A Gift for Music Lovers Who Have It All: A Personal Utility Pole
Japan’s music fanatics want personal grid connection; ‘electricity is like blood’
The Wall Street Journal
By Juro Osawa
TOKYO— Takeo Morita wanted absolutely the best fidelity possible from his audio system, so he bought a utility pole.
The 82-year-old lawyer already had a $60,000 American-made amplifier, 1960s German loudspeakers that once belonged to a theater, Japanese audio cables threaded with gold and silver, and other pricey equipment.
Normal electricity just wouldn’t do anymore. To tap into what Mr. Morita calls “pure” power, he paid $10,000 to plant a 40-foot-tall concrete pole in his front yard. On it perches his own personal transformer—that thing shaped like a cylindrical metal garbage can—which feeds power more directly from the grid.
“Electricity is like blood. If it is tainted, the whole body will get sick,” says Mr. Morita. “No matter how expensive the audio equipment is, it will be no good if the blood is bad.”
Demonstrating his power’s purity, he mounts a turntable with a vinyl record of Queen’s “I’m in Love With My Car,” settles into his sofa and beams. Pre-pole, he says, the vocals didn’t sound as lively as this.
“Now, it feels like Queen is in this room, just for me.”
Audiophiles everywhere are an obsessive breed, but few exhibit such perfectionism as Japanese stereo fanatics. They not only spend fortunes on amps and speakers but also insist an exclusive power supply is a crucial upgrade.
A private line, they say, eliminates electrical interference that comes from sharing a public pole with neighbors whose gadgets can create “noise” that make subtle notes inaudible and the overall sound flatter.
Once one has a personal tower of power, “the music melts into the air of the room,” says Sumio Shimamoto, president of Izumi Denki Corp., which installed Mr. Morita’s pole and has erected about 40 more across Japan over the past decade.
A Japanese magazine, “Power Sources & Accessories,” specializes in power sourcing for audio equipment, including the deployment of private poles.
“Japanese audiophiles pursue it with a great deal of diligence,” says Joe Cohen, president of Lotus Group, a California-based distributor of high-end audio equipment. “They adopt the cause and sacrifice everything for it.”
There’s a debate among audio enthusiasts about whether personal poles make any meaningful difference. Audiophiles, though, “live in a kind of no-compromises world,” says Mark Bocko, director of the audio and music engineering program at the University of Rochester.
“Electromagnetic interference from appliances being used by neighbors could propagate through a shared transformer and have an audible effect. That’s not an unreasonable thing.”
Yukio Yoshihara, 62, always thought his audio system sounded better late at night, concluding there was less interference when neighbors weren’t using appliances. The former banker asked electricians to assess the quality of power in his Tokyo home with an oscilloscope.
“I found out just how polluted the power supply was,” he says. Some appliances have inverters that switch power on and off to save energy, he says, creating interference that caused inconsistencies in his audio equipment’s performance.
Mr. Yoshihara had a pole and transformer installed five years ago, along with a new circuit-breaker panel and wiring. Makeover cost: $40,000.
A performance of a Mozart violin sonata by violinist Arthur Grumiaux and pianist Clara Haskil after installing the pole and accessories brought tears to his eyes, he says. “It sounded so fresh and vivid, like they were playing in front of my eyes.”
“It’s completely beyond my understanding,” says his wife, Reiko, 57. “But if I take it away from him, he will lose the motivation to live.”
Yukio Yoshihara, a former banker who has erected his own utility pole, sits in his basement audio room.
Yukio Yoshihara, a former banker who has erected his own utility pole, sits in his basement audio room. Photo: Reiko Yoshihara
A scholar of audiophile culture, professor Tsutomu Nakano at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, posits that the beauty of sound is in the ear of the listener.
“We don’t decide whether a wine is good based on an analysis of its chemical composition. Sound is similar,” he says. “It involves the power of imagination, something sacred.”
Japanese audiophiles are pretty much stuck with standardized poles approved by power companies, although in Tokyo some utility-pole makers offer colors such as green and brown.
Katsuhiro Hirano had only the option of gray. The 60-year-old construction-company president in southern Japan had a system including two amplifiers of roughly $40,000 each and $40,000 speakers. “I’d already spent so much money on audio equipment, so why not take one more step?”
Getting a private pole took two months of negotiation with the local power company, which initially objected because there was no precedent in the region. He wanted a brown pole to match his house; the utility had only the conventional concrete hue.
A truck brought his pole last summer, and workers spent three days digging a hole in his yard and erecting it. Neighbors pried, already curious about the windowless building he had put up earlier as his audio room.
“I told all the neighbors that the building was a warehouse and I needed the pole for its air-conditioning system,” he says. “Maybe they thought I was doing something illegal.”
The pole, he says, makes a big difference when listening to vinyl records such as of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert.”
He could now hear the piano, the pianist’s breaths and the sound from the audience—all separately. “It feels like you are at the concert and you know exactly where Keith Jarrett is.”
Mr. Morita, the Queen fan, decided to get his own pole after visiting a Tokyo audiophile who had one. “We listened to rock and vocals sounded dramatically better.”
He met a utility-company engineer who disputed the notion that a pole would make any difference. “He was so adamant,” he says, “and that actually made me want to install it more.”
Mr. Morita permanently removed the gate outside his front yard so a truck could install the pole.
“At first, it felt strange to have a concrete pole in my yard,” he says. “But now it’s part of my home and I feel attached to it.”