47 Laboratory 4706 Gaincard power amplifier Page 2

The industrial design of the Gaincard/Power Humpty is, shall we say, distinctive. (Some might call it quirky.) The Gaincard itself is only slightly larger than two packs of cards, so it's not likely to impress those who equate size with performance. However, anyone who values craftsmanship will be impressed with the quality of fit'n'finish, which is excellent. The Power Humpty is unusual in shape as well as name: a short cylinder with no feet, just a pair of separate metal supports resembling chopstick rests.

The concept of break-in (or burn-in) applied to audio components is a controversial one. Many high-end audio designers and audiophiles feel that audio components require a substantial period of use before their sonic potential is reached—a period measured in days, weeks, even months. Others feel that if the equipment is working properly and meets its specifications, all you have to do is plug it in and use it—any apparent improvement with time simply represents the listener getting accustomed to the sound, not a change in the sound itself.

As with most controversial issues in audio, I take a middle-of-the-road position. I reject the view that the only change with equipment use lies in the ear of the beholder, but I also think that claims of "mind-blowing" improvements due to break-in are overstated—and I'm skeptical about suggested break-in periods of up to a year. I've had equipment that sounded great out of the box (or, at least, within an hour or so of being out of the box), whose sonics did not change appreciably during a two- or three-month review period. I have also had experience with equipment that sounded pretty rough initially but, after a few days' or a couple of weeks' use, sounded smoother and more listenable.

The Gaincard changed its sound with use more than any other amplifier I've had in my system, and its break-in period was the longest in my experience (footnote 3). My initial impression was of an amplifier that seemed to exemplify many of the virtues of solid-state equipment, but also its vices. The sound was clean, dynamic, and wide-ranging—but also had a hardness or glare in the upper midrange and treble that I knew was not a function of the recordings or the associated equipment. This initial hardness is common with solid-state equipment, and I expected it to decrease fairly quickly with use. Days passed, as I left the system playing whenever I was out of the house, and I kept listening for possible improvements, but they seemed very slow in coming. I changed some of the associated components (see "Setup"), and that helped, but not as much as I'd hoped.

After three weeks, during which the system was on all the time and played for several hours a day, the sound was still on the hard side—again, lots of clarity and detail, but not particularly musical. I was about to give up, thinking that perhaps this was the Gaincard's sound, or at least its sound with my system. Then, after about four weeks (not months!), the sound seemed to lose its hard edge, becoming altogether more relaxed and easy on my ears. Over the next few weeks there was further—but more subtle—improvement.

With the Gaincard finally broken-in, I was able to fully appreciate its strengths. The most immediately notable of these was a sense of transparency: a crystalline clarity that seemed to extend from the lowest bass to the highest treble. The resolution of fine detail was quite extraordinary, familiar recordings revealing layers of information that had previously been only hinted at. Transients sounded exceptionally quick, and there was a strong sense of rhythm where this was part of the recording. The sound had a directness, a feeling that music was being reproduced with a minimum of artifacts getting in the way. Maybe there is something to keeping the signal path as short as possible...

The bass had a very natural quality, extending about as low as I've heard in my system. (The Avantgarde Uno's powered subwoofer gets its signal from the main amplifier, so the bass in this system always involves an interaction between the main and subwoofer amplifiers.) The Gaincard's midrange quality fell somewhat short of the liquidity and harmonic verisimilitude I've heard from tube amplifiers like the Wavelength Gemini, but, arguably, these amplifiers may add something to the signal to restore nuances lost in the recording/reproduction process; the Gaincard may, in fact, have been more accurate in reporting what is on the recordings.

The Gaincard's treble (after break-in) was clean, smooth, and grain-free, but not sweet in the way the treble of the best tube amplifiers is sweet—a description that, again, might be taken to indicate the Gaincard's greater accuracy in this part of the frequency range. If anything, I'd say there was a slight treble emphasis, a bit of extra brightness that showed up mostly on recordings that themselves lean in that direction.

The above description of the Gaincard's sonic character might be taken to mean that this is one of those "brutally honest" components that sound good only with the most pristine audiophile recordings, and that render typical commercial CD releases virtually unlistenable. Not so. While the Gaincard's clarity was most apparent when playing recordings with a corresponding degree of sonic purity, it also did well with the non-audiophile records that form at least 90% of my listening diet.

One recording that I've been playing quite a bit lately is Guy Haines' Haines His Way (Fynsworth Alley FA-2109-SE). As well as being the name of the tennis-player protagonist in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, "Guy Haines" is the performing alias of Bruce Kimmel, producer of all those show-music recordings on the Varèse Sarabande label. Kimmel left Varèse Sarabande to form his own record company, Fynsworth Alley, and Haines His Way is one of the label's first releases. Haines/Kimmel has a pleasant voice and an easy, relaxed way with a song; what's more, he knows exactly what material suits his voice and style (footnote 4). Predictably, much of the material on Haines His Way is from Broadway, but the mix is eclectic, and includes some Randy Newman as well as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

The records that Kimmel produced for Varèse Sarabande have an upfront, spotlit sound, as does Haines His Way. Play it through equipment with an overly bright, forward character, and you have a recipe for listening fatigue. Through the Gaincard, while the sound was certainly not soft, laid-back, or polite, neither was it harsh or aggressive. Vocal sibilants, which I find more revealing of problems in the treble than any other musical signal, were clean and free of spittiness, s sounds retaining their distinctive character rather than veering toward z or sh.

The 47 Laboratory motto of "Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex" strikes me as, well...simplistic. Any apparently simple human behavior, like walking or sitting down, involves a highly complex coordination of muscles and feedback from the sensory systems. A robot that could perform these actions with a finesse matching human behavior would require control systems of tremendous complexity—which is why robots of this sort remain in the realm of science fiction. I'm more inclined to agree with Einstein's view: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler"—the latter part of the statement being an essential qualification.

However, what I can't argue with are the results of 47 Lab's emphasis on simplicity as manifested in the sound of the Model 4706 Gaincard. Idiosyncratic in design and appearance, the Gaincard has clarity, resolution, and a sense of "directness" that are quite beguiling; I can appreciate why it has achieved cult-like status among some audiophiles. Given a sufficiently long break-in period and associated equipment that matches the Gaincard's pristine clarity without being too bright, the results can be outstanding.

Footnote 3: The owner's manual states that a brand-new Gaincard requires several hours of "running with actual music signals to start making them into music," and a break-in period of 50-100 hours to reach its maximum performance. I'm told that the review sample had five to six hours' break-in before I received it.—Robert Deutsch

Footnote 4: Fynsworth Alley recordings are available through the company's website before they're available from retail channels, and the editions sold through the website have bonus tracks—a clever merchandising idea. The website has all sorts of interesting content, including interviews, theater chat, and hour-long radio shows devoted to show music, presented three times a week in RealAudio.—Robert Deutsch

47 Laboratory
US Distributor: Sakura Systems
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Jefferson, MA 01533
(508) 829-3426