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You've got a matured audio circuit ready to go commercial
. The enclosure design is in the can too. What ought to be the next steps? A recent email exchange suggested a potentially new approach. This is how I found out about it: "Hello Srajan, I got your name from Tyll Hertsens who has been listening to a headphone amplifier I have been working on and am launching on Kickstarter. He suggested you might be interested in listening to it as well. I would be delighted if this were true. The amplifier is a Zen-style class A amp sporting a new Silicon Carbide JFET from SemiSouth. The goal has been to make an amplifier that sounds terrific in terms of clarity and offer it constructed with both cost and quality in mind for a competitive price. Of course we are trying the Kickstarter route to raise capital for launching an updated version at a more realistic market price later and are simply capitalizing on economies of scale and getting the name out. Here is a link to the Kickstarter page. It will likely launch on or about this coming Wednesday (29th). Presently Tyll and Steve Guttenberg have the only two amplifiers available. If you're interested I will figure out how to get one over to you. Looking forward to hearing from you." - Colin Shaw

Having recently reviewed the Warpspeed Octocoupler passive preamp, I wasn't averse to tapping into the broader grey zone of DIY-gone-pro—everyone has to start somewhere—but in this instance did spot what appeared to be obvious issues preventing a review assignment at this stage.

"Hello Colin,
thanks for the note. I wasn't aware of the Kickstarter platform but I think I understand the concept. I also appreciate how/that a review can generate interest to help launch a project. However until now the role of the audio press has been to report on already existing products, i.e. stuff that's in formal production ready to ship and sell for a given price. For new makers it's admittedly a chicken/egg thing but that's how it's been. What you seem to be asking is to use the press before the product is really in production. A review (or multiple parallel ones) then becomes instrumental in getting a project from pre-production to formal production status. Because I assume when you say "listening to it", you're really asking for a review. After all, I don't do product consulting or give feedback on pre-production gear. This I would need to give some thought. In some ways it's putting the cart before the horse. That brings with it a number of issues. If you have any additional information to throw into the pot, let's have it -:)"

"Hello Srajan,
It definitely seems to be a somewhat foggy area where the product is currently positioned. You are definitely right, it is not in actual production at the moment. We are excited about giving the Kickstarter idea a try for raising capital for pushing it further. I suppose the benefit is that the product—if the Kickstarter idea is successful—actually reaches people and gets out there for an attractive price. That said, reaching out has more to do with alerting you that it may be something to watch more than a request for a traditional review. The cart/horse issue seems to be true for everyone and I completely understand if we need to wait to see what happens with the Kickstarter strategy or if we need to raise capital and launch by different means on our end. I suppose the thing to do is to let you cogitate on it." - Colin

"Colin, another question I had for you was the 'Zen-style' bit (which in this context suggests Nelson Pass) and the SiC part. Does this mean a Pass-based circuit? If so, is it openly credited as such and has it been approved by Nelson for commercial use?"

"That is a good question. It is an area where I am not quite sure on the socially correct position. Nelson Pass certainly has pretty much brought the simple constant current-driven topology to near legendary status. This I perceive to be from an interest in optimizing a simple topology and showcasing specific gain transistors. The flip side of course is that it is an ancient topology as old as the long-tailed pair and the common source configuration which were pretty much forgotten as power output became a driving interest. For obvious reasons there is no trampling on my part on that very clever idea Mr. Pass had with the Aleph in such circuits. I would like to think that I am somewhat clever as well. I have a patent app submitted with respect to this topology, though it's not relevant to this headphone amplifier. 

"Much of my push here occurred very quickly after years of making little amps in little oak boxes for my own amusement; and as education to understand what my wire fiddling did to the sound and more importantly, how I could work backwards from that. In any case, I certainly don't want to do something that would upset Mr. Pass. While I am aware of some of his thinking and have learnt from his gracious contributions to the community, I would like to think that I have a contribution to make as well.

"Of course I am quite a bit junior in experience but have to start somewhere. I certainly would appreciate your thoughts on it since Mr. Pass is essentially a legend with regard to this topology. As to the SiC parts, I had been curious about them and am fortunate enough to have been in the Physics department at school with someone who now works at SemiSouth. When I first noticed the new part that is very nicely sized with what I perceived to have potentially compelling specs for an amplifier, I reached out to see if I could get a sample." - Colin

"Colin, my question simply arose from your use of the word 'Zen' which is from the Nelson Pass catalogue of DIY amp topologies. Using that word creates the tie-in and that tie-in creates a number of questions of the sort I posed already. Using the 'Zen' term could also be seen as attempt at coat-tailing. My suggestion would be not to use it altogether and make hay on your own farm. Then there should be no issue."

"That makes a lot of sense. I chose to use the word because it might help people identify with the notional design idea. In any case, I think you were right about notifying Mr. Pass since he is so well known for what he has done in this area so I sent him a note about it." - Colin

Whilst Colin's project was too premature to formally review when he first contacted me, two weeks before his pledge drive was to expire he already had secured an extra $1.000 over his target amount to make the project a go. Five hours before the pledge drive closed 104 backers had committed to a total of $26.941 or $9.000 above the requirement.

On October 1st I received this email. "Congratulations! Thanks to you and 104 other backers, Sicphones: A high-end Silicon Carbide headphone amplifier has been successfully funded. Amazon will now charge your credit card. Pledge summary: amount pledged $389. Reward: priority build of the Sicphones amplifier completely assembled and both a t-shirt and sticker. Case color is black and white as depicted in the photographs and video. Delivery time based on lead time for transistors. We will build the priority build amplifiers first. Domestic shipping included. A headphone amplifier like the Sicphones amplifier would normally cost much more. Get yours today! Estimated delivery December 2012. When your reward is ready, Colin Shaw will send you a survey via email to request any info needed to deliver your reward (mailing address, T-shirt size etc)."

I'd committed to a priority build and was thrilled to learn that the project was a go. In due time I'd receive a headphone amplifier for all of $389 delivered which promised to be more than casually related to my reference FirstWatt SIT2 and J2 speaker amplifiers. Naturally final retail pricing—if Colin decided to formally go commercial beyond fulfilling his Kickstarter commitments—would have to be a lot higher. There was simply no way to extend these early-bird specials in the context of a profitable business. But as far as securing a review sample, I was all set. Stay tuned for a report in 2013.

Being a patron to the audio arts like my friend Dan whose various Trafomatic custom commissions I've showcased in these pages tends to be beyond the means of most. The Sicphones project was a lovely opportunity for us less aspirated folks to literally kickstart a product—and possibly even a small company—and thereby fulfill the same function of audio patron on a far more modest scale. There's power in numbers. The Kickstarter venue I'd not heard of before generated those numbers to prove its efficacy with - well, flying colors to wrap up and tap into Colin's mockup of possible color combinations for his little amp. Well done!

Sicphones Kickstarter page