Consider yourself a hapless duffer---and if you don't want to be a hapless duffer, too bad: It's a cosmological imperative.
Now ask yourself: What forces could cause a string of black boxes and the wires that join them to hold such power over our attention? We're committed to them, and to reading about them on the toilet, in bed, riding the train, or waiting at the doctor's office. That's the hapless part.
Lord, what ever happened to Colette, Henry Miller, or the Bard? What about sex and society? What could these inanimate things possibly do to excite us or redeem us enough to warrant our idolatry? Expand our consciousness? Alleviate depression? Develop our personality and make us more interesting? Zap us to another place? Spawn a mood change?
We should jump up and shout Hallelujah to find a black metal anything that even tries. And if, miracle of miracles, we find a tin box that pulls off some of those tricks---and if it has some degree of cool factor going for it, too---then we should forget sex, temperance, and social injustice and just buy it, assuming we can afford it. (The question of value is an endless bummer: Just when we get all wound up, it steals our fun and stifles our romance. But the voices in our heads are into it. Therefore, I must talk about both the life-changing possibilities and the relative value of music-making metal boxes.)
So if these tin-cans-with-bits are going to be interesting enough to write about and read about, they'd better be either exotic as hell or nearly free. And we are off to a good start, because this is about a bunch of very small and nearly empty metal boxes from a company in Japan called 47Laboratory: definitely no free, but they are exotic, and they do in fact perform several of the above-mentioned tricks.
47Laboratory was created in 1992 to manufacture the designs of Junji Kimura. Back in the 1960s, Kimura designed speaker drive units, a record player, a tone arm, and several amplifiers for Pioneer. He went on to work for Kenwood, Luxman, and Kyocera---and it was working for the latter company that Kimura began to meditate on the broader picture of audio design, especially as regards the audible effects of enclosure design and component layout and mounting.
Then, beginning in 1992, Kimura's interest turned to some ideas which first saw light in MJ(Audio Technology), the Japanese audio builders' magazine: radical innovations of Japan's lone experimenters and devoted audio cults. When Kimura retired from Kyocera and started 47Labs that year, he became one of those lone-wolf experimenters. The ensuing six years of research produced a genuinely radical design: easily the smallest, most solidly built, and most musically effective solid-state amplifier through which I've ever played music.
Now promise you won't laugh when I explain that all of Kimura's research boils down to this: "Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex." To this end, the model 4706 Gaincard amplifier and accompanying model 4700 Power Humpty power supply are made with the fewest components possible, housed in the smallest chassis possible. The 4706 Gaincard measures 6.8 inches by 1.6 inches by 4 inches (WxHxD), and that's for both channels: In essence , the 4706 is two 25-watt monoblock amplifiers tied together by a half-inch-thick aluminum face-plate and another half-inch-thick plate on the rear, the latter with an acrylic mounting block to support the loudspeaker terminals.
Each mono Gaincard has only nine components, which are all hardwired and bolted to an extruded aluminum chassis. The signal path is an inch and a quarter long. The negative feedback loop is only a third of an inch long. The whole stereo amp weighs less than a pound. How cool is this? You could drop this thing from an airplane or run it over with your car and it would still work fine. By comparison, the average Royalist-Imperialist amplifier uses over 300 parts, breaks if you look at it funny, and still requires at least two fit manservants for transport purposes.
While most of us have been shuffling about, speculating about the futures of various digital formats, the audio engineering underground has been experimenting with the mechanical and electromagnetic effects of audio component environments----i.e., the black box. One theory is that the audio signal is really an electromagnetic "shock wave" which is impressed, instantaneously, upon the entire audio playback chain, boxes and all----from laser light to the pressurized listening room air. Thus the final quality of reproduction is shaped by the combined resonant and reactive nature of the entire playback system in the home environment. Substudies of this theory include orientation and mounting of components within the box; the box as a source of free ions and carrier of electrical charge; the environment of the box relative to the scale of the electromagnetic fields generated during operation: and the effects of mechanical damping and box resonance. From an audio design standpoint, all this is the equivalent of Einstein's theories: some simple and shockingly obvious looks at The Big Picture.
Remember, every material and component upon which the music signal is impressed, including the box itself, stores and releases energy in a unique non-linear and frequency-dependent manner. This kind of distortion rarely shows up on any steady-state analysis, but it's nonetheless real. Turntable platter mats are a good example: If you play an LP on various mats of identical thickness but different materials (felt, rubber, cork, glass, or whatever) you'll find that tonal character, spectral balance (harmonically related energy distribution), rhythm clues, and surface noise will be noticeably different with each. So the idea is not new, but applying it to the mounting and layout of active and passive electronic parts pretty much is.
The Model 4706 Gaincard amplifier costs $1250, but you'll have to spend more than that to get up and running. That's where the Model 4700 Power Humpty comes in. This outboard power supply is unusual in that it has a high-capacity transformer (170VA), but sees only a very small filter capacitor (a 1000µF cap mounted in the Gaincard itself -- one of those nine parts). Distributor Yoshimitsu Segoshi suggests that this makes the amp quicker and more supple, and more able to capture subtle details and note attacks. The Humpty is built in a dense aluminum can measuring just under 8 inches long with a diameter of about 5 inches, and connected via a length of soft wire to the Gaincard. The Gaincard can be used with either stereo or mono Humpties.
Other details: The Gaincard has 27dB of gain, and an input impedance of 20K ohms. That's just enough for most CD players to be connected directly, eliminating the need for s separate preamplifier. To this end, each amplifier channel is equipped with a stepped attenuator and a tiny mute switch---and in that sense, the Gaincard is an integrated amplifier, albeit one without any kind of source-switching. The speaker binding posts are small Phillips-head screws, which will accommodate only 20-gauge or smaller bare wire.
Before I describe the life-changing possibilities of the 47Laboratory Gaincard, there is something you must understand. In order for an audio system to make a great musical impression and stimulate a further appreciation of the musical arts, several things must come together: the artistic sensibilities of the musicians who make the music; the imagination of the designers who create the boxes that reproduce it; and the cultivated tastes of the duffers who experience it.
I don't give a rat's tootie how many looks of love the Rebecca Crawl Trio gives you or how many trumpets are in the corner of the sound stage: Getting greatness out of a system depends on putting greatness in, and if you choose a record or disc for the way it sounds, that's all you'll ever get: sound. But not music. Remember audio's first law: Black boxes can have no tangible value beyond the musical taste and the artistic sensibility we bring to them. There is no objective measurement or meaningful comparison I can present outside of my experiences with the musical program. For me to discover some recommendable value in a audio system, I must first find an identifiable correspondence between my reactions to the music I played and the gear I used: Did this or that group of components enhance or disable my contact with or enjoyment of the music? My job as a writer for Listener is to then speculate on the chances of your being able to repeat this correspondence in your home. (That latter part is very difficult.)
I began this trial by substituting the Model 4706 Gaincard in my affordable/enjoyable "Bohemian" system, which consists of a Creek 4330 integrated amp and a pair of Acoustic Research M1 loudspeakers, using an Audio Note CD3 CD player as my source. Immediately, the Gaincard made the music seem richer and more tactile, with new details popping out all over---but stop right there. I never thought music could sound this dry and cold, like the first time I ever touched a dead person. It was that scary.
In my experience, there is no such thing as a "neutral" or "analytical" hi-fi. All groupings of audio components superimpose (resonate) their own personalities on the musical fabric. Quality in hi-fi is mainly a question of personality, character, and style. I like audio that is loyal to the artist's intent: fundamentally truthful. And if it has charm and a warm, wet, well-proportioned body, then I'm ready to listen to what it has to say. By this token, the Ongaku is Marilyn Monroe, while Creek 4330 reminds me of that helpful neighbor you can trust with your house keys while you're away on vacation. For any amplifier to be worth more than the 4330's modest cost, that amplifier must present music with more noble proportions and a suave, sexy glamour that won't depreciate with age.
The next morning I discovered that the Model 4706 in fact has that sexy glamour. I swear to you, I have never experienced an amp that could change character this much in only 24 hours. I have no explanation, but the first disc I played while I drank my morning coffee sounded completely warm and seductive. I was amazed. From that moment forward, I have enjoyed every disc I have played with the Gaincard in the system.
When I substituted the $15K Avantgarde Duo loudspeakers for the $150 M1s and put on "Light as a Breeze" from Leonard Cohen's The Future, I was struck dumb. Only the Ongaku has showcased the dark laws of passion inherent to Leonard's poetry more than the Gaincard----"I was healed/and my heart was at ease." With just the CD3, the Gaincard (with one Power Humpty), and the blue Duos, I felt like the music was all there. Every CD demonstrated a glowing sense of musical completeness; what little was missing, what still might sit undiscovered on these silver discs, was of questionable importance. Sure, I can still imagine more resplendent playback and I'm sure I have experienced such. But my point is; I felt like I was getting more than I needed. I wasn't just satisfied, I was grateful and amazed. Total system cost: $20K.
When I added the new Kimura-designed transport (no model number yet); the Model 4705 Progression d-to-a converter (20 parts total, no oversampling, no digital filter, no analog filter, 1.4-inch signal path!); and the Model 4799 Power Dumpty to the system, the feeling of completeness expanded. Now this grand sense of wholeness carries the bass with it----bass that supports the entire musical structure. To me, digital has always seemed more scattered and broken, more "taken apart" than analog. With the 47Laboratory CD front end, the music moves as one full unit, completely reassembled and driven by the beat. Solo piano recordings now sound like the music comes from the whole instrument, accompanied by a new, finely detailed, LSD-spiderweb presentation of voicings and textures. On my two finest examples of psychedelic trance music----Twisted by Dementertainment and Are you Shpongled? by Shpongle----moments of structural folding and rhythmic implosion became wonderful, impossible-to-miss events.
The Progression converter and new transport are consistently an enhancement over the Audio Note CD3 player on all types of music, except for an unmistakable loss of what I call "bloom"----an expansive, reverberant quality (found mostly in tube electronics with no negative feedback) that envelopes the music's harmonic structure with a glowing, fluorescent space. While excessive bloom dulls the music, some little bit of it is effective in reducing listener fatigue and making the melodies come alive. Digital reproduction via the Progression is in no way fatiguing, but there are moments when this loss of tonal radiance is distracting, making me wish for a bit more sense of overtone or warm, moist atmosphere.
The combination of the Progression d-to-a converter and Kimura transport recovers more of what (I suspect) is encoded on my CDs than anything I have used, at a cost of about $8K for the complete digital source (like the name, the exact price of the transport hadn't been determined by press time). Not free----but certainly a reasonable amount for what might be the most competent CD front end, period. I should emphasize that while the Duo/Gaincard/Progression system was the most full-information playback system I have ever used, I still had one important unfulfilled desire: Make my perfect rose just a bit more intensely fragrant.
The 25-watt Gaincard amplifier will outplay the Krells and Levinsons, it will reveal more of the poetry and structure of musical art than any silicon-based amplifier I have experienced, and it has plenty of cool factor. It seems able to drive a wide range of loudspeakers, and at $2750 complete (with one Power Humpty) this must be considered an excellent value.
Adding the second Power Humpty and the 4705 Progression d-to-a may also be a wise notion if you don't really need that bloom and you're not a Bohemian or a starvin' Marvin. But I would really like to Know how the same nine components and the Humpty would perform if they were jammed in one used tuna can and one small soup can. I am serious. What if the next step in Junji's research were to discover how much musical integrity he could retain while minimizing the costly packaging? Could he also make a 25-watt amp that sounds two-thirds as good for one-fourth the price? Could he beat the honest Creek 4330 at its own game? If he could, I think a lot of duffers like me would feel a lot less hapless.
Artie comments: After collecting the review samples from Herb, Yoshimitsu Segoshi sent the 47Laboratory amp and a couple of Humpties my way, along with a phono preamp called the Model 4712 Phonocube ($1750----and it wants one of those Humpties for itself).
I'm really knocked out by this stuff. Used as an integrated amp with my Lowther PM2A/Medallion loudspeakers, the Gaincard is lively, punchy, and endlessly fun. It isn't as psychedelic as a Fi 2A3, and it's crisper and less liquid than either A 3A3 or a 300B. But it isn't at all fatiguing, and neither is it boring. Hell, boring is the last thing you could say about the Gaincard. Heard through it, music has tremendous presence, rightness, and immediacy. This is serious hi-fi----by which I mean serious fun!
The dual volume controls are a bit of a pain: On more than one occasion, I've wished for finer gradations of loudness, for settings between the ones supplied. But that may be because the Lowthers are so efficient, and are making so much of the Gaincard's gain. (Before we went to press, I mentioned this to Segoshi, and he explained that 47Laboratory can custom-tailor the Gaincard's volume attenuation; for units already in the field, this mod costs $120 plus shipping to Sakura Systems, and takes a couple of weeks.)
A note on the name: As Herb mentioned, the man behind 47Laboratory is Junji Kimura. In Japanese, ki means yellow, and mura means purple. And on the color wheel, yellow corresponds with the number 4, and purple with the number 7. There you go: 47.
Even if you didn't know that, you could still tell that Junji Kimura has a sharp sense of fun: all you'd have to do is listen to his amplifier----which I recommend you do when the opportunity presents itself. (New Yorkers have it easy, but by the time you read this, dealers in other parts of the US may have signed on.) If you thought you'd heard it all before, you'll be happily proven wrong.
* About the same time Herb was reviewing the system, 47Laboratory performed an additional fine tuning to PROGRESSION DAconverter. What they did was a minor mechanical tuning on the casing of the unit, but the result is far from minor. The new PROGRESSION now is fuller, richer, even more open sounding than what was already amazing former unit.