Can you appreciate the terrible Tyson beating Japanese HighEnd gear over the years has suffered at the meaty fists of the US audiophile press? With the exception of Sony's SACD players, a fluke review of their speakers and perhaps the occasional Accuphase or Audio Note writeup, we Americans on a whole seem to subscribe to the religion that the Japanese are terrifically adept at midfi and crass volume commerce but don't know crap about true HighEnd audio. That's of course audio racism of the highest caliber. "Is you is or is you ain't my constituency - brother where art thou?" But even if you were hip to Zanden and iLungo, Luxman and Accuphase, Airtight and Shindo, Audionote Japan and Stax, CEC and 47lab, Koetsu and Dynavector, Shelter and Esoteric, Lyra and Myabi, you'd likely continue to harbor segregationist notions about Sony and Denon - though you'd be wrong there, too. Is it any wonder that many Japanese audio companies prefer to let us stew in our own salty juices of imperialist ignorance? Is it Oriental wisdom to only mark for US export products that actually conform to our tunnel visions? Is it merely good common sense on these makers' parts to keep the really good stuff to themselves?

It all started because I had Eastern Electric's MiniMax CD player with twin 6922 triode-driven headphone socket and Antique Sound Lab's MGHead DT/OTL 32 preamp/headphone amp in for review. This created the need for a conventional dynamic headphone with 1/4" plug. My AKG K-1000s were out, my old Grado RS-1s the victims of a paralyzing physical accident entirely not of their own doing - don't ask! My initial reaction was thus to do the expected and join the club: Purchase a pair of Sennheiser HD650s. As providence, google and a helpful inmate would have it, I subsequently stumbled upon the AudioCubes.Com site. Here I learned that this renegade US-based outfit imports select audio goodies from the land of the rising sun, of exactly the squirrely sort that ordinarily would fall under the "don't export, don't even know we make it" Yankee restriction.

Knowing of no official Audio-Technica distributor who imports upscale headphones like the ATH L-3000 and W-1000 into the US, I ordered a pair of the W-1000s. Then I noticed a link to sister site AudioCubes2.Com. Unlike the first portal which focuses primarily on accessories like headphones, this one markets upscale electronics like Accuphase, Esoteric, CEC and Stax. Now my internal alarm went off. I knew for a fact that unlike Audio-Technica, these specific companies had formal US distribution for the products listed. In fact, the makers list them on their respective websites - Morishita for Stax, Axiss Distribution for Accuphase. Didn't this make the equivalent Audio Cube product grey market? Perusing their FAQ sections, one learns that the electronics are 100-volt Japanese issue and don't carry US warranties. While the use of step-up transformers is recommended for conversion to 120/220V operation, "some customers don't use them and report good results". The company lists a Massachusetts address as their base of operations but states clearly that they do not operate a domestic warehouse nor answer any phones but interface with their customers purely by e-mail and expedite orders directly from Japan.

Would those vendors be the actual manufacturers, or instead Japanese dealers involved not in organized crime but certainly organized back-door transshipping? I e-mailed Morishita and Axiss to inquire. Their responses follow:

"Thank you for asking. Audiocubes is not an authorized Accuphase dealer. They are grey market resellers, therefore cannot legally sell or offer any warranty on any Accuphase product they sell. Products offered by them carry no warranty in the USA or Japan. Use of step-up transformers not only voids the warranty, it also degrades the performance of our products. Our guaranteed specifications are not valid with the use of step-up transformers because their quality or ability to deliver the needed dynamics is suspect. This is true especially with our power amplifiers.

Since the units are 100V Japanese units, they do not conform to US electrical code and can fail or blow up which is a large liability problem. We therefore inform our dealer not to touch grey market units when they come in for repair. Most importantly, our CD players are approved by the FDA for use in the USA. 100V units are not and subject to confiscation by customs.

On our Accuphase website, we have a warranty disclaimer which states that any Accuphase product sold outside of its intended country will not be serviced and its factory warranty voided. There is no 1-year Japanese Accuphase warranty for any product sold by Audio Cubes as they claim. Furthermore, our Accuphase pricing is in line with all other Accuphase distributors worldwide.

We at Axiss Distribution Inc. have spent the last ten years building an American dealer base through our hard work and investment in time and monies to bring Accuphase to the USA. For Audio Cubes to offer Accuphase products which do not conform to US specifications and do not meet its guaranteed specifications, is to do the Accuphase product a disservice as well as to all our dealers and customers in the United States.

Finally, one cannot be sure that the units are new since many Japanese units are traded up and the customer, thinking he/she is buying a new sealed unit, is in fact receiving second-hand goods."

Arturo Manzano
AXISS Distribution Inc
Accuphase USA
"Thank you for your inquiry. Audio Cubes has been brought to our attention previously and we are in discussions with the manufacturers to sort out the issue and investigate the source of the product. At this time, we are treating Audio Cubes as a grey-market dealer and we are reviewing the notes on their FAQ page to make further determinations and bring it to the attention of our suppliers. We feel that consumers should carefully read the FAQs where AudioCubes very obviously states that they are selling Japanese domestic models which do not carry proper (local) warranty as well as the notes that (some) products will require the use of a voltage transformer to operate the units properly and to maintain any kind of warranty.

Our initial response would fall into the "let the buyer beware" category when it comes to "really good deals". In the interim, we are continuing our investigations and discussions with our own suppliers."

Morishita & Associates Limited

In the next e-mail, I asked Audio Cubes for their side of the story. This is what Kohn submitted as well as a US phone number:

"There is no problem selling grey market products... the Accuphase US distributor Axiss has sent us threatening mail due to the fact that they have overly high fixed prices. There are many other importers such as Dynamism, Japan-Direct, MiniDisco. They all have been in business for a long time now. We do not sell any used items and our business has received nothing but praise. We have not received a single complaint filed against our local Better Business Bureau since we established our business in 2002. We certainly have a telephone number, but it's not for customer service use as we do not have telephone assistance right now. The reason why we have our warehouse in Japan and not the US is for cost purposes.

The products we sell do not have a US warranty and we in no way infer that they do. If our customer purchased these products from us, the product will have a 1-year warranty through us, with repairs done by the manufacturers in Japan. Warranties are handled similarly by Dynamism which is a much bigger importer than us.

Axiss has been very malicious in their dealings particularly with companies like ours because they want to protect their high profits. It's very understandable. We actually do not sell a lot of Accuphase products to the US and encourage our customer to go with the local distributors, especially in the US. However, keep in mind that we also sell to Europe and many of our customers there have basically no access to such products except online.

The claim that we sell trade-in products that aren't new is outrageous and malicious. All of our products are sourced directly from the manufacturer and are brand-new and in unopened boxes."

The emerging scenario divides into two separate circumstances from where I sit. It also raises more questions than it answers. In countries where Audio Cubes products don't enjoy formal distribution, direct importation by such intermediary companies doesn't violate existing and exclusive distribution contracts. In countries where these products have officially installed distributors, direct importation does violate their signed contracts. Kohn's assertion that his company acquires its product direct from the manufacturer, not from dealers, creates a puzzling conundrum. Why would reputable companies such as Accuphase and Stax sign exclusive distribution agreements with official agents, list those on their own website and thereby create a specific pricing structure with ad, review and warranty service support, for products that conform to the electrical requirements of the country they're meant to be sold in, then simultaneously establish parallel pipelines for domestic Japanese products that do not carry factory warranties, do not conform with the destination country's electrical requirements and may not be in full compliance with its regulations?

Is this a case of the push/pull amplifier principle transferred to business conduct? It certainly doesn't sound single-ended. That would be slightly different if the Audio Cubes websites stated that specific product was only available in specific markets. No matter how you crumble this cookie, its joint bakers seem to have used a rather uncommon recipe. It would take investigative journalism to properly identify the various ingredients and their true origins. I have neither the resources, training nor inclination to do so and trust that our readers will make up their own minds as to the digestive implications. And, I haven't received my headphones yet. I'm certain that I'll enjoy them and haven't stepped on anyone's toes acquiring them. But personally, I'd only acquire products in this fashion if it didn't enjoy formal distribution. And under no circumstances would I purchase electronics with a voltage rating inappropriate for my wall outlet and no domestic service center to perform warranty repairs. But that's just me.

Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems, the official US distributor of 47Lab and Myabi, weighed in as well: "We have been aware of Audio Cubes and its operation for some time now. We did our investigation and found one OTA cable kit that, last year, went to an unknown source in Japan. The prices Audio Cubes quote are almost impossible unless they buy it directly from the manufacturer. 47Lab and Miyabi have tightened up delivery to only release products to known distributors so it is unlikely that anybody placing an order for 47Lab and Miyabi products with Audio Cubes will have their products delivered."

Mutine is the US/Canadian distributor for CEC while Teac/America in Montebello/CA is the US distributor for Esoteric. I did not bother contacting these or other folks as the above information is rather unambiguous. Again, if the Audio Cubes websites limited their services to countries without formal distribution for these products, such as Australia and Europe perhaps, many of these unfair competition issues would resolve themselves and focus merely on the remaining warranty and regulation conformity issues raised. In the end, examples like these are just the tip of the iceberg. They prove that the old distribution hierarchy is failing. Customer worldwide know what their counterparts around the globe are paying for products on the street. They expect to pay little more or no more on their end - and exchange rates, customs, warehousing, servicing, reviews, ads, dealers, reps and importers be damned. Some of this is clearly unrealistic. But to lay wholesale blame on consumer expectations doesn't seem realistic either. The very existence of providers like Audio Cubes -- who can only remain in business if supported by regular orders -- proves that people will find or create loopholes to bypass what they regard as insufficient and unattractive existing solutions. There really are no easy answers to this dilemma and I don't envy anybody on the manufacturing and distribution end who must grapple with this new reality on a daily basis.