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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Vinyl: Garrard 301 with Cain & Cain maple & walnut plinth, Denon 103 phono cartridge, Origin Live Silver tonearm [on loan from Origin Live for the Garrard Project], SME 3012 vintage tonearm [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Pete Riggle Audio VTAF (Vertical Tracking Angle on the Fly), Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Tom Evans Audio Design Groove Plus phono stage [in for review], Fi Yph phono stage, 47Laboratory Shigaraki phono stage [in for review], 47 Laboratory 4723 MC Bee phono cartridge [in for review]
FM source: Vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner supported by Yamamoto ebony audio bases from Venus HiFi, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 vertical omnidirectional FM antenna
Digital sources: Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport with the Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC crunching numbers
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe, Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe Series 7 with Pulse power supply [in for review]
Integrated amplifiers: Almarro A205A EL84 SEP; Sonic Impact Class T
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 single-ended triode monoblocks; Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A power amplifier [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.0, Omega Super 3 & matching Skylan Stands
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA cable kit [in for review]; Nirvana S-X interconnects between DAC and preamplifier, Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers, Nirvana S-L speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers; a custom Nirvana wiring harness to connect the Duos midrange and tweeter horns and woofer module, Nirvana Transmission Digital Interface [on loan]; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable; Auditorium 23 speaker cable [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports]
Stands: Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Billy Bags 2-shelf rack
Power line conditioning: none
Room size: 20' L x 17' W x 24' H
Review component retail: $1,100 for Model 4723 MC Bee phono cartridge; $1,80 for Shigaraki 4718 phono stage

Junji Kimura
Junji Kimura is one of the most innovative designers working in audio and is well known for his remarkable $25,000 PiTracer CD transport and the $3300 Gaincard op-amp based amplifier that sparked a revolution in the underground HiFi scene. But not all of Junji's audio designs are expensive. If you read my review of the Blue Moon Award winning 47Laboratory Cable Kit, you know I was impressed with its innovative design, superb performance and wallet-friendly pricing that allows HiFi hobbyists to wire their entire systems with interconnects and speaker cables for all of $600.

As noted in the Cable Kit review, Junji loves the combination of vacuum tube amplification and LP playback for its "rich and fresh musical presence with ambiance". Yet he chose to make his first audio product the PiTracer CD transport in hopes of extracting the best possible performance from what
was then considered to be drastically broken sound compared to the tried and true voice of the LP. After Junji developed digital equipment capable of turning digits into satisfying music, he turned his attention back to vinyl and developed a product for the vinyl enthusiast: The Phonocube which he recommended with the highly regarded Miyabi series of phono cartridges. But those products are expensive, with his Phonocube clocking in at $3,900 with its necessary Power Humpty power supply and Takeda-San's Miyabi stereo cartridges ranging in price from $3,950 - $7,500. That's more than many people spend on their entire HiFi systems, let alone for a single component.

But Junji didn't forget about those who are more frugal. He went about designing a cartridge and phono stage combination especially for us while wanting to maintain his standards for excellent sound quality & musicality, sticking to his design motto "only the simplest can accommodate the most complex". Enter the Shigaraki 4718 phono stage at $1,680 and the brand-new 4723 MC Bee phono cartridge at $1,100, the two subjects of this review.

Shigaraki 4718 phono stage
You're probably wondering why Junji named his new line of electronics Shigaraki. I did. This prompted a little research. I found out that Shigaraki city in Japan has the distinction of being one of the six oldest pottery centers in Japan. Wood-fired stoneware from Shigaraki has been in production from circa 1300 AD to the present day! To date, 47 ancient kiln sites have been discovered in Shigaraki. One of the distinctive aspects of traditional Shigaraki stoneware pottery is being fired in wood-fueled Anagama kilns. It thus obtains its finished appearance from natural ash glazes. If you'd like to learn more about Shigaraki and the art of wood-fired stoneware, see the film Kamataki by Claude Gagnon. It was filmed in Shigaraki and went on to win five prizes at the 29th World Film Festival of Montréal. The film captures a lot of the beauty of Shigaraki and the tradition of wood-fired stoneware in Shiho Kanzaki's studio - a must have if you own any of the 47 Laboratory Shigaraki components. Shigaraki stoneware is seldom seen in the West yet is very important in Japanese culture. I suspect that Junji is probably the first person ever to incorporate Shigaraki ceramics into a commercial product such as HiFi electronics. That's right, Shigaraki stoneware pottery is what forms the casework for Junj'is line of Shigaraki electronics.

The Shigaraki stoneware that forms the chassis of the Shigaraki series of components has meaning that runs deeper than just its historical past. Shigaraki ceramics have an important cultural and spiritual message that is relevant to music lovers today. Shigaraki stoneware is inextricably linked to Zen philosophy and the 'way of tea' that arose in ancient Japan. Tea drinking became popular in ancient Japan as a way of building personal relationships by enjoying one another's company over rejuvenating drink. Then an influential group of tea utensil connoisseurs arose who moved tea away from its personal relationship-enhancing origins to a focus on the utensils themselves. This utensil focus created a high-end tea culture that became popular with nobility and the wealthy. The result for ordinary people was a deemphasizing of the practical & pleasant aspects of drinking tea with friends. Murata Shuko with his Zen insights (1423-1502) valued the spiritual and relationship benefits of tea drinking above the utensils themselves. He wanted to return the beneficial practice of tea drinking into the hands of the people, to once again enjoy the relational and spiritual aspects. Symbolic of his way of tea, Murata selected Shigaraki pottery with its simple and modest beauty to represent the spiritual and relationship aspects that he valued in his approach to tea.

It's pretty hard not to see the parallel between what happened to the practice of drinking tea in ancient Japan and what has happened to the music lover in present-day HiFi culture. As the High-End utensil culture arose, the common music lover lost out. The hobby's gurus focused on expensive equipment instead of the enjoyment of the music. Thus Shigaraki. Shigaraki is a reminder that the noblest purpose of HiFi is the enjoyment of music and the benefits that pursuit can bring to life and spirit. Shigaraki is Junji's way of moving from a gear focus to bringing ultra-quality music production back to the people, at a more affordable price.

From a visual perspective, I find the Shigaraki stoneware chassis of the phono stage & power supply to be uncommonly beautiful. Their dark & smoky glazed exterior right down to the artist marks upon it is very tasteful and sophisticated. It looks like art atop my McKinnon Symphony HiFi cabinet. But Junji's interest in ceramics runs even deeper than its historical and cultural significance. Ceramics have beneficial sonic properties too.

US importer Yoshi told me, "since his days at Kyo-cera, Junji has been interested in the sonic properties of ceramics. Ceramics are hard and light and release resonant energy fast. Fine-grained ceramics are good but very expensive. Actually, ceramics of coarser, less pure grain are sonically more interesting. Their resonant character can be more evenly distributed. The difficulty is to ensure consistently accurate production. So when the time came to manufacture the Shigaraki line, Junji found a ceramic manufacturer who specializes in Shigaraki and could meet his design criteria - the owner of the company is an audiophile and music lover. Modern ceramic manufacturers no longer use wood firing. They use gas-firing kilns to control heat fluctuations within
0.1 centigrade. Some ceramic artists still use the ancient methods but their approach isn't suitable for manufacturing our Shigaraki chassis because of the heat fluctuations."

The circuitry in the Shigaraki is almost the same as in the expensive 47 Laboratory Phono Cube. The Phono Cube is a dual mono design, with each channel having a parts count of 25 and a signal path length of 44mm. The Phono Cube can utilize one or two power supplies depending on whether you want to make it fully dual mono. The parts count is identical in the Shigaraki but its circuit board configuration gives it a shorter signal path. The Phono Cube uses a fancy double-decker circuit board while the Shigaraki uses a single layer - hence the shorter signal paths. The Shigaraki saves further costs by dispensing with the dual mono design of the Phono Cube and using a smaller common power supply instead.

The Shigaraki phono stage has an input impedance of 0 ohms and an output impedance of 47 ohms. There are standard and high gain versions depending on the output of your phono cartridge. Yoshi says, "most of the MC cartridges are compatible with the standard version. For cartridges with an extremely small output level and/or high internal impedance, it is best to use the high-gain version. The standard version has 75dB of gain and the high-gain version 90dB. Since it is a current amplification device with zero input impedance, the output level is determined by the output amperage of the cartridge (output voltage divided by internal impedance)." If, like me, you're not sure where your cartridge falls within that spectrum, contact Yoshi for advice on which version of the Shigaraki is best suited for your particular cartridge.

4723 MC Bee Shigaraki phono cartridge
Yoshi explained how he'd been "getting many requests from customers and Myabi dealers to produce a more affordable cartridge but Takeda-San, Miyabi's designer, wasn't really interested. When I told Junji about my idea, he showed some interest. That was a couple of years ago. I completely forgot about it and we never talked about it again - until about 3 to 4 months ago when Junji called me to say, "the cartridge is ready!" "What?" I said, "what are you talking about?" My request for a Shigaraki-style cartridge that I can sell for around $1,000 had become a reality." While the cartridge does not incorporate Shigaraki ceramics, it maintains
the spirit of the Shigaraki concept - exceptional music-making ability at a real-world price.

I pestered Yoshi to talk with Junji and dig out a little more information about his goals. To which Junji responded: "I've recently been working on analog components - cartridge, turntable, tonearm [see prototype photos below - Ed]. When people talk about analog and digital sound, they do it in comparison to each other. When praising improvements in digital playback, people mostly say that it sounds like analog. However, there are always two sides to the coin. Analog playback, due to its mechanical/electrical characteristics, can allow more fuzziness. In some cases, this fuzziness can be tuned for added musical enjoyment such as a rich tonality of some cartridge or a liquid midrange of another. That is not what I wanted to do with my design. I'm more concerned with the straightforward transmission of the original signal and rather wanted to minimize those analog fuzzies. The above-mentioned cartridges are like French cooking. They taste good but I wanted my design to taste more like Sushi - fresh flavors that can taste good even without soy sauce."

A few technical details about the MC Bee: The internal (output) impedance is 5 ohms, output voltage is 0.3mV, channel separation greater than 25dB (1kHz), channel balance better than 1dB, frequency response 20 - 20,000Hz and recommended load impedance greater than 30 ohms. The cantilever is a special aluminum alloy with a compliance of 12 x 10-6cm/dyn and a recommended tracking force of 1.8 - 2.2g. I asked Yoshi how the MC Bee's compliance compares to the Miyabi/47 cartridges: "Most modern cartridges have a high-ish compliance of 14 -15 x 10-6cm/dyn while Miyabi/47's compliance is 8.5 x 10-6cm/dyn (extremely low!). So I'd say MC Bee's 12 x 10-6cm/dyn falls somewhere in the middle."

I mounted the MC Bee on the Origin Live Silver arm I have on loan for the Garrard Project. This turned out to be an absolutely perfect match with the medium compliance MC Bee. The Bee loves the OL Silver arm! The review system consisted of Avantgarde Duo 2.1 loudspeakers, Auditorium 23 speaker cables, 47 Laboratory interconnects (and jumpers on the Duos), Nirvana interconnects, Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A amplifier, Tom Evans Vibe 7 preamplifier with Pulse power supply, Tom Evans Groove Plus phono preamplifier, Cain & Cain plinthed Garrard 301, Fi Yph phono stage with Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer and the SME 3012 tonearm plus Denon 103 cartridge.

Listening impressions
I thought I'd start my listening sessions with the combination of MC Bee and Shigaraki phono stage to get a feel for how well they play music together and get a handle on how they sound. It shouldn't come as any surprise that this combination works extremely well together. Its parts are the orchestrated efforts of one man: Junji Kimura. There are not too many designers who produce both a cartridge and a phono stage. This design synergy is evident at the first drop of the stylus into the record groove. I should also point out that the 47 Labs combo was very quiet, with zero hum or other noise in my very sensitive 103dB hornspeaker-based system. The standard Shigaraki has lots of gain and I never got beyond 9 o'clock on the Vibe's volume control.

With one of my favorite jazz albums, the superb Analogue Productions test pressing of Curtis Counce's You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce, it was evident that the 47 Laboratory combination of MC Bee cartridge & Shigaraki phono stage is quiet, clean and uncolored. Yet it is also natural sounding, even possessing a slightly rounded tone with absolutely zero etch or glare anywhere that you would normally associate with 'neutral' design goals.

The Bee & Shigaraki together deliver the musical goods: In "How Deep Is The Ocean", the 2nd cut on side 1 of Bounce, I slipped into immediate reverie with the music, falling into its dreamy flow and getting lost in the musical vibe. The MC Bee and Shigaraki phono stage definitely get the music right and do so while sounding superb. The main thing I noticed is how right on the timbre of the instruments was: Whether Curtis Counce on bass, Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, or Frank Butler on drums, the instruments just sounded right.

As I listened through Bounce again, I focused in on the sonics. I noted that the overall character of the MC Bee plus Shigaraki is neutral, being neither noticeably warm nor lean. It's clean sound -- no fuzziness as Junji would say -- yet still has a very natural tonal balance. It is also smooth and detailed and portrays a natural sense of space. The combination has great tone with a natural roundness, slightly flattering the muted trumpet in the opening song "Complete". It also sounds extended in the bass. Good definition down under gave Curtis' bass playing the articulation of tone and reality of timbre he deserves. The high frequencies are a touch rolled off to give a smooth yet natural overall presentation. It's an addictive combination of traits that really complements the music being played. The rhythmic capability of the pairing doesn't call attention to itself but is good enough to not interfere with the musical message. The perspective is about what I'd hear at a mid-hall table in Seattle's Jazz Alley. It gives an overall pleasing effect of being part of the musical performance.

To hone in on the sonic contribution from the Shigaraki phono stage, I compared it to the somewhat more expensive ($1,920) combination of my personal reference, the Fi Yph vacuum tube phono stage ($945) plus the necessary Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer ($975) to make it work with a moving coil cartridge like the MC Bee. I should point out that the Auditorium 23 step-up is designed by Keith Aschenbrenner and optimized for the Denon 103 cartridge I use as a reference. That means it's not optimized for the MC Bee. If you really wanted things to be spot on, you'd need to ask Keith which of his trannies would be the best match for the MC Bee. But for this review, I thought I'd do the same thing you'd probably do with your system: see how it works with the gear I already have.

It turns out the Fi Yph & Auditorium 23 combination works pretty darned well with the MC Bee. It's not as smooth as the Shigaraki, more dynamic and moves the perspective forward, putting you closer to the instruments. This gives a livelier feel and greater sense of presence to the instruments. The Fi/23 combo also gives more of a sense of tactile feel to the workings of the instruments and you get a more extended and natural sense decays. Soundstage with the Fi/23 is about the same in width but deeper. The Fi/23 combo doesn't have as much gain as the Shigaraki, is a little noisier when not playing music (but not a lot) and also accents surface noise to a greater extent. You also have to play the Fi/23 combo a little louder to get into its groove.

At first I was a little bit torn. Which presentation did I prefer? The Shigaraki was a bit easier on the ears and let me settle back into the music on Bounce better to float along with it. The Fi/23 turned Bounce into a performance that demanded attention and rewarded with lots of thrills. Both combos definitely have different personalities. But which is right? Depending on how I felt, both could be right. When I felt the need for a full throttle blast to get my mojo cooking, the Fi/23 combo was the one I'd choose. After a long day in the office when I wanted to relax into the music and let the tension of the day bleed away, the Shigaraki was the one. I really like both a lot and yes, the differences in personalities are striking. But one finally won me over: the Shigaraki. With the Shigaraki in the system, I forget about the sound and focus on enjoying the music. Alao,Junji optimized them for each other.

With the MC Bee, I think that the Shigaraki has more musical ease, the Fi/23 more musical drama. The Shigaraki has more of a music lover's balance, the Fi/23 is more spectacular. The Fi/23 wins on soundstaging, imaging, immediacy, transparency and dynamics but not by so much as to suggest different leagues. The Shigaraki wins on musicality, is more relaxing to listen to, has got great tone and, I think, would wear well over the long haul.
Both are crafted beautifully and with obvious passion. Is your system a little bright and aggressive? Go with the smooth and suave Shigaraki. Does your system sound a little dull and in need of a wake-up call? Go with the dramatic and colorful Fi/23 combination.

Now what about the MC Bee? I thought the best way to characterize the MC Bee would be to compare it to that revered old standard, the Denon 103 I use as a reference. Since I have two tonearms on my Cain & Cain plinthed Garrard 301, it would be interesting to see how the classic combo of Denon 103 cartridge & SME 3012 tonearm compared to the younger challengers of MC Bee cartridge & Origin Live tonearm. The Denon with its low 5 x 10-6 cm/dyne compliance isn't a truly happy match with the rigid Origin Live arm, preferring instead the somewhat flexier and longer SME to smooth over some of its rougher sonic edges. The MC Bee positively sings with the high performing Origin Live, which gets every last drop of nuance out of it. So you might say I chose the arms to put each cartridge in their best light for comparison.

Listening to both arm & cartridge combos with the Shigaraki & Fi/23 phono stages proved interesting. First up was the Denon 103 & SME combination through the Shigaraki phono stage. In the mood for a little classical music, I thought I'd spin the RCA Living Stereo Classic Records 45rpm series pressing of Clair de Lune. After dialing in the Garrard's transcription motor at exactly 45rpm, I cued up Clair de Lune and let 'er rip! There's no other way to say this: the combination of the MC Bee & Origin Live Silver arm absolutely stomped the Denon 103/SME 3012 combo when using the Shigaraki. The Denon/SME combo homogenized the strings for one big string tone - boring overall. The Bee/OL resolved all the layers of strings with their differing timbres and textures, making the music beautiful, emotive, and interesting - the way it should be. No contest, round one went to the MC Bee & Origin Live through the Shigaraki.

To see if the home court advantage of the Shigaraki was the deciding advantage for the MC Bee's first round, I hooked up the Fi Yph phono stage and the Auditorium 23 optimized for the Denon 103. Would that be enough to push things in the Denon's favor? It wasn't but they were definitely toe-to-toe now for a near draw. The MC Bee was smoother and more refined, more relaxed and a little easier on the ears. The Denon had more texture and grit, making the timbre of instruments more distinct and having more saturated tonal colors. It was almost a toss up. I enjoyed whichever one I was listening to at the time. If I had to pick a favorite cartridge, it'd be the MC Bee. While it's not as impressive sonically, it always allows me to sink into the music. The Denon always keeps my senses on alert, ready for fight or flight. A stimulating experience to be sure but one that can become tiring over extended listening. When you throw the Shigaraki phono stage back into the mix, its synergy with the MC Bee in my system elevates it above the combination of Denon 103/Fi Yph and the Auditorium 23 step-up tranny.

Clearly the 47 Lab combo was an overachiever on jazz and classical. Would it be able to match the visceral Denon/Fi/Auditorium 23 combination on the most visceral of all music, Rock & Roll? To find out, I cued up the Classic Records Neil Young's Greatest Hits and let it rock! The answer turned out to be yes. The 47 Laboratory MC Bee/Origin Live Silver and Shigaraki can rock to great effect, clearly besting the Denon/SME and Fi Yph/Auditorium combo both musically and sonically. Does that mean that I like the 47 Lab gear and not the venerable combination of Denon 103/SME? Not at all! They are both great combinations of HiFi gear but in the end, the Laboratory gang won me over with its easy-going attitude. I could happily live with either (and will), but if I had to settle on just one, for me it'd be the 47.

I went on to listen to a boatload of LPs but I'll save you the blow-by-blow commentary. Suffice it to say I had a boatload of fun!

Summing up
The 47 Laboratory Shigaraki phono stage and MC Bee cartridge really deliver the sonic goods and make music listening fun and meaningful. The 47 Laboratory duo has a synergistic effect that elevates their individual selves to a surprising degree, one of the advantages of having the same designer. Both have a similar sonic signature - "rich and fresh musical presence with ambiance" as Junji would say. They are always musical and always fun. I don't see how you could possibly go wrong with either the MC Bee or the Shigaraki phono stage. Highly recommended!
US importer's website