Going after a truly diabolical pace, rhythm & timing album, I now cued up Jazzpaña II [Gerardo Nuñez & Chano Dominguez, ACT, 9284-2], a fiery hybrid of Flamenco and Jazz juxtaposing such unlikely artists as Fareed Haque on Blues/Jazz guitar against Nuñez on Flamenco guitar; Jorde Pardo, Michael Brecker and Perico Sambeat on saxophones versus Renaud Garcia-Fons on double-bass; Chano Dominguez on Jazz piano versus Tino Di Geraldo on percussion and drums and Carles Benavent on electric bass.

Taming some of the leading edge transients on the guitars and saxes, the minor prettifying effect of Shigaraki/Essence nonetheless stayed true to all the shifty syncopation mayhem. While some choice bits of Benavent's popping e-bass were MIA by not jumping out at me, the thumpy upper bass quality covered up for the lack of forceful descent into the mid-30 band. Pumping up the volume on "Para Chick" for some scorching Latin Jazz, some of the "dirty" sax screams, the sheer weight of Chano Dominguez' fingers hammering away at the keys, the rebellious spirit of Benavent's bass solo all trailed in intensity what I'm used to, naturally. But more importantly, this quantitative downsizing didn't chip away at the essential quality of bopping along with the tune.

Weighing the compromises in air, dynamics, impact and scale against the zippiness of slightly forward upper midranges disguising as fake speed elsewhere; against the irritating ringing endemic to many prized tweeters that eventually fry your nerves; against the dry sterility of many solid-state amps that go about making music as sewing machines doggedly pursuing their stitches (with precision but zero juice)... I very quickly concluded that all these relative compromises were of a subtractive nature. What was missing in low-level nuances and frequency extreme impressiveness wasn't as essential as what was emphasized. Tone. Beat loyalty. Image density. Flow, not pushiness. An emphasis on the whole, not the parts.

It's a mean trick to marry this casual relaxed quality with the kind of tactile colors that retain a sense of communicative propulsion. It's not a relentless, hyped, athletically exciting but perhaps over-stimulated drive in the dynamic arena. Rather, this system's sense of drive comes from the tonal domain and solid -- but not ingratiating -- time keeping. On material that lacks the latter dimensions because it's down-tempo, laid back and moodily adrift, the thickness of tone caresses vocals, bowed strings, piano and harmonically rich wood winds like clarinet and bassoon.

The ideal Shigaraki/Essence system listener? He or she will: Avoid orchestral complexity - it overloads what's going on in the mids and highs while the little woofers are jumping out of their skins; won't be into power funk or anything similarly reliant on deep bass hammered out at elevated levels; will hate, despise, dread and refuse to sacrifice valuable living space to Hi-fi monstrosities stealing real estate, sucking wall power and acting as space heaters; and will insist that speakers are like bookshelves - they go up against the wall. And while Essence does, in fact, prefer a modicum of space to none, she's a heckuva lot less fussy about it than most audiophile speakers with an endless pedigree (ever noticed how mutts are smarter, healthier, better tempered and longer lived than the high-strung purebreds?).

Like a mutt, Shigaraki's looks aren't the stuff of exhibition competitions where proud owners have professional dog walkers parade their prissies in hopes of colored ribbons and sire fees. For every reason that Shigaraki won't appeal to die-hard dog-walking audiophiles (who will crop tails and trim whiskers to conform to the arbitrary, man-made breed standards), it will appeal to those who rescue a dog from the shelter to get the best, happiest, most thankful animal they ever had. Audiophiles ruined from ownership of pure breeds will likely walk right past this system. However, music lovers looking for character, not flawless exteriors, will stop and take note. And, at $9,000 with cables, this system isn't exactly a rescue pet - similes and colorful stand-ins will, I'm afraid, only take us so far. How should the old value question get answered? Is a flee bath in order?

The Shigaraki 4717 amplifier is world-class. On the strength of its performance alone, it would earn a Blue Moon award in its sleep. But since our award also takes aesthetics, fit'n'finish, functionality and competitiveness into account, certain small demerits established in Part 2 have the complete package miss the bar by just a sliver. Upgrade junkies could add a Humpty power supply ($1,800) to bridge the perceived gap to Gaincard - but that's as much as Shigaraki amp & Shigaraki power supply go for, together. Word from the distributor also has it that the even more resolved Gaincard isn't as sweet as Shigaraki. Depending on bias, you could actually trade down while paying dearly for it. So don't even go there - the amp's really complete as is!

The 4716 transport seems well worth the money and, outside its smallish display, garners no critical marks for functionality. It has competition from the Rega that's rumored to equally excel at propeller head duties. Where in the bigger scheme of <$2,000 disc spinners the 4716 thus belongs I can't say - not enough exposure on my part. The 4715 DAC is clearly trounced by the Bel Canto DAC-2 and appears to be the weakest link in the chain, thereby severely handicapping the system's ultimate performance in the micro-nuance and ambience retrieval sector.

In the context of a lifestyle system, the Essence speakers perfectly complement the running subtext "mission statement": Provide consistently compelling, involving, always pleasurable sound in an easy-to-place, attractive, very unobtrusive package. If I had a cabin in the Bosnian mountains like its creator, that's exactly what I'd want in it - a no-fuss, no-muss Shigaraki system on a low table parked against a wall, with books and candles and bouquets of wild flowers on it, speakers on either side about 2 feet from the wall slightly toed in, Junji's narrow cables and diminutive power supplies tucked below the table. And if you think about such a lifestyle - active, with animals and kids, always things to do around the house and people to live with... chances are you'd rarely if ever sit down by your lonesome, in furry-brow audiophile hot-seat fashion to play Mahler at beam-bending volumes or invite Bob Marley and offsprings over for a full-tilt Reggae-down jam session.

Does that describe you - with the cabin in the mountains perhaps an apartment in Berkeley, a beach house on the Puget Sound, a loft in Soho, an artist studio in Carrera? Can you afford today's ticket of admission? Then consider settling down with this system. It won't compel tweaking or invite futzing around. Like in music so in life - in the same way that it integrates little aural details into the greater context of "music as lifestyle" (rather than listening), so does it integrate into even a small crammed environment to subsequently be forgotten. Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Cesaria Evora. Eddie Daniels. Carmen McRae. Brandenburgische Konzerte... if this type of smaller-scale classical, acoustic, Jazz, World, New Age etc. material makes up your primary listening fare, you'd be sitting fat with Shigaraki. I'm afraid though that professional audiophiles will already be too deeply entrenched in the colored ribbon parades to get it. Then again, it seems that Sakura Systems is selling these as fast as they come into the country. There does seem to be a counter tide gathering in this country after all. Gotta ask Yoshi for the addresses of all those cabins, cabanas, penthouses and lofts while I'm packing up these cute components for their next destination...

US distributor website
Bosnian manufacturer's website