In this world of mix and match, there are very few true manufactures that can offer music lovers a complete system. 47 Labs/Sakura Systems, Audio Note, Goldmund, and a few others can provide everything from source component to loudspeakers and all in-between. Like 47 Labs, Final Laboratory heralds from Japan and caters to the low amplification power aficionado.
Long ago many Japanese music lovers realized that 100 watt monster amplifiers could be detrimental to the music due to using a high count of parts. More was, in fact, not better. By using horn-loaded and/or highly sensitive loudspeakers, obtaining sufficient volume levels was easy to achieve. While some may say that the typical American enjoys overly loud music with excessive lower frequency response, the Japanese artesian chooses a more subtle audible display. A quick attack with no overhang, wonderfully smooth and clean midrange (where over 70% of the average music signal is), and good overall dynamics. By overall dynamics i am referring to the music being quiet as needed, yet also having the ability for large attacks as dictated by the music. Audio fireworks might work if you are some Absolute American reviewer or Village People macho macho man, though the humble Japanese music lover seems to prefer being drawn into the music.
Of course like many other things Japanese, you may also find some very unique ways of solving the desire of music reproduction. Interesting circuitry, unique accessories and far out concepts that only the truly dedicated are willing to tread. Being that my listening room (like other parts of the house) are no-holds-barred spaces for ultimate joy and satisfaction, i decided to give the very unique Final Laboratory system a go. So what makes the Final Laboratory so unique? Ah, come and learn grasshopper...
Where The Unique Is Chic
The best batteries are those el cheapo manganese old Radio Shack Red Battery special-like dirty cheap stuff. Why? Beats me?!?!? Look, all in know is the great guys at Final Laboratory sent me cases of the manganese stuff. Curiosity surely kills the cat, so i went out and bought a crate load of Alkaline goodies. Cost me a day's wages!!! Guess what? The system sounded worse with the Alkaline batteries than with the el cheapo manganese cells! Well, i am sure something can be used with all those C cell Alkaline batteries... and some D cells too. If you feel that using all battery power was tweaky enough, you should see their all new A/C power supply (if you do not have the desire to buy a warehouse full of manganese batteries).
The A/C power supply never made it here in time for this review, though it is scheduled to arrive soon. i saw them at the London Hi-Fi 2000 Show. Most power supplied use the usual power transformer and maybe a tube or two. Well, we are not talking usual here now are we? How doe a power supply with, are you sitting down, 46 tubes! Specifically, the model TFM-6 and TMF-5 mains power supply (seen below) for the UK uses 46 5U4GB tubes to produce 240 volts, whereas the American A/C version will need "only" 23 for our 120 volt supply. If you look carefully at the left side, you an see the tops of the 23 vertically-mounted tubes.
Ok, we will get off the uniqueness of the Final system and go on to what makes it so very special. High-Speed circuitry. Yes, the stuff that includes, or not includes as the case may be, amplification circuits that use no high-capacity capacitors (0.2 mF or less). Final feels that "it is impossible to increase the speed of a circuit beyond that of one such storage and discharge cycle. With condensers of one mF or higher in a circuit, there is no way to achieve high-speed operation, no matter how good the circuit is. When an amplifier that is incapable of high-speed operation is used, sounds are superimposed, masking the subtleties in performance." In addition to insuring high-speed operation, stabilizing the circuits is also their goal.
Because we are using a "system approach" here (all components made by one manufacture), Final amps require no special "tuning" needs (so says their literature). An i quote "However, if mismatched parts are used, then attempting adjustments such as semi fixed resistance becomes an exercise in futility. In the first place, even when measures such as using semi fixed resistance are adopted, the resistance of contacts changes with the deterioration that occurs over time, limiting the value in taking time to make the necessary adjustments. Furthermore, incorporating circuitry in an attempt to force stability the amp's performance changes means the amp is prevented from conforming to the musical signals, resulting in poor sound quality. For this reason, there is nothing in Final amps that requires any tuning. This is achieve through uncompromising selection of parts, with circuitry fixed at optimal operating conditions. This makes Final amp circuits and performance completely stable, requiring no readjustment, regardless of how many years pass. Furthermore, absolutely no time is needed for warm-up." As for not needing warm up, i can say that, strangely, the system sounded impressive when first used or after a few hours. There was no "warm up" period.
A Powerful Argument
Can any of us really be assured how clean out power is? Sure i use dedicated power lines, dedicated ground, Kimber WattGate super incredible power outlets, special Super AudioPhile power cords... But what would happen if we eliminate all those for a very stable supply? i mean, look at how much money is invested into using electricity with cables and outlets and special wiring, let alone the price of the electricity itself! Hmm, maybe batteries are a good deal? Final designed their MUSIC-5 and MUSIC-6 from the outset to be battery powered. They highly recommend using manganese batteries. Are we there yet?
Three other tweaks are included with the Final system are the DARUMA-3II (as pictured above) for proper "grounding" and vibration isolation, the DNF-1 special 1:1 small circular transformer and MEGA 8 as seen below. Bill Gaw waxed lyrically about the DARUMA-3II in his July article. The DNF-1 is used to remove very high-frequency digital noise. This type of 1:1 transformers are used in quite a few other manufacturer's equipment. Transformer coupling is different, though using 1:1 interstage transformers have been highly touted in the Japanese press for years.
i'll briefly cover the actual components as the photos as the specification appear at the bottom of this page. In the end what really matters is how well they reproduce music.
Looking very retro is their MUSIC-4 phono, MUSIC-5 preamplifier and MUSIC-6 amplifier. In Japan they tend to not use vertical stands, instead favoring placing components on a flat table. The MUSIC-5 preamplifier offers two normal inputs and a dedicated phono input for an outboard phonostage. i took the liberty to remove the bottom of the unit so you can see that everything is point to point wired. A generic "test" board seen at the top left helps to keep some of the components neat and tidy.
The MUSIC-6 amplifier, as seen below with the bottom removed, uses point to point wiring with a pair of op amps and a single transistor device to produce 10 watts per channel, two channels. Like 47 Labs components, they are very lightweight. Separate boxes hold the battery supplies for each component. While the preamplifier only needs one battery box, the amplifier needs two. The phonostage, MUSIC-4, is a very simply box that will add the necessary 40dB of gain. Battery life seems to be about 120 hours of listening per battery set and is easy to verify batter life through the large top left meter. Of course once your batteries can no longer supply power to a component, it will be time to reload a fresh set.
This brings us to e OPUS 202 loudspeakers. They are a three driver, two-way design. The ultra-lightweight diaphragms for the 20cm midrange/woofer are designed to allow for very fast response to the music signal. A special tweeter is used that achieve a frequency response upwards of 40,000 Hz! The loudspeaker enclosure is specially designed to "match pressure on front and rear, because equalizing air pressures on both sides of the diaphragm is an effective way of minimizing dynamic distortion". The cabinet and matching stand are made exclusively of natural teak. While this may seem normal so far, here is where the Japanese exotica come in to play. A new sound-absorbing material consisting of traditional Japanese charcoal nuggets are used inside of the rear panel. The many tens of thousands of holes of various sizes, claims Final, allows for efficient absorption of the full range from ultra-low to ultra-high frequencies. PHEW! And now for my listening notes....
Let The Music Play
The MUSIC-4/5/6 combination brings about another slap in the face. It was like first hearing the 47 Labs Gaincard, yet cleaner and with more lower frequency capabilities. In fact i was afraid that the most demanding frequencies, power supply wise, would suffer due to using batteries. How wrong i was! Bass was fast and clean and seemed to go down lower than the 47 Labs Gaincard. The upper frequencies were smooth and clean with just a touch of rolled off sound. It was in the midrange that seemed to be the most revealing differences.
While the 47 Labs Gaincard has a midrange so wonderfully clean and sweet you just want to marry it. Reminds me of a glorious 300B amplifier. The MUSIC system is cleaner and more resolved but at the expense of some musical smoothness. This is not to say you have that dreaded harsh grain. Far from it! It just seems to lack the 47 Labs Gaincard's smooth and sweet, yet transparent sound. When directly comparing the MUSIC-6 amplifier against the Gaincard, in my system the highs were very close. It was as if they were cut from the very same cloth. It was in the lowest frequencies that the MUSIC-6 seemed more glorious. Both have good, clean, tight bass, yet the MUSIC-6 achieved a deeper, more extended music reproduction.
The MUSIC-5 preamplifier was incredible. In fact it went head to head against the more expensive conrad-johnson Premiere 17LS i reviewed in September and did quite well. Again, like the 47 Labs Gaincard the MUSIC-5 seemed not as smooth. The 17LS had a bit more bass, though i started to wonder if it may have been a bit overblown and lack definition. The MUSIC-5 was that good. It makes me wonder how much better it could be if Final substituted the DACT Stepped Attenuator as reviewed back in 1999 instead of the non-stepped type that is stock. The more i listened to the preamplifier substituted in my usual reference system, the more i came to realize that there is something quite amazing in this retro-looking Japanese exotica.
Both the conrad-johnson and the Final preamplifier threw a vast and deep soundscape. The MUSIC-5 seemed to be a bit bigger while the 17LS has more image definition. In fact i moved my loudspeakers around a bit and quickly realized that i would be hard pressed to call either a winner here. As strange as this may sound, it seems if i optimized the loudspeaker's positioning by moving then a small amount, one or the other preamplifier could be heralded the winner. Makes the mind spin! Maybe there is a small phase shift between them that makes all the difference? Yes i realize the 17LS inverts the polarity and therefore i also needed to change the positive and negative leads of the loudspeaker wires going from the amplifier to the loudspeaker to make the appropriate correction. As i said, this review took quite a bit of time and effort. In the end i would recommend auditioning both preamplifier and deciding for yourself. It is that close my friends. Still, the bass is a bit tighter with the MUSIC-5 that the 17LS my system.
The phono stage was not quite up to the league of the 47Labs' 4712 Phonocube. As the Phonocube is a current gain device versus the more normal voltage gain as you find in most photo stages, it seems the MUSIC-4 was not up to the task. Of course i guess the added $1,500+ in price, the 4712 Phonocube should be better. The MUSIC-4 totally blew away the popular under $800 Lehmann Black Cube. The MUSIC-5 was obviously more accurate, especially in the frequency extremes. Bass was more defined, the highs were smoother, had better detail and was more refined. Of course if you use a super tweaky resistor in the available slot on the Black Cube this could change matters, though i will stick with stock units as the same could be done to the MUSIC-4.
The Final Countdown
System Rating Below Without the OPUS 202 Loudspeakers
Music 4 Phonostage
Music 6 Power Amplifier
Opus 202 Loudspeaker