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The Yamamura Churchill - A system Approach
Some audiophiles just love esoteric gear and I am definitely one of them. Products from designers with a singular vision and approach always interest me. Add a flair for design and craftsmanship and I'm hooked from the start and for at least a listen or two. Over the past several years I've had the distinct pleasure of listening to a system, owned by a dear friend, that is not only esoteric but has to a large degree redefined my expectations of what a sublime experience hearing music can and should be and how often many "reference systems" fall short of expectations in regards a completely whole musical experience. Many top shelf systems can excel in certain areas like soundstaging and imaging or dynamics or detail but it is the forte of the very best to create a holistic sound out of these constituent parts, to make the listener move away from evaluating component performance and into connecting with the emotional flow of the music.
The system concerned here was designed by Be Yamamura, the designer and some would say visionary behind the late and (for me at least) lamented Yamamura Churchill line of products. Each channel is driven by its own monoblock amplifier and individual preamp with a separate volume control for each stack. Each of the pre/power connections are balanced (Yamamura believes in balanced connections) and utilize Yamamura's own top of the line hand made Quantum interconnects. The amps are beautiful in their simplicity, with a smallish pure wood fascia (a small nondescript metal plate inset into the wood is signed by the designer himself) that belies their considerable length and a gorgeous pure copper case that is at least partly responsible for their surprising heft. Lifting the lid one finds a tidy interior with point to point wiring, chunky capacitors, and custom Yamamura spec resistors (made to order at the time by the French manufacturer Sfernice using bakelite!). But perhaps most shocking of all and slap dab in the middle of everything is a simple chip (romantics claim from a very special lot of closely matched units from somewhere back in time) that is the heart and sole of the circuit, a tranconductance power amplifier or in laymen's terms, an amplifier that is a current rather than a voltage source (in Yamaura's nomenclature a transimpedance amplifier). I don't have the requisite knowledge for an even rudimentary attack on the subject but those with a bent for such can tackle the white paper by Nelson Pass on the First Watt website (www.firstwatt.com/articles/current_source_amps.htm) for an excellent and comprehensive examination of the breed and high efficiency drivers. Suffice it to say, Be Yamamura was ahead of his time, and these amps are from someone who wanted to explore areas that just weren't being explored fifteen to twenty years ago. From transimpedance amps to resistors made of bakelite and capacitors wrapped in carbon paper derived from burnt coconut husk, there was no stone left unturned and no avenue too arcane to follow if it lead to better sound.
Did someone say arcane? How about big horn loudspeakers that stand six feet tall?
Well that's precisely what you get with Yamamura's Dionisio 32 and what an amazing beast it is. Formed from solid copper (in three pieces that fit together, don't even think about moving them through doorways as an assembled unit) and then covered entirely in cork they look like an abstractionists take on a giant trumpet, with that beautiful swan like neck gently flaring into a large and dramatic mouth. The stunning and beautifully finished horns load Yamamura's own Series 2 drive units utilizing unbleached paper as opposed to Series One drivers using the white, bleached variety (Yamamura thought the sonic difference between the two great enough to make the change and yes, the paper recipe is his own!). These units are fast and tizz free and a posses a wide dynamic range anchored by a more than adequate bottom end. And just to keep everything as distortion free as possible, both loudspeakers sit atop their own ball bearing isolation platforms designed by the man himself. Who else was doing that back in the early 90s?
And finally, power, cables and phono. Here we have Yamamura's own Ciabatta power conditioners (two of them in total and again the question; who else was doing this back then?) utilizing Quantum series power cables for everything (Quantum cords, as mentioned above, were hand built by Be Yamamura's own hands whereas all the others were made by outside firms to his specification). Speaker cables are also Quantum while the phono cables are from the Yamamura Millennium 5000 grouping. The phono preamp hails from 47 Labs, specifically the 4712 Phonocube, part of the Reference series. The Phonocube is itself a current rather than a voltage amplifier and 47 Labs keeps the circuit simple and with as few parts as necessary. Rather than the firms own "power humpty", the Phonocube runs off a DIY battery array for the best possible signal to noise ratio. A Simon Yorke S9 turntable and Yorke arm sporting an original (made by Sugano himself) Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge rounds off the component list.
On the sound front this system is first and foremost about resolution and a delicate purity that makes a lot of other gear sound slightly murky or veiled. If the space is large then it sounds large and reverberant and small intimate settings sound just so. Take for example Kind of Blue (Classic Records 200 gram Quiex vinyl reissue) as compared to Waltz for Debbie (Analogue Productions 180 gram) to clarify what I mean. Miles' horn rings out in the large studio and one can hear the walls and space clearly and feel the physical distance between the players, and yet when Miles comes in on ‘So What' he's right there in front of you, every little detail laid bare. On the trio date at the Vanguard the close tight proximity demanded by the venue is there to hear, the players almost on top of each other but still separated, all the micro details there in abundance.
And here is perhaps the systems greatest strength, the almost perfect balance between resolution and tonal purity and macro and micro detail. To clarify what I mean let's go back to Waltz for Debbie for a minute. I've heard this recording on just about every system imaginable and never has it sounded so real and present than on this Yamamura gear. Why? Because the pre/amp combo has a noise floor buried in the nether regions every detail is there to savor, Scott Lafaro's bass is placed right there in space and clearly defined, you can almost see him wrapped around the instrument, every detail of his finger work on the strings clear and over his shoulder Motian's cymbals shimmer and his drums have delicious volume and snap (unfortunately the Van Gelder ‘hood' is there too over the piano, alas some things never change). Some systems may give you more info about the space while others may be more about inner/micro detail but usually this involves a little robbing Peter to pay Paul. With Yamamura's gear you get it all blended perfectly all the time.
Of course much of the magic of the amps would mean nothing without fantastic coherence and resolving ability of the Dionisios. Like many of their ilk they are fantastically quick and their ability to resolve detail is almost peerless. In many ways they are simply removed from the proceedings (and that is saying something when you consider their size), never imposing colorations of their own or holding back the music in any way. It's almost creepy the way they come alive, acoustic instruments in particular are the best I've ever heard, from the body and growl of a bowed double bass to the insane fingerpicking of a Scott Lafaro or the intense technique and sound of Starker doing solo Bach cello (if you don't look like the guy from the old Memorex add in about three bars you're legally dead). Bass and drums have a life through these things like nothing else I've experienced. There is absolutely no lag at all, and no frequency anomalies that so often call attention themselves and destroy that sense of liquidity and coherence. To hear Miles, Coltrane and Cannonball blow through these speakers will enthrall you and also force you to understand how your own system is falling short.
The treble is so light and delicate and soft, tremulous notes seem so light and airy that they're in danger of collapsing in on themselves. Netalia Devrath's voice on Classic Records reissue of Songs of the Auvergne is so beautiful it almost hurts, and every trill in her unique style is clear and present. But be forewarned, any brightness in partnering recordings will be ruthlessly revealed (I'm quietly pointing a finger at many of the audiophile classical vinyl reissues here). Like the bass and midrange, the treble is so seamlessly integrated into the whole that it takes moments of exceptional beauty to really ever highlight what its doing. For example, the Speakers Corner 45rpm reissue of La Fille Mal Garde on 180 gram vinyl (sadly no longer available but definitely worth hunting down) sounds absolutely stunning, both rich in tone and lushly romantic as it should be, and then you hear the triangle ring out above all. Through these speakers it sounds so right on the nose tonally, the way it tings and swells with just the right amount of metallic resonance, it just sounds real.
What this system will not do is make bad recordings sound good or even okay. Bad records sound bad and that's that. Associated equipment comes under the same scrutiny so it to must be up to speed. The 47 labs gear is a good match, while the Koetsu brings a glorious tonal palette at the expense of grip at the deep frequency extremes. For a short while my friend ran a Colibri cartridge and it added more snap and dynamics but at the expense of the tonal beauty. What you're getting here is reference levels of resolution so you can't play around and hide quite as easily as other systems allow you too, have that tubey warmth or transistor coolness fix something up or down the line. You need to purchase the best and that isn't going to be cheap, but your reward is sound reproduction of the very highest order.
Some punters have commented that this systems deep bass is not up to snuff in terms of ultimate slam and punch. The Dionisios are rated into the low 30s but even that is not going to be enough to rattle your man junk. I would argue the question is one of quality versus quantity and that if your tastes run to heavy rock and techno you should run away from horn loudspeakers in general. Playing artists like Massive Attack you are going to lose some of that deep bass growl and slam, but what is there is still visceral and the level of textural detail and pitch accuracy accompanying it more than makes up for that last degree of extension.
For me anyway, Be Yamamura set out to see how far he could go and largely seems to have succeeded. Leaving tube topology behind and moving to solid state he seems to have left behind questions of what's better and just concentrated on distilling the purest of sounds. Both John (my friend) and myself were/are tube guys (John used to run heavily modified Golden Tube 300B monoblocks before the current gear here) and the fact that we don't seem to miss it at all when listening to the Yamamura stuff speaks volumes about how much we like the sound. The Yamamura gear seems to encompass all the strengths of both without compromise, creating such a pure sound that it's well neigh impossible to criticize. This system is still one of the best I've ever heard, and in some areas it is the best I've ever heard. There's only a couple of downsides as far as I can tell. First, a lot of records and gear are/is going to be revealed as crap sonically because they'll have nothing to hide behind. Secondly, and perhaps most distressing, Yamamura Churchill is no more so the second hand market is the only place you're going to find the gear. But if you can assemble a full system, the way it was designed to be heard, you can rest easy knowing that you're hearing some of the best sound around, and you're one of a handful.