Interview With 47Laboratory
In-depth story of their unique approach to audio component designs
This interview took place at 47Labs listening room in Tokyo in
July 1999. Attendants were Mr. Junji Kimura(K), the president and the
chief designer of 47Lab, Mr. Koji Teramura(T), the marketing director,
and Yoshi Segoshi(Q) of SAKURA SYSTEMS (US distributor of 47Lab products)
as the interviewer.
Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. Today, I would like
to hear how you came to produce this unique line of products and what
kind of concept is behind them. Some of it deals with the philosophy
part of your literature, but Id like to hear more details. All
of your products are so unique and small. How did you come to these
designs? Is it to match to the size of Japanese rooms?
T) No, they are too small even for Japanese rooms (laugh). Our initial
idea was (and still is) to create audio components which cause minimum
loss of information. Obviously, we cant increase the information
which came into the input of the component at the output of the component,
and therere only two methods to minimize the loss. One is to make
the signal pass length short, and the other is to make it with less
number of parts. These facts contributed to the small size of our products.
K) Also, I separated the power supply from the main circuitry and that
may be another reason that gives an impression that they are so small.
And the three dimensional parts layout to minimize the signal pass length
made them even more compact. But if you spread them on the circuit board
two dimensionally and add the power supply, the total size may not be
so different from more conventional designs. Look into the inside of
other amplifiers, theres so much empty space!
In your literature, you talk about the resonant control of the components.
Can you tell me more about this? What do you actually do to control
K) That is a bit of a confusing issue. We are trying not to control
it, at least not in a conventional sense. The common approach to control
the resonance and vibrations is to damp them, but our ap-proach is exactly
the opposite. Instead of trying to kill them by damping, we are trying
to find a way to live with it.
T) Yes, our approach is based on the concept that we cant stop
the vibration no matter what. We may change the resonant mode or the
amount of it, but, whatever we do, we cant eliminate them completely
anyway. When someone says controlling the resonance, it usually means
changing or shifting the Q by damping it or combining different materials
in construction. But as long as we use the known materials, it is impossible
to move it out of audible frequency range, and by damping them we are
causing modulations in the signal itself. That often creates more degradation
than not damping it at all. What we are suggesting is that the vibrations
and signals do not always need to be taken confrontationally. It was
always thought that the signal is a good guy and the vibrations are
the bad guys, so we have to kill the bad guys to save the good guy,
but that is a fixed idea and not always a valid one. After all, they
come from the same root, same electrical energy, and basically they
are synchronized. By damping the vibration, we destroy this synchronization.
K) Our approach is more like that of the alternative medicine instead
of traditional western medical approach.
T) Oh boy, I never heard this one before (laugh).
K) When something is wrong, if you treat the symptom on the surface
and give the patient too much medicine, you often end up with more side
effects than the original problem. This is exactly whats happening
in todays audio design, I think. They are killing the patient
by giving too much medicine! It is arrogant to think that we can have
a total control over nature, rather we should find a better way to live
T) Yes. If we cant stop the vibration, we need to find the way
to minimize its effect on the signal. There isnt any super
material or a method that only releases the vibration and prevents it
from coming back. Our approach is to minimize the vibration itself by
making things rigid and compact.
So the small size contributes both to preserving the information and
minimizing the vibration.
K) The short signal pass and the minimum number of parts contribute
to preserve the information, and that makes it possible to make the
whole package small which contributes to minimizing the vibration. If
you use the same material, the smaller you make it, the more rigid it
becomes, shifting the resonant mode up to the higher frequency with
a lesser amount of radiation.
Did you have this idea from the beginning? Or did you end up with this
as a result?
T) As I said before, our concern was how to minimize the loss of the
original information, so the short signal pass and small number of parts
came first, but on developing the products, they all came hand in hand.
When you say to minimize the loss of information, it sounds as if you
know it was lost quite a bit in the other designs.
K, T) No, we didnt, until we started the experiments.
T) Little by little, we found out there is a lot more information buried
in the soft ware and, especially in the case of CD, what we thought
was the limit of the format was more like a limitation of the reproducing
What motivated your experiments? What was your frustration against current
K) They are too big and too expensive! (laugh)
T) And dont sound so good considering their size and the price!
How do they not sound good?
K) To me, many of them sound somewhat electrical. Of course the degree
of it differs product by product, but my ear always detects this artificial
quality. Maybe Mr. Teramura can explain it better than me.
T) You always give
me the bad guy role! (laugh) I dont know if this is the same as
what Mr. Kimura says, but it seems recent audio design concentrates more
on the sound rather than the music. To me, listening to the sound and
listening to the music is a very different act. Music is more like the
way one note springs into the next, not just an enumeration of each note,
but many of todays high end products seem concerned more about the
purity of each sound and not enough about how these notes are made into
music. So they all sound very static and distant. Theres a gap between
the space where the listener is and where the reproduced music is. That
is probably what Mr. Kimura calls an artificial quality. They tend to
leave the listener as a solitary observer and lack the power of emotional
Q) Is this related
to what you call activity of the sound?
T) What I wanted to mean by activity is that every note in
the music is not an isolated sound but more like a vector that includes
the past, the present and the future in it. It doesnt exist as a
static, solitary note, but an active, living thing. In other words, the
music, whether reproduced or played, represents the passion of the players,
recording engineers, and also audio designers and audiophiles who recreate
it. I cant feel this passion through many of todays high-end
equipment. Instead, it is a purified and polished static sound. There
are more measurements, higher grades of parts, and material superiority,
which I fail to see as having much relevance in reproducing music.
K) Only those who aren't confident on the design depend on the parts quality,
and exotic materials are the last resort for designers whose imaginations
are running out. Take a capacitor. They say high quality capacitors have
better high frequency response. OK, how do you define high frequency?
Above 100kHz? 100MHz? There's no universal definition. What about their
low frequency response? I never heard anyone talking about it. Those high
quality capacitors have higher voltage capacity to get better high frequency
response, so they are big with long lead lines. On the other hand the
length of the lead line effects the characteristics of the capacitor by
the length of 5 mm.
Q) 5 mm? But how
many nano seconds will it take for electrons to travel 5 mm?
K) Electrons are not traveling 5 mm of empty space, you see. They are
traveling through 5 mm of a certain kind of material which has its own
characteristics and is affected by its environment in certain way. If
everything works as in theory and if electrons are infinitely fast, it
will be a lot easier, but its not. Any minor change of application
or layout can effect the result even though they are based on the same
theory. Having more parts in the circuitry means having more possibilities
of their side effect. So far, we deal with a minimum number of parts because
the side effect of adding more parts or circuitry seems more problematic
than not having them.
Q) Why do you think
todays high-end scene became like that? Do you recall any particular
incident or reason?
K) I dont know what it is like in America but my experience in a
Japanese company tells me that developing the product by a group of engineers
tends to end up killing the character of the product. Instead of raising
the standard of every aspect to what it does best, they end up killing
the advantage to make everything average and mediocre. Of course theres
always the limitation of time and budget, so Im not blaming everything
on the ability of the engineers at all, but the way those major companies
produce the products based on their marketing strategy. In one time, I
was envious of American engineers because they seemed capable of a more
individual approach. I really liked some of American components, even
though they had poor S/N, the overall presentation was very dynamic. Of
course Im talking about almost 20 years ago. I dont feel so
comfortable with recent monster amplifiers and inefficient speakers though.
The power of the amplifier should be just sufficient. It has to play music
solidly with low volume. Many companies produce high power amplifiers
to cope with inefficient, low impedance speakers now, connecting so many
transistors in parallel with different length of cables. It will never
work. Its like a dragster that can run fast just for a quarter mile
but never be able to make a quick turn. You see a tennis player rocking
from side to side while he or she waits for the ball. Thats how
it should be. The big, clumsy class A will never be able to respond quick
enough when the ball comes to the other side of the court. Speaker manufacturers
and amplifier manufacturers should establish better communication. Or
is it their conspiracy to market those expensive products? (laugh)
T) I think one of the reasons is that maybe people, especially the younger
generation, do not listen to complicated music so much anymore. Its
not all the manufacturers fault. If the listeners want to reproduce
a complicated music full of nuances, theres no way they can accept
the components that only care about pure sounds. Those legendary speakers
of the 50s and 60s, JBL, Altec, Tannoy, Quad etc., had obvious
flaws by todays standards, but within their limitation, they have
quite a bit of activity that communicates the music to us.
Their flaws became more apparent when you play them louder. On the other
hand, audiophiles seem to play music louder with modern speakers as if
to cover this lack of activity or information. Also the appearance
of CD must have had a big effect on the course of todays high-end.
To fulfill the wider dynamic range which CD is capable of, something weird
happened to amplifier and speaker design.
K) Sorry. I did that too, when I was working for some company at that
time.(laugh) We experimented quite a bit on extensions on both frequency
extremes using a lot of measurements as guidance, never really paying
enough attention on listening. Thinning out everything as a result, I
think. We were dealing with electronics and not with the music. Also,
another effect CD had on the audio scene is the blossoming of the accessory
market. It may not seem directly related, but the digital being a black
box for most of audiophiles made them run to something they can still
control by themselves. As a result, they became more concerned about the
details of the sound, giving the general public an impression that audio
is so serious and difficult. When your friend asks you to recommend a
reasonable audio system and you start talking about insulators and cables
costing hundreds of dollars, Im sure youll scare him or her
Those accessories do not improve the quality of information anyway.
Sometimes it feels like transparency or S/N is improved by some noise
reduction type of accessories, but what it actually does is to reduce
the amount of information and that gives an impression of a clearer
view. Listen carefully if the presentation becomes somewhat static or
not. If it does, the music has shrunk into the sound. If it really improves
the S/N of the component, such a component has a problem in its original
Reviewers seem to have two parameters when they write about the sound
of a component. One is an analytical parameter. They dissect the sound
into highs, mids, lows and try to explain the character of each and
tell you how it recreates the soundstage, things like that. The other
parameter concerns the emotional involvement of the music and tells
you his or her experience with certain kind of music reproduced through
said component. Of course, Im generalizing and the emphasis differs
reviewer by reviewer, but in most of the cases, all I can guess is whether
the reviewer liked it or not and not how it sounds.
T) Im not against their challenge to discribe the sound in words
at all. I hope I can explain what I mean by activity more
clearly in conventional audiophile terms, but those analytical parameters
are too coarse to describe it. Maybe it all comes down to the amount
of information. Of course, I dont mean the numbers of notes you
can hear by amount of information. Each note consists of
an almost infinite amount of information in that sense.
K) I dont hear any soundstage nor channel separations at any live
concert. You dont care if its mono or stereo at the live
concert, do you? On the other hand, there are many systems that cant
reproduce mono properly using two speakers. I dont listen analytically
at all. When something is not right, you try to analyze what it is,
or you listen analytically when you try to find something negative.
In my case, most of the time Im happy with whatever I did and
after sometime of listening, I would think that maybe I can do even
better and start experimenting again. I dont measure at all while
Im working except when theres an obvious anomaly. Everything
is more or less instinctive.
T) You are a very happy listener. (laugh)
Sounds like it. (laugh) What do you consider as reference? Original
K) For me, the reference is in my head. My image or the memory of the
live acoustic is the reference.
T) In relation to that, I would like to emphasize that there is no ultimate
reference outside the designers experience. Some say theres always
the master tape, but we cant experience it without reproducing
it through some kind of equipment. So we are always hearing the quality
of the equipment that is reproducing it. Even at the recording session
or at a concert, what you perceive differs according to where you are.
I want to liberate ourselves from the idea of the one and only reference.
When somebody says original acoustic sound, he or she is talking about
his or her perception or image of the sound. In this sense, what decides
the sound of audio component is the designers taste and sense
which is the result of his or her musical experience. Same thing can
be said on the reproducing system. It represents the musical experience
of the audiophile who set it up. Reproducing the software through audio
components is not just a mere passive act but is actually a very creative
one. For this reason, I have a great respect for the designer who created
the power IC we use in the Gaincard.
K) I second it.
What is your stand point toward recent development of new formats? Are
you going to produce any 24bit/96kHz product?
K) I dont have much interest nor enthusiasm in them. We are finally
getting somewhere with the current 16bit/44.1kHz. How many other companies
did really try to reach its limit? Jumping onto the new format
without trying to see the real capability of the current one is actually
short selling the format and that is an absurd disservice to the customers.
Those major corporations trying to market the new format, what are they
expecting people to do with their collections of CDs? Dump them and
buy the same titles in the new format? Paying even higher prices for
each one? I think theres still a lot more we can do to get to
the bottom of the current 16bit/44.1kHz, both on the recording and the
T) I wonder how will designers, who cant take full advantage of
16/44.1, be able to properly decode 24/96.
So you are against the marketing methodology of these new formats but
not the new formats themselves.
T) I dont know. We dont have powerful enough equipment that
enables us to compare them directly, and also we dont know if
our auditory sense is powerful enough to detect the minute information
carried in the true 24bit/96kHz.
K) Im not against the engineers effort that went into the
development of new formats. Maybe the accumulated developing know-how
will contribute to produce better quality parts and materials. But that
is the only positive side I can think of out of this new format frenzy,
at least now.
Well, thank you very much for talking with me. Im sure people
in America will find your views and comments insightful and inspiring.
To conclude, could you tell me what your priority in audio is?
T) My priority in audio is simply whether I can enjoy it or not. Nothing
complicated at all. I can enjoy it most when I get this feeling that
Im in the same space with the musicians. When I detect a discontinuity,
I am put down. I think this is the same for almost anybody else. When
I can enjoy it, others can too.
K) For me, audio is a toy, a great toy that brings fun and excitement
into our lives. Its a toy like those wooden blocks little kids
play with. You can make airplanes and trains according to your own imagination,
unlike plastic models when you already know the outcome. I dont
want to sacrifice my life or my living space for it. Some audiophiles
cram their rooms with equipment and no other members of the family can
even enter the room. This is another reason why audio has become such
a maniacal thing these days. I dont like that. I want to share
the experience with as many people as possible. If I have to choose
between the convenience and comfort of the living room and the great
sound with a solitary chair, Id choose the former. The audio system
has to be family friendly, otherwise itll die out eventually.
I have some friends who says they dedicate and sacrifice their life
to audio. Id say forget it!
Review Magazine, August'99 issue
Editing and translation by Yoshi Segoshi