Kondo Factory tour
y adventure with Kondo and their products started a few years ago. As an introduction to the coverage of my trip to Japan I decided to write a few words about it on HiFiKnights.com – you might want to visit it first (see HERE) or just keep reading here.
Trip to Japan
Trip to Japan, especially considering that it was the first one for me, was exciting enough, but adding a visit to Kondo factory on top of that, meeting all people behind the amplifiers that left such a profound impression on me, was simply something else. The highly anticipated day finally came. A huge upside of time that passed between pitching an idea for this trip and it actually happening was a new direct connection between Warsaw Airport and Narita Tokyo. It's a long trip, all right, so a direct flight on board of a Dreamliner was highly appreciated. After a long, lasting more than 10 hours flight, we touched down on Narita on Thursday morning. Fortunately due to mindful planning of our hosts we had a full day ahead to rest and adjust to a 7 hours time difference. The hot, humid conditions we faced were another factor to get used to. I was tired but excited! Seeing Tokyo for the first time was a special experience and on top of that there was this anticipation of a next day's visit to Kondo headquarters.
Peaceful residential area close to Kondo HQ
Tokyo is a huge city with over 13,5 million inhabitants, and the Great Tokyo Area adds another several millions to that number making it an unbelievably crowded city. Kondo's factory, however, is located in a residential area of the Kawasaki city in the Kanagawa prefecture. After a wonderful evening spent in a traditional Japanese restaurant tasting real Japanese cuisine for the first time and a long sleep, on Friday morning, we took a train to get to Audio Note Japan's HQ from our hotel, planning to arrive around 10 a.m. there. By arriving at this hour we hoped to get there right after the morning staff's meeting. Traveling by a train around Tokyo area deserves a separate story. We were so happy having a guide who took care of us, especially after we saw dozens of tourists on every station studying maps, using every app available in their phones to find directions to get to their destinations. They looked really frustrated... :)
We were told that the whole team meets every morning to first of all plan their work for the day but also to exchange experiences, share knowledge and to pitch new ideas. With such a small team of specialists, as there are actually 7-8 people working in Kondo's HQ, each of them contributes in many ways not only to the production but also products development and everyday activity of the company. Such morning brainstorms are surely a good way to exchange new ideas and to make sure all the processes go as smooth as possible and the happy customers around the world get their dreamed Kondo devices.
Walking from the station to the factory through this quiet neighborhood let us appreciate the choice of the location, surely much more friendly than the city center or some industrial zone. By the way, the company changed its location several years ago, after Mr Kondo's passing so it is not the same you might have read about in reports from several years ago.
On our way we passed by a nice, small temple that, as we were told, is “watching over” Kondo's headquarters and team's well-being. Despite all the excitement and anticipation we took our time to get a closer look at it (it might be a shrine, though – sorry, but the difference between these two still eludes me despite Masaki-San's efforts to explain it to me). Even with this small delay we finally arrived at THE door around 10 a.m. as we planned.
A beautiful temple near Kondo HQ
I know that not everybody loves Kondo products as much as I do, but try to imagine yourself in front of the door leading to the company that you appreciate, admire most. Do that and you might start to feel the way I did at this very moment – excited but not really sure what awaits me inside. The present location of the factory is quite inconspicuous – I guess many people could pass right next to it without realizing that it is the place where true audio magic happens.
As mentioned before, it is a residential area and the facilities occupy the ground floor of a regular apartment building. Writing on the glass door says: “Audio Note” and there is a not so big plaque with the famous logo and the name of the company in Japanese next to it. And that's it – nothing fancy, nothing that would scream out loud: this is THE place where some of THE BEST tube amplifiers in the world are made! I guess that would be against Japanese nature in general, and surely against Masaki-San's in particular. As I'd met him before a few times I knew already that he is a modest, humble man despite all that he has already achieved running this company.
Since we talked about the company with Masaki-San few times before I knew it was not a big firm. It actually employs less than 10 people. And yet the first thing that came to my mind after crossing the door was: wow! the place is smaller than I'd expected. Later, after the tour, I realized that the space was absolutely sufficient and there was no reason for additional square meters (as you might imagine probably quite pricey in Tokyo), but at first this disproportion between great things this company has achieved that took Kondo to the top of the audio world and the size of the team and this space was simply astonishing. That's amazing what a small, dedicated, passionate team of highly skilled and driven people is able to achieve. No matter what's your opinion about Kondo products you have to admit that it is one of the most recognizable audio brands in the audiophile world.
It looked so different from any other factory I'd visited before. It's basically one large (well, not so large) open space plus a separate listening/burning-in/testing room. All people working there wear the same blue uniforms – I remember reading about it in the Factory Tour coverage from several years ago when the company was run by its founder, Kondo-San and that obviously hasn't changed. All of them work together including the boss, Masaki-San and his lovely wife, so it actually feels like a small family company. After spending just two days there it's hard to form a definitive opinion but it surely felt like all these people really liked their jobs an each other. I guess that's a proper “work environment” to design and build audio devices with love and care. No wonder these make their owners so happy (I imagine, based on my personal experience with Souga and Kagura in my listening room).
This is it! We finally arrived!
After the first excitement passed I could take a closer look around. Right at the door there is a small storage area where the items ready for shipment wait for a pickup. On the right there is small social area. On the left side (from the entrance) along large part of the main room there is a storage area with racks full of boxes with parts and components. As any high end company also Audio Note Japan pays attention to even smallest elements and details of their products in order to offer the top quality performance to its customers. As you can see even such small part as screws are custom-made for them. You need to know that Kondo takes pride in making most components for their products in-house, but some, as screws, knobs or chassis are custom-made for them by carefully selected suppliers.
In the middle there is the biggest part – the work area. There are several stations around, some of them specialized, some for general assembly. One of the specialized stations stands out because it is sort of a small, “sealed” area/chamber closed behind thick plastic sheets. That's where the famous Audio Note Japan capacitors are made. It is a manual, painstaking, time-consuming process that requires a very clean environment. There is one person who actually makes them – Ms Naoko Watanuki. I had a chance to see her at work. She puts special cloths on (white apron, hat and gloves), goes inside this chamber and starts with cleaning all key elements and machines and only then she starts building capacitors piece by piece. As I mentioned before, it is mostly a manual job so it requires utmost precision and despite extensive experience it happens that some pieces have to be re-done. It happens now and then when Ms Naoko Watanuki is not happy about the quality of her own work.
That's a unique approach to everything they do in Kondo. They are very proud of what they make and feel responsible for every single piece of a final product. For these to be perfect also each component used inside must be flawless. Some of you might remember times when most companies were named after their founders/chief engineers who actually felt personally responsible for each product they delivered to customers because their name was on them. When watching this small crew work it looked to me that not only Masaki-San, the successor of Kondo-San, but also every employee treated their work in the same very serious, perfectionist way. No wonder these amplifiers, preamplifiers and so on, work flawlessly for many years – they are simply perfectly made.
Another specialist, called by his co-workers Big Brother, Mr Shiro Yoshida is THE man who winds fantastic Kondo's silver transformers. That's another painstaking job that requires utmost accuracy and attention to the smallest details. After all, the transformers are key elements of tube amplifiers and their role in the final performance can not be underestimated. Mr Yoshida has been making them for many years so, as I was said, he could do his job with his eyes shut... Actually, when I watched him doing it he had his eyes wide open, but while making a transformer he simultaneously read an obviously quite old book on... transformers to even further extend his knowledge or maybe to find an even better way to do his job. Yes, that's the guy who most likely knows more on the topic than anybody else, maybe except for a very few individuals around the world. And yet he still feels he could learn something.
Another specialized station included two microscopes which suggests that it is exactly where the Kondo's cartridges are made or some small coils winded. The former are actually made by Masaki-San himself. As you can imagine this job requires an ultimate precision and unlimited patience. Masaki-San told me he makes cartridges in very short series – spending a whole day building them he is able to make only a couple.
As a part of the assembly process comes internal wiring of, for example, amplifiers. To make this easier Kondo uses color-coding for wires and sort of schemes that help them prepare and shape a complete wiring for particular model before it is actually soldered inside chassis.
On the photo below you can see an example – that's the entry level, EL34 amplifier called Overture. Using the scheme person preparing it creates a “grid” of different wires that later goes inside chassis ready to be soldered to specified points.
Obviously there is also a place where ready products, prototypes and designs in development are measured and tested. The beautiful, natural, live-like performance is what Kondo products promise to deliver but to achieve that measurements and testing are necessary too.
Most of the work is done in the middle of the room. All the assembly takes place around these tables. In fact, it is done by almost everybody who works there. As I mentioned before some people are specialists in their areas but even they don't make capacitors or transformers or some other things whole day every day. Once no more of these components are required for the day same people perform different tasks, including assembly of Kondo's amplifiers, preamplifiers, phonostages and so on.
There is a small office space – logistics, accounting, everyday business has to be conducted somewhere too.
After the tour and having a chance to see everyday operation we could finally go into Masaki-San's den. It's mid-size room with some acoustic treatment where one finds most of currently made Kondo models and some older ones too. When we visited the main system included Kagura monaural amplifiers – actually two pairs of them. One that some of you could have seen in Munich during High End Show in 2013 when they were presented in Europe for the first time. They are somewhat different from current version. They feature these green on/off switches and are powered with a single power cable. The other pair, currently manufactured one, and the one I had a great pleasure to review, features different, dare I say, better looking metal switch and is powered with two separate power chords (each amplifier). The latter solution, as Masaki-San told me, was an unexpected discovery. Once they tried it they found out that Kagura simply sounded better when powered with two separate cables.
In this system Kagura drove old B&W Nautilus 801 loudspeakers – an interesting choice if you ask me, but Masaki-San explained that their main job is to clearly present differences between various devices and/or different versions of products under development.
Going into this room is a one of a kind experience for a Kondo fan. Out there, in the main area, there are a lot of products at different assembly stages. Don't get me wrong – it is very interesting and exciting to see them made but at this point, at least for me, they are all just... objects, devices, machines being made. Once you enter the listening room you suddenly face racks full of finished products, that are about to offer you a remarkable musical experience. They are not just objects anymore, they become means to a musical nirvana. So even before the system starts to play music you might find yourself just drooling and greedily feeding your eyes with this wonder view of so many remarkable pieces of equipment gathered in one place. If I were to imagine an audio heaven – that would be it! OK, maybe rather with BiYura than B&W loudspeakers but still.
I've mentioned already the current top-of-the-line Kagura – an amplifier designed from the scratch by Masaki-San. It took me a while but I also found my personal favorite, the amazing 2A3 Souga.
Of course the amplifier that actually made Kondo famous, On Gaku was also there.
Actually you won't find Ginga in current Kondo's range but of course a huge fan of analogue sound, Masaki-San uses one in his system with Kondo-SME tonearm, silver wiring and fantastic IO-M cartridge.
During two days I spend in Kondo's factory we had a few listening sessions too. Not only with the stunning Kagura amplifiers, but also with the entry level Overture PM2. The former sounded as expected – absolutely astonishing confirming everything I described in my review (see HERE) and maybe even more due to a complete (apart for speakers) Kondo system. The refinement, naturalness and palpability of this sound was beyond incredible. The Overture on the other hand surprised me. Yes, I knew it would be impossible for Audio Note Japan to release a product that didn't offer an extraordinary performance. And yet I never expected they managed to push the EL34 pentodes' way beyond anything, based on my experience, I thought would be even remotely possible for these particular tubes. It proved that what really matters is a whole design, all the components used for it plus knowledge and experience – something Kondo guys have in excess. Power tubes are but just one element of this puzzle. So let me just say that Overture offered a true Kondo sound too! Maybe not as refined as On Gaku, Souga or Kagura, but still simply amazing. If you love Kondo sound but can't afford one of these three top amps you should listen to Overture – despite much lower price (although hardly “low” one) it offers a wonderful performance you shall appreciate.
I can't really fit all the impressions of a visit to the Kondo factory into one short text. There were simply too many. I tried to give you an impression of where and how ones of the best audio components in the world are made by a small group of fantastic, dedicated people led by Mr Masaki Ashizawa. I'd admired the effects of their work before having a chance to review some of their products but seeing how things are actually done made me respect them even more. I would like to thank Masaki-San and the whole Audio Note Japan crew for their hospitality, patience while answering hundreds of questions and the unique opportunity to see with my own eyes where the Kondo magic is created. It was an incredible, one-in-the-lifetime experience for me.
Soon on HiFiKnights.com I will publish some more coverage of this trip including an interview with Masaki-San. You'll be able to find even more information on the company, its history and current operation there.
- This may look like a chaos but there is a method to it – everything has its place there
- Custom-made screws? Yes!
- Custom-made tube sockets in a copper plate
- There in the back – a small sealed-in “chamber” where capacitors are made
- Ceramic core with silver foil wrapped around it
- A capacitor developed for Kagura with ceramic core
- Comparing the new (bigger) and older capacitors – see the difference?
- Making transformers requires lots of experience and proper meticulousness
- To work with such tiny elements as the ones used for cartridges one needs microscopes
- All cartridges are made personally by Masaki-San
- Lots of different color-coded wires; different gauge and material, each with a specific purpose.
- That's wiring scheme for Overture – as you can see different color wires are used in one device
- So, you don't believe it's a silver wire? Let me show you...
- There it is!
- Let's crank the voltage up...
- Measurement equipment (hammer might come handy, too :) )
- Let's see whether this GE-1 phonostage works properly
- That's a device for testing and burning-in cables
- Soldering is one of the very basic skills of every Kondo's employee
- No rush – precision is everything
- After morning's meeting everybody knows their tasks for the day – in the back Mr Koichi Hirano
- This is Mr Katsura Hirokawa, the chief engineer in Kondo who with Masaki-San designs new products
- This young man, Mr Hiromichi Kume, is Masaki's apprentice – who knows, one day he might run Kondo
- Fine-polishing is sometimes necessary
- Work is important but so is learning that allows one to do a better job
- I'd be happy too, working in such an incredible place, too
- Day is almost over – job well done, products ready for testing
- Yes, if you write to Masaki-San that's where he reads and answers it.
- Of course Maestro Toscanini is there, too. After all he's one of the reasons why Kondo-San started this company
- Legacy is important for Audio Note Japan – hence Mr Toscanini and Kondo's History on office's walls
- Kondo-San is also always there
- I might choose different speakers but that's surely one-of-a-kind, dream setup!
- Yes, I'm not the only one who appreciates Kondo products
- And some more well-deserved awards
- The one and only BiYura - Kondo's own loudspeakers sadly not offered any more
- Wouldn't you drool over THAT?!
- My precioussssss....
- The legendary On Gaku -211 based integrated amplifier – one of the all-time best!
- The legendary On Gaku -211 based integrated amplifier – one of the all-time best!
- A real beauty, isn't she?
- A real beauty, isn't she?
- Two fantastic preamplifiers – G-70 and the top-of-the-line G-1000
- Two fantastic preamplifiers – G-70 and the top-of-the-line G-1000
- The entry-level GE-1 phonostage
- Wonderful KSL-M7 phono
- The latest GE-10 phono presented in Munich in 2016 but still under development
- Masaki-San has every reason to be proud