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Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Esoteric UX-1, Yamamoto YDA-01, April Music Stello CDT 100|DA100 Signature
Preamp/Integrated: Esoteric C-03 (transistor), ModWright DM 36.5 (valves), Luxman SQ-N100 [on review]
Amplifier: Yamamoto A-09S, Yamamoto HA-02
Speakers: ASI Tango R, Zu Essence
Headphones: Audio-Technica WHT-1000, Beyer Dynamic DT880
Cables: Complete loom of ASI Liveline
Stands: 4 x Ikea Molger and butcher-block platforms with metal footers
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters, Advanced Acoustics Orbis Wall & Corner units
Room size: The sound platform is 3 x 4.5m with a 2-story slanted ceiling above; four steps below continue into an 8m long combined open kitchen, dining room and office, an area which widens to 5.2m with a 2.8m ceiling; the sound platform space is open to a 2nd story landing and, via spiral stair case, to a 3rd-floor studio; concrete floor, concrete and brick walls from a converted barn with no parallel walls nor perfect right angles; short-wall setup with speaker backs facing the 8-meter expanse and 2nd-story landing.
Review Component Retail: Ca. €4,000 [varies with VAT from country to country]

Luxman's retro-styled SQ-38u is the 11th installment of a now 25wpc EL34 push/pull integrated with auto bias and a classic Ultralinear Mullard circuit. The company first introduced it in 1963. Now the firm's current president Kazuyuki Doi has reinvented it for 2009. It includes a 2-stage PK-NF type MM/MC-hi/MC-lo phono stage with MM step up transformer and defeatable 30Hz rumble filter. There are tone and balance controls. There's a headphone output, rec/monitor loop and remote control for volume/mute. Very clever, a front panel switched pre-out/main-in loop avoids sound-degrading metal jumpers but offers a serious upgrade path (or even the option to insert a black box for crossover, room correction or similar latter-day DSP functions).

Full 16mm MDF-with-wood-veneer casing nostalgia extends to back-panel provisions for two pairs of speakers. The speaker off, A, B and A+B scheme is truly vintage. Ditto the mono switch and two auxiliary power sockets. The latter hark back to days before DC triggers. In a similar spirit, a 5 x ECC83 and 2 x ECC82 all-tube preamplification stage with phono transcends the passive pot+power amp concept which many modern integrated amps have embraced. The SQ-38 is a real vacuum tube preamplifier and power amp in a single 20kg chassis. Taking advantage of modern parts, input switching between phono and four line-level sources is accomplished by nitrogen-encapsulated relays for long life. The Luxman signature power LED ring from its famous 38 Series components is a tasteful yellow as is the volume indicator. "This is how they used to build stuff way back when, sonny. They don't make 'em like that no more." Such reflections from a crusty old timer would truly fit the SQ-38 to a u-were-there T-shirt.

Time for a brief history lesson. Luxman was founded in 1925 and over time, developed a strong reputation as an upper echelon electronics brand. By 1984, Luxman was acquired by the Japanese Alpine Company who wanted to leverage the by now famous brand name and compete against arch rival Yamaha in the volume export markets. This Luxman/Alpine branded but outsourced 'receiver'-level' product ended up selling at Cosco in the US and Richer Sounds in the UK. It soon undermined Luxman's earlier perfectionist branding and predictably also collided with the efforts of its existing high-end dealer network. Alas, this downward spiral never intruded in Luxman's domestic market. There only original Japan-made products represented the brand to maintain its image unblemished.

By 1995, Samsung of Korea had acquired majority ownership of the Lux Corporation and the entire English-speaking Japanese export team walked out. This killed off the brand's by now struggling export activities for good. In 2000, Alpine sold off its remaining interests and a private wealthy individual acquired majority ownership in Luxman from Samsung. This turned things around. By 2003, the Luxman board approved production funding of senior Luxman engineer Hashimoto-San's statement project, something he'd worked on as a cost-no-object dream for 18 years. This became Luxman's 80th Anniversary products which, in 2005, reopened the export markets beginning with Germany. The time for rebuilding the brand image with authentic high-end Luxman product in the West had begun.

By 2007, Philip O'Hanlon who provided this information reintroduced Luxman to the US after its long absence. By the end of this year, he will have signed 30 US dealerships. When asked what size of operation Luxman operates today, O'Hanlon who'd visited the Yokohama engineering and sales headquarters estimated a staff of about 50 strong in that facility alone. Manufacturing occurs in four different Japanese plants. This puts a lie to a statement on the German Hifi Studio website specializing in vintage audio which states that the revived Luxman company today manufactures 70% of its goods in China. In fact, the prior license for Chinese-built Luxman-branded product under the Alpine/Samsung alliances has long since expired. In 2009, Luxman once again is a privately held Japanese company. It designs and manufactures exclusively domestically.

The upshot of it all is that in Japan, Luxman's presence never faltered. Where it suffered serious dilution was in the export markets during periods of outside ownership. Then foreign markets were flooded with Luxman-branded but not Luxman built inferior products to ride on the brand's reputation and in turn destroy it. Incidentally, a number of ex-Luxman engineers became heads of their own valve audio brands during these tumultuous times. Atsushi Miura and Masami Ishiguro founded Airtight when Luxman first sold to Alpine. Taku Hyodo launched the Leben Hifi brand which even today shows cosmetic influences of vintage Luxman design cues. Tim de Paravicini who was involved with a number of earlier Luxman tube and transistors amps founded Esoteric Audio Research in the UK. End of historic detour.

Because the SQ-38u is the only 'arch vintage' styled component in the current Luxman catalogue, a matching CD player dubbed D-38 is slated for introduction later this year. It will feature tube and transistor outputs and display the glowing valve behind a small display window. This mirrors the small NeoClassico Series CD player. It too perfectly matches the SQ-N100 integrated valve amplifier in foot print and design to make for a complete system styled seamlessly (and whose two components otherwise wouldn't match with any standard kit, Luxman or otherwise).