Most of us have heard this before. Class A amplifiers are the best for music reproduction. Or how about single-ended tubes sound good because of all that second harmonic distortion. Oh, then there is the one about how speakers must be placed in cabinets so solid a nuclear warhead can not destroy 'em. Wait, i got another one. All amplifiers sound the same (said the newsgroup Borgs). Resistance is futile! Of course the best amplifiers are those newfangled 1.21 jigawatt high efficiency Class D digital amplifiers, right? Did i forget to mention that with amplifiers the bigger the better?
Just when i feel a good understanding about audio, something like the 47 Laboratories Gaincard comes along and destroys it. How stupid could i have been? A reviewer in this industry must have extreme honesty with a very open mind unhindered by the politics. Politics in this industry which make me really sick by the way and have no bearing on being honest to their readers. Simply having an open mind is one thing, but being honest and willing to go against all those preconceived notions and politics is another. It is called chutzpah!
So there i was kicking myself in the butt about going to the Stereophile Hi-Fi '99 show in Chicago and not the great show happening at the same time in Germany. Aahhhh, Germany. The autobahn, Porsche... Nürburgring! In fact Hi-Fi '99 was a very casual and enjoyable show because there were no big crowds of people to contend with. While casually strolling through one of the lower levels i came upon a room which used the 47 Laboratories product. The room was sparse visually as i recall and what really got my attention were this very small product which was putting out incredibly good sound. A gentleman showed me this amplifier called the Model 4706 Gaincard which needed the Power Humpty power supply (gotta love the Japanese and their unique product names). The Gaincard was, well, this very small at 6.75" wide by 6" deep and 1.75" high that weighed only what seems to be a fraction of one pound! Seriously!
The first thing i did was laugh. i just couldn't help it. C'mon, you probably would too after seeing all these big preamplifiers and amplifiers at the Hi-Fi Show only to come into this room and seeing this teeny tiny Model 4706 Gaincard and hearing it retails with the needed "Power Humpty" for $2750! Just hearing the words Power Humpty still makes me laugh. My humble apologies, yet vision of Humpty Dumpty or people dancing to the song "Humpty Dance" by the Digital Underground fill my head. Ok, this proves my ignorance perhaps. Sad but true. So after being amused i regained my composure and listened to the benefits of this piece. After a few minutes i began to realize that this was either a hoax or something really special. The pessimist in me felt it more of a hoax, yet if 47 Laboratories was willing to send me a review sample i would give it a fair listen. After all, people still laugh at me when i tell them about once owning the now $90,000 Audio Note Ongaku 27 watt per channel all silver wired, ultra-purist, hand made only during nights with a full moon by vestal virgins. This is extremist single-ended integrated tube preamp/amplifier territory folks!
Let us get one thing out in the open here, Sakura System's motto is "Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex." My personal love for all things Zen immediately came into action. Everyone by now knows that single-ended tube amplifiers use very few parts and this is considered by some as partially why really good SE tube amplifiers sound as they do (extremely transparent and amazingly musical). Upon learning more about the Model 4706 Gaincard i discovered that it contained the "world's smallest number of parts - nine parts per channel (excluding attenuators)" with also the "world's shortest signal pass length - 32 mm (including the length of parts)" according to their website. For those metrically challenged, this means that the entire signal path is less that two inches long! The Model 4706 Gaincard runs in Class AB and has negative feedback whose signal length is less than 1/2" long including the length of the resistor! Each channel is in it's own separate aluminum chassis compartment which they claim helps to "release vibrations smoothly". Each channel also has a 12-position attenuator. While a single Power Humpty can run the entire unit, you can use a second Power Humpty for true dual mono operation. Now to make this an even harder sell to your normal everyday audiophile, if there is such a thing, is that the total power output is 25 watts per channel. What did you expect, 1.21 jigawatts? Enough foreplay, it is music time baby!
Upon first listen with one Power Humpty as supplied to me it was good, though i was not overly impressed. Maybe i was still trying to get over the small size and weight? After a few days of break in something mysterious happened. It was as though, as though... as though someone brought back my beloved Audio Note Ongaku! Ok, so maybe not exactly like the $90,000 Audio Note Ongaku, though there was so much rightness, so much freedom, so much musical soul. How can this be explained to those who have never heard this... The Ongaku is among the rare treasures on earth which allow the recorded music to transcend time and space and bring the musicians soul and intended musical message into one's listening room. It is more than transparency, more than correct harmonics, it is a freedom from what i call "beat" which is generally heard only during true live acoustic musical performances. If you are a drummer, it is the difference from playing the 4/4 beat and playing "in the pocket". There are very, very small timing cues which while not perfectly on the downbeat, they are playing a very small amount before or after the exacting beat timing which gives the music a unique feel, or soul.
Alas, i have found that only the truly rare systems and products offer this type of rhythmically musical freedom. The Audio Note Ongaku, the Clearaudio Insider Gold MC cartridge, and now the 47 Laboratories 4706 Gaincard can be added to this very small list. While this might seem like making a big deal over such a small thing as timing cues, please remember that music is really nothing more than various frequencies occurring over time.
This added freedom also shows how much deep inner resolution the Gaincard has. On music i have heard time and time again such as my favorite Miles Davis vinyl box set from Analogue Productions to my prized mint UK original pressing of Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon. As rarely heard, there is a deep inner detail and a seemingly infinite depth while the music washes over my soul. It is as though i sit here now trying to explain a more spiritually moving experience vs. the usual "here's another piece of equipment that does A, B and C, right but D could be better". The 47 Laboratories 4706 Gaincard transcends all this rubbish and goes into the rare realm that only pieces such as the Ongaku travel.
From the very small harmonic details as each musical note decays to fast transient attacks, the Gaincard seemed untripable with my personal reference KEF 104/2 (modified) speakers. In fact the Gaincard even handled the new Magnapan 3.6 speakers, with their low sensitivity, quite well! Considering this is only 25 watts per channel, it actually did a very admirable job to the point of making me wonder about the advantages of using the Bryston 7B ST monoblocks that were also here for a brief period. Of course the volume point was limited with higher SPL listening session with the Magnapan, but this was not evident with small jazz and mellow classical music.
Yoshi was kind enough to supply me with a second Power Humpty for true mono operation with one power supply per channel. It was also at this time i read Herb Reichert's great review of this unit in Listener Magazine Volume 5 Number 2 Sprint 1999 (Steve sez: subscribe to Listener, one of the few great audio reads in the English language!). i was amazed that Herb did not cover more about adding the second power supply, though maybe he had his reasons. i can easily see how Herb can compare the Gaincard to the Ongaku. Herb is very qualified in making this comparison as he was previously the distributor of Audio Note gear in the USA. i found that adding the second power supply actually took away from the music. Sure it made the music tighter and added a bit more dynamics, yet this seemed to come at the expense of the flow and wonderful rhythmic ability i so enjoyed about the unit. After a few days of experimentation using the second Power Humpty, i removed it and never looked back. One power supply is all this, as Herb Reichert might call me, "Bohemian or a starvin' Marvin" needs. As Sakura Systems say "Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex" and who am i to argue?
To wrap this up, it seems we have a very unique unit here which totally obliterates all preconceived notions. This solid-state, Class AB, negative feedback using unit totally blew me away. There is nothing, an i mean nothing that my ears have hear that comes close to sounding this good for under $3,000... or even $7,000 that i know of! The next step would probably be one of the better Wavelength Audio single-ended tube audio masterpieces. Many of you remember how i first brought the now seemingly legendary Lehmann Audio Black Cube into the worldwide audience. i can only hope this review has the same affect as the 47 Laboratories 4706 Gaincard is the rarest of musical instruments. Like finding a Stradivarius in a sea of mass produced student model violins. Why settle for the same electrical circuit rehashed when you can own a true handcrafted work of art like the Gaincard?
My humble apologies for giving a full blow by blow detail of the unit, yet when your soul is moved by such a great device as the Gaincard, you lose all your own preconceived notions of a review and just allow the words to flow onto the page. Maybe it is better this way. Less thinking, more feeling... more music. Could life be any better? As an added bonus, Yoshi has graciously interviewed the main craftsmen at 47 Laboratories for us. Alas, since i speak no Japanese, i gave Yoshi my basic questions and he flew to Japan. Please read this interview by clicking here.
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