It’s rare that the two Audio Note companies—Audio Note UK (from the UK, obviously) and Kondo Audio Note from Japan—end up at the same show. It’s likely not a good idea. If products from the two companies were to touch each other, they might well explode with the force of a thousand suns. They’re matter and antimatter, so to speak.
As part of our face-off, Matt and I went straight from the Audio Note UK room on the seventh floor of the Radisson Blu Sobieski hotel down to a much larger room on the main floor. Kondo Audio Note’s exhibit housed much more equipment in a significantly dressed-up environment.
This should be no contest, I thought. Those punky two-way UK boxes jammed in the corners compared to the Avantgarde Duo GT horn speakers ($58,000), looking like giant tropical flowers that might swallow you if you got too close? They had a monster Transrotor turntable! How could this system not sound better than the little bits of gear sprinkled around the UK room?
It seemed like the whole company had shown up. There were at least three Japanese executives there, and two of them really wanted to say hello. These chaps exuded pride—they were almost vibrating with it. They delivered a speech that went on far too long. They wanted to impress on us that they use a lot of silver in their products. Compared to the so-laid-back-it-hurts UK chaps, they came across like carnies in a country fair. Lots of talking. Silver! They really, really wanted everyone to understand.
The system consisted of the Gakuoh II monoblock amplifiers (€110,000), which each use a pair of 300Bs. Preamplification was via a G-1000i (€110,000), a two-chassis unit. The phono preamplifier was another two-chassis unit, the GE-10i (€75,000); but it still required the SFz step-up transformer (€12,000). The cartridge was an IO-XP, also from Kondo Audio Note.
Enough speechifying—time to hear these big-ass horn speakers blow away that box-in-the-corner bullshit. That’s what would happen, right? My first warning that this wasn’t going to be an enjoyable experience was when they told us that we’d only be hearing 30-second snippets of songs, after which they’d change the tubes in the amp and play the selections again.
Then it started. Audiophile music. First up was a solo classical guitar with a high-vibrato female singer. This sort of thing is delightful if you’re having afternoon tea at the Ritz, but the big upsell talk left this falling flat. Further, it might have been my seating position, but the overall tone of the piece felt flat and lacking in air.
Audio Note UK was pulling ahead with its musical choices—Gil Evans and some kind of rollicking dub just smoked classical guitar. Buddy up front better get his finger out and play some cool stuff. I had been talking up the Avantgarde speakers to young Matt, having heard them many times before, but these music choices were making me look older than my years.
Selection number two went on to the turntable and, oh Jesus—the lamest jazz imaginable. I have one Japanese LP at home from the Three Blind Mice label that’s unbelievably well-recorded, but the one time I played it, I wanted to set fire to my records it was so bland. This was like that.
One more chance. Selection number three was a big orchestral piece, but a quiet section was playing. It sounded sort of OK, but the low-level detail was totally overpowered by Dire Straits slamming through the walls from the next room.
On top of that, the bass was thick and tubby, and the highs were muffled. I have had to give a good long think about how poorly this demo struck me, about whether I’m being too harsh. But Doug Schneider came back to the room to take some photos, by which time they were playing a track from Tracy Chapman’s debut album, and that didn’t sound right at all. It seemed to both of us that the turntable was spinning too fast, raising the pitch of her voice higher than normal, and sucking some of the power out of the music.
I’m thinking there were setup problems on top of the irksome presentation, as I’ve heard a good 300B amp running a pair of Avantgarde horns several times in the past, and it’s always been a ton of fun—sex on a rollercoaster fun. This wasn’t like that.
I really wanted to like this system. I had high hopes for it, especially considering that I’m a big fan of tubes and a big fan of Avantgarde speakers. That it didn’t come together in a satisfying manner makes me feel sad.
Audio Note UK wins the shootout. Matt, I’m buying the beer tonight.
Senior Editor, SoundStage!