtained by trading my KEF LS50 towards them.
The 82 db 2-way with 4.5" woofer and sealed enclosure is arguably the most famous bookshelf in history and needs no introduction. In HK, after reluctantly selling my Harbeth to my good friend wss, I still have the Rogers (15 ohms, serial number 2xxx) in the pic as well as a rosewood pair of KEF (Raymond Cooke Edition, 11 ohms). I have been using them with my Flying Mole digital amp (the one next to the left LS3/5A) for casual listening, so they are in condition.
KEF LS50 This 85 db, 8 ohm loudspeaker with coaxial drivers is quite a famous loudspeaker now. See my reviews (KEF LS50, Part I, Part II, Part III). I had traded them towards my 47 Labs 4737, and hence they are not formally part of this evaluation. Documentation of this period here. Note in the pic the Ongaku was used as an integrated (click to enlarge).
JBL Digital 12 Subwoofer
This is an early JBL active subwoofer I bought on the cheap in HK (in the US, the kind you can find in your local craig list for nothing). Aside from a pic or two (see here), there is virtually no info on the net. I did find its Frequency Response is 29Hz to 150Hz. Adjustable Crossover Frequency is 50-150Hz. Just a bulky veneered black box with no legs, it is rather old fashioned in looks and lacks sex appeal. I have it upright, with its 12" paper (my preferred cone material) woofer the large port underneath firing backwards. I use the hi-level rather than line input (I always do; you don't want to corrupt the output of a good preamp!). Previously I had used these very effectively with larger JBL loudspeakers (here). In most ways I prefer them to the subwoofer that I have, the REL Strata III.
- Audio Note Japan M7 Line Although the sound is similar to my later Kondo M7 (described here), it is not quite the same. In this older M7, the "silvery" treble is still there, but less pronounced, reinforced by a somewhat warmer midrange (some may prefer this). My later unit is on loan to a friend so I cannot yet do an A/B comparison. Phono This being a used unit, the 6072 tubes are a bit noisy. Using Stefan Ashkenase's excellent performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, which I happen to have on both LP and CD, the LP just mercilessly killed the CD. Don't forget the 47 Labs digitals cost many times more than the Pro-ject analog rig! Part of this is the intrinsic superiority of analog, but the gulf is so wide that one has to conclude that this phono section is of the utmost quality.
- Kondo Ongaku as Integrated and Audio Note M7 + Kondo Ongaku In My Kondo System, Part III I detailed the difference between using the Ongaku as an integrated amp and as an amp with the M7 as preamp. That was in my old house, with Tannoy Canterbury HE. At the time, I found it a toss up. Then, in the smaller abode, configurations changed several times. First: Ongaku + M7 and TAD Long before this evaluation, from 2012 to 2014, I had actually tried both ways with the TAD TSM-2201 (see above). I briefly chronicled it near the end of this sprawling article, although I failed to mention that this time around adding the M7 as preamp was better than using the Ongaku as integrated (too bad too that I had accidentally deleted the pics - will have to restore them later). Then in 2014 I had to reconfigure the system to: Ongaku as Integrated due to lack of space on top of the now erect shelves for the Kondo M7 (article here, showing the KEF LS50 used at the time). During this period, I traded the KEF LS50 towards the 47 Labs 4737 (R pic; click to enlarge). Then in late 2016, after I acquired the Audio Note M7, the system became Ongaku + M7 and Loudspeaker Rotation With the more inefficient small loudspeakers, there is no question that the addition of the Audio Note M7 injects significantly more vitality into the system. The sound improved to the extent that I decided to test out all the small loudspeakers I have.
- Effect of Loudspeakers Placed High Up The shelves are the IKEA Kallax. When prostrate (30.375") the height is quite suitable for placing bookshelf loudspeakers. However, when used erect (57.875") the shelves are too tall for a sitting person. The resulting sound would have 1) less bass; 2) a leaner balance; 3) soundstage and imaging that are a bit too high up (which is better than too low, like the ESL-57). These drawbacks can be minimized, but not erased, by listening standing up and further away. Tilting the loudspeakers forward can lower the height a little too, but not by much. More effective would be to have the loudspeakers one shelf lower (except for the TAD), but I have yet to try that. The higher position I reckon also has the advantage of a little less boundary effect. As we know, many audiophiles are anal-rententive when it comes to the listening position, imaging and soundstage, and will sneer at this kind of setup. While I am not against those values, in general I want to be able to listen to my system no matter where I am in the room - a well dispersed rather than a narrowly focused sound (ESL being an example of the latter), which all my systems can do. Addendum Feb 2017: As of Feb 2017, I now have the speakers (currently LS3/5A) "upside down", that is with the tweeter beneath the woofer. This brings the tweeters down by at least 6 inches. The result is quite remarkable. Even though the tweeters are still way above "ear-level", they seem to have entered a "comfort zone". The imaging is bigger and more natural, the panorama wider and closer to the real experience. Most noticeably, big orchestral pieces seem more at ease, and I find myself playing a lot more Bruckner and Mahler. With the woofers higher, there is less bass and cabinet resonance (see below) and the subwoofers need to be turned a little higher up in volume and crossover point, easily achieved. Marvelous!
- Isolation/Cabinet Resonance As the shelves are not the sturdiest and as the loudspeakers sit on the same surface as the electronics, one can expect some resonance. However, since the loudspeakers have small woofers, except for the larger and fuller bass of the KEF LS50 (a large rear-port too) I did not hear much resonance/smearing. Nonetheless, I inserted slabs of industrial absorbers (gift of wss) underneath the loudspeakers. The effect is not as audible as under my Yamaha NS-1000M, leading me to think these work better for low bass, which most bookshelves lack. The 47 Labs transport has its own isolation platform, whereas the Kondo Ongaku is too heavy for devices. Underneath each of the three pointed feet of the Pro-ject turntable I put a small slab of Japanese made gel-like polymer (which they place under items to prevent sliding; sold in home stores in HK). Here I'd like to mention the lower shelf again. The LS3/5A (side panel separated from bookshelf wall; base decoupled a little with small crumbs of egg carton) has a little more audible resonance here than when on the top shelf, BUT the resonance is benign, indeed beneficial, as it actually re-inforces the bass, making the loudspeakers seem a little larger. One is reminded of the BBC and LS3/5A cabinet design principals of not using very thick (real wood, not MDF) panels and letting the enclosure "breathe". I have long been a fan of classic BBC design, and all in all think the IKEA shelves work remarkably well. My friend jules came by and without prompting thought the same thing. There are audiophiles who are fanatical about "isolation" but my experience is that in most cases they tweak away most of the music. Don't try to control everything, you can't; instead only concentrate on the harmful (meaning "audible") resonances. Heresy? So be it.
- TAD TSM-2201 Despite having the largest woofer in the group, placed high up and used upright, the TSM-2201's sound lacks heft, and is indeed a little lean, more so than previously (see above). Reflective of the spec's, at the same volume setting, the 2201 actually plays a little louder, but that is no indication of true efficiency, as the sound tightens up more than the others at higher volume, a sign that more power is needed. To a certain extent, this can be eased by lowering the volume of the Ongaku (10 o'clock, vs 11-12 o'clock for the others) and cranking up the volume of the M7. On the other hand, given its provenance as a monitor, it is no surprise that the sound is significantly more accurate than the others in the group, especially when it comes to classical music playback. It is also true that sealed box monitor designs usually sacrifice bass extension and weight for a flat bass response, not the case for all the others in this evaluation.
- KEF LS50 This is based on memory. The LS50 and the TSM-2201 have by far the largest enclosures in the group, yet the LS50's are easier to drive and their smaller 5.25" woofers, aided by rear ports and higher impedance, pumps out a lot more bass than the TSM-2201's (8" woofers). Sound was good but, with the rear ports really too close to the wall and the more prodigious bass, resonance was an audible problem. Too bad I could not have them in-room.
- 47 Labs 4737 When I substituted these for the LS50 I immediately got a cleaner sound, and they were what I used for this system until well after I got the Audio Note M7. Coherence was a given (this is a fullrange) and there was no audible box coloration. Rhythm and pace were very good too. Bass weight and extension were surprisingly good. As the dagogo reviewer noted, treble is on the smooth side, but that is no problem with the Kondo system. They however don't play as loud as the Pioneer's (see below).
- Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP As soon as these replaced the 4737's I knew I was onto something. -PM The sound immediately opened up. The soundstage is large and airy. Macrodynamics was very impressive for such small sizes! Extension at both frequency extremes were very satisfying. Although these are reasonably neutral transducers, the TAD TSM-2201's rendering of instrumental timber and microdynamics are better still. Also, rhythm and pace tend to be a trifle literal. Nonetheless, overall they are very satisfying. -VP In comparison with the -PM, the -VP has even better bass extension and perhaps neutrality. However, after listening to a lot of music, I found myself missing something. It took me a while to point my finger at it: despite its hifi virtues, I was not enjoying the -VP as much as the more loose-limbed -PM! Then I tried out the -VP on my desktop with Micromega MyAmp. Bingo, with its excellent bass weight and extension, it makes the perfect desktop loudspeaker! It is staying in the study.
- LS3/5A While the KEF 11 ohm is a little sharper than the Rogers 15 ohm, goes a little deeper in the bass and plays a bit louder, the difference is not that great (less than between the 2 Pioneer's). The real surprise (actually not) is that the Kondo system drove them very well (contrast this to the 86 db TAD). Neutrality is as good as any in the midband, less so in the treble and midbass (the famous hump). They resolve more than the Pioneer's, but less than the TAD TSM-2201. Its rhythm and pace is good but transient response is a trifle slower. Dynamically it is just as good as the Pioneer's. But what really catapults it to the top is a hard to define engaging quality, an ability to involve the listener.
- JBL Subwoofer Encouraged by the dynamic result of the Pioneer's, I thought of adding a subwoofer to augment the bass. As these bookshelf speakers all do not go very low, for the Crossover Frequency I usually start at roughly at 75 or so (there are only indications for 50, 100 and 150) and work my way up. For this group, frequently the best sound is around 100Hz (I usually prefer higher to lower; some others the other way). Then I'd set the volume. Usually just a small turn (say, turning from starting point 7 to 8 or 9 O'clock) will suffice. Sometimes I needed to go back and forth a couple of times between volume and crossover frequency to achieve the best result. When properly dialed in: 1) I don't "hear" the subwoofer, but 2) I know it is working if the orchestral bass is suitably (but not overly) reinforced (maintaining the right timber); 3) the lower pitched instruments gain body, and this help to lower the soundstage and imaging a little. If I put my fingers on the subwoofer driver, it vibrates very little, but the effect, on music like Messiaen's Turagalila, is astonishingly big. Now, besides chamber music, which the Kondo system has always played beautifully, I play this piece, and my favorite Mahler and Bruckner, with sufficient satisfaction that my other rig with the big Yamaha's are getting less play.
- Audio Note M7 + Kondo Ongaku As mentioned, in contrast to my experience in my old house and with my large 15" 8 ohm Tannoy Canterbury HE (here), with the more inefficient small loudspeakers, there is no question that the addition of the Audio Note M7 injects significantly more vitality into the system. This is because 1) compared to the 96 db Tannoy, the small loudspeakers are 10-14 db less efficient; 2) the Tannoy has a much larger woofer that gives heft, and the smaller loudspeakers are placed high up. Although addition of the subwoofer helps a long way, it does not a 15" woofer make; 3) driving power of the Ongaku is limited. Gain/Volume Used as an amp, the volume setting of the Ongaku is critical to the sound, and it varies with the loudspeaker used. With the hardest-to-drive TAD TSM-2201 (despite its 86 db spec being the highest in the group), which tense up when cranked up, the volume setting of the Ongaku is the lowest in the group. All the others more or less have the same higher setting. The process of employing the Gain and Volume is similar to using them in preamps that have both (think some vintage ARC and MFA preamps). Loudspeaker Impedance Based on the next entry, I think it is fair to deduce that the tubed Ongaku prefers higher impedances. Loudspeaker Efficiency It goes without saying that the Ongaku is best used with loudspeakers of as high efficiency as possible. I'd love to match it one day with my 104 db YL horns. I am sure that would completely outstrip Tannoy, not to mention the likes of Avantgarde.
- 47 Labs 4737 In this system, the overall performance of the 4737 (4 ohm), although very good, lags behind the Pioneer's (6 ohm) and LS3/5A's (11 and 15 ohm). I have to mention that I do think they sound better with its original mate, the solid state 47 Labs Gaincard (maybe a future report; this is in keeping with the dagogo review cited above, which prefers solid state to tubes). The 4 ohm impedance is harder to drive with tubes (same for the 4-ohm TAD TSM-2201; and remember 47 Labs is NOT a tube company).
- Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP The dynamically loose-limbed performance of the -PM is an absolute delight. In this system, dynamically it trumps the LS3/5A but its overall performance suffered just a little because of its somewhat literal rhythm and pace. That is still better than the over-controlled -VP, which I think is better for solid state.
- LS3/5A More than any of its rivals, the virtues of the LS3/5A are many and more evenly distributed, and its faults are minor. As mentioned, the real surprise is that the Kondo system drove them very well (not the case with even more flea powered SET's). Its 82 db sensitivity is the lowest in the group, but it is audibly just as efficient as the others. Although it needs enough watts, the impedance curve of the LS3/5A is benign and it is not a current-hungry transducer (see JA's measurements in this mega-article in Stereophile).
- Subwoofer Many audiophiles like to have a sacred cow to hold on to. Count among this group LS3/5A worshippers; ESL and ribbon die-hards; Shun Mook sect, the list goes on...most of these people would never use a subwoofer, because it would "corrupt" the "purity" of what they worship. Bag of nonsense. In my opinion, in audio the only that matters is the end result. The serious classical music listener needs to have the lower octaves, and with smaller loudspeakers, the subwoofer, properly implemented, is a necessity. But care is needed. I'm not saying adding a subwoofer is an art, because it is not; but it'd be wrong if one wants to "clearly hear" the subwoofer - rather, one wants to "feel" it. Less is more.
- How Good Is it? I am not the one to say, but I will tell you my classical music friends jules and Seng (you have met them before; or you can search my Blog) both highly approve of the system (with subwoofer on). It won't on all fronts beat the WE/Yamaha setup, but at least it is on a more equal footing, with virtues its own. What I can say is, even with my humble bookshelves, I think I am getting more out of Kondo than I have ever gotten, and more than some other similar Kondo systems that I have heard. YMMV.
- What's Next? Of course, I'd love to have my shelves prostrate (lower) again, but that would take some time. Meanwhile, I intend to test out my Pioneer SP-BS21-LR (Andrew Jones design), Yamaha NS-10 and Dayton Audio B652 (I will take a pair back to HK). With the subwoofer entrenched in the system, it would prove very interesting!
Difficult Question to Answer Actually I don't spend big money easily, though my Western Electric stuff are even more expensive than Kondo. Well, curiosity got the best of me, perhaps. That would be the simplest answer.
In reality, it is not a good piece to own. In many ways, Kondo does not reveal its secrets easily, and I have heard some suboptimal Kondo setups, including dealers and sometimes my own. This led people, including some friends, to want to find any excuse to put Kondo down. Of course, many SET amps face this too, as they are immediately disadvantaged by their low power. It is also true that much cheaper SET amps, like Wavac and Verdier, not to mention even cheaper Sun Audio, deliver much more performance for the buck. Kondo is definitely of low C/P ratio, though not because of its performance, but because of its price. Kondo's unique virtues are unfortunately of subtle nature, not easily revealed to the casual, not to mention the skeptical, listener. I kinda agree with what someone said this about Kondo: "...The Kondo sound is not the most dynamic, it is not the most accurate, nor is it the most realistic sound which I have heard. Yet, there is something very seductive about the Kondo sound that once it gets into your head, you will have a very hard time getting it out..." (from dagogo).
As expensive and coveted as it may be, Kondo is in some practical ways actually both hifi and ANTI-hifi. It silvery nature can be "hifi" sounding - too bright if matched with the wrong ancillaries. Its "anti-hifi" nature is that it doesn't really go well with much of modern "revealing" hifi equipment; also, playing every loud and dynamic hifi discs to impress the crowd is also not its virtue. In my opinion some Kondo systems are ruined by not realizing this dual nature. Rather, Kondo will reward those with an intimate connection to the myriad and subtle aspects of music (same case for Western Electric, and there are many bad setups too).
Another interesting thing is, as "legendary" as Kondo may be, aside from show reports, there is really not much written about them (in English). Maybe I bought Kondo just to contribute to the literature! :-) Question answered?