To tell me what I needed to know -- where and how the Crescendo differed from my PRe6 -- I'd listen for not subtitles but subtleties: Microdynamic expressiveness; minute inflections in a singer's voice; low-level cues in the handling of a guitar, the fingers sliding over the fret board, notes vibrating the physical carcass, movements of the player's body; indicators of recording venue size, the positions of the performers within in, the placement of the microphones ... all of which required a good recording with plenty of such nuance data. Dulce Pontes to the rescue, my favored fadista - 1999's O Primeiro Canto to be specific [MCA 314 543 135-2]. It's one stunner of an unconventional, multi-faceted recording that mixes Portuguese and Brazilian flavors with Celtic harp, Indian tablas, Basque accordion, Swedish bag pipes, Australian didgeridoo and of course the dulcet pipes of Dulce.

"Tirioni" is a melancholy folk song with an ancient-feeling cyclical motif. Like duduk player Djivan Gasparyan tends to, it too generates amazement, about how a simple melody restricted to the span of one octave could spin into such endlessly diversified variations. Dulce overdubs herself in the end while acoustic guitar, Mora and Celtic harps as well as Aztec and German flutes interweave in the background. It's one of those less-is-more numbers. Its a Chinese-dolls, world-inside-a-world-inside-a-world that unfurls its secrets precisely because of the structural simplicity.

But despite the abundance of micro details to key in on -- depth of field, placement, tiny shaker sounds receding into pianissimos -- I couldn't verifiably distinguish between either preamp except for one growing suspicion that had to do with a certain umbrella element of tone. There was something about the PRe6 suggestive of the word silvery - as in airy and gossamer-spun. The Crescendo meanwhile felt more robust and earthbound. Usually, reactions with this type of 'emotional' subtext tend to be unreliable. Here it was something pervasive that endured through quite a few repeats and wouldn't shake. It had nothing to do with soundstage width, frequency domain shifts, little details, transient precision or rhythmic tension. Rather, it was a thing of character - not relative to anything in particular but a mild overall flavor.

I suspected a very minute difference in high-frequency extension, or perhaps a different distribution of upper harmonics. Since this track didn't feature emphasized treble airiness, I looked elsewhere - to pixie-queen Sarah Brightman's newest, Harem [7243 5 37180 2 2] and "Journey Home" in particular. From the very opening, the Bel Canto proved more extended on top which, naturally, had the effect of rendering Sarah's voice more annoyingly breathy and anorexic than before (you can tell I'm not a fan by a long shot but willing to suffer for the cause). Going back to the iLungo was like rubbing off some of the over-produced sexpot gloss - less ethereal, more embodied. When the Pop machine 1-2-3-4 bass boom-boom kicked in, the PRe6 proved to be possessed of a tad more definition - not weight or scale but crispness of attack.

The bit of dynamics surviving this dreck weren't at all diminished by the passive. Still, for a bona fide test in that metier, I'd clearly need something far more meaty than a self-conscious Pop diva's close-miked sighing: Classical. Of all his later symphonies, Antonin Bruckner nearly committed a quickie with his 6th. He approaches the furor of his first climax in little less than a minute - perfect to test, in a hurry, the dynamic range, from the opening tremolo at utmost pianissssssimo to the martial blaring of the full-throttle brass chorus [Eliahu Inbal, Radio-Sinfonie Frankfurt, Teldec Classics8.44251]. Here the Crescendo put a lie to notions of passive inferiority. It powerfully lived up to its name: Scale and oceanic swell were every bit the equal of the Bel Canto. The only items of difference? A smidgen of tarnish on the bite of the brass which the PRe6 rendered with more heated intensity. Accordingly, there was a bit more burnished string glow to the iLungo.

Calling the BCD lit up by comparison would be calling a silver dollar bright without first causing a deliberate reflection with a powerful camera flash. Calling the iLungo hooded or dark would be reestablishing the Ku Klux Klan - criminal and entirely uncalled for. These differences were far smaller than gross strokes would capture. Though audible to different degrees depending on material, they required a fair bit of listening to tease out and wouldn't strike the casual witness as obvious at all - quite unlike inserting the Eastern Electric MiniMax tubed preamp that does create an instantly recognizable effect as the forthcoming review will describe.

What the iLungo Crescendo deserves is a lengthy dissertation on what happens when the resolution of a system allows listening at subdued levels with the clear recognition that the curtains have long since risen. You needn't turn up the volume to hear 'more'. It's already all present to be savored without effort or stress. Alas, this would soon degrade into a lyrical ode to the power and beauty of music. Shy of the noted upper treble softening, this Japanese masterpiece didn't 'do' anything I could pin on it. Whether the Bel Canto's comparatively farther reach into the stratosphere was activity on its part; whether the iLungo's falling slightly short was therefore lack rather than truth which the PRe6 embellished - who is to say?

What I will say ? At $5,000 versus $3,800 for the full-function multi-channel Bel Canto Design PRe6, the iLungo Crescendo didn't raise the bar over what I already enjoyed - and this despite all its admirable focus-to-the-extreme simplicity presumably in single-minded pursuit of uncompromised performance. What I already enjoyed included remote control, soft & full mute, more channels than I'll ever need, volume memory for each input, precisely repeatable output settings to 0.5dB ... the bloody list is a lot longer than my patience or yours.

Still, this doesn't invalidate Kusumoto-San's effort. It simply makes it a throwback, into an era when even the thought of convenience features was a sin to be confessed, the actual implementation thereof the abominable work of the low-fi devil. As a modern fella, I see no reason why performance-oriented audiophiles should believe in this rickety credo. In order to reach for the stars, you must sacrifice remote control, balance control and multiple inputs? Nonsense! If the Crescendo were priced at 2 rather than 5 big ones, I'd feel differently about its credo though the lack of multiple inputs still would be a limiting factor.

At $5,000? It's the antithesis of value though devotees of rare watches will argue that the worth of a hand-crafted object transcends commodity considerations and ventures into the priceless realm of pure Art.

And with that, I wouldn't argue a wee wit. The iLungo Crescendo clearly is an object d'art. It's utterly unique, in stark defiance of mainstream notions. That its performance essentially mirrors that of the most modern surface-mount components, hi-tech chip-based attenuators and robotically assembled circuit boards is shocking in its own way. That you sacrifice creature comforts of larger economics of scale is nearly a given. Just don't make those comforts the enemy as though equivalent performance could only be attained without them. In the end, the Crescendo strikes me as the work of a slightly old-fashioned gentleman with an extremely rarefied yet simple system, with a single but treasured source and a room veritably cluttered with thousands of CDs or records that are listened to from beginning to end without casual sampling and track flipping. Acquisitions are made but once and then lived with for the long term, changes and endless upgrades the bane of the sound-byte whippersnapper generation that's far too impatient to know what it wants and what really matters.

What matters is that the Crescendo is a singular performer. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, its slider control is a bit archaic. Yes, its small size and impeccable finish are unlikely to match anything else you have. Yes, to appreciate its beauty requires a bit of a Zen mind. And yehes, the mere notion of a single-input expensive passive will seem like a joke to some. Yet the performance is anything but a joke. It's as serious as the purity of mountain spring water which it recalls. Will this iLungo piece find an audience in our wild West? 47Lab has, despite similar charges of priciness. Does priciness prevent Rolex buyers? Certainly not. Why should it limit audio cognoscenti who value peak performance and the knowledge that, while perhaps paying more for it than really necessary, they'll also possess something exquisitely refined and obviously exclusive since it's crafted in only very limited quantities? If that describes you, here's my toast to you and yours - and those others with the means and taste to appreciate the Crescendo for what it is: An artisan's creation of radically minimalist audio art that eludes snob appeal by speaking to only the few who can appreciate its inevitability while consciously overlooking the latter's relativity.

PS: Due to the Crescendo's low input impedance of 10kohm, many tube-driven sources which in general prefer very high load impedances may display a slightly different treble or bass performance. The Zanden DAC likes to see a minimum of 10kohm per its specifications and could thus drive the Crescendo directly though I used it with the Ortho Spectrum AR 2000 as buffer/filter. It is important to note that passive preamplifiers cannot be considered in a 'vacuum' but are more susceptible to impedance matching than active devices. I've been told to expect a review sample of Kusumoto-San's DAC in the near future at which time I may revisit the preamp with a variety of different sources to report on the impedance interface issue. For now, the Crescendo is hustling back to Asia to make its appearance at the forthcoming Singapore HiFi show.

Manufacturer's website