Interview with Robert Koch of Robert Koda audio


Where it all started for you?

I guess there was no defining moment. I picked up an interest in audio, radio and electronics when I was less than twelve or so. I remember the other kids at junior school used to scratch their girlfriends names into the tables, I used to scratch in things like “Quad or Rogers”!

Do you consider yourself as an audiophile?

Yea, of course! A person who is interested in finding ways to make better sound from their home audio system is an audiophile. But no, I’m not the kind of person who just listens to audiophile discs.

Remarkable trip round the globe you made. Where and why did your audio path lead you?

Now that is a long story… Whilst traveling in Australia I made a point of visiting as many (real) audio dealers as I could. One dealer in Perth was an Audio Note / Kondo fan and I had known from my Dad that triodes where the real thing in high fidelity tube amplification. The “brochure” he gave me, probably a 100th generation bad photocopy was fascinating. It lured me towards Kondo and when I got home, I faxed and wrote to Kondo San. I was very naive!

As things would happen I spent some time in the UK and whilst there, gave Audio Note UK a call as they were close to London being in Brighton. Very quickly I found myself working there and opportunity arose to establish a solid direct relationship with the Japanese factory. In time a communication path opened and when Kondo San came to visit, he took me under his wing and I quit Audio Note UK to work for him. I was amazed that Kondo still had the letter and faxes I had sent several years before. They had never replied at the time for “fear of South Africans!”

Who mostly inspired and influenced you?

My Dad was a great inspiration. He was always ready to help and teach. When I started to consider making my DIY toys commercial, my brother Michael too was a great support. He is a very entrepreneur type of person with a positive outlook that can only inspire. Later came my first customer, Dave. This gentleman really put my camp on fire!

For quite some year you worked for Mr. Kondo of Audio Note Japan. Can you tell us more about your work with him?

Working at Audio Note Japan is quite something, especially from a western perspective. All of us used to do a quite varied range of work. Starting off with the morning clean up. Even the boss gets down on his hands and knees to clean the rest room! I seemed to land myself into “special projects”. We did a rebuild of an open real machine and I did the tube stage complete with NAB EQ. Kondo san got me involved in his epic M1000 pre-amplifier and the hand building of some of cables. But I also had other more mundane work like translating brochure material and assisting with enquiries from outside Japan.

What can you say about Mr. Kondo? 

Kind and soft yet very difficult to work with. He liked to break his students down. I remember when he was unhappy with some assembly I had done, he just got in there with the side cutters and ripped every wire apart. He would make you do it again and again until it was right according to him. But Kondo San treated his staff like his family, he would take the whole factory’s staff with him abroad for example.

How does Japan affects you?

From an audio company perspective things go very smoothly. You know, reliable and that helps a lot, especially for a small brand like Robert Koda.

It seems that Japanese audio scene is somehow unique, but more than often in a good way?

In recent years there have been some big changes out here. It must have been the audio Mecca of the world at one point. But actually the audio scene here is a very closed loop. I can’t get into some of the audio shows with out an invitation and the exchange of large sums of money for example. The money is mostly old and the preferences very conservative indeed – Great for JBL and Macintosh but very tough for young original thinkers.

You went back and forth with Audio Note. Can you tell us why?

It was a love hate affair! Not only with Kondo but also with Japan. I come from a country plentiful of nature and space. A country of very laid back and hospitable people so living in Japan is sometimes like walking on fire. It’s exciting but gets a bit painful after a while!

On my third return to Kondo, I missed Kondo San as he had sadly just passed away. But Ashizawa San who had been a good friend of mine had taken the reigns and was putting a lot of fresh energy that was good for all of us.

After a few years though, I took the plunge and started Robert Koda with my wife. It was after all my childhood dream to have my own audio company.

Did your sales carier at Highend shop helped you in the way you percive the audio scene?

Very much indeed. I was most fortunate to work at a prestigious high end store. We had every flavor of customer – some die-hard audiophiles and many folk who knew nothing about audio but loved and wanted what I presented to them.  We became a distributor of several excellent brands and I had an amazing collection of audio products that I could just take home and use at will. There was so much insight gained during those years. Both into the business aspect and the customer aspect plus I gained a very good insight into what other amplifier makers were getting right and getting wrong.

Which brands impressed you and if so why?

In my younger years it would have been Krell. It was the sum of its sonic performance and technical excellence that made the Krell’s so memorable. A product built to last a very long time and of sincere, pure origin. Krell never dressed someone else’s stuff up in a glamorous skin or moved to adopt “market thinking” just to make their amplifiers sell. It was the “real stuff”.

What markets are going for as with 40.000$ price tag Takumi is out of reach of many?

Of course, out of reach for many… I don’t build for a market, I build to provide an astonishing and lasting listening experience of deep emotion. All of the Takumi owners so far have been people who have owned many high end amplifiers in the past. They have been thru just about everything and now found a place of tranquility.

How did Japanese market accepted your product?

Actually I have not yet formally taken it to the Japanese market. Others in the audio industry here have been most impressed and highly supportive but I am not particularly interested in entering this conservative yet intricate market yet. There is still so much more to do!

It seems that made in Japan still holds very important role in peoples minds?

That seems true. Ironically we really live in a “Made in the world” period of history. I personally don’t think that being made in Japan or made in Great Britain for example gives a product any inherent advantage. Its about who makes the product, how, and why that is truly important.

Japan still holds an excellent reputation thanks to the work of people like Kondo San, and perhaps deservedly so.

Why the name Robert Koda?

My first name is Robert and this is a brand I am prepared to put my name on! The Koda part is rather more interesting – My wife’s maiden name is “Toyoda” and my surname “Koch”. So there is a simple summation to form “KoDa”. But also my wife’s mother’s maiden name is actually “Koda” and the Koda family she comes from in the Sendai area of Japan have created fabrics that are today National treasures of Japan. They share the same “Takumi” I aspire to.

You amplifier combine both solid state and tube electronics. How do you see the difference and what is your approach to each of topology?

Well the basic laws that govern both kinds of devises are the same but the implementation has to be quite different in order to most wisely use each parts inherent attributes.
One has to respect the devise – operate it within its parameters. I enjoy both technologies and being able to use either at will gives me more tools and flexibility to delve into “out of the box” designs and achieve the performance I am looking for.

Is there specific company audio/sound approach or do you tend to be neutral sounding?

I do not design for a “house sound” but rather for a complete sound. This could be miss-interpreted as a neutral sound. Rather I look for a sound that retains all the original color of the music without adding, losing or shifting anything. It just so happens that well thought out technical approaches seem to lead to this more complete sound.

Many companies are starting to use PWM class D amp's. What are your thoughts about it?

Class D certainly has its place. The power to weight ratio and outright efficiency make class D amplifiers ideal for mobile and PA type work. Perhaps it is possible to get moderately good sonic results at a reasonable price but at this point we not seeing enough of that coming thru.

In the world beyond high end, I mean ultimate amplification however I think that there are basic and inherent limitations that preclude Class D from reaching the pinnacle.

Pure class A amplifier?

Love it or hate it, pure class A has advantages that cannot be replicated by other operational schemes. Our amplifiers are consequently pure Class A. Of course being class A alone dose not guarantee results. One has do much more than that!

What set your solid state design from others?

Quite a bit! We use a variation of single ended class A that yields less than half the efficiency of conventional class A. This is the principle contributing factor to the Takumi’s immense weight for a seventy watt machine. But more than this it is a unique configuration of the single ended elements and the system of power supply feed that sets the Takumi apart from all others. Then there’s the materials and construction techniques but that’s another long story!

Are there some special and innovative approaches to standard tube philosopy that you use with Takumi?

One cannot view the tube section and solid state section in isolation. There is always a two-way communication going on between the two and one needs to be acutely aware of that if good sound is to be found.

The tube stage looks very similar to that of what might be found in perhaps a Western Electric amplifier of by-gone generations but there are subtle yet immensely important variations in our design.

I love the future retro outook of Takumi. Where did inspiration came from?

Well it is very much a case of form follows function. But I have always enjoyed the impressions of many a Japanese tube amplifier. Having gained much experience in the practical world thru retail though, I wanted to avoid some potential problems. So the chassis is inverted. Its open for the capacitors and tubes to breath yet upside down such that difficult to clean dust does not collect. I wanted the possibility to make cable lengths short for the die-hard audiophile who does not mind placing the amplifier with the tubes and capacitors facing upwards.

Also, I don’t like “overdressing”. The outlook of the Takumi really reflects my personality. Its about a lasting and comfortable look that has an engineering basis rather than one of excessive and opulent fashion.

Is high price a must for such a unique product?

No, I don’t think that a product should carry a high price just because it is unique.

If I could build the Takumi less expensively, I would. The price is purely based on the actual cost of production and unfortunately the cost of executing my design style is far from cheap and is unbelievably time consuming. As I understand it, the material cost of the Takumi is far greater than the material cost of many other considerably more expensive products.

Do you plan to indtroduce any more affordable products?

It is my desire to bring the Takumi’s “sound” to many other fellow music listeners. So I do not adhere to the notion of keeping the brand expensive just for the sake of image. The basic difficulty is the design structure of the Takumi is very expensive to make.

So I need to come up with some pretty smart solutions to get to that 80/20 point. *80 percent performance for 20% of the cost.

How do you see current high-end society?

Getting older! Generally I find the audio society to be a very sharing type of people but we do perhaps need to spend a little more effort introducing younger people to the wonderful times our hobby and music can offer.

Analog audio and vinyl? 

For practical reasons plus my age, I am pretty much a “digital” man.

Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?

On the contrary, I think that it’s getting more expensive by the year. There are practical reasons for this, beyond the control of the audio maker so it would be unfair to squarely blame the audio makers. Audiophiles on a tight budget need to be more resourceful, perhaps by considering a “kit amplifier” or by tracking down some second hand items. There is plenty of fun and good sound to be had without costing a fortune.

Where does hifi stops and Robert Koda (high end comes in)?

Hi Fi stops when one loses the desire to change ones system in any way. That point of tranquility is rare for audiophiles however! Robert Koda comes in as a way to reach that point of tranquility – But one can’t just get the amplifier right. One has to get the whole system, the room and ones mind to a point of natural balance.

Where do you design and manufacture your electronics? Japan?

Complete manufacture takes place here in Tokyo. I don’t think it would have been possible to do the initial deign work here – That took about twenty years! But all design work, since it is undertaken by myself is here in Japan now.

What is your favorite choice of front end? Digital or analog? 

For practical reasons plus my age, I am pretty much a “digital” man. While vinyl has its problems (it’s a wonder it works at all!), I would have to agree that certainly in the pre- DVD Audio days, ultimate playback could only come off an LP. I sure don’t think that analog lovers are miss-guided. For me, I just couldn’t get the software I wanted to listen too on vinyl of a reasonable pressing quality.

Why is Takumi so special and highly regarded machine?

It more than bridges the gap between the 300B triode and silicon. The Takumi really brings about the opportunity of going beyond the “best of both worlds” because it is a redefinition and it can do that on a tremendously wide range of speakers.

How do you see the future of digital audio?

It’s pretty clear now that music’s going to be coming of a HDD or SSD of some description. Companies like HD Tracks are really doing a great job towards making this approach more luring for audiophiles. So we are sure to see many more computer based systems that will hopefully not feel like computers!

Are physical mediums obsolete?

I hope not. Data just seems too expendable. Its very difficult to pick up a pc file and look at it in a cherished way! I suppose if one changes ones outlook and old customs, its possible to adapt though… On the other hand, the record companies have really failed us. Why do they force us to buy a CD when they have a 176/24 bit master sitting on their table?

Plans for phono preamp?

At this point I have developed one purely out of ascetic desire. A truly great phono stage is a formidable technical challenge, just what I like! When some free time arrives perhaps I can continue to refine its design and if it’s performance is amazing, I may consider making a product out of it.

What was your reference when designing and testing Takumi?

When I worked on the first amplifiers that were to become the basis for the Takumi I had a pair of Audio Note single 300B’s and a Krell FPB600 that were rotated in and out of the system. After the first “baby Takumi”, a seven watt machine built in a defunct Adcom chassis was born, I never desired another amplifier!

What is high end reproduction for you?

Total transportation into another world. When a system takes you into the “Midas touch” with music’s guide, it is a sublime and exhilarating experience. Getting down to the nuts and bolts, I do like a very full range sound, wide dynamics and good scale but caressed with the touch of a light feather.

Who would you say typical Robert Koda audio customers are?

Typical Robert Koda customers are mostly people who are highly intellectual and have vast experience in high end audio. They have owned many products but are music listeners looking for that moment of musical enlightenment one can find in high end audio.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

Try not to be over-absorbed by many of the myths that are so widely spread in audio circles. More power does not automatically donate better dynamics – they are different mechanisms!

Remember too that state of mind is the key player for those seeking blissful musical moments.