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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 2
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47 laboratory

Shigaraki DAC

as reviewed by Mark Katz, Larry Cox, and Art Shapiro

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Power supply is to the left and the DAC is to the right

 

 

 

MARK KATZ'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Soundlab A-1s and Tannoy 12" Monitor Gold speakers in Lockwood studio cabinets (second system).

ELECTRONICS
Melos MAT 1000 monoblock amplifiers and Eclipse preamplifier. Custom 300B monobloc SE amplifiers and Loesch-Wiesner line stage preamplifier (second system).

SOURCES
CEC TL-1 transport and Kora Hermes (latest version modified by Audio Magic). McIntosh MR-78 tuner. Cal Audio Icon Powerboss HDCD CD player, Luxman T117 tuner, Nakamichi 680 ZX cassette (second system).

CABLES
Marigo Reference 3 digital interconnect. Tiff, Yamamura, and Marigo Gen II power cords. Kimber 8TC shotgun speaker cables and Goertz Triode interconnects.

ACCESSORIES
API Power Wedge 116 Mk II for sources. Amps are plugged into a dedicated 20 amp line.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)I first saw Sakura Systems components at the New York Home Entertainment 2001 show, and was impressed by both the sound and the high price. When I heard that we had received a lower-cost version of the DAC I saw at the show, I thought, "Okay, they can build expensive stuff that sounds good, but what can they do at a more affordable price?"

The Shigaraki DAC consists of two small, dark gray, ceramic boxes that connect by a simple cable. No instructions, no power cord, no switches, one input, two outputs. It doesn’t get more simple than this. I plugged the DAC into a PowerWedge 116 II filtered outlet with a Yamamura cable, connected my CEC TL-1 transport via a Marigo Signature III, then connected the DAC to the preamp (first an Audible Illusions L-1, then my Kora Triode). The amps were my temperamental but good-sounding Melos MAT 1000s, driving the Soundlab A-1s.

I was warned that the unit had only had a few hours of playing time, and was prepared for a break-in period. Right out of the box, the sound was thin and anemic. I let it stay on for a few hours and listened again. Slightly better, but hardly comparable to my Museatex Bidat or Art Shapiro’s Kora Hermes. I left it plugged in. That weekend, I invited a few friends over to listen, and they weren’t impressed, but I noticed that it was definitely sounding better than before, and I knew that this wasn’t because I was adapting to bad sound because I hadn’t listened to it between sessions. I experimented with power cables, and found that a short length of Tiff or MIT Z II sounded better than the Yamamura. I also tried different digital interconnects, and found my Marigo clearer and more dynamic, with the latest Nordost Silver Shadow smoother and more relaxed.

The DAC was not breaking in as quickly as I had hoped, but it was sounding more rich and dynamic every time I listened. After waiting two more weeks, I invited the same friends over for another listen, with Art bringing the Kora DAC as a reference. The result was completely different. Comments like "That’s the same DAC?" and "That sounds good, what did you do?" sprinkled the conversation. The answer, of course, was that I had done nothing except leave it plugged in for a couple of weeks. When compared to the Hermes, it sounded surprisingly similar, actually a bit smoother at times, though never quite as dynamic or spacious. Compared to my Museatex Bidat, the Shigaraki sometimes seemed more open and at ease, but not as detailed.

The Reference Recordings CD of the Rutter Requiem, a piece remarkable both for its beauty and its room-shaking bass, worked well. Bass was well defined, and the solo and massed voices were clear. The "Pie Jesu" track best illustrated the DAC’s ability to portray complex voice textures at the same time as powerful organ-pedal bass. I’ve always believed that if a system can’t portray the human voice properly, it doesn’t really work, no matter how deep the bass or extended the treble. A favorite vocal CD is Dorian Recordings’ J S Bach: Secular Cantatas. I enjoy the "Coffee Cantata", the story of a daughter (sung by soprano Dorothea Roschmann) imploring her father (baritone Kevin McMillan) to let her indulge her coffee habit. Think of it as a miniature light opera. The baritone’s voice was clear and deep, with good projection. The guttural "ACH" was very well delineated. The father and daughters’ alternating arguments were well placed on the stage, with excellent articulation. The harpsichord and orchestra seemed well balanced, and the solo flute had a breathy quality.

Next I chose the Water Lily Acoustics recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Liszt’s "Les Preludes," for a test of a well-recorded orchestra. The Shigaraki DAC came though again. Massed strings, brass, and woodwinds all sounded good. The ebb and flow of the orchestra, especially at moderate to loud levels, was heard and felt, the music coming together and never sounding like disconnected bits of noise. The Museatex and the Kora DACs both had a bit of an edge at lower volumes, although this was not obvious without direct comparison.

Piano played powerfully is very tough to reproduce well, due to a combination of very loud peaks with simultaneous tonal demands, overtones, and subtle decaying notes. Naum Starkman playing Chopin on the sadly defunct Pope Music label is brutal, especially the Polonaise on track ten. With the Shigaraki, there was again no harshness or brittleness on peaks, good tones and overtones, dynamic contrasts, and overall musically. Very satisfying.

The last disc was the Eagles’ concert disc Hell Freezes Over on the Geffen label, at best a fair recording from an audiophile perspective, but a valuable test for that very reason. On track six, "Hotel California," the exaggerated bass and drums were enjoyably portrayed, the guitars and voices sounded like they were, indeed, in concert. It was hard to conclude much about the Shigaraki DAC from this. Once a recording is electronically processed and distorted for effect, only people familiar with the specific electric guitars and their amplifiers’ overload characteristics can make proper evaluations of accuracy. I can only say whether it was enjoyable to listen to, i.e., "sounded good." This sounded good.

I characterize the lower-priced Shigaraki DAC as good-sounding, easeful, and dynamic, with good tonal balance. As good as the Museatex Bidat (now discontinued), but different. As good as the Kora Hermes? A bit smoother at times, better bass, softer on top. It was surprising for a solid state DAC to be smoother in the treble range than a tubed one, but the Shigaraki lacks some of the detail and treble sparkle of the tubed Hermes. The Hermes, to me, is the better sounding DAC I’ve heard, though not in all ways and not by much. I think that Shigaraki has come up with a very fine-sounding DAC at a fair price point. If you are looking for a solid state DAC under $2K, you’d be making a mistake not to audition it. Mark Katz

 

 

 

LARRY COX'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
ATC SCM 20.

ELECTRONICS
Majeel Labs Pristine S-10 amplifier. E.A.R. 802 preamplifier.

SOURCE
Pioneer DV 525 dvd player.

CABLES
Quattro Fil interconnects and speaker cables made from Belden 1219A wire.

ACCESSORIES
API Power Pack and ACPEAM line conditioners.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)An issue back, we reviewed the 47 Labs Flatfish CD player ($5400) and its companion Progression DAC ($2700). They reaped unanimous praise from the reviewers, including yours truly. The combination was deliciously lyrical, and closer to analog’s ease than anything digital I’d ever heard, but how many of us can afford it? Junji Kimura, the designer of things 47 Labs, has come up with a $1250 DAC known as the Shigaraki. Whereas the power supplies of the more expensive units are housed in bombproof metal cylinders, both the Shigaraki DAC and its external power supply are made from the same ceramic material that has been used in Japanese tea ceremony bowls for over a thousand years. If you know anything about the tea ceremony, it is an awesome statement to encase a "budget" component in this material. The ceramic is also pretty tough, as I learned when I inadvertently knocked the DAC off my rack. No problem for the DAC or the ceramic casing, but not to be repeated, thank you.

In my reference system, the Shigaraki initially added imaging, hardly a recommendation in my book. Over the course of three or four days the sound broke in, smoothed out, and blossomed. The bass tightened, getting a little tauter and richer, but not a lot. The top end was distinctly more extended, and with little to object to, although it certainly did not remind me of my analog rig at its best. The overall sound was distinctly better than that provided by my Pioneer DV 525 DVD player. It was enjoyable, but not necessarily recommendable.

At that point I did an editorial no-no, inserting  two items into my system that were not my usual components, but were a more synergistic combination with the 47 Labs. These were the Lamm LL2 line stage preamp ($3990) and the Ensemble Dynaflux interconnects ($850 per meter). With these in my system, music was amazingly lifelike, and the sound about the best I’ve had. There was an immediacy to the midrange that did not for a moment become harsh, forward, or lean. It was vibrant without being technicolor, exciting like a ride in a white water raft. Standup bass had a vibrancy that normally I only experience either with live music or a near-death experience. (Remember, I’m a rock climber, so for me this was a good thing.) There was a sense of the unexpected in the performance, just like one gets live. Great performers improvise, and each moment brings the possibility of anything happening.

Junji Kimura sought to produce ninety percent of the Flatfish’s performance for twenty percent of the price. He has nearly succeeded, although the Shigaraki just isn’t cut of the same, silky smooth cloth as the Flatfish. While I still had the Shigaraki, I took delivery of Audio Note’s CD 3.1x, a CD player that uses a 6111A tube in its output stage, and is is nearly three times the price of the Shigaraki. With the Audio Note in place, the Shigaraki’s previously undetectable sonic signature became evident. There is an ever-so-slight "scratchiness" to the sound from the midbass through the upper midrange. With the Shigaraki, standup bass was more extended and slightly more detailed; the instrument sounded more it was made of wood, and had more tension, whether the bass was bowed or plucked. However, with piano. while hammer strikes were quite distinct from the sound of fingers striking keys, the nasal component central to the piano’s tone didn’t come through as distinctly. The piano lacked some of its normal weight and clarity, which the Audio Note provided.

The Shigaraki’s top end seemed to lack the scratchiness present in the lower regions. Triangles, high hats, and other treble ticklers were displayed without undue harshness or etching, while still demonstrating very fast transients. The Shigaraki rendered male and female vocals with their timbres intact, and did this rather extraordinarily. One reason I really like ATC speakers is that they capture the richness of voices. With the 47 Labs DAC, vocals were clear, rich, liquid, and easy to follow. With the Audio Note, they were smoother and more relaxed, but remember, the Shigaraki is $1250, and it produced some of the best sounds I’ve heard in my system.

The Shigaraki has some serious competition in the form of the Kora Hermes DAC ($1400) and the Audio Note 1.1x ($1500). I have not heard the Hermes, though other reviewers have, and liked it a lot. The Audio Note 1.1x is smoother and perhaps a bit sweeter sounding, but lighter in sonic weight. Where the 1.1x falls short for me is in its reproduction of the chestiness of male vocals and perhaps the rosin on the bow of a cello. The Shigaraki is more tonally textured and for me that is very, very desirable. Larry Cox

 

 

 

ART SHAPIRO'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
ESP Concert Grand and REL Stadium II subwoofer.

ELECTRONICS
Convergent Audio SL1 Signature preamplifier and Music Reference RM9 Mk II amplifier.

SOURCE
VPI HW-19 IV turntable, Graham 1.5 arm, and Grado Master Reference cartridge. Wadia WT3200 transport and Kora Hermes DAC.

CABLES
Nordost Silver Shadow digital interconnect. Monster Sigma 2000 interconnects and Cardas Golden Hex 5C biwired speaker cables. Tiff, Marigo and MIT Z II power cords.

ACCESSORIES
Power Wedge 116 and dedicated AC lines.

 

three.jpg (8484 bytes)I first ran into 47 Laboratories at the 2001 High End show in New York. They were participating in a multi-vendor system in which they supplied a somewhat pricier DAC and a preamplifier which fed 300B push-pull amps into Belgian "Box Vaessen" speakers, if I read my scrawled notes correctly. The ultra-expensive 47 Laboratories Pit Tracer transport completed the setup. My listening notes had a number of positive comments, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to be one of the reviewers for this DAC.

The Shigaraki is quite tiny. The DAC is roughly a three-inch cube, while the external power supply is about three by five. Both units have a curious pebbly surface. The web site, which I discovered only toward the end of my time with the unit, asserts that this is some sort of magical ceramic, used for centuries to make dining ware. It is claimed that the non-conductive nature of this material contributes greatly to the DAC’s sonic excellence. This immediately set off my "BS Alarm." After all, I thought, careful shielding is an asset for digital reproduction, and here was the exact antithesis of, say, my Wadia transport, the inside of which is completely surrounded by a copper Faraday cage, including copper screws.

The two units are connected by an umbilical cord which can be detached at the DAC end. The connection seems relatively solid despite the rather small-gauge wires. The adhesive holding the power supply chassis inside the ceramic housing had disintegrated before I received the unit, allowing the guts of the unit to fall out. These guts appeared to be nothing more than a modest sheet aluminum chassis with an IEC input jack, an output connector for the umbilical, a nondescript transformer, and a single diode.

I put the two units on a shelf next to the Kora Hermes DAC I normally use. A Nordost Silver Shadow digital cable was plugged into the Shigaraki’s digital input jack, and my bulky Monster Sigmas were plugged into the analog outputs. These massive cables, with their substantial plugs, wanted to move the tiny Shigaraki around on the shelf, but I managed to brace it DAC against the big Hermes. Sometimes small size and light weight isn’t an advantage. I plugged one of my extra Tiff AC cords into the power supply, knowing from experiments with Mark Katz that it was a good match with the Shigaraki, and put on a CD.

It then became obvious that only one channel was working. I jiggled the interconnects, and could hear the other channel cutting in and out. After a while I discovered that turning the DAC at a certain angle allowed whatever was causing the intermittency to make contact. It was now apparent that construction quality was lacking in the Shigaraki. I made do like this for most of the several weeks I had the unit, and then things deteriorated. I freely admit that in those few weeks I unplugged and re-plugged the cables more than any normal user would do in a lifetime, but finally, upon unplugging one of the analog cables, the exterior ground shell of the DAC’s RCA jack came off with the cable, leaving a black plastic stub sticking out of the DAC and a metal ring wedged firmly inside my cable’s RCA connector. That’s when I closed the book on listening to the DAC, although I hadn’t intended to do much more anyway. Add chintzy and flimsy jacks to my gripes. Budget product or not, it still sports a four-figure price tag, and I wouldn’t expect jacks of this quality level in a mid-fi receiver.

But what about the sonics? If you have read my past reviews you will be aware that I usually cite a dozen or so different but primarily "classical" recordings, describe the sound of each recording on my own equipment and with the device under review, and then assess the sound of the review piece. It will not be necessary to go into such detail with the Shigaraki DAC. Why? Because my observations were remarkably similar with all the CDs I threw at it. Orchestral, piano, guitar, chamber music, male vocalists, female vocalists, and jazz/popular music CDs all gave me the same impression.

To be fair, the Shigaraki faced a problem in my system that might not afflict some of my fellow reviewers: it was being compared to the Kora, probably one of the best DACs on the planet. I say this not to boast about the Kora, but the Shigaraki was repeatedly bested by it, and always in the same manner. The differences between the two DACs were not huge, but they were consistent. It was mostly a matter of resolution. Every time I went back and forth between the two DACs, I would hear less of the subtlety of music through the Shigaraki. While the Kora was more detailed, it was not in a sterile, excessive manner. Despite being somewhat warmer than the Shigaraki—a characteristic I’ve emphasized by careful tube choice—I would always hear more of the musical nuances that make listening enjoyable.

The difference in resolution also translated into differences in air and ambience. The musical bloom around musical notes struck me as a bit more of an on-and-off phenomenon with the Shigaraki. I consistently sensed less of the rise and decay of notes, making the sonic reproduction a bit more mechanical. I reiterate that the differences between the two DACs were not so gross as to preclude listening pleasure. In fact, the Shigaraki was more than decent, and would doubtlessly be an asset in a great many systems, but it couldn’t compete with the Kora. At times, I thought the two units epitomized the stereotypes of solid state vs. tube reproduction, although that is really too simple an analogy. The Shigaraki could competently reproduce sound, but the Kora reproduced music.

The low end of the Shigaraki was a strong point. Playing my few popular CDs with substantial bass content, such as Bruce Katz’ Crescent Crawl on AudioQuest, or the Bela Fleck’s Flight of the Cosmic Hippo on Warner Brothers, there was excellent reproduction of the low bass. On classical recordings with extraordinarily low bass content, such as the John Rutter Requiem on Reference Recordings, the difference between the two DACs was somewhat less pronounced. There was even one recording in which the roles reversed and the Sakura was the product of choice. This is a recording I’ve cited before, Antiphone Blues on the Proprius label, which contains music for the unlikely combination of saxophone and pipe organ. The saxophone is uniquely aggressive and reedy, and the Shigaraki seemed to bring out that characteristic quite well without overdoing it, while the Kora warmed and rounded the music into a slightly more polite presentation. Both were within the bounds of good taste, but the Shigaraki came out on top.

I suspect you get the drift by now. The Shigaraki is a decent product. It can’t really achieve the sonic pinnacles of top flight equipment with respect to resolution, nor can it portray the beautiful warmth and bloom that can make music so enjoyable, but it can provide an enjoyable listening experience, and it will represent a noticeable upgrade for quite a few audiophiles. It has a solid low end and its overall sound is not aggressive. Its modest size will be an asset in many environments. Prospective customers who are not using stiff cabling with ultra-heavy RCA plugs are unlikely to be as affected by the mechanical quality of the Shigaraki as I was. If your interconnects or digital links are big and heavy, however, don’t get anywhere near the Sakura. If you are not burdened by hostile cabling, and if your budget for a new DAC has creeped into the low-four-figure range, the Shigaraki has enough good points to merit your consideration. Art Shapiro

 

 

 

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47 Laboratory 4715 Shigaraki DAC
Retail $1250

US distributor
SAKURA SYSTEMS

web address: www.sakurasystems.com
e-mail address: sakurastms@aol.com
TEL: 508. 829. 3426

 

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