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Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
27" iMac with 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 16GB 1.333MHz RAM, 2TB hard disc, 256GB SSD drive, ADM Radeon HD 6970M with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, OSX 10.8.2 Mountain Lion, PureMusic 1.86 in hybrid memory play and hog mode with pre-allocated RAM and AIFF files up to 24/192; Audirvana in direct/integer mode, April Music Eximus DP1, Esoteric/APL Hifi UX1/NWO-M w. Audiophilleo 2
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright LS-100 with Synergy Hifi tubes, Esoteric C-03, Bent Audio Tap-X,
TruLife Audio Athena, Concert Fidelity CF-080LSX [on short-term loan], AURALiC Taurus [on review], April Music Stello Ai700 [on review]
: First Watt SIT1, ModWright KWA-100SE, Bakoon AMP-11R, AURALiC Merak [on review]
Speakers: Aries Cerat Gladius, Boenicke Aud
io B10, Voxativ Ampeggio, AudioSolutions Rhapsody 200 [on review]
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Audio Event,
KingRex uArt USB cable with Bakoon BPS-02 uninterruptible battery supply
Artesania Esoteric double-wide 3-tier with TT glass shelf, Rajasthani hardwood rack for amps
Powerline conditioning: 1 x GigaWatt PF2 on amps, 1 x GigaWatt PC3-SE Evo on front-end components
Sundry accessories: Extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters
Room size: 5m x 11.5m W x D, 2.6m ceiling with exposed wooden cross beams every 60cm, plaster over brick walls, suspended wood floor with Tatami-type throw rugs. The listening space opens into the second storey via a staircase and the kitchen/dining room are behind the main listening chair. The latter is thus positioned in the middle of this open floor plan without the usual nearby back wall.
Review Component Retail: £5.700/€7.000/$9.000 includes global shipping

The proliferation of ICEpower™ amps
must have had you wonder too. What exactly distinguishes them save for enclosure, branding and price?

The more industrious of adopters were quick to separate from the pack with custom input/driver boards, input transformers or at the very least minimal parts swaps to the switching power modules to invoke that promise of modified. But it's certainly true that B&O's turnkey solutions opened doors to pure packaging jobs. You could stick a module in a box, wire up the i/o ports and be in biz without a single engineering contribution of your own. Now John Young of UK outfit Acoustic Imagery fearlessly revisits the theme albeit with a twist. He doesn't repackage ICEpower. He sticks Ncore® in a fancy enclosure. In that he is one of the first but—if early forum chatter is any indication—far from the last. That's because Ncore is the latest and greatest from UcD/Hypex author Bruno Putzeys, the man widely believed to be one of the top class D thinkers for hifi applications [his Ncore evaluator amps for potential OEMs at left].

Bruno's Ncore demonstrator amps for short-term OEM evaluation

The Hypex enterprise under Jan-Peter van Amerongen's leadership continues to be an OEM supplier. It's thus a direct competitor to B&O's ICEpower, albeit one that arguably hasn't gained the same traction in the market. With Ncore things are a bit different. There's the NC400 module dedicated exclusively to DIY. That means not for profit, resale or large-scale production. There's also the more powerful NC1200 module (400w/8Ω, 700w/4Ω and 1200w/2Ω) which is available to select OEMs in buffered (94kΩ input) and non-buffer (5.3kΩ) versions but not to DIY [the link goes to Marja & Henk's industry feature on their visit to Hypex]. Early adopters seemed to be Theta Digital with an announced $12.000 pair of amps apparently withdrawn since; and early adopters are today's $9.000/pr Acoustic Imagery Atsah and Merrill Audio's like-priced Veritas. PS Audio was working on a UcD-400-based stereo amp since Ncore was "too big and expensive to use in our amp". Jeff Rowland also was said to be working on a Hypex possibly Ncore platform. As pricing indicates, the latter is statement turf. That's what's different to ICEpower. NCore is treated more upscale. It's as though class D had just become legit for the high end of the high end. It's what makes the DIY avenue all the more extraordinary.

Finally there's Mola-Mola [this link goes to a brief industry feature on their launch]. That's a brand owned by Jan-Peter. With it Bruno now has his very own retail outlet. The first products under the funkily named big-fish brand are €10.000/pr Ncore monos and a €6.500 preamp with forthcoming DAC and phono boards. And yes, this does have Bruno compete directly against his own Ncore OEMs. How many prospective buyers won't quietly assume that the master hasn't kept a few tricks for himself? If so the glove's on the floor. His more industrious clients should feel inspired to build on/around his 'open-source' Ncore platform and pursue even loftier—or at least different—sonic destinations.

Here's a quote from Xuanqian Wang, co-owner of Hong Kong's AURALiC whose new Merak mono amp is based on a modified UcD module with impressive before/after measurements to prove it, bypassed UcD driver in favor of their own, a Lundahl input transformer and very beefy linear power supply. Asked what he thought about Ncore, he wrote "...we have a pair of NC1200 samples which sound very natural and overtake most <$10.000 class AB amps on the market if properly used. For the next 5 years Ncore is a game changer! The only limit from a popularity perspective is price. I believe Hypex spent a lot of money developing the Ncore module. I fully appreciate their pricing structure. But so far it is very expensive, far beyond what we can achieve with traditional class AB technology. I think that $10,000 is just a starter price for Ncore amps.  
UcD400-based AURALiC Merak

"If one goes beyond the stock power supply and adds fancy casings, the price could easily escalate. Ncore so far is only for flagships. That module should be used with a linear power supply to really maximize its performance. This would demand a >1.200 watt linear supply. Properly done that gets extremely expensive. For the Merak and considering build cost and sell price, we thus opted for UcD over Ncore to allow for a $5,000/pr sticker that's within reach of more people."

The operative 'nc' word was game changer. That also was the core sentiment expressed in a long DIY Ncore thread on AudioCircle where a traveling pair of stock NC400 amps elicited much shoot-out kudos against well-regarded commercial amps. It's where John Young saw a posted question of mine to send the following: "My name is John Young and I own, with my partner Hilary, Acousticimagery Ltd in the UK. You recently published a press release about our new Atsah Ncore mono amplifiers which use the Hypex NC1200 modules. I just noticed that you posted on the AudioCircle Hypex owners forum. You understand that the Ncores being discussed there are the 'DIY Kit' NC400 and their partnering SMPS 600. We are about to launch one of the first commercially available NC1200-based power amplifiers and have recently conducted listening tests with evaluation prototypes in the USA amongst NC400 owners. The initial responses are that the NC1200 is in a different league altogether. That's contrary to what they all expected. They had thought that the larger amps would be just that, larger and more powerful versions of their kit NC400. Our mono amps will be shipping hopefully at the end of August and I wondered if you would be interested to audition them."

If John wasn't simply shoring up his own foundation, this suggested that a clever Bruno Putzeys had given his 2.5-tiered scheme of DIY vs. retail (the latter OEM and Mola-Mola) serious thought to design the NC400 and NC1200 modules such as to give the latter not just an obvious power advantage. Whether that would be worth a x 5 price increase over the maximally $2.000 most DIYers claim it costs to package the NC400/SMPS600 boards in a good-looking casing is the obvious question. By selling direct, John Young's $9.000 sticker shaves off just a bit. Then again educated readers might still think his Atsah a case of a very costly case. But it all depends on perspective. If one considers price purely on the merit of what the same or better performance costs elsewhere, such case jitters could perhaps achieve immeasurable levels. In the end those purely focused on coin can always mint their own NC400 amps.

Bruno Putzeys with circular NC400 board tethered to SMPS600 supply

Here's a quote from Bruno Putzeys to get back on sonics: "It's always a dilemma whether an amp should be tuned for things like subjective bass control, sweet mids or not. One of the tricks a McIntosh does by design is to have a highish output impedance—because of the autoformer—which makes for a more liquid midrange sound and then to add a subjective sense of bass control by allowing a slight THD rise in the top end. When things like those are really tastefully balanced, such an amp can really make life hard on a 'straight wire' amp in a shootout. The signal actually comes out sounding nicer and more impressive than what went in. But on the other hand I think that to make the greatest number of people happy, one can't afford to give an amp a sound of its own because the number of new fans is probably immediately offset by the number of people who don't like that particular tuning. But it's tough to resist the occasional sonic touch-up. I can emulate the sound of pretty much any amp out there if I wanted. But so far I'm resisting. If ever I give in, it'll be obvious from the measurements and I hope someone calls me out on it. Anyhow that's why I decided I actually wanted the NC400 to have this unvarnished dead-pan delivery." His white paper explains the details on the Ncore technology.