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In the early 1980s while traveling to Brittany in the west of France during the holidays, Keith came across the French enthusiast audio magazines, most notably the well-known L´Audiophile. L´Audiophile had opened a shop in Paris to demonstrate their do-it-yourself (DIY) projects and to sell parts to the DIY- infected HiFi hobbyists of France. Listening to music at L´Audiophile over their system was a shock to Keith. He immediately realized that his HiFi system at home was a far cry from the musical realism and dynamic truths that L´Audiophile achieved so easily in their demonstrations of Altec/Onken & Voice of the Theatre systems powered by a 20-watt Hiraga amplifier & Kaneda preamplifier, with a Platine Verdier turntable spinning the tunes.

When Keith went back home to Germany and listened to his system, he "realized it was just a ping-pong music experience. It was not bad really but the main fault was that I had been focusing on soundstage as a general target. I was looking between instruments instead of listening to music. It was more of an audio-visual experience than the row twenty musical experience of a concert hall. After being touched by the experience at Maison L´Audiophile, there was no way for me to go back." Keith sold his gear and purchased a 20-watt Hiraga Le Tube, Kaneda DC1 [upper left], a 12-inch SME 3012 tonearm and a Denon 103 cartridge.

The Do-It-Yourself Quest for Musical Realism
Keith concentrated his energy on exploring the ideas he had learned about during his experience at L´Audiophile. About that time, Keith became aware of a German distributor for L´Audiophile's finished products: Les Réalisations de L´Audiophile. Keith contacted Kurt Hecker -- who is still president of the High End Society in Germany -- and explained his interest in selling the DIY products of L´Audiophile in Germany. Kurt eventually accepted the proposal and a business arrangement was struck. They also collaborated to produce a joint product: The La Petite L´Audiophile loudspeaker, introduced at the Frankfurt High End show of 1984. Keith & Kurt sold the La Petite speaker in a pre-assembled kit that used a Fostex 103 Sigma driver, which in spirit reminds Keith of the Omega Super 3 loudspeaker I reviewed here not many moons back. I see this particular event as a seminal event for Keith and as the beginning of his research into loudspeakers that would gain much momentum in later years.

Keith confessed that "we were not very successful at that time with just ten pairs of La Petites selling but it led to us meeting the staff of L´Audiophile. This proved to be another important breakthrough listening event. Philippe Viboud, Jean Hiraga and Gérard Chretien had brought their large Onken system, a car battery driven 8-watt Monstre and a solid-state amp." That encounter caused Keith to change his loudspeaker approach from the small single-driver La Petite loudspeaker to the big Onken. Keith thought that what Philippe, Jean, and Gerard were doing was fascinating. Other showgoers with a passion for the Krell and Levinson style of HiFi thought they were just a bunch of crazy French guys. It turns out they were crazy -- crazy like a fox-- by being on to something new and fresh in audio, something that focused on musical realism rather than the then-popular HiFi paradigm of audio-visual listening for sound.

The 300B Single Ended Triode (SET) Experience
Keith and his friend Norbert Gütte experimented with building sand-filled horns, Onkens & Voice of the Theatres with the goal of musical realism that was sparked by the fateful listening sessions at L´Audiophile. Over time, their relationship with the people of L´Audiophile became very close and in 1986, they suggested that Keith start doing the same demonstrations in Germany with the DIY projects that L´Audiophile had been doing in France. Not coincidentally, this was the same year that their 300B SET made its appearance in France. In 1986, L´Audiophile demonstrated a 300B amplifier using a Cetron 300B at their store in France. This signaled the rebirth of the 300B on French soil and a major transition point in musical realism for Keith. He said, "It was quite an education to hear that new 300B SET approach to amplification. We had gone from a 20-watt class A solid-state amplifier with an extremely large power supply to an 8-watt Monstre that was battery-driven and now to a 4-watt 300B SET amplifier.

That first 300B SET amplifier in our shop, connected to the Voice of Theatre, was just like a musical Christmas present. In the beginning, we handled it like Sunday shoes. The harmonic integrity and musical realism were astonishing. We went from using it for special demonstrations only to using it every day. Going back to our other equipment became so hard that we just gave up on it and stayed with the 300B." The German underground magazine "Das Ohr" [The Ear – Ed.] wrote articles about Keith's demonstrations with 300B SETs and high-sensitivity loudspeakers. More people in Germany became interested in this approach when they realized that the emotional satisfaction of the musical realism approach was much more gratifying than their prior focus on the audio-visual concept of HiFi sound had been. People voted with their money and Keith found successively more clients becoming interested in this new-old way of music reproduction.

While Keith felt he had made tremendous gains in musical realism with high-sensitivity loudspeakers and 300B SET amplifiers, he also believed that the analogue source needed similar attention. L´Audiophile helped Keith get in contact with Jean Constant Verdier. Jean had stopped producing his turntable in 1983 when digital became popular with audiophiles but Keith asked Jean if he would resume production for the music lovers. Keith felt that the Verdier approach to turntable design was important in getting the most performance out of the long 12-inch SME 3012 tonearms fitted with Denon 103 cartridges, which he thought evoked a greater sense of musical realism than other approaches of the day. The long SME tonearms were not usable on the Linns, Roksans, Oracles, etc. popular then and the character of those turntables were not what an SME/Denon combination required to perform at its best. Nearly 20 years have passed since that original request to resume production. Keith says that the Platine Verdier is still the most successful product he has in his product line.

Shindo appears in Germany
In L´Audiophile magazine, Jean Hiraga had been writing about Japanese audio and their tradition of tube amplifiers (mostly triodes) and highly sensitive loudspeakers. Keith owned some Japanese Stereo Sound issues with advertisements for Ken Shindo's Shindo Laboratory products. With a change of ownership at L´Audiophile, Keith anticipated eventual changes for his standing arrangement and began to explore other options. "We tried to contact Ken but everything took a bit longer than usual since we did not speak the language. Eventually we managed and in 1991, we acquired the distribution for Shindo Laboratory products."

"Where one comes from and where one goes to is one of the main problems of the pursuit of high fidelity. It's hard to predict what will be the next big breakthrough and where we should look for it," mused Keith. "At the time the DIY Sunday 300B was the best amp we could imagine and we didn't believe there was a chance of finding something better. We knew there were no better ones in Germany because we were the only ones who demonstrated SET amps. When we got the first Shindo amplifiers and connected them fresh out of the box, all of our taken-for-granted musical hierarchies were demolished. This was the next big breakthrough on our path towards musical realism. For us it was the end of DIY amplifiers - we simply surrendered to the obvious superiority of the Shindo Laboratory products. Ken Shindo founded his company in the early 1970s with the goal of building truly excellent tube amplifiers. Ken had totally different training, stock and knowledge than we did, and we had the feeling that in comparison to his knowledge, we had come on the scene much too late to compete with him and his early start." [A Japanese proverb Ken Shindo is fond of goes like this: "He who would go a hundred miles should consider ninety-nine as the halfway mark." - Ed.]

Keith admitted that after hearing the Shindo products, he thought that if he wanted to make a meaningful contribution, he would have to focus on loudspeakers instead of amplifiers. The market for loudspeakers was very different between Japan and Europe. It became his goal to find solutions in the European market that were "helpers for the little green amplifiers" from Japan. For example, the little Shindo Claret preamp had only two MM inputs. Given that the Denon 103 was Keith's favorite inexpensive phono cartridge (and a moving coil), he tried experimenting with a couple of different transformers from a German transformer producer. When Keith found a transformer he really liked, he sent samples to Ken Shindo to get his opinion. However, Ken Shindo speaks no foreign languages. His answer to Keith was to send the next Claret preamplifiers with holes in the panels so Keith's customers could add the transformers they wished - a non-verbal answer to a non-verbal question.

Keith pondered how Ken Shindo's amplification products could be so successful at interpreting reproduced music when other approaches struggled so much with it. Ken Shindo's design principles harkened back to an earlier era in audio. Keith believed those early principles were Ken's -- and now his -- key to musical realism for any personal future loudspeaker designs. Keith began to research examples of those early designs to see if he could find out what made them work so well. Keith also investigated classic cartridges & tonearms and EMT broadcast turntables. He investigated legendary loudspeakers like Klangfilms, Altec woofers & drivers in custom Onkens cabinets and Voice of the Theater loudspeakers. Keith researched how the Western Electric philosophy differed from the Klangfilm philosophy and how the Westrex London philosophy compared to that of Vitavox or Cinemeccanica of Italy. With those loudspeaker designs for example, Keith realized that the quality of the wood construction had a lot to do with the quality of the sound. This discovery prompted him to contact the American Plywood Association. He wanted to learn more about the different grades of wood available and which ones would be best for creating cabinets in the Golden-Era manner. Keith found out that the best grades of plywood were not exported to Germany. This initially made things a little more difficult but they found a solution. Keith demurred. "This is only one example of the many challenges we encountered as we refined our understanding of how to get the full musical realism that those early high fidelity designs of Wente & Thuras, Harrison and Maxfield were capable of."

They researched ideas as diverse as the operation of gramophones and electrical recording, electrical reproduction, the importance of tone to achieving an emotional response in film sound and the like. At this time, Keith realized how important tone was in evoking the full emotional response in cinema. Keith reminisced. "People voted with their feet by going to those cinemas where tone quality touched their souls." The sound systems for the cinemas of those early days were not mass-produced products. Only a few operators were able to afford a Lansing Iconic system in the 1940s. The prices for oil capacitors in the 1950s, for example, were very expensive compared to people's average salaries.

The HiFi industry of the 1960s and 1970s then departed from the finely tuned, expensive, hand-made and musically realistic high fidelity systems of the 1940s and 1950s. It turned to mass production, employing a lot of people to make its products. "It was the beginning of a change that would lead us to the consumer audio era of today with its digital amplifiers and kids who think the speakers of their iMacs are the golden standard. What I'd like to say is this: Listen to an original Altec 803 woofer with a paper surround or a 416 8C with a ferrite magnet and tissue surround using top quality electronics like Shindo. You will immediately understand what we have won and what we have lost."

Keith has gained many insights researching historic audio designs and the principles that allowed them to infuse the breath of life into the music. I got a momentary glimpse of what these historic designs are capable of in my all too brief encounter with the Siemens Klangfilm loudspeakers at CES a few years ago. Those huge Klangfilms produced a riveting emotional experience that left me with the realization that we have a long way to go to make up for the ground we lost in musical realism and emotive ability over the last 30 years. When will the next Klangfilm appear? Will it ever? Or perhaps it has already?