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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; AudioZone PRE-T1 [on review]
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE run one channel each, the other shorted out
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Zu Cable Ibis, Zu Cable Birth on Definitions; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan
Review Component Retail: $1,500 for the Gaincard, $1,800 per 25-watt power supply (one is essential)

The story about the genesis of the Gaincard is interesting. Kimura-San of 47Labs was working hard on what eventually would become his groundbreaking PiTracer digital transport. He wanted an in-house amplifier reference whose particular sonics he understood inside-out. Roll your own was the answer. To not waste redundant R&D time on this secondary project, the master had an inspiration.

Engineering school 101 teaches the simple op-amp circuit that makes a functional amplifier. Little would be required to whip up something basic yet functional and get back to finessing his sophisticated transport. Little could Junji Kimura have foreseen how word on his prototype would spread to eventually suggest the wisdom of formal production. What had started out as a -- relatively --quick homebrew solution assumed a life of its own. Its designer now tweaked the living daylights out of its inherent minimalism to perhaps become the most infamous Japanese audio product this side of the Ongaku and $300K WAVAC.

Some might argue how the design DNA reflects undue severity. 12-step dual mono attenuators with no chassis markings; barrier strips for speaker terminals; a single input for what really is an integrated amp ... it's all clean and functional but makes minimal concessions to creature comforts or even practicality. A mere 11 click stops between mute and full blast may be viewed as unnecessarily limited by some. Others like the designer of the original HeadRoom BlockHead felt inspired instead to duplicate the dual-mono two-boxes-connected-by-common-front-and-rear-panels concept which the Gaincard proudly pioneered.

Seriousness of purpose is reflected in the option to use two power supplies and turn the entire circuit full-on dual mono. Cleverness shows up in how two contoured chrome shafts become the screwless footers for the punningly christened cylindrical Power Humpties filled with their 170VA cut-core transformers. Further seriousness rears its head in the specifications that set the industry on its collective ear when these zenned-out minis first hit the scene. Unless you've hidden on Samoa's beaches all along, you'll have heard of 'em: World's smallest number of parts - 9 parts per channel. World's shortest signal pass length - 32mm. World's shortest NFB loop length - 9mm.

Further factoring into the unique allure of controversy was the fact that despite parts minimalism and 25wpc power rating (pityfully low for a sand amp in those days though a 50wpc version has been added since), the price of admission with just one power supply clocked in at a stout $3,300. Add another $1,800 for a second power supply to ring the bell at $5,100. Add $700 per supply for the 50-watt version. Fully tricked out and beefed up, that's $6,500. Thus caught between geek and designer appeal, the Gaincard pretty much from its very beginning was a unique beast. It inspired equal amounts of awe and derision, applause and mockery. It also stimulated the highest form of flattery, widespread and blatant attempts at copycatting. These illicit offspring were quickly dubbed GainClones. The flattery followed the verdict of early reviews and user comments: excellent sonics (from a concept most would have written off as unfit for serious HiFi due to the op amps), at costs that seemed more Japanese esoterica than realistic. It's tantalizing to imagine how through it all, the Gaincard's crafty author might have amusedly chuckled. After all, he reportedly did not set out to start a revolution that in certain quarters eventually assumed near rebellious undertones, against the status quo of rising complexities, sizes, weights and dollars. Still, there's no debating that the Gaincard was from day one a bloody original. And, it continues to be the original against which the various GainClones must test their mettle with originality of implementation and performance.

47Lab's US agent Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems has followed our site's responses to the GainClone phenomenon, with three of its writers now owners (Paul, Stephæn and myself). He recently inquired. Would one of us be interested to compare our respective clone to the original? A trip to the mattresses? It's not often that an audio manufacturer actively seeks out getting pitted against a competitor. It tends to happen occasionally, by virtue of going up against whatever a reviewer owns. Still, most manufacturers studiously avoid shootouts whereas certain readers clamor for 'em as though they constituted the only viable way of useful reviewing (don't tell us what you heard; just tell us what's best, period).

Of course audio doesn't work that way. Personal taste and all. Still, two different implementations of the same basic (but not common) circuit, with different features, cosmetics and pricing, do make for an interesting juxtaposition. Because my Patek SEs don't include volume provisions, the Gaincard will be run with the passive attenuators wide open and from the same preamps, either the ModWright SWL 9.0SE or the AudioZone PRE-T1. That'll be apples to apples.

To asess the merit of the AudioZone's transformer-based passive attenuation vs. the 47Labs' pot-based one, I'll also compare the PRE-T1/Patek combo against the Gaincard solo, and the PRE-T1/Gaincard against itself. Additional fun & games will be had from the option of running both Pateks and the Gaincard dual mono and then throwing in the Pateks' high-power bridgeability just for the hell of it.

In the spirit of fairness, this particular comparison must
deal with the matter of price first. My Pateks are handcrafted by a Canadian gent who sells direct to avoid the usual dealer markups. The 47Labs gear is manufactured in Japan, imported to the US and sold through a dealer network so you can listen before you buy. (To get 50 Gaincard watts like the AudioSector amp, the $1,800 Power Humpty goes to $2,500.) Inherent in that setup is that the Gaincard has to be more expensive. Dollarwise, the Patek enjoys an unfair advantage. The flip side is, you custom-order it sight unseen (unless a friend of yours already owns one). The pricing discrepancy is an apples/oranges deal. It is what it is and not what it ain't. Though theoretically superior, the Gaincard's barrier terminals -- aka bare screws for your speaker cable spades --will strike some as less convenient than the Patek's integrated Cardas solution. As a reviewer, that includes me. However, set'n'forget owners should be cool either way. That leaves the cosmetics, clearly a personal matter - and sonics, equally personal in the end. Still, what there is to be subjectively/objectively reported on shall be revealed in due time. Incidentally, Junji has recently tweaked the original circuit -- a resistor here, a wire reroute there -- for reportedly mo betta sonics. This also brings the signal-path parts count inside the amp box down to eight per channel (one attenuator resistor per setting). Creative people never sit still...

The circuit between my amps and the Gaincard is nearly identical. Should sonic differences arise, they'd have to be due to different parts in the same circuit junctures; the chassis materials used; the resonance tuning of the circuit within the enclosure; and the exact quality, filtering and strength of the juice provided by the power supplies. That would give credence to the mantra that everything matters. It would make particular sense for a circuit that's as stripped down to the bare essentials as here. Each remaining part becomes that much more important in how it affects the totality of the device. In short, this assignment is really interesting. Thanks to Yoshi for suggesting and enabling it.