Reviewer: Jules Coleman
Source: Well Tempered Classic w. Roksan Shiraz; Audiomeca Obsession transport connected to Audio Logic 24 MXL tube DAC via Stealth Varidig cable; Combak Reimyo CDP 777
Preamp/Integrated: Counterpoint 5.0; JJ-Tesla 243
Amp: Mark Pearson EL-34 monos; Innersound 800 ESL monos; Shindo Sinhonia monos
Speakers: Duevel Bella Luna Diamante; Wilson Audio Sophia
Cables: Stealth; P.S.C.; Audience Au24
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature and Blue Circle Music Ring 1200
Sundry accessories: Harmonix feet, Black Diamond Racing cones, Vibrapods
Room size: 30' x18' x9'
Review component retail: $7,800

This is the first part of a three-part review on the sound of the legendary Shindo Laboratories of Japan. I shall begin with the Shindo Monbrison preamp, turn next to the Shindo Sinhonia monoblock amplifiers, and finally report on a rare opportunity to hear the only full Shindo system in the US, which, besides both the Monbrison and Sinhonia components under review, includes the Latour field-coil loudspeakers below. These will be the first Shindo reviews in a U.S. based audio journal -- print or otherwise -- of which I'm aware.

With that in mind, let's get to the bottom line first. The Monbrison is the best preamplifier I have ever had long-term in any system of mine. It is not the very best preamplifier you can purchase in absolute terms (indeed, it falls midway in the Shindo lineup) but it comes awfully close; and it is almost certainly the best full-function preamplifier you can purchase for anywhere near its retail price of $7,800.00. There are doubtless good reasons to spend more than the price of a Monbrison on preamplification, but this product from the famed house of Shindo makes it considerably harder to justify doing so.
Though relatively unknown among even the most avid American audiophiles, Shindo Laboratories has long enjoyed an exalted status among the European and Southeast Asian cognoscenti. Only recently imported into the United States by Jonathan Halpern, Shindo is one of the very few audio manufacturers whose products must be taken on their own, their value not to be determined entirely or even largely by a price/performance ratio nor by comparison with other products along a similar metric. This does not mean that considerations of cost should be banned when thinking about whether to purchase a Shindo product. Quite the contrary; given what they do, Shindo products are, in relative terms, bargains.

Evaluate a Shindo product as you would a work of art. Your evaluation of a Michelangelo or a Raphael painting or a Moore sculpture, your appreciation of works by Pollock or Motherwell do not depend on what these works will cost you at Sotheby's. Your approach to them is naturally very different than it would be were you out looking for a 3' x 4' watercolor or oil to place above your sofa - something that will add a splash of color to the décor yet fit in with your furniture choices. "Gee, honey, that one looks like it will work just fine above the couch; find out how much it costs" seems appropriate in the home décor context yet altogether inapt when approaching your average Kandinsky - and not because of the difference in cost.

Were you to approach Shindo components purely instrumentally, you would be in a sense simply missing their point. For these are no mere instruments built for the enjoyment of music as parts of a playback system; they represent for Ken Shindo artistic creations, expressions of value, attitude, ways of approaching music and its reproduction and in the end, ways of integrating music and its reproduction into a reflective and well-lived life. The same is true of Kondo-San, Kiuchi-San, Simon Yorke and no doubt others. Components from Kondo, Shindo, Kiuchi and Yorke are, whatever other instrumental role they may play in reproducing music in the home, distinctive artistic visions reflecting a time, place and culture in which their respective designers grew up; how their approaches to life and music have been nurtured. Their designs reflect these facts about them. They are personal statements, as much a vision about the importance of an integrated life in which music and its appreciation are central as the fact that they are instruments for the reproduction of it. If you don't see their "product" this way -- if you look at it, as of course you are entitled to, as an instrument for reproducing music -- you will miss something about the component that is intrinsic to it and part of its distinctive value. This feature of Shindo products is not unique to Shindo, but nevertheless distinctive of them.

If Shindo or Kondo made a mousetrap, you'd want to own it not because Shindo or Kondo would make a "better mousetrap", but because any mousetrap they took the time to build would reflect their understanding of the human attitude toward mice. They would emphasize the fact that humans think of mice as a problem of a certain kind, one solved by luring them into being trapped by their own instincts and needs. For Shindo and Kondo, it just couldn't be a mere mechanical contraption called a mousetrap, any more than a preamplifier could just be a way of attenuating or increasing gain and selecting among different sources.

Naturally, we're talking about audio, not mousetraps. And you, quite rightly, want things from an audio component that you do not expect from a mousetrap. You want the tone and timbre of instruments to be accurately rendered; you want micro-dynamic contrasts revealed, the impact of macro-dynamics felt. You expect musical details to be fully resolved, the leading edge of notes to be discernable and their harmonic structure unraveled before their decay is fully realized. But most of all, you don't want these things picked apart, even if you could as an exercise pick them out as such. You want them there only as an integrated whole. If it isn't integrated, it can be many things but not music. You want to be engaged by music, not by a mechanical exercise. You are not looking for technical mastery but the expression of musical value.

Lord knows I hope this is what you are looking for. If it is, let me introduce you to the Monbrison preamplifier. If not, there is no need to read on - but that would be fine because we are not on the same page and what I have to say will be neither informative nor persuasive to you. By the way, if you need a remote, this is not the preamp for you - but read on anyway and see what the couch potato in you is costing you.

On the Outside
The Monbrison is a single box, full function preamplifier of modest size and weight. It measures 17.7" x 11.8" x 3.5" and weighs 11 lbs. The cabinetry is simple and functional but quite handsome. Like all Shindo electronics, inside as well as out, it is painted a dark hunter or forest green which Shindo refers to as Altec green. When turned on, the power light indicator located at the left of the front panel glows a slightly lighter but brighter green. Adjacent to the power button is the quite handsomely scripted Monbrison name above which is the engraved signature Shindo Laboratory Swan and below the Shindo Laboratory insignia inscription. This is it for the front panel but for two knobs located on the right, the first to control volume, the second to handle source selection.

The rear panel provides the ubiquitous IEC power inlet for after-market power cord rolling (Shindo provides a two prong power cord - more on this below), followed by one pair of RCA outputs, four RCA line level inputs for CD, FM, AUX and TV, and inputs for both MM and low output MC cartridges. Choice of moving magnet or moving coil is made by a toggle switch located between the two phono inputs. Elegant, simple and honest: cool rather than catchy; ear- rather than eye-candy - that is the Shindo preamplifier aesthetic. Still, the attention to detail obvious in how the chassis has been painted inside and out gives some indication that Ken Shindo has expended considerable effort to fashion what is unquestionably an extraordinary, yet nevertheless unassuming, preamplifier.

Looking In
Whoever said that beauty was only skin deep never looked inside a Shindo preamp. But until you purchase one of your own, you'll have to take my word for it. By agreement, I am not allowed to post a picture of the innards of the Monbrison - or of any other Shindo product for that matter. You see, in addition to its exalted status among the audiophile communities of Europe and the Far East, Shindo enjoys near cult status among the high end DIY crowd. Consortiums have bought various Shindo products in the hopes of copying circuitry through reverse engineering. The story goes that these efforts succeeded once with the Claret preamplifier which, at the time, constituted the entry-level preamplifier in the Shindo line-up. Once the schematics were published on the Internet, Shindo ceased production of the Claret. This anecdote only enhances the mythology surrounding Shindo products while pointing at highly inventive and unconventional circuit architectures to prompt such copycatting to begin with.

That said, join me on a tour of the insides of the Monbrison which is divided into several chambers. Beginning on the left immediately behind the power switch, there is a chamber that holds the power transformer, a 6X4 rectifier, a 6BM8 pentode/triode voltage regulator and a smoothing capacitor bank. Adjacent to this chamber -- again front to back -- is another chamber housing the power supply capacitor bank and current regulators. Along the rear behind the input jacks is yet another chamber running left to right that houses the ECC82 twin-triode line stage tube, another 6BM8 for line stage voltage regulation, two EF86 mesh plate phono tubes (one per channel), another 6BM8 for phono stage voltage regulation, and matching left and right channel step-up transformers shielded from one another. In front of this rear chamber and directly behind the volume control and source selection knobs are the phono and line stage circuits, their dual-mono left and right channel boards stacked atop each other and separated by a shield.

Clearly extraordinary care has been taken to isolate any possible power supply contamination and channel crosstalk. Shindo Laboratories believes in dual mono preamplification - except for the power supply, the Monbrison is a true dual mono design. All wiring is point to point. There are no printed circuit boards. Tubes are chosen by ear and all American or European NOS. Inveterate tube rollers beware; the Monbrison, like all Shindo products, is in effect the outcome of Ken Shindo's expert tube rolling. Not only is each tube chosen by how the product sounds with it in the circuit, every resistor and capacitor is chosen the same way.

Even the power cord -- looking quite ordinary and likely to be bettered by any number of aftermarket alternatives -- has resisted my best efforts to do so. I simply gave up trying only to find out later that Halpern himself had pretty much come to the same conclusion. The IEC is no more than a tease. Keep the power cord Shindo provides free of charge, get higher performance, avoid unnecessary headaches and save a good bit of the green stuff. The Monbrison is put together from scratch with the goal of creating a product with a particular character and sound. Don't mess with it for the very simple reason that the sound you hear will be the sound of music, not gratuitous tweaks.

The Measurements
The line stage offers 16dB of gain. The MC section can handle cartridges from .2mV up, with internal cartridge impedances of 2-100 ohms. The phono section has 40db of gain in the MM section and another 26db through the MC input. The output impedance is a relatively high 5kohm, hence avoid cable runs longer than 10'. The Monbrison employs no cathode followers, no negative feedback and, in case you have forgotten, no remote. Shindo claims a S/N ratio of 119dB, completely unprecedented in tube designs and favorably competing with the very best reference-quality solid-state preamps.

The Shindo preamplifier line begins with the Aurieges at $3,800 and tops off with the Petrus III at $44,800. Between the Aurieges and the $7,800 Monbrison sit both the Partager and Mazaeris Bellevus at $5,800. The Mazaeris is line level only, both Aurieges and Partager MM only. Between the Monbrison and the Petrus III reside the Allegro at $11,800, the Catherine at $17,800 and the Giscours at $22,800. Halpern's apparent preference for prices ending in $800 bears further psychological investigation.

All Shindo preamps above the Monbrison are fully dual mono with their own output transformers - and not just little Jensen-type isolation devices either. When you think Shindo preamps with output transformers, think output transformers suitable to tube amplifiers; output transformers that might embarrass those tucked under the pretty covers of certain 300B amps. I have listened a good bit to the Allegro which is fitted with one such output transformer. If you want low preamp output impedance, you have basically two choices - lots of tubes as in the Conrad Johnson ART; or an output transformer. Shindo chooses the latter route. Once you think about it for a minute, you'll know why. If you cannot figure out why, just listen to the differences. That, however, requires a discussion best left for another occasion.

The System
To be sure, all systems are about finding a balance. Finding that balance begins with a preamplifier that is completely true to both the music and your values of musical expression. Some may think that the best preamp is no preamp at all. At some point, every audiophile I know has entertained this possibility; I certainly have - more than once. Some have been persuaded of its truth. For what it's worth, I gave up on pursuing this approach when I realized that even though reproducing music requires amplifying a signal sufficiently to drive a loudspeaker, producing music is not equivalent to merely amplifying a signal sufficiently to drive a loudspeaker. At the end of the day, the preamplifier cannot be redundant because it is the central nerve plexus of the audio system. Every source runs through it. The character of the system is directly patterned by the character of the preamplifier. With that in mind, I placed the Monbrison into what I reluctantly (but in keeping with convention) call my 'reference' system.

Once ensconced in the main system, the Monbrison uprooted both the cult favorite Counterpoint 5.0 and the super high value JJ Tesla 243, both full function preamps capable of handling both MM and MC cartridges. Sources were the Well-Tempered Classic tracking a Roksan Shiraz (with a 1.0mV output) and an Audiomeca Obsession transport feeding Jerry Ozment's latest creation, the Audio Logic 24MXL via Stealth Varidig digital interconnect.

I began with two amplifiers, Mark Pearson-built EL-34 based monoblocks designed around NOS Mullard double getters and the Innersound 800 ESL solid state monoblocks that I had reviewed for UltraAudio. Speakers were the Duevel Bella Luna Diamante and the Wilson Sophia. Cabling and power cords were handled by a combination of Stealth, P.S.C. and Audience Au24. After about month of listening, a pair of Shindo Sinhonia monoblocks moved into the system to displace their tube and solid state competition. Most of my listening thereafter was done with the Shindo electronics in tandem to drive the Wilson Sophias.

Prior to beginning work on this review, the Reimyo CDP-777 from Combak took up residence as my primary digital source - review to follow. The Reimyo player upset all my previous thinking about digital. All digital sources are likely to end up serving as door stops in about five years. How can it possibly make sense to invest in one that retails for $17K? I am not saying it makes sense to buy the Reimyo. I am saying, however, that it makes no sense not to. And I surely plan to if only my children would find a way to get off the payroll - what we here in Connecticut euphemistically refer to as the Coleman Family Fellowship Fund for the Arts, but which my children in New York City refer to as allowance.

As my writing began in earnest, my resident Well Tempered table was replaced by the new Well Tempered Reference which represents a significant upgrade - review to follow, too. Both of these higher resolution sources strengthened my confidence in judging the merits of the Monbrison.