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Shindo Monbrison Preamplifier Review

Jack Roberts ponders the possibility of Life Without Payments upon encountering the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier

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Shindo Monbrison preamplifier

The subject of this review, the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier, was a demo unit from Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco, it already had over 400 hours of playing time.

The first thing I noticed when I unpacked the Monbrison was that it didn’t look anything like the pictures I had seen of it. It was much nicer looking. Like all Shindo products, it comes in ‘Altec Green’ with gold knobs. It has a square power push-button that glows green when it is on. Another part of the new look is the addition of a cute little window in the center of the front panel that lets you see some of the tubes. At the two bottom corners of the window is a rectangular shaped LED. They glow green when the unit is on, though a little to brightly for my taste.

With all the new cosmetics, I wondered what was going on. So I contacted Jonathan Halpern at Tone Imports and asked. He said the review sample was the new version of the Monbrison, and this is its first review. He said Shindo had brought inspiration from what has been learned in the designing and building of his reference preamp to the new Monbrison.

According to Matt at Pitch Perfect Audio, the new version is dramatically different than the old one when you look under the cover. First, the layout of the components is different. The old version had the components (caps, resistors, etc.) laid out on a two-sided tag board (one side for each channel). What Shindo has done with the new version is to completely isolate each channel in an asymmetrical and three-dimensional way, so as to isolate these circuits in a way to cancel out spurious noise. There are separate isolated chambers within the new Monbrison for the power supply section and the phono stage and the linestage components are isolated as well.

The power supply is tube rectified, in this case with two 6X4 tubes where the old Monbrison had only one. The preamp is equipped with 4 line inputs and two phono inputs; one phono input is for MM cartridges and the other for moving coil, utilizing custom amorphous core step up transformers. There are a total of four twin-triode tubes in the phono stage, one pair in each channel, and the linestage tubes are genuine NOS Telefunken ECL94S’. These are the tubes on display in the ‘window’ on the front of the Monbrison. Like all Shindo products, the Monbrison is completely hand wired with point-to-point wiring.

SETUP & FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I simply disconnected my Shindo Aurieges-L and inserted the Monbrison. I left the rest of my system just the way it was for the review. This was the best sound I’ve found for the Aurieges-L, so it seemed like the best place to start with the Monbrison.

The first thing I noticed about the Monbrison was the sense of solidity it added to the music. The sense that real people and real instruments were in the room was even more apparent than with the Aurieges-L. I wouldn’t have believed this possible. It seems to breathe air into the room. There was a beautiful liquidity in the voices, and the bass end of the piano was just unbelievable. Then, like the Cortese Amp, there were those damn unbelievably realistic plucked strings again. I don’t know how Shindo gets this, but with both the Monbrison and Cortese, I hear plucked strings in a way that I only hear at live performances.

I’m not going to repeat everything I said in my review of my Aurieges-L preamp. As Jonathan Halpern, the Shindo importer said,

“as you listen to the Monbrison in your system, you’ll hear that same Shindo way with music that you hear in your Aurieges-L and in the Cortes F2a reviews.”

The family similarity is there just like Jonathan said. I could almost say: “read the review of the Aurieges-L, and just let me add that the Monbrison sounds the same except it lets you hear more.” I could, but I’m not doing that, and I do encourage you to read the review of the Aurieges-L, it will help you understand how the Monbrison sounds. So, let’s look at what it lets you hear more of.

INFORMATION AND DETAIL

The Monbrison is the most detailed preamp I have heard in my system. I hesitate to say this because of the negative connotation that might have in some quarters. It is not razor sharp nor does it spotlight every little thing. In fact, just the opposite is true. The music just flows fluidly out of the Monbrison. I’m using the word “detailed” to talk about how many details you can hear. To put it another way, I’m talking about how much information it conveys.

I also don’t mean that I hear things on disc that I’ve never heard before. No, what I mean is I hear more of the subtle changes in a singer’s voice. They come to life with breath and immediacy. I hear the nuances of the instruments, the attack of the leading edge, and the timber of the instrument after the leading edge. Let’s just say the Monbrison lets you in on more of the performance.

Sometimes all this information may make it seem like it is not quite as transparent or clear, as its little brother, the Aurieges-L. I do not think this is the case, but there is no doubt the Aurieges-L is a little leaner sounding then the Monbrison. I think this might be the real explanation for this perception.

SCALE, DYNAMICS, POWER

These are other areas where you get more from the Monbrison than you do from the Aurieges-L. To put it simply, like the Shindo Cortese amp, the Monbrison has a big, dynamic, powerful sound. Instruments have a life-like size. A good orchestra recording will defy the fact that my room is only 15 feet wide. Part of why it can do this is the incredible dynamic range and the micro-dynamics that allow the music to come to life.

No two ways about it, my system is a little bigger, a little faster, and a little more dynamic with the Monbrison. Do all this scale, dynamics, and power come at a cost? Well the obvious cost is about $5,000 dollars extra over the Aurieges-L’s. What I was really asking though was if there were sonic cost. I don’t think so, other than my system is less tolerant of recordings that are bass heavy than it is with the Aurieges-L. The Aurieges-L tightens the bass in comparison to running the WAVAC without a preamp, while the Monbrison doesn’t tighten or warm up the bass by comparison to the WAVAC alone, but it does allow it to be more dynamic and more powerful.

THE MIDRANGE AND TOP-END

“Pretty, beautiful just gorgeous”, oh I forgot I’m writing for audiophiles. I should say it is fluid, sweet, with lots of presence. I could try to use all the right words but the truth is the Monbrison’s midrange and top end are just plain beautiful. In the review of the Aurieges-L, I said, “It is the midrange that I have the most trouble describing. For it is here that the Aurieges does its magic that I have not heard in other components in my system; it’s something to do with breathing life into the system. Small differences can be heard in voices and breathing; instruments have rich harmonic structure”. This magic is very similar in sound to that of the very best 300B SET amps. Friends, there really can be magic in those glass bottles and the Monbrison’s let you hear even more of it than the Aurieges-L did, which honestly blew my mind.

Not only could you hear the magic I have described above. The Monbrison, like all the Shindo products I have heard, has an amazing way of just letting you relax and listen to music. It makes it very hard to take notes when doing a review because before you know it, you’re just listening to the music. It invites you to listen deep into the emotions of music.

When reviewing the Shindo Aurieges-L linestage, I commented that voices were almost scary real with the Aurieges-L and the WAVAC MD300B. This is one area I can’t say that the Monbrison betters the Aurieges-L, but it is its equal.

SOUNDSTAGING AND IMAGING

Here is an area where you also get more with the Monbrison than you do with the Aurieges-L. It’s not so much that the soundstage is wider or deeper, but that it’s bigger. It lets you hear more of the hall, more of the air around the instruments, and more of the breath that makes a system sound more like real music.

In my review of the Aurieges-L, I said, “I don’t want strings floating around in some black velvet space like some modern painting that show strings and notes but no instrument or musician. I want to hear the body of the guitar, I want to hear the floor under the bass, I want to hear the sound of the strings inside a piano. This the Aurieges does better than any preamp I’ve ever heard in my system. To tell the truth, I had no idea my system could even do some of this.” It’s not like the Monbrison leaps beyond this, but it does all of this just a little bit better and the total is an even more enjoyable musical experience.

LET’S TALK ABOUT THE BASS

It seems like in every review there is some part of the reviewing I struggle with. Remember, the word to compare the Monbrison to the wonderful little Aurieges-L is more. Well, the one thing my system and room does not need is more bass energy. On all the recordings I use to listen for bass quality, the Monbrison was perfect; but on many modern non-classical recordings there was just a little too much bass energy. So, this was the one place that I had to work to be able to enjoy this wonderful preamp.

I started by inserting the new power cable from Shindo. In the past, I have spent a lot of time comparing cables, and I have to admit I have reached a point in my life that I had rather go to the dentist then compare cables, but sometimes both are a necessity.

Well, the new power cable did not totally fix the bass in my system; but it did something I don’t remember a power cable doing before. It improved the overall coherency of the system. Which, of course, means the bass now fits in the whole better. I do want to say that it’s not a huge difference from the stock Shindo cable; but if you’re trying to get the last drop of performance out of your system, it does help. Now that I think about it, who would spend $7,900 for a preamp and not be willing to pay $400 more to get the last bit of coherency out of it?
Next, I inserted the AUDIA Flight CD One to replace my Sony. I want to say that took care of the problem; but it lacked a little of the nuances in the bass that the Monbrison and the Sony VSEI 4.5 SACD can give you. So back went in the Sony and I thought I would try another amp.

The Audion PX25 tube integrated amplifier was in for review, so I put it in and gave it a listen. What a beautiful-sounding amp, but this isn’t its review. This change merely moved the energy to a lower frequency.

The Monbrison is so very revealing, that with each of these changes, it lets you hear the difference in the amps and CD players. I think this is important, because that means all this beauty that I talk about with the Monbrison, there is nothing imposed on the music by the preamp, but comes from how much the Monbrison lets you hear it.

In the end I solved the bass problem, with speaker towed-in and moved six inches closer to where I listened. I probably should have started the review by trying this; but I think I at least learned a lot about the quality of this preamp from trying different amps and players. In the end, I want to repeat that, I think the problem with bass energy is more with my room than the preamp, and with much work I was able to get wonderfully natural bass.

Why would I work so hard to get the bass right and not just go with my first impression that it had a little too much bass energy? Well, two reasons. First, it would not have been fair to Shindo or to you if the problem turned out to be my room. The second reason was entirely selfish and personal. This preamp plays music so beautifully, I would love to own it. I don’t know if I will ever figure out how to afford it, but just in case, I wanted to be sure I could make it work. The good news is I did. The bad news is I still can’t afford it.

SPECIFIC EXAMPLES

I’ll continue this review like others with one of my favorite SACDs the King of the Cellist, Starker plays Kodaly. As I’ve said before, this is the most beautiful recording 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 Monbrison, like the Aurieges-L, lets you experience this performance with so much emotion. The cello is warm, beautiful, and quick with an even greater sense of breath and space around and within it. The finger work and bowing is heard in such a dramatic way that just draws you into the music. As with the other Shindo products, you can hear layers and textures of the tones, as you hear the differences the bow makes as it passes over each string.

The violin is sweet, and extended easily into its upper registries without even a hint of being bright or strident. It is very intense and even aggressive, as it should on this piece, and the pace and timing is uncanny.

Another disc I’ve used before is Ella and Louis. The special edition Verve is a beautiful Japanese SACD. On cut 2, ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day,’ the Monbrison lets us hear Ella in all her glory and the Satchmo seems to be right in the room with me. The overall experience is to just want to sit and listen for a long, long time.

On the wonderful Nickel Creek self-named SACD, just listen to cut three, ‘Out of the Woods’. The inter play of the voices is so beautiful, it is so easy to hear each one, although not like their separate voices, but rather with all the harmony that you should hear. The blue grass instruments just seem to come to life in your room.

SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS

First, I have now reviewed three Shindo products, two preamps and an amp. I purchased the Aurieges-L and while I hope I can figure out a way to keep the Monbrison, I can honestly say I can live with the Aurieges-L for the rest of my life and be happy.

Second, as I said earlier you need to read my review of the Aurieges-L to completely understand this review. Every thing I said about the Aurieges-L is true of the Monbrison. You just get a little more with the Monbrison.

Third, upon further listening I think the Monbrison with the Audia Flight CD One is a pretty special combination. It is different from the VSEI Sony 777, but every bit as good. It is better in some areas and not as good in others, but overall the Audia and Monbrison are quite wonderful without any of the extra bass energy of the Sony/Monbrison combo.

Then lastly, I have not commented on the phono stage of the Monbrison, because at this time I’m not set up for records. It has both a MM and a MC phono stage. In fact it has an excellent phono stage. How do I know you ask? Well, I’ve listened to the top of the line Shindo preamp in the full Shindo system over at Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco. I have also heard the same system with the Monbrison, and it more than holds its own.
Which brings us back to the quote from Jonathan Halpern. When he said, “as you listen to the Monbrison in your system you’ll hear that same Shindo way with music . . .”. And I want to add: it is a very beautiful way indeed.

In the end, I bit the bullet and said “what’s life without payments”, so I rationalized that, as a reviewer, I need a preamp at this level. So I bought it. A little scary because I now have no excuse not to have a turntable, well that’s not your problem. I don’t want the fact that I purchased the Monbrison to take anything away from the Aurieges-L. In fact I’m about to review the Shindo Montiel amp which, when paired with the Aurieges-L, cost about the same as the Monbrison, and you get an amp and preamp that really know how to play music.

HOLD THE PRESS!

After already turning in this review I got my VSEI 5+ update for the Sony SCD 777ES (The Sony VSEI 5+ Review was published before this review. –Editor). If this had been my source for the review there would have never been any question about the bass. With the 5+ installed in my system, I have the best bass I have ever heard in my room or from the Audio Note E speakers. I would love to hear the Monbrison and the Shindo Cortese together now that I have 5+ for a source.

This should tell you two things. First, there is definitely no problem with the Monbrison’s bass. Truth is, with the right source, it has the best bass I have heard. Second, it tells of how neutral the Monbrison is. With all three sources I used, it was so easy to hear the differences of each source from the other.

I know this is the review that will never end, but let me add that the unit I purchased was not the review unit. It was a slightly used Monbrison and I just want to add I enjoy music in my system more each and every time I listen. I give a large dose of the credit for this to the Monbrison.

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