This review was written in 2005 when the world was a wealthier place and the Shigaraki System cost just over £5,000. Seven years later the system still exists albeit with an upgrade to the speakers and costs nearly £9,000 in total, so despite that fact that the Japanese have been in recession for so long and that we jumped the same wagon a few years back, stuff just keeps getting more expensive. So buy now while you can still afford it!
47 Labs is a small Japanese company with a highly individual philosophy on what are the most important things when it comes to reproducing music with a hi-fi system. They are of the opinion that a lot of expensive hi-fi misses the point by emphasising purity of sound over musical communication, or as Koji Teramura puts it “high-end audio's last stop will be an assassination of music by the purity of sound, totally isolating the listener from his/her music.” The founding half of the company, Junji Kimura, says “for me, audio is a toy, a great toy that brings fun and excitement into our lives… I have some friends who says they dedicate and sacrifice their life to audio. I’d say forget it!”
While this makes complete sense for people who like to listen to music, in the world of ‘serious’ hi-fi it’s radical stuff, fortunately the components that the company makes seem to bear out this approach. Not only do they look different they make listening to music an engaging and entertaining experience.
Model 4717 integrated amplifier
47 Labs makes a range of components for playing CDs ,vinyl and even computer files with prices that approach the eye watering in the marvellously name PiTracer CD transport. The Shigaraki system is 47 Labs’ entry level set up and consists of a number of small units with either a base or casework made of Shigaraki, a Japanese ceramic that resembles earthenware in its coarseness and is dark grey in its glazed form.
While these components may not seem small by the standards of today’s micro systems they are not exactly priced in the same way either, comparably priced hi-fi tends to be very chunky and masculine. 47 Labs’ reason for building its kit out of numerous compact boxes is two-fold, firstly the smaller the circuit the shorter the distance that the signal has to travel, and secondly the smaller the box the less energy it can store. The benefit of the latter point may not obvious but it is generally accepted that for best results hi-fi equipment shouldn’t vibrate, inevitably one could go further on this subject but this is probably not the place. The Shigaraki system assembled here consists of a 4716 CD transport and 4715 DAC, each with its own external power supply, and a 4717 ‘integrated’ amplifier which also has a separate power supply and thus is integrated in name alone. The 4722 Lens speaker is ceramic free and thus not a Shigaraki component, but at the time it was the only speaker that 47 Labs made at the time, so a pretty straightforward choice.
The CD transport has much of the simplicity of a turntable inasmuch as there’s no disc drawer, just put your disc on top and clamp it down with the supplied puck. Pressing play without something to hold the disc in place would probably result in it flying across the room. The DAC is a very purist device with no oversampling, and no filtering either digital or analogue, proper NOS in other words. Both converter and power supply are encased in Shigaraki ceramic which has the advantage of being non-conductive as well as having a totally different resonant character to the usual materials. It has a single coaxial S/PDIF input and RCA phono outputs with a captive lead to the PSU.
Model 4716 CD transport & Model 4715 DAC
The amplifier boasts a meagre 20 watts and looks like an old fashioned toaster but it’s all the more funky for it, it has a three inputs for line sources and is devoid of such novelties as remote control or an LED to tell you it’s on. The output stage is based on op-amps, a technology that’s usually found in the outputs of line stage devices like DACs but which has gained a cult following since 47 Labs’ founder Junji Kimura introduced the possibility of using it to drive loudspeakers. He claims that a bit like a tube amp op-amps will drive any speaker whose impedance remains above four ohms.
With all the 47 Labs components attention to detail is very good, these may look a bit wacky but they have been carefully designed and manufactured to exacting standards. Inevitably all these separate boxes means plenty of cabling but at least 47 Labs’ wire comes in an attractive shade of translucent blue, the cables even have great names like as Ota and Kishermon.
The Lens speaker is a very simple design and follows the company’s assertion that “Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex” to the letter. Unlike 99.9% of all loudspeakers it has only one drive unit and a small one at that, a 100mm in diameter Aramid fibre cone, in a cabinet that’s only a little more than 26cm high. It’s not a lot of speaker for the price even though it comes from a small Japanese company, but getting a speaker like this to work well is not easy and production runs are undoubtedly small.
Model 4722 Lens MkII speaker
Listening to the 47 Labs system one is initially distracted by its limited bass but it doesn’t take long before you are captivated by its immediacy and the ease with which it draws you into the music. After a while the lack of low bass becomes a secondary factor as you find yourself engrossed in new facets of favourite pieces. There is plenty of detail on offer, the small sounds are clearly presented alongside the fundamental notes. Voices as diverse as Martha Wainwright and Memphis Slim stand proud of the speakers in remarkably convincing fashion given the scale of the drive unit. There’s plenty of subtlety as well, the different intonations and nuances that singers use being as clear as day.
This is a system that majors on the critical elements of the music, the tune, the instrumentation and the quality of playing are emphasised way above more visceral aspects such as energy and power. This is not a bangin’ system in any sense, it’s a tool for gaining musical insight and pleasure. Timing, that most elusive of hi-fi qualities, is particularly strong, the system does as its makers suggest and get very close to the “freshness of the sound that dwells in the point of contact between the musician and his/her instrument.”
There are many ways that you can nearly ten grand (plus cables) on a hi-fi system but this is probably one of the most stylish and idiosyncratic. It places music before sound but nonetheless reproduces plenty of the variety that’s in the sound, it will as a result give you more hours of musical pleasure than a lot of the competition even if it doesn’t shake the furniture. If you appreciate tunes more than musical energy 47 Labs will be hard to resist.
Model 4715 DAC & power supply