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Mark Robinson in Japan

Tokyo in the eyes of a non-Japanese guy. Big shops, small boutiques, the most advanced electronic devices and a whole world of vintage stuff – in Tokyo one can find everything…


Japan and Audio

apan is the perfect country to live in if you're into audio. The opportunities I have here to satisfy my quest for the highest possible sound quality seem endless. Tokyo is absolutely saturated (in both the horizontal and vertical planes) with electronic products of all types, and it is quite mind boggling how many choices there are. In electronics department stores, you will literally see endless rows of TVs, cameras or air conditioning units, with hundreds of models to choose from. Tokyo is made up of various boroughs, all having something unique to offer. Shinjuku is mainly a business district, but has some great department stores. It has the busiest train station in the world, and is one of the coolest places to meet.

Shibuya and Harajuku are the fashion capital of Tokyo, where some people have such wacky styles that they could be time travellers. Akihabara is an electronics and manga mecca, with all kinds of entertainment for otaku (nerds to you and me) and Ginza is a high-class district, home to luxury brands like Tiffany & Co and Dior. In terms of music and audio, places of interest can be dotted around the city, separated by a train ride or two, so a little organisation will be needed if you want to visit several in one day. But whether you are interested in CDs and records, hifi components, pro audio, vintage synthesisers, musical instruments or electronic gadgets, Tokyo is ready and waiting.


My thing is headphone audio. I think the first pair of good headphones I got was when I was 15 - a pair of Sennheiser earphones (before they were called IEMs) in about 1990. I thought they were pretty good with my Aiwa 'Walkman'. I then got the fairly-good-even-today Sennheiser HD-445, realised the potential of headphones for high-fidelity sound, and have since evolved to a reference Stax system that I use for all types of audio work - recording, production, analysis and mastering. It is so balanced and refined that I use it for music listening too - and by this I mean full-concentration, lights-off, authentic-loudness, music-listening awesomeness!

I like headphone systems because they take up little room (space is a premium here), don't involve the problems associated with room modes, nodes, or nulls, and have a very intricate, complex sound, with the drivers being so close to the ear. They are also extremely accurate in terms of transient reproduction.

My Stax system, on paper, might not be up there with the most top-of-the-line headphones, but with the correct calibration, this system is on par with, and even surpasses, uncalibrated reference systems like the Stax SR-009, and balanced HD-800. I know, because I have auditioned these systems at various times, and although they sounded amazing, there was always some anomaly that stopped the sound reproduction from being completely 'reference' level - perfectly balanced and presented. In headphones, these anomalies are usually unflat low or high frequencies (sometimes even the best models have wild, 10dB spikes), lack of clarity in the bass, distortion and phase problems, and insufficiently fast transient response, thus rendering drum hits, and anything with well-recorded transients, incorrectly.

Over the years and many customizations, I have smoothed the frequency response to correct for my system's (very few) anomalies, and also to compensate for the natural imbalance of my ears. This is very important because even a small volume difference in the left or right channel, at a given frequency, will make an instrument at that frequency appear to come more from the left or right in the stereo image. If you correct for this imbalance, the result is incredibly accurate imaging, with instruments and other sound events appearing perfectly in their location. It also gives amazing (read: the correct) sense of depth and fidelity to reverbs and delay effects, as they are properly rendered over their location in the stereo image. In addition to EQ, I use an HRTF crossfeed plugin that compensates for the ears' size and dimensions, and renders the audio more as we would hear it coming from in front of us, thus eliminating the common problem of inaccurate headphone presentation (note that this is NOT the same as emulating a pair of speakers).

Especially well-recorded live musical performances can sound eerily real on a top-level, well-calibrated system. Voices will sound as natural as they do coming from a real person singing in front of you. They will have that kind of tangible quality. And contrary to popular belief, realistic presentation should be fairly 'dark'. We almost never hear harsh and wildly bright high frequencies in real life, like many headphones would have us believe.

One final point about headphones is that many people misunderstand headphone soundstage (stereo image). They say it is wide, large, spacious, or narrow and flat.  The truth is that, to all intents and purposes, headphones aren't trying to present musical soundstage correctly, because they can't. We can never do this if we completely separate what the left and right ear hear. We can only simulate proper soundstage in headphones with HRTF software. So when people say soundstage is wide, it seems that what they hear is just more 'correct', more accurately presented. I have actually heard people say the soundstage is really wide when using HRTF software, which proves the misinterpretation. The image in this case is actually less wide, but more accurate and realistic. And they seem to interpret the extreme left and right channel separation of headphones as being 'narrow'. Another proof of this misunderstanding is that many people refer to the HD800 as having the 'widest' soundstage of all. The HD800 are both open and very angled, and obviously this design goes some way to presenting the soundstage slightly more realistically, like speakers would. So, instead of having a very 'wide' soundstage, the HD800 actually have a narrower, albeit much more realistic one!


In Japan, you can go into the headphone section of an electrical department store and there will be literally hundreds of models to try. A fair number of them will be the consumer type that I tend to walk straight past, but there will usually be a high-end section with models like the Sennheiser HD800/650, Grado GS1000, Beyerdynamic T1, and a range of other good choices from Sony, HiFiMan, AKG, Audeze and Fostex. Regarding Stax, I have actually only seen a couple of places - Dynamic Audio in Akihabara and Yamada Denki LABI, opposite the east exit of the Ikebukuro station - that let you audition Stax headphones and amps. But Tokyo rolls on forever with its concrete metal landscape and I'm sure I've only touched the surface of this potential in the time I've lived here.

In these headphone-auditioning areas, you can plug in your player and check out any model, even the IEMs, with your own music. I always make sure I have high resolution reference tracks on my device, as I periodically like to see what the new models are like compared to my studio-based system. A few times, I have taken a full mobile system consisting of an Olympus LS11 audio player (24bit/96kHz), a Scherzo Audio Andante headphone amp (an amazing little battery-powered amp) and headphones, including my JVC FXZ200 carbon nanotube-driver IEMs, with a real subwoofer (I sometimes use IEMs with a pair of workmen’s ear defenders to block out background noise, for anechoic chamber-like black backgrounds - very cool), and modified AKG K701.

The better stores have dedicated little sit-down booths where you can spend time trying different headphone options, with no pressure to purchase. It's a really nice experience and very considerate of staff to be allowed to actually take time to make your own comparisons, using your own music, and not be looked on as if you are outstaying your welcome (even though you probably are). This is the kind of respect for customers that runs through the whole of Japanese society and it is one of the most impressive things about it.

Akihabara - Electric Town

Most people interested in audio (or those who are geeks like me) will have heard of Akihabara. It is the area of Tokyo that developed in the 1960s as a place for people interested in amateur electronics to buy components. Today, it has a more consumer, entertainment feel to it, but if you know where to look, there are still original vendors selling all sorts of interesting electronics such as vintage valves (vacuum tubes), esoteric capacitors, transformers, PSUs, audio connectors, quality wire and cable, and some of the stalls look like they haven't changed for 50 years. These are my favourite! Whenever I buy vintage gear that needs a component replacing, being able to simply take a train a few stops in my lunch break and pick up the exact piece I need is unbelievably satisfying. Most people in Japan simply don't care about old equipment, and would rather buy a whole new unit than replace a fuse or a simple component. This is not a bad thing though, it's just the way Japanese society has developed. People in general here are just not used to fixing and maintaining things like we tend to be in other countries. Take, for example, cars. No-one here seems to have a car that is more than 3-5 years old. Or DIY. Japanese people usually employ a professional to do even basic things like painting a room or rewiring a fuse. But this is cool, because it allows people like me, who know a little about this stuff, to take advantage and find extremely cheap, used-to-be-very-expensive equipment that only needs a touch of love to be in perfect working order!

Akihabara is a huge place with a central, six-lane road that is pretty exposed, with networks of small streets and alleyways off it. Places of interest will frequently be on a random floor of a multi-floored building, meaning it can be tricky to find a particular shop that you are looking for. I recommend a network of stalls to the left as you come out of the station, selling all sorts of electrical gear, like audio and mains power connectors, adapters and wiring. Then there is the Radio Department store, one of the originals just across the main road, the Oyaide store opposite which has some good off-cuts of high-end cable, plus some specialised tools and parts - but I would be wary of their high-priced silver connectors. Having made cables with them, they are not as good quality as they look. Then there is an area further down the main road which has Dynamic Audio (Stax models to audition including SR-009), Audio Union (good for hifi brands like Accuphase or Luxman), and quite a good Hard Off - a second-hand goods/thrift store that usually has some pretty nice gear; B&W 800 series speakers, Nakamichi Dragon cassette decks, McIntosh and Sansui amps. Hard Off is actually one of the best used goods stores in Japan, but because this particular store is in central Tokyo, the prices tend to be higher than the branches further out..

There are also a couple of good specialised tool shops in this area where I've found tools useful for calibrating gear; ceramic screwdrivers for non-magnetic azimuth adjustment on cassette decks, very fine tweezers for cable-making work, materials for damping (Sorbothane), silver solder, thick copper sheets, etc.

Finally, on the opposite side of the station there is a huge, six-storey electronics store called Yodobashi Akiba, which has an overwhelming number of products, but is well worth a visit.


Musicians who visit Tokyo will love Ochanomizu. There is one street where basically all of the shops sell guitars; really nice vintage Gibsons, Japanese-made Grecos, Tokais, and Guyatones (pronounced goo-ya-tonn). These are expensive, but really well maintained, and it's amazing to have such a large choice. In one shop, I counted over two hundred acoustic guitars (just acoustic) in one room of one floor, and there were probably five floors in that building. I have to say that these guitars are for the musician who simply wants to buy a very nicely presented, well set-up instrument with nothing much else to worry about, as the prices are inflated to reflect this. I personally wouldn't buy a guitar from here unless I saw a particularly good deal, because the bargains for me are buying guitars that need a bit of work, buying parts for them, and giving them a good set up and polish (probably just as the shops here do).


Ginza is a really nice place. It was the Shibuya of the 1960s, the place for hip kids to hang out, but has turned into an affluent area, with the major companies having their flagship stores there. Apple has a very cool store where the sales staff don't use a cash register, but wander around with a handheld device that scans your product, swipes your credit card, prints you a receipt, and you're done. Nice! Ginza has the flagship Yamaha store, which has several floors housing orchestral instruments like violins, clarinets and trumpets. As you might have guessed by now, there are a very large number of models to choose from. Imagine rows of sparkling trombones... awesome!!


This shop is legendary now and sees a lot of visitors from overseas. It is based more around professional studio gear than hifi, but is an amazing place if you like vintage analogue synthesisers, as well as compressors, EQs and effects. I have seen some serious synths here, from companies like Sequential Circuits, Moog, Arp and Roland. Some of the pro gear could be used in hifi as it will have the fidelity of sound comparable to, or better than, the best hifi gear, but be careful of cheaper 'pro' gear - it is not really pro. Like most places in Tokyo, 5G is a little challenging to find, but there are good instructions online.


Slightly claustrophobic and on the 9th floor, but packed with vintage synths, drum machines and studio effects. A rival to 5G, with sometimes even better gems hiding in the corners. I have seen some especially nice Rhodes electric pianos here. Quite near to this is the huge Tower Records in Shibuya, which has nine floors, and is well worth a visit.


This is a great place to visit if you're into materials for building and customising equipment. I like to maximise the sound potential of my system by upgrading parts and materials, and I have found all kinds of useful things at Tokyu Hands, for example ebony to make a replacement bridge pin for a very special guitar, teflon tape as a dielectric material, a fine sable brush for cleaning mic capsules, and special material to damp chips (they can produce micro resonances and vibrations that hinder the optimal performance of the chip). Tokyu Hands is also full of entertainment; gadgets, games and other souvenir-type products for those holidaying in Japan. It has several stores around Tokyo, all spread over several floors, and you can enjoy a good few hours there.


If there is one thing I like in audio gear, it is good build quality and workmanship. I love expensive materials and over-engineering. This kind of attention to detail usually reflects in sound quality. When Marty McFly told Doc “all the best stuff is made in Japan”, he wasn't wrong. In my experience, the build and engineering of 80s and 90s 'MIJ' gear is about as good as it gets. This was the time of the Japanese economic boom, and I have heard stories of money being thrown around (you couldn't get a taxi unless you offered a hundred dollars). This money-no-object attitude is evident in a lot of audio gear made during the time, that fortunately we can now buy for very deflated prices. High-end, fully discrete dual-mono designs using exotic materials, massive, expensive transformers, solid copper chassis and military-grade construction with properly calculated wiring are just some of the things that helped make this gear sound amazing.

Build Quality

I have a collection of vintage Sony microphones (C-48s, C-350s) and reverb units (Sony DPS-R7, Ibanez (built by Sony) SDR-1000), all from the mid 1980s, and the ruggedness, fit and finish are brilliant. Some other equipment from brands like Sansui is, almost literally, built like tanks. It is like military hardware, with heavy, solid switches, control knobs that take a good twist to turn and clunk satisfyingly into place, and volume knobs (potentiometers) that glide beautifully, not too stiff, not too loose, just right. They are built like industrial machinery that demands years of high reliability. It is definitely the habit of an unabashed geek, but checking the quality of an unknown piece of hardware via knob-turning has, for me, become an essential art! The weight of these items can also be an indicator of quality and robustness. One Sony amp I saw weighed 27kg! Inside, it had a solid copper chassis and two absolutely huge output transformers. No wonder these things have lasted!

The point of this, I guess, is not to underestimate some of the technology from Japan made around this period. It may be old now, but it is by far better than a lot of audio equipment that is produced today, unless you are buying the very highest-end products. This is particularly evident in the case of Sony, which seemed to have a golden age during that time, that has not been seen since. It is well worth trying to find some of these pieces on eBay or Amazon JP. They can be found in great condition, or even brought back to former glory by replacing capacitors and other parts where needed. Beware of some vendors pushing up prices though. Do your homework and pay the right price.


A final point on the 'made in Japan' paradigm is that this must be the finest place on earth to buy used records. Vinyl is a delicate medium and used vinyl records are far too often scratched, and in generally bad condition (even the 'good' ones tend to have very fine scratches). Japanese people obviously baby their records, because a large number of the ones I have seen have been in an immaculate condition, and I mean immaculate - they literally look like they have been played twice, and must be officially classed as 'near mint' (NM) or 'mint' (M). If only I could have brought my Bang & Olufsen turntable to Japan, I would certainly be enjoying the benefits of this right now (e.g. listening to the original JP issue of Dark Side Of The Moon!).


One thing I am continually conscious of is sound quality and that includes the sound around me. I frequently focus on the incredible natural fidelity of the sounds of daily life and use this as a reference for comparisons with audio gear. It is worth doing this regularly in order to keep a grasp of what good sound actually is. For example, when you hear a professional four-piece acoustic jazz band out in the open, they will sound perfect, with incredibly balanced presentation, punchy, clear bass, and extremely smooth mids and highs. There will be no hint of harshness or distortion and, except for the occasional loud rasp on the sax (which will still sound good), hardly anything about the sound will be fatiguing to the ear. I have seen quite a few bands on the streets of Tokyo, both amplified and acoustic. One performance created a wonderful reverb from the snare and bass drum bouncing off the buildings, 20 metres behind. It sounded fantastic. This is how the ideal audio system should reproduce sound. Many people will not believe this is possible, but I know from experience that with the right attention to detail you can get very close and I have managed to calibrate my own system to reproduce this level of fidelity quite well.

Too Loud

A problem with being obsessed with sound is that you can be easily agitated by bad sound reproduction. When I went to a Paul McCartney concert at the Tokyo Dome last year (Out There Tour), the performances were outstanding, but unfortunately the sound system was just too loud, harsh and distorted. In a society where few people complain, I was not really surprised, but we were at the back of a baseball stadium that has a capacity of 55,000 and I actually had to put my fingers half in my ears for part of the concert (the main reason being that I don't want to damage my hearing). This was a little embarrassing and I felt sorry for Paul, but, to be honest, it sounded much better like this! I could hear individual instruments and the frequency balance was much better (the same principle as with calibrating my headphone system, I believe).

Audience Size

There is an interesting phenomenon here where audiences at live performances can be absolutely gigantic. Concerts of popular bands that are unheard of outside Japan and even things like kids shows are always packed with people. This is a reflection of the consumer-oriented society. Almost everyone works long hours (15 hours a day is not an exaggeration) and has disposable income, and it is no wonder Japan has the third largest economy in the world.

Environmental Factors

One thing I have noticed in Japan is that exposed metal parts (nickel) on electrical equipment tend to tarnish quite easily, leaving a powdery white coating. I'm not sure if it's because of the very humid summers and dry winters here, but I've seen this quite a lot, for example on the RCA sockets of unloved gear, as well as on XLR, TRS and phono cables. Metal parts inside the case are unaffected, as are some metals like stainless steel and aluminum. It's not really a problem for me, as I always clean audio connectors with 100% isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol), a 3000 grit sponge and a microfibre cloth to produce a mirror finish - the perfect condition for good electrical signal transfer and thus the best sound quality. If you're buying used gear on a trip to Japan, this is something to be aware of, but should not necessarily put you off buying.

The Summers and Winters

Perhaps related to this effect of humidity is something I've noticed about guitars over here. I am almost certain the humidity extremes of the summer (80-90% humidity is common), and the very dry winters (as low as 10-20%), over time, have a positive effect on the tone of guitars. The wood absorbs water and thus expands during high humidity, and shrinks again as it loses water in dry conditions. It is well known that the tone of a guitar generally improves as it is played, as the wood relaxes and is 'conditioned' by the resonances of the sound waves running through it. But I think humidity plays a part, too. Imagine the process sped up, so that we could see the effect of the summers and winters over 10 or 20 years. The guitar would 'breathe' in and out ever so slightly, conditioning and settling the wood in.

Greco and Tokai electric guitars are well-known for being fine copies of Gibsons that in some cases even surpass the build quality of the originals. (I can confirm this - my Greco Firebird, with a neck-through mahogany neck, has unbelievable sustain and tonality. It is from 1978, so has experienced a good number of years of these humidity changes, but is essentially an awesome instrument anyway.) But more significantly than this, particularly cheap and cheerful classical guitars from Yamaha (G- series) and Suzuki Violin (C- series) have a much more wonderful tone than they have any right to, with blooming bass tones, rich and yet clear mids, and brilliant transient response on string plucks. They are hidden gems and I wonder if these guitars, when new, costing on average only £50 ($75/¥9000), sounded anywhere near as good as they do today.


Japan, and Tokyo in particular, is a really absorbing place to be, full of surprises and packed with places to visit and interesting things to see and do. Whether you'd be taking home a vintage Greco/Gibson, an armful of immaculate records, or just soaking up the genuine home-brewed manga, it is definitely worth coming for a holiday here. With current exchange rates, it's quite affordable, and I've noticed many more people from the UK, Europe and the US holidaying here in the last year or so, so now is a really good time to come.

Reference Audio System

Stax SR-202/SRM-1/MK-2
KingRex Unanimous uArt + custom silver/Teflon USB cable
Mac Pro/Surface Pro
Software: Magix Samplitude, Reaper, Fidelia, iZotope RX
Plugins: DDMF LP10 True Stereo EQ, DMAX DEQ Type A EQ, Isone Pro HRTF/crossfeed, Voxengo MSED

Reference Albums/Tracks

Radiohead, OK Computer, LP
Depeche Mode, Violator
Chesky Records, The Ultimate Demonstration Disc (UD95)
Prodigy, Fat Of The Land
Gorn Levin Marotta, From the Caves of the Iron Mountain (binaural)
Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (oryginalny remaster CD/Sterling Sound)
Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With Me, OST
Björk, Debut
The Beatles – 24-bit remasters
Sara K, If I Could Sing Your Blues
Elvis Presley, Devil In Disguise
Johan Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No.6

  • Shiodome City, near Ginza
  • Yamaha store, 4th Floor, Wind and String Instruments
  • Yamaha store, euphoniums, trumpets and trombones
  • Flutes, clarinets and recorders on the 4th floor of the Yamaha store, Ginza
  • Violins at the Yamaha store
  • Violins at the Yamaha store - the one on the far right is about £28,000/$40,000
  • Ginza district - every weekend the whole of the main street is pedestrianized
  • Radio Department Store, Akihabara - Vintage radios from National and RCA
  • Vintage RCA radio
  • Valve amps, batteries, cameras
  • Sony WM-10 Walkman, 1982
  • Vintage Sony Walkmans. The Sony TPS-L2 is the first Walkman ever! From 1979.
  • Vintage valves/tubes from Toshiba, NEC, Panasonica (National) and Mazda (マツダ, pronounced Matsuda in Japanese)
  • Multimeter and calibration/test equipment
  • Sony and Hitachi transistor radios
  • Copper sheets for RFI screening, and copper PCBs
  • Akihabara crossing - you can see the Radio Department Store (Radio Departo ラジオデパート) just next to the SEGA building
  • Akihabara
  • Oyaide store, opposite the Radio Department Store
  • A store selling all kinds of valves/tubes, Radio Department Store, Akihabara
  • Valves/tubes from Siemens, Mullard, General Electric, Raytheon, Toshiba, RCA, and Victor (JVC)
  • Studio equipment - Sony DPS-R7 and Ibanez SDR-1000 reverbs, dbx 160XT compressors, Allen and Heath mixer
  • Voxengo MSED (mid/side) software
  • DDMF LP10 True Stereo EQ correction software (note the 10dB scale)
  • Mastering a cassette tape transfer, using Sony TC-KA3ES deck, in Reaper/Samplitude
  • Industrial machinery I worked on with amazing build quality, made in Japan in the 1980s
  • High quality workmanship and materials
  • A high quality transformer
  • The best ramen (Japanese noodles)
  • Guyatone VB-28 violin bass