SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published August 1, 2001


4706 Gaincard

4713 Flatfish


4700 Humpty

4799 Dumpty

47 Laboratory: Model 4713 Flatfish CD Player/Transport, Model 4705 Progression DAC, Model 4706 Gaincard Amplifer, Model 4700 Power Humpty and Model 4799 Power Dumpty

Chances are you've never heard of 47 Laboratory. I sure hadn't, until I received a phone call from Casey McKee about a year ago. "You've got to go to the 47 Labs website -- I haven't heard this stuff, but it looks wild!"

That it did. Everything was so small -- and had weird names, to boot. A CD player called the Flatfish? Power supplies dubbed Humpty and Dumpty? This stuff had to be a joke, right?

Actually, no. Despite the whimsical names, 47 Laboratory was building serious gear. The company consists of Junji Kimura, an audio engineer, and Koji Teramura, a former hi-fi dealer. Both were dissatisfied with the sound of conventional audio systems. When Kimura designed a CD transport, Teramura auditioned it. It wasn't the digital front end that attracted Teramura's enthusiasm, however. It was the simple solid-state amplifier Kimura had built to drive the system -- the prototype for the 47 Labs Gaincard.

The two formed a partnership on the spot. 47 Laboratory has a simple philosophy, founded on three premises: 1) Simplify all technology, 2) Trust your own ears to judge the quality of the sound, and 3) Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex. Toward those ends, the company keeps the number of parts as small as possible and also keeps the signal paths as short as possible. 47 Labs also pays close attention to mechanical resonances -- which does not mean everything is damped to eliminate all resonance. In fact, the company doesn't believe in damping -- the products are designed to release resonances "smoothly and quickly."

Model 4706 Gaincard

The Gaincard ($1500) is tiny (6.75"W by 5"D by 1.5"H) and sort of cute in a Corgi Toy kind of way. It uses only nine parts per channel, not including attenuators, and has a scant 32mm signal path. It's built in a true dual-mono configuration -- each channel is housed in a separate enclosure, although the faceplate up front and the speaker connection bar at the rear connect the two boxes. On the faceplate are separate 12-position attenuators for each channel and individual on/off lever-switches. A single input RCA jack is mounted on each channel's enclosure and a row of four Phillips-head screws attaches the speaker cables to the connection bar at the rear. A pair of flexible woven umbilical cords connects the Gaincard to an outboard power supply.

If you have more than one input, you can connect the Gaincard to a preamp or utilize 47 Laboratory's $720 passive Model 4707 Input Chooser. I used the Gaincard by itself in my auditions.

There are two power supplies for the Gaincard, the 170VA 4700S Power Humpty ($1800), which makes the Gaincard a 25Wpc amplifier, and the 4700S Power Humpty ($2500), which ups the output to 50Wpc. Or you can add two power supplies (take your pick as to which) and turn the unit into a completely dual-mono amplifier. The Power Humpties are heavy, black-anodized aluminum cylinders. Other than the etched 47 Laboratory logo on the front and two umbilical connectors and an IEC mains socket on the back panel, they are featureless.

Model 4713 Flatfish CD Player/Transport

The Flatfish ($3600) is totally unlike any other CD player I've ever seen. It too is small (6.5"W by 9.5"D by 2.25"H), but what makes it really stand out from the crowd is that it has no drawer mechanism -- the CD rests, clamped, on a spindle on top of the unit. There are four dip switches on the surface of the unit -- these control power, TOC (table of contents), play, and track forward/back track. The platform is 2/3" thick machined aluminum and the drive, laser mechanism and all circuits are attached to it -- 47 Labs claims that the difference in mass between the platform and everything attached to it controls vibrations created by the slight off-centering of the CD in play. Under the platform, the circuits are covered by a shell of what appears to be ordinary perforated-metal stock.

The whole structure rests upon three spindly "spikes" that seat into dimples inset into the aluminum platform. This three-point suspension means you must be extremely careful every time you change a CD or throw a dipswitch or you'll knock the player cockeyed on its stilts.

There is, however, a remote control, which means that once you've clamped the disc to the spindle, you don't need to touch the Flatfish.

The Flatfish has two coaxial digital outs (one DC filtered for use with most DACs; the other unfiltered, for use with the Model 4705 Flatfish DAC) and an internal four-times oversampling single-bit DAC. It is mated to a 120VA Model 4799 Power Dumpty ($1800 and cosmetically identical to the Power Humpty) with two umbilical connectors -- which allows you to add a Model 4705 Progression DAC without having to buy another power supply.

Model 4705 Progression DAC

The Progression ( $2700) is a non-oversampling DAC with no digital filter, no analog filter, a passive I/V converter and a total signal path of only 35mm. It contains only 20 parts and is housed in a machined aluminum chassis that seemed awfully familiar -- it took me a while to realize that it resembled a Scotch tape dispenser. It has one coaxial SP/DIF input and a pair of RCA outputs.

Since the Progression eschews digital and analog filters, you need to mate it very carefully with your loudspeakers. Exotic tweeters (ribbons or piezzo tweeters) or super tweeters may be at risk because of a concentration of about 1/3 of the operating musical power at around 22kHz. Most dynamic models should be OK, but be careful.

The Progression does require a 4799 Power Dumpty to operate, but it can share the same unit used to drive the Flatfish with no sonic compromise.

All is not sweet, all is not sound...

Despite their up-to-the-minute design elements, the 47 Laboratory gear took me back about twenty years. In those days, audiophiles were deeply suspicious of "convenience" features such as remotes and, in some cases, even stereo volume controls. Convenience was the sizzle used to sell the mass-market "steak" and it frequently came with a sonic price tag. We "real" audiophiles reveled in our manual turntables and quirky preamps and unreliable power amplifiers. All of that effort and agita proved how much we loved music. We wore our hair shirts with pride.

In fact, when Mark Levinson released the No. 38 preamp, it had obviously been designed as a remote unit, but was released sans remote -- the company's research revealed that audiophiles wouldn't take it seriously if it were too easy to use. And -- irony of ironies -- the market immediately changed. Audiophiles woke up to some of the performance issues that were so easily resolved by remote operation (such as simply setting the volume precisely and repeatedly from the sweet spot) and snap! just like that, convenience was in. (And Levinson, finding the No. 38 umarketable, reissued it as a remote-controlled unit.)

The 47 Labs equipment reminds me of the days when audiophile gear was designed without any thought whatsoever to the human interface. Take the Gaincard, for instance. Its 12-position attenuators are relatively easy to balance, unlike the dual volume pots on an Audible Illusions preamp, but 12 positions is simply too crude -- I repeatedly had to compromise with sound that was just a tad too loud or a tad too soft. I certainly don't want to come off like Goldilocks here, but the difference in the "U-R-There" factor between too-loud or too-soft and just right is vast.

Plus the unit is so light that a set of stiff cables will actually elevate it into what Tom Norton classically called "pre-launch" position.

Associated Equipment:

Loudspeakers: Epos M15

Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, DiMarzio M-Path interconnect, AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path speaker cable, Illuminations Orchid digital cable.

Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet and Little Feet, Vibrapods, Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 116

Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps

Worst of all, from the human/machine interface perspective, is the Flatfish. Cosmetically, I found myself affronted by that cheap perforated sheet metal every time I saw it, but I suppose I could live with it. But those three spindly spikes made the unit about as stable as a newborn colt. Throw a dip switch and the legs would skew in the direction of the switch -- and like as not, collapse.

Or take the screw-down CD clamp. To use it at all was to risk knocking over the whole player -- but even worse, it only works with one side facing down. What makes that tricky is that the two sides look identical and neither is marked. Nor is this mentioned in the owner's manual.

Furthermore, the display is distinctly low-contrast and hard to read. Plus, it's mounted on the surface of the player, while the remote sensor is located on the side of the unit -- so you can either read the display or use the remote, but not both.

Naturally none of this would matter if the 47 Labs kit didn't sound good. But it does, as we'll see further on. So you need to ask yourself how much convenience and intuitive function are worth to you. This isn't a minor consideration, as our hair shirted audiophile brethren would have us believe. It goes to the core of your relationship with your stereo.

Companies such as Krell, Mark Levinson, and Conrad-Johnson obsess over these tiny details. How does it feel when you press a button? Should it be plastic or machined metal? Would a silicone buffer behind it make it a more sensuous experience to press? (And I've heard all of these issues discussed at design meetings -- so I'm not making it up.)

Every time you press a button or load a CD or change the volume on a preamp, you form an opinion of your hi-fi. Personally, I couldn't live with the Flatfish because every time I used it I would get mad at it. At $5400 (or $8100 with the Model 4705 Progression DAC), there are plenty of other superb-sounding CD players out there which would leave me smiling every time I closed their lids or pressed a button.

That doesn't mean you'd feel that way, of course. You might react to the Flatfish's little quirks with a sense of your superiority over superficial types like me who don't value sound quality enough to suffer for it. If so, the 47 Laboratory products may be for you. But don't rush in until you have at least thought about how its clunky human interface will make you feel.

The sound of surprise...

Casting about for an appropriate loudspeaker to mate with the 47 Labs components, I decided to listen to the Epos M15s. After all, I loved them with the affordable Arcam A-85, so this was a perfect chance to see how they performed with much more ambitious equipment. Besides, I was confident that the Progression's 22kHz spike wouldn't faze them.

Wow! I'd known that the Epos were good,! My first disc was The Ellington Suites [Pablo PACD 2310-762-2 CD] and my livingroom suddenly seemed a lot larger -- and a good thing, too, since it was filled with a living, breathing, rocking big band.

The overall sound was warm, but the inner detail, such as the precision blending of the woodwind overtones, was razor sharp. The dynamic range swung widely, from Russel Procpe's muted clarinet to full-tilt Ellington stomp. And, above all, the timing was impeccable -- precisely bouncy and over-ridingly rhythmic.

There was an overwhelming sense of immediacy, which is one of the audiophile buzzwords that seems to lack all meaning until you hear a component that delivers it. The 47 Labs delivered it as a sense of excitement, of being present at the creation of something special and alive. We hear this all the time with live music, but many hi-fi's lose a certain amount of it. Listening to a CD becomes Duke Ellington, as told to…. This sense of being present at the creation never wavered during my audition of the 47 Labs combo. I could sit down fuming over my travails in getting the Flatfish to simply play a CD and within minutes my irritation would be only a vague memory.

Johnny Cash's American III: Solitary Man [American CK69691] was a revelation. At 69, Cash has reached an age where you'd expect him to be slowing down -- or even losing a step or two. Not likely. He starts off with a spirited reading of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" that sounds crafted exclusively for him. Crisp acoustic guitars drive his inimitable baritone "I won't back down/I'll stand my ground..." His rich, resonant voice is warm, deep, vast -- but delivered appropriately lifesized.

The album's emotional high-water mark is Cash's reading of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" -- Cash delivers a headlong rendition that slows down, dreamlike, for the hallucinatory choruses, where, accompanied by Benmont Tench's brilliant organ, Cash describes that suspended instant just before his protagonist's execution in the electric chair.

The music is densely constructed, building layer upon layer of acoustic guitar, piano, organ and tack piano, but throughout, Cash's urgent delivery commands our attention. I don't know Cave's own reading of the song, but this one seems unbeatable. As the song builds to its conclusion, we sense that the "mercy seat" isn't an ironic reference, but will in fact end the singer's roiled thoughts -- a true blessing for the song's tormented narrator.

And the 47 Labs system delivers the Technicolor emotional structure of Cave's masterpiece with all its drama and urgency intact.

Well, with the Model 4705 Progression in place, anyway. The solo Flatfish simply lacked the warmth, transient crackle and intense dynamic shading of the Flatfish/4705 combination. Through the solo Flatfish, Cash's rich voice sounded flatter, less compelling. The guitars lost a lot of their snap and sharpness. The sound was less distinct, more "mooshed together," so to speak. I can think of any number of less expensive CD players that best the $5400 Flatfish as stand alone CD players -- with the Mark Levinson No. 39 and Meridian 508-24 prominently heading the list.

The above descriptions referred to the system using the Gaincard with a
single 50W 4700S Power Humpty. While I expected to hear greater separation, at least, using a pair of them, I was surprised to note that much of the bloom and charm of the Gaincard seemed to disappear with a pair of Humpties. This may well be speaker dependent -- if your speakers represent a more difficult load than the Epos M15s, a pair of Humpties might sound better -- or maybe not. You'll have to listen for yourself on that one.

Sound of mind...

The 47 Laboratory system has been one of the most maddening reviews I've ever undertaken -- the products have made me examine my most basic interactions with stereo systems and I have reached conclusions that surprised me.

Taken strictly on a performance level, the 4713 Flatfish/4705 Progression DAC/4799 Power Dumpty/4706 Gaincard/4700 Power Humpty system is fabulous. Its sound is warm, detailed, alive, rhythmically assured, and dynamic as all get-out. It is musical and involving and I enjoyed every moment I spent listening to it.

It is expensive at $12,100. As to that, however, I won't really comment. That's a decision best left to each listener and his or her pocketbook.

What would be the deal-breaker for me, is how much of a hassle, if not a downright frustrating experience, it is to deal with the system. A preamplifier that is always either slightly too loud or slightly too soft is not a product I could live with, nor is a CD player that does its best to frustrate that most basic of CD functions -- the actual playing of a disc. As much as I like the sound of the 47 Labs system, it would irritate the hell out of me on a daily, if not discly, basis.

But that's me. If you're built of stouter stuff, if your audiophile heart is unsullied by the need for convenience, then the seductive, unflaggingly enthralling sound of the 47 Laboratory components just might overcome their, um, inconvenient user-interface problems. And I'd come over anytime to luxuriate in your system's sound -- just don't ask me to change a disc.

...Wes Phillips

47 Laboratory:
Model 4705 Progression DAC
Price: $2700 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Model 4706 Gaincard
Price: $1500 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Model 4713 Flatfish
Price: $3600 USD
Warranty: Two years parts and labor

Model 4700 Power Humpty
Price: $2500 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Model 4799 Power Dumpty
Price: $1800 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

US Distributor:
Sakura Systems
2 Rocky Mt. Road
Jefferson, MA 01522
Phone/Fax: (506) 829-3426


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