Listening #200: Tzar DST1 & Shindo Montille CV 391

May 28, 2020 0 By JohnValbyNation

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Products come and go. Some impress more than others, and in our little world, the ones that impress the most wind up in Class A of our semiannual “Recommended Components” feature.

After a product makes it to that list, if Stereophile‘s reviewers go more than a few years without hearing it again—in a home system or a dealer’s showroom or even at an audio show—that product falls off the list, usually quietly. Thus, if a reviewer is maximally knocked out by a piece of playback gear, yet the fates allow neither a purchase nor an extended loan, he or she or someone else on staff must endeavor to borrow it again so it can stay recommended.

So it was with the Tzar DST1 moving-coil phono cartridge ($10,000)—a Russian-made successor to the legendary Neumann DST 62, whose moving coils were bonded directly to its cantilever, right behind the stylus—which I first wrote about in the January 2016 Stereophile (footnote 1).

But there’s a tangent to this story. My friend and fellow writer Tom Santosusso—his blog is a must-read for anyone interested in low-power amps, high-efficiency speakers, and great recorded music— got in touch not long ago and offered to loan me a sample he’d found of the Lumière, a rare Japanese cartridge also derived from the Neumann DST 62. Tom cautioned that his Lumiere might be off-spec—and indeed, when it arrived, I found its sound tantalizing but sufficiently flawed that I couldn’t regard it as representative of that now-defunct brand. Back it went, with my sincere thanks for the opportunity.

But before that Lumiere made it to my system, in order to set the stage for the most reasonable comparison I could make absent an original Neumann, I asked to reborrow a Tzar DST from importer Robyatt Audio. That company’s Robin Wyatt complied, and he even returned to me the same Haufe GmbH-made Neumann step-up transformer (footnote 2) I used during my first Tzar review.

A quick refresher: The Tzar’s motor closely resembles that of the Neumann DST 62, although the newer cartridge’s cantilever is a carbon-fiber rod instead of an aluminum tube. Compliance is very low, suggesting that the best results will be had with at least moderately high-mass tonearms, and the recommended downforce is between 3.2 and 4gm. Output is a low 0.25mV, but the matter of choosing a compatible step-up transformer is complicated by the fact that the Tzar’s air-core coils are most comfortable driving a high-inductance load—hence my reliance on the above-mentioned Neumann rather than my usual Hommage Tl or T2.

It’s also worth noting that, since the time I first tried the Tzar DST, its appearance has improved. It was always well made: A cartridge with such tight tolerances—the gaps the coils move within are incredibly small—has to be in order for it to work at all. But now the Tzar boasts a more finely finished aluminum body and neater joins between its various parts. The current Tzar looks more like a five-figure cartridge instead of just sounding like one.

With the Tzar installed in an Acoustical Systems Arché headshell and fastened to my EMT 997 tonearm, its output connected to the Neumann transformer, I lowered its stylus to the lead-in groove of the Pro Arte Piano Quartet’s 1966 recording of Fauré’s Piano Quartet in c (L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL 289). I didn’t expect a lot right off the bat—experience tells me that some components, especially transducers, need a bit of running in when new or after periods of dormancy—and indeed, the sound was quite good but not stunningly so. Yet by the second movement, plucked strings grabbed my attention in a manner that’s rare with even the finest stereo cartridges: Those sounds, though gentle, were undeniably physical. (That’s commonplace with my favorite mono cartridge, the EMT OFD 25, but with stereo it’s rare.)

I finished that LP and a couple of others and then sat down to devote all of my attention to Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (Contemporary/Original Jazz Classics OJC-337). It was magnificent: great tone and presence from Rollins’s tenor sax, perfect tunefulness and momentum from Ray Brown’s double bass, and, most notably of all, unworldly good impact from Shelly Manne’s drums and cymbals. Plus, that double bass was bigger than I’d ever before heard it. Almost everything I love about this LP was turned up a few clicks.

I happened to install the Tzar at a time when I was proofreading the material for Stereophile‘s June issue. Forgive me for making an observation I’ve made before, but while playing records with the Tzar, that work was flatly impossible: Every record I played commanded all of my attention. If you’re looking for a phono-based system that can, when necessary, be used to supply background music, the Tzar DST is a terrible choice.

But for a system where the prime directive is to allow every recording to sound as electrically real as it did at the moment of its making—a system that can be, in Andy Partridge’s words, a wisdom hotline from the dead back to the living—the Tzar remains the same superb choice it was when I first heard it. To those who can spend such a record-breaking amount of money on a phono cartridge, I recommend it wholeheartedly and enduringly.

Shindo Montille CV 391
In February of this year, thanks to a loan from Mystic, Connecticut, dealer Old Forge Studio, I was able to spend time with the second-least-expensive amplifier in the current (2019) Shindo Laboratory line, the Montille CV 391 ($6995, footnote 3). This hand-wired tube amp was introduced in 2012 as a slightly higher-powered and somewhat different-sounding alternative to the standard Shindo Montille (footnote 4), which in its first incarnation used two EL84 pentode tubes per channel, operated in push-pull, for a specified output of 15Wpc. The late Ken Shindo designed the output section of this newer Montille around push-pull pairs of British CV 391 tetrode tubes. Today, the 20Wpc Montille CV 391 remains in the Shindo line, its design having been revised not long ago by Ken’s son Takashi.

Takashi’s version of the Montille CV 391 uses one 6AW8A pentode-triode and one 12AT7 dual-triode per channel. Like my Shindo Haut-Brion, also a three-stage, push-pull amplifier, the Montille CV 391 has a power supply built with solid-state rather than tube rectifiers. But unlike the more expensive amp, the Montille forgoes Shindo Labs’ usual practice of using an internally mounted EY88 diode tube in line with the center tap of the B+ secondaries of the mains transformer in their solid-state-rectified amps, as a means of ramping up plate voltage after the tube heaters have been energized.

Taking a closer look at the Shindo’s output stage, I found 189V on the screen grids of the CV 391 tubes—a little more than 60% of the 301V on their anodes, suggesting that the tubes are operated as pentodes. Also interesting is the use of cathode biasing on the output tubes—I would say this, too, is a Shindo first in my experience, except I never made note of how the EL84 tubes were biased in the original Montille—and a small amount of global feedback. This relatively affordable Shindo uses Hammond rather than Lundahl output transformers, sharing space with an enormous Denki mains transformer. Passive parts include NOS Sprague coupling caps and high-quality Cosmo level potentiometers; build quality, including the all-steel casework, finished throughout in the company’s trademark shade of green, is superb.

I began my time with the Montille CV 391 by using it to drive my Altec Flamencos, and the first thing that struck me was its extraordinary vividness. On the first song I played through it—”All the Things You Are,” from Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins’ Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA/Classic Records LSP-2712), the CV 391 surpassed my Haut-Brion in terms of both color saturation and the amp’s seeming ability to, for lack of a better descriptor, turn up the contrast knob on everything passed through it. Paul Bley’s brilliant piano playing was never before as explicitly drawn or, again, as colorful as it was through the CV 391.

On that record, and on The Seldom Scene’s Live at the Cellar Door (2 LPs, Rebel SLP-1547/48), the Montille CV 391 created an enormous soundfield populated with similarly large instruments and voices: Mike Aldridge’s Dobro steamrollered me with every line. The size of the soundfield put a dent in my previously held ideas that an increase in global feedback results in smaller and often fussier-sounding spatial performance.

Over my next several days with the CV 391,1 gained a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses relative to the other amps I had in house. Through the Altecs, the Haut-Brion emerged as having a somewhat better sense of scale overall; the Haut was also capable of greater delicacy when needed, and it sounded a shade righter, timbrally, on trumpets and singing voices. And when playing very loud passages at extravagant volume levels, the Montille CV 391 clipped less elegantly, although that happened only once.

Bass control warrants a special mention: After a few weeks of comparing the sounds of the two Shindo amps through those big-woofered Altecs, it seemed the Haut-Brion offered the more well-balanced bass, relative to the volume of sound in the rest of the audible range. The Haut’s bass was also drier and a little more detailed. By comparison, the Montille CV 391’s bass output was just a bit excessive—as on the classic album Play Bach No.1 by the Jacques Loussier Trio, in which Pierre Michelot’s double bass was just a bit too loud and rich and boomed a bit on one or two notes. But during most of my listening to the CV 391, that excess didn’t interfere with the music—and it usually stayed well within my personal “a little too much can be wonderful” range.

During the Montille’s last week in my home, I swapped out the Altecs for my DeVore O/93 speakers: less sensitive by comparison and with somewhat lower nominal impedance specs (10 ohms vs 16 ohms), yet nonetheless commendably higher than average in both respects. Again, the sheer color, clarity, physicality, and life of music played through this squat little amp impressed me all to hell and back. It played the opening chords of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 (“Emperor”), by Clifford Curzon and Hans Knappertsbusch (Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2002), just as cleanly as the identically powered Haut, yet with greater color and body—and a little more juice. I spent the next few days going back and forth between the two amps with a variety of records and came to the conclusion that, for my tastes, the Montille CV 391 was a slightly better match for the DeVores.

Footnote 1: Tzar Audiology. US distributor: Robyatt Audio, 513 Dotters Corner Road, Kunkletown, PA 18058. Tel: (855) 762-9288. Web:

Footnote 2: See my review of the similarly Haufe-made Audio Creative Mediator in the June 2019 Stereophile.

Footnote 3: Shindo Laboratory. Web: US distributor: Tone Imports LLC. Tel: (646) 425-7800. Web:

Footnote 4: I first wrote about the Shindo Montille in the August 2007 Stereophile. That model endures in the line—at $5495, it is the most affordable Shindo amp—although it now uses the 6V6 beam-power pentode as its output tube.