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Power amplifier



Manufacturer: Audio Note Co., LTD.
Price: 160 000 EUR (+VAT)

242 Shimohirama, Saiwai-ku
Kawasaki, Kanagawa 212-0053 Japan


Provided courtesy of: Szemis Audio Konsultant


've been tube fan for a long time now, from the moment first (quite inexpensive in fact) SET landed in my room and took me for unforgettable musical adventure. Don't get me wrong – there are a lot of high quality solid-state devices offering great performance – I'm not an enemy of solid-state. My (personal) point is that whenever I want not only to enjoy but also to experience music, to live it (which in my opinion is the whole point of our audiophile hobby) I choose a “tube” system to do that for me. It is my personal choice based on my experience, expectations and I am fully aware that it means (as any other choice would) a certain compromise.

In the beginning I listened mostly to relatively inexpensive tube amplifiers made in Poland (Amplifon, Delta), but I also had a 300B amplifier from Ukraine (Abraxas). It was only later that I had a chance to listen to products of some well known brands, but even before that happened I searched information on the Internet and one of the names that stood out was a Japanese company called Kondo. I remember that my first encounter with this name was on some (probably American) audio forum, where some owner of one of their devices described his experience with it in such a manner that Kondo became a synonym of a “tube nirvana” for me. After that I searched the web intensively looking for any and every piece of information about this brand. Please take into consideration that since it was several years ago there was much less information available than it is today. At some point I came across some interviews with Kondo-san, and I found out that what drove him was a distinct memory of a concert he'd attended as teenager of classical music, that was conducted by the great ArturoToscanini. The ultimate goal of Mr Kondo was to achieve a level of sound reproduction that would allow him to relieve this amazing, unforgettable experience. Since I always loved live music, including classical one, this philosophy was something I could definitely identify myself with.

Ultimately every person who attends great concerts would love to have a chance for reliving this sort of transcendent experience at his home at any time. So when I found out that this was exactly what this Japanese designer wanted to achieve – to have a natural (or as natural as possible) sound of orchestra at home, and, what also was important to me, he claimed that the way to achieve that was via usage of tube devices – I knew I would most likely love his creations. Obviously it was a purely “platonic” love, so to speak. Sure, man should set ambitious goals for himself in life but even though it was hard to imagine that some day I might be able to afford to buy some Kondo products. To be honest – at that time I didn't even think that some day I would listen to some of these devices at my home. And yet – here we go, a second test of Kondo amplifier that I can conduct in my room...

In April 2013 (what a memorable date for me!) I had a chance to review a 2A3 SET called Souga and that was THE moment when one of my dreams came true. That test lasted few days and left unforgettable memories. It was something I might one day tell my grand kids about. Well, most likely they will treat me like an old full as at the time they will be used to listening to heavily compressed music played directly from a cloud via chips implanted in their brains, but I won't mind telling them anyway. Souga offered a level of intimacy between me and my favorite music as none other amplifier had ever before. It was not only about listening to the music but experiencing it, living it, it delivered an emotional connection with music that was so intense that it could only be compared to emotions one experiences during live event. Sure it still wasn't a live event – that is simply impossible no matter how much money you spend on a system, but it was as close to it as it gets. The conclusion from that review was simple – should I ever have 50 kEUR to spare Souga would be mine. Having Souga was like having a Piece of ART at home, or not just a piece but a MASTERPIECE. People pay millions to have a painting or sculpture to look at. Souga offered so much more! Time with Souga passed very quickly which was really sad also because I thought it would be the only chance to listen to any Audio Note Japan product at my home.

A year passed by. After High End 2014 show in Munich, where – by the way – I had a chance to meet few people associated with Kondo (not those who design and build devices though, as they weren't there this year), Mr Wojtek Szemis called me with an information that there was a chance he could have Kondo's flagship monoblocks Kagura brought to Poland. After that news he asked whether, in case he succeeded, I would be interested in listening and possibly reviewing them. Obviously that was a rhetorical question... Kagura wasn't a totally new product for me. In 2014 they were only displayed in Munich (Kondo did not exhibit themselves, it was a British distributor who chose to use Gaku-On with top Living Voice speakers), but a year before prototypes were a part of a complete Kondo system. How did that sound like? Let me quote myself from Souga's review (no, it's not my megalomania kicking in :) ):

Let me add a small addendum to this text – I wrote it after my visit to High End Show in Munich. As you can probably imagine after reading this text, once I got to Munich I had to find Kondo's room there and to spend quite a lot of time in there. In fact this was a room I spent most time in during three days of Show, I came back many times and sat there for long, long minutes. The (almost) complete Kondo system consisted of new Kondo Biyura loudspeakers (the ones that didn't make it to Warsaw AudioShow), driven by new monoblocks with twin 211 in PSE, called Kagura, that probably will be placed above Gakuon model in company's portfolio (or maybe replace it?). There were two source – an analogue one - Kondo Ginga turntable, and a digital one with Kondo DAC and Esoteric transport. Of course there was also a M1000 mkII preamplifier and silver cables. The Kondo crew used mostly jazz and classical music for presentations, mostly selected older recordings, but some contemporary too. And regardless of how old the recording was, or what medium was used system gave me the same thrill as Souga in my system did. Obviously the general circumstances during show are always far from optimal, but still each time I sat in this room I forgot immediately about the noise coming from outside, all that mattered was pure music. In fact once or twice I really lost a track of time because of extraordinary selection of music chosen by Kondo guys. This might not have been an audiophile's dreamed system, maybe not the most versatile one, but surely every true music lover (who often is not the same person as audiophile) must have appreciated absolutely unique feature of this system – the way it connected listener with the very essence of the music and how it allowed him to experience the most thrilling emotions. That's what Kondo did for me, that's all I expect from my dreamed audio system.

Long story short – I loved it! At least I loved the sound of this system, because when it came to aesthetics of Kagura I had some reservations. Then they sported really ugly green on/off switches placed on the front. An amplifier was beautiful but this switch spoiled the whole concept, in my eyes of course. It seems I wasn't the only one to think that as the present version sports a very nice, fitting the whole design on/off switch. It's a beauty now.

KONDO in „High Fidelity”
  • REVIEW: Kondo SOUGA – power amplifier, see HERE

  • Recordings used during test (a selection):

    • Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington, The great summit, Roulette Jazz 7243 5 24548 2 2, CD/FLAC.
    • The Ray Brown Trio, Soular energy, Pure Audiophile PA-002 (2), LP.
    • Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-45003, 180 g LP.
    • Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain, Columbia PC8271, LP.
    • Lou Donaldson, LD+3, Blue Note MMBST-84012, LP.
    • Arne Domnerus, Jazz at the Pawnshop, Proprius ATR 003, LP.
    • Keith Jarret, The Koeln Concert, ECM 1064/65 ST, LP.
    • Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington, The Stockholm Concert 1966, Pablo Live 2308-242, LP.
    • Kate Bush, The sensual world, Audio Fidelity AFZLP 082, LP.
    • Bobo Stenson Trio, Indicum, ECM B008U0FJ9Y, FLAC.
    • V.A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, Harmonia Mundi HMC 901818.20, CD/FLAC.
    • Tomasz Stańko Quartet, Suspended night, ECM 1868, CD/FLAC.
    • Etta James, Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, Blues in the Night, Vol.1: The Early Show, Fantasy B000000XDW, CD/FLAC.
    • Kari Bremnes, Desemberbarn, FXCD 247 CD/FLAC.
    Japanese issues available at

    Kaguras are big and heavy. That is sort of obvious when it comes to powerful tube monoblocks but I have to mention that to give credit to Mr Wojtek and people who helped him to get these monsters up here to my apartment. Size and, to some point, also a weight of these amplifiers require special stands to put them on as most racks won't be able to accommodate Japanese amps. As I didn't really have anything I could put Kaguras on I asked very last minute Mr Bartosz from Audiophilar, if he could help me out. Despite such a short notice he came up with two beautiful granite stands with adjustable feet that were big enough to accommodate reviewed monoblocks. Thanks to him we didn't have to put them on the floor and instead these two beauties could sit (comfortably :) ) on two equally elegant stands.

    Just as any Kondo product I'd ever seen also new flagship amplifiers look amazingly well in their simplicity. It didn't take much to notice that every little detail was a part of a greater idea of how extremely expensive device should look like. In fact Kondo's product are something more than just devices reproducing music, these are pieces of art so a customer who decides to buy them expects a look that says: this is one of the best and most beautiful amplifiers money can buy, and he gets just that. The copper top cover that holds tube sockets looks simply amazing. This material was chosen not only for its original color, but also for its shielding properties – top cover shields tubes from electronics working underneath. The casing has a rectangular shape with front and back being shorter sides.

    Tubes (accept for rectifiers) are placed in front with transformers covers, six of them to be exact, behind. The above mentioned rectifiers, four of GZ34, sit at the back, behind one of the transformers. Kaguras use two 211 triodes per channel in Parallel Single Ended setup which allows them to deliver 50 W per channel. That's enough power to drive most loudspeakers available on the market, not just the high-efficiency ones.
    Signal tubes' set per channel comprises of one 12AU7 and two 6SN7. Each monoblock has to be powered up with two power cords (main and heater). Manufacturer delivered Kaguras for tests with six power cables and two powerstrips. Kondo's Silver power cables were terminated with American standard plugs, so in fact I was able to use four of them to connect monoblocks (each with separate) power strips but to connect these two with my wall electric outlets I had to use my own copper PCs.

    Mr Wojtek delivered also Kondo's silver IC and speaker cables, and KSL-M77 preamplifier (Kondo is still working on their new flag preamplifier that should be a perfect match for Kaguras, it will be called G-1000, but it wasn't ready yet during this test). For first three days amplifiers worked with standard tubes and later distributor brought some high-value NOS tubes from his collection and we replaced standard signal and rectifier tubes with these.

    Let's start with my impressions from listening sessions with standard tubes. Just as most (if not all) SET amplifiers also Kaguras needed several minutes to warm up before they offered optimal performance. I did mention that already when reviewing Souga but I need to do that again – I simply wasn't able to ensure an accompanying system of an equal or higher class than Kaguras. I was fully aware of that and so was the Audio Note Japan's distributor, Mr Wojtek Szemis.

    And yet, when the system was set up, turned on and we started to play the first record (on Zontek turntable, that I reviewed recently) it seemed that nobody present in a room really cared about searching for “weakest links” in this system. Kondo was doing it's magic from the very first second. It was, on one hand, the same sort of magic that Souga had delivered before, on the other hand it was different but equally convincing, equally enchanting. It was the same when it came to the effect it had on listeners – an absolute surrender to the music flow. Kaguras had the same ability of captivating listeners' attention from the very first sound right until the very last note – it was not really a choice, I felt compelled not to lose a single second of this outstanding performance.

    That these two amplifiers had in common. But on the other hand sound wasn't the same as I remembered it from my sessions with Souga. With standard tubes Kaguras sounded bit brighter and at the same time I could feel much bigger power headroom, and even more impressive dynamics. The “brightness” I mentioned wasn't really it. I thought it was rather about more linear sound presentation and bit less of the sweetness Souga delivered. Souga presented amazingly rich, sweet midrange and lower and mid-treble and these elements attracted listener's attention. Treble was vibrant, lively, rich, but also quite sweet (but not syrupy!). Here treble seemed better extended while also being rich up to the very top end. That delivered stunning cymbal performance on Bobo Stenson's Trio Indicum, as they were very distinct, powerful sounding, vibrant and lively, and, which was very important, the differentiation was amazing. As the treble was less sweet it sounded bit sharper, even more lively and that gave all cymbals and other metal percussion instruments a very convincing, true tone.

    I was equally impressed with realism of presentation of brass instruments like trumpets for example. Whether it was Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, or more recent recording of Tomasz Stańko, it seemed to hypnotize listeners with how smooth or how harsh could this instrument sound depending on requirement of the moment. Outstanding resolution, also on micro level, allowed me to enjoy every single, tiny element of masters' play– every blow, every breathe, every movement of an instrument getting closer to or further from the microphone – it was all there, right in front of me. Sure, one doesn't need these elements to still enjoy the music, but once these elements are there one can finally appreciate a new, surprising but welcomed level of realism.

    I was simply impossible not to notice how well Kaguras differentiated recordings, how different were the ones from Louis' era, from these by Miles, and again from these recorded recently by Mr Tomasz. The way Kaguras presented both timbre and texture of instruments, how they rendered 3D images on a large, nicely layered soundstage brought every recording to life, especially when I applied an almost concert-like sound pressure. Having highly sensitive speakers I was able to enjoy also low volume level listening a lot, but it was playing, especially live albums, at almost concert volume level that introduced a new, astounding level of realism. No matter how loud I played sound was very pure with no signs of compression nor distortion, and when the sound level was close to live-like I could feel shivers going down my spine as I felt like I witnessed my favorite musicians playing in front of me, almost within a grasp. It was sort of breathtaking experience, so involving that it happened more then once that I loudly applauded after some particular solos, piece, of performance.

    Kaguras draw an amazingly realistic three-dimensional picture with musicians and their instruments having natural size and weight, with spaces between them also being clearly shown and realistic and with lots of air filling space between them. Music delivered by Kondo was so lively that I could never really sit still in my chair – I had to participate rocking back and forth, tapping out the rhythm or singing along. Listening to the music with Kaguras in my system was nothing short of addictive – there was no way to just do something else when the system was on. Once it was on there was only the music that I was directly connected with and nothing else mattered...

    Let's get back to how these amplifiers differentiated recordings. For me the older ones sounded more “analogue”. They sounded bit more round, with focus on tonality and texture rather then transparency or details. Newer productions still delivered proper tonality, timbre and texture but as they sounded “clearer”, like for example recent ECM recordings, the focus seemed shifted towards more transparent, more detailed sound. Regardless of how old the recording was, as long as it was a (technically) good one it offered amazing coherence, smoothness and liquidity. Kaguras were able effortlessly to present in a very natural way both the 60 years old recordings and those made just a few months ago. It was never about the recording as such, about how good of a job sound engineers did (although it was also clear) but about music itself, about how brilliant musicians played it, about how real it sounded, how spacious, how open it was and how amazingly convincing this presentation was placing musicians in my room just few meters away from me sharing true emotions that simply felt real.


    After a few days of listening Mr Wojtek visited me again these time bringing a box of NOS tubes with. We replaced standard signal and rectifier tubes with NOS ones recommended by distributor, most of which remembered Miles Davis' times, and some maybe even Louis Armstrong ones. There was no replacement for power tubes, 211 triodes, but in this case all one could do was to try some other brands manufactured nowadays with no guaranty that any of them would actually be better sounding than the ones chosen and branded by Kondo. As a tube fan I witnessed many times how much influence on performance signal tubes could have but still each time I do tube-rolling in some new amplifier I tend to be amazed again by the extent of the changes introduced by high quality NOS tubes.

    What I heard were not just some subtle, hard to recognize changes but rather surprisingly significant ones. First of all sound became more like what I remembered from Souga test – bit sweeter and warmer. Secondly, although I'd had no idea before that these element could get even better, the insight into deeper layers of music, into micro details, was even better as well as the slightest changes in dynamics and tonality that became even clearer now. The whole presentation seemed more relaxed, unforced and more sophisticated. It was like suddenly sound became richer because thousands of tiny little things emerged from the background making sound presentation even more realistic. Sound seemed even more open, filled with air surrounding instruments, the decay phase lasted longer, and in live recordings room's acoustics started to play even bigger role.

    These things I noticed first made Kaguras more forgiving for these not that perfect recordings. Listening to some recordings with lots of sibilants wasn't that nice with stock tubes, but with NOS ones they sounded more natural. I mean sibilants were still there but they were presented in more “live-like” way. I don't recall sibilants ever bothering me during live concert – they are a natural element of some voices and when heard in nature they are never really unpleasant. So in this sense Kondo now presented them in an even more natural way.
    I loved vocal recordings already with stock tubes but after the change for NOS ones I was sitting in my armchair, listening and wondering if listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Kari Bremnes and others could possibly ever be more enjoyable, more intimate, more live-like experience. It was not just about how well Kaguras conveyed timbre and texture of each voice, but also about how true were the emotions I felt, how easy it was to figure out, regardless of whether I understood the lyrics or not, what mood was singer in, what sort of emotions she was trying to express. I could clearly “see” every deeper breath, every sight, every smile and every gesture singer made as if she stood right in front of me.

    Replacing stock signal tubes, and most likely also rectifiers (at least that's what my experience with other SETs told me) resulted also in improvements in dynamics, bass extension and how deep it went. That allowed one of my favorite instruments, double bass, to sound fuller, richer, with more “wood” in sound. Also grand piano sounded more “seriously” now, meaning: like a big instrument it really was.

    Kaguras were able to deliver even more information than details like musicians technique, like instruments strings and body, they showed also the air vibrating around instrument and carrying these vibrations towards listener's ears. There are some elements of the sound that are really hard to describe – one could say that when listening to any instrument with Kaguras in the system one could see or feel sort of aura surrounding it, very much like the one that could be “seen” during live performance. It is the vibrating air loaded with energy emitted by each instrument with each string's pluck, each knock on instruments body, each hand movement along fingerboard and so on, but it is also about interactions between this energies coming from different instruments, and about emotions that each musician puts into his play. Souga had been able to deliver all that in a fabulous fashion and now Kaguras, especially after tube rolling, showed this aspect of music in equally incredible way. This little something leaves listener only two options – he can either react to what he hears in a very emotional, lively way, or sit in complete silence, motionless, perfectly focused on music. Which one is it depends solely on what sort of music one is listening to.

    All it takes is a minimum level of sensitivity (at least I believe it does) to appreciate how close do Kaguras come to the ultimate purpose of any audio system, to perfect reproduction of live music. Even though other elements of my systems were not able to keep up completely with Kondo's performance, the system as a whole still delivered amazing performance offering absolutely unique interaction with music, offering a level of enjoyment of music that I could compare only to Souga and to live music I knew from concert halls. To be honest none top-high-end system I ever had a chance to listen to gave me the same level of musical satisfaction. I warned you at the very beginning that this time I also got extremely exulted – I couldn't help it when listening and then writing about a device delivering this level and sort of musical performance. I believe that Kaguras should be called what they really are – genuine masterpieces. Obviously it is a piece of art only very few, very rich people can afford, but hey, if you ask me – buying Kaguras makes much more sense to me then spending millions on a painting, or sculpture. Kondo amplifiers offer any music lover much more joy and emotions then any other piece of art would – again, that's my opinion. So “...if I were a rich man...” I'd buy Kondo at once to enjoy this absolutely unique musical experience any time I wanted to – that would be worth any and every money!


    What is there to write after man experiences something that can't really be described with words? There are things, like listening to Kondo, that can be described with so many beautiful words and yet only a person who experiences Kondo's performance personally will really understand what these Japanese amplifiers have to offer. I can tell you that Kaguras are one of a kind. I can tell you that they, same as Souga before, offered me a level of emotions, of intimate contact with music that is normally reserved for live performance only. Yes, it came THAT close! Never before and never since music in my room sounded, or felt so real. This very particular experience set for me a new reference level of music reproduction that I would use from this point forward to compare all other amplifiers to. All that is true, but these are just words that can't truly describe this particular experience.
    This review is different than any other and I simply don't see any point in trying to describe what Kaguras have to offer with a regular vocabulary, in a “regular” way I use for other devices. What these ingenious amplifiers have to offer to (above all) classic and acoustic music fans is so special, so complete, so accurate that trying to describe it in the same way as other devices would be useless. I guess that fans of some heavy music could find other amplifier that would fit their needs better. But Kaguras paired with proper speakers (not necessarily high-sensitive ones, but rather not extremely difficult to drive ones) will offer spectacular, large scale, dynamic presentation even when playing a grand symphonic orchestra.

    I realize that this is almost „mission impossible”, but if you want to find out how close to live performance an amplifier can come try really hard to listen to Kaguras. No matter how much effort will it cost you I can assure it will be worth it. You will witness what can be achieved in regard to sound reproduction if a proper combination of knowledge, experience and passion is put in practice like Kondo's crew did. It happened to many brands that once their creators were gone legend died with them. It seems that when it comes to Audio Note Japan, Kondo-san found worthy successors who carry Kondo's legend on. They give a very rare opportunity to a very few (let's be honest – rich one) lucky people who can enjoy a (almost) live music in their listening rooms thanks to pieces of art created in Kondo's workshop. Envy is not a very nice emotion one usually should share with others, but yes, I'm honest enough to admit that I envy those very few lucky Kondo owners.

    Kondo Kaguras are monaural Parallel Single Ended tube amplifiers using 211 triodes as power tubes. This is, at present, a flagship model of this legendary Japanese manufacturer. Prototypes were presented during HighEnd Show in Munich in 2013 an, as far as I know, since then only some small, cosmetic changes were introduced to the final product.

    Kagura, as most tube monaural amplifiers is a large device. The rectangular casing's width is not that impressive with its 32 cm but a depth of 56 cm is quite impressive. Every piece of this amplifier, unpacked, weight 62kg – that should give already an idea how big of a monster Kagura is.
    Fit & finish is simply perfect, as it was to be expected. The black (I think) thick front plate originally shaped hold a single silver push-button (on/off switch) and a red LED plus company's logo and model's name. Side and back panels are made of the same metal in the same color as front. The top cover is made of copper which gives Kagura original, beautiful look, but the reason for choosing copper were its shielding properties. In the front manufacturer installed signal and power tubes' sockets, behind there are six black “cups” each holding (and shielding) a transformer inside, and behind one of these cups there is a space for four rectifier tubes.

    The back panel sports a single RCA input, Kondo's own speaker bindings, and two IEC inlets – each amplifier needs to be connected with two power cables, as the heater requires a separate one. Manufacturer delivered monoblocks together with own silver power cables and power strips. Amplifier is equipped with black, metal covers for tubes. These actually look pretty nice.

    Considering Kaguras weight and price we didn't dare to use any tools to open them up to check inside. All information about the design come straight from manufacturer's webpage. Circuit design is configured with 12AU7 and 6SN7 x2 for amplification and 6SN7 x2 (cathode follower) for the driver stage to powerfully drive the large-scaled transmitter 211 power tubes. These circuits are independently powered by grand-scale, low ripple and low impedance power supply sections supporting high purity amplification stages. There are total of 3 power supply transformers that are employed; B power supply transformers above the rear section of the chassis, and amplifying heater transformers and rectifier heater transformers inside the chassis. Further, 4 choke coils are installed to form 3 system power supply circuits with 4 different voltages +/-200V, +450V, and +950V. Powerful and high grade power supply section with oil capacitors rated at 1000V withstand voltage, and newly developed cut-core type choke coils. Between amplification stages Kondo employed newly developed electrode oscillation proof silver foil capacitors contributing to the improvement of sound density.
    Instead of conventionally used EI core choke coil, Kondo developed cut-core type anew for drastic improvement in sound quality natural and strain-free by having removed unpleasant signals.

    Kagura’s pure silver coiled output transformer handles output impedance of 4, 8 and 16Ω. By selecting positions at the speaker impedance switch and change relevant jumper plates, speaker impedance switch-over is done with NFB level always set to our designed level –3dB.

    Specifications (according to manufacturer):

    Product: 211 Parallel Single Ended monaural amplifier
    Rated power: 50 W @ 1 kHz, 5% THD
    Frequency response: 8 Hz – 40 kHz (+0 dB, -3 dB @ 1 W)
    Input/impedance: 1 PC RCA (unbalanced)/ 50 kΩ
    Output: 4, 8, 16 Ω (switchable by internal jumper plate)
    Noise: less than 0,5 mV
    Tube set: 211x2; 6SN7x2, 12AU7x1; GZ34x4
    Power consumption: 270 W
    Dimensions: 320 x 370 x 558 mm
    Weight: 62 kg