No, when the dealer brought in the Shigaraki stuff for the openhouse, he brought in these tiny little 47 labs single driver mini-monitors, I was not impressed at all with these things and very disappointed that they had not sent the Konus Essence speakers instead. The sound was quite unimpressive at this point, but you could tell it was the speakers holding things back, then when he switched in some Neat speakers things were much nicer.
As far as the preamps being a smart idea, I don't know could be blowing smoke out of my ***. I don't think there is anything in the design that would make it difficult to match up with good synergistic preamps, and I beleive the volume control is very easy to set at zero gain.
Constatine Soo on his website Dagogo reviewed the Gaincard S and in addition to running it straight he also matched it up with the Audio Note M3 with reported great success.
"In terms of fidelity, the $4,000 25 Wpc 47 Lab Gaincard S is just as worthy an amplifier to the AN M3 as its own $4,000, 9 Wpc Quest 300B monoblocks, and I have yet to hear a preamplifier/amplifier combination at $4,000 possessing
There is also a system listed on Audio Asylum where the owner is using the Gaincard with the Shindo Labs Monbrisson preamp, the Monbrisson is out of your price range but the entry level Aurieges at $3800 could be a possibility.
I know Shindo is at High Water Sound in NY, and I would have to imagine Audio Note could be found somewhere in the city. The other preamps that I threw out are probably more alike than different compared to the Shindo or Audio Note stuff. So if you do decide to go the route of 47 labs stuff you could always jsut pick-up the Gaincard first, see how it works as your preamp, and then if you feel the need, take it out on the town and start pairing it up with various preamps and see what you find out. It's not like the Gaincard isn't easy to transport.
Good luck in your search.
Also in case you don't know, Carolina Audio offers a speaker called the JTM that is very close to the Konus Essence and more people own or have experience with that speaker compared to the Konus, so doing some research on the forums for the JTM can probably help give you a better idea of the Konus' performance.