Q: When is an integrated amplifier not an integrated amplifier?
A: When it's one of PS Audio's new GCC series Control Amplifiers.
You see, the Boulder, Colorado-based manufacturer has created a range of products that look like integrated amps, feel like integrated amps and act like integrated amps, but are actually variable gain power amplifiers with multiple inputs. Variable wha..? Well, where other integrated amps are a marriage of a preamplifier (or input volume attenuator) and a power amplifier in a single case, the GCC-250 (and its 100w sibling, the GCC-100, and 500w big brother, the GCC-500), employs PS Audio's new Gain Cell technology (for a full technical explanation of Gain Cell, see www.psaudio.com/articles/gaincell.asp).
Ignoring the revolutionary technology that resides under the lid, the GCC-250 looks and operates very much like a conventional integrated amp, albeit a stunningly good-looking, fully featured example. A dual mono design, the GCC-250 cuts a handsome figure on your AV rack, with a tres cool ice-blue lighting strip running along the length of the gently curved front panel.
All functions, including source select, volume, balance, phase invert, HT bypass, muting and display dimming, can be controlled from the supplied remote. For those determined to trek across the living room, source select, muting and volume can also be controlled from the front panel, while names can be assigned to each of the inputs via a setup menu, and the gain of each input adjusted in 0.1dB steps.
The rear panel hosts five pairs of line level inputs (one balanced) and a single pair of high-quality, lockable speaker binding posts. There's also a low-level stereo output that can be used to drive a subwoofer (or pair of subs), or alternatively a second power amp in a bi-amp configuration.
What strikes you most with the GCC-250 is the absolute absence of any background noise. When you're playing music, that's all you hear. There's no thin film of electronic hash, no fine veil of background hiss to obscure detail and destroy micro-dynamics. Where some amps have a low noise floor, the GCC-250 doesn't seem to have a noise floor at all. Music is just there, floating in space in front of you.
In practical terms, this means a comprehensive ability to resolve the subtle inflections in a closely miked vocal, to untangle the intertwining threads in a large-scale orchestral piece, to make sense of the complex interplay between the members of a jazz trio.
On disc after disc, from genre to genre, the GCC-250 proved unflappable. Soundstaging was rock-solid and expansive in all directions, the bass resolute and visceral, the midrange natural, unforced and loaded with tonal nuance. While I might have wished for a dash more shimmer from a brushed cymbal - the treble region being somewhat dry and lacking a touch of sparkle - overall the GCC-250 turned in about as complete a performance as all but the most fastidious of audiophiles could hope for.
However, it's worth noting that I found the GCC-250 to be somewhat reticent at lower volume levels. Like a finely tuned sports car that only shows its true potential on the open road, the GCC-250's volume needed a good tweak before the amp's musical charms became evident.
The GCC-250 should be on the audition list of anyone in the market for a high-end single-box amp solution (and the prodigious power output makes it a genuine rival for muscle-bound pre/power amp combos as well). The GCC-250 is a serious overachiever, whichever way you look at it.
Price: $4,500; Distributor: Audiophile Utopia; Phone: (02) 9412 3226