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Breakthrough: Audio Note Kegon

By Jonathan Valin. Reprinted from Fi - The Magazine of Music and Sound
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While the Audio Note Kegon is undoubtedly the best amplifier I’ve heard in my system, it isn’t a product for you and me, brother. At a hair under $125,000 for seventeen (count ‘em), single-ended, Super Class A watts, I have trouble imagining who the Kegon was meant for. The only reasonable way to look at such a thing is as a work of applied art, not really intended for sale but as a practical demonstration of what is possible in 300-B amplification when all commercial considerations are thrown out the window -- or the pagoda. At least, that’s the way I’m looking at it.

As you may already know, the Kegon is the (favorite) creation of Hiroyasu Kondo, a demure Japanese music lover who’s spent most of his life questing for perfection in reproduced sound. Kondo-san’s attention to the smallest details of his innovative circuits is well known. (Every component in the Kegon, from the air-gapped transformers to the capacitors and resistors, is made from hand-drawn, hand-wound, diamond-cut, lab-grade silver.) There is about Kondo-san’s electronics the elegance of a haiku, where each syllable is precious.

But the sound of the Kegon isn’t merely the sum of its silver parts or labor-intensive build. Great sonics are as much the product of artistic choices as material ones--ultimately reflecting an aesthetic, and idea of what musical reproduction should properly express. With Kondo-san’s amplifier and preamplifiers, the essence of that idea might be found in the word "textures."

The fabric of music is made of such things, on the compositional as well as the performance level. The pitch range, tone color, duration, and dynamic potentials of a particular instrument or group of instruments represent an infinity of textures that composer and performer may choose from--the bright clear staccato note and droll rhythm of the piccolo to announce Kije in Prokofiev’s suite; the rich, novel, blossoming pedal point E-flats in the opening bar of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2; the eerie, disquieting glissandos that make Nachtmusik of Bartók’s Third String Quartet.

The Kegon shines as clear and cool a light on this palimpsest of design and execution as I’ve yet heard from a piece of electronic gear. The contributions of every hand, from composer to the last chair of the second strings, are made audible in its beam. Just how the Kegon manages this utterly transparent vision of musical space is hard to pin down. I would like to say that this amp makes silences count in a way that other amps--even other wonderful amps--simply hint at; but I don’t know if that’s saying it right or saying it all.

We understand, I think, that the silences between and among instruments define physical spaces (and musical ones such as voice spacing, contrapuntal, and antiphonal effects). We understand, as well, that the silences between notes define tempi, rhythms, dynamic swings. What we may not understand as clearly--what it took the Kegon to convey fully to me--is how crucial those background silences are to the foreground of musical presence.

To put this plainly, there is not an amp I know of which does not fill its silences, physical and temporal, with electronic noise. It is forever raining in the background of reproduced music. Coarse or fine, heavy or light, a mist is falling, and air that should be a seamless, transparent thing is broken into droplets by the vagaries of electronic weather.

I don’t know how it manages to do it--whether it’s the 16 pounds of silver inside each of the transformers on its unprepossessing chassis or some Zen koan that lives above its discrete parts--but the Kegon largely dispels the Stormy Monday of electronic reproduction. Think of the silences on compact disc; imagine they are no longer dark or dead but just as deep; and you may get an idea of what the Kegon is capable of doing in the way of lowering the background noise floor. In this regard (and in a couple of others), the thing sounds nothing like other tube amplifiers I’m familiar with, single-ended or push-pull. This depth of quiet is the province of great solid-state--minus, of course, the hard glass pane that is often the price of solid-state’s clarity. Against this backdrop of deeper quiet and more fully articulated pianissimos, musical lines and instrumental contributions stand forth with exceptional clarity. The players in large string choirs, such as the ones on the wonderful Speakers Corner reissue of Espana! [SXL 2020] with Argenta and the LSO--a recording that Decca producer Ray Minshull once told me was the model held up to him, when he joined the Decca recording team, of what stereophonic sound should be--are reproduced with a wealth of inner detail that other great SEs, such as Gordon Rankin’s Cardinals, cannot quite match. With the Kegon, you simply hear more strings in each choir--more of the transient bowing sounds and small variations in intonation that are cues to the numbers of players at play. On large-scale orchestral recordings like this one, where numbers count, the Kegon’s abundance of detail adds to the color and excitement of these colorful and exciting pieces.

But the Kegon doesn’t merely excel at reproducing sheer numbers. (If that was all it did, I wouldn’t be impressed with it). It is just as proficient at reproducing magnitudes. When it comes to dynamic contrasts, small-scale and large, this is one lightning fast single-ended. I’ve talked before about the different paces at which transistor and tube amps handle the harmonic/dynamic envelope. Here, for once, is an amp that seems to combine solid-state’s superior speed of attack with a full measure of a triode tube circuit’s way with decay.

When added to its more silent silences, the Kegon’s realistic pace of presentation makes for genuine revelations in dynamic textures. For instance, B.K. (Before Kegon) I’d scarcely noticed that the voices of the Fairfield Four slightly increase in volume at the climactic refrain of "Children Go Where I Send Thee" on Standing in the Safety Zone [WB 9 26945-2]. Other amps did not call my attention to this subtle crescendo. The Kegon made it plain as day, and in doing so clarified what Tom Davis would call the artistic intention of the performers, as they climb triumphantly to a joyful chorus. Or consider the sudden decrescendo at the start of the Allegro con spirito from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez on Speakers’ Corner/Philips [9500 563]--where the string choirs drop to a whisper with a suddenness that is so sudden it sounds like (and may well be) an edit. The Kegon is so nimble, quiet, and transparent that it manages to reproduce this pianissimo without losing track of a single violin or viola or cello. Nothing drops beneath the noise floor--not even for a split second. The effect is unusually lifelike. Or, for one final example (and I could go on like this for pages), consider the subterranean wallop of bass trombones, bass drum and timps, contrabasson, bass sax, and tuba on Cliere’s "the Red Poppy--Russian Sailor’s Dance" from Beachcomber [RR-62, a truly terrific wind-and-brass recording from Reference]. Reproducing mid-to-low bass energy on this massive scale is simply not the forte of SEs. But with the Kegon, the floor just disappears and the backbeat wells up like lava.

Oh, yes, this amp is every bit as authoritative as it is quick and quiet. There is very little fat here. Very little of the pleasant, plumped-up midbass sound that typifies most SE bass response, warming the overall balance and disguising the lack of true mid-to-low bass. While it may not [be] a lumberjack, this son-of-a-gun is still O.K. A well-recorded durm thwack, like the one that announces "Omaha" on Counting Crows’s August and Everything After (DGCD 24528] slams through the floor like a pile driver and, when it comes back up on the rebound, hits you square in the chest like a real drum thwack. With the right speakers, this thing can move some air. And it deals the same tricks from the top of the deck, too. Cymbal crashes, such as the one that explodes like glass on concrete in the Allegretto of Shostakovich’s First Symphony {LSC 2322, a genuine classic from Classic], are reproduced by the Kegon with a stone-in-the-pond (or through-the-window) ripple of energy.

I suppose I should say a word about imaging and staging, as it is de rigeur in an equipment review. As you might guess, I have my own thoughts on these subjects, which I’ll elaborate on more fully when I review the Balanced Audio Technologies VK-60 amp and the BAT VK-5 preamp. But let me just note that unless an amp or preamp images the violins where the double-bases are supposed to be, which, by the way, the Kegon does not, I’m not much interested in soundstaging. Having said that, let me also note that the Kegon clarifies the dimensions of physical space in the same superior way that it handles musical space, in part for the same reason--those deeper, more silent silences. Front-to-back perspectives are well resolved (although Audio Note SEs typically do not have all of the depth of certain tube amps); focus is tight, soft-edged, and remarkably natural; blah, blah.

So the Kegon is perfect, right? Well, not quite. We haven’t talked yet about timbres, and it is precisely in the matter of tonal balance that the Kegon--and, in fact, all of the Audio Note amps I’ve heard--is likely to be most controversial.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with a disclaimer. If some of you are under the impression that I am an indiscriminate lover of single-ended triode amplification, I am here to tell you that I am not. For all their directness, clarity, and sheer beauty of tone, too many single-endeds are grossly and predictably colored sounding. While some SE amps, such as the Wavelength Cardinals, manage a handsome neutrality in spite of slight rolls at the frequency extremes, there are far too many that don’t. And the thing that disturbs me is that some people seem to lump all of them together, as if "single-ended" means "open sesame" to unqualified musical pleasure. Worse, some people seem to prefer the more Technicolored SEs to the more neutral sounding ones. Indeed, I have the strong impression that there are folks out there who are actually listening for that overly ripe, overly sweet, thermionic balance (just as they do with regular ol’ push-pull tubes).

If that’s what you are listening for, the Kegon is going to be a mighty big disappointment. Indeed, if the Kegon errs (and I believe it does a bit), it is precisely on the side of leanness. For all their wonderful virtues--and they are wonderful--the Audio Note, Japan amps that I have heard are just a little lacking in natural warmth and body and a little chary when it comes to sustaining the decays of notes. You can hear this slight coolness and abruptness clearly on just about every instrument, including voice. For example, the pedal-point piano harmonies at the start of Tori Amos’s whispery version of "Famous Blue Raincoat" from Tower of Song (A & M 3154-0259-2] do not blossom with quite the same fullness of color or duration on the Kegon that they have on the Cardinals. Ditto Rostropovich’s cello on the Britten Cello Sonata [Speakers Corner Decca SXL 2298]. In the matter of balance, the Kegon is not without a character of its own.

However, let me also note that this slight coolness and leanness can be largely ameliorated with the right preamplification (and to a lesser extent by replacing output tubes). After long listening and experimentation, I would recommend combining the Kegon--Jesus, who am I talking to here?--with either the Audio Note M-7 or Melos Reference Series MA-333 or BAT VK-5 preamps and combining amp and your choice of preamp--as long as I’m talking to myself--with the Avantgarde Acoustic Profile Trio loudspeaker system. The result is, quite simply, the most realistically reproduced sound I’ve ever heard. Those four or five of you who can afford such things should most definitely give it a listen.

This amp (particularly when fed by the Melos) is capable of a level of fidelity that I simply would not have believed possible had I not heard it myself. As I said in my editorial in Issue Two, "realism" on record isn’t the kind of thing you have to think about--your body tells you when it occurs. The kind of difference the Kegon makes, it makes on that preconscious level. This is not a tiny change in balance or stage depth or image focus or some other jag-off criterion. This is a change in gestalt--an upping of the ante when it comes to conventional recorded "realism."

In the first installment of his SE-survey, Dick Olsher talked about the micro-modulations of pitch, color, and intensity that make voices sound like real voices instead of steady-state, monotone, computer-generated voices. The Kegon/Avantgarde combo is so revealing, so transparent, and so ineffably right that it is capable, when fed the best source material, of reproducing these micromodulations even on CD! Indeed, listened to via this sainted duo (and the Melos Ref 333, Audio Note DAC-3 Signature, the excellent Reference Ensemble Dichronos Transport, and--just as important--the Reference Ensemble Digiflux co-ax cable), digital just doesn’t sound "digital" anymore. By this I don’t mean that it sounds sweeter or tubier or more forgiving or more "analog." I mean it sounds more real. Kegon and friends have shown me that the distinctive way in which much digital planes away tiny nuances of pitch, color, intensity, and duration--making a singer like Tori Amos sound as if she is singing at one unmodulated level of pitch and intensity when she sustains a note--is not just a problem with digital hardware, software, and linkage; it is every bit as much a problem with analog amplification and preamplification. The natural tremolo, coloratura, and breathiness that the Kegon and its chums restore to Tori Amos’s voice aren’t being added by this equipment. They are being revealed by it. Turns out that what digital needed all along was a great five watt amp, too.

Bottom-line time. Is the magical Kegon worth $125,000? Let me put it to you this way: you don’t buy a Ferrari (and you could buy a Ferrari for the price of the Kegon) just to drive to the Stop ‘n’ Go. There are . . . intangibles to owning a custom-made anything. If I had this kind of spare change--heh-heh (excuse me, it just makes me laugh to say it)--I would certainly give the Audio Note Kegon a long, studious listen, and then buy it. But, for chrissake, if and when you do give it that listen, you four or five lucky bastards who can afford to, listen on the right speakers. No SE amp is going to show well if it is asked to drive a complex load or complex crossover or sluggish driver, regardless of speaker efficiency. And no one hearing SE amps on such speakers, no matter their price point or virtues with conventional amplification, is hearing the magic. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that you have to listen to these things on well-designed horns to hear all they’re capable of doing.

As for me, unless Michael Trei and Herb Reichert forget where they left it, I’m afraid the Kegon is not long for my world. That’s O.K. I got a glimpse of heaven that will last me a while. The Audio Note Kegon is one of those extraordinary products that breaks through to a new level of playback realism. The trick now becomes how to break on through to the other side at a much lower price.

This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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