The old para's dime is shifting. Again. Or perhaps dropping is the right term. Lemme 'xplain. The return to a simpler is better maxim in audio arguably started when the Japanese and then the French began to rediscover direct-heated single-ended triodes. Naturally, micro-power amps with niggling damping factors and questionable current deliveries weren't too copasetic into the multi-way low-efficiency speakers of the day. Thus horn-loading and crossover-less single drivers from the days of mono saw themselves revivified as well. While on the subject of simplification, these adventurers included cables in the form of skinny raw silver or copper conductors encased in cotton, silk or rice paper sleeving. While nothing fancy to look at and in full collision with space-age dielectrics like Teflon, Kapton and Peek, they nevertheless were said to more than do the job [think PHY for example].

Further downstream in time when oversampling and 32-bit interpolators became the rage, the D/A converter became the next subject of this back-to-the-country wave of audiophile living. Inspired by Japanese audio rebel Ryohei Kusunoki [right] and embraced by fellow countrymen Kusumoto-San of iLungo [lower right], Yamada-San of Zanden, Kondo-San of Audio Note Japan and, perhaps most famously, Kimura-San of 47labs, the non-oversampling, non-upsampling, non-filtered DAC came into vogue.

But the Japanese radicals weren't content yet. While a return to valves was all fine and dandy, solid-state amplification too deserved to be made more simple. Junji Kimura's chip-based GainCard -- an Electronics 101 circuit familiar to all budding solder slingers -- set the collective audiophile world on its ear and raised some uneasy questions about rising complexities and costs elsewhere. Perhaps nothing has inspired as much underground DIY cloning as the GainCard, not least because National Semiconductor, the maker of the most popular chip for the application, offers free circuit diagrams on its site; because the inherent parts count and cost are negligible and thus invite endless experimentation with parts substitutions to get the little that's there just so.

The bells then tolled some more and one John Stronczer of Bel Canto Design abandoned tubes and embraced Tripath instead, beginning the invasion of Class D-based amplifier architectures into the hallowed grounds of fine audio. Inspiring countless variations on the theme including Toccata, ICEpower and 1-bit Sharp, so-called digital amplifiers continue to gain ground. The latest underground phenomenon irons a new wrinkle into the Class D fabric - micro-power solid-state amps, a rage begun with Sonic Impact's 5wpc T integrated that sold for some $19.95 at Target. T-clones in all manner of guises are mushrooming now as though to herald the dawn of a new triode resurgence - without the glass.

Vinnie Rossi's forthcoming Lotus [left] is a battery-powered, wood-encased miniature Tripath affair. In keeping with the theme of barely-there power, the Montreal show sprung this integrated on the public with Louis Chochos' newest, hemp-powered full-range bi-cone driver in the latest Omega loudspeaker. On the other side of the globe meanwhile, Jacob George of Rethm toils the vineyards of India to design his very own full-range driver inspired by years of seriously modifying Lowthers. None other than transducer giant Peerless stands in the wings to lend a helping hand. The first fruits of these labors were already realized in the 6" Peerless driver of the Fifth Rethm [below right] introduced at CES 2005.

This new-fangled interest in full-range loudspeakers allows the simpler-is-better mantra to be whispered even over solid-state contenders. None other than audio legend Nelson Pass has taken the lead with his 10wpc FirstWatt F1 to show the way. This is groundbreaking not just for its current-mode makeup. It's arguably even more so since the whole concept of micro-power transistor amps now benefits from the cachet of a serious designer who doesn't embrace simplicity simply because he can't hack the complicated stuff. This mantle of credibility isn't so dissimilar from
Picasso's. Pablo knew how to paint in the classical style. Unlike Jackson Pollock, Picasso's choice for abstraction couldn't be seriously accused as being based on a sorry lack of solid painterly skills. While chip amps could be accused of being very basic in the scheme of engineering challenges -- ditto for repackacking OEM Class-D modules -- Nelson's involvement with the low-power transistor sector is free of any such perceptional implications. Hence it lends gravitas to the whole field as something worthy of attention.

As I said earlier about cotton-sleeved skinny silver wires sourced perhaps from a jeweler's supply house - certain audiophiles believe 'em good enough to do the job. This begs a question. What job, exactly, are they talking about? Every ground swell, every new thing has got to have a reason for being, a central motivation for swimming against the stream. When we're talking micro-power and single-driver speakers, this surely must include timing and immediacy, both - um, direct results of simplicity. Naturally, truly deep bass and the highest of highs remain on the operating table rather than following the patient back home. Ditto perhaps for macrodynamics, i.e. how loudly you can ultimately play things before ragged seams and compression begin to show. But this begs another question. How loudly does the average music lover really play? How humongous is his living room really to require endless headroom reserves and colossal peak current specs?

What about all that trouble with treble that extends to 50kHz when the average male's hearing is probably down 2dB @ 15kHz by the time he's deep enough into
this stuff to obsess? Followers of this new wave -- of low-power Tripath, chip or FirstWatt transistor amps -- embody a return to simplicity not just with their hardware of choice but their listening priorities as well: microdynamics, speed, proper timing. They might have very compelling reasons for their madness as well. Just consider how attempting to sonically duplicate the original event as closely as possible invites endless subliminal comparisons. The closer you get, the more maddening those remaining differences do become. What if you removed that entire anguish and tension by focusing on the gestalt and feel of the thing instead? If it felt real enough to be compelling and emotionally persuasive, wouldn't the listening experience become so much more easeful, the stress of perfect duplication relinquished?

In a nutshell, this is what I believe enlivens our current underground trend. People question the sanity of listening like the review magazines would have you believe you should, chasing for all them fancy qualities - truth of timbre, air, slam, holographic soundstaging, the whole lot of 'em. The more of it you do, the more your system seems to fall short and the more your listening suffers. The rationale of the counter movement would invite you to focus not on the mythical recreation of the original event but instead, the creation of an admittedly artificial -- or simply other and different -- experience that stimulates a satisfying feeling response. This response needn't be compared to anything. It can stand solely on its own merit by asking a very basic question. Is it enjoyable? That's it, end of story. Just as love doesn't require center-fold perfection to blossom, this enjoyment doesn't require
Battery power, non-oversampling: ACK Dac
aural perfection to arise. It's more about energy than form, more about chicken pimples (as a Finnish reviewer translated "goose bumps" when chatting up the Cain & Cain Abbys) than high fidelity. This energy seems best served when circuits remain simple, signal paths short and intermediate buffers of filters, compensation networks, DSP-based diagnostics et al at a minimum.

And get this: a very real fringe benefit of hardware simplicity is relatively low cost and with it, accessibility of the hobby for the many rather than the few. That's a very commendable and exciting perk, wouldn't you say? To report on one example of this new breed of micro-power solid-state rigs, I've just been promised receipt of a complete battery-powered source-to-speaker RedWine Audio/Omega Loudspeaker Systems review rig. Stay tuned for that assignment.

To get proper closure -- for abandoning blazing 300-watt Class A devices with macho heatsinks and colossal multi-way towers attached -- and to return to today's shifting paradigm, it does seem as though the general focus of audio reviewing has run awol. We're chasing ghosts when we could be enjoying the spirit of the thing. As was the case with Jean Hiraga in France, Keith Aschenbrenner in Germany and Harvey Rosenberg in the US -- underground efforts to reintroduce triodes and high-efficiency speakers to European and Yankee audio consciousness -- today's micro transistor experiments once again happen in the shadows of the mainstream. Fortunately, Art Dudley's new home at Stereophile still permits him to plow these fields to secure coverage of such developments in the American print press. The Internet and its many chat rooms and forums meanwhile keep the buzz alive and allow DIYers to exchange information and develop this new branch of audiophilia - low-power solid-state.
Omega Minuet

As those intimately familiar with vintage gear would tell us, some of those old-timers got it right the first time around. A lot of so-called progress has arguably abandoned the essentials for the mystique-ridden exotic. Such sentiments naturally constitute only one of the many ways to Rome. Today's sermon isn't meant to elevate this particular one over any other but to merely give credit to a phenomenon that seems well underway.

FirstWatt too is set for an encore dubbed the F2 which, if rumors are correct, will be a 5wpc F1 with 2nd- rather than 3rd-order THD to mimic valve sound with transistors. Those who would decry that nothing new and of interest transpired in audio land might have to strike the goal of new from their expectations as though we really needed to reinvent the wheel. Some people believe that we merely need to look to the past to discover that we already have all we need. Listening to an older Tannoy dual-concentric could convince you. So could tapping your feet to an Abby/F1 rig, Essence/Shigaraki system or Omega/AudioZone setup. We needn't go complex to uncork the complex aromas of our favorite tunes. Sometimes simple not only does it but does it very well indeed. Now that we've dropped that dime, we can safely return to expensive Acapella horns and Einstein tube electronics post HE2005 and nobody need accuse us of misdirection or obfuscation. Long live variety and choices.