Today's Canadian-made Audio Zone AMP-1 is exclusive to vintage audio retailer Audio Oasis of Toronto. It sells for $1,795 US and constitutes what insider/underground parlance refers to as a GainClone. What's that, pray tell - a USDA-approved, genetically altered Krell without pits? No - but you weren't completely off, just on the wrong scent. Abandon the potent smell of American über-amp territory and send your blood hound east instead - to the land of the rising sun, the 47th laboratory of Kimura-San in particular. If your audiophile retriever were a properly trained canine who didn't maim his catch, he should return with a fully functioning 25-watt, $3,300 miniature amplifier called the Gain Card. If he could figure out how, his jaws would also embrace the accompanying round outboard supply; if properly brainwashed with the manly power maxim, he'd pick the 50-watt power supply instead and proudly wag his tail to have added $1,000 to your bill.

Based on an opamp chip for its output device (like Jeff Rowland's Concentra or the original nOrh Le Amp/IRD MB-100 monos), the 47Lab Gain Card with the true dual-mono, 32mm short signal paths quickly became the stuff of legend; also, the object of that sincerest form of flattery, DIY copycatting and modifying efforts. The rationale for this particular fascination? Both the renowned sonics of the Gain Card and the minimalist-to-the-extreme parts count that would be inexpensive to obtain and relatively easy to assemble. A burgeoning underground GainClone scene openly lists the schematic, parts list and vendor contacts.

The associated dialogue also confesses how, precisely because of that bare-boned topology, decisions of hair-splitting precision -- about parts substitutions, circuit layout, chassis details, resonance control -- become most vital to the final performance. In the original circuit, there's only nine parts to go around, eight of them resistors and capacitors. [Schematic property of Mark Hennessy - click to visit his website.]

Each assumes compound importance. Opportunities for counter-balancing -- one against the other, in endless subsequent voicing sessions -- are forebodingly scarce. While the success of Kimura-San's original implementation of the National chip has inspired much notoriety and underground genetic mutations, to my knowledge and until now, the GainClone concept hasn't yet seen open commercialization. Today's review subject is about to change that. Based blatantly on the original's architecture -- of twin miniature boxes held together by face plate and rear panel, each outfitted with its own attenuator and fed from an off-board power supply -- the Audio Zone AMP-1, for music lovers not entrenched in solder-slinging experimentations on their own kitchen tables, offers what its designer Peter Daniel feels to be superior aesthetics, comparable or better performance and, by virtue of Canadian manufacture, a significantly lower price (until a dealer network is in place, orders are handled direct through Audio Oasis).

In deference to Kimura-San's groundbreaking homework, our intro gives credit where credit's due. In deference to music lovers on a budget, I've accepted the Zone Audio assignment even though I must confess to a modicum of unease: For writing up not simply a competitor -- that's what capitalism is all about -- but one that so clearly follows its peculiar footsteps in the commercial rather than one-up private domain. In the end, curiosity -- and the fact that basic schematics are readily accessible on National's website (the maker of one of the most popular opamp chips for this application) -- prevailed. May the Shinto deities forgive me for losing pale Anglo face with 47Lab.

Adds Audio Zone: "We have the greatest respect for Mr. Kimura, to have had the foresight several years ago to pursue this technology, thereby departing from the mainstream of HighEnd audio to take it to a new frontier, to explore new technology and work with new and fresh ideas to reproduce music. He is, after all, a true pioneer who stepped out of the box to open Pandora's casket for the rest of us to follow." So here we are with the AMP-1, a 45-watt, dual-mono, single-input integrated. If its higher-powered performance were on par with the 47Lab Shigaraki -- itself a down-scaled Gain Card and enthusiastically reviewed in our very pages -- one glance at cosmetics and cost predicted an instant unfair advantage. Simply put, the Amp-1 is one gorgeous little sucker, Zen jewelry for those secure enough that performance is more important than size but still insistent that superior sonics should be matched to visual pride and uncompromised build quality.

The AMP-1 amplifier sports precisely matched, 31-step volume controls for each channel, an anodized aluminum chassis of 2" height, precisely half-component width of 8.5", 6.5" depth, Cardas i/o terminals, and a separate black powder-coated power supply of 3" x 4" x 7" HxWxD that connects via two 4-pin umbilicals to honor the discrete-channel concept. A triplet of gold-plated brass feet, volume control knobs and central oval decal add two-tone visual accents while Black Gate capacitors, Riken and Caddock resistors, Noble pots, Cardas hookup wire and Plitron transformers make up the less-is-more innards.

Specs include 45 watts into 8 ohms, with instantaneous peak power of 100 watts, 30dB of gain, S/N ratio of >95dB and input impedance of 10Kohm. Internal safety features offer protection against shorts and over-voltage from inductive-load transients while a 10-year manufacturer's warranty adds further peace of mind. As has become common MO around here, the review unit had been requested with a full factory burn-in for a ready-steady-here-she-goes system insertion of instant seriousness. The question quickly became not whether this was a serious performer but just how bloody serious.