Every audiophile has heard stories of mythic proportions, about the wonders wrought by Combak tuning dots. You place them strategically on the walls of your listening room and in doing so literally tune your room. Sure, your walls look like stricken by untreatable acne but other than that, they disappear as boundaries to the sound. That's how the story goes. And yeah, everyone laughs – even audiophiles. That's saying a lot. After all, audiophiles are prone to trying different vintages of quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies on their speakers to determine which mint 'sounds better'. I once had a wealthy audiophile friend who swore he could hear the difference between twenty and fifty dollar bills placed on top of his speakers. He was outdone by another who claimed that he could hear the difference between American dollars and German Deutschmarks on top of his 845 amps. His money, as it were, went up in smoke. He claimed he knew that going in but that the sonic difference just prior to the fire was not to be missed.

Strange group of folk audiophiles are. Nevertheless, dots on the walls seems to be taking things a bit too far. That is, until you hear what they can do - or so I've been told, not just once but many times, and almost always from 'reliable sources' (ears).

For the first twenty years of my audiophile life, I would have laughed this sort of stuff off as the audiophile equivalent of a David Copperfield Las Vegas show. But over the last few years, I have begun to see the light. And not because I have been transformed by drugs or religious experience. Been there, done that and still didn't believe in dots or feet at the time.

No folks, this was no drug-induced transformation. I've seen this stuff work wonders in changing the character of a music playback system. So much so that I now think every audio reviewer and audiophile should possess a stockpile of resonance and isolation control devices and tuning implements – feet, spikes, cones, tuning boards and so on. They are invaluable tools for putting systems in balance and wrenching the last bit of musical excellence from already wonderful setups.

On the other hand, very little of this is simple or straightforward. An untrained ear working in unison with an inexperienced hand (or pair of hands) can wreak untold damage. Like everything else in audio, you've got to learn what your dots, feet, cones, spikes and boards sound like. And this is not something you can learn by reading a book. You have to test the waters, try the stuff out, see what happens, take notes and try again. Or you can learn at the foot of a master à la "Wax on; wax off."

I chose the latter route.

At the last CES, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Mr.Kazou Kiuchi or Kiuchi-San, chief designer at Combak Corporation of Kanagawa/Japan. Combak produces two different kinds of product lines: Harmonix and Reimyo. The vast majority of Harmonix products are cables, cords, tuning and resonance control devices but also include a speaker, the diminutive Bravo. The Reimyo line consists of five products at this time: A line conditioner, tube line stage; 300B stereo amplifier; CD player and DAC. I will have a good deal more to say about the quite extraordinary little Bravo and also have the complete Reimyo line-up in for review. There is much to love here and especially the CD player is simply without peer. But that's a story for another occasion.

Kiuchi-Sanis is one of a mere handful of true maestros of his esoteric craft if not the world's leading master tuner, period. Speaker manufacturers regularly consult with him on the voicing of their speakers. To put it mildly, he is a man who knows his way around tuning devices. During our visit at the Show, Mr. Kiuchi let on that he would be coming to NYC for the Home Entertainment Show. After consulting with Srajan and securing his approval, I approached Mr.Kiuchi to ask him if he would be interested in coming either to my home in Connecticut or my apartment in New York City to tune one of my systems. Geez, if he would like to tune both, I think I might be able to accommodate him. As luck would have it, Mr.Kiuchi expressed an interest in indeed tuning both systems but a variety of family and professional responsibilities left me unavailable for the Connecticut session. So we settled on a day of system tuning chez Coleman and in the Big Apple.

Today was the day but the story begins just a bit earlier. Mr. Kiuchi arrived in NYC on Thursday, May 13. On Friday, I ran into him at In Living Stereo, the local audio emporium that offers the full line of Combak and Shindo gear. Kiuchi-San was spending his first day in the city listening to how his products sounded around town. When I caught up with him, he was listening to an all-Reimyo system driving a pair of modest Odeon loudspeakers. The sound was simply okay. The room wasn't great and the speakers were not up to the quality of the electronics.

After exchanging pleasantries and listening for a while with Mr.Kiuchi, I left for a meeting. Over the next hours, I periodically popped back into the store. Each time the system's sound had changed yet the speakers hadn't moved one iota. Kiuchi-San experimented with an assortment of feet, tuning devices, spikes and cups. He removed the carbon fiber isolation base from under his amplifier and replaced it with a tuning board, trying various configurations. By the time I returned three hours later for my final listening, the system had been completely transformed. A speaker with a lean balance, a peaky treble and almost no bass to speak of had been replaced by one with weightier, more authoritative bass, a full and rich midband and an effortless, smooth treble range. I was floored.

Mr.Kiuchi merely smiled.

I asked him what he thought. He simply said "better". He then told me had some free time and was just playing around. We would see if we could have similar fun at my place on Monday.

Well, Monday arrived filled with anticipation. I had the full four-piece Reimyo/Harmonix system in my apartment: CD player, line stage, amp, power line conditioner, plus a full Harmonix cable/cord contingent on hand. Even a pair of Kiuchi-San's Bravo speakers nestled in the bookshelves awaiting their review. The listening space in my apartment is reasonably large especially by NYC standards. The main area is 17' x 19' x 8', with hardwood floors, bookcases, wall art, windows and open spaces, drywall behind the bookcases. It is a corner apartment so that one of the side and the rear walls are reinforced by solid brick.

Mr.Kiuchi arrived with Darren Censullo and Jonathan Halpern, both representing May Audio as the importer of Combak products. They brought with them all manner of beautiful wooden boxes filled with feet, cups and cones of all shapes and sizes made from combinations of hardwoods and metals. Soon thereafter, fellow moonie Ken Micallef arrived with his friend Steve Yagerman, a genuine man of the cloth. The six of us sat down for a listen - but first we had to figure out what speakers to listen to.

I had the Audiopax Ref100 in for review but since I was to review it stock, I decided it would be inappropriate for us to employ them for these experimental purposes. Instead we listened to the little Bravo for a while. I won't say much about the Bravo except the following: The damn thing is miniscule, a sealed-box coaxial design and a joint venture between Gradient of Finland and Mr.Kiuchi. To use a phrase we used often during the day, driven by the Reimyo system, "it touched the heart".

In any case, while Ken and Steve were listening with mouths open and drooling, Darren and Jonathan went on a scavenger hunt at In Living Stereo to pick up a pair of Gibbon 8s, John DeVore's extremely well-reviewed, terrific-value little floorstander. They returned fifteen minutes later, two strapping men exhausted by the task of walking two New York city blocks with these reasonably light speakers on their shoulders. Good thing we don't have to rely on such folks for the genuine heavy lifting!

Everyone in the room was very familiar with the sound of the Gibbon 8 - that was one reason for the choice. Another was its perfect apartment size and nearly full-range extension in such a setting. A third was its synergy with low-powered tube amps. At the store, it is regularly driven by the Shindo Cortese 10wpc single-ended amp which is built around the same F2A output tube that becomes the centerpiece of my Sinhonia monos. In fact, the Cortese is John DeVore's favorite match with both the Gibbon 8 and his reference Silverback. The only people who were not extremely familiar with the Gibbon 8? Darren and Mr.Kiuchi.

We sat and listened for a while. After several CDs, we were anxious to hear Mr.Kiuchi thoughts. I will say that in the apartment and with little attention to setup, the sound was as good as I had ever heard the speakers before, very extended on top, full, resolving and genuinely impressive. The first thought that came to mind was, "these are a terrific value" Any sensible person living in an apartment would be very lucky to own a pair. They can run with just about anything and they make great sense: Totally inoffensive, with no obvious anomalies. Easy.

This is how I have always felt about the Gibbon 8, only more so once I got to hear them in my own apartment. What I never felt about them was completely engaged. They were for me a bit more of a spectator sound. While with the Reimyo/Harmonix setup they now sounded more involving, they were not dialed in yet and thus still not fully involving.

That was my take anyway. We turned to Mr. Kiuchi who offered something like, "They are very good, very promising. I can make them better. They need more bass and authority and we can take away the slight peak." In no time, Mr.Kiuchi opened up a few boxes and started taking out some feet. The major step was placing feet under the amplifier [see below], and then putting 8 of his new product cones under the Gibbon spikes. We reset the speakers in the same place and replayed the same tunes.

We played everything from Khatchaturian dances to Brahms violin and piano concertos, Jill Scott to Jan Garbarek. We ran several pieces from the wonderful Ensemble collection available through U.S. importer Brian Ackerman. We put the little Gibbon 8 through some serious paces. But most of the time was spent pinching each other to make sure we weren't dreaming. Let me tell you then what difference 8 cones and 4 feet had wrought. Before, the sound was somewhat constrained and a little inside the box though not from the box. No more. The sound was now totally liberated from the box and filled the whole room completely unrestrained. Before, the sound was somewhat two-dimensional, with very little sense of depth. No longer. The soundstage flew through the back wall into the adjacent bedroom. It climbed the ceiling and threatened to leave the building altogether.

Before, the sound appeared to project to a spot about two feet in front of our listening position where we could watch it. Now it surrounded us. We were awash in music. Resolution improved slightly. But I've saved the biggest differences for last: What had been an easy to listen to, nearly fully-range and ever so slightly polite speaker became thunderously dynamic and as close to full-range in presentation and feel as a little floorstander could possibly be. I wish I were making this up - I am sure it would save me money. But the truth is that with these little but beautiful devices in place, we had taken a very good speaker and great bargain and turned it into a near reference-quality speaker that was an appropriate partner for the wonderful and far pricier Reimyo/Harmonix combination of associated hardware.

But Kiuchi-San had done more than that. He had created a speaker that was now completely and fully involving - I kid you not. A speaker that lists for under 3K plus about 2K worth of feet and cones created results that could compete in terms of love, involvement, resolution and ease of presentation with most speakers at any price. Mr.Kiuchi did not add extension that's unavailable from a cabinet with limited volume and the Gibbons' two-way driver compliment any more than he changed its wood veneer. What he did was take this modest and quite wonderful little speaker and give it the opportunity to provide a group of us with as much musical enjoyment, pleasure, warmth and good feeling as you could get from any speaker you buy at any price. To hear this transformation was simply magical.

What was even more impressive/? That this makeover remained simplicity itself. It didn't involve fotzing around with hundreds of different combinations of tweaks; there was none of the expected moving of speakers and furniture all over the place. There was simply one man with many feet, cones and resonance and tuning devices in front of him; one man with a keen ear and a sense of what music as an organic whole should sound like. He sat, he listened, he reflected on what he heard. From that he inferred what could be. He then dug into his bag of tricks, picked out the appropriate devices, put them in and voilà - he transformed the sound from very good and enjoyable to wonderful and involving. He started with something that could be admired and left us with something that touched the soul. It was a remarkable day.
Combak Japan website
US/Canadian distributor's website