|But first, a brief detour, via the Cardas Rhodium spades of the Stefan Audio Art cable feeding my AKG K-1000s. As our review of these earspeakers detailed, they might be the world's best dynamic headphones - but not as delivered. The stock voicing with the supplied speaker-level cable creates an upper-midrange/lower treble glare -- strongest somewhere around 2KHz -- that needs addressing for long-term listening satisfaction. The SAA after-market cable turns pill into pleasure but unforgiving electronics can still reawaken the sleeping dogs, not for outright barking anymore but to whine and make a minor racket all over again. Many K-user prefer tubes for this reason. I've settled on the hybrid Unison Research Unico and absolutely adore the combination fed from the Parts ConneXion-modified Jolida JD-100 tube reference CD player.
Because these German cans, in many ways, are very un-headphone like and do away with the center-in-the-head lock to perhaps be the closest thing yet to perfect earspeakers -- when ancillaries conspire for a happy marriage -- I'm always on the lookout for amps I can recommend, to drive them to such possible perfection without costing a bloody fortune.
Bull's eye! Due to the subtle treble shading I also detected and reported on with the Shigaraki 4717 and the nOrh/IRD Le Amp/MB-100 and thus believe to be a quality inherent in the National chip, the AMP-1 was absolutely stunning on the K-1000s. Its vise grip in the nether regions maximized impact (one area where the open-air architecture of the AKG cans trails enclosed designs such as my Grado RS-1s), the super-robust, harmonically dense focus of the amp performed vocal magic and the top-end suffered zero emphasis to cause 4-hour non-stop listening excesses late into the night.
|This included three entranced go-arounds with the mind-bogglingly inventive super-star meeting between Debashish Bhattacharya & Bob Brozman on Indian and Hawaiian/Blues-style slide guitars [Mahima, Riverboat 1029] and a|
|subsequent final night cap via Soeur Marie Keyrouz' otherworldly escapes into traditional Melchite lithurgical saced song [Chants sacrés de l'Orient, Harmonica Mundi 1951497]. For lovers of spellbinding, raise-the-hackles female vocals that caused the herself well-endowed Azam Ali to call Keyrouz her favorite vocalist and inspiration, this album, more so than Chant Byzantin and Cantiques de l'Orient -- on the same label and by the same artist -- is a must-own. It only requires gentle sympathy with Middle-Eastern modalities.
The same couldn't be said for Hakim's live recording The Lion Roars [Mondo Melodia, 186850 043-2], a high-energy romp through Egyptian shabi that, despite HDCD encoding, remains a bright and steely Pop production and thus liable to expose the K-1000's hidden Achilles heel. Confirming my earlier enthusiasm for the AMP-1 as K-driver, this combo didn't magically de-thorn this desert cactus but tamed its excess treble just enough to remove the most blatant stingers. I now could actually enjoy the complete 2-disc performance in one sitting without suffering wilted ears. If you knew the album, you'd recognize the accomplishment entailed. For those looking to marry the AKG K-1000s to a dedicated integrated that meets the cans' innate requirements head-on to give world-class performance for a still-justifiable tariff, Audio Zone's AMP-1 garners my unequivocal Three Ears Up (how many more "two thumbs up" can you stomach - honestly).
A show'n'tell exercise on the AMP-1's innards proved how shockingly short the signal paths really are (120mm including input and output terminals, with the feedback loop proper a mere 9mm for 300kHz of linear bandwidth), how ridiculously rock-solid build quality and parts quality proved to actually turn out. The latter seemed to proudly quip "since there's so few actual parts required to make this recipe work, let's go full-hog on how we implement 'em".
I don't know about you but the less-is-more ideal of audio signal manipulation -- the proverbial straight wire with gain myth, with the least amount of detours snaking themselves through multiple parts, inductor windings, circuit board junctions -- makes perfect sense to this would-be philosopher. Of course fancy ideals amount to naught if they don't translate in the real world of sensory perceptions and verifiable experience. Which they blatantly do though in this instance. For once.
A popular explanation for the purity of most single-ended triode amps is the latter's circuit simplicity. There's less stuff to muck up the signal. Is that the main reason for their particular sonics? Who knows. What I can tell you is that ultra wide bandwidth audibly translated as speed, clarity and resolution, the combined package of which could justifiably be termed immediacy or directness.
These qualities the AMP-1 delivered in spades (and bananas) also on the nOrh SM6.9s whose sensitivity rating somewhere around 88dB is probably the lower reasonable limit for this Audio Zone piece and should best hover 1-2dB higher. The nOrhs' innately slightly warm mien, of their implemen-tation of the Vifa Ring Radiator coupled to a largish midrange, would ideally have benefitted from a more overtly lit-up top-end like Bel Canto's eVo amps or my AUDIOPAX monos deliver. But this was my only minor complaint. The primary rationale for this exercise? To determine whether AMP-1 had enough raw muscle to drive and properly control speakers in this class, in a room whose open air space approaches 1,000 square feet with high ceilings.
One cruise through the exciting new Afro Pop/HipHop/R&B/Club release of Les Nubians [One Step Forward, OmTown 82569] settled any concerns over being underpowered. Not. The turbine-shaped synthetic marble speakers with their 1.25" port walls are capable of very potent, tightly delivered bass but, in general, do prefer high-octane fuel to pull off this headscratching stunt. As li'l Shiggy had already established, the AMP-1/SM6.9 combo proved silly good as well - for all of $2,800 without source component or cables. 'twas one of those "where did you hide the sub?" affairs - tight, percolating, danceable kewl stuff. It also allowed me to verify that the Noble pots indeed continue to get louder in precisely calibrated steps until they hit their stops 31 clicks later. At 3:30, I reached comfortable party levels. I dared stay at max 5:30 boogie level for a mere second of experimentation, fearing to watch the feisty 6-inch woofers jump out of their fluttering skins.
Conclusion? Plenty of gain to do some serious damage in a large space. More importantly -- and not readily explained -- the sheer control of bass transients. It's a marvellous thing to behold and should silence any suggestions that something this physically minute couldn't crack a merciless whip. Those familiar with my 47Lab Shigaraki 4717 will remember that I was close to pulling out the royal blue ink seal of our Blue Moon awards. I ultimately didn't because the Japanese piece had funky aesthetics and sub-par binding posts which didn't accompany the fabulous sonics onto the same high plateau. For $45 more, Audio Zone's AMP-1 annihilates any and all complaints about funkiness and follows up with sonics that, relying on memory now, are at least the 47Lab's equal and, without doubt, project a more three-dimensional soundstage in the depth perspective. The Canadian also throws nearly double the power into the deal. And yes, you only get one set of inputs. And yes, there's still no remote. And yes, the volume controls are dual-mono. This will undoubtedly count out numerous players.
For those who need more power, more inputs and remote, Audio Zone is presently working on 80-100w mono versions and a chip-based preamp of equally diminutive dimensions. But for those whose needs and budget already accommodate what the AMP-1 offers, the time for unreasonable happiness is now. Also, if you own Avantgarde hornspeakers and a single source, this too becomes a no-holds-barred zero-compromise solution. Acquisition of these exchange-rate-challenged spherical wonders turns considerably less painful if your preamp/amp requirements can now be settled with all of $1,795 US. Sounds questionable? On paper perhaps. Not in your listening room. Believe it, Srajman sez!
Matthias Ruff's personal answer to such ruminations? The just-released Avantgarde Acoustic Model 5 integrated for which I've already put in review dibs. It does offer remote and 5 inputs - for $3,970, more than double than today's contender but still a joke when mated to 12-40K speakers. Interestingly enough, when I interviewed Matthias last year in NYC, he mentioned the 47Lab GainCard as an inspiration for his first electronics project. It goes about things differently and sans IC for an output device but achieves 220kHz of bandwidth regardless, by limiting his p/p architecture to 2 gain stages and ultra-short local feedback loops. There clearly is something to this keep-it-brief circuit business if you're into dynamics and microscopic resolution like us hornguys.
Looking back at our first 6 months of 2003 with its 40 hardware reviews total, the Audio Zone AMP-1 strikes me as the most exciting discovery yet - and there were quite a few bona fide hotties already. The AMP-1 is the one I'm most keen on turning fellow music lovers on to. It's got the mindblowing sonic merits and complete package perfection I'm now intent on getting across. Hopefully today's review accomplished that. In case things aren't clear yet, here goes the matching award. To be clear, it is not for originality and thus shared with Junji Kimura of 47Lab as its true spiritual progenitor, and with his Shigaraki 4717 in particular for sonics. AMP-1 eliminates the latter's multiple input choices but advances cosmetics and fit'n'finish, especially for US audiences accustomed to tank-like construction.
PS from the publisher: Within days of publication of the above review, one reader e-mailed in aghast that we would possess the temerity and bad taste to review, award and endorse a product that so clearly rode on the shirt tails of another. As the review proper states in the intro and once again at the very end, I was fully cognizant of the conceptual debt owed to Mr. Kimura-San of 47Lab. Having been in manufacturing myself for years, I more than once was involved in seeing competitors copy design elements, complete aesthetic package cues, ad campaign focus and other elements from the firms I was working for at the time. Although we certainly didn't like it, there was no recourse in this capitalist competition arena.
Nothing about the GainCard concept has been patented. In fact, the commercial Japanese Final Lab Music-6 amplifier is based on the same IC concept albeit mated to battery power. Final also launched the Daruma isolation bearings based on the Symposium RollerBlock idea. This consequently caused the latter to introduce their own Daruma-like Junior versions. This by way of confirming that we indeed looked into the issue of intellectual property theft prior to accepting this review assignment. It is true that even the Audio Zone AMP-1's aesthetics are very similar to the original GainCard's. For some, this degree of cloning in the for-profit sector will seem "too close to home".
As consumers by proxy, audio writers are charged to be interested in products that offer similar or equivalent performance, for less than others that enjoy rightful popularity and renown. With the GainCard concept in particular, many DIYers have found extremely cost-efficient ways to, if perhaps not 100% duplicate, then approach to an appealing extent the performance of the original which, by implication, could be considered rather expensive for what it is. In our view, it was just a matter of time until this observation would find translation into the commercial sector. As stated in the review, in-depth PDF files are public-domain accessible from the National website, to obtain the necessary data on how to build an IC-based audio amplifier.
In the final analysis and absence of patents or trademarks, capitalist competition protects nobody. Even with patents, enforcement across international borders is questionable at best. Does that mean 6moons should support those that may have the written law on their side but could be accused of ethical misconduct? And how to determine when building a better mouse traps turns distasteful carbon-copy cloning? These are very valid and difficult questions. Let it be stated for the record that we are considering the ramifications very seriously and may, in the end, feel that perhaps we've made a mistake here. As always, reader feedback is encouraged and welcome. For the first opinion, click here.
Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura System replies: Dear Srajan, Junji Kimura has been fully aware from the beginning that there's nothing to patent about Gaincard. It is just his interpretation and implementation of an op-amp chip as a high performance audio amplifier. He is very happy to see many DIYers trying to create their own Gainclones, and was also very proud when Avangarde produced their own amplifier based on his idea. When I showed him your review of Audio Zone AMP-1, his response was a somewhat cynical laughter and "Gee, hah!" and that's that.
But he did comment about those audiophile-approved parts used in AMP-1. He did try many audiophile-approved/non- approved parts including those used in AMP-1. His choice mostly went to non-approved parts. "I'm against the the use of audiophile-approved parts just because they are audiophile-approved. Most of them sound hifi-ish and not to my taste" are his words. He also suggests that taking off the cover of the capacitors makes an improvement in sound and wanted me to deliver the message to the people of Audio Zone! It was my turn to say "Gee!"
As the US distributor of 47 Lab gears, of course I'm not happy to see a copy product with such similar cosmetics and a cheaper price. 47 products are all handmade in Japan, including the machined-out aluminum casings of our Reference Series. The fact that it is all made in Japan significantly adds to the initial cost. Junji once tried to make them in China to lower the cost, but the result was far below his expectations and he had to abandon the idea.
What bothers me most is not the fact that Audio Zone is manufacturing and marketing a copy product, but that you, a reviewer, gave it a complete rave review along with an award. This appears to me as public encouragement to such conduct. I'm not saying it's wrong. A manufacturer is entitled to copy and market any unpatented product, and you are entittled to whatever opinion you have and the way it is delivered. I'm saying I just do not like the way it was handled. I've never known about the existance of AMP-1 until one of my friends notified me about your review. So it all came to me with a sense of ambush. There's nothing wrong legally in any aspect of the way it's done. I just wish the manufacturer had some decency to at least make it a little more different, and that you had handled it with a little more sensitivity rather than openly rave about it and give an award to it. Well, maybe I'm wishing too much.
Yoshi Segoshi/SAKURA SYSTEMS
47 Lab US distributor
Srajan Ebaen replies to Yoshi: Dear Yoshi, the award had to be given because the AMP-1 offers performance equivalent to your Shigaraki 4717 model, for the same price, while removing the complaints with regard to construction quality and binding posts I noted in my earlier review of your amp. In that review and this, I clearly stated that performance-wise, Shigaraki deserved an award. Now a similar product comes along that offers, for the same price, equivalent sound; more power; features far nicer build quality; far nicer terminals; 31-indent attenuators rather than the 12-step versions used on your Reference Series GainCard... I don't see how, in good conscience, I could not have bestowed an award. Clearly, the sword cuts both ways. If a loved 4717 and AMP-1 equally on sonic grounds while the latter removed certain perceived functional and cosmetic shortcomings and seemed to improve soundstaging in the depth perspective... Once I had ascertained, pre-review, that AMP-1 wasn't in violation of patent infringements but purely the result of capitalist competitiveness; once I had accepted receipt of the review loaner, I had to proceed with the process as usual. And the results spoke for themselves as described. [The picture of the GainCard, originally embedded in the introduction for further credit, was removed on 7/11/03 on Yoshi's request.]