"This guy is one of the best audio designers alive and deserves to be known as such." Don Garber on Nori Komuro
"Komuro is most likely the best tube circuit designer alive. His design goals are always clean, clear, wide-band, low dynamic distortion, direct-coupled, stable, durable, and oh yeah, did I mention clean and clear? Totally unflappable. Not wet, not dry, not warm, not cool, not big or small, not front or back ... like clean, clear, running water! The absolute best there is with Snell, Spendor, KEF etc. I've had all his 845s and they are all the same -- PP, SE, Class A or AB2 or ???? -- like a spring-fed stream flowing past your house. You can see the colors of rainbow trout swimming between the rocks, all the way from your picture-window." Herb Reichert
"The Yamamoto A-08 stands alongside the Lamms, the Fis, the Wavacs, the Komuros, the Wavelengths and other handcrafted amplifiers in its aspiration to transmit the soul of music by embodying some of the soul of its maker." Art Dudley
Do you do what you love to do? For a living? If your answer is "yes", I hope you relish your good fortune. For those who answer "no", welcome to the living majority. Doing whatever it is you love to do and making a living at it is the real winning Powerball ticket. After all, no matter how much money you have, you still have to do something. And some people know what they love to do from the minute they can actually do anything. It sticks. So in a perfect world, each one of us would be guided through the course towards the marriage of love and living. Since this isn't in the game book so to speak, we fend for ourselves. And once the fending leaves us some leisure time, we dream. And some of us get back to that thing we love.
What if I were to tell you that one of the top tube amp designers in the world today wasn't spending all his time designing tube amps? "What a shame" you might say. Or maybe "no shit" depending on your mood or makeup. Well, according to some of our most experienced reviewers, other designers and some fairly intense collectors, Nori Komuro is that guy. And what if were to tell you he's dreaming again?
Noriyasu Komuro was born in Furano City/Japan in 1951. Furano is located on Hokkaido Island and known among other things as the lavender capital of Asia. And with the scent of lavender in the air, Nori built his first single-ended amplifier while in grammar school. This amplifier happened to be part of a super heterodyne radio he was building with parts scrounged from abandoned sets. Playtime. If you're wondering where this curiosity came from, so was I. My logical assumption was wrong. Nori's father was in insurance and had little interest in electronics. So the best I can figure, Nori just took to taking things that used to make music apart and putting them back together so they could make music again. Which may not be all that unusual. The fact that he stuck with this project for the year it took to fully understand the super heterodyne circuit, gather all the necessary parts and complete his project is, I'd suggest, less common behavior in a child.
By high school, Nori was building TVs and radios from salvaged parts. When a neighbor's TV set broke, Nori was asked if he could help. This first successful repair led to years of TV and radio repair jobs. Most notable about these formative years spent repairing multiple brands of sets was the experience of analyzing each circuit and each design to understand why they were breaking down; what made one design more reliable than another; and further, what made one perform better than another. As someone who finds design flaws unacceptable, this analysis would border on the obsessive. These were mainly tube-based circuits and sets and digging through their innards to revive and re-broadcast built the foundation upon which Nori builds to this day.
High School brought a love of new music, mostly American and European pop. Jimmy Clayton, the Velvets, the Tornadoes. Nori and his best friend Uchida formed a series of bands with Nori on bass. Radio was still the main HiFi and the building and repairing continued. But Uchida and Nori also began to talk about building HiFis to listen to all this new music on LPs; which designs were best and why, single-ended or push-pull; what tubes to use. It was just after High School when Nori and Uchida built their first dedicated audio amps from salvaged parts. Nori's was a push-pull 6BX7, Uchida's a single-ended 2A3. Once they compared amps, they realized as Nori put it, "the single-ended was our dream". So Nori built his own single-ended 211 amp. And when it was complete, Nori realized he couldn't plug it in. His hand and the plug in it were frozen in place as he tried to visualize and retrace each step he hade taken to make this amplifier. He tried to set the mental images of the building process in reverse to make sure he'd done everything correctly. To make sure that once power was flowing through this lethal-voltage circuit, it would make music, not a bomb. After 10 minutes of brow-damped reflection, he put down the plug and picked up a 5-foot extension cord and a futon. The cord positioned the amp farther away, the futon went on top of the amp. In went the plug and out came beautiful music. That moment, that feeling, that sound lit up Nori Komuro as he re-told this story some thirty years later. As if it'd happened this morning.
In college, Nori earned a BA in Electrical Engineering from Tokyo Electric Engineering College. His post college job as an engineer for the Nippon Mining Company lasted a few years until the trio of Nori, Uchida and Uchida's girlfriend, Sung Hee Lee, now a Rock'n'Roll band, decided to come to the USA in 1978. All the while many amps were built using the gear at hand, typically salvaged from radio and TV sets withd a variety of tubes - 6BM8, 6BX7, 42s, 6ZP1, KT66/88, 6L6, 845s, 2A3s... and the list goes on. And on.
NYC just like I pictured it
Soon after arriving in NYC, Nori got a job as an electrician while Uchida and Sung Hee found jobs in a Japanese restaurant. This was the Golden Age of buying Golden Age HiFi on the cheap and Uchida began collecting everything. His storefront/apartment was soon brimming over with classic audio gear. Over 600 sq ft were stacked 4 deep on both long side walls and piled up to the ceiling with Macintosh, Altec Lansing, Western Electric, Garrard and more. Among Nori's favored speakers were the Altec 604s. These were 15" drivers with Alnico magnets and coaxially mounted compression drivers (or duplex as Altec called it). These horn-loaded speakers were massive constructs and produced equally massive sound.
And Nori found tubes. By the warehouse full. Nearly abandoned store rooms tucked in and behind the junk shops of Canal Street were a veritable valve gold mine. The transistor had relegated tubes to dusty shelves and during these in-between years before the rebirth of tube-based HiFi in the USA that Nori would soon play a part in, tube hunters were a rare breed. Nori recounted finding piles of NOS RCA 2A3s laying broken on warehouse floors as well as the time he found a large stash of 45s and ST-50s in the back of an abandoned repairman's van. VT-25s, 10Y, VT-52/62s, 45s, 50s, 211s, 212es, 845s, 2A3s and 300Bs along with thousands of others there for the pickin'. And Nori selectively bought up his favorites which far exceed this brief list.
When you talk to Nori about tubes, about specific tubes like a 50 or a 10Y, he'll look away momentarily, pause and reflect. And then he'll speak about its particular beauty. As if during that momentary reflection he went into a vast warehouse, pulled this tube from its shelf and brushed it off to reveal its particular sonic signature. There's a reverence for the beauty contained in those bottles. You can think of Nori Komuro as one of their caretakers.
Fi at 30 Watts Street
Uchida had discovered the store called Fi and nearly had to drag Nori in. Nori was trying to avoid "the craziness" laying dormant in what is HiFi building. Don Garber was the proprietor of the store called Fi and Don recalls their first meeting: "I first met Komuro in, I think, 1992 when his friend Uchida-san brought him to the Fi store on Watts Street. Uchida had been there once before and wandered around looking at everything in the place, mostly the Thorens TD-124 with the SME 1002, but a few other things, and saying little but a few "ah, so's". When he brought Komuro in, he (Komuro) took about four or five steps inside, his eyes opened wide, and he said "Holy shit, for many years I have been doing this!" I should warn you that Komuro will deny this. I love to remind him of it since it's true."
I asked Nori about this and he does deny using this harsh language but concedes "If Don Garber said so, it is right." (If you had to go back and look for it, so did I. I didn't get it at first, stepping over shit being an everyday occurrence for most. When I asked Nori about this quote over the phone, I experienced one of the few moments of uncomfortable silence between us). Nori quickly became a permanent fixture in the basement of the store called Fi along with JC Morrison. In addition to their original creations, Nori modified a few vintage amps including a Dynaco ST-70 that our own Steve Marsh owned for a few years. It was also during his time at Fi that Nori went back to an 845-based amp. He built his first 845 in 1974. This new amp was a direct-coupled circuit which is something common to every amplifier Nori builds to this day. Think simplicity and purity.
While it's tempting to postulate the importance of the store called Fi and the role played by the three musketeers of the triode tribe -- Don Garber, JC Morrison, Nori Komuro and Herb Reichert -- that is a subject for another day.
Nori and JC Morrison teamed up for Dinosaur which saw a few irreverent ads in Sound Practices Magazine and unfortunately not much business. Perhaps the high-publicity point for Nori came at various audio shows including the Philadelphia Tube Audio Shows organized by Peter Breuninger in the late '90s and the New York Noise Shows put together by JC Morrison and Blackie Pagano which ran from 1999 through 2002. These were shows for enthusiasts and builders and everyone from Nori, JC, Herb Reichert and Don Garber to Dennis Had of Cary Audio, David Berning and Ralph Karsten of Atmosphere was present. Not to mention companies like Wavac and a host of home-brew builders.
One subject that Nori will expand upon is full-range performance. When recounting various show setups, Nori talks about the physicality of the music produced by his amplifiers, with seamless performance from bottom to top being the goal. As Peter Breuninger said, they "redefine punch and balls". Or Herb Reichert from his review of the Komuro push-pull 845 monoblocks in Listener Magazine (Winter 2000): "Bass is detailed: It's bass. Between 50 and 500 Hz there are a million and one shades of meaning and all of them are absolutely clear and present. 50 to 100Hz is just plain Wow!"
For a few years, In Living Stereo in NYC sold Nori's amplifiers to the discriminating few. I'm going out on a bit of limb here by digging into Audio Asylum archives but I was able to confirm the facts with a current ILS employee. While researching Nori Komuro online, I came across this post by K.T. on Audio Asylum from June 2003: "I did have a working relationship with Nori Komuro, however, when he had his amps at the Manhattan store I used to work at. He's a very nice and humble guy. His 845 push-pull amps were good sounders, alright. We lent them overnight to a guy in SOHO who had the $50K Audio Note Kassai silvers on big JBL Everest horns. The guy put in an order for the Komuros the next day."
Kondo-san and Nori were in fact friends. And I have to say this kind of one-upmanship is very far from anything Nori Komuro would ever have anything to do with. And you will never hear him speak ill of anyone. Ever. As a matter of fact, he's one of the kindest people I've ever had the pleasure to meet. And if you spend any time with Nori, you'll share his laugh. And you'll want to share in this manifestation of joy as it consumes Nori, completely convulsing and curling his body, eyes clenched shut for a prolonged moment of silent shudders. Eventually he uncoils, becomes still and with a twinkle in his eye takes a deep breath and regains focus.
What if I were to tell you that Nori has been approached by a number of manufacturers interested in licensing his circuit designs? Bingo! Perfect. Intellectual capital. An ideal situation. Right? Not exactly. You see, Nori Komuro does not want to be responsible for the safety of other people. The thought that a careless mistake could kill someone while working on a high-voltage amplifier of his design but not manufacture made this a no-brainer decision. So "No!" was the answer. If you want a Komuro amplifier, you'll have to speak to the man himself.
Komuro Audio Labs
All Komuro Audio Labs amplifiers are built to order. As fellow moonie Jeff Day put it, buying an amplifier from Komuro Audio Labs is like buying a hand-made guitar from a custom builder. Nori will build his 845 single-ended direct-coupled design as a stereo or monoblock pair, as a 211 version of this amp, as an 845 push-pull and other designs using the 300B, 2A3, VT-52 and other triode exotica on a custom basis. One such example was a request for a high-powered single-ended direct- coupled amp where Nori used the WE212e tube. Capable of generating 55wpc, this amp too is available. One common trait will be the use of custom wound transformers built to Noris specs and all hand-selected parts throughout. Every amplifier is built by hand, burned in and tested by Nori Komuro.
When ordering an amplifier from Komuro Audio Labs, you need to do a few things. Call Nori up and decide on a design. When you've agreed on the amplifier you'd like to own, a 50% down-payment is required. The remainder is due upon delivery. Lead time for a standard 845 SET monoblock is "about 2 months". If you're not a patient purchaser, keep in mind going in that you're dealing with a custom builder and 2 months can stretch to 10 weeks (or so). Further customization can extend this delivery time depending on the exact details of the changes. Pricing will also vary based on design. For a standard SET 845 monoblock, the current price is $9,800.
So why isn't Komuro Audio Labs another Kondo? Well, that's actually a difficult question to answer. Let's start by saying that Nori also owns and operates a successful electrical contracting business in NYC and he has a family to support. Then add the fact that it's not easy to make a living as an audio entrepreneur. You've got to have a penchant for self-promotion to start. I'll let Don Garber finish this chapter of our story: "Komuro and Kondo-san were friends. Kondo wasn't all that much of a self-promoter but compared to Komuro, he was P.T. Barnum."
"What has sound got to do with music!?" Charles Ives
I think we have to think differently about some people. Especially someone who's spent the better part of his life with a hand in a circuit whose sole purpose is to make music. Someone who designs from the heart because his mind and hands have been trained by years of doing. Just as we'd never judge a composer by the orchestra -- or in Charles Ives' case by the fact that he never heard a performance of his orchestral pieces during his most productive years -- I'd suggest you have to think about Nori Komuro apart from the Hi-End scene. The fact that his 845 amplifier was reviewed in the Absolute Sound and featured as the top-sounding single-ended triode amplifier in the industry's first single-ended amplifier survey is certainly a meaningful achievement. Maybe the fact that he's spent his life inside the circuit and in the glow of the glass means even more.
Each time I met with Nori Komuro for the purpose of filling in more pieces of this story, I failed miserably. Pre-planned questions and details were quickly abandoned for the sheer pleasure of his company. And Nori wasn't particularly interested in getting back to promotion or pretension either. They're just completely absent. Perhaps that's why so much of the meat and bones of typical audio analysis seems to evade Nori Komuro. In its stead, we find nothing but glowing praise for the man and the designer. On one hand, we can think it's a shame that Komuro amplifiers exist well outside the mainstream. On the other hand, perhaps that's exactly where they belong - in the homes of a discriminating and very contented few. Making music to dream by.
For those with the time and funds to play in this league, you can think of buying an amplifier from Komuro Audio Labs as buying a custom-made piece of audio art from a not-so-old master. Step right up.
Komuro Audio Labs can be reached at (718) 389-6389