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Kansui - A true masterpiece

I listen to CDs much more often then LPs these days as the silver discs always produce consistent sound that I need in order to continue tweaking my room acoustics to achieve a more balanced & natural sound from my treasured horn system. Very recently, during a once-a-year lunch with the AE duo, JLam told me to try the Miyajima-Lab's latest product, the Kansui, PT added this is Miyajima-san's best works todate. As a very satisfied user of the famed Shilabe MC, I just could not say no to this proposition to become the first Kansui owner in H.K.

Last week, just before the Lunar Chinese New Year, PT gave me their 1st Kansui and requested me to write a few lines on my initial impression of this supposedly fantastic cartridge.

Let's start from the absolute beginning on the subject of vinyl playback, in my very honest opinion, this is not for the ordinary audiophiles, I always stop short of taking the piss at those so-called audiophiles who acquired an LP system for the sake of showing to himself or others that he is a serious person in hi-fi but many LP systems I had auditioned sounded rather poorly. Let's do an acid test quickly, if your LP system sounds as good as or worse than your CD player, then you'd better concentrate on CDs and continue to make your system sounds better, period. If you don't have many Philips label LPs and never/seldom use the reverse phase (180 degree polarity) switch, you should sell your old DECCAs, EMIs and DGGs, COLUMBIAs, Sheffied Labs etc to me.

A vinyl playback system is a mechanical system, it requires a lot of attention and continued minor fine-tuning in order to obtain/maintain optimum performance, this is why I usually spin my LPs no more once a week after I have achieved better overall sound from my hi-fi system using CDs. The VTF & VTA adjustments must be done by using CDs as reference, otherwise, the vinyl sound will not be faithful to the original recording (this assumes you're using the same interconnects). Those who try to play LPs during the cold spells which hit H.K. in December/January would have had an unsatisfied time spinning his records as cartridges are designed to be played above 20 Celsius, (optimum tracking comes at 25 Celsius), if below 15 degrees, it sounds just plain cold and harsh.

Big turntables have large surface area and this will block/reflect the sound wave, so most big turntables sound a bit funny to my ears unless it is housed in a separate room instead of the listening room. Before you start nagging me for digressing the topic of giving my initial impression of the Kansui cartridge, the point I want to make is it is pointless to evaluate this cartridge or any cartridge/arm/turntable for that matter unless you have a balanced set up, otherwise, all you hear will be incorrect recording. Inverse phase in the recording is a very COMMON phenomenon, if you can't hear the difference when playing CDs or LPs, you are not qualified to be called an audiophile but a hi-fi junkie (hope you understand what I mean by that).

Hi-fi to me is more than a hobby, it is part of my daily living, just like your wife, your kids, in other words, it is part of the family. My beloved other half has completely embraced my big horn system as part of the family, I hope some of you out there understand this reasoning. So if your hi-fi system sounds awful, can you imagine your other family members will suffer too because they have to put up with this damn sound.

The latest Zanden phono pre-amp with its proprietary equalization curve makes it 'easily' the best on the audio market when you play LPs which were not recorded with the usual R.I.A.A. curve. Yamada-san had made extensive studies on old recordings as well as those made in the late 70's & 80's, many labels did not adopt R.I.A.A. curve in the 50's, 60's, 70's and even 80's, that was why even though I had acquired many LPs, half of them did not sound good. Yamada-san further explained to me several years ago in the tube era, big labels such as DECCA, EMI, Deustche Gramophone used their own in-house equalization curve in their recordings and all of them were in reverse/inverse phase, you can easily check this out when you play CDs with old recordings of the abovementioned labels, immediately, you can hear the sound in reverse phase sounding MORE natural, they have more natural timbre and the bass fuller, period. Those audiophiles whose systems or CD players which lack the inverse switch will need to reverse the speaker cables to speaker terminals, those with complex or active systems may not want to do this in case you make some irreparable damage in case of accident. Those with many Sheffield Lab direct cuts (myself included) will be loathed to know (this is true) the recordings were in reverse phase as well as EMI curve was used in the cutting, very strange, only Zanden's phono can reveal the true recording of Sheffield Labs. I am sure most of you middle-age folks out there have the Thelma Houston's
'I've got the music in me'. When I first heard this LP in 1976/77 on the best-in-the-world Linn/NAIM/Isobarik active & passive systems, it sounded very explosive on the Linn/Breuer/Supex but it gave me a severe ear-ache ! Now, with Zanden phono's setting on EMI & reverse phase, it brings back the organic sound esp. in the female vocal and the bass is really dynamic without any hardness in the sound.

After reading the very limited description of the Kansui and the design objective, I can feel Miyajima-san and myself plus some of you folks out there are the same animal, we just love music and are very passionate about it, otherwise, it would be impossible to reach where we are today. Some people said to me after they had heard my systems, they could not turn on theirs for a week because their systems sounded very bad in comparison because, in most cases, they hardly spent much time in tuning their system & room acoustics.

Moving coil cartridge is the MOST DIFFICULT audio piece of equipment to evaluate, take for instance, I know there are many satisfied users of EMT cartridges out there, however, to my ears and those who had heard the 2 EMTs mounted on the Thales, the sound was clinical and cold. The point I want to make is it is almost impossible to evaluate the true performance of any cartridge unless you have mounted it on different tone arms. By a sheer stroke of good luck, the Thales & Shilabe combo was a perfect match and swapping the Kanusi to the Thales which has the same cartridge weight, the adjustment was a pretty straight forward exercise but my shaky right hand tells me I should resort to younger experienced hands in next 2-3 years time.

To quote Miyajima-san's remarks of his latest product, " Balance, stillness, etc... When you listen to a magnificent orchestra, I think that you understand it." I had played several LPs using the Shilabe to gain my last impression of this superb cartridge which has served me very well in last 16-18 months, the bass can be improved and perhaps transparency plus a wee bit more detail n extension but there is NO perfect cartridge in this word, Shilable, in my listening bias, trounces other cartridges in terms of musicality, musical flow, body texture n dynamics. The 1st LP I played after mounting the Kansui (without breaking the delicate tone wiring) was Sounds Unheard Of, this was HP's one-time test disc with its dynamics, soundstage and timbre. Immediately, I could hear the new cartridge exhibited better transient attack, faster/more real tempo, dynamics and layering. So far so good, after checking everything was set out correctly ( I hope so), I simply let the cartridge break in for half a day.

In the evening, when I played several classical pieces consisting orchestral & live orchestral recordings, I was mildly stunned by how much more life like the music became, one of my 'recent' favourite was the Gala Stradivarius LP, after playing it to Yamada-san last year, he told me the recording was in EMI curve and in reverse phase, wow, the sound of the various Strads was just plain gorgeous, usually, most recording of this much sort-after instrument, esp. on CDs sounded hard and lacking in wooden body, however, the sound coming from the Kansui was the closest (still nowhere near the real sound) I had heard in any hi-fi systems. If you are familiar with the Barbican hall, at least recordings made there, the sound is warmer and bass woollier than other concert halls, the recording captured the ambience of the Barbican vividly, the layer of details by the small English Chamber Orchestra could be heard with ease. It was getting late in the night, so best to leave the very loud (100 decibel+) orchestral music until the next day.

Day 2, in the wee hours of the morning, I started playing Isome vocals, Belafonte At the Carnegie, this RCA recording was cut in R.I.A.A. (always is the case) but in inverse polarity (same for the CD), the abovementioned attributes were all there, layers and layers of details especially audiences from different elevations could be heard and the dynamics of Belafonte's whistling/horn section was mind blowing, very dynamic and without sounding hard. To confirm my tentative listening impression, I put on the Rossini Overture by Pierino Gamba, the favourite track was William Tell, this DECCA vinyl was cut in DECCA curve and in reverse phase. In order to qualify my assessment of this piece of music and the recording, I had actually heard it perform live twice in last 2-3 years, the opening cello was then accompanied by another cello (singing together) and later on, the massive big horn section depicting an Alpine thunderstorm was played in absolute loudness, the sound pressure level easily exceeded 110 decibels in the concert hall when you sit on the 1st 8 rows and man, when I turned up the volume to similar bloody level, it was simply unbelievably loud but without sounding hard. No cartridge I had used or heard can play very loud music without compression and the Kansui reins supreme in this area.

To be frank, I'm not an opera fan because only the BEST systems can reproduce the amazing dynamics of the sopranos and baritones, I had the opportunities of hearing a live baritone in my living room and soprano at the H.K. Cultural centre singing her heart out in front of a 100-piece orchestra, trying to reproduce this kind of listening experience in your home system is a non starter. However, the Kansui can really reproduce opera very well but I really didn't have the time to further fine tune my room acoustics as I am too busy feeling good by simply playing other types of music. Last but not the least, I was very surprised to hear the decays of triangles and bells better reproduced by the Kansui than any cartridges and CD combos, it must be the speed of the cartridge which allows very fast sound of the ringing tone to be heard in a more truthful form.

Well folks, this is it, the Kansui has completely won over my heart. To those with the Thales arm, you do not do justice to this fine arm without partnering it with the Kansui. I would hazard a guess those tonearms with damping trough are incompartible with this cartridge. In closing, I would like to express my greatest admiration for Miyajima-san for creating this cartridge for his OWN use and his admirers are able to appreciate this real masterpiece. Trust me, there is NO best cartridge in this world (like your wife/girlfriend) but by god, this is one of the very very small handful of the finest tranducers on the market regardless of price, but in terms of bang for the buck, it is the undisputed winner for an impoverished man like me. The Kansui produces a very organic sound on all instruments especially when you play violin, drums and saxophone, I have never heard any other cartrideges which can better Kansui on such reproduction and it can always play loud music without a trace of hardness or hardness. It is easily the most 'dynamic' cartridge with incredible bass attack among other top cartrides on the market.

Lastly, in order to further understand and appreciate the design goal of this Miyajima-Lab's top model, I looked for the English meaning of Kansui, in Japanese and Chinese characters, it is 完遂 , the English meanings are " complete, completion, perfection, accomplishment ". There is no doubt in my mind this is Miyajima's best works and to this noble designer, his quest to create a dream catrtidge to staisfy his most demanding musical taste has finally come to an end, it is his journey's end, he and some fortunate few can really hear and appreciate vinyl reproduction the way he has longed for, thank you for making such a fine piece of audio equipment to connect me closer to recorded music.

Mr Z

Comments

  • I did not anticipate such a detail and thoughtful reply. Bravo! Mr.Zanden - you are the man!
  • Mr. Z,

    I am astounded by your candid, clear and detailed observations which also reflect a dedication, depth of experience and understanding of nuance that is rare even in a hobby with so many dedicated audiophiles. Thank you for taking the time to educate many of us.

    I am one of those who is focused on CDs, not vinyl for precisely the reasons you articulate...do it right or do not do it at all.

    Nevertheless, i found i even learned something about CDs from your valuable post. i will be sure to take my Zanden DAC's phase switch and use it when listening to older recordings from the labels you mention. Look forwrd to trying it! Best wishes and keep writing.
  • Can we use heater during vinyl playback when the weather is cold?
  • DSo is also using the Kansui in his Da Vinci Gabriel Analog system. He mounted the Kansui on the Grandezza arm. He was pretty much shocked by the ultra performance and had at least sent me three to four SMS complimenting the creation of this great transducer.
  • Hello fellow AE comrades,

    Thanks vm for your feedback on my write up. I rec'd this mail from an overseas reader of AE forum n would like to share with you, perhaps some of you would be kind enough to say a few words as I find it inappropriate to comment on something I am not familiar with.

    Mr Z

    Forwarded mail :

    Dear Mr. Zanden,
    I have read your review of the kansui on the audio exotics forum. I'm using the shilabe too which I love and my vinyl system is much more musical than my excellent digital system (CEC TL1 + different dacs). However, I do not use a balanced system neither my preamp has a phase inverting switch.I'm fully aware of the problem of both different curves and phase difference and I have recently tried the AMR phono stage with different RIAA curves, but wasn't satisfied with it regardless of that apparently attractive feature. I use now mainly a simple valve phono stage with an mc transformer and I thought that the option of changing the curve with the AMR pre was not worth the effort. Also, a phase switcher would be nice and I imagine relatively easy to implement in my unbalanced system, but it's also nice not to worry about it... :) In any case, I was just wondering about what you said about the kansui, or any cartridge, needing both a balanced system and a phase inversion switcher in order to make sense. Don't you think that's a little too much? A completely differential balanced circuit (which I take is what you're talking about) might have many advantages, particularly regarding the potential noise from ground signal. I have indeed tried once in my system a vacuum state amp and preamp (truly balanced, i.e. differential) and it was indeed very good. However, it wasn't necessarily better than my non-balanced system. It's true that I had to spend a lot of time with the right ground setting in my system, but once that's out of the way, I fail to see the advantage of balanced connections, which, in and of themselves, are inferior to RCA in my experience. So did you really mean that or was just being polemic?
    best,
    JM
  • Hi Mr. Z,

    Here is my own "two cents" as we say in the States and the UK. From what I have experienced and understand, balanced connections do tend to be quieter...a strong benefit from a noisefloor perspective. This is why i believe recording studios most often use them...partly because there is so much ground noise and other noise due to the dense grid of wiring and electrical equipment in a professional studio.

    From my reading, I am aware that certain experienced reviewers (i believe one of them may be Jonathan Valin from The Absolute Sound) prefer single-ended connections...something relating to more natural tonality.

    Further, Zanden DAC is single-ended out only as are all Conrad Johnson components, and a number of well respected, high-end designs. And as far a noisefloor goes, in the case of Shindo, the noise floor is exceptionally low, even with the SE interconnects...119db signal-to-noise ratio across most of their preamps.

    In the end, to address this email, my "two cent observation" is that while there is a clear technological advantage to balanced circuits being lower noise floor...the enormous complexity of developing and implementing true world-class designs entails so many variables, that i am inclined to agree: there are many legitimate paths towards audio "perfection"...and those paths clearly include both SE and balanced inputs.

    As for phase inversion, i think that is different. In your email, you suggested that certain recordings from Decca were actually phase inverted...which means having a phase inversion switch (or just reversing speaker cables) was critical to actually reproducing the recording properly. In that case, i have a strong suspicion this is a more "black and white" issue: if you are playing both normal phase and phase inverted music, then having a switch to go both ways without having to switch speaker cables is better.

    Again, my two cents.
  • I guess that is a mis-understanding here. What Mr.Zanden refers to is a "balanced sounding" system in terms of tonality. He is not referring to full balance differential operation circuitry is a must. The Zanden preamp is definitely not a true balance design even though they offer XLR connection to the amplifier.

    What is a balanced sounding system involves certain degree of subjectivity, but then this is another issue.
  • Hello JM & Lloyd,

    Thank your for your feedback. After re-reading my rather lengthy write up, I can understand some of the readers may have interpreted the word/adjective 'balanced' which was not intended to be meant the system is wired by with balanced. I have used both balanced & RCA connectors in the past n my current sysytem is fully connected with RCA interconnects as they are most suited in a single-ended sysytem. The part I refer to is :

    "unless you have a balanced set up, otherwise, all you hear will be incorrect recording. Inverse phase in the recording is a very COMMON phenomenon, if you can't hear the difference when playing CDs or LPs, you are not qualified to be called an audiophile but a hi-fi junkie (hope you understand what I mean by that)."

    A balanced set up was meant to be a properly set up system, however, pls do NOT take this description lightly as nealy ALL mega-buck systems I have heard in the past & present are not properly set up (except mine cos I have audio experts & myself thoroughly checked every single connection part) . A worngly set up system I refer to is RCAs and/or speaker terminals are not connected in the right direction or in a more complex system, jumpers are incorrectly wired, not to mention some of the power lines are in the wrong phase. The mega-buck Tidal system was also incorrectly wired on ots debut day, could you not hear the sound was not quite natural & the bass was not there to put it mildly.

    On the subject of whether one shud use reverse phase switch when listening to some old recordings or new recordings for that matter, well old farts always argue there is no such need. All old recordings made in the "tube era", for instance, DGG, EMI, DECCA, TELDEC plus many U.S. labels were recorded in reverse phase n if you always listen to them in normal phase n find the sound glorious, either you have wired your speaker cables the wrong way round or you can be called a 'cloth ear' by me.

    If your system is properly connected n if you start listening to the abovementioned old recordings in reverse phase like Belafonte Live in Carnegie Hall, hopefully, you will be thrilled to hear the sound now is more natrual & dynamic sounding. Pls re-listen your old 1st issue CDs or LPs which were made in reverse phase n hear them again in reverse phase, you will appreciate these recordings much much more.

    Happy Listening.

    Mr Z
  • The Kansui is real good.
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