PC. For once that's not political correctness or personal computer. We call it positioning and competition. For positioning, the Job 225 seems perfect stand-in. Its circuitry is near identical to Goldmund amps where the Job is built. 'Near' means two to three generations behind the most current Goldmund iterations. This older PCB goes into far simpler lighter casework, then sells direct for about a quarter of what the luxury dealer-sold Goldmund kit gets. nCore also splits into two product families: 1200 and everything else. The former are the Goldmund league. They include the €9'995/pr Acoustic Imagery Atsah 1200XS monos; the €12'000/pr Merrill Audio Veritas and Theta Digital Prometheus monos; the €16'500 Mola Mola Kaluga monos; and the $55'000 complete Bel Canto Black stack. Common to all are extravagant chassis often sculpted from solid billet; or otherwise posh like the stylish Kaluga or Prometheus, the latter the only one to use a linear power supply. It requires a 1.44KVA toroid per channel to result in 24.6kg, not 7kg like a Kaluga. How close or not the Job 225 sound comes to Goldmund is surprisingly irrelevant. Their audiences don't mix. The Swiss get to serve budget hunters who happily buy direct; and a luxury crowd that shops upscale Goldmund boutiques in Seoul. There's no conflict. It's the proverbial win/win. Goldmund's gold-plated allure overlays the Job range yet the latter sends no iron-ic rust the other way. Something similar seems true for nCore. The high-priced examples create a high-end reputation. The underlying message is that this class D is fit for prez! Legitimacy. And the lower tier just basks in its glow. A reverse shadow seems non-existent again. Like the Job range, the NAD and Bel Canto in particular have already garnered rosy reviewer accolades. Which segues into the competition.

For direct Nord nCore 500 challengers, Bel Canto have their e.One REF600 monos. Sold through an established dealer/distributor network which supports try-before-buy audits, they demand an expected $5'000/pr. Acoustic Imagery's equivalent Atsah 500 monos list on TweakGeek's US website for $1'995/pr. Seemingly a direct price, it should be based on a special arrangement whereby the Brits gain an exclusive sales/repair node across the pond. Merrill Audio's bolt-infested Taranis stereo amp gets $2'500 direct, NAD's M22 $2'995 through their dealer network. With all, one expects different input buffers. How close or not sonics diverge is for those to know who set up the necessary A/B. Unless I missed a memo—always possible—Colin's version up this lot by offering OPA rolling. Why should the tube crowd have all the fun? Plug'n'play now also applies to class D. Colinizing this turf further are the case, trigger and output wiring options. Choice is king, the customer boss. Being a hot-swappable deal against the Hypex buffer, Nord's can even be retrofitted should one start with a stock version. Feeling uppity yet?

To not get carried away, class D's HF noise does benefit from excess shielding where different enclosures might actually sound different. Likewise for related resonance control. Perhaps for similar reasons, even power cords can be surprisingly shifty with this breed. Still, promoting far costlier nCore amps based on shared design DNA—which on paper at least seem distinguished mostly on looks and minor mods to the core tech—might get harder quickly. Even with headline bands, it's well-known. They get very grouchy when their opening acts go off script and stay on stage longer than contractually stipulated. What if these second-tier enCores just keep on singing longer and louder?

Say hello to the Sonic Imagery discrete opamp.

The Sparkos Labs is rather smaller. Nord's descriptions of their sonics are hand-on-Bible true. The Sonic Imagery is crystalline, lit up, lean, aspirated and sparkly. In the early context of an Aqua Hifi discrete R2R Formula DAC --> Wyred4Sound STP-SE II preamp --> Albedo Audio Aptica Accuton-driver speakers with silver cabling, I just found it a bit too cool, crisp and borderline glassy; transparency galore but also a tad arctic. The smaller Sparkos added fuller textures, softer attacks and weightier bass. At first this hit all the right notes. So the Sparkos stayed, Sonic Imagery's eight-legged critter crabwalked it to the sidelines for later. My personal preference is irrelevant of course. That one may so easily steer this rudder into a course correction with a 3-minute operation—as long as it takes to remove six cover screws, gently pull out one OPA by its underside, seat the other and redo the cover—is very relevant. It's quite the chocolate/vanilla gestalt shifter. It's not a tweezer hair pull or split. It's USP in action; a unique selling proposition. Just be sure to follow the instructions for proper pin orientation. Else you could plug'n'poof.

Here we see the SI mounted as delivered, with the two discrete regulators facing it from the right side.

Here is a view at the Sparkos.

The rear accommodates sturdy EU-approved binding posts whose spade slots face down. You best have flexible cables. Or else, hang these off a shelf edge if they don't want to bend tight enough. Banana users needn't sweat a thing. Then there's an XLR input, an AC mains switch with power inlet and a bright/dim/off toggle for the frontal standby/on button's blue light ring.