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Back to the future: Shindo's magical speakers

The Audiophiliac is shaken and stirred by the sound of these astonishing speakers.

Over the last 17 years, I've reviewed hundreds of speakers -- and heard many hundreds more -- but something about the sound of the Shindo Laboratory 604 speakers turned me around.

I wasn't thinking about transparency, accuracy, tight bass, or delicate treble. And I don't know why, but the music had more substance, more juice, more of the essence of live music. The Shindo 604 demands your attention, because the music sounds like it's happening right now and you don't want to miss a thing.

The Shindo 604 speaker. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

This was at the In Living Stereo store in NYC. Shindo is a Japanese company best known for its hand-crafted tube electronics. A lot of jazz and 1960s psychedelic rock played that night. Every record had "live" energy, and I came to feel that a pair of these speakers were a portal through space and time back to the original event. Returning to everyday high-end audio was a letdown, and it sounded artificial.

The Shindo 604 speaker uses the legendary Altec 604 driver that remained in continuous production from 1943 to 1998. The 604 was hugely popular with recording and broadcast studios well into the 1970s. The fact that the driver still sounds great proves the very best audio designs never go out of style. For this version of the speaker, audio designer Ken Shindo heavily modified the Altec driver, and designed a new crossover network and cabinet. It's a big, floor-standing speaker, but there's also a slightly smaller version of the Shindo 604. The cabinets are beautifully finished, but the boxy look is short on pizzazz.

I own a copy of guitar masters Les Paul and Chet Atkins' "Lester & Chester" LP and heard it on countless systems before, but the Shindo speakers and amplifiers raised the stakes. The sound from this 38-year-old recording was liberated from the grooves, reconstituted, and set free. Sadly, that's an all-too-rare event, impossible with most contemporary studio recordings, because the band may have never played the tunes together, and the vocals were added weeks or months later. Most new music is so heavily edited, Auto-Tuned, equalized, and otherwise processed, the music can never sound realistic. I'm not claiming that's the case with all new music, just most of it.

The best gear has the ability to release more of the musical essence of recordings that were originally made by people playing music together in a room: Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, Nirvana, the White Stripes, and a lot of old and new jazz recordings were made that way. All speakers, regardless of quality, play music, but the truly great ones delve deeper, and recover the subtle stuff that brings music back to life.

That's the audiophile quest, and the Shindo speakers and electronics that night at In Living Stereo took sound reproduction to another level. The Shindo 604 sounds different than other speakers. It's a portal back to the sound that was originally picked up by the microphones at the recording session. That's an elusive thing, rarely experienced. But when it happens, it's a real thrill. I kept saying to everyone in the room, "Did you hear that?" The bystanders nodded in agreement, slack-jawed, and then scrambled to play another record.

The Shindo Cortese power amplifier. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The system is on the pricey side. The Shindo 604 speakers run $34,000 per pair; the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier is $9,995; and the 10-watt x 2 Shindo Cortese power amp is $10,995. Shindo is distributed in the US by Tone Imports. The best stuff is never cheap, but it's always fascinating; that's why millions of people love to read about Ferraris they'll never buy or drive around the block. It's the same deal with this Shindo system -- it's nice to know that recorded music can sound so good. I'm always intrigued by what can be done with some new gadget or tech breakthrough, but truly artful speaker and amplifier design never goes out of style.