Kondo Hiroyasu


Prenosimo originalni tekst intervjua koji je Johnatan Scull obavio 1996 godine na CES Sajmu u Las Vegasu.

Intervju je objavljen tek nakon smrti g. Konda 2001. godine na istom sajmu u Las Vegasu.

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Ovaj intervju sa g. Hiroyasu Kondom – osnivačem firme Audio Note Japan i čovekom-legendom svog vremena – se odigrao na sajmu Hi-Fi u junu 1996 u hotelu Waldorf Astoria. Bilo je tako prirodno – gužva sa sajmu je bila veoma medjunarodna. Herb Reichert iz firme Audio Note New York je pronašao tihi ćošak i mi smo posle ručka seli da razgovaramo.

Bio je ovo grupni rad. G-din Kondo je sedeo na mojoj levoj strani a g-din Masahiro Shibazaki preko puta. Veoma prijatni g-din Masaki Ashizawa je bio na mojoj desnoj strani a moja žena Kathleen i Herb su samo dopunili društvo za stolom. G-din Shibazaki, predsednik firme Sibatech koja uvozi Lowther zvučnike i druge uredjaje iz UK je bio prevodilac jer g-din Kondo ne govori engleski. A i g-din Shibazaki nije nezainteresovana strana – na kraju krajeva on je bio taj koji je dao ime čuvenom pojačalu Ongaku.

Our interview with Hiroyasu Kondo—founder of Audio Note Japan, and a legendary figure in his own time—took place during HI-FI ’96 last June at the Waldorf=Astoria. It seemed very natural; the crowd at the Show was very internationalist. Herb Reichert of Audio Note New York found us a quiet corner after lunch, and we sat down to talk.

Kondo-Audio-Note

This was a group affair. I sat with Kondo-San on my left, and Masahiro Shibazaki directly across from me. A very obedient (you’ll see what I mean) Masaki Ashizawa of Audio Note sat on my right, while my wife Kathleen and Herb filled out the table. Shibazaki-San, President of Sibatech—he imports Lowther single-driver speaker units and other UK audio gear—served as the interpreter (Kondo does not speak English). Nor is Shibazaki a disinterested party—it was he, after all, who named the Ongaku amplifier.

As you read the interview, understand that I addressed my questions directly to Kondo, but as well to Shibazaki, as it was his onerous task to translate my pithy and probing questions (to which task he applied himself masterfully). I have not included as part of the flow of the interview the occasionally long process of asking of a (sometimes prickly) question and its translation into Japanese, and then the response and its translation into English.

I propped my low-ball Sony mike facing Shibazaki, rolled tape, and asked Kondo-San how he had gotten involved in audio….

Masahiro Shibazaki: He says he was born the son of a priest in a Buddhist temple, where he often heard his father and other priests chanting. It’s a very beautiful acoustical sound, the priest chanting from deep inside his body.

Jonathan Scull: And how did that translate into a pursuit of audio excellence?

Shibazaki: Well, his musical tastes changed to opera, which, of course, very much resembles chanting…

Scull: Opera and Buddhist chanting—an unusual musical link I never made before…

Shibazaki: As a priest, his father was very famous, but he was also known for making things by himself, like amplifiers. And Kondo-San was very influenced by his father.

He was also strongly influenced by a performance he heard at 16 years of age. It was the fourth movement of the „New World“ Symphony, conducted by Toscanini…in 1953. He says it was to this golden age of recording that he listened when he was young.

Scull: What was the defining moment when you decided to begin to manufacture your own equipment?

Shibazaki: Well, specifically there was no particular moment. It happened over a period of time. Chronologically it was when he resigned from CBS/Sony in 1976. That was a very big company where he felt he couldn’t achieve his dream of building a better sound system.

Scull: What were you doing for Sony, Kondo-San?

Shibazaki: He started as a recording engineer, and later was involved in the improvement of the machines they were recording on.

Scull: What was it about Sony’s philosophy that disturbed him? And in what way does that differ from his own philosophy?

Shibazaki: Kondo-San says that is a difficult question. [laughs]

Scull: Thank you! [laughter]

[Kondo-San spends some time talking to Shibazaki.]

Shibazaki: Okay…well, it’s difficult to translate, but in Japan, the social background is somewhat unique. Outstanding achievements by an individual may sometimes be beaten down by others, especially big manufacturers such as CBS/Sony. They were building components for mass-market consumers. Kondo says that in this way you get a very average sound that does not reflect the individual character of the designer.

Scull: Is this perhaps due to the group culture of Japan?

Shibazaki: He says yes, it’s in the Japanese culture historically. In fact, his friends were mostly lone wolves like himself, operating their own companies.

Scull: But I interrupted. You were explaining about the philosophical differences…

Shibazaki: Simply put, he says he was trying to develop the sound that he was dreaming of.

Scull: And that wasn’t going to happen at CBS/Sony!

Shibazaki: That’s why he…spun out, I think you say?

Scull: Close enough. Now, as I understand it, Audio Note makes almost every component used in the equipment, so let me ask about the philosophy behind that.

Shibazaki: It’s very simple.

Scull: That’s good! [laughter]

Shibazaki: He just hated using components made by others, because those manufacturers were giving priority to mass production. What he wanted to do was achieve that special sound of his dreams. In other words, he put the priority on the sound, not on efficiency of production.

This naturally led him to make his own components—like capacitors, for instance. Eventually he was able to make almost everything himself—transformers, cables and wires. What he does not do are resistors. [laughs ruefully] He has to buy resistors from others. But he wants to say he wishes to develop his own resistor in the near future!

Scull: How did you arrive at single-ended circuit topologies? Did you begin with push-pull designs?

Shibazaki: Yes. Actually, the first design was a push-pull amplifier using 211 tubes.

Scull: What caused the transformation to single-ended?

Shibazaki: Well, single-ended amplification was long known to Japanese audiophiles. One day he thought of changing his design to single-ended, as he was much attracted by the purity or…[speaks with Kondo]…or the obedience of the sound, you could say. [laughs]

Scull: „Obedient“ sound…I’d like to understand that a bit more.

Shibazaki: It means transparency. For example, even driven by a very small level of signal, Audio Note equipment keeps its clarity and transparency. That’s the first way to explain it.

Scull: Are we talking digital or analog?

Shibazaki: Well, he says the biggest merit of analog audio technology is that clarity or linearity at a small level of signal. Which digital technology cannot replace, even today. [Kondo speaks for a few moments.] He says when you listen to a string instrument that’s hit by a hammer wrapped with a felt cushion, for example, that it can „obediently“ be replayed by analog, but not by digital. The sound of felt-wrapped hammers…you can almost feel the string sound, and touch it. The sound is very, very delicate.

[Kondo speaks for quite some time to Shibazaki.]

He says that when the same instrument is played through digital components, it may be felt by listeners to sound as though the string was struck by an iron hammer. And that’s the reason single-ended is better, because it can express these very delicate differences in sound.

Scull: Does Kondo-San recognize any problems or drawbacks with single-ended reproduction?

Shibazaki: Just its low output power. That’s the only demerit.

Scull: Since push-pull cancels out even-order harmonics and single-ended leaves all harmonic distortion intact—both even- and odd-order—does he think that has anything to do with it? How would he describe the difference in sound between push-pull and single-ended?

Shibazaki: Another difficult question, he says, but very interesting. Here’s what he says, word by word: Push-pull technology has its own merits, of course, but only when correctly designed and aligned, as you might have guessed. You know, especially the odd-order harmonics left by push-pull, they are very…[waggles his hand and frowns]

Scull: Not so very easy to listen to?

Shibazaki: Yes, while second-order harmonics are, to human ears, sounding very natural. Push-pull, he says, can sound rather piercing that way. And, he says, in a well-designed single-ended amplifier, the second or the third harmonics are…mildly contained. [laughs] Yes, mildly contained.

Scull: Does single-ended get you closer to the music?

Shibazaki: Yes. For instance, he says he can feel the touch or breath of a performance, or of the players or conductor. He can actually feel the movement of sound, as he did a few days ago. He was playing a piano in a big hall just so he could feel the movement and hear the reverberation. So that’s one thing. Then single-ended lets him…[a long translation] feel the musician’s state of mind—

Scull: !

Shibazaki: Yes—which is reflected in the performance. So he can guess that a violinist might have had a fight with his wife the night before! [laughs] Or that the trumpeter has something going on. He says he can feel the emotional condition of the artist, or the weather even…[laughter] He believes that he is more sensitive than other people about this because he was involved with the development and engineering of microphone systems.

Scull: Was that while working at CBS/Sony?

Shibazaki: No, before that, while he was in college. He built his own microphones.

Scull: Were they tube types?

Shibazaki: Yes, they were condenser microphones using tubes.

Scull: What has he to say about the debate between solid-state and tubes? Can one achieve beautiful sound with solid-state?

Shibazaki: Ah yes…very recently he had a chance to hear the differences between a solid-state and a tube amplifier, both made by another builder of electronics who is very famous in Japan, a Kaneda-San. It was very interesting for Kondo-San, and what he heard as the difference in sound, as he describes it…well, it’s very difficult to translate. It’s as if the sound [of the solid-state amplifier] was suffocated, you know…

Scull: Lacking air?

Shibazaki: Yes, but also a clipping sound…

Scull: Hitting the top of its power band?

Shibazaki: Yes, but more a certain type of compression, having no stretch.

Scull: But there are some very powerful solid-state amps that are practically impossible to clip, so that can’t be the only answer. Tubes clip, of course, just more gracefully.

Shibazaki: In a valve amplifier, yes, clipping exists, but he doesn’t feel…[searches for words]

Scull: Does he mean it doesn’t sound as bad?

Shibazaki: Yes, in general, tube amplifiers have a sound that he describes as deep and rich. And stretching. And his criticisms of Mr. Kaneda’s amplifiers, especially the tube design, was that the sound was a little out of focus.

Scull: In today’s audio systems, imaging is considered very important. That is to say, broadly speaking, the focus. But some—including your own Herb Reichert—feel that you should not be looking at music. Rather, you should hear and feel it more for its harmonics, tonal balance, and frequency response. The imaging doesn’t matter. That’s quite different from the push-pull crowd, who believe imaging is an important component of high-end audio reproduction. Where along that line is Kondo-San? What is the relative importance to him of imaging and sharp focus?

Shibazaki: It is well said of Japanese manufacturers that they all put great importance on frequency response and tonal balance, neglecting imaging. Kondo-San says they are wrong to do so, because they are thinking like electricians. They design and build based on theories. But he is proud of himself for being an acoustic engineer. That’s why he does put importance on imaging or focus.

Scull: Audio Note Japan makes equipment that is very expensive. Please explain why this is so.

Shibazaki: It’s very simple: the initial investment was huge. For example, in the case of the silver wires, when he started, nobody else was working with such a concept. So he had to make the dies by himself. He imported silver from Italy because he knew their silver was much used in musical instruments. And he was right, you know. It was very pure.

It’s all a bit like the mineral water prevailing nowadays—each water has its own ingredients. So you might say he was attracted to the Italian silver by its ingredients, and technology-wise for its purity.

Scull: Does this mean that the best audio is only available to the very rich?

Shibazaki: [laughs] He reluctantly agrees, although he wishes to make his products less expensive so that they are available to more people. His current production system is with all components built by hand, and each step has its own, you know, particular habit. Audio Note of Japan has only two employees who can build amplifiers, in fact.

Scull: How many people altogether?

Shibazaki: Besides Kondo-San, there are five others.

Scull: What qualities does he look for in his people?

Shibazaki: What is required for a good amplifier builder is his personality, especially obedience! [He laughs, looking at the youthful Masaki Ashizawa, who had been listening and taking snapshots.] In other words, Audio Note Japan’s goal is to become a manufacturer like that well-known British company, Morgan. They build cars by hand, so each worker has high pride in building those cars. That’s Kondo-San’s goal. He says in some ways, it’s also like the famous Dusenberg. We sometimes compare what we do to a company like that from the past—an all-out effort where everything is done as well as it can possibly be done.

Scull: I think most Americans imagine Japan to be a country filled with horn speakers and single-ended amps, but clearly this is not so. When Audio Note went to single-ended designs, did he encounter much resistance at home? Or was Japan more open to new ideas?

Shibazaki: Not so open, because the Japanese market was more involved with high-power amplifiers. Some number of Japanese audiophiles rejected his ideas, or rather I should say, they rejected single-ended amplification in general. The total market is still quite small.

Scull: What gave him the strength to follow his convictions?

Shibazaki: Because Audio Note is supported more by audiophiles in other countries than at home. [laughs] We are very foreign!

Scull: Aha! The greatest support coming from where?

Shibazaki: France.

Scull: Of course….Why does he think that single-ended is more slow to be accepted in the United States than elsewhere?

Shibazaki: Actually, he says it’s going just as fast as he expected. In fact, it should take time here.

Scull: Why is that? What is there about high-power push-pull that makes it more readily accepted, and what is it about low-power single-ended amplification that requires education, time, and sensitivity?

Shibazaki: Well, Mr. Kondo says it’s mostly just the opportunity to experience it. That, and the shrinking stock of tubes in the world.

Scull: Yes, but what specifically is there about Americans that they like a big powerful sound, and what’s different about the sensibilities of those who embrace single-ended?

Shibazaki: Yes, he says, it’s true—most Americans are very fond of heavy and powerful sound. But Kondo-San also knows that here there are plenty of very sensitive listeners in America, who may have come to single-ended [as they came to] the Volkswagen Beetle. When it was first introduced, America didn’t accept it at all!

Scull: No silver wiring…

Shibazaki: Right! [laughs] But Volkswagen targeted up-market—intelligent people like doctors and lawyers, for example, who have their own individual characters. But, he says, the majority of people are very dull in sensitivity, and they like that bam-bam, powerful sound.

Scull: When we play an Audio Note system in the home, are we trying to recreate the master tape or the original acoustic event? What should be, in Kondo’s view, the goal of a high-end system?

Shibazaki: [After a longish back’n’forth between the two.] He says that’s a hard question, but a good one. He feels the point is recreating the master tape, but also to recreate, as you say, the live event. Especially the sense of movement…

Scull: Mmmm…let me ask the question in another way. If you’re walking on the street and pass a window opened on a room in which musicians are playing, what is it that instantly tells you—without seeing anything—that it’s live?

Shibazaki: He says…that particular quality cannot even be played back or recreated.

Scull: By any system?

Shibazaki: [laughs] Yes, even with his Audio Note amplifiers. [a long exchange] What designers of audio equipment do is „deform“ some part of the playback and exaggerate other parts of it, knowing some important elements may be sacrificed. So in deforming or exaggerating, it’s not 100% of the original anymore. But wherein of this he has his own technology for dealing with it. [laughs] Very funny translation, sorry.

Scull: Please, Shibazaki—you’re doing a wonderful job of making his thoughts available to us all. Really.

Shibazaki: Thank you. So, one of his goals—his dream, in fact—is to recreate that Toscanini performance he heard in 1953 at Carnegie Hall.

Scull: It’s wonderful to follow a dream. I don’t want to be impolite, but that still doesn’t answer the question: As you walk past that window, what tells you it’s real? Is it dynamics, timbre, tonal color, harmonics, or something else?

Shibazaki: Well, he answers the question this way. He says it’s not only Audio Note Japan, but all other audio manufacturers who have been unable to achieve the re-creation of full-energy bass. When you feel a lack of energy in the bass, that’s how you know it’s not real.

Scull: There are, of course, many systems with big, powerful bass. But they don’t necessarily sound very real…

Shibazaki: Okay—my own personal comment on this. I myself am an amateur musician. And I can feel when I hear music live—it’s a total energy, or pressure, that I feel with all of my skin…

Scull: And that’s something that audio systems do not easily deliver? Does Audio Note Japan deliver it?

Shibazaki: He says, 95%. [laughs]

Scull: I noticed that Kondo mentioned horn speakers a moment ago. I understand from Herb that Audio Note makes horn speakers, but that they are very expensive, even in the Audio Note context. Most of their speakers available here are moving-coil, dynamic-driver types. Can a moving-coil speaker give a good sound, or are horns the only natural companion of single-ended? And if so, why doesn’t he make a less expensive horn?

Shibazaki: You know, he says we have participated in many audio fairs around the world—including in Budapest in 1995—and so far we have had only two occasions to use horns for demonstration. But Kondo has felt that horn systems still have a minor problem, and that’s with the midrange horn.

Scull: What would that problem be?

Shibazaki: He say it sounds like this…[cups hands before mouth]

Scull: Yes, I understand—nasal. „Horn smell,“ as another Japanese manufacturer amusingly put it recently.

Shibazaki: My expression for that is „plastic“ sound. Especially when the horn itself is made from plastic! And another problem is the directionality—or directivity—of the high-frequency range. Because Kondo feels that, ideally, a speaker should deliver sound from a single diaphragm. From low to high frequencies, every part of the signal should come from that single driver.

Scull: Like the Lowther driver?

Herb Reichert: Yes. In fact, Kondo-San makes a single-driver speaker.

Shibazaki: Yes, when a single-cone speaker is matched with a good single-ended amplifier, it gives the best sound of any other combination.

Scull: Let me ask another difficult question…

Shibazaki: [laughs]

Scull: …about the notion of accuracy and musicality in music reproduction. Most people associate accuracy with solid-state—lots of detail, very sharp sound. But some think this isn’t much like music. There are also people who think musicality is everything, and damn the imaging! Most people speak about these two qualities as quite separate. Are they two things, or is it one thing? Can you have both? What does Kondo think about this?

Shibazaki: As long as a single designer, like Kondo-San, makes everything in the playback chain, then in that case, accuracy and musicality come together. The other mass-market manufacturers have many engineers and designers who have their own ideas about how things should be done, and that means there will always be arguments and controversies. In fact, that’s why he will again challenge them all by building his own microphones sometime in the near future.

Scull: And controlling the entire chain, he might then achieve a sound that is both accurate and musical?

Shibazaki: Yes. Would you give a good English wording for that? Not duality, but…

Scull: Fusion?

Shibazaki: Yes, very good—a fusion of accuracy and musicality. [laughs]

Scull: Or fission…depends on who you’re talking to. Tell me, is high-end audio in a healthy state in the world, or does Kondo-San feel Home Theater is harming it?

Shibazaki: He says they are in very keen competition. TVs and portable radios, for example, are always going down in price, whereas high-end audio, he says, is going steadily, healthily, slowly—upward!

Scull: So we shouldn’t expect to see a Home Theater decoder anytime soon from Audio Note Japan! But can stereo and video coexist with each other in any way? Or are they two separate entities?

Shibazaki: Well, a purist would have to have one room with a Home Theater, and another room with their music system…never together! [laughs while Kondo explains something further] He says also that they will never come together in the future either, because listening through your ears actually increases your imaginary powers. That’s not the case with Home Theater.

[Kondo, smiling, speaks at length to Shibazaki. His movements are spare, his voice low.]

[laughs] Yes, yes…he is speaking of his experience, you know. He is saying he has had more enjoyment listening to the sound of a porno movie than watching it! [laughs] He says he is very good at enjoying both Home Theater and high-end audio. In fact, he watches laserdiscs on his audio-visual system…

Scull: Kondo has a Home Theater system? I’m amazed…!

Shibazaki: Yes, at his lab. He says he switches his brain when he watches it to enjoy the visual elements. Because he doesn’t expect much from its audio side.

Scull: Aha! When you’re sitting in the dark, Kondo-San, listening to your audio system, tell me, inside your mind, are you „seeing“ the music?

Shibazaki: Seeing, yes. Actually he sits in the dark with a lit candle, and he concentrates—with his eyes closed—on this light as he listens. Then the sound is visualized.

Scull: In Home Theater you are handed the visuals on a platter, and the audio may be less than ideal. In your darkened room, listening to a refined high-end system, you can „see“ many things, but they’re all in your mind. Does that enhance the experience in some way? Could it be that Home Theater is just…too easy?

[This engenders much conversation between Kondo and Shibazaki.]

Shibazaki: This is a rare case, but it demonstrates how he feels about it. He enjoys very much the film of Kurasawa called The Seven Samurai. There is a scene where the samurai are marching. But the image on the screen doesn’t show any samurai, only their shadows. But what he sees in his mind are not the shadows, not the trees, but the samurai!

Scull: Very elegant…

Shibazaki: And even, he says, what each samurai is thinking!

Scull: Well, if the system is good enough that you can hear each samurai’s thoughts, it must be an all–Audio Note system!

Shibazaki: Yes! [laughs]

Scull: When future generations of audiophiles think of Kondo—when they look back and invoke his name—what would he want them to understand about music and audio? What would he want his legacy to be?

Shibazaki: He say that, ten years from today, the name of Audio Note will prevail more worldwide. He’s confident of coming up with new products like speakers, microphones, his own CDs, even tape heads, and so on. When he designs the whole range, beginning to end, then people will really appreciate the sound of Audio Note. He says we are still only halfway there.

Scull: Kondo-San, thank you for your time. And Shibazaki, your translations were wonderful.

Shibazaki: [laughs] It is actually the first time we have had such an in-depth interview. I never heard Kondo reveal so many of his private thoughts, especially concerning his philosophy.

Scull: Thank you. It has been a great honor to speak with you all today.

Postscript: Sadly, Kondo-san passed away in January 2006, while attending the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.—Ed.

p.s. Kad budemo imali vremena prevešćemo tekst na srpski jezik.

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