August 200547 Laboratory Shigaraki Model 4715 Digital-to-Analog Converter and Shigaraki Model 4716 CD Transport
by Aaron Weiss
Think Different. Thats been Apple Computer's motto since 1997. If the slogan werent already copyrighted, trademarked, registered, and patented, it could very well apply to 47 Laboratory. Chief designer Junji Kimura creates audio products which are, if nothing else, unique -- uniquely his vision, uniquely suited to his personal tastes. Whatever else you might think of 47 Laboratory gear, you can be sure that it was not created to appease any marketing gurus, sales droids racing to beat last quarters numbers, or management teams desperate to keep up with the pack.
Kimura and the 47 Laboratory team are honest about their biases. They are put off by over-engineered hardware that seems designed for an audience of oscilloscopes rather than people. They liken their approach to audio as Eastern medicine compared to Western. They hold high regard for producing complex results from simplicity -- a paradox at the heart of many Eastern traditions. But is this all just fortune-cookie wisdom?
Junji Kimura started 47 Laboratory in 1992. As an experienced audio engineer who had previously worked his way through Kenwood, Luxman, and Kyocera starting at age 23, Kimura made a name for 47 Laboratory with several reference pieces, notably the 4706 Gaincard integrated amplifier, the 4713 Flatfish CD transport, and the 4705 Progression DAC. As driven by their philosophy, those at 47 Laboratory believe the equipment should get out of the way of the music. Their designs minimize empty space, unnecessary cabinetry, and signal paths. Three-dimensional stacked circuitry shortens the distance between points. For Kimura, keeping his designs small means that there is less "there" there.
The Shigaraki series became 47 Laboratorys "budget" line, inspired by Shigaraki ceramics place as an affordable, everyday material used in Japanese design. The Shigaraki Model 4716 CD transport ($1980 USD) and Shigaraki Model 4715 DAC ($1480) make up a digital playback system at about half the price of the reference version. They differ from their reference predecessors not so much in circuit design but in parts selection and power supplies.
The Shigaraki Model 4715 DAC consists of two nearly identical cubes -- one the processor and the other the power supply. Both are encased in their namesake and both are very small. The DAC's Shigaraki cases give both pieces dark, earthy, and notably non-electronic aura. They look like stones. In fact, 47 Laboratory claims that the non-conductive character of the ceramic contributes to the units sound.
The Shigaraki DAC uses Crystal TDA 15431 DAC chips and a Crystal CS8414 input receiver. It accepts input frequencies of 32kHz, 44.1kHz, and 48kHz, selected automatically by the unit. It has one S/PDIF digital input and one pair of RCA outputs. An umbilical fixed to the processor cube plugs into the power cube. This cord is about a foot long, allowing for some separation between the two pieces. A removable IEC power cord plugs into the power cube. Both cubes are small -- about 3" wide and 3" high. The processor cube is a little over 3" long, while the power supply is about 5 1/2" long, thus making it more of a brick than a strict cube.
On the inside, the DAC embodies the spirit of minimalism: no oversampling, no analog or digital filters. According to 47 Laboratory, oversampling introduces a detrimental complexity to the signal-processing chain. Because of technological limitations in adjusting for jitter (timing errors) in an external DAC, they argue, oversampling actually produces an accuracy rate below 16 bits. Furthermore, they say, oversampling passes along frequencies that, while not directly audible to humans, can introduce unknown behaviors in downstream equipment.
Regarding analog and digital filters, 47 Laboratory believes they sacrifice timing for the sake of frequency. Their argument is that current digital technologies require a designer to choose between accuracy in the time domain or the frequency domain. As they hear it, the listening experience benefits more from proper timing (which they describe as "musicality") than oscilloscope-perfect frequency.
Complementing the sculptural DAC is the matching CD transport -- itself something of a sight. The silver chassis of the transport is affixed to a Shigaraki base. It sits, you might say, on a pedestal. This techno-organic design gives the sense that you might run across this transport nestled among moss and mushrooms while hiking through a rocky gorge. The Shigaraki transport uses a Sanyo mechanism, and in keeping with 47 Laboratorys unique minimalist approach, it sports an exposed-hub design. Eschewing the conventional tray, the transport mounts the compact disc directly onto the laser hub atop the player. You rest a small magnetic clamp on top of the disc to keep it from becoming a dangerous Frisbee. When playing, the unit resembles a turntable without a tonearm -- the naked, exposed disc spinning right before your eyes.
47 Laboratory designed the transport with a "hard suspension" system, affixing the drive mechanism, the lens-actuator assembly and the circuit board to the sub-chassis. Why eliminate the conventional tray and its activating mechanism? "More parts means more resonating elements," says US distributor Yoshi Segoshi of Junji Kimuras design philosophy.
The transports sleek rear has just an on/off switch and two digital outputs. One output has a DC filter and the other does not. If your DAC lacks a DC filter or youre not sure, you should connect it to the filtered output on the transport or else risk damaging the DAC. The unfiltered output was added to optimize performance with 47 Laboratorys DACs, which include an internal DC filter.
As with the DAC, the transport's power supply is housed in a separate ceramic-encased box. In fact, it is identical to the DAC's power supply. An identical umbilical cord connects the transport to the power supply, and a removable IEC power cord plugs into that. The transport measures 11 1/4"W x 3 3/8"H x 7 7/8"D and its power supply 3"W x 3"H x 5 1/2"D.
The top side of the transport features manual controls for the usual functions -- play/pause, stop, skip, and search. Note also the unusual "tracking" button. On a conventional CD player, activation of the tray triggers the unit to read the disc TOC. Because the Shigaraki transport has no tray, when you clamp a disc into place, you must press the tracking button to spin it up and read the TOC. Once youve done that for one disc, you can swap any disc in its place, but can only play the same number of tracks as indexed on the original disc, unless you re-index. You also need to re-index anytime you power the unit on.
The front face of the transport features a green LED with black characters, with the usual playback information. Also included is a remote control, although dont be alarmed if it seems like someone put the wrong one in the box. Instead of carrying through the Shigaraki design to the remote, 47 Laboratory has tossed in a cheap black plastic number. Interestingly, it even includes an open/close button, which doesnt come in too handy on a transport with no tray. The remote does offer a random and programmed play button, two features that the transport supports only through the remote.
Despite the minimalist design of each component, the Shigaraki digital combination is a little on the bulky side when all is said and done. There are four boxes overall, connected to each other with a web of cables. The DAC in particular is very light, and is vulnerable to "tail wagging the dog" syndrome from cable tension.
The Shigaraki DAC and transport took the place of my workhorse Marantz CC65SE CD player. I connected the transport to the DAC with a hot-pink Canare LV-61S digital cable. In another configuration I evaluated the Shigaraki DAC in combination with the Marantz CD player as transport.
DH Labs BL-1 interconnects connected the DAC to my Audio Harmony TWO harmonic filter and from there into my Primare A60 integrated amplifier. I also used the Shigaraki combo without the filter. The sense of musicality and the other qualities I describe about the DAC (and to some extent the transport, but mostly the DAC) were there with or without the Audio Harmony TWO. Canare 4S8 speaker cables are run in single-wire configuration to a pair of ProAc Response 2S loudspeakers mounted to sand-filled four-pillar stands.
While the style and wow factor of the Shigaraki transport are undeniable, the exposed disc is also a little distracting and unnerving. I wonder about the longevity of this setup, particularly in the real world of dust, children, and pets, all of whom may be attracted to spinning, shiny things.
During evaluation, the transport evidenced some finickiness over certain CD-R media. Commercially pressed discs played without incident, but at least two brands of CD-R resulted in regular skipping. The skips were not present when playing the same media in my Marantz CC65SE. A third brand of CD-R played without incident on the transport. According to Yoshi Segoshi, tolerance of CD-R discs is related to the amount of servo control used in the transport. He notes that less servo control improves sonics but reduces tolerance of disc variations, and that 47 Laboratory prioritizes sonic performance over everything else.
Interpols Antics [Matador ole-616] is a consciously congested recording. The band's brooding but melodic sound relies on a certain amount of haze. All too often haze becomes muddle on many systems. Consistently, the Shigaraki duo demonstrated a nimbleness, combined with authority, that can only be described by that well-worn cliché "musical." It's notable not in a particular slice of the frequency spectrum -- Ive heard lower bass and purer highs -- but in its rendering of space and rhythm, and its tonal balance. And on "Slow Hands," a signature example of Interpols intentionally congested arrangements, the Shigaraki combo lends an air of humanity to the proceedings. The music opens up and, although this word is so often used and abused in audio reviews, breathes. In the case of Interpol, thats enough oxygen to reanimate the band from gothic robots into menfolk wearing black mascara. But in a good way.
Rather than throw symphonies at my test systems I prefer going metal. Unfortunately, thrashing acts that arent absurd or vaguely embarrassing are few and far between, particularly since Metallica cut their hair. The saviors of the scene may very well be System of a Down, whose Mezmerize [Sony 94161] picks up where the pounding, marching Toxicity [Sony 62240] left off. "BYOB" is a slightly tongue-in-cheek protest song, mixing shuffling metal riffs with a boy-band-mocking chorus. The contrast is enhanced by the Shigaraki duos fast pace and ability to turn on a dime. The heavy riffs dont overwhelm the soundscape and yet manage to retain their power. The Shigaraki sound is not too reserved. It doesnt wimp out at metals pumping fist, and it also doesnt lose control of the music. It strikes an appealing balance.
Speaking of striking a balance, the White Stripes are in some respects a little bit Interpol and a little bit System of a Down. On Get Behind Me Satan [BMG/V2 27256], Jack White continues his special blend of blues-inspired, low-fi, heavy riffs, and all the while his pseudo-sister Meg pounds along on the drumkit like a seven-year-old who went off her Ritalin. The opening track and first single, "Blue Orchid," is simple and fuzzy. Low-fi recordings can sound flat without the polish of highly engineered recordings, but they can also capture more air. The Shigaraki combination delivers air so well that it brings these kinds of tracks to life, making them sound more live than low-fi. In fact, I found "Blue Orchird" somewhat dull on the radio, and too one-dimensional on my Marantz CD player to keep me coming back to it. The Shigaraki brings it the vitality that Jack White presumably had in mind.
Especially interesting about the Shigaraki combo is its nose for bringing out the underserved elements of music. When I think of Santanas dorm-room-cool Abraxas [Sony 65490], I naturally think of that guitar. You could identify Carlos Santanas guitar sound from outer space. My first thought listening to the Shigaraki duo play "Singing Winds, Crying Beasts" and "Oye Como Va" was "Yep, sounds like Santanas guitar." Honestly, it sounded pretty much like it always does. Perhaps his guitar transcends playback equipment. It might sound exactly the same on an AM radio. But something else in these tracks caught my ear. Listen to that bass -- distinct, lyrical, verbose. Unlike typical rock where the bass thumps between two notes for the entirety of the song, Dave Browns playing on Abraxas is a true supporting actor. I could hear it, I could feel it, and it had something to say. Similarly, the percussion work of Jose Chepito Areas and Mike Carabello is elevated beyond a mere backdrop to Santanas fiery playing. The Shigaraki combo makes a believable case that "Santana" is indeed a band.
Lively acoustic music brings out the best in the Shigaraki DAC and transport -- and vice versa. Jesse Cooks Gravity [Narada 63037] is flamenco-infused world-beat instrumentals, none more infectious than opening track "Mario Takes a Walk." The bass beat sounds a touch attenuated, but Cooks acoustic guitar soars. Plucky and convincing, it takes all the air it can get, which on the Shigaraki pair is a skyful. Cooks solo run near the final 30 seconds of the track is spine-chillingly nimble, and the Shigaraki separates never run out of breath.
But as Ive heard on some high-end gear, more heavily processed music can actually lose some of its luster. Mark Farinas Mushroom Jazz [OM 39505] is a languid, sensual acid club mix with deep bass and soulful vocals. "Music Use It" as sung by Lalomie Washburn, with its bizarrely catchy coda of nonsense lyrics, exemplifies that processed mix sound, which for some reason sounds more appealing pumping out of club or car speakers than the Shigaraki DAC and transport. Somehow, the music lacks air, depriving the Shigaraki duo of anything to grab onto.
The same is true of the Franz Ferdinand eponymous debut [Sony 93630]. Their infectious nouveau disco-rock is polished for the radio. Consequently, even their most contagious single, "Take Me Out," sounds a little flat on the Shigaraki duo. Undoubtedly, this is the phenomenon Ive observed before -- recordings artificially engineered to sound alive are like botox treatments, creating perceived vitality through paralysis. The Shigaraki combo can bring out the life in natural recordings, but it cant raise the dead.
I like to turn to Alison Moyets EP Solid Wood [Columbia 662326 2] as the cure to over-processed pop. Played on the Shigaraki DAC and transport, the acoustic strumming in "Ode To Boy" sounds plush, rhythmic and convincing. Moyets vocals on "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" range on different playback configurations from big-head-floating-in-the-room to woman-with-big-voice. The latter is the more authentic, and exactly what the Shigaraki separates deliver.
It was illuminating to play two tracks off the Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01] through three configurations: the Shigaraki combination, the Shigaraki DAC with my Marantz CC65SE CD player ($550 when still available) as transport, and the Marantz unit alone. Adele Anthonys "Recitativo in Scherzo for Solo Violin" is such a great test track because of its singular, focused intensity. Played solely through the Marantz, the track is intense but not so focused. The image is indistinct, and the harmonic overtones of Anthonys violin slightly overpower the notes. Adding the Shigaraki DAC to the Marantz re-composes the scene. Anthony sits squarely at center rear of the soundstage, her violin strokes more fluid and a bit less gritty. The performance maintains its intensity, but sounds more believable and distinct. Replacing the Marantz CD player with the Shigaraki CD transport adds a touch more clarity to the picture. The same improvements heard with the DAC alone are enhanced a few degrees more.
An even more interesting contrast takes place with "Little Dogs Day," a Rupert Brooke poem recited by Kim Cattrall accompanied on double bass by Mark Levinson. Played on the Marantz unit alone, the double bass is deep and resonant, but difficult to locate. Sometimes it appears in the center of the soundstage, other times toward the left, sometimes nowhere and everywhere at once. Similarly, Cattralls recitation is clear and articulate but indistinctly located. Cabling the Marantz to the Shigaraki DAC presents an almost wholly new sound. Cattralls voice recedes from an airy ghostlike presence to that of a human being standing between the speakers. More dramatically, Levinsons double bass shifts quite distinctly three-quarters to the right of the soundstage, slightly farther rear than Cattrall. The low notes are taut instead of bulging. They dont resonate as deeply in the room, but they articulate more naturally. The basss location doesnt waver. If anything, returning to the Shigaraki combination solidifies this sound.
Together, the Shigaraki duo presents a sound more natural, rhythmic, and more sharply imaged than the solo Marantz CC65SE. Where the Marantz presents a big, warm and fuzzy Aunt Jemima-like embrace, Team Shigaraki is more reserved, but more emotionally credible. Its also more accurate, imaging a soundstage with clear depth in all directions, while the Marantz can be vague and indistinct. The Shigaraki temperament checks bass extension, preferring lean and articulate over the boom and bloom of the Marantz.
Removing the Shigaraki CD transport from the equation and running the Marantz player through the Shigaraki DAC results in a sound literally partway between both poles. But not halfway -- the DAC lends most, though not all, of the Shigaraki sound to the new combination. Quantified, the DAC alone seems to be responsible for about 80% of the combinations sound. To put it another way, the differences between the Shigaraki DAC and the Marantzs internal DAC are not subtle; the differences between the transports are less dramatic. The Shigaraki transport improves slightly upon the signature characteristics already noted in the DAC, namely improved definition and more natural rhythm.
Given that the Shigaraki transport adds $1980 to the bottom line, its impossible to ignore the usability tradeoffs between it and the Marantz. For some, the degree of intervention required to use the Shigaraki transport is well worth the slight improvement in sonics. In contrast, the old Marantz CC65SE is a fully automated five-disc carousel. Its DAC is no match for the subtle, natural ease of the 4715, but as a transport it gives up only a little ground to the 4716.
The engineers at 47 Laboratory are appealing to a particular kind of listener themselves -- which is a perfectly honest way to go about designing anything. They are not trying to anticipate the market or follow a trend. Consequently their designs are unique and personal. In keeping with their holistic philosophy, their gear aims to unify performance and aesthetics into a consistent whole.
With the Shigaraki Model 4715 DAC, 47 Laboratory translates their philosophy into sound. In eschewing the obsession over "accuracy," they are not simply being evasive. There really is something to the DAC's sound -- natural and rhythmic; musical, as they say, which is neither accurate nor inaccurate, in the way that strawberry ice cream is neither chocolate nor vanilla. If that philosophy sounds appealing, the price tag will return its value.
It would be dishonest to say that the 4716 CD transport doesnt enhance the combinations sound, sculptural aesthetics and quirky usability aside. But it raises the question: How much more would you pay for whipped cream and hot fudge with your strawberry ice cream? The value proposition of the Shigaraki duo is clearly weighted toward the DAC, but for some only the whole sundae will do.
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