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Last Saturday, I visited the office of Digital Do Main in Japan founded by Kazuhiko Nishi. To most Japanese, Mr. Nishi needs no introduction. He is the founder of ASCII corporation, the biggest multimedia empire west of the Pacific. It thus comes as no surprise that his foray into the high-end audio industry has caught the full attention of the financial press plus mainstream coverage by audio journalists.

I was honored to meet Mr. Nishi in person for 3 hours. He speaks fluent English and is very well versed in computer sciences, engineering and even acoustics. (His Digital Do Main business card shows a Ph.D. in Informatics). He also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. During our meeting, I learned that his proficiency in music knowledge is equally strong. His favorite composer is Mozart.

There were many pairs of his B-1a amplifiers sitting confidently on the floor in Digital Do Main's listening room. It's not a large room but the acoustics were good. Ambient noise was very low and there was a good balance between absorption and reflection. The B-1a amplifier is built upon a technology called Static Induction Transistor (SIT) invented in Japan by Mr. Nishi's teacher's teacher during the early 70s. Please excuse my technical ignorance on SIT. I only know that development of this technology originated from a theoretical framework documented in academic journals shown to me by Mr. Nishi.

On that day, six B1-a were connected to the French Cabasse Sphere, with two pairs in bridged mode driving the bass and midrange, and one pair driving the tweeters. There was no preamplifier, with Nishi-San's prototype D1-a DAC driving the amplifiers directly. Before the formal listening session began, my cursory research into the Japanese audio press had suggested that the sound of the B-1a would have a striking similarity to triodes. My on-site impressions confirmed this claim and I did not feel I was listening to transistor amplifiers. My first impression was of them being very smooth and natural. As we allowed the amplifiers to play for another 30 minutes, I began to understand them more.

During our conversation, it was apparent that Mr. Nishi benchmarks the performance of his amplifiers to real music far more than competitors of similarly priced amps. Mr. Nishi is very familiar with the tonality of Steinway pianos made at different periods. He moved on to draw a sketch showing the relationship between the key, hammer and string inside a section of a Steinway Grand where a single touch on the key will first generate the tone at 1000Hz immediately followed by a 2nd string which generates overtones at 7000Hz. This is what makes a modern Steinway different from those made earlier and why the tonality of vintage Steinways is unique. Nishi-San asked me to focus on the unique timbre of master pianist Martha Argerich's instrument. I am no expert on Steinways but when I closed my eyes, the microdynamics of the instrument were conveyed with speed, clarity and nobility. The varying weight of the pianist's fingers could be felt. The development from pianissimo to fortissimo was very well structured, allowing me to follow the lyrical lines easily.

The B-1a speaks quality right from the beginning according to many reports by Japanese audio journalists. From input to output, the audio signal only passes through their SITs, ensuring no loss of harmonics. In other words, harmonic distortion will be preserved. No wonder the amps sound like triodes. Every part of this amplifier is quality, from the discrete gain circuit to the fast high-current power supply, OFC circuit boards, silver internal wiring, copper heatsink and a solidly milled chassis with low resonance characteristics. The overall built quality of the chassis is, in my opinion, superior even to Goldmund and FM Acoustics, two stratospherically priced brands which enjoy a top reputation on the Pacific Rim.

The SIT-based output stages are packaged in cases of very low resonance and thermal resistance. They are then secured to a large gold-plated pure copper heatsink to allow quick dissipation of the class-A circuit's heat and minimization of thermal distortion. Each B1-a can be configured to bridged mono to increase output power to 300 watts. What surprised me the most was the spirit behind the development of the B1-a. Although there has been continuous coverage of this amplifier for almost 18 months by different Japanese media (I even thought those articles were actual reviews), it is still not available for sale as of my writing this! Mr. Nishi is very serious about the B-1a and won't rush it to market. As far as I know, a senior ex-Yamaha engineer, Mochida-San, has been performing repeat beta tests for more than 1.5 years to take into account many critics' feedback. Sugano-san of Stereo Sound also compliments the achievement of this amplifier and serial number 001 will be delivered to him for the first formal review.

Mr. Nishi believes that the legendary Mark Levinson No.20.6 amplifier built more than 2 decades ago was far superior to many amplifiers made today. His comments showed that he is striving for sound and musical qualities rather than technological breakthroughs which we've heard of all too often in this industry. The SIT technology was invented back in the 70s after all. Why bother going back to its drawing board during the age of MP4? That's the spirit. With it, I am convinced the B1-a will become a huge success, a very strong competitor to European amplifiers costing easily twice or thrice its asking price. The B-1a stereo amp with 150 watts of class A power into 4 ohms is aimed at the threshold of 1 million yen before the 5% consumption tax. (At the current exchange rate, that's the equivalent of ca. $9.600 US).

Mr. Nishi also incorporates an input port for special connection to B&O A/V products. The special module shown here will be included with the purchase of every B1-a. From his perspective, this feature will easily allow existing B&O customers to experience high-end sound. In the photo, we can see a B&O CD changer. He did a demo with it for me. The sound was pleasant but far removed from the quality of his prototype DAC, the D1-a below.

The D1-a I heard was a prototype with a two-tier structure. The thinner chassis underneath the main unit is reserved for future clock upgrades. This converter houses four Platinum D/A modules by MSB Technology from the US. The Digital Do Main engineering team adds their own analog section with three individual power supplies that ultimately require 3 separate AC power cords. My initial impression was of it being very smooth, silky and refined but lacking the last kick in dynamics. My standard in this area is demanding after taking the Stahl-Tek Vekian DAC home, alongside with owning the Orpheus Lab Heritage and Zanden 2000p/5000s combo. I suspect the presence of a digital volume control and absence of an active preamp deprived dynamics in some way. I said so to Mr. Nishi and he immediately agreed that an analog volume solution has more dynamics. In the final production version, the digital volume will automatically switch to an analog volume control (true analog relays) 2 seconds after listener adjustments. In Nishi's view, the complete absence of a digital volume control would expose the analog volume to faster wear and tear.

Digital Do Main is also working on their own speakers. They have chosen RCA's coaxial LC-1A made in 1955. Since those transducers went out of production long time ago, DM will re-manufacture them from scratch. Mr. Nishi hopes to bring a "concert hall" experience into the homes of audiophiles. One of the criteria to achieve this is the reproduction of bass down to 27.5Hz. His hand sketch showed 3 models in different configurations. The top model at the far right will likely include a diamond tweeter in the middle. The bass driver is planned to be powered by a DSP-based active amplifier. These speakers are slated for release sometime in the summer of 2009.

Digital Do Main under the leadership of Mr. Nishi appears to model itself into a true no-compromise high-end audio company. They want to build everything themselves because they are not content with the high-priced quality available elsewhere. Nishi-Sam envisions Digital Do Main to provide a complete Hi-End solution ranging from a CD transport/BluRay player/DAC all the way to the speakers. At the same time, two lower-power versions of the B1-a are already planned for release next year to reach an even wider audience.

During our conversation, Mr. Nishi mentioned a few times the importance to have accurate measurement devices to develop high-end audio products. I believe he is going to invest more into this 'infrastructure' if the B1-a proves a real success. I wish it the best of fortunes.
Digital Do Main website