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In the wake of publishing page 1 as a preview, many e-mails arrived asking for close-up shots of the Gaincard boards. Because I couldn't figure out how to open the device, I had asked Yoshi to supply the previous photo of the innards. That shall suffice. What has been published on the web before [see below] is according to Yoshi not an original Gaincard detail.

What should come as a shock to those unfamiliar with the National Semiconductor chips used by 47Labs, AudioZone, AudioSector and DIYers like Per-Anders Sjöström [below]? The size -- or better yet, lack of size -- of what constitutes the actual amplifier. The puny 6-prong chip (attached also to the above boards and in the actual Gaincard screwed to the bottom of the casing to use the entire chassis as heat sink) is it. To revisit hippy slang, that's trippy, man!
You'd think it shouldn't work. Even if it did, you'd believe it to be some half-assed college dorm solution. Anything better and the whole damn approach would turn into an obnoxious insult to the honkin' Class A 150lbs amps. Well, feel insulted then. As thousands have long since discovered for themselves, chipping works with a vengeance. That's the whole beauty and appeal of the Gaincard. It's squarely the reason why it's been copied so much. Success is its own best revenge - and enemy. [More commercial clones below, a joint venture between Peter Daniel and Brian Bell.] As a minimalist 25wpc device as submitted, the original Gaincard merely requires reasonably friendly speakers that are neither finicky nor bear to drive. Then it'll sing.

Let's say it as it is: This thing messes with your head - big time. Then it hits you over the skull with a blunt edge to finish you off. There. And though it does work exceedingly well, I couldn't fault those who upon looking at the 47Labs package proclaim it shamelessly expensive for what it is - a pittance in materials. There. That's squarely the reason for the static discharge surrounding the original. But don't ridicule the concept because of it. Lend your ear first. Hifi is filled with costly trophies. A lot of them are pricier and don't sound half as good. Yes, those offer pounds of scrap metal and a brown paper bag filled with plenty of little parts as booby prize. Me? I'd rather have good sound. Of course ultimately, I want good sound and a fair deal. That's why I bought Peter Daniel's Patek SE amps. Alas, this assignment is not about beating a dead horse. It's about having fun. Being a good audiophile, that means focus on sonics. After all, that's what us audiophiles are about in the end. Or so I've been told.

Sonics. The original Gaincard-on-the-cheap is part of Kimura-San's Shigaraki line. Having reviewed the Shigaraki integrated and subsequently asked Yoshi Segoshi how it compared to its bigger brother, he told me that Shiggy was voiced slightly warmer and softer. He also mentioned that some listeners preferred the Shigaraki to the Gaincard. Listening to the latter now -- with Shigaraki long since returned -- I have a strong suspicion that the revised Gaincard has been voiced to mimic Shigaraki. After all, what's the use if a number of prospective customers fancy your entry-level piece more than your statement product?

Mind you, this is a bit of conjecture. However and compared to the Patek, the Gaincard is softer. Some of that could be a function of lesser power (25 vs 50 watts) but running 101dB speakers, we can assume that power isn't really the issue. Or perhaps it is. No way for me to determine. This softness doesn't counteract resolution or visibility, however. It's not that you see less into or within the soundstage. No details are lost. It's simply a more laid-back, rhythmically less incisive presentation. It's not so much warmth either because the Patek has both more image density and more bite. The Gaincard simply moves emphasis away from leading edges to convey a mellower feel of the music.

For a solid-state machine, that's a pretty mean trick. Transistors tend to excel at transient speed. Designers wishing to shift the balance often end up with a dark-sounding amplifier. However, the Gaincard is categorically not dark. It's transparent and elegant and resolved all at once. Like the Patek, it's not at all solid-statish sounding (whatever exactly that means today when the lines between all camps are blurred and a transistor amp like an Audio Analogue can be voiced to sound more 'tubey' than a valved unit). The Patek is denser and fuller sounding but that doesn't make the 47Labs piece lean. Compared to other amps and like a good tube preamp, the Audio Sector amp is definitely additive when it comes to body and image heft - precisely why I bought it. Think tube-reminiscent benefits without associated liabilities. The Gaincard in that department isn't additive. Its contribution revolves around that silky texture of softness.

Otherwise, it's the same kind of sound, of course. After all, the circuit is virtually identical. Adding the second power supply benefits ambient micro information especially as it pertains to the rear of the stage. That's in keeping with expectations for true dual mono - improved separation. You also get more fleshiness of tone (bigger power supply) but still not to the same extent as the Canadian run as stereo amp with its single power supply. The N-type BlackGate bypass caps in the Peter Daniel amp seems to be the part responsible for that particular aspect of their performance.

By the time the Pateks double (two amps, two power supplies, only one channel per amp used, the other shorted with a plug) the same dual-mono improvements occur on their side of the fence. This widens their lead also in the body shop, and all for still less money than a 25wpc Gaincard with a single power supply. So if we applied shoot-out mentality, the Gaincard in this race suffers a handicap it simply cannot overcome. It's bound to lose. If we don't think in terms of winners and loser but sonic flavors, the Gaincard and Patek appeal to a slightly different audience. The Patek is more intense and rhythmically driven, the Gaincard more relaxed - allegro vs. adagio, adrenaline vs. nightcap. It's all a matter of degrees and shades. Any clever characterization -- in order to pull -- tends to overdraw. So remember that these amps in general are far more alike than different but that concrete differences do remain. On that subject, I had a phone exchange with George Tordai, the proprietor of the Audio Zone brand with two so-called gainclone amps. "People claim resistors make no difference as long as their values are identical. In my AMP-1 or AMP-2s, that's patently untrue. Vishays, Rikens, you name it - replace just one resistor and the changes are as clear as day."

This confirms my prior statement that a parts-stripped circuit becomes more and more sensitive to and accurate about the effects of swapping between the few parts that are left. It explains how the Gaincard and Patek could sound audibly different well beyond hairsplitting. Not only are the parts more critical in how much they contribute to the overall results, mechanical aspects of vibration tuning also make a more pronounced difference. There's less parts variables and material or placement changes are easier to correlate and thus deliberatize. In the end, how the two amps differ reflects their two designers and what sonic personality traits they meant to highlight, shift or minimize. When I think Japan with its small spaces -- where residents remain supremely respectful and cognizant of their neighbors' close proximity and play music at lower levels -- the innate softness of the Gaincard makes sense. It would reflect such an environment and its cultural sensitivity. Americans like things big and bold including bass and jumpy dynamics. Voila - the Pateks have more power and bigger power supplies to unapologetically sound big, bold and dynamic. [More chip amps below.]

Neither the Japanese nor the Canadian do the chalky, sizzling, whitish flat thing in the treble. Ditto for the hyper-chiseled cyborg bass thing. That too is missing in action. No muscle amp shenanigans then, no speed freak tricks at the expense of listenability. Even must-have-tubes extremists would have to concede that these chip amps refuse to hand over reasons for convenient attack. No, they don't layer like tubes unless a tube pre gets into the picture. No, they don't bloom like tubes - but you could turn that around and call it better transducer control. They are very articulate, fast and dynamic and operate with zero self noise. And, they do body and tone. In the end, these op-amps-for-speakers designs -- Gaincard and gainclones -- occupy some very attractive middle ground. As a diehard tuber (tube man), chip amps are my favorite flavor of solid-state yet. That includes Tripath, ICEpower and NuForce. It's strange especially because those latter Class D wrinkles are very hi-tech whereas (except for the actual chip which is a marvel of miniaturization and circuit densification) the op-amp designs are engineering 101 stuff, with the basic circuit published on National Semiconductors' website. The moral of this story -- I guess -- is that old and simple sometimes not only have charm but the longest of legs, too (and there's even tube-buffered gainclones to confuse things further).

The original that started the whole trend (albeit slightly changed since its launch) squarely focuses on refinement now. This latest incarnation simply sounds elegant and silky. If that was its design brief, it's been realized to a 't'. Still to be conducted? Experiments with different preamps vs. using the Gaincard as a one-source integrated. Because it's functionally an integrated, many people will have never tried a Gaincard as a stand-alone amp. Thus expect a concluding page to report on the ModWright SWL 9.0SE and the Audio Zone PRE-T1 in both copper and silver S&B transformer guise to explore how the Gaincard responds to different flavors of preamplification vs. going solo. All the above comments used the ModWright seeing how the Patek doesn't have an attenuator. To compare apples to apples, I had to run the Gaincard with its pots wide open and through my preamp. Now that its basic signature has been noted, subsequent listening sessions will tease out further details...