After receipt and audible verification that everything worked properly, I fired off my usual skies-clear note to sales & marketing manager George, to confirm zero shipping damage and happy commencement of the review process. I also made three suggestions. Considering the high cosmetic slam factor as delivered, I'd dot the 'i' and guild the lily by engraving rather than silkscreening the brand name on the oval brass decal, for an even classier touch. For those customers wanting to place the power supply on the floor out of sight behind their rack, umbilicals longer than the current 18 inches total would be the ticket. Lastly, due to the dual-mono attenuator array and the concomitant need for precise duplication of left/right settings, some form of visual feedback beyond the present marker on the knobs proper would be nice - perhaps an engraved/etched circular clock-face dial without numbers but different-length alternating line indicators?

Via return e-mail, George confirmed that, indeed, he was already working on a faceplate revision that would incorporate some marking scheme to make left/right setting precision easier than counting clicks or trusting the barrel markers against the presently blank fascia. Longer pig tails for the umbilical pose no problem but be warned that the expense of top-line Cardas wiring employed inside might raise the price. Prospective owners with particular length requirements for special siting of the power supply should contact Audio Oasis for a custom quote.

With my amateur audio designer impulses duly satisfied, it quickly became apparent that the AMP-1 would rate as my most exciting discovery of 2003's first 6 months. The vital sound reminded me of both the Shigaraki Model 4717 and the Unison Research Unico. Like li'l Shiggy and the Unico, the Audio Zone integrated dished out balls-to-the-wall image density, by the truckload. It improved over the 4717 with greater soundstage depth and more top-end reach though my -- far more expensive -- Model 88 AUDIOPAX monos add still further air and whipped-cream fluffiness.

Like his Japanese and Italian playmates, the Canadian also excelled in the dynamic jump factor department, eclipsing the Unico and possibly even the Shigaraki. The former was ascertained since the Unison piece lives in residence as my AKG K-1000 engine. The latter suffered hypothesizing since Shiggy had long since been returned to Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems. Still, I didn't remember it unsheathing certain transients like the AMP-1.

I love first-rate Thai cuisine for its audacious mix of fruity and spicy flavors. A superior chef will manage to combine his ingredients such that they not only blend but each retains its unique character - lemon grass, sugar, coconut, a hint of pepper, bamboo shoots, mushroom, roasted sesame oil. You get sweetness and bite, the tension between sour and salty, the crunchy crispness of vegetables steamed just right, the slightly smoky whiff of the oil, all separated yet complimentary, without homogenization into thick mush.

Certain amplifiers -- often burdened down by complexity -- don't liberate a violently cracking rim shot to hit that nerve plexus which instantly communicates 'real' and causes that momentary suspension in the upstairs machinery. Call it the shock of ice-cold well water. It bypasses all theoretical musings and deposits you smack in the present moment. It first leaves you breathless for a second or two, then strangely invigorated. Other amps practice this transient shock therapy with con arco strings where it doesn't belong. Things become hyped and edgy, sonically a greater offense than sweetness - hence the inherent appeal of much tube gear. However, life music has plenty of edge and sharpness. Blunt that and you rob it of all vitality and charge. Clearly, one of the hardest things for an amplifier is to sort out the simultaneity of different flavors of transients.

Take the clicking castanets, the crossed wooden drum sticks, the overtone-poor accordion, the harmonically more complex guitar and the breathy yet charged vocal of Lhasa's Llorona, the mythical Aztec siren [Atlantic 83120-2, 1998]. The AMP-1 conferred steely edge where appropriate but didn't pin it elsewhere like a one-size-fits-all formula. While thus clearly endowed with the requisite speed to deliver metallic zingers, it didn't sound like a hyped speed-freak amp that goes nowhere fast, always. While arguably compelling -- and equally fraught with kindergarten 101 superficiality -- there does seem to be a correlation between circuit simplicity/shortness of signal paths and immediacy. In many important ways, the 47Lab solid-state concept of "only the simplest can accommodate the most complex" has parallels to the single-ended triode ticket. That's certainly what listening indicated. Here it was the same kind of fog-free, tactile, razor's edge liveliness that communicated with intensity, like certain actors in Al Pacino's Richard III. This unique hybrid film combines final performance vignettes with unplugged interludes of actors rehearsing, researching, arguing meaning, emphasis, interviewing scholars and passerby on the street. The underlying thread? The question whether American actors can do Shakespeare. How to make ol' William meaningful and accessible to today's audiences who don't mouth Elizabethan iambic pentameters.

Estelle Parsons as Queen Margret gets it, Wynona Ryder as Lady Ann doesn't. Kevin Conway as Hastings does, Al Pacino as Richard doesn't. Penelope Allen as Queen Elizabeth overshadows one and all, Kevin Spacey as Buckingham and Alec Baldwin as Clarence remain in the shadows. All speak the right words, all are great actors - but only a few manage to incarnate the archaic language, to own and communicate the meaning behind the densely compacted words, to thrill, rivet and fixate attention on their performances which no longer feel put-on but project life-and-death veracity and import.

The AMP-1's supremely corporeal images, the dynamic motility and muscular precision, the SET-like immediacy all combined to portray the music's Shakespearean drama and pathos with verve and vigor, vim and vinegar. In cineast terms, not Al Pacino's Looking for Richard -- looking and finding aren't always bedfellows -- but Mel Gibson's Hamlet. As already noted in the 4717 and earlier nOrh/IRD Le Amp/MB-100 reviews, this National IC implemented properly gives great bass - warm yet controlled, precise while not unnaturally dry. In this quality, the AMP-1 mimicked my tubed monos while low-end grip and pitch accuracy were superior to the morphed KT88 output tubes. The AUDIOPAX -- not Aryan -- supremacy rested in treble airiness. The Audio Zone unit isn't as becomingly lit up. Though not dark by any stretch of the imagination, it clearly is a tad warm and wet. Like Shigaraki, this makes for an awfully attractive tonality, tube-like in harmonic content, solid-state like in speed, with top-tier soundstaging where it clearly goes beyond the Japanese implementation (though it's important to note that I haven't yet heard the more expensive GainCard in-house).

A functionally very well thought-out detail? The Noble attenuators' initially shallow taper and precisely mapped stepping. Not only was I never shy of proper adjustment options for the desired volume -- a common complaint with stepped attenuators -- I could open the pots to 11 o'clock on my 103dB Avantgarde horns to obtain regular output levels. Looking at the AMP-1's very high gain of 30dB, this suggested that the majority of gain comes on very gradually and late. This makes the controls active and potent well past high noon to broaden useful real-world range.

Rather than shouting at the top of its lungs with a mere few clicks, this sanely configured gain structure allows even high-sensitivity speaker mavens -- or those with unusually potent source components -- to enjoy expected adjustment flexibility. If memory serves, chatroom commentary on the original GainCard had reported less brilliant adaptability with its far coarser 12-step gradations. Hats off then to the Audio Zone design team for going the extra mile! Getting the output, from CD to CD and even track to track, matched perfectly to realism is vital. Human hearing is far more sensitive and sensible in this regard than often admitted. With respect to noise, at standard output settings I'd actually listen to, the AMP-1 was dead quiet, causing no surf hiss even with my head stuck deeply into the DUOs' midrange horns. At full gain and predictably, my speakers' efficiency amplified the circuit's noise floor to produce audible noise which receded to minor at 3 o'clock and completely inaudible at 12-1. Subsequent testing would use the nOrh SM6.9s to ascertain drive with speakers in the 87dB range and sans active bass sections.