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Amp/Preamp Asylum: REVIEW: PS Audio GCC-100 Integrated Amplifier (SS) by Deaf Ear

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REVIEW: PS Audio GCC-100 Integrated Amplifier (SS)

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Model: GCC-100
Category: Integrated Amplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $2795.00
Description: Control Amp
Manufacturer URL: PS Audio
Manufacturer URL: PS Audio

Review by Deaf Ear ( A ) on September 25, 2005 at 19:19:56
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I’m not an audiophile in the strictest sense of the word. I’m not really a hi-fi enthusiast – I’m a music lover. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve an interest in equipment, but only as a vehicle. I want my hi-fi to be ignorable enough for me to hear the music: if the equipment draws attention to itself, then it’s not for me. I've little enthusiasm for comparing cables, tubes or fuses with a view to discussing their merits. I’m not a hardcore engineer with meters and probes. Hell! I’m not even a softcore engineer, I’m just a listener.

I make this caveat not to lambaste techno-heretics with condescending self-righteousness. Far from it. It’s great that different groups of hobbyists can share a common center. However, I realize that certain groups expect certain things from a review and I feel I must warn everyone that throughout this assessment, I will be making rash claims and passionate judgments based on scientific intangibles and irrational emotionalism. It’s also much longer that I intended… sorry.

Why I Bought the PS Audio GCC-100 (you could easily skip this bit and jump down to the review).

I’m not usually an early adopter. For the past few years I’ve been a happy Pass Labs Aleph 3 user. The simplicity of the amp’s single-ended MOSFET circuitry gives a beautiful, uncluttered luminosity to the music. Other components had come-and-gone, but the Aleph remained constant. I had settled into this system:

• Acoustic Alchemy DDS Pro transport.

• Perpetual Technologies P-1A, P-3A DAC w/ Modwright Level II upgrades & Monolithic Sound P3 power supply (recently replaced)

• Cary SLP-88 preamp.

• Infinity Intermezzos 2.6 power assisted speakers and Infinity Intermezzo 1.2s powered subwoofer.

• Pass Labs Aleph 3 power amp.

I’d been having some electrical and RFI problems, so I decided to investigate some power solutions. I’d auditioned a couple of PS Audio products in the past and I’d liked what I’d heard, so I gave their P500 Power Plant a listen. My! My! MY! WHAT a difference! Unexpected and unimagined levels of coherence and musicality danced and played in my room. My system – and the Aleph in particular – was reborn and the music glowed brighter and clearer. Things were more delicate and more powerful at the same time. The world’s keenest optimist couldn’t have expected this! For three days I was in raptures – then the music died. Apparently, Power Plants like fluctuating loads and hate generating steady currents. My amp & preamp were both class ‘A’ electronics and the constant, unchanging power draw of 300W killed the P500 stone dead. Neither coddling nor prayers would resurrect it. The more powerful P1000 is apparently what I should have been using for this demanding load. Thank God for the 30-day trial period!

My head had been turned in those three days. Regenerated power had brought a life and vibrancy to my system that was joyful. I loved listening to music with the P500 providing the juice. Things were so much better that it became obvious that I needed a permanent power solution, so I made a somewhat surprising decision: I would rebuild my system and the power supply would be the first consideration. PS’s Power Plants had two unique and indispensable features for me: MultiWave and CleanSweep. These functions alone made the PPs top of my list. But which one? The P500 couldn’t cope and the P1000 was too expensive. It became apparent that I was going to have to reduce my kilowatt hours and (gulp!) audition a replacement for my Aleph…

The Next Contestant, Please! (you could pass on this, too)

Seeing as how I like PS Audio’s in-house sound so much, an obvious contender for the new vacancy would be one of their new Gain Cell products. The Gain Cell is a module developed by PS’s bull goose Paul McGowan, and he’s not talkin’! Shrouded in mystery and encased in epoxy potting, the contents of the Gain Cell is a secret he’s taking to the grave. PS says it sounds:

“Like nothing you've ever heard before and we mean that literally. The Gain Cell has no sound to it at all. Just Pure Resolution™ with no compression, no loss of dynamics, a beautiful top end and thunderous bass. Whatever is on the recording is preserved and passed on by the Gain Cell with no noise, no distortion, and no frequency aberrations: nothing. The Gain Cell is about as close to perfect as you can imagine.”

Hey! That’s what the Dali Lama and I both want! Nothing! I decide to try the one of their power amplifiers as a straight swap for my Aleph. There are three GCA models available at 100W, 250W and 500W. My power assisted speakers are unhappy with anything over 150W so the GCA-100 is my only choice. I live in a rural area and I don’t have the luxury of a local dealer, so online mail-order is my savior. One of the many things I like about PS Audio is that they stand by all of their products. You can home-audition anything they make for 30-days and if you don’t like it for any reason, you can ship it back for a full refund, no questions asked. Online you have two choices: AudioAdvisor and Music Direct . Both are fantastic retailers and I’ve dealt with them often.

I get a demo GCA-100 from Music Direct for $1950 (inc. sales tax, because we’re both in Illinois). I plug it in and it sounds…. Horrible! Everything is hard and etched. Cymbals are harsh, opaque and chalky: there is absolutely no transparency to the sound at all. It’s spiky and painful. Listening to the GCA-100 fresh out of the box is as much fun as poking Christmas trees in your ears. PS recommend that you give their new amps 200+ hours of break-in before you listen seriously. This is going to be rough. After 100-or-so hours I try again. Things have improved enough for me to stay in the room a little longer, but it’s a struggle. The sound is ice-cold, brittle and frightens the cat. At one particular crescendo, my wife HOWLS in discomfort. She pleads with me to send it back and plug the Aleph in again. She has my sympathy. I imagined that being a demo, this amp would have been part broken-in. Not so. My wife and I will have to endure more bullet-biting.

Because I can’t sit in front of my hi-fi without losing the will to live, I retreat to the internet and make an interesting discovery. PS Audio have two new lines on the market just now – GCA and GCC amplifiers. As I’ve mentioned previously, the GCA models are power amplifiers, but the GCC range are what PS call ‘Control Amps’. The only difference between the two models is that the GCC ‘Control’ range of amps have four extra inputs, an electronic selector switch and a volume control. I use that term loosely here, because this is not your father’s volume control. The GCC amps do not attenuate. They vary the gain of the power amp. Do I understand this? No, not really…

Paul McGowan says:

Now, we don't mean you can't control the volume. Certainly the Control Amp has full control over the volume and balance with either the front panel knob or the remote control. What we mean is that we have eliminated the volume element itself: the potentiometer, the stepped attenuator that normally controls the volume. The new GCC Control Amplifier has no old fashioned volume element or attenuator inside. That’s right, no pots, no stepped attenuator, no ladder DACs, no Burr Brown or Crystal CMOS electronic stepped attenuators, and no balance control. None, nada, nothing.

We do not attenuate or 'throw away' volume, we change the amplifier's gain to produce the exact volume you want in your system. It's a very different concept and an important one to understand if you are to appreciate the beauty of the Gain Cell.

What this means, in effect, is that the GCC amplifiers do away with the need for a preamp, a set of interconnects and a power cord. You can find out more about the Control Amplifiers on the PS Audio website.

Anyway, the aforementioned interesting bit is that the Control Amps have a BYPASS switch. That is, when the volume control bypass is selected, the GCC-100 becomes electrically identical to the GCA-100. This means that I can test the GCC as a traditional power amp using my Cary preamp to control the volume, or, by disconnecting my preamp, I can feed the GCC directly from my DAC to hear what all the Gain Cell brouhaha is all about. Excellent! Two birds with one stone! To make things even better, I find that AudioAdvisor is offering a GCC-100 for $1800 – that’s $100 LESS that I got the GCA for Music Direct after sales tax. I can get the higher specified machine for less money! Ya gotta love that out-of-State ‘no sales tax’ thang! Silently mouthing ‘no-brainer’ to myself, I returned the GCA and said hello to the GCC.

The GCC-100 and I Go Head-To-Head

The GCC-100’s styling looks curiously dated to me. It has the color and appearance of something left over from an early ‘80s disco. You know the type of thing: aluminum techno-futurist design with an electric blue pinstripe – a bit like audio jewelry via Buck Rodgers in the 21st Century. You can switch the ‘go-faster’ stripe off. The GCA has an appealingly minimalist feel to it, but the GCC, with its volume knob, selector switch and display panel, looks to be suffering from warts and carbuncles. My wife likes how it looks, but she danced the ‘80s away, so her opinion’s somewhat tinted. But hey! I didn’t get it for looks, and anyway, there’s nothing cheap about the materials used in its construction. The front is heavy machined aluminum and round the back there are satisfyingly solid locking binding posts. It weighs 26lbs. Stats and figures are largely meaningless to me, but here’s a link to the specifications page for those that can decipher graphs and charts.

I plug the amp in and employ the BYPASS mode. It sounds…………… just as horrible as the GCA did: dense, abrasive and impenetrable. Sigh! This amp isn’t going to work for me. Depressed, I insert my Purist Audio Design burn-in CD of over-priced squeaks, squawks & squally noises, and I run for the door. Some hours later I return and try again. A little better, maybe? A bit more transparent, perhaps? Slightly warmer?! Finally! Some encouragement!

Over the next couple of weeks the sound gets fuller, rounder, more airy, more relaxed. I think PS’s recommendation of letting their new amps play for 200-hours before attempting any serious listening sessions is doing them no favors. It was my experience that in 200-hours the GCC-100 became listenable. At the 250-mark, it became interesting. It was only after about 300-hours that I started to realize how good the GCC-100 actually was. Both models of Gain Cell amps I tried were demos, so presumably someone, somewhere had spent some time playing them. If we add that supposition to the burn-in time that I had to endure, it might be more reasonable suggest that it takes 350-400 hours of actual playing-time before you’re hearing the Real Deal.

So how does the Real Deal sound? Well, I’ve got to say that the GCC-100 in BYPASS mode acquitted itself very well compared to the Aleph. The PS machine had a wider soundstage left-to-right and front-to-back, seemingly extending well beyond the dimensions of my living-room. Individual performers and instruments were more anchored within the soundstage. The GCC-100 was more dynamic and had deeper bass. Percussive hits had more impact and ‘slam’. The Aleph and the GCC-100 were about the same for smoothness and liquidity of the midrange but the PS unit had wonderfully extended, open and airy upper mids and trebles. The GCC-100 also had a much quieter noise floor. Notes appeared and disappeared in the room seemingly from nowhere. I was impressed. Altogether a happy result after my weeks of torture.

Now, what’s this ‘Control’ amp thing all about? I disconnect my preamp, discard the superfluous power cable and interconnect, then plug the GCC-100 directly in to my DAC and….




At this stage in a review, it’s appropriate for an amateur assessor to say “the performance of my system was raised to a whole new level”, but it’s a cliché I’m keen to avoid. It’s also not helpful here. In my setup the GCC-100 in full control mode didn’t simply… err… raise the standard further up the flagpole – it simply disappeared. Gone. Simultaneously the hi-fi game was easier and more complicated – I couldn’t compare components any more. To contrast audio units is to assess how one set of electronics distorts the sound versus another. Some may be warmer, some may be fatter, some may be wider, some may be flatter. It’s all a matter of taste. This worked fine in the pre-Gain Cell days, but now, in the Post-Preamp Era, that’s all changed. PS Audio’s GCC series of amplifiers have nothing in the signal stream. There’s nothing to compare! It’s not a variable digital output and it’s not an attenuator: there is nothing between your source components and the amplifier whatsoever. You can’t compare something with nothing: something will always lose. A preamp cannot improve a signal, it can only distort it as little as possible and with the GCC series there’s no preamp, therefore there’s no………………. You don’t think I’m daft enough to make such a sweeping statement without meters and probes, do you? ;^)

So can we say the PS Audio GCC-100 in full control mode… err... delivers Viagra to pertinent places? Unquestionably! On a mundane level, the GCC-100 improves all of the usual spatial cues: the soundstage is wider and deeper and the instruments are more successfully delineated from the room ambience. This demarcation is apparent in the familiar sensation of ‘more air’ around the instruments. Dynamics are improved in both directions: the GCC-100 gave me more weight and slam, but it also gave me tiny sounds of great delicacy. Bass is deeper, more extended and authoritative and the mid-to-upper trebles are positively angelic. All this is presented on a blacker-than-black background: this amp is silent ; sounds appear and disappear from nowhere with goosebump-raising eeriness. It should be noted that because the preamp section is nonexistent, there’s no attenuator to distort the signal, so you can get all of the above improvements at low or high volumes. All of the above would get the GCC-100 an unconditional recommendation from me… but there’s more!

Beyond the analytical comparisons of louder-deeper-wider-higher, are the less easily defined micro-dynamics. The GCC-100 has hallucination-inducing micro-dynamics. Bowed instruments become more complex, with more wood, rosin, horse hair and catgut apparent. Brass instruments are brassier. Woodwinds are woodier. Cymbals are less tarnished. Voices are particularly well served with tiny nuances and bellowing roars all reproduced with striking realness .

While the usual audiophile lexis can be trotted out and applied to the performance hike, it’s inappropriate to do so (although I’ve just done it). There’s no question that I noticed an even greater improvement in performance, but to say that is to trivialize the magnitude of the improvement. We’re talking of two different dimensions here: one is the world of wires and electrickery and the other is the majesty of musical performance. For me to say that lots of little bits and pieces were improved by the addition of PS Audio’s amp to my system is to imply that the amp is analytical. Nothing could be further from the truth. The GCC-100 makes MUSIC! There is a wholeness to music reproduced by the PS Audio machine. Every nuance of the artist’s expression is communicated. Attack, decay, sustain, release, intonation, delicacy, beauty, aggression, excitement, melancholy, drama. What is improved is the depth of emotion and if it’s in the performance, the GCC-100 has got it pegged.

Back to Earth Without the Bump

Can you tell I like it? Since I got the PS Audio GCC-100 I’ve laughed, I’ve cried and I’ve played more air-guitar than I can ever remember. Hell, I even caught myself playing air bassoon the other day! I've no doubt that the GCC line of amplifiers is the first of a new breed. One day all amplifiers will be made this way... once everyone else works out how PS Audio do it! At the time of writing, the GCC-100 costs $2,795.00 from AudioAdvisor. I got a demo from them costing just over $1800. I consider that to be the audio-bargain of a lifetime. The sale of my Cary and Aleph covered the cost and I had enough left over for a decent cable. How often can you say that upgrading costs less?

If you’ve managed to read all this then you’ll probably qualify for some sort of endurance medal. I can sum up the review simply. Previously I had a very good system. Now I have a musical performance.

Product Weakness: Cons: Horrendous break-in period; curious styling
Product Strengths: Pros: Effortless, heart-breakingly beautiful sound; ‘off’ switch for illuminations.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: PS Audio GCC-100
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): none
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Modwright/Sony NS999ES w/ Platinum Signature Truth Mods
Speakers: Infinity Intermezzos 2.6
Cables/Interconnects: PS Audio
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Acoustic Jazz/small ensemble/orchestral/experimental
Room Size (LxWxH): 21 x 13 x 8
Room Comments/Treatments: plants and rugs
Time Period/Length of Audition: 3-months
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): Monster
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner
Your System (if other than home audition): Home audition

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Topic - REVIEW: PS Audio GCC-100 Integrated Amplifier (SS) - Deaf Ear 19:19:56 09/25/05 ( 12)