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47 Labs Gaincard Amplifier

05-08-2017 | By Editors at Positive Feedback | Issue 80

This article, by Steve Lefkowicz, Larry Cox, Francisco Duran originally ran when audioMUSINGS was in print - Issue 15, 2001.

47 Labs Gaincard Amplifier

I have a real problem with the pricing structure in "high end" audio. Though I tend to focus on affordable equipment, I have used, lived with, and evaluated many very expensive products over the years. I just rarely find any that seem worth the money. It seems to me that high-priced equipment costs as much as it does for one of three reasons:

  1. The manufacturer has put lots of time and effort into the design, and uses only the most expensive parts and custom tooling. This sounds like a good reason to charge a high price, but often the design seems intended more to cost a lot than to sound good. These products tend to be recognizable by large size, heavy weight, thick faceplates, and/or fancy finish.
  2. The designer finishes a product, listens to it relative to what's already in the market, then prices it at the competitive level he or she feels it attains, totally independent of the actual costs involved.
  3. As Art Dudley has pointed out, the designer or manufacturer simply wants a new Ferrari.

Keep this in mind as you read my comments, as I admit that as the price of a product goes up, my tolerance, and willingness to forgive even minor flaws, goes down rapidly.

The 47 Labs Gaincard amplifier is intended to be as minimal as possible, having the fewest possible parts and the simplest possible signal path. I think these are admirable intentions, and wonder why no one else in the solid-state world is doing this. (The SET tube crowd has been doing this for quite a while.) Could it be that it is hard to justify a substantially high price with a simple solid state amplifier? Every time I look at this amp, I have a hard time reconciling what I see with its price.

47 Labs Gaincard Amplifier

But what do I think about sound of the 47 Labs Gaincard amp (with its two Power Humpty power supplies)? Let me discuss it without regard to price. Given a day or two to warm up (which makes a big difference with this amp) the Gaincard is as neutral, dynamic, and authoritative as any amp I've heard. It would seem absurd to connect a $5000 amp to an inexpensive set of speakers like the 300tis, but it was a great combination. The 300tis are, in spite of their price, a fairly difficult to speaker to drive. Many lower-priced amplifiers I've tried have not been able to get a grip on their bass or dynamic capabilities. The Gaincard was head and shoulders above anything I've ever tried before in this regard.  I knew the 300tis could go fairly deep, but I had never heard this level of bass detail or punch from them. It's not just a matter of power, since the fifteen-watt Antique Sounds Labs MG-SI15DT-S also excels with these speakers. It's just control, and the Gaincard has more than I've heard before.

What do I like about the Gaincard? Everything. The rhythmic flow of music is just darn near perfect. It's almost impossible to pay attention to anything else when listening to music with this amp, as it has a natural, unimpeded flow that is truly captivating. This is harder to get right than you might imagine. I have heard so many expensive systems over the years that mess this up, leaving the music aimlessly ambling from note to note, with no sense of why the composer wrote the notes down in the first place. Because they do the sound effects stuff really well, a lot of audiophiles don't seem to mind, but I do. The Gaincard plays music with a natural ease, an ability to get out the music's way that is unlike anything I have heard recently. Some of the better single-ended triodes also do this, but not with such a sense of precision and clarity of purpose. Call it transparency if you will, but there's more to it than that.

Don't be fooled by the diminutive size and moderate power rating of this amp. The Gaincard is a powerhouse. It took a set of speakers (the Neat Elites) that I had been using with only moderate success with other amplifiers to make me understand what a really great amplifier this is. Bass went from rolled off and ill-defined to rock solid and tuneful. Large-scale dynamics were startling and low-level dynamic shadings were crystal clear. The way the Gaincard grabbed control of the Elites showed me that there are amps worth the big bucks, and it was the same story with every pair of speakers I tried. In every case, the rhythmic flow of the music, the revelation of the music's inner structure, and the dynamic presentation were always better than any other amp I tried.

The Gaincard does all the audiophile stuff extremely well. Soundstaging and image placement, along with size and scale, are always very well done. If that stuff is important to you, it is good to know that this amp can do them without sacrificing the ability to portray the real musical experience. This is where most of the really expensive high end amps fail. They do the "sounds" really well, but suck the life out the music (Krell and Mark Levinson, to name two).

Who should audition this amp?  Anyone who can afford them, and who understands that the physical aspects of audio equipment (size and weight) don't mean a damn thing. Also, anyone who might want amps that are stupidly expensive should check the Gaincard out.  It might tell you something about your motivations. Do you want an incredible musical experience, or something to impress the hardcore audiophiles that might stop by to visit. I will certainly miss this amp after I return it. Steve Lefkowicz

My entry into "high end" was via a pair of Luxman separates, the M-02 amplifier and C-02 preamplifier. The M-02 had meters that reported how many watts were coursing through the speakers.  With Vandersteen 2Ci's in a large and open room, the sound could be really loud with about five watts, about one thirtieth the amount of power the amp could put out. In the five years I had that amp I don't recall ever seeing the meters registering more than 8 or 10 watts. This brings me to the 47 Labs Gain Card.

There is only one Gain Card, but there are two iterations of power supply, or in 47 Labs lingo, "power humpty." Plug in one Humpty and you have 25 watts of power on a short leash. Plug in another (there's only room for two) and you are at 50 watts, hardly enough, I thought, to push the hoggish ATCs. Like an ant lifting seventeen times its weight, however, the multi-Humptied Gain Card did better than i expected. Even at 50 watts, the Gain Card was at the bottom of ATC's recommended power rating, so it was no surprise that things were way more exciting with the volume up.

Though it is possible to use the Gain Card as a power amp, I first listened to it as an "integrated" amplifier, using its built-in attenuators. The Gain Card didn't sound solid-statish. Like other solid state products, there was a clarity about the sound, but there was nary a step into etched treble or an overly damped bottom end. The ATCs do a fabulous job of letting you know what is going on upstream, so any deviance from "purity" or "clarity" would have shown up immediately. It didn't. Coupled with my Pioneer DV525 DVD player, the sound was on the forward side. In the upper midrange there was an ever-so-slight beaminess. Vocals like Mary Chapin Carpenter on "The Bug" were more forward and unrelenting than I like. I switched to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, who, instead of sounding sweet, as he usually does, was on the edge of being bright. I think that is simply the way the Pioneer sounds, but unfortunately it was the only source I had.

Compared to the $5000 Majeel Labs Pristine amplifier, the Gain Card was far more revealing of the source. Bass was very tight and deep once the volume started moving into louder territory, although less textured and rich than at lower volume levels. The treble was fast, clear, and never etched, but by the same token did not provide a delicately feathered sound. The last bit of nuance was not present. Images were distinct, with good specificity into the back of the stage, but within the center, imaging was less clear. For me this is fine. What was not working for me was the tonality. It was just too clinical, without quite being analytical. Some might judge the sound as honest or "accurate," but for me it was initially involving but ultimately tiring.

The Gain Card, in my system, was not inviting or warm, at least with the Pioneer player. It certainly didn't invite me to "listen into" the sound. I didn't find it objectionable, but it didn't send me to nirvana. It was time to try inserting tubes into the system, so I hooked up the E.A.R. 802 preamp. This was more like it. I still wasn't in nirvana, but I was invited to listen "in" a little bit more without fear of being punched in the face. With the E.A.R. in place, the sound was richer in timbre, more textured, and more like the real thing. Bass softened a bit, which might lead you to blame the tube preamp, but I've heard the E.A.R., coupled with the monstrous Chord SPM 1200B, give bass you could bounce a quarter on. Treble softened, and gained a richness that was certainly closer to my preference.

Even with the E.A.R., however, I missed the sweetness and delicacy I usually get. Coupled to the Pioneer, the Gain Card had a clarity and quickness that bordered on being sterile or analytical. Definitely not a sibilant sound, but slightly hard.  Metal dome tweeters would not be compatible with the Gain Card. The ATCs' silk dome tweeters definitely served it better. Midrange? This is the place music seduces me, and I wasn't seduced. The presentation was not rich, warm, or sweet. It was, rather, "just the facts, ma'am," with a very slight hardness. Synthesized music would work, but lush, romantic music was more romantic in the remembering than in the listening.

In fairness, this review was another inquiry into how the ATC 20s react to a low-powered amplifier. While they sound okay with 50 watts, they really don't snap to life with less than 200, so read my review as a test of the ability of the Gain Card to drive a heavy load. I think very highly of 47 Labs products. I'm afraid my overachieving, but underperforming Pioneer held back the Gain Card. This is a high-resolution amplifier with a fast and maybe a slightly hard presentation, but one which, matched with different ancillaries, could bring home the bacon big time. Think smaller B&Ws or other less incisive speakers. I know from experience that it is possible to make the Pioneer sound seductive in my system, but it just didn't happen with the Gain Card. Larry Cox

Back in issue 12, when I listened to the 47 Labs Flatfish CD player and Progression DAC, I was impressed. These units had me thinking that I was listening to tubes instead of solid state. 47 Labs stuff is cool—cool to set up and touch and cool to listen to. With the Flatfish you have a CD player that feels like you are using a turntable. You have power supplies in large heavy cylinders that conjure up thoughts of real power just looking at them. You have circuits that boast some of the shortest signal paths in the industry. When I unpacked the 47 Labs Gaincard amp and its two Power Humptys, I was in gear heaven! I don't want to just walk over to an unassuming black box, press a button, and hear music come out. BORING! I want finely crafted, visually stunning pieces of metal to make music in my home. The 47 Labs components deliver this in spades.

The Gaincard and the Power Humptys feel like precision instruments and are solidly built. The two stepped volume controls on the amp feel firm and click with authority, though I wish they had more gradations. The lettering that is etched on the faceplate is small and hard to read, but has a certain understated appeal.  I was warned ahead of time to give the amp plenty of time to warm up prior to serious listening, so I turned it on and let it idle away for three days. Once in use, the Gaincard has switches which turn current to the speakers on and off. Leaving the Power Humptys plugged into the Gaincard and the switches in the down position keeps the circuitry warmed up. This arrangement is also useful when changing connections or speaker wire. Sturdy screw terminals located on the back of the box connect speaker wire. Sorry, there's no way to use banana plugs. If your speaker cables or interconnects are of the stiff, garden hose variety, you better weigh, blue tack, or clamp the Gaincard to your rack, because it is very light. The Power Humptys won't go anywhere, but I wish that the umbilical cords were a little heftier. 47 Labs produces their own wire, which is light and flexible. I tried using one Power Humpty but preferred two, as music sounded more open and dynamic that way.

This is the first solid-state amp that I have listened to that didn't make me cringe at some point during listening. There was no fuzziness to the music, only distinct layers of instruments playing together. Orchestras sounded clear, rhythmic, and naturally fast. There was definite texture in the music, with a slight amount of sweetness thrown in, yet plucked guitar strings sounded immediate and fresh. Listen to the soundtrack of All the Pretty Horses for that. This disc was very enjoyable to listen to with this amp. When violins reached their upper limit, the music didn't thin out. Grain and glare were nonexistent. The Gaincard also handled dynamics well. The energy from a horn section or the rumble of low bass was reproduced with an authority that surprised me. The amp's low end performance surpassed that of my 70-watt monoblocks. This amp definitely got a grip on my speakers and manhandled them quite easily. Although the disc Blue Miles, a compilation of Miles Davis' "blue mood" music, contains mellow music, on the song "Blues for Pablo", Davis hits notes that would tax some systems. Those transient peaks sailed right through the Gaincard and out of my speakers.

Does this amp do everything perfectly? Well, it doesn't have an abundance of air, and the decay at the end of a musical passage could float a bit more. Even though instruments and vocals had good body and were very clean, the music at times sounded a little thick. This could mean that there is a mismatch somewhere in my system. I did try the amp with my Reference Line passive and was not pleased with the results. During this review I used my Pioneer/Taddeo front end plugged directly into the Gaincard's sole input, which worked fine, but I did wish that Sakura Systems had sent the partnering 4707 Input Chooser for more flexibility.

Switching back to my Monarchy monoblocks brought some surprises. My amps were not as dynamic or full-bodied as the Gaincard. They also didn't have that tight immediacy with plucked instruments, although the Monarchies are fast and clean-sounding. The Gaincard had the upper hand with clearer sound, distinct images on a wider stage, and better musical textures. I'm being tough on the Monarchies, especially considering the difference in price, but at the end of the day my amps aren't going anywhere. For the record, they did sound a tad warmer!

The Gaincard is a very stylized, highly musical amp.  It has the ability to draw you into a musical performance. With this amp driving my speakers, all I wanted to do was put on CDs and enjoy music. In this respect, the Gaincard reminded me of the E.A.R. 834 Integrated from way back in Issue 4, another amp that made me forget about everything but music. With the Gaincard, you not only get an industrial work of art that will certainly be the center of conversation with your audio buddies.  You get a big chunk of music to boot. Highly recommended! Francisco Duran