Each and every snowflake falls in its perfect place. This Buddhist proverb is one of my favourite Zen koans and, as such, invariably returns my thoughts to my eternal fascination and never-to-be-realised destination. In this one sentence, the entire structure of the universe is described, together with its temporality and transience. What is more, this sentence reveals something else. It describes the authors themselves as precisely as the phenomenon they are describing. This is the ability to perceive the complexity of the world by contemplating its nature – just observe nature long enough and carefully enough and it will tell us about itself. Whether it is about matters as complex as the structure of the universe, archery, steel smelting or the construction of audio devices.
Japan has long been an example for our global village of a country where the pursuit of perfection meets the worship of nature and simplicity, where the supremacy of technological development is combined with the love of tradition, where the values of indigenous culture are complemented by those of Western/global culture. Besides, Japanese iconography is known worldwide not only by Hokusai and his Views of Mount Fuji, sushi or the tea ceremony, and more recently by the Shinkansen railway, or even Maneki Neko. It is also a culture that, having remained isolated from the rest of the world for centuries, has developed a set of characteristics that make it quite distinct from the rest of cultures. Sakoku, or the official policy of a closed country, which was in force from the second quarter of the 17th century to the mid-19th century, resulted not only in the preservation of distinct musical forms such as Gagaku, but above all in the development of a distinct mentality based on a mixture of practised religions, namely Sintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Thanks to this mentality, Japan managed not only to open up to the world and become one of its greatest powers, but also and above all to remain faithful to tradition.
One aspect of this tradition is the striving for continuous improvement, for perfection, for the absolute. Whether we are talking about the aforementioned tea ceremony or a traditional Japanese hand-painted silk kimono, we are talking about things that have reached a spectacular level of sophistication. What in other cultures is an everyday object or everyday practice in Japan is transformed into a work of art. The belief, derived from Shintoism, that a deity can manifest in every aspect of life, in every object, has enabled the Japanese to create not only the best sword in the world, but also to achieve equal perfection when making soy sauce, sewing kimono or cooking ramen. Behind this is the belief that perfection is not a goal to be achieved, but a constant and ongoing process of refinement and improvement. Very well, but can perfection understood in this way be applied to the world of audio? Let’s start from the beginning:
Two hundred monks begin their prayers every day at five in the morning in Soji-ji, the main temple of Zen Buddhism. Sitting in two rows to the right and left, the monks intone their chants in absolute calm. It is an incredibly solemn, festive sound. This daily ritual invites people into the world of nirvana. It is a childhood memory of the son of a Buddhist clergyman, for whom the question of whether it is at all possible to convey the solemnity of a musical event with sound reproduction equipment will become the driving force of his entire life (probably not without significance is the fact that his father was also a keen amateur electronics engineer). After studying electronics at Tokyo University, he becomes one of the first 80 engineers at the newly established Sony CBS (reportedly 6,000 people applied!). There, he gains versatile experience both as a recording engineer and as a constructor of sound reproduction equipment. When, in 1976, he decides to reach for the silver in audio production and start his own business, the transistor and the vinyl records reign supreme in the market. I am three years old and don’t even know about the existence of Japan yet. I don’t know also what music is, although it has surrounded me since I was born – my father was a musician and my grandfather was a music lover and amateur electronics engineer. As I finish my first music degree on the accordion, our protagonist is completing the prototype of the amplifier that will make him famous and become the fulfilment of his eternal quest for perfect sound. The above biographical threads are by no means a pretext for looking for parallels, but merely highlight the fact that the process of achieving perfection is not a matter of great inspiration, a stroke of luck or an accidental shot. It is years of gaining experience, passing on tradition, great talent and thousands of hours of work. It is thanks to them and, above all, thanks to love of music, Hiroyasu Kondo achieved more on the ground of audio than anyone else before him. Soon, the KONDO name would become synonymous with superb sound and the company’s own name (the earlier Audio Note name was appropriated as a result of the unethical actions of its European competitors, as we may discuss on another occasion), and the On-Gaku amplifier, unveiled in 1986, the most desirable amplifier of all time.
However, it was not On-Gaku that ended up in the Audio Idiom tests, but a device that is regarded among black disc purists as essential to the proper functioning of MC cartridges. The KONDO MC Step-up Tranformer SFz is one of the first devices built by Hiroyasu Kondo back in the 1970s. The version that arrived for testing is obviously not the same design. In the meantime, following the perfection-as-process paradigm described earlier, successive incarnations were created after Mr Kondo’s death, realised by his successors, namely the company’s president and immediate successor, Masaki Ashizawa, and the current chief designer, Katsura Hirokawa. As they told me themselves, this version is like a great-grandson of the original. The unit, although small in size (126mm x 96mm x 179mm) weighs more than 3kg, which evokes a pleasant pre-listening experience. The quality of the finish is absolutely outstanding, although the unit does not flaunt its appearance. The front panel symbolically, yet in an extremely refined way, conveys the quality we will experience when the unit is plugged in. As always with Kondo, the transformers and all cabling are pure silver, along with the integrated one-metre KONDO Ls-41 interconnect, and a solid copper enclosure. I refer you to the manufacturer’s website to read all the technical data. Meanwhile, it’s time for listening impressions.
In the case of the Kondo, it is difficult to speak of the sound of a device in its own right. Descriptions known from other audio cases concerning timbre, resolution, micro-dynamics, saturation, selectivity, etc. lose their raison d’être here, because this equipment disappears from listening and does so in order to play music for us in a way that is close to perfection. Without imposing its own sound, like a perfect canvas it allows the music to exist without distortion, colouration or visible texture. In this, it is similar to the whiteness of a sheet of paper on which a musical score will only emerge, or a musical image will appear. In the visual arts, the choice of canvas predetermines the character of the work in question. We are all familiar, if only from museums, with the effect of the piercing pattern of the canvas in oil paintings or the visible texture of the paper in watercolours or printed graphics (take a look at photo below). The use of a particular sheet, canvas or board becomes an intrinsic part of the works created in this way. This is not the case with Kondo. Here, the canvas becomes absent, invisible, allowing colours, shapes and forms to emerge unadulterated. At the same time, it is crystal clear, snowy white, like the fresh snow described at the beginning of this text. Thanks to this lightness and freshness, every slightest musical gesture appears on it in perfect reproduction; every blast of a musical phrase is immortalised on it; any imprints left on it are perfectly adequate to the weight of the sound that left them, and any contours of drawn forms, perfectly matched to the musical articulation. This lightness also brings into the musical picture not only the colours and forms, but also the energy and emotions that accompanies any musical performance. This means that the fortissimo of the full symphony orchestra is reproduced here as easily as the movement of the conductor’s baton and the gentle stirring of the air that this movement evokes. The lightness of representation is accompanied by an adequacy of reflectivity, also called albedo – and this is here likewise at an unprecedented level. Thanks to it, the amount of musical light reflected remains identical to the original, means music. But don’t let the winter metaphor fool you. For it is not about an association with the temperature aspect of the transmission, but only with its lightness and purity. Kondo is by no means cold in the nature of its interpretation of music. And in this aspect, it remains completely organic and natural, conveying the dignity of the musical gestures and the richness of the musical palette with respect and love for the music.
Although I find it almost redundant in this case, let’s use musical examples so that, I hope, I won’t be left paying lip service. The two realisations described below place considerable demands on the audio system in terms of both dynamics, instrument selectivity and timbre retention. The first is one of my favourite albums of recent months, and an album that I consider to be one of the most important in general, remains Promises by Floating Points, who invited American jazz icon Pharoah Sanders to collaborate with him (this being the latter’s last pre-death album), and wrote a part for the London Symphony Orchestra. The result of this combination is something absolutely unique and timeless, for it is profoundly human in character. It’s a combination of a sophisticated, layered sound structure of keyboards (piano, harpsichord, celesta, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, Oberheim, etc.) handled by Sam Shepherd a.k.a. Floating Points, the poignant musical storytelling of Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax and voice), and a relatively highly written string part. This recording demands a lot from the equipment, as the sonic layers it contains seem to form a single, repetitive and monotonous whole. This, however, is not the case. What’s more, Sanders’ saxophone is recorded relatively close, albeit with reverb, which makes it seem to peel away from the rest at times. Nothing could be further from the truth. This music is in the detail and if the equipment doesn’t allow it to reach it much is lost. The KONDO SFz made the whole sound extremely natural, even organic, without brightening, colouration or discolouration.
As a counterpoint to this album, the second one of my favourite interpretations of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons by Erik Bosgraaf and Ensemble Cordevento. This recorder genius not only impresses with his technique without losing the thread and sticking to the interpretation but also made this transcription for the block flute and directs the orchestra. What’s more, Ensemble Cordevento sounds fresh and light here thanks to the small cast (actually a single cast), and the recording itself, although slightly tweaked, is a realisation masterpiece. What is demanding of the audio equipment in this realisation is not only the dynamic leaps, but above all the rapid register changes and the temptation to change timbre. The Kondo does not allow this, keeping the ensemble and soloist in sonic check, especially when it reaches the limits of the soprano flute register. Take my word for it, if such difficult realisations sound smooth and shuffling thanks to the SFz, everything else will sound heavenly good.
In conclusion. The step-up KONDO SFz is an absolutely perfect device that reveals to us all the beauty of music hidden in the vinyl microgroove. Its refined simplicity is a benchmark for the entire audio market, which in the pursuit of measurable success often loses sight of what is most important – the music. Kondo puts it first and does so in a remarkably effortless and unpretentious manner. However, I would be arrogant to write that this is the best step-up in the world, because I have neither heard them all, nor do I think such athletic comparisons make sense. What I do know for sure is that if you are looking for absolute musical fidelity in audio you need look no further, because – to paraphrase the Buddist koan with which I began this text – Kondo makes each and every noteflake falls in its perfect place.
© Marcin Oles