Interview with Musical Laboratory*

What made you move into high end audio manufacturing?

Like many who were spending time on the internet DIY audio forums in 2002-3, we were in awe of what Junji Kimura (of 47 Laboratory) had done by creating the 4706 Gaincard. Soon a 'Gainclone' sub-culture sprung up on the forums and I was swept away by it. You see, by harnessing the power of miniaturisation and combining it with some clever implementation skills, Junji had shown everyone there was another path. I wanted to continue the change begun by 47 Laboratory and when, in the subsequent years, parts of the vision that became Musical Laboratory* came together, I knew I had to do it.

Would you consider yourself an audiophile?

Not really, I actually dislike audio equipment per se. First and foremost my passion is music. If one hears audio artifacts while listening to recorded music, then this signals to me a failure in the implementation. Of course, this is much easier to say than to achieve! Ideally audio should be a conduit, a silent partner, an open window that brings to life the spirit and magic of the original musical event. For me there is only one test when evaluating the merits of a component, and it does not involve getting too deep into the technical specification of the device. Instead it is more simplistic, namely: Does the component bring to life the spirit and magic of a musical performance? Or, more simply put : Does it play music?

There is almost a cult following around gain card concept. Please describe your view about this phenomena?

I think I have already answered this question. For me, it is enough to say that it was life-changing.

Your products are basing on the principles "more is less" but where is the borderline?

Yes, in general it is true to say this about our products. For Musical Laboratory* the borderline is quite clear. We ask the question : Does the musical performance or stability of the circuit improve with the addition of this component or material? If the answer is Yes, we add it. Similarly, if we ask : Does the musical performance or stability of the circuit degrade if we remove this component or material? - and the answer is No - we remove it. We tend to evaluated every aspect of our components in this way.

What materials and components do you use and why?

As we are based on the principle of Less is More (or the corollary More is Less), what is perhaps a more interesting question to ask is, what don't we use – what do we leave out? In our experience there are principally two - perhaps three – fundamental physical forces that will audibly degrade a musical signal. These include electrical resistance and capacitive reactance. At Musical Laboratory* we treat our signal path circuits as lengths of wire, which we subsequently optimise with respect to these variables.

Your enclosures are work of art and incorporate the spirit of Zen. Are you inspired by the philosophy of the Zen and simplicity?

Certainly by Eastern spirituality and simplicity. Masaoki Shiki (1867-1902) was a young poet I studied in my school days who challenged the orthodoxy of Japanese poetry of his day, which had become bloated and unreadable. Shiki is credited with inventing a new grammatical structure, the Haiku, in which only a few words were used to perfectly capture a moment of consciousness or to describe something in the natural world. What Shiki did for Japanese poetry encapsulates Musical Laboratory*'s Minimalist vision for audio reproduction.

On a personal level I have been practicing a form of Hindu meditation daily for about 20 years. Over time this tends to bestow on one an ability to see beyond the surface of things; to appreciate small things - whether it is an insect going about its work, or a leaf falling from a tree. In some way this guides how I design things.

A lot of people are skeptical about exotic material in audio. How do you see that?

Materials have known electrical and mechanical properties. If these match the criteria that you are trying to achieve, then you should use them. Some exotic materials have great characteristics, such as Mumetal - but some ordinary substances have great electrical properties too. Air has a fantastically low dielectric constant - which is why we like to pack lots of air around our circuits. Its a Musical Laboratory* trademark!

What is the goal of Musical Laboratory?

To take what Junji (Kimura) started to its logical conclusion. An area where we differ from 47 Laboratory is in the packaging. They have traditionally applied a quite stark, military-like appearance to their components. We, on the other hand, like to work with wood and currently like artisanal lacquered boxes, which are lovingly made for us in Korea. We believe that a device should not only play music, but should harmonise with, or enhance, our customers' living spaces.

Is there such a thing as perfect audio setup?

Yes, one where you don't hear the audio limitations. Perhaps the closest I have got to this was one lazy Sunday afternoon in London a few years ago. We were mixing and matching components round at my friend Antonio Rotondi's house. Antonio has these enormous 210 Litre DIY corner cabinets housing original 15 inch Tannoy Monitor Red dual-concentric drivers. These speakers incidentally were handed down to him by his friend and mentor Thorsten Loesch (now chief designer at AMR). They were (and still are) his pride and joy - and his wife's worst nightmare! (He told me how she curled up in a foetal position on the couch when he brought them home, and didn't speak a word for another 2 days).

Do you think that one can achieve the experience of the live music in the home setup?

Yes, from a sound perspective, absolutely. However there is more than just sound at a live performance – there is vision and other senses too. This is why I am currently in the process of launching Musical Laboratory* AV with my partner Mattias Rundberg, to address this limitation – the visual aspect at any rate.

What kind of speakers do you recommend with your products?

After the afternoon previously described, there is a warm place in my heart reserved for Tannoy dual-concentric drivers. Maybe if I become a big enough ambassador for Tannoy, their sales representative in Europe will drop off a pair of Kensington SEs at our lab! Other than these, low mass, high sensitivity ( > 90dB) easy-to-drive designs will let the Bosangwhas and Paeonia give up their best.

I would say your products have a certain soul around them. Not only in appearance but in a musical imprint. How did you achieve this?

The LM3875 National Semiconductor op amp we use in the Bosangwha Gainclones had already acquired a legendary reputation for musicality. Adding an SMPS (power supply) to the equation simply took things up a notch. But the really interesting part was when we simplified the Gainclone circuit, widened the tracks and used a new (yes, in this case exotic!) PCB substrate. This changed the entire personality of the device, to what it is now.

Also they are made with love. There is an old Hindu expression, which roughly translates to : Food cooked with Love, tastes better.

What makes Bosangwha such a special product?

Its a recipe that includes an already fantastically good sounding chip amp, a high-speed PCB, foil geometry, Silver Gold conductors, naked audio resistors and so forth. Oh yes, there is also a nice mirrored box so you can admire yourself - and how clever you were for buying them!

How do you see the current state of the high end audio?

Pretty dismal, I'm afraid. It seems that High-end audio has offered such poor value for so long now, it has alienated music lovers. It's hard to imagine what it will take to bring the interest of these consumers back to this market segment. Of course, we have some ideas and we are working on these.

What would be you dream project "cost no object"?

Actually, this is what Mattias and I are currently working on for Musical Laboratory* AV, but unfortunately it is still too early to give out more details.

What does future hold for Musical Laboratory*?

We are currently discussing some designs with Pedja (Rogic) at Audial for a new reference-level ( as well as a more entry-level) NOS DAC with re-clocked USB-SPDIF conversion. These will combine Pedja's considerable knowledge of this domain with some tricks of our own. It is not clear yet if these will be released as part of the Korean Lacquer range or if they will be piano black or white high gloss lacquered wood. They will be offered in Q2 next year.

Please kindly describe your home system.

Yes, it currently comprises :
- An Apple iMac 24” - Trends Audio USB-SPDIF convertor (with 2 battery packs) - Audial The Model USB/ SPDIF NOS DAC with a TDA1541S1 installed (reference) – SPDIF connection used - Ack! DAC 2.0 (back-up) - Musical Laboratory* Paeonia Revision 2 Passive Pre - Musical Laboratory* Bosangwha Revision 2.3 Gainclone mono-block amplifiers - Musical Laboratory* Autumn Wind Silver Gold foil/ Silk speaker and interconnects - Musical Laboratory* Miniature RG187 silver plated Digital cable - 3D Sonics Transparent Open Baffle Supravox Bi-cone wide range driver speakers

What kind of music do you enjoy when working day is over?

Currently, it is likely to be :
Vocal – Any vocal duets with Sarah Brightman or Luciano Pavarotti
Jazz/ Piano: Keith Jarrett; Erik Satie
World Music : Siddhartha series (combines Hindu sounds with cool Western vibe); early Cafe Del Mar mixes by Jose Padilla
Pop : Lighthouse Family
Dance : Charles Webster (luscious deep house); Herbert; Seamus Haji
Folk : John Martyn/ Danny Thomson; Nick Drake

What would be your dream system?

As the above, but with Tannoy Dual-Concentric drivers bi-wired with dual Bosangwhas per channel or, perhaps, Guru Proaudio QM10s (I say this to keep my partner Mattias happy – he's from Sweden)

Any last words for our readers?

Enjoy this site. Matej does this work to share his passion for music, and components which play music - not for the advertising revenue.