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Kore-eda LLA-1 Preamplifier and PLA-1 Amplifier Review

Watch Jack Roberts go chip with the Kore-eda LLA-1 preamplifier and PLA-1 power amplifier

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Kore-eda LLA-1 preamplifier and PLA-1 power amplifier

First Impressions

You got to be kidding me! How do I hook up the speaker wire? From my listening chair, the front panel of the preamp looks like a cassette tape. I need interconnects three inches long. Why did they send them to me not broken in? How could anything without a separate power supply be so little? You got to be kidding me!

Second Impresssion After Fifty Hours of Playing Time

You got to be kidding me! How can it sound so good? How can it sound so big? How can it sound so similar to my main setup? It sure is easy to forget and just listen to the music. This, in fact, is the greatest strength of the little Kora-eda setup.

Impressions of Non-Audiophiles

You mean that little thing is the amp? How is it getting music when the tubes aren’t even on? They’re cute. They don’t look like much, but boy they sound good. They cost what? I want something more impressive looking for that much, although I love how simple they are. I should mention that younger (in their twenties) non-audiophiles thought they looked awesome, and commented how great they would look with a Mac.

To Review or Just Listen

That was the question all right with this pair of ‘Kora-Eda’, brought to us by Sakura Systems. I could tell these were going to be hard to describe, so it was a temptation to just enjoy the beautiful music they play through my Audio Note AN/E SE speakers. Well, let me start by side-stepping the sound while I listen to music, and let me tell you what I have been able to find out about these little silver boxes of music.

The ‘Kora-Edas’ are designed by Shigeharu Kore-eda. He is a well-known and well-respected tube amplifier designer in Japan, as well as a regular contributor of “The Tube Kingdom” magazine. The amp and preamp are brought to us in America by Sakura Systems. The same people who bring us the wonderful 47 Lab products.

Shigeharu Kore-eda was born in 1949. He started publishing his tube amplifier designs in “Radio Gijutsu” magazine in 1979 and then in “Kankyu Ohkoku (Tube Kingdom)” magazine in 1995.

To date, over 40 of his tube amplifier designs have been published or marketed in Japan, and most of the amplifiers he designed have been sold directly to the customers, both in kit and as finished products.

Shigeharu Kore-eda said of the LLA-1 and PLA-1, “The short signal pass is a key to the successful design of a chip based amplifier. To ensure a stable operation without sacrificing the wide-range feeling, the response at the extreme high and low frequencies, where not much of the music is concerned, are controlled down. I didn’t want these amps to sound alien to my tube-trained ears. As you can hear, the overall tone is a touch on the warm side and I’m very comfortable with it.” And let me add, dear reader, so am I.

According to Yoshi at Sakura Systems, he tried to introduce Shigeharu Kore-eda’s top-of-the-line tube amps several years ago. The price range was well beyond what he had been handling at that time ($18,000~25,000), and he didn’t feel he could do much marketing-wise with them at that time. When Yoshi heard that Shigeharu Kore-eda was working on a chip-based amp last year, he got very curious and asked Mr. Kore-eda to send one for evaluation when they were ready.

When he received his unit last spring, Yoshi thought they sounded very good. He says they have a different flavor when you compare it to the Gaincards, but very, very good nonetheless. So he decided to give them a push. The fact that it’s a more conventional pre- and power combination, with built in power supplies, was a plus too.

How do They Sound?

So we have these two little silver boxes designed by one of the most respected tube designers in Japan. They are 4.5” wide, 2.75” tall, and 8” deep and they overflow with music. Simply put, they sound shockingly good, or maybe more accurately, I should say they have shockingly little sound of their own. I can safely say that I don’t think they add any of their own color to the music. The few sins this amp and preamp have are sins of omission, not commission.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Just by coincidence the Kore-eda combo came in right after I finished the review of the Genesis I 60 integrated, a 60-watt KT 88 tube amp that retails for the same price as the Kore-eda amp and preamp. In that review I said,

“There is one thing for sure no one would ever mistake the I 60 for a transistor amp.” As good as the Genesis I 60 was, it never let you forget it was a tube amp. Funny thing about the Kore-eda: I don’t believe I ever once thought about weather it had tubes or transistors. Like the Wavac, Shindo, and probably the Kore-eda’s SET amps, this little combo let’s you concentrate on the music, not the equipment.

How Good is the Kore-eda System?

I admit that my experience at this price point is limited; but I was surprised by how musically enjoyable the Genesis I 60 was for the money.

I must admit though that the Kore-eda is much more my cup of tea. I say that even though I could pick them apart if I wanted. Compared to my reference amp and preamp that sell for $16,000, the Kore-eda fall short. Is that a big surprise? Voices are not as refined; micro-dynamics are not in the same league, though I felt macro-dynamics were better than most. Vertical imaging is not nearly as good. Yet, lateral imaging and depth are quite good.

The BASS is deep. It is full of breath and air. I found the bass very musical even though it was lacking the last word in scale and grandeur. The bass never drew attention to itself by being too much or too little, and it was always very tuneful. Its bottom-end wasn’t quite as deep or powerful as my Wavac/Shindo combo, but it was quite nimble and quick.

The MIDRANGE of the Kore-eda is quite SET-like. The amplification system is very emotionally involving, and more resolving than most components I have heard in this price range. They have a natural bloom that gives music life. The music never sounds analytical, and the Kora-eda always allows the timbre and natural warmth of instruments to be experienced. While the micro-dynamics of the midrange are not quite up to the Wavac/Shindo duo, they aren’t far behind world class. Which amazes me at such a reasonable price. Really, it’s only in the unfair comparison to the Wavac/Shindo combo that I hear anything missing in the midrange and then its sins of omission and not commission. Again a comparison to the Genesis I 60 is interesting. Neither makes glaring mistakes in the crucial midrange and neither have quite the micro-dynamics I am used to. Overall the I60 is a little more dynamic, but it’s the Kora-eda combo that draws me into the music emotionally. This truly surprised me at this price point.

The TOP-END is never overly etched or bright, rather it allows one to listen to all this information in a relaxed yet involving manner. At the same time it never leaves me wanting more sparkle and shimmer.

SOUNDSTAGING and IMAGING was very good with a very stable center. Width and depth were exceptional. The little combo is lacking in vertical soundstage or height though. One of my pet peeves is that most popular transistor integrated amps make instruments and people sound like they are just hanging in the air without body or breath. The Kora-eda’s were much more like tubes here. They give instruments and people a very believable space that seems occupied by something with mass. It is amazing that they do this so well considering no tubes and such a reasonable price.

As I said earlier, to go on and on talking about the bass, the midrange, the top end, etc. is to miss the point. It is tonality, pace, rhythm, and timing that makes this pair so satisfying to listen to. They may not bloom like my Wavac, but they let you enjoy music in the same way. They may not have the incredible bass of the Shindo Cortese, but they have enough drive in the bass to give music a very lifelike quality.

A Double Check

I tried both the LLA-1 preamp and the PLA-1 power amp on their own. The LLA-1 sounded a little grainy with the Wavac MD-300B integrated stereo amp, and the PLA-1 did not have quite the drive with the Shindo Aurieges preamp as it did with the LLA-1. When I paired the Kore-eda PLA-1 with the Shindo Monbrison upper-model preamp, it sounded bigger and had more breath and body, but who in their right mind would put an $1850 amp with a $7900 preamp? My advice is to think of them as an integrated amp unless you have a CD player with a built in volume control and then you would have to try it both ways.

Listening to them long-term began to make me question my judgment. Were they really as good as I thought? So I went back to my reference system. Well, they certainly aren’t in that league. So why did I think I liked them so much? Did I really like them that much? So, what to do?

I put them back in the system again. This is when I begin to realize the genius of Shigeharu Kore-eda. They are so balanced that they never draw attention to themselves. It’s like they have just enough transparency to let you hear all the detail they have, but not so much as to bring attention to the fact that the preamp is a little grainy. The grain only bothered me when I used the LLA-1 preamp with the Wavac. After I heard the Kore-eda preamp with the Wavac, could I hear it with the PLA-1, its own power amp? A little, but only if I tried: I never paid it any attention when I started to get into the music. Which is why you listen after all, isn’t it?

Then there’s the fact that they have so much pace and drive that they always draw you to the music and not to themselves. The result is that you’re too busy enjoying the performance to criticize what they don’t do. These two things, the balance and the pace, are what I think is the genius of the design.

In Conclusion

I think the best thing and the highest praise I can say about the Kore-eda amp and preamp is that they are for music lovers. If what you’re looking for is a “Status Statement” – that they aren’t. If you can afford one of Mr. Shigeharu Kore-eda’s tube amps, then the chip amps probably aren’t for you, unless you’re putting together a second system and want something very musical for considerably less money.

If you’re like my 22-year-old son though, and you love music and don’t want to fool with tubes, then you might want to listen when he said, “I don’t care that they don’t sound as good as your stuff… and by the way why do you care, if you didn’t notice they’re not as good when you were listening to them?” A good question, but I know the answer is, in the long run, I would miss what I have in the Shindo/Wavac combo, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy music on the Kore-eda’s. Every time I listen to them I got pulled into the performance and I think that says a lot.

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