Ken Shindo's sculpture-like amps and pre-amps turn the experience of listening to music into an emotion-packed one
The 2011 documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" at first appears to be a film about an 85-year-old sushi chef and his world-famous dishes, though it's really about a man's lifelong quest to continually make better sushi—to continually strive to master his craft. In the world of hi-fi audio equipment, Jiro's counterpart, if there ever was one, would be fellow countryman Ken Shindo, whose hand-made tube amplifiers have inspired a cult following around the world and are now making waves in the U.S.
Shindo's career began at the electronics maker Matsushita (which changed its national name to unify with its global partner Panasonic in 2008), where he worked as an electrical engineer designing audio circuits and television sets. In 1977, he decided to start his own Shindo Laboratory in Tokyo, with the mission of building amplifiers and pre-amplifiers by hand from vintage and new old stock (NOS) parts. Parts that range from the whimsically-named Sprague capacitors from the '50s and '60s (like the Vitamin Q or the Orange Drop) to increasingly rare vacuum tubes, sourced from such electronic manufacturers as Western Electric, RCA, Mullard, Philips, Siemens, Tungsram, Amperex—you name it. The vacuum tubes are prominently displayed in Shindo's designs and emit a golden glow when they're hard at work. Exposed tubes and the dark bottle green color of the steel body casing—not aluminum, which produces a less than perfect sound—have become a Shindo trademark, accompanied by its elegant swan logo.
Shindo's approach to building gear breaks most conventions. Placing trust in his own listening rather than brand names, he searches for NOS tubes exhibiting unique qualities that catches his refined ear; Shindo then stockpiles them in large numbers. Everything is built to order at his home, with the help of family and a few employees, and everything, by nature of the vintage parts, is limited edition. Thoughtfully, Shindo considers the number of parts that he has stocked and decides beforehand how many amps of a certain model he will make. Surprisingly, a majority of the parts are kept safely tucked away in Shindo Laboratory's warehouse, reserved for repairs and replacements.
There are no stock circuits in any Shindo product; they are all designed individually for each pre-amp and amplifier. It's important to note that Shindo does not design solely around a specific vintage tube, meaning that the tube alone is not the secret to what makes Shindo Laboratory so special. Rather, it's the masterful combination of all the parts. Shindo's goal is not to simply build an amplifier or some machine that has a specific, limited function—it's to let the reproduced music sing with, well, musicality. The result is not just a song that's being played back, but the organic experience of a musician performing with his or her instrument, with emotion. The amps and speakers stay transparent and do not reveal themselves with any audible evidence.
Thus, reviewing and comparing performance and price to other brands—a common practice that any audiophile can't help but indulge in—should be avoided when entering Shindo Lab territory. Just as one cannot objectively "test" the difference between two works of art, two Brâncuși sculptures, say, each Shindo amplifier, preamplifier and pair of speakers is committed to conveying something human.
"Summarizing Shindo is not easy: In one word I would say 'art,'" says Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports, who became the first and only importer and distributor of Shindo products in North America in 2003. "Shindo is rather unique in my experience in the way in which it communicates the intentions of the musicians. The timing, sense of flow and pace, the silences between the notes, the textures, tones and colors. Listening through Shindo, your appreciation for great artists and musicians increases dramatically. Having now lived with a Shindo system for 11 years, I find almost all other systems a chore rather than pleasurable to listen to."
The reason why all of Shindo's models (the Pétrus dual mono preamplifier, the Haut Brion stereo amplifier, the Giscours preamplifier, the list goes on, save for the Western Electric 300B Single Limited amp)—are named after French and Italian wines is not to make them sound more luxurious; they're simply the wines that Shindo himself, quite the connoisseur, enjoyed. It takes art and craft, as well as history, to produce a wine that will leave a legacy, no matter how many technological advances have been made. When tasted, a good wine will reveal its grape, region, climate, process and more; and the best wines are not to be sipped on its own, but alongside good food and conversation. There's no better analogy for Shindo's craftsmanship and artistic approach to designing his amps and preamps—and it takes a "sommelier" to appreciate it. (Funnily enough, a listening session pairing wine with their namesake Shindo product has taken place.)
Sadly, Ken Shindo passed away on 22 January 2014 at the age of 74, but his legacy, and quest for perfection, remain. Shindo Labs will go on as his family—his wife Harumi and youngest son Takashi spent years building products along his side—and loyal employees continue to uphold his mission of creating "The Music Mind." Check out the entire lineup from Shindo Laboratory by visiting their website.
Images courtesy of © Matthew Rotunda of Pitch Perfect Audio
A closer look at the progressive project's innovative solution to bringing natural light underground
by Graham Hiemstra in Design on 10 March 2014
As the most talked about urban planning project in NYC of recent times—alongside the Plus Pool, perhaps—the Lowline continues to capture the attention of the creative community and beyond through its development from concept to construction. In the nearly two years since the project was fully funded via Kickstarter, we've seen no shortage of in-depth looks at the inventive design to transform a historic trolley station beneath Manhattan's Lower East Side into a public park—including our recent Lowline Young Designers story. While the novelty of the world's first underground park will always shine as low-hanging PR fruit, a deeper look reveals the real innovation—the "remote skylight" solar infrastructure. Designed by James Ramsey of Raad Studio, the light dispersion technology will allow the park to not only exist, but to flourish.
"The 'remote skylight' involves treating light like a liquid—transporting it from one location to another," explains Lowline co-founder and Executive Director Dan Barasch. To do so, Barasch and Ramsey devised an intricate system of satellite-like solar panels, helio tubes to channel the sunlight from street level to the subterranean trolley station and a reflective umbrella-shaped dome to distribute the sunlight to encourage plant growth. "We all know that natural light enables plants and trees to grow, but we also have substantial evidence that natural light makes humans happier," continues Barasch.
"Irrigating natural light is by far the most efficient means of delivering this quantity and quality of light," explains Ramsey. "There's also a certain poetry to directly relocating natural sunlight, and a certain deep psychological response we have to natural light." Historically speaking, architects and designers have long worked to capture and distribute natural light in interior spaces. "There are diverse elements of redirected light that have been used widely throughout the world, at many scales, though no project has ever before envisioned using light in the way we are imagining."
The clever solution that allows for underground photosynthesis, while also promoting human happiness, is one to marvel at—hopefully one that city planners and architects from around the world look to as a source of inspiration for future projects. "Our concept involves marrying this core design instinct with the limitations of dense modern urban multi-layered environments," says Barasch. "By only requiring a small opening in a street to deliver a significant quantity of daylight underground, we hope the 'remote skylight' concept can transform perceptions of the value of the underground." Follow along with the Lowline as the project continues to work towards realization in 2018.
Images courtesy of Lowline
The New York firm transforms parking structures into solar power plants
by David Graver in Tech on 10 March 2014
Depending on where you live, parking lots can either feel like a terrific waste of space or woefully inadequate for city needs. Still, they are everywhere, not to mention a critical component of urban planning. Since 2008, Solaire Generation has been busy reimagining parking structures in an innovative, powerful way. The firm, founded by architect Laurence Mackler, has developed a series of renewable energy products which are installed within and atop parking structures around the globe, essentially transforming parking lots into power plants. From initial design and engineering to fabrication and installation, Solaire is a full-service shop when it comes to sustainable energy solutions.
Mackler went into architecture wanting to make an impact on society and, particularly, the environment. It wasn't long before he realized he could make a far greater impact by focusing his efforts on the energy realm. "Parking lots were not on the energy market at the time, but I saw a potential for the elegance of architecture to join with the production of power," he explains to CH. He notes that "architecture is always a blend of engineering, ingenuity and functionality—where form meets aesthetics." For Mackler, the final element was economics. "It's often a complaint, and sometimes a mystery to architects," he shares before emphasizing that Solaire's work directly impacts the longterm economics of the locations they work with.
The numbers to date are impressive: 4,600 homes have been powered with energy Solaire's driven from the sun. There are 23,100 Solaire parking spaces across the US, comprising more than 14 miles of photovoltaic (PV) canopy. Earlier this month, Solaire notched Best Solar Project honors at the Solar Power Generation conference in San Diego for their designs for the recently opened Whole Foods Market in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus. Solaire's solar canopies alone were able to generate roughly 25% of the store's energy needs. The store's parking lot, featuring six of Solaire's canopies, is the largest solar parking system in all of New York City.
Their boldest project yet, the firm has designed an all-encompassing new model for transportation and power called the Solaire Power Park. Employing integrated PV as well as carport and roof-top paneling, the design also delivers both geothermal and solar energy. Beyond providing energy security, there are battery storage elements and grid resilience. And on top of it all, it's a well designed transportation center with eco pavement that limits wastewater runoff into storm drains, prevents erosion and utilizes recycled materials. Electric vehicle charging is also integrated, rounding out a green architectural vision of the near future.
To create such designs, Mackler instructs his employees to delve deep into the mundane and ordinary, and leave with something extraordinary. "If you have an imagination, you'll ultimately have to be informed on how to execute it," he says. "But if you begin with all the information, you don't necessarily have the ability to search your imagination."
Images courtesy of Solaire Generation