Reviewing a Ken Shindo component outside of a full Shindo system is to miss a lot of what the artist had in mind (don’t read that to mean the amp must be used in a full Shindo system, far from it). It means we are dealing with handmade electronics that are works of auditory art. If you read about him, and I did in the one English interview I could find, I think it would be fair to say that Ken Shindo designs to let the listener experience the Shindo version of musical truth. Let me just say up front that this amp delivers a beautiful, emotional, and oh so very musical experience. It is what I would call the Shindo version of musical truth.
Sharing one’s view of musical truth is not unique in the audio world. It does seem more common in the Eastern world, but I can think of two Western companies who do very much the same thing. The first to come to mind is Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK, and then to a lesser degree, Dennis Had of Cary. In a way, all of the SET/High efficiency advocates would fall into this “more art than science” category.
So when I begin to audition the Cortese, there were a few things that just jumped out at me.
The first thing I noticed, was that the overall tonal balance of my system had changed. The system was warmer and less immediate. By the way, this had not been the case with the Shindo Aurieges-L linestage that I recently reviewed.
The second thing I noticed was how right and musical this amp sounded, even though I knew my system wasn’t getting the best out of the amp right away.
The third thing was something that everybody who heard it commented on, that we had never heard recorded plucked strings sounding so real that they took on a lifelike quality. Guitars, harps, basses, cellos, harpsichords, and even to some extent, pianos, all sounded more real than I had ever heard them sound in my room.
My fourth impression was the superb vertical soundstaging. The amp had an uncanny way of letting you hear things at different heights as well as left and right in relationship to each other and space.
Finding The Right Setup
Having shared these four first impressions, let me get back to the initial problem of balance. When I start to evaluate a new piece of equipment, I like to insert the new component into the system and change nothing else. In this instance, I placed the amp right on my maple table as recommended by Shindo, disconnected the Audience au24 interconnects and speaker cables from my WAVAC MD300B, and connected them to the Cortese. I did the same with the Sonoran Plateau Lighting power cord.
As good as the Cortese sounded that first day or two, in many ways its tonal balance was just not quite right. The system seemed to have too much of an emphasis on the lower midrange and upper bass, and was just a little warmer and softer than life, in my opinion.
So I thought it was time to try some of the cables that Matt had sent home with me, and to disregard their instructions and try sitting the amp on the Systrum stand I used with the WAVAC. The first change I made was to plug in the stock power cord that Shindo recommends. This was quite a learning experience for me. I have owned and listened to many of the better-known power cords, some costing well into four digits. This cord that Shindo sends you looks like it goes on a clock radio, but let me tell you it is obvious that the amp must have been voiced using this cord. The balance shifted back upward, things opened up, and the amp began to sound much more like what I had heard when I listened to it with Matt at Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco, in a full Shindo system.
The next thing I tried was putting the amp on the Systrum stand. Shindo recommends the amp be placed directly on a heavy wooden base, but I found the Systrum stand helped the Cortese just as it had the WAVAC. The sound was more articulate, clearer, and the bass was even tighter and had more impact.
I listened for several days to the system this way and then added the Shindo interconnects. This was a further correction in the tonal balance to the point where I thought things were just about perfect in that respect. I mentioned that this had been a learning experience. The Cortese with the Shindo wire and the WAVAC with the Audience wire have almost the same tonal balance. However, neither amp seemed to have the correct balance with the other wire; though let me tell you, the biggest difference was between the two power cords. You could probably get about 75 to 80 percent of this tonal balance with just the power cord, if you want to wait and change cabling later. This is pretty good considering the power cord comes free with the amp.
Listening To Music
So it was with this setup (Cortese amp sitting on Systrum stand, and with Shindo interconnects throughout, the stock Shindo power cord, and the Audience au24 speaker wire) that I started to evaluate how this amp played music.
What I can tell you about the Cortese is what I hear in all the Shindo electronics. The Cortese let you in on the textures, harmonics, how the sounds decay, how the music blooms, and the emotions of real music to a degree that compares to only a couple of other amps that I’ve ever heard. It’s about experiencing the sounds and feelings of music in a way that lets you overcome the electronic listening experience, especially the digital experience.
The Cortese conveyed a seamless continuity of the instruments in their space. You could hear the wood resonating, the air as it escapes from a bass, a drum, or percussions. They all just seemed so right. The end result is an amp that lets you listen to music and often forget the equipment.
Let’s start with the bass. I have to admit I was shocked. The bass was one of the strongest points, and, to me, the most amazing thing about the Cortese amp. It reproduced drums, acoustical and electric basses with incredible impact; a fundamental rightness that I had not heard in my system. It was similar to what I heard from the Audio Note AN/Es with the big Goldmund amps but with more air and a natural, realistic warmth to the bass. The amazing thing was that it allowed you to hear this air and warmth without even the slightest hint of boom, looseness, or hangover in the bass or midbass. This was a combination (the warmth and air of SETs and the slam, power, and tightness of transistors) I had not heard before from sand or tube amps, and I found it quite beguiling.
This incredible characteristic sound of the bass was carried all the way up into the upper midbass. It gives you quick fast attacks followed by beautiful full decay that lets you hear different layers of the timber of the instruments. I think this is part of what make this amp play plucked strings with so much more realism than I had ever heard before. I have no way of knowing how much of this can be attributed to the F2a tubes, since this is the first amp I have heard that uses them. I know this though, I have never heard a 300B amp with bass like this. I want to state again that this amp has bass with all the impact and speed of the best sand amps that I have ever heard and with the bloom, warmth, and air of a great SET amp. The amazing thing is, it did this with a sound that was just so right.
The midrange is where I have the most trouble getting my mind wrapped around the sound of this amp. For while it clearly sounded like a SET, it was also clearly not the sound of my beloved Western Electric 300Bs. Don’t misunderstand me, the midrange was beautiful. I have already said that this amp reproduced plucked strings better than any amp I have heard in my system. I do think some of this has to do with the great upper midbass transients that the amp has. The midrange was just a little less immediate and a little warmer sounding than the best 300B amps. It was a little more like sitting in row M than in row E. Truth is, there are a lot of people who prefer this sound, and I can understand why they would.
That’s not to say it’s not involving. It was, very involving. The midrange of the Cortese has an amazing way of just letting you relax and listen to music. I found it very hard to take notes when doing the review because before I knew it, I had set my laptop down, taken off my glasses and was just listening. When reviewing the Shindo Aurieges-L linestage, I commented that voices were almost scary real with the Aurieges and the WAVAC MD300B. I don’t quite get that same sensation with the Cortese, but voices did have a good weight and mass to them. It made you feel as if there was a person singing and not just a voice floating in air. This is a very important trait to me. If a system can’t do this, it is much harder for me to listen with the same intensity and to become as emotionally involved. Emotional involvement is what Shindo products are all about, and the Cortese is no exception.
Last, the top end was another place where the Cortese really excelled. The Cortese’s top end was open, sweet, and to me just beautiful to listen to. It allowed the music to come to life in a way that just sparkled with musical realism. While the top end was very extended, itwais never analytical or etched sounding.
Soundstage and Imaging isn’t the most important thing to me, but I do expect any good system to let the speakers disappear, and for the soundstage to never distract from the enjoyment of the music. And the review system did this very well. This was another place, though, that the F2A tube seemed different from the 300Bs in the WAVAC. The WAVAC seemed to float the image from an imaginary line drawn a foot or so out in front of one speaker to the other, with the soundstage starting there and working it’s way back. The Cortese, on the other hand, started with a line drawn from one speaker to the other with most of the music coming from behind this imaginary line. This is of course a matter of taste, and I think most audiophiles at first will prefer the Cortese. However, I can tell you there was something very lifelike about the way the WAVAC with the WE300Bs presents a soundstage. Thus, I think for most music lovers, it will be a mater of taste.
If you have read my review of the Shindo Aurieges-L, you know I had rather talk about scale, depth, and space than pinpoint imaging or how exciting it is to hear a voice or an instrument coming from a foot or two outside the speakers. The reason for this is that when I go to hear live music, which I do often, I seldom hear a soundstage or pinpoint imaging. In fact, as I have mentioned before, it often sounded more like a good mono recording. I should say that I do not find this the be true with a symphony orchestra, the one place I clearly hear a great soundstage in real life.
Like the Aurieges-L, the Cortese gives you all of this in spades. It lets you hear the space around and even within instruments. It lets you hear the textures of the music and the passion of the musicians. It lets you hear the size of an instrument. You can hear the swell, as a horn gets both louder and larger because the musician keeps putting the horn closer and closer to the mic. As I shared earlier, it does an uncanny job of letting you hear things up and down in the soundstage.
One of my favorite SACDs is King of the Cellist, Starker plays Kodaly. This is one of the most beautiful recordings of a cello I have ever heard. It can also be insightful to listen to the cuts that are of the cello and the violin. The Cortese lets you hear this performance with all of its emotion. I found it very hard to take review notes, as it was so involving. The cello was warm, beautiful, and quick with a great sense of breath and space around and within it.
It conveyed this warmth and life without a hint of bass hangover or even the slightest amount of boominess. The violin was sweet, and extended easily into its upper registries without ever seeming bright or strident. It did seem very intense and sometimes even aggressive, as it should on this piece. In fact, the pace and timing was just uncanny.
The emotions you experience as the bow is slowly pulled across the strings are so moving I had to write this after it was over. You can hear layers and textures of the tones of the strings as you hear the differences they each make as the bow passes over them.
Ella and Louis the special edition Verve is a beautiful Japanese SACD. On cut 2, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” the Cortese lets us hear the beauty and lushness of Ella and the gravely power of Satchmo. The voices are very prominent, and the horn seems a little too polite, but the overall experience is to just want to listen. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I sat down to listened to two cuts and ended up listening to the whole album. Then I got up and put on Billie Holiday, not for reviewing, but just because I wanted to hear her on this set up.
Elvis is Back has Elvis’ version of “Fever” on it. This cut will tell you if a system is all about slam and tightness or if it’s about emotion, music, and feeling what the musicians and singer are trying to convey. It can be about both as I discovered with the Cortese in my system. It had more slam and was tighter in the bass than with the WAVAC, and it still does this within the sense of a musical performance. It also still lets you hear the decay, the reverb, and how close Elvis is to the mic, and with the Cortese these nuances give you a very realistic quality. It brings me back to something I said earlier; there is just a fundamental rightness to this amp.
In conclusion there are just a few things to wrap up.
I noticed that I forgot to mention the Cortese seemed more powerful than any 10 to 7 watt amp I have heard. Both it and the WAVAC MD300B are rated at 10 watts, but the Cortese seemed much more powerful. In fact, it sounded more powerful than a certain Italian 845 tube amp I had here for a while.
Another thing I think I should mention, is that while I know Shindo is really a devotee of vinyl, I think this amp brings out the best of a very good digital source. Some might say that means it is a forgiving amp, but I’d rather say that somehow it lets you hear the best of either source as long as it is a good musical source.
I want to thank Matt of Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco for all his help and for letting me have his demo Cortese for so long. It was nice to know I was getting the same amp that customers were hearing and to have it already broken in. I had the chance to listen to the amp for a couple of hours in Matt’s flat in his all Shindo system. I want to say that the amp was just as impressive and seemed to have a little more immediacy in that system with the Shindo Latour field coil speakers. I also think this amp would be great on any of the better horn systems, and I would love to hear what it could do with Khorns. I think this amp would really help their bass. The one other speaker I know this amp sounds great with is the DeVore line of speakers. The Silverbacks and the Cortese are a match made in heaven. I want you to understand that I think the Cortese would be a great choice for any speaker that is SET friendly and has a good open midrange.
There are several very good tube amps at this price, including a push-pull one from Shindo. I can’t imagine buying an amp at this price or any other for that matter and not hearing it first or better yet with a return option. But having said that, there are two things I don’t want you to forget about the Cortese: you have to hear this thing play strings and don’t forget, it just sounds fundamentally RIGHT!
* Source: Sony 777ES SACD player with both Kern mods and the VSEI 4.5
* Speakers: Audio Note AN/E SEs, DeVore Fidelity Silverback References, DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Super Eights
* Amp: WAVAC MD300B
* Cables: Audience au24, Shindo Silver Interconnect, Auditorium 23 Speaker Cable
* Power conditioner: Two of the ISOs built for JC Audio
* SACD player is placed on a Systrum stand set on a heavy solid maple table
* The Cortease was used directly on the table and on a Systrum stand
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