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August / September 2010
Superior Audio Equipment Review

   Enjoy the Music.com Special 20/20 Award
Audio Note UK Ongaku Integrated Amplifier
A very temping aural pleasure.
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Audio Note UK Ongaku Single-Ended Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier

  Ah yes, the legendary Audio Note Ongaku. Many audiophiles around the world, rightly, consider it one of the 'Holy Grails' of audio... and for good reason! Here is the legend of handcraftsmanship, many pounds of hand wound silver transformers and a generous sprinkling of exotic parts all wrapped into a single chassis. Adding to the allure is that it is a single-ended triode integrated amplifier and uses the powerful VT4C/211 output tube. Of course rectification is also via tube, naturally. Over 15 year ago the Japanese version by Kondo-san graced my home for years as i was the only reviewer to put his money where his mouth is (was?) concerning the excellence of this design. Years later the Japanese and UK entities of Audio Note split up, with Kondo passing away a few years after that during CES 2006, and now the world has an updated version of the Audio Note UK Ongaku to enjoy.

While given the world economy it may seem an interesting time to review the $95,000 Audio Note UK Ongaku. With the big money getting bigger and small to medium getting squeezed out... yet there are buying opportunities to be had and big players out there who can afford such luxury items. i hear that $175,000 Ferrari 360 can be purchased used for under $70,000. As the Ongaku is a proper British unit, shall instead focus on a loose equivalent. That being the Bentley Continental GT, which is the finest British driver's automobile and for the record retails at over $200,000. Jaguar fans must remember they have a fine car, yet perhaps more akin to the Audio Note Level 3 versus to top-of-the-range 5 series. So as another forewarning, have been feeding my daily driving with a Bentley GT and watching plenty of Top Gear plus various BBC programs to round out my usual car equivalent of the Ongaku as seen within my reviews.

 

Parts And Build The Audio Note UK Way
While the original Japanese Audio Note Ongaku used carefully chosen parts, indeed some of the finest in the world, the UK version does the very same yet reworks the design using interstage transformers and other techniques. As i said within the opening, the unit uses one per channel VT4C/211 high output triode tube. This produces about 27 watts per channel. These are very large tubes that operate very hot and produce light the equivalent of a 25 Watt light bulb. Other tubes include an original NOS Brimar CV4068 input valve and Telefunken 6463 driver stage driving an in-house designed and made 1:2 Audio Note silver wired driver transformer on a double AN-Perma 50 nickel C-core. For rectification, a pair of new old stock 5R4WGB 'potato mashers' are used. Being of the Level 5 family, the Ongaku also uses Audio Note 2 watt Tantalum resistors, Black Gate electrolytics, in-house designed and made Audio Note 99.99% pure silver wired double AN-Perma 50 nickel C-core output transformer, SHiB double C-core mains transformer and Audio Note's handmade 23 position attenuator.

As this is an integrated amplifier, there are four stereo inputs via pure silver RCA jacks on the left front while an input selector knob is located at the front of the unit with the volume control. Output is via pure silver loudspeaker binding posts. Audio Note felt it was time to rework the electrical design of the Japanese version to make improvements and here the UK Ongaku is the 'classic Audio Note UK' architecture, which is completely different at this juncture from the Kondo work. In some ways it has the same build traits of no-holds-barred parts quality and many pounds of silver wire, yet in other aspects the UK version goes another route for rectification, supporting small signal tubes, employs interstage transformers and other bits.

 

The top chassis is made from copper and makes a good showing of it too. Though to be frank here, the Ongaku is truly a stunner visually, provided you were born without the gift of sight. As for the external construction, it appears to be cobbled together by the finest shop teacher, who always seems to be missing a finger tip… or two. And if we continue the humorous criticisms, that brings up those large 211/VT4C tubes, which without a tube cage around them one should take care if they are blind not to touch them. You see, or perhaps not if you are blind, they operate at a temperature as though you decided to take a drive in the Bentley automobile close to the sun... yet during the night of course. Get too close to this behemoth and the sheer weight and solidity is enough to break your toe (do not ask me how i know!). Fortunately, I made a small splint for my smaller toe and all was well, other than the hours of enduring throbbing pain.

 

The Arrival
Like motoring around the world in the world's finest British grand touring car, the Audio Note UK Ongaku does not just show up. It arrives. A very large and heavy crate was brought into my home by two men and off they went. Uncrating the unit was easy and the Ongaku was placed into its final location within my listening room. It brought back so many great memories having an Ongaku back in the home after may years of being apart, as if a long lost friend came back into town for a visit.

With the old Kondo Ongaku back in 1995 and for a few years afterwards, the system was modified KEF 104/2 in a live end-dead end room, Theta Data II transport and Generation III DAC with single-mode laser connection. Vinyl was VOYD Reference and .5 turntable, Audio Note cartridge and AN-S6c step-up transformer. Yet that was the past and felt it was best for you to know as it is impossible to directly compare the two systems per se.

Fast-forward over a decade to today and installation is extremely easy, and after some choices and swapping the system chosen used Kimber Kable Select all silver interconnects, Audio Note Lexus speaker wire and my long love affair Audio Note AN-J/SPx speakers. Source music was provided by the 4TB NAS drive controlled by a Dell with 6GB of memory feeding the M2tech, which in turn fed the recording studio 24-bit/192kHz DAC and/or the Frankendac i built and modded over the years.

 

Grand Touring With Aural Pleasures
When it was time to really sit down for that serious reviewer time, what amazed me was the sheer solidity of 200 Hz on down (bass). It was stunning and far above that i ever recall with the Kondo version. In fact the UK Ongaku was so tight, tuneful with layers upon layers of resolution that it achieved. The sheer weight and solid feel of everything from the heartbeats in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to Koto drums, my own drum and percussion recording THTST to pipe organ and of course the acoustic bass in various Miles Davis' recordings during his Prestige years. It was not just the quantity of bass mind you, it was also the quality as the unit seemed to have an iron glove fist grasp of the woofers.

As for volume level from this 27 wpc unit, it was able to reach higher than normal levels and only when in 'Super Loud Dance Party Mode' could i then hear some dynamic compression and tube clipping. Of course during normal to above normal listening levels there were no problems, yet reviewers have to <cough> use <cough> gear in every way even if it verges on near abuse. We do this to, you know, be sure the unit, er um, can handle judicious turns of the volume knob by those with clumsy hands. Think of it like being at the wheel of the chipped 650HP/600TQ Bentley CGT within an open parking lot. You turn off the traction control, and then try to literally drive the wheels off the car. Well, one needs to be sure the tires will stay on the rims and what better way than within an open parking lot and some spirited driving?

 

 

Oh hi police officer. Why no, all that dark grey smoke and burned on the road black tire marks is not from my Bentley Continental GT luxury car. Surely it must have come from someone else and not this mid-40 year old man. Darn those young hooligan kids! i think they just left so if you drive fast that way (pointing anywhere away from your car) you might catch them.

Of course neither Audio Note UK, nor car manufacturers would suggest such treatment of their finest handcrafted creations that take nearly 100 hours each to produce by highly skilled personnel with many years of experience. So let us make believe nothing ever happened with the Ongaku or the automobile. We will keep it a secret just between us.

On to the midrange, the most important part of the frequency spectrum of course. It was sheer magic. Head honcho Peter of Audio Note UK was probably getting tired of me proclaiming this amplifier or that unit had the midrange magic of an Ongaku due to my past experience with the Japanese version. So now with the newest UK version it is obvious that another level, perhaps even two levels higher has been achieved. It is more than just tonality or the harmonic structure; it is the weight, complexity and gestalt of aurally having the instrument within your listening room. There is simply no other way to put it and 1000 more words would not tell you more than that. If you desire true realism, then here it is. Am i doing the cardinal sin of saying it is perfect? Well, perhaps the Audio Note UK Ongaku gets 98% right and so much so that the last 2% is so minor that, frankly, it makes so little difference unless you are just the ultimate perfectionist.

Paiste RotosoundAs for the upper frequencies, glorious! Nicely extended, harmonically pure and my ears can hear all those great benefits of using silver within the internal wiring and transformers, as it is world's best electrical conductor. The first two tracks on my drum and percussion test album THTST extends well above 20 kHz according to a few Asian gentleman who have e-mailed me. These tracks are especially revealing of how well a component can produce not just the impact and harmonics, but also extends the extremely complex harmonic structure and phasing. This is especially true with the 9" Roto Sound (#1). This is a round large circular chime that is mounted on a 360 degree rotating mount. When you hit it, you can control the speed at which it spins and are free to change the speed at which it spins at any time. It is not an easy instrument to capture well on a recording. Since the recording was made by yours truly, the actual instruments on the album are here in my home so an A/B comparison is extremely easy.

As a side note, the Audio Note AN-J./SPx speaker also use a generous amount of silver wire in the crossover, wiring and voice coils. Have always preferred silk soft domes to titanium, ceramic and other types or tweeters. There is something within the initial attack and harmonics they seem to get more right than others. Yes those supertweeters may be an exception and wish i had one here to be able to achieve frequencies above 20 kHz within my listening room. In some ways i am left wondering if the system is really producing everything the Audio Note UK Ongaku is capable of. Yes, a reviewer actually admitting his system might not be able to do a unit the full justice it deserves. The Ongaku is that good folks.

As for PRAT and other bits, you have no worries. Single-ended tube amplifiers usually easily achieve this due to the very simple circuitry and few parts being within the signal's path. Of course the many pounds of silver also ensure little will hold back the quality and speed of the signal as well.

Complaints? Well, the thing is not the most visually... it is not easy on the eyes. It weights a lot and is not a normal shape/size footprint, and thus if you are into tweak stands one will need to be custom made. And as for the pair of VT4C/211 output tubes, they operate very hot! If you live in a warm climate your air conditioning unit will be on a bit more than usual to counteract the heat. Lastly, whatever you do, do not touch the hot tubes and be careful when you walk near the unit with bare feet. Audio Note UK Ongaku have been knows to break a toe due to their weight and solidity!

 

When Only The Very Best Will Do
In this world you have Linnies, Quad, Naim (which makes the Bentley audio system by the way), Full Range Single Driver club and numerous others. They each are a unique bunch with a thirst for music who will adamantly defend their decision of audio components ideology within their system. Then you have the Audio Note crowd. If there is one thing i had to point to that makes this band of enthusiasts go all quixotic it is their deep love of music. For indeed they are the type to get caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuits for that almost unreachable goal of audio nirvana that lesser men, and systems, seem not to be able to produce. Surely Peter Qvortrup, the lead man at Audio Note UK is extravagant; perhaps even a foolishly idealistic visionary. Yet then again such men tend to be impractical when trying to achieve the very best and so the word quixotic comes to mind. The Audio Note UK Ongaku is not for those seeking short cuts, nor is it for those who are willing to make compromises. The same can be said for automobile drivers who seek the best in grand touring. There is Bentley and then there are the lower ranks.

While the above review says quite a bit, the below comments are slightly edited e-mail correspondences between Peter Qvortrup and myself during the review process:

Mr. Ongaku is doing well. A very temping aural excitement for whom I love and can afford yet am debating if once I get it (again) will there be any chance for others? Think of it as a man who truly and deeply loves his high-performance luxury car yet it is in the shop for maintenance. Your friends stop by with one of the exotic Italian cars saying you can drive it for the week, perhaps you might want to buy it... Does that make sense? 

I hate to love it... and could buy it yet... recently got a very nice $$,$$$ violin... oh, and a British super grand touring car is now in the driveway as my daily driver. The Audio Note UK Ongaku is an aural seductress and I do plan to write that.

I hate you for sending it to me for review ... and glad you did.

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tubes integrated stereo amplifier
Tube Compliment: two VT4C/211, two 5R4WGB, CV4068 input and 6463 driver.
Output Power: 27 wpc stereo
Inputs: Four stereo inputs via silver RCA jacks
Output: Silver speaker binding posts
Price: $95,000

 

Company Information
Audio Note UK Ltd.
25 Montefiore Road
Hove
East Sussex
BN3 1RD
United Kingdom

Voice: +44 (0)1273 220 511
Fax: +44 (0)1273 731 498
E-Mail: info@audionote.co.uk
Website: www.audionote.co.uk

 

United States Distributor
Audio Federation Inc.
P.O. Box 19950
Boulder CO 80308

Voice: (303) 546-6503
Fax: (303) 546-6708
E-Mail: neli@audiofederation.com
Website: www.audiofederation.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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