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Manufacturer: AUDIO NOTE Co., Ltd.
Price (when reviewed): 75 000 euro

Contact: 3-9-7 Hisamoto, Takatsu, Kawasaki,
Kanagawa 213-0011 ⸜ JAPAN


Provided for test by: NAUTILUS Dystrybucja


Images by Marek Dyba

No 241

June 1, 2024

Owned by the AUDIO NOTE JAPAN, KONDO brand (named after its founder) is a manufacturer offering exclusive tube amplifiers and line and phono preamplifiers, as well as phono cartridges and cables, considered by many to be among the best. This time, we had a chance to test the latest flagship GE-10i phono preamplifier.

AS ANY MUSIC LOVER, and I mean both, music played live, but also replayed using a home audio system, I have my sonic preferences. They took years to emerge and take root, and later, to some, though not very large, degree, they have kept evolving. Nevertheless, a few of my preferences have remained constant. When, years ago, I heard for the very first time what a good tube amplifier sounded like, and later a particular variation of it, a 300B SET, I knew it was „my sound", it was it! The same was true of horn speakers, which, like any other type, have their advantages and disadvantages, but the former, at least for me, outweigh the latter significantly, and that is why they have been among my favorites for years.

Unchanged, however, is my love for the black record, which began in early childhood with so-called "sound postcards". Yes, tape can sound just as good, or even better sometimes, but it’s unlikely that I will ever own a reel-to-reel tape recorder, so vinyl is and will probably remain my favorite. That's why, as a reviewer, I so eagerly jump at every chance to review an interesting phono cartridge, phono preamplifier, or turntable. Encounters with the best products of this type from all over the world are what, next to SETs and horns, I enjoy the most and what excites me the most.

This time, the brand's new distributor in Poland, the Cracow-based Nautilus Dystrybucja, delivered a (relatively) new creation by Mr. MASAKI ASHIZAWA, head and chief designer of the Japanese company Kondo. As some of you may remember, this is a brand whose several products I had the opportunity to test. My adventure began with a high "C", so to speak, that is with the Souga amplifier, whose exalted review you can read → HERE.

It's been several years since then, and I've auditioned dozens of other excellent designs, and yet it still is my personal number one among all the amplifiers that have ever played at my place. Later, I also reviewed for the "High Fidelity" readers the top-of-the-line Kagura monoblocks and the entry-level Overture integrated amplifier (tests, respectively, → HERE and → HERE).

A separate chapter of my adventures with Kondo was an unforgettable trip to Japan and a visit to the company's headquarters at that time (a report on that can be found → HERE), as well as two tests of phono cartridges, IO-M and the newer (de facto 6th generation) version IO-X (tests, respectively, → HERE ˻ PL ˺ and → HERE. Both cartridges with an coil impedance of 1 ohm were accompanied by the Kondo’s top matching, or so-called step-up, transformer with silver wiring, designated SFz.

To complete the set, although, only as a „supportive” component, so to speak, I also used a phono preamplifier of this brand, the KSL-M7. There is no denying that it was the company's set cartridge → step-up → phono preamplifier that offered both the first and second time the best, even phenomenal results. The fact that both of these combinations offered top class performance, remarkably resolving and refined, should be obvious.

Shortly about the step-up

THE AFOREMENTIONED Kondo KSL-M7 PHONO PREAMPLIFIER, as befits a "truly" Japanese product, supported moving magnet (MM) cartridges only, and therefore, to use it with an MC cartridge I needed a step-up transformer.

Nowadays, most, even top, brands from around the world offer phono preamplifiers dedicated to moving coil cartridges (MC), as they are the ones that are generally considered more sophisticated than MM cartridges. In many cases, manufacturers provide support for MC cartridges by building a matching transformer (sometimes more than one) into the their unit, as our home-grown Destination Audio does, and of which the flagship example is probably the Stealhead from American company Manley.

Some, such as another Polish manufacturer, LampizatOr, also install matching transformers inside the preamplifier allowing direct cooperation with MC cartridges, while at the same time, however, making sure that the MM input is also top-notch so that the most demanding users can use external step-ups. Indeed, there are companies that offer such transformers for cartridges of certain impedance ranges, and sometimes cartridge manufacturers, such as → MURASAKINO, offer step-ups dedicated to a specific cartridge (which does not prevent users from using them with other pickups as long as as they are of similar parameters).

Still, many companies from the Land of the Rising Sun stick to the more traditional, more specialized approach, which is to offer a high-end MM preamplifier and an external step-up dedicated to MC cartridges of a specific impedance (usually a certain, not too large, range). When Kondo introduced the new top phono preamplifier a few years ago, labeled GE-10, in this regard, they didn't change anything (the GE-10i under test is the same device, only that it is intended for the international market - "i" comes from "international"). It's still a preamplifier supporting directly only MM cartridges, and using it with MC cartridges requires a matching transformer. The recommended one is, of course, the SFz model mentioned earlier and used by me earlier in Kondo cartridges tests. So when testing the GE-10i, there was no other choice - the manufacturer's recommended „partner” had to be used again.


AS THE MANUFACTURER WRITES EXPLAINES ON ITS WEBSITE, GE-10i is a flagship device intended to work in tandem with the brand's top line preamplifier, i.e. the G-1000 model. "G" in the company's nomenclature stands for preamplifier, "E" comes from the word "equalization", hence the "GE" designation suggests that this is a preamplifier for signal equalization, in a word an RIAA phono preamplifier.

Kondo's top-of-the-line phono preamplifier, the GE-10i, is designed, as I mentioned, for direct use with MM cartridges. This unit, like the GE-7i located in the range below this model, is a two-box design. While the main unit is of similar size, the power supply occupying the second chassis that is part of the GE-10i is significantly larger and heavier than in the case of GE-7i. Yes, following the example of many other top solutions, the power supply in the tested model is completely isolated from the RIAA equalization circuit and from the cartridge's delicate signal amplification.

From the outside, the chassis of the two GE-10i boxes are virtually identical, as both have been made and finished with the brand's usual utmost care, attention to detail and class, and are also the same size. In total, both components weigh impressive 35 kg! Those familiar with the brand's other products will recognize it in the GE-10i immediately, which of course is a deliberate effort. The devices are supposed to fit together, because the default assumption is that the customer will sooner or later assemble a complete Kondo system.

The thick aluminum silver fronts, which seem to consist of three gently concave parts, in both cases feature a large power button accompanied by a red LED indicator in addition to the elegant logo and model name. This solution is interesting in that, since the main device (with signal amplification and equalization circuits) does not have its own power supply and cannot operate without an external power supply, a separate switch seems to be a superfluous element. Users are left to remember the correct sequence of switching on and off both parts of the preamplifier.

It is interesting to note that both housings consist of two halves, top and bottom, and between them, at the joint, a strip of, I assume, copper was used. Whether it is meant to serve a purely decorative function, or whether it is a vibration-dampening element - I don't know. Copper is used for the rear panel, as well as the plate inside the unit, on which all components are mounted. This is a solution known from other Kondo products, a kind of trademark, as Mr. Ashizawa told me during a visit to Tokyo, having a significant impact on the sound quality of the device.

The GE-10i power supply is a tube device using a 6CA4 full-wave rectifier. Without going into the details of the solution, the manufacturer ensures that both the power supply transformer and chokes have been mounted in a way that minimizes vibration. As always with Kondo, none of the components used were left to chance, and each was selected (and the process includes long listening sessions!) for the best possible sound. Hence, for example, as many as three types of decoupling capacitors are used. That is also why, in the power supply section, the latter were separated from the others responsible for suppressing the mains ripple.

The GE-10i power supply is connected to the power outlet with a single AC power cable (via an IEC socket), and you will find the company's ACz-AVOCADO in the box. The power supply section supplies power to the main device using two separate DC power cables, one for the right and one for the left channel. Both are terminated with high-quality screw-on, multi-pin plugs. These cables are also supplied with the unit. Both parts of the GE-10i feature four elegant anti-vibration feet.

On the rear panel of the preamplifier are three pairs of high-end RCA jacks. Two of them are inputs (MM), and the third, located below, is an output. The set of connectors is completed by two ground terminals, and two multi-pin DC power inlets. Additional features include, separate for each channel, output load switches. There are three options to choose from: 100, 50 and 20 kΩ, allowing better matching with the amplifier or preamplifier the GE-10i sends a signal to.

In GE-10i Kondo engineers used CR type RIAA equalization, which, according to Mr. Ashizawa, results in the most natural sound texture. The first stage of the unit is a cascode circuit, and a cathode follower was used after the equalization circuit. The purpose of the circuit designed this way was, as we read in the company materials, "to achieve low output impedance" and "to deliver the most natural sound possible without coloration." The entire circuit was divided into sections, which allowed the designers to shorten the signal paths as much as possible.

The circuit features six tubes, two E88CCs and four 6072s (the latter is used in, I believe, all of the brand's preamplifiers). In Kondo's top-of-the-line phono preamplifier, the manufacturer used large silver capacitors originally developed for the Kagura monoblocks. Other components, too, are of the highest quality, including silver resistors, internal SSW wiring (silver in silk, another Kondo specialty), original electrolytic capacitors and RCA sockets, and, mentioned above, custom power transformers and chokes.

The build and finish quality of the GE-10i are of the highest order. It is simply, though beauty a relative thing, a beautiful, fantastically made device.


HOW WE LISTENED • Kondo GE-10i phono preamplifier replaced a solid-state (Class A) GrandiNote Celio MK IV preamplifier in my reference system. The signal, via a Kondo SFz matching transformer, was supplied to it by my trusted Air Tight PC-3 cartridge mounted on a J.Sikora KV12 Max tonearm sitting on a turntable of the same brand, the Standard Max model.

Signal from the tested phono preamplifier via Bastanis Imperial interconnect traveled to a Circle Labs P300 preamplifier and than via a balanced KBL Sound Himalaya II interconnect to the same brand's M200 power amplifier. This in turn, using Soyaton Benchmark speaker cable, drove GrandiNote MACH4 speakers.

Initially, however, the Kondo GE-10i helped me in another review by supplying a signal to my 300B tube SET, the modified Art Audio Symphony II, which was driving the fantastic Destination Audio NiKA horn speakers - you see, I had a reason to mention these two types of audio components at the beginning of this text. This setup is not the subject of this test, nevertheless the experience also from this part of the listening sessions helped me to evaluate the Japanese preamplifier, which is why I mention it.

I MENTIONED IN MY KONDO CARTRIDGES reviews that it was with the company's step-up and phono preamp that they formed the most perfect possible setup, even if with other preamps they also sounded excellent. After all, all of these components are made in the same place, made by the same people, and the basic assumption is probably that they will all work optimally together.

This time, however, while the step-up was necessary to use any MC-type cartridge, the distributor was just waiting for the cartridges. And they did not arrive in time. To be honest, when I replaced the GrandiNote preamplifier with the Kondo GE-10i during the aforementioned NiKA speaker test, I didn't even for a moment wonder if it would play even better with the company's cartridge. To be clear, I'm not saying that the Air Tight PC-3, while still one of my favorites, is quite as good a cartridge as the IO-X, but the sound I got from it confirmed my conviction that the choice I once made was, among the cartridges I could afford at the time, was the right one.

Some time before the Kondo test, I had the opportunity to test two other brilliant top tube phono preamplifiers from Doshi Audio and Destination Audio. After plugging in the Kondo, it was immediately clear that its overall character was closer to the former. The Destination Audio WE 417A is a fantastic device, but like the other components from this manufacturer it offers a sound that must be described as warm (yet without artificial warming). It is dense, smooth and fabulously natural. At the same time, it does not lack dynamics or energy, but the overall character is "tube-like", in the best sense of the word. Meanwhile, the Doshi Audio and Kondo, although also tube-based, are quite different, because they deliver a more neutral, transparent and precise performance.

Such a sonic characteristic of the GE-10i was a perfect match for the 300B SET and the NiKA horns. Together they created fantastic, highly expressive, immersive musical performances almost regardless of the album or musical genre. The PC-3 cartridge in itself, is a highly precise, resolving pickup, and it’s very effectively reading all the information from the record groove avoiding adding anything from itself.

In the case of the Kondo GE-10i, Mr. Ashizawa, as he did earlier with the Kaguras, or the IO-X cartridge, ensured it delivered a very natural sound, but combined with, or perhaps achieved through, maximum neutrality, transparency and outstanding resolution. These qualities guarantee the transmission of all the information provided by the cartridge without distortion, coloration, without losing any pieces of information or adding anything from itself. This is what an ideal source should be. At least according to one of the many theories about building an "perfect" system.

For all its neutrality, the GE-10i, I must emphasize it and will probably do so more than once, is by no means a cold, clinical sounding device. All the features mentioned so far are merely means to an end, not ends in themselves. For the richness, purity and precision of the information we put in place at the disposal of this preamplifier (ensuring a top quality cartridge) is used to weave an intricate, yet dense, smooth, yet also highly transparent, open and, if the rest of the system allows, brilliantly spacious whole.

I could hear it clearly, for example, when I played MICHEL GODARD's Soyeusement Live In Noirlac, released by Sommelier Du Son. It's a recording of variations on Monteverdi's music played in the old abbey of Noirlac, France. The Kondo phono stage immediately opened a large window in my room to the vast open space of the venue filling it tightly with air. The sound, both of period and contemporary instruments, traveled, it seemed, endlessly bouncing off walls and obstacles, resounding somewhere far, far beyond the walls of my room.

Each of them (instruments) breathed freely, and the Japanese preamp precisely located and described them in three dimensions, with contour, mass and proper sound energy rendering their presence on the one hand as quite close and tangible, and on the other functioning in this vast space. The timbre of each instrument was also rendered extremely convincingly, with Godard's serpent at the forefront, but also vocals were shown in an exceptionally expressive, listener-moving (at least me), fabulously natural way.

With the GE-10i, the concept of combining a jazz trio with a baroque one became something so convincing, obvious and natural that I couldn't help but wonder why such combinations have not been recorded more often. Although this record always sounds great, with the Kondo phono preamplifier, with all its precision, being detailed and so transparent, the feeling of a pure magic of an absolutely unique musical event was overwhelming.

While listening to GE-10i, the latest release from AC Records, MARCIN WĄDOŁOWSKI's Organic Generation album, was delivered. Listening to the album for the first time, I tried to hear in the musician's performance the influences or inspirations of other guitarists. Adam Czerwiński, the founder and owner of the record label, often calls him the successor to Jarek Śmietana and indeed some similarities can be heard on this album (although I find more of them on another album Standards dedicated to, among others, Śmietana). Here, however, the first bars of the first track brought Tadeusz Nalepa to my mind, and later, perhaps through subliminal effect, I heard Jeff Beck as well.

Why am I writing about this and not about the sound as such? Well, because the Kondo GE-10i was excellent at differentiating between tracks, as well as the guitar’s sound, and gave me insight into each track allowing me to make the aforementioned observations. The sound itself, to which I paid a bit more attention when listening to subsequent tracks, was on the one hand somewhat surprising, on the other confirmed the top class of the tested device. For this record offers a rather warm, dense, smooth sound that does not emphasize details, although there is an abundance of those. And that's exactly how this Japanese phono presented it, not brightening anything up, not trying to expose the details that are so well integrated into the whole, but also conveying equally convincingly the energy of the drums and the sonority of the metal cymbals.

The day after attending DŻEM's excellent „birthday” concert in Warsaw with the great Bastek Riedel on vocals, I had to reach for the acoustic album of this band from some 30 years ago, recently released for the first time on vinyl. Judging by the original CD release, the "original" material wasn't of the highest quality, so the whoever was responsible for remastering for the vinyl release should be commended as they did a really good job. It's still not an "audiophile" quality release, but they managed to achieve a sound that is a pleasure to listen to. Kondo GE-10i played this record with high energy and effortlessly, marking some brightening/sharpening of the sound here and there, but not emphasizing them.

Riedel's charismatic voice sounded very good, the saxophone definitely had more breath than I remembered from the CD, and also the guitars, although still a tad too bright, as if shown with a slight advantage of strings over boxes, were presented in a convincing way. My GrandiNote Celio MK IV phono stage, which I could perfectly hear in comparison, added a little weight to the sound making it a little more pleasant, but it was the GE-10i that played it more accurately, it was more true to the recording. At the same time, it showed the whole thing so smoothly and expressively that one could easily forgive the minor weaknesses of the recording and let oneself be swept away by this simple yet heart-grabbing music.

I left a dozen or so albums that I appreciate not only for the music, but also for the highest quality for the final stage of the assessment. They were the ones that showed the full potential of the tested device. Only that the deciding factor for even the wealthiest audiophiles, who can actually afford the Kondo, to add an album to their collection is not only (I hope!) the quality of the recording and pressing, but also the music recorded on them. The one we like is not necessarily always to be found on perfect releases, so just as important as how the latter will be reproduced is whether one can enjoy listening to the less perfect ones. At this stage of my assessment, I was already convinced that while the tested phono stage perfectly differentiated quality of albums I played, it still allowed me to enjoy the music even when playing those less-than-perfect. I still needed to check what the GE-10i would serve me from those albums that I consider to be the best quality-wise among my collection.

The very first bars of CANNONBALL ADDERLAY’S Somethin' Else from a four-disc single-sided Classic Records release, Mobile Fidelity’s PATRICIA BARBER’S Verse, TSUYOSHI YAMAMOTO TRIO's Midnight Sugar in a Cisco reissue, or finally AL DI MEOLA, PACO DE LUCIA and JOHN MCLAUGHLIN's Friday Night In San Francisco in Impex's finest release (all on 45 RPM) left no room for doubt: Kondo GE-10i is one of the handful best phono preamplifiers I've ever listened to. An overwhelming wealth of information with "tones" of the finest details and subtleties included, this extremely precise, coherent, but also effortless, smooth and open way of their presentation, unlimited dynamics on the macro and micro scale, excellent differentiation, all this combined provides the listener with an extraordinary experience.

Although these are such different recordings and each has its own unique character, Kondo effortlessly managed to show the specifics of each of them. From Yamamoto's very powerful, at times almost (!) aggressive piano, to Adderley's typical of the time tightly separated-into-channels playing, to the concert frenzies of three brilliant guitarists and Barber's unique, powerful, dark, full voice.

In each of these cases, and it didn't matter at all whether the recording was a studio or live one, because while my perspective changed, I had the impression of an exceptionally close, direct, even intimate relationship with the performers, who captured my undivided attention from the first note to the last. I can count on the fingers of one hand the devices that played these albums in such a convincing, genuine, fully engaging, even addictive way.


THE EFFECT OF THIS SPECIFIC approach that Masaki-san and other Kondo engineers chose for cartridge signal equalization and amplification embodied in the GE-10i is an absolutely top quality, precise, well-balanced, clean, uncolored, but also rich, natural, smooth sound, which I heard with virtually every well recorded and released album. From those, the Japanese device (with the help of the cartridge and turntable, of course) extracted an overwhelming amount of information and did its job perfectly, adding nothing from itself, losing nothing along the way, and putting it all together in a fabulously coherent, and - as I like to call it - naturally-neutral whole.

When I played some less-than-perfect releases, the tested preamplifier didn't hesitate to point out their flaws, yet it did so, as if out of obligation still allowing me to enjoy the music as such. Thus, this is not a device that forgives or ignores the slip-ups of the recording and mixing engineer or pressing plants. "Do you want top sound?" - It seems to ask - "then give me top quality material, and I'll do my job!"

Is this a disadvantage? Absolutely not! It's the cost, well lower than the actual price, of using the top-of-the-line phono stage. As befits a flagship, the GE-10i delivers phenomenal, true sound, as long as the signal it receives is of the highest quality. For with good records, what flows out of your speakers will still be better than with most other phono preamplifiers regardless of price. What about those poor sounding ones? You will have to put them away and forget about them. I'm sure that after hearing what the Kondo GE-10i does with the good ones, you won't regret getting rid of the poorest ones.

Technical specifications (according to the manufacturer)

Type: phono stage MM
RIAA equalization: ±0.5 dB (30 Hz–20 kHz, excluding LCF)
Gain: 38 dB
Inputs: 2 x RCA
Input impedance: 47 kΩ
Output: 1 x RCA, recommended loading > 20 kΩ
Noise: <1.5 mV
Tubes: E88CC x 2, 6072 x 4, 6CA4 x 2
Power consumption: 46 W
Dimensions: 320 x 160 x 414 mm, power supply 320 x 160 x 414 mm
Weight: 15 kg + power supply: 20 kg

THIS TEST HAS BEEN DESIGNED ACCORDING TO THE GUIDELINES adopted by the Association of International Audiophile Publications, an international audio press association concerned with ethical and professional standards in our industry, of which HIGH FIDELITY is a founding member. More about the association and its constituent titles → HERE.