I first encountered the enigmatic iLungo name during the research phase of an article on digital up/oversampling. iLungo Audio's Model 705-2 DAC [below] with twin Philips Double Crown ICs per channel showed up on an obscure list of non-oversampling digital converters. This included Yamada-San's Zanden Audio, Kondo-San's Audio Note and Peter Qvortrup's Audio Note. Three of the firms were Japanese, the now UK-based Audio Note merely a split off from the Nipponese original. This whole irreverent and contrarious notion -- of discarding digital filters and the parallel research to develop working solutions without them via unusual analogue reconstruction filters -- clearly had originated in the Land of the Rising Sun. Little did I suspect at the time that one day, I'd own one of these dream machines myself: Zanden's Model 5000 MkIII.

The man who made that possible -- Hideo Kitazawa of RTL Audio, close personal friend to Zanden's Mr. Yamada -- recently inquired whether I was interested in reviewing iLungo's passive preamplifier, the Model Crescendo 205 version S. He'd need it back for the Singapore show in October where said preamp would be hitched to Yamada-San's brand-new Zanden digital transport.

Was I interested? Was I dead yet? Naturally I was keen - and said Crescendo pre showed up in New Mexico's high desert a week later. Precious little can be gleaned from Kusumoto-San's website unless one reads Japanese. An inspection of the physical piece revealed completely counter-intuitve weight wedded to very petite dimensions: 8" deep (inclusive of RCA jacks) by 4.2" wide by 1.75" high (including the Sonorite feet composed of 10 layers of varying-hardness compressed leathers).

The monolithic casing reminded me of Furutech's aviation-grade aluminum alloy as used in their RTP-6 line filter. Finished in a slightly grainy texture, it's completely inert and solid as the proverbial rock. Here it's actually a rare copper/tin alloy seen in traditional military cannon manufacture. Its electromagnetic and resonance properties are said to be ideal for audio use. The surface is plated in layers of first copper, then gold, then Rhodium. Crescendo's glossy black and sealed underside seemed fashioned from some form of metacrylate/ Perspex, a high-tech material fancied by Wilson Audio and Pierre Lurné of Audiomeca. However, here it's merely described as a special non-metallic resin to avoid static electricity.

All internal wiring is iLungo's own Animato-12S pure silver with proprietary magnetic shielding. While immaculately finished and beautifully sculpted -- what with that V-shaped ridge surrounding the channel for the gold-plated volume slider and the company emblem as well as the model nomenclature and terminal identifiers permanently engraved -- the iLungo Crescendo is simplicity itself: One set of single-ended top-line WBT 1010 i/o ports with thick custom silver-over-nickel plating connected to resistive elements; and said slider control. That constitutes the extent of the end user accommodations. Simple is better. Yes? No?

Passive preamps tend to exhibit varying output impedance as a function of attenuation, hence long interconnects are usually recommended against to minimize frequency response aberrations in the speakers. The most critical ingredient in any passive is clearly the attenuator proper, commonly a (carbon or plastic) resistor-based affair. Kusumoto-San's unusual slider -- exhibiting hardly any resistance to touch and traveling a total of 4 inches along its groove -- seemed indicative of a unique approach which the master himself would have to explain if a translator could grasp the science.

Kitazawa-San now provided some general history. Established in November of 1996, iLungo Audio was built upon Kusumoto-San's 20-year engineering experience with Pioneer's Pro Audio and Visual Systems divisions. He specialized in analogue circuits but was also involved in the development of digital LSIs. This eventually led to the launch of his own iLungo 705 DAC that's developed quite a cult following in Japan since.

The name iLungo itself? It's a phonetic representation of how the letter "J" is pronounced in the Italian alphabet where it originally didn't exist and is now used in foreign words. This sly self-reference to being a rare word points both at the completely handcrafted nature of iLungo's products while also hinting at the country of origin - J for Japan.

Kusumoto-San's design philosophy for iLungo is simple: Focus on the ultimate musical -- rather than sonic -- experience and remain divorced from audiophile fashion fads. Instead, produce classic connoisseur objects of lasting appeal. For the Crescendo 205 version S with 10kohm input impedance, his objective completely gels with my personal views on what a preamp should do - not sonically interfere or interact with your amplifiers, not introduce any discernable self-sound but simply pass on the source signal with linearity and in all its delicacy, dynamic energy and depth. In Japan, the Crescendo sells factory-direct for JY 400,000. International customers paying in US currency should expect ca. $5,000. Inserting this puny heavyweight into my system caused only one anxiety: How to describe the sound of nothing if, indeed, it were to pull such a no-self stunt? The closest I've come thus far to describing neutrality? Peruse my Bel Canto Design PRe6 review, of a component that since has served as my reference preamp. As I mused in its write-up, neutrality must be assessed from the dark side of subtraction - by what it doesn't do. Said extent of non-doing can be discovered only by juxtaposition. If a newcomer revealed colorations you couldn't identify until hearing them removed, you may then assign a new reference level of neutrality for the challenger. Alas, you won't recognize potentially remaining traces of personality in it until you encountered yet more potent subtractions with yet another comparison.

You get the picture. Though presumably the goal of any audio component, neutrality, when achieved, is the most elusive and most boring of all vaunted attributes to write about. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, all you can talk about is either just the music -- if you fancied length over substance -- or, in this context, one terse, dubiously mysterious statement: $5000 worth of untraceable emptiness. That might sound like a bad joke; despicable laziness on part of the writer; and cause any number of disturbed and unsatisfactory reader reactions. No remote, no balance, no input switching, no-sound and 400,000 yen. Value, anybody?

All this by way of opening a back door for myself. What if this component didn't just lungo-linger on the perch of inaudibility? What if it lungo-lunged off the cliff to vanish like Gandalf the Gray into the Great Unknown? Ayee - end of review. Piped applause only. Clearly, the Crescendo preamplifier must be considered a unique example of Xtreme audio. In the quest for ultimate signal purity, all non-essentials (and many will argue the term 'non-essential') have been thrown overboard. This would serve only that rarest of connoisseurs -- finding him- or herself in complete accord with said approach and value system -- to leave 'em with what, exactly? A considerable hole in the wallet?

A heroic disregard for even the most basic of conveniences? That, too. Far more importantly in this game though, they'd be left with a completely unobstructed passage between source and amplifier. If your ideal of this juncture were pleasing colorations, added heft, body or dynamics? Look elsewhere. If your amps or speakers needed help? Move on. Part and parcel of Kusumoto-San's design approach for the Crescendo 205 ver. S is an unapologetic dismissal of any such scenarios. Get lost, weenies, wussies & wimps. In his universe, you only apply for ownership of one of these hand-made audio cannons if you were already thrilled to death with your front-end, amps and speakers; if you desired not to dilute, alter or shift their synergy in any way whatsoever but merely (like most of us) had to add - volume control. It's manual volume control no less since you believe that remote functionality involves an unacceptable compromise in performance.

The envelope, please.