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In 1997, Keith unveiled his new Provence loudspeaker. It was remarkably different from what others were doing in loudspeaker design at the same time, what with its heirloom furniture quality construction and wide & flat chassis with an open backside. The Provence was a full-range loudspeaker with the French PHY-HP driver. Jean-Marie Piel, chief editor of the French Diapason magazine and owner of a complete A23 Shindo system, had introduced Bernard Salabert of PHY to Keith. PHY and Auditorium 23 were working with the material bronze in audio applications at the same time. Upon reviewing the Provence, Piel wrote in Diapason how this new speaker was "the intelligent combination of everything that had been done right in loudspeaker design during the past 50 years". Aschenbrenner's other loudspeakers designs (the Latour, Marsannay and Morgane) were unique designs based on the historical principles of Altec, Siemens and Western Electric. Keith is particularly fond of Bernard Salabert's PHY drivers and believes they compare favorably to such historic designs as the legendary WE755. In fact, Keith does not believe there is a single present-day driver that can compare with the musical qualities of the PHY-HP H21-LB15, its only competition being the best drivers of the 1940s and 1950s. Keith doesn't fancy over-damped cabinets either: "We learned how a small speaker cabinet for a full-range driver can be built like a musical instrument in order to fully develop its musical tone. For these applications, we wondered what would happen if we used the same kind of wood musical instruments are made of." This led to the creation of the Appassionata loudspeaker built from the same wood that piano soundboards are fashioned from. In the brochure to the Appassionata, its maker admits that this particular design approach should not be embraced as the one and only valid way.

Keith told me that "Mr. Gorbacheff once said that life punishes those who come too late. It is also true that life punishes those who come too early. It was our misfortune to be too early with our ideas. We had to endure tough public attacks even from audio reviewers. Our first demonstration at an audio show where audio writers appreciated what we were doing was at the Frankfurt High End Show of 1995 - and the reviewers were foreigners. There seems to be little tolerance for people who don't follow the mainstream ideas of any given era. Many people didn't understand that ours was simply a different approach to arrive at the same result desired by us all - musical realism. As for us, we only wanted to get closer to the music - no more and no less."

The Auditorium 23 Denon 103 Moving Coil Step-Up Transformer
The Auditorium 23 step-up transformer for the Denon 103 phono cartridge is the product of much research by Keith into the principles that gave the historic audio masterpieces such a high degree of musical realism. Keith became fascinated with the beneficial qualities that transformers brought to those designs. "I came into contact with a lot of historic transformers in my research and was impressed with their benefits. I made it a goal to produce transformers with the abilities and characteristics of their historical forbearers. Transformers are important and very specialized partners for musical realism and because of that, there is no one transformer that is best for all impedances, ratios, cartridges and so on - each transformer has to be optimized for its application."

Keith's working on other transformer solutions tailored specifically to work with other combinations of equipment are important to achieve maximum musical realism. He said "It's always astonishing to me to hear how important the differences are when using properly implemented transformers in various applications. Because different transformers work best in any given application, I never will say this or that transformer is the best - it completely depends on the context of its
application." His Auditorium 23 step-up transformer -- a co-subject of this article -- is optimized for use with the Denon 103 phono cartridge, which as I mentioned earlier is Keith's favorite inexpensive phono cartridge and one that is historically important as well (remember that 103 is 301 in reverse as in Garrard 301 - get my drift?).

Like Keith, Jonathan Halpern is such a big fan of Ken Shindo's approach to audio that he too decided to import the little green amplifiers from Japan so that folks in the USA could get a chance to find out what all the fuss was about. Thus Shindo USA was born. It was Jonathan who urged me to try the classic combination of the 12-inch SME 3012 tonearm and the Denon 103 cartridge [above] that I'll tell you more about in the next installment of the Garrard Project, coming to a theatre near you very soon. Jules Coleman lent me his personal Denon 103 to try so I already knew that the Denon was a hot budget (as well as important classic) cartridge. Jonathan sent his personal SME 3012 to use for the Garrard 301 article and I am having a blast with this combo.

Jonathan also holds the work of Keith Aschenbrenner in high regard and is importing his Auditorium 23 products to the USA to become the "little helpers" for the Shindo Laboratory equipment that Keith intended them to be. Now that Jonathan has expanded his product lines by adding Auditorium 23 and the Japanese Leben HiFi products to his Shindo Laboratory imports, he has renamed his business to reflect that: Tone Imports, a name which should also give you a hint as to what his audio world-view is all about. "Hey Jeff," said Jonathan one day, "you've got to try Keith's step-up transformer for the Denon 103. It's a killer combination." "I'd love to!" said I and Jonathan promptly dropped the little tranny in the mail. It turns out that Keith's little helpers can help even if -- like me -- you don't have any Shindo gear. In my case, they are Jeff's little helpers now.

The Auditorium 23 Denon 103 step-up transformer is an unassuming looking little gadget that is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It is a straightforward design with two small transformers housed in its small aluminum chassis and equipped with rhodium-plated RCA connectors front and rear. There is a green ground wire that marks the input side of the transformers that can be attached to your phono stage (or not). That's about it. The magic about the Aud 23 tranny can't be discerned by what you see on the outside. Its plain exterior cloaks the magic within, its true essence the time-consuming research & development that Keith put into finding just the right transformer to match the Denon 103 and give it that musically realistic sound he craves. The result has to be heard & felt to be fully appreciated, but of course I'll do my best to give you a flavor of what to expect, alas merely in a nutshell today to retain the good stuff for the Garrard Project 2 installment.

At a recent Pacific Northwest bring-your-own-gear tomfoolery HiFi session at Terry Cain's with the Washington Light Bulb Mafia, I had the Aud 23 step-up tranny doing duties with my Garrard 301, Denon 103 and the Origin Live Silver tonearm for which I was wrapping up the review. Pete Riggle said it best to the boys in a post-event e-mail: "Things got really good when we got to Jeff's Garrard 301 turntable with Origin Live Silver tonearm and Denon DL103 cartridge, mounted to a Cain & Cain plinth through a VTAF and going through a phono transformer whose name I do not know but need to. The Garrard 301 with the Cain & Cain plinth was out of this world. I was in the foyer when the stylus hit the groove and my mind just blew!"

The mystery phono step-up transformer Pete refers to was, of course, the Auditorium 23 tranny. And Pete wasn't kidding. It sounded awesome! The Auditorium 23 Denon 103 tranny is easy to use. Just insert it between your cartridge and phono preamplifier. In my case, the Origin Live Silver tonearm leads plugged into one side of the tranny, my Nirvana interconnects for the phono preamplifier into the other. It is almost impossible to screw things up when using the Aud 23 tranny but it is possible - don't ask how I know. Let's just say you better make sure to have the gain of your phono preamplifier at the lowest possible setting to avoid bewildering and unpleasant sonic results.

Speaking of phono preamplifiers, quite a few people think the best way to amplify a moving-coil cartridge like the Denon 103 is to use a low-gain moving-magnet (MM) phono stage combined with a step-up transformer. That should be good news for those who have been using a MM cartridge and phono preamplifier but would like to explore the world of moving-coil cartridges.

I was able to try the Auditorium 23 tranny with a couple of underground favorites, the Wright Sound valve phono stage made by fellow Washingtonian George Wright in Kent and also the solid-state Monolithic Sound phono stage. In all instances, the Auditorium 23 provided a rather remarkable improvement to what are already satisfying products. When I first heard the Aud 23 tranny at Terry Cain’s paired with one of his Wright phono stages, I was simply stunned by the difference the tranny made to the sound & music-playing ability of the system. The sound became warmer, more natural and liquid and the dynamics came alive. The sound space of the different recordings we listened to infused Terry’s listening room with wall-to-wall ambience. But more importantly, the instrumental colors deepened to sound more like they do in real life. The level of emotive connection to the music went up to a new level. We went from very good HiFi to great music.

The same thing happened when I tried the Monolithic phono stage with the Auditorium 23 in my own system. Whether listening to Count Basie's Farmers Market Barbeque, the Soulful Moods of Gene Ammons, Bill Evans' Waltz for Debbie, Chet Baker's Chet, Doc and Merle Watson's Pickin' the Blues, Miles Davis' Cookin', the Tony Bennett and Bill Evans album or You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce (Chad Kassem's delicious test pressings), the music opened up, gained flesh and blood presence and came to throbbing, beating life with the Auditorium 23 tranny in the signal chain. All I can say is that if you have a Denon 103 cartridge and a low-gain moving-magnet phono stage, you haven’t experienced what they are truly capable of without the Aud 23 tranny – it’s that good!