I needed just the right CD to last me through the next comparisons while hitting as many key parameters as possible: Symphonic for complexity; vocal to zero in on minute changes of timbre; live for that extra charge; triple chocolate musical value to remain fun even the 7th time around; stellar recording quality for maximum extractable information. Seeing how I dislike most operatic voices, especially female; and how the great tenors usually aren't that well recorded - George Dalaras & The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra [EMI/Minos, 724349939325, 1999] to the rescue. As popular in Europe as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Sting rolled into one, Dalaras oughta be on your list of lyrical Pop tenors - a true superstar without superstar antics whose esteem marries him to the best tunesmiths, producers and musicians available. This live recording took place in the Mann Auditorium of Tel Aviv and features a highly responsive ecstatic audience that Dalaras caters to with his most famous hits as well as Sephardic and Ladino melodies, hymns and ballads especially orchestrated for this pan-cultural event.

Since the contenders were universally acclaimed music makers, the relative lack of gross differences wasn't surprising. Still, vital differences remained. The Intégré DT's presentational atmosphere was lighter - less clouds, more white light. This equated to more top-end emphasis on the xylophone and shakers, the violins' upper harmonics. There was less weight in the double-basses and cellos, Dalaras' voice shifted more into the throat. There were more audible reflections in the hall, more white noise components in the concluding applause. Our Italian Component of the Year 2002 more than halved that difference. It combined some of Shigaraki's greater meatiness with the Frenchman's spirited effervescence, neither quite equating the former's heft in the bass nor sounding as sensually thermionic in the midrange, this despite using valved predrivers.

Concentrating on Dalaras' voice in particular, the YBA sounded clearly the most hi-fi-ish - perhaps the most neutral while also the most boring. I'd call it dynamically reticent compared to the more hotblooded contenders - pretty, utterly non-offensive but not terribly involving. Safe sex - over the phone. White bread. Especially considering its elevated price, I eliminated the Intégré from any further comparisons to avoid embarassment. I hoisted it back onto the computer desk where its relative lack of emotive panache would once again allow me to get actual work done rather than zoning into the tunes. Sayonara, monsieur.

Picking subsequent favorites between Unico and Shigaraki proved fruitless. The Unico's greater depth, more sophisticated layering and visible space beckoned to the intrepid soundstage explorer, the Shigaraki's more potent dynamics to the emotional adrenaline junkie. Both drew their performers with wonderful image density, both exhibited very developed bass, the Shigaraki possibly even more than the already well-endowed Italian. At the end of the extensive session, the Shigaraki's peculiar whomp-factor -- that rhythmic precision holding hands with the minorly shaded, very rich tonal colors -- tipped the scales slightly in its favor while my lazy man's guide to enlightenment syndrome ogled the Unico's trick RF remote and more uptown styling. With its potent 80 watts versus the underdog's 20, the Unico does remain a more universal weapon in the vast arena of potential speaker mates. And dare I remind Kimura-San and André-Man - its binding posts were by far the best of the bunch, for the least amount of bread.

Still, for pure fun listening, the Shigaraki makes a strangely compelling proposition that successfully glosses over its functional yet lacking in come-hither vibe appearance, or properly working yet retro controls. I'm sure Junji would tell me that it sounds as good because of the way it looks, not despite of it. And who am I to argue - even if, perhaps, I silently wished for at least a matt lacquer on his aluminum casing that takes to fingerprints and skin oil like flees to panting dogs? But make no mistake - on sonic grounds, on both $18,000 Avantgardes and <$600 AKG K-1000s, this little upstart wins an unqualified, enthusiastic recommendation and very possible Blue Moon Award seal (I'll wait until the conclusion of Part IV to get more time on it).

For today, the question of raw grunt remained to be answered. Being one of those new-agey sensitive types (ha), I tend not to stock dastardly speakers requiring kilowatts of amp fuel to bat an eye lash. The nOrh SM-6.9s which I gratefully inherited after their review (apparently recalling them back to Thailand proved even less attractive than letting an ornery reviewer keep 'em) have long since become welcome stand-ins. Whenever I need real-world examples of medium-efficiency speakers that clearly blossom when fed a high-carb diet while being controlled by a strong hand, these synthetic marble wonders (insanely low-priced at $995/pr) enter the arena.

Whoa, rock me, baby! The SM-6.9 has a feisty, high-impact character similar to Shiggy. Leashing the two together spelled fun in capital neon letters. Was I shy on headroom? No way, Joselito, with 7 on the slider already being slightly louder than I'm s'pposed to ever admit listening to. Did sheer volume capability equate to control? It sure did even though staring at the tiny box while grooving to Michael Brook's classic ambient album Cobalt Blue [4AD, 45000-2] did little to reassure me that my credibility as a reviewer wasn't draining down the toilet by the minute. Knowing about the sub-harmonic echos on the opening track "Shona Bridge" from my DUOs, below the already low bass accents, I was plainly shocked to be reminded again what a good two-way with clever turbine-compression port and absolutely inert chassis does when pushed by an amp with appropriate moxy. The growling pedals on "Breakdown" slammed and socked harder than common sense could have predicted, with the kind of ultra-precise stop'n'go mandatory to avoid murkiness with such subterranean synth patterns while priming the pump of its primarily beat-driven appeal.

This was an unapologetic, kid-in-the-candystore blast, with a humongous, free-floating soundstage in utter -- incomprehensible to newbies in fact -- defiance of speaker or amp size. Admittedly, the Ii'l op-amp significantly heated up its casing in the process but showed no other signs of stress or protest. I must confess to enjoying this particular combination so much, I kept it set up until my wife returned from work to blow her mind. Used to being tricked by her stone-faced husband, she nonetheless admitted that it was "silly good" and could we keep that amp like the nOrhs. I sadly shook my head. Hey, this stuff's apparently in such demand that it took distributor Yoshi of Sakura Systems 6 months to pry loose review samples from eagerly waiting, pre-paid customers' hands. In fact, he "cheated" and sent me his complete CES system - wonderful since everything was fully broken-in. Despite this reality check, I let the album play on - enjoy Shiggy while he was 'round.

Here's what you should take away from this review. The Shigaraki Model 4717 integrated confounds expectations. I hear Kimura-San impersonate an evil laugh over our American prediliction to equate size and specs with performance. The 4717 thus requires a try-it-or-you-wouldn't-believe-it approach. I doubt anyone who did would fault Shiggy for its stupendous sonics. Rather, the experienced listener would recognize that here you're getting SET-type immediacy and a potent dose of timbral wetness with the kind of dynamic excitement and beat fixation that are often mutually exclusive. True, on purely physical grounds, you may wonder what stoutly priced designer parts your $1,750 have gone after - clearly there isn't that much here. But once you hit play and dim the lights, you may well find this kind of argument silly. Isn't it musical performance you're supposedly after, not trophy HiFi?

Shigaraki is the latter's anti-Christ - a title that, I believe, its maker would find thoroughly appropriate as something to take pride in rather than making excuses for. Of the three components comprising the complete Shigaraki system, today's subject distinctly impressed me the most. The 4715 DAC is good. But it's clearly bettered by the Bel Canto DAC-2 for just $150 more. The 4716 transport could be a closet giant-killer but my experience level isn't broad enough to know for sure. But I've got me plenty of amps under them ears to know a fabulous one when I hear it. Kimura-San's nailed it with the Shigaraki 4717. Now I wanna know how much better the Gaincard really is - been-there-done-that mileage predicts it couldn't be that much. If so, this integrated likely deserves what my wife had coming to it: Silly good. Indeed. Even non-audiophiles hear it.

47Lab website