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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Digital: Sony PlayStation 1 SCPH-1001 with Furutech G-320Ag-18F8 power cord, Shindo Arome CD matching transformer [this review], Esoteric UZ-1 universal player [in for review]
Preamplifiers: Leben RS-28CX [in for review], Shindo Monbrison [this review]
Integrated amplifiers: Leben CS600 with Furutech G-320Ag-18 IEC power cord, Leben CS300X Limited, Almarro A205A Mk1 & Mk2
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 monos, Shindo Cortese [this review], Leben CS-660P [in for review], Pass XA30.5 [in for review]
Speakers: Harbeth Super HL5 with 18" Skylan stands, Merrill Zigmahornets, ART Emotion Signature [in for review]
Cables: Auditorium 23 speaker cable; various SilverFi interconnects & digital interfaces; White Lightning Moonshine DIY interconnects & speaker cables; Shindo Silver interconnects [this review]
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony walnut media cabinet, Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Skylan isolation platform [in for review]
Room sizes: Room 1 - 20' L x 17' W x 17' H; Room 2 - 11' L x 11'W x 9' H
Review component retail: Monbrison $7900; Cortese F2a $9500; Arome CD matching transformer $1295; Silver interconnects $950/meter.

The music lovers
This review is part of the Music Lovers Series focused on hifi gear of exceptional musical merit. In case you're new to the Music Lovers perspective, here's a short orientation on the difference between the tastes of music lovers and typical audiophiles. Music lovers largely feel that audiophiles have taken the HiFi hobby in the wrong direction with their focus on the sonic aspects of the experience like soundstaging, transparency, imaging and extreme detail recovery. The focus on exaggerating the non-musical artifacts of the recording process over the years has resulted in a lot of very expensive equipment that can sound spectacular and exciting during short-term auditions but ironically doesn't play music very well. That lack of musical ability becomes downright annoying to music lovers over the long haul. It leads to an equipment merry-go-round of selling and buying as a result of the dissatisfaction that sets in after the short-term infatuation with the sonic wow factor wears off and the desperation to find something that simply plays music well begins.

Good sonics to music lovers mean sonics that don't exaggerate recording artifacts in such a way as to detract from the music - often referred to as musicality. Music lovers want to hear the musical message get through regardless of how well that music was recorded because there's lots of great music not recorded that well. Their equipment must serve a broad cross section of musical interests and the equipment cannot limit acceptable music choices as most audiophile-focused hifi gear does. Music lovers generally like a presentation with a natural amount of warmth rather than the usual lean and detailed amusical presentation. Music lovers want plenty of tone color and musical texture, accurate timbres and a natural presentation of the beat, rhythm, melody and mood.

The musical family
Almost a year ago now I stopped by Matt Rotunda's family-owned business Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco for a couple of nights of musical fun and games with Matt, his wife Keenya and their young son Jared. They were wonderful hosts and we had a ball! Matt focuses on gear of exceptional musical merit like that from Shindo Labs, Leben, Auditorium 23, 47 Labs and Living Voice. I was particularly smitten with the two Shindo-based systems Matt played for me. I was blown away by the sheer musical prowess of the phono cartridge to speakers (and everything in-between) full Shindo system and declared it the most musically satisfying system I'd ever heard. At the exclusive and breathtaking price of $142,000, it was also way out of reach for common folks like me.

There was no way I could afford that system so I was relieved to hear an impressively musical system Matt put together at a fraction of the cost - around the Shindo Monbrison and Cortese pre/power combo and the Living Voice IBX loudspeakers. This too blew me away with its sheer musicality and I thought it a system that would delight music lovers at a price many more could afford although it too must be considered expensive in practical terms. After hearing it play the tunes so convincingly at Matt's place, it's no wonder to me why the Monbrison/Cortese combo is Shindo's best-selling combination of electronics.

I was so impressed by that second system in fact that I resolved to recreate it for review, no easy task. I wasn't able to pull it all together at one time due to unexpected complications. I was however able to put together a comparable one over time. Instead of Matt's Shindo Garrard 301 (no one wanted to part with theirs as a review loaner - imagine that!) I used the very cool Paschetto AE-2008, a hot-rodded version of the classic Empire 208. I was able to reproduce Matt's computer music system of MacBook/HagUSB/Shigaraki DAC thanks to Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems and Jim Hagerman of Hagerman Technologies - and I bought a MacBook to make ends meets. Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports graciously provided the beating heart of the system, the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier, Cortese stereo power amplifier, Arome CD matching transformer, Shindo interconnects and a spare set of Auditorium 23 speaker cables in case I needed them (the Living Voice speakers require biwiring).

Jonathan has been supremely patient while I was trying to align all the moons. Kevin Scott of Living Voice in the UK graciously provided a pair of absolutely beautiful Rosewood-finished IBX-RW loudspeakers with the silver Kondo internals but a 'discontinued' note from his main driver supplier suddenly forced him to recall the pair since all future production would rely on a new, retooled driver - no use to review something that was scheduled for a significant change. [As it turns out, Kevin had to weather additional production delays and personal expenses in a parallel attack of 'discontinued' from a capacitor vendor to be forced to also build his own crossover caps, in the end all for an even better product as he reports - Ed.] Fortunately Yujean Kang of Tangram Audio came to the rescue at about that time with his exotic and stunningly beautiful ART Emotion Signature loudspeakers which he imports to the US from Scotland.

The music boxes
As a heads-up for listeners fond of mixing and matching: I found during the review period that combining Shindo preamps or amps with preamps or amps from other companies always degraded the Shindo
gear's overall musicality. Shindo gear is voiced to be used with other Shindo gear. I you want to realize its highest level of musical performance, refrain from getting mixed up. You'll also need to carefully pick your sources and speakers to be complimentary to the Shindo component voicing as this kit is definitely not a one-size-fits-all product. The Shindo gear is fussier about what it is partnered with than most equipment I've encountered. That's where an experienced dealer with an ear for music like Matt is indispensable in helping get the performance you're paying for with Shindo. Having said that, this Shindo gear never sounded less than really good but with careful setup and accommodating sources and speakers, it became a truly mesmerizing musical experience.

Sources: During the vinyl course of the review, I used the excellent Paschetto AE-2008 turntable for LPs, the MacBook/HagUsb/Shigaraki combo for computer-based digital audio and my trusty Sony PS1 SCPH-1001 for CDs.

The Shindo Laboratory Arome CD Matching Transformer is an unassuming little green box about the size of a paperback book and contains a transformer designed to optimize the digital interface with a Shindo preamplifier. The Arome has balanced inputs with dedicated Shindo Silver interconnects (included) that connect to the CD player's outputs via RCA connectors. A Shindo Silver interconnect (not included) then connects the Arome to the Monbrison's CD input. There is a volume control on the back of the Arome to level match to other sources if desired. I ran it wide open most of the time. I'm not going to say much about the Arome in my listening impressions so let me say it now: it's a nice addition for most digital sources in that it gives digital a subtly smoother, warmer, more analogue-like sound and the ability to match volumes to your analog front end. If you're the analog-only type, you don't need one.

The Shindo Laboratory Monbrison is a beautifully hand-crafted and full-featured vacuum-tube preamplifier built by Ken Shindo and his family in Japan. Ken uses plenty of hand-picked NOS parts in the Monbrison and it's full of tubes - eight total: two Telefunken ECL 94S, two 12AU7, two 12AT7 and two 6X4WA. US importer Jonathan Halpern
tells me that the Monbrison has an expected tube life of over 10,000 hours. This means you should be good for two hours of daily listening for almost 14 years. The Monbrison is compact and beautifully built inside and out. For vinyl aficionados, there is a moving-coil phono stage voiced to complement the Shindo SPU cartridge, plus a moving-magnet phono stage for a wide variety of moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges (when used with a step-up transformer like the Auditorium 23 which I used during the review with my Denon 103 cartridge). You can switch between the two phono stages via rear toggle. The Monbrison has four line inputs identified as CD, FM, TV and AUX. There's only one pair of outputs so those who like a dedicated output to a sub amp are out of luck.

The Monbrison's front panel is simply and sensibly laid out with a source selector, volume control and power switch. There's no balance control as the Cortese amplifier includes a volume pot for each channel. The power cycle is a bit quirky in practice: It always works fine from a cold start but gets fussy if you try to turn off and on while changing out equipment. It usually refuses to play music in that situation. If you let it cool off for an hour or so, it always fires back up. That's no real concern for normal music lovers who don't play permanent equipment swapping games but reviewers will curse. Vents on the top, bottom and side are intended to keep things cool but the Monbrison still runs very hot so you'll want to keep it where it gets plenty of circulating air. If you place it in a cabinet, you'll want to leave the doors open during operation. Little rubber feet on the bottom of the chassis raise the Monbrison enough to allow for air exchange underneath its toasty-hot enclosure.

The Monbrison is finished in Shindo's wine-bottle green paint and complimented with gold accents. The front panel is clear Plexiglas with a green background and gold lettering except for the clear window in the middle that allows you to admire the two glowing Telefunken ECL 94S tubes in the display bay for an overall visual effect that is attractive, tasteful and a touch elegant.