Listening #141

Johnny Town-Mouse was born in a cupboard, and Timmie Willie was born in a garden—this according to Beatrix Potter, who modeled both of her hantavirus-carrying protagonists after people of her acquaintance. Transposed to the city, Timmie Willie was chased by a maid and a housecat, while Johnny Town-Mouse's visit to the countryside was spoiled by cows, lawn mowers, and boredom. Both characters enjoyed good mental and physical health only in the settings to which they were accustomed, although Potter made it clear that her far greater sympathies lay with Timmie Willie.

My own sympathies are divided, although my present surroundings are rural in the extreme. Looking out my windows I see, to the south, a corner of the hayfield that borders my yard, and numberless hills beyond; to the west, the remainder of that hayfield, and the beginning of our long driveway; to the north, a copse of woods and a seasonal spring-fed pond that my daughter, Julia, has dubbed Lake Inferior; to the east, more woods, and a couple of cows that have wandered up the hill from the farm next door. When my family and I moved here 11 years ago, I assumed that cattle were naturally hylophobic; that assumption came to an end one day when Julia and I crossed through our woods to a pasture on the other side, attracted the attention of a few irritable cows, and were chased, at a surprisingly high rate of speed, halfway home. We can laugh about it now.

Babe of the Day
In none of my visits to the city have I been chased by a maid—an idea not lacking in appeal, now that I consider it. I have, on the other hand, enjoyed many other of the charms of which the city is sole province, including the availability of many and varied broadcast stations. New York City is heaven on earth for music lovers who enjoy FM radio.

In upstate New York, by contrast, the pickings are slim. Our nearest broadcast stations of notable transmitting power are PYX 106 and Q 103, both in Albany, 59 miles east of here. PYX 106, owned by Clear Channel Communications, adheres to a classic-rock playlist: "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, "More Than a Feeling" by Boston, "Squeezebox" by the Who, and countless other songs that have been played to death for nearly 40 years. Q 103, which is part of the Loudwire Network, is a rock station with a slightly more adventurous format: They play the usual product by Kiss and Sammy Hagar and Aerosmith, but they also play Green Day and Goatwhore and Beck. Interestingly, the PYX website also includes "The Weekly Babe Countdown," "Vito's Vixens," and other pages to which listeners can turn for scintillating color photographs of irritable-looking, anorexic women in bikinis; for its part, the Q 103 website has similar pages, titled "Babe of the Day" and "More Babes." Both stations appear to have concluded that their listenership is divided between heterosexual males in whose lives attractive women do not play a significant role and women who don't mind thinking of themselves as fodder for same. This is not unreasonable, given that the bands whose music those stations play have evidently arrived at the same conclusions.

Less robust in my part of the world is, as expected, classical radio. The last time I wrote in this space about FM broadcasting, I enthused about the generally adventurous WCNY (Syracuse); they endure, but their signal seems weaker and less distinct than before, for whatever reason. At the same time, signal-strength gains appear to have been made by the generally excellent WHMT (Schenectady), an NPR station that, unlike the same area's WAMC, manages to stay afloat without semiannual, weeklong cadgefests of inane nonprogramming and threats of the station's imminent demise. Also nearby is WSKG (Binghamton), which ranges from the awful (an announcer with the most preposterous British accent this side of Noomi Rapace's performance in Prometheus) to the sublime (any station that would play Rick Sowash's Daweswood Suite during prime time can't be all bad).

Actually, our little village has a radio station of its own: WJIV (Jesus Is Victory), owned by the Flint, Michigan–based Christian Broadcasting System, and whose local managers are admirable, civic-minded people. WJIV's programming is not to my taste, but it's far better than another very strong Christian-station signal that dominates the left of the dial in my area. The last time I stumbled on the latter—no matter how long I can stand to tune in, they never adhere to the law and announce their call letters—I heard a rambling, fevered monologue by a woman who sounded so crazy that I was honestly frightened. There seems to exist a point of view that faith, once considered an accident of birth, may soon become an accident of broadcast.

Perfectly formed
All of this came to mind after my first day with 47 Laboratory's Model 4730 Midnight Blue stereo FM tuner ($1500, footnote 1), one of the most delightful review samples to come my way in recent years. In common with virtually every one of the Japanese firm's other products, the 4730 is modestly sized—4.8" (123mm) wide by 3.75" (96mm) high by 8" (206mm) deep—and its dark blue casework is geared more toward the aesthetically sophisticated shopper than toward teenaged boys or newly promoted hedge-fund managers in search of a trophy system. Those folks wouldn't recognize this simple, subtly beautiful device as a high-end audio product at all.

The 4730's simplicity extends to its interior, and its design includes a nod to the classic analog tuners of the 1960s: At its heart is an old-style, rotary, variable capacitor custom-made to designer Junji Kimura's specifications. Its shaft is fronted with a beautiful two-piece dial roughly 3" in diameter, which responds with reasonable smoothness to a front-mounted knob. Save for the rear-mounted power toggle, this knob is the Midnight Blue's only user control.

9114listen.inside.jpg

Other 47 Lab traits abound: short signal paths, a mix of point-to-point wiring and small circuit boards, a hand-selected integrated circuit for amplification, and a well-regulated power supply, this one built around a sturdy Triad toroidal transformer. Also included are a pair of gold-plated Switchcraft RCA jacks and two sets of antenna inputs: one 75 ohm F connector and a pair of 300 ohm terminal jacks.

Listening to the radio
I placed the 4730 on the middle shelf of my Box Furniture equipment rack, right next to my seven-year-old Shindo Masseto preamplifier—the Midnight Blue is supported not by compliant feet but by three small, slightly rounded steel studs—and connected the two with my enduringly excellent Audio Note AN-Vx silver Litz interconnect. I connected the tuner's 75 ohm input to an attic-mounted RadioShack FM antenna, and the 300 ohm input to a common dipole.

Then my family and I set about to listen. It didn't take long to find the above-mentioned Q 103, our first taste of which was Shinedown aping Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends." Although not unpleasant, it rivaled Heart's version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" for sheer Why the fuck-edness—so I spun the dial to hear what else we could tune in. I found, in no particular order, a snippet of an especially boring Haydn symphony; a discussion of the proper role played by computer games in a fundamentalist Christian family; a commercial for a water park; an oft-repeated and condescendingly dumb commercial for an Albany-area chain of new-car dealers; a little more Jesus; and—Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir"!



Footnote 1: 47 Laboratory. US distributor: Sakura Systems, 2 Rocky Mt. Road. Jefferson, MA 01522. Tel./Fax: (508) 829-3426. Web: www.sakurasystems.com.
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COMMENTS
brenro's picture

Having grown up in that area I'm sad to see WOUR not mentioned. Having not lived there for several decades I don't know if they're still on the air or what they've morphed into but in the early seventies glory days of FM radio it was a truly awesome radio station.

otaku's picture

Is a great FM stereo receiver really any better than a decent HD Radio receiver?

Timbo in Oz's picture

The bit rates are very low, so no a HD rcvr can never sound as good as FM at its best can sound.

otaku's picture

After I made the post, I looked up the bit rates and you are probably right.

jmsent's picture

..Simply because no company has used one for well over 30 years. But custom designed? Who is going to make such a part with such a small production run? And what can be done to it that hasn't already been done? It's technology that was pretty much perfected by the 1930's. Such parts can be found in the inventory of many a surplus parts supplier, and given the design and construction of the adjacent pcb, the whole circuit strikes me as a fugitive from some old piece of low to midlevel audio gear. No tuner company worth its salt would put out something at this price point with a 3 gang tuning capacitor. Middle of the line 70's stereo receivers had at least 4 gangs, and upper line stuff had 5 or more. Each additional gang resulted in better selectivity and sensitivity. I'd love to hook up my old Sound Tech 1000A to it and check out its performance. Given what I see, my expectations would be low. Doesn't stop it from sounding good, as long as you're not in a crowded metro area, where the marginal selectivity and poor image rejection would likely overwhelm the thing.

jgossman's picture

I don't know much at all about tuner tech, but that this tuner doesn't look nearly as robust as what was found in nearly every silver faced Pioneer reciever of the 70's.

Which is not to say it doesn't sound excellent. Just that like much of 47 Labs gear, it looks a little chincy.

volvic's picture

I will reserve comment until I try it, don't doubt jmsent's observations but we don't see tuner reviews that often, think the last mention was last year and even that wasn't a full review. We have been fed a steady stream of DAC's and all things streaming most of which have frankly left me cold. I would have liked to have learned more about the quality of the tuner's sound; depth, imaging etc, vis a vis other models Naim Nait or Accuphase. But FM is so barely spoken off these days that it was nice to see a tuner review.

ChrisS's picture

Until I hear this tuner, I can only say that of the 47 Labs gear that I've had experience with, the sound and build quality is exquisite!

Lofty's picture

Aside from this 47Labs unit the only other new tuner design is the Bel Canto FM1. Bel Canto claims new implementations of dsp imbue this tuner with "superb analog output performance". Anyone know?

volvic's picture

A gorgeous looking tuner that reminds me of the early Naim Naits, have seen reviews - all positive, although they say very sensitive to antenna placement in one review. Have to go hear and compare.

Metalhead's picture

Looks nice, but I will take a Marantz 10B please, or maybe a tube McIntosh tuner!!!!

volvic's picture

Ok, then I will take a Burmester, or Naim Nat 1 or 2 olive. Have a Linn Kremlin but think either of those mentioned can best it.

mhardy6647's picture

I am very pleased to see a new (analog!) tuner at this late date!
In fact, I was extolling this new product in response to a cogent thread on the topic ("why so few AM/FM tuners on the US market") at www.audiokarma.org

I came back to peruse Mr. Dudley's Stereophile write-up to refresh my memory -- and only then did I notice the rather crude looking cabinet work on the first product photo in the column. Looks like a spray-painted Hammond box :-(

That's OK for homebrew but rather inexcusable, I'd opine, for a $1500 commercial, "boutique" product. That said, I would like to give 47Labs (famed as they are for their aesthetic sense as well as for sonics) the benefit of the doubt and assume that Art received a preproduction/"beta" sample!

Here's hoping...

Timbo in Oz's picture

To wit? - A good external 'multi-element' / 'directional antenna with gain' on the roof (or in the loft), and a rotator, and a rebuilt vintage tuner with better selectivity than 3 gangs can give and better indication of your tuning. And probably have enough over for someone install the antenna and cable, or DIY.

Is it a fashion item?! Because the only aspect of it that is high end is the price.

Luckily classical FM is fine down here, for the moment.

http://www.abc.net.au/radio/player/beta/#live/classic

Program guide?
http://www.abc.net.au/classic/music-listings/?date=2014-09-04

They still do live broadcasts using simple miking, too!

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