My Torrid Love Affair With The Ongaku!
Steve Rochlin

Ya know, it took me two days just to come up with that title. After all, what kinda kook buys an integrated amplifier instead of a home to live in... literally?! And why does such an amplifier transcend time and space in such a way as to make even the most die hard naysayers concede to its seduction? Furthermore, how do ya tell your mom you bought audio exotica instead of a home?!?!?! Enter into my fantasy world, where you too might find yourself being seduced by the music.

After reading a review in a UK based magazine about the Audio Note Oto, i decided to buy it. It was a few grand, and my other amps were getting kinda old anyway. So off goes a call to Leonard Norwitz, Audio Note’s USA distributor at the time. At the end of the conversation i told ‘em that the Ongaku is really what i’d like but... SH’ YEAH, me and my big mouth. Leonard was waxing lyrically of how good the Ongaku is. Leonard, being the cool dude he is, sent me some literature. You could just hear how he truly loved the Ongaku for musical reasons. Being unsure of spending this kinda fundage on an amplifier, some reassurance from a local close friend of mine — we’ll call ‘Jim’ — was in order.

Now Jim was a music lover himself. When i mentioned the Ongaku he said "Ongakwhat?". It took a while to explain it to him. Now Jim is one of my closest, dearest, most kindest dudes i know who loves music. Sure, he himself delves deeply into this hobby. He listened patiently then asked a few questions. Things were going great until he asked "Well, how many watts is it?" Now you tell me, how does one explain that you’re gonna buy a piece of gear instead of a home, let alone one with only 27 watts per channel? "Twenty seven watts!" Jim exclaimed. Nowadays, 27 watts is a lot in single-ended land, but this was way before single-ended stuff was really known here in America as mainstream high-end audio. To make a long story short, i bought it sound unheard, though i did make sure i could return it just in case!

So that magical day came. Like a kid on Christmas morning i opened her up. After sorting through things and setting it up i was ready. "Ooooh!" i said as those big GE VT4C (211) tubes light up, like a really cool night light. Truly mesmerizing. At first listen it sounded really good; not totally awesome, but really good. Still was kinda depressed because it was just not ‘happening’. For what now costs 90 grand, this thing should make me sit up and beg for more! Called Leonard to tell him the Ongaku arrived safely, worked, and stuff. Leonard said to me that it takes about 10 days of nonstop music for a ticket to happyville. Well, dunno about you, but instant gratification is on my list.

Ok, so the 10 days passed... Seemed more like forever.

Time to sit down and put on one of my favorite recordings (Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon). Hmmm... Ok, now let’s try some classical music. This was, by now, a Saturday night. There’s a ritual we got here on Sunday mornings. That is to play Chesky’s recording of O Magnum Mysterium. It was during this recording it all made sense to me. Though this music is spiritual, for the first time was truly spiritual. One could feel the hall. The way the pipe organ filled the hall with its presence placed about 45 feet behind the choir. Sure the music sounded good before the Ongaku, but not like this. It was as if they were there to the extent that even the feelings of the performance transcended the recording and into my home. This was my first deeply spiritual experience with reproduced music...

But not my last.

Time and time again, the Ongaku gives all who partake the feeling of being there. Awestruck, i called Jim to tell him the good news. Jim was skeptical. So he played one CD after another, not giving me any clue as to what he was feeling. After he was done, he turned to me and said "It’s amazing Steve."

i replied "Yeah, it is."

The glow on my face was like the glow of the Ongaku’s output tubes. Sure, my music reproduction system has had solid state units galore, other tube designs, and even some hybrids. But just one good listen to the Ongaku and you’re hooked like a junkie. It’s more than the way it soundstages, which is quite good. It’s more than its speed, which is faster then a Ferrari F50. Its transparency... the way it reproduces music … is just that good.

Remember how you felt after your first time making love? That deeper satisfaction that just defies words? Or if you’re nuts like me, remember your first, er, um, LSD trip? Ah, the stupidity of youth! Anyway, it’s awe inspiring. There’s just more there there, ya know? For weeks folks came from around the State to hear it. Each time they left with the look of higher enlightenment on their faces. If there’s one component capable of deeply satisfying your audio erotica — er, um, exotica — it’s the Ongaku.

The way massed violins are reproduced is unlike anything else i’ve ever heard, except during live music performances. One can not only "see" the musicians, you can feel the way the string vibrated the body of the instrument. Being a percussionist myself, we just have to discuss the way it reproduces the recording of the All-Star Percussion Ensemble (Golden Strings GS CD005). Ya see, the vibraphone is a very hard instrument to reproduce, in my humble opinion. There are overtones, various phasing of the tones as the sound is allowed to pass through the lower pipes, or not pass through the pipes. So how did the Ongaku do? Startlingly well. This was the first time i felt that there was actually a vibraphone in my listening room! So all is well and good — but can she rock?!?!?

Being a big Rush fan myself, it was time to hear the album Moving Pictures and crank the volume to 11!!! YEP, it rocked SOLID, while my neighbors went for their guns!

Sure, all the above is just an unadulterated, no-holds-barred glowing report, yet i haven’t even discussed how music on vinyl sounds. Ok, well, just imagine all the above and add to it. Even now, as i need to sell it due to personal financial situations, my girlfriend even wants to keep it. Yeah, she has heard other toys in my system, but she always seems to say something like "Well Steve, that new amp here for review is nice, but can we put the Ongaku back where it belongs now?" Even she’s hooked!!! How many of you can say that about a piece of your equipment?

Well, now comes the negatives. More power. Sure, there’s the Audio Note Gako-On, which is roughly double the power of the Ongaku. SH’YEAH, if you got $250,000 gathering dust. Still, i’ve actually heard the Gaku-On, though not in my system. Didn’t like it. Not as transparent as the Ongaku used in the same system, to my ears. i’d still like a bit more transparency too. When i bought the Ongaku the standard rectifier tubes were the Mullard GZ34’s. Now standard is the Mullard CV378. Gotta agree, the CV378’s are more transparent, yet they also take away some of the dynamics. Choose your poison.

The Ongaku is a 90 pound beast! Thank goodness little to no real maintenance has been needed over the past two years. The only other gripe i have is that i really wish it was — well — more attractive. Maybe some nice Italian wood side pieces? C’mon, for 90 grand this thing should not only seduce you audibly, but also visually too!

As i read through the previous Positive Feedback review of the Ongaku (Volume 5, Number 1), it doesn’t amaze me that the reviewers still loved it, even with the bad buzzing. Since that review, Audio Note had added a few dB of feedback and some other minor modifications. May i humbly suggest you ask — no, DEMAND — that if you buy the Ongaku they take those few dB of feedback out of it. These few dB of feedback are claimed by Audio Note to help the amp and... Still, i hated it. For 90 grand i believe that no feedback should be accomplished. Sure, this paragraph might make Peter Q. of Audio Note write me a nasty letter. i don’t mind. C’mon Peter, even you can hear the difference between the few dB standard and the zero dB that should be there — or not there, shall we say. Taking away those few dB really opens up the soundstage to give a clearer picture into the music. Also, the instrument tonality is taken to a higher level. The Ongaku Positive Feedback had probably had zero feedback in it.

So what more can i say? With the Ongaku you get a preamplifier with one direct input, three standard inputs, and a tape loop as well. No XLR balanced inputs, no fancy lights (other then the tubes themselves). You get pounds and pounds of silver and one heck of a workout when you move it. Though when you play music through it in the right system, your rewards are many.

Give me Ongaku or give me death!