Reviewing has been a boon to me. I enjoy audio and music more than I ever have because of it. While my time for listening is pinched by my life outside of audio, I enjoy a greater variety of music than ever.
I've discovered the wonder underneath the horror of the distant shore of Captain Beefheart. Making my way onshore to Beefheart Island created a larger beachhead into the flora and fauna of jazz. Jazz has led me back to classical music, which my dad used to introduce me to audio as a hobby.
It's been a cool thing to see the full circle of my originating interest in audio. Reviewing has also informed, rather than defined, what I like about various systems.
I've enjoyed wildly disparate sonic signatures from gear at shows. I am not dogmatic about what's good or right, but I follow my ears. I start here because before I reviewed, I was often confused by high-end reviews, starting with my exposure to The Absolute Sound and Stereophile. Around TAS had a vastly different tone and tenor than it does now.
The first review I read, a speaker which I no longer recall, was stunning to me. As I read the review, I was horrified that anyone would spend so many pages kicking sand in the speaker's face, so to speak, with only an occasional glimpse of praise, I was stunned to read the product was recommended!
I thought, if these guys recommend a product after unloading so many failings, these guys are really discriminating! If they praise a product, it must be terrific. All products as I recall were highly regarded by TAS. Licking my fingers with excitement, I was expecting heaven.
I had no idea "Heaven" sounded like a grainy table radio playing at the bottom of a 55 gallon drum. Sure, it was the most holographic presentation I'd ever heard, but It sounded far better than my first encounter with ProAc. Fleet of foot, grainless, dynamic and excellent imaging, they were really wonderful.
Recently, while searching for a preamp with home theater bypass to integrate my two channel and home theater setup, I encountered a number of exceptional candidates. While I could easily have lived with several of these, I did not make a desert-island purchase. I was looking for an elusive combination of beautiful and transparent sound.
As I typed that sentence, just now, I realize the futility of that pursuit. Not every recording of beautiful music is beautiful; you'd think it would be, but that has not been my experience. I think that's also true with "beautiful" and "transparent" in audio. Mounting the stage to thwart my illusory wish for beautiful and transparent in a component are my powered ATC speakers.
Larger powered ATCs mix pretty well and easily with other components as they have a slightly fuller presentation. Passive ATCs match pretty well, too, they just need a lot of power. My powered ATC 20s, however, simultaneously hold the potential for amazing sound and unpleasant sound—that's why I've not reviewed many preamps over the past ten years.
Getting a happy match has been problematic.It also had the most beautifully shaped knobs that I have ever seen to this day. Add to that, it also had a built-in moving coil head amp that the audio press said was the very best there was.
I drooled over it for several years and eventually sold my SP-3 in the early 80s and purchased my own Threshold SL I was pleased with it for many years. I only had two complaints with it. I guess if I could have afforded it I could have found more shelf space.
I was a little slow asking to review it, and it was already back-ordered. Pass Labs make two levels of preamps, the Xs and the XP. The XP level has five preamps; the XP, 12, 20, 22 and I like most think of the 12 and 22 as replacements for the 10 and the 20 which are no longer in the line. A significant upgrade from the XP, the XP has a beefier power supply that results in a quieter output stage and transformer. The XP uses the single stage volume control borrowed from the preamp in the Xs line.
This provides one hundred 1 dB steps with lower noise and distortion while removing some signal path parts. Like the XP, the XP is housed in a single chassis. The XP is a balanced Class A preamp. On the left side in this channel are four aluminum buttons for mute, mode and two buttons for scrolling left and right through the modes.
Next in line is the IR receiver and then a black-on-blue display. On the far right of the front panel is an endlessly rotating aluminum volume knob. It also comes with a very nice remote control.
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As the industry has come to expect from Pass Labs, the build quality is world-class and this preamp looks expensive but not overdone. My review system has gone through some changes lately; the speakers are now the DeVore gibbon Super Nines. It also had a similar tonal balance. With the XP in my system, it portrayed a sense of air around instruments and vocals. The system created a realistic soundstage; It was not the very best I have heard but very realistic.
It had a nice sense of detail providing cues about the performance. The overall sound of the preamp is on the warm side compared to my reference preamp. The bass and mid-bass were fast, dynamic, tight and powerful. The speed and dynamics carried on into the midrange and top-end. I could go on writing in audiophile terms about how this preamp allowed my system to sound.
In traditional audiophile terminology, this is an exceptional preamp. When listening to recordings of guitars, basses, harps, and other plucked strings, the instruments were well placed in the space of the hall or club. The leading edge was as good but not as fast as it is with some preamps.
The sound was seductive and rich with real decay and air inside and around the instruments. The sound of the instruments was emotionally engaging and suggestive of the real thing. Violins sounded very sweet and again exceptionally well placed in the orchestra. Massed strings were very visceral, and extended. They could swell and float within the orchestra.It was a pure class A design that used cascade gain stages that with matched FETs driving a PNP, whose collector was biased by a constant current source that drove a complementary pair of followers.
It also had an outboard power supply. It also had a built-in moving coil head amp that the audio press said was the very best there was. I drooled over it for several years and eventually sold my SP-3 in the early 80s and purchased my own Threshold SL 10, which pleased me for many years. So it was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of Pass Labs new, money-no-object, preamp.
The answer is simple, the XA I need to begin this review by admitting the Pass Labs Xs Preamp is the most expensive preamp or amp I have reviewed.
This also makes the Pass Labs XA As you read this, keep in mind that the Pass Labs Xs Preamp was an effort by Wayne Colburn to build the very best sounding preamp without any compromise in either quality or price. Also please remember that Pass Labs makes some exceptional preamps that are more reasonably priced, but not inexpensive.
The Xs Preamp is a dual-mono, two-gain-stage Class A design. Each channel has its own power supply board withuf of capacitors combining several kinds for optimum performance, from high-reliability electrolytes to custom polypropylene. When your preamp is a cost-no-object design you expect high performance and exotic materials to be used and the Xs will not disappoint.
It has gain stages with ceramic circuit boards and gold plating and much more. The circuit board materials are optimized for performance in each area; a power supply circuit board has different requirements than a gain stage, and they use different types optimized for their specific uses.
The use of newly available silicon carbide semiconductors kicks performance up a bit by dropping noise below the level of the XP The gain stages from input to output connectors and all parts between them have been chosen for maximum sonic performance. It uses a DC coupled ultra symmetric gain path with high bias class A circuitry. The power supply has lower noise with a refined circuit design and layout.
It has new gain stages with auto bias and DC. It is truly an all-out assault on the state-of-the-art in preamp design. The Xs Preamp weighs 80 pounds versus the pounds of the XA When you consider this weight is divided between two chassis, it was much easier to unpack and install.
It was really well packed, but also easy to unpack. I took the time to read the instructions, which are a good read, but could use more pictures and details. The front panel is very simple. Thankfully, you can dim it or turn it off.
The back panel is equally as clean and easy to hook up. On the back panel here are seven XLR and six RCA inputs lined up with the power connections to create a true dual mono setup. There are also input and outputs for tape in and tape out.
Two are main outputs and one provides a slave function that could be very handy if you are bi-amping. The remote control is nicely laid out for all the basic functions. I have compared them to other very expensive balanced cables and much preferred the single ended HFC Ultimate Reference.
Then, I placed the power supply on the shelf and hooked up the two umbilical cords from the power supply to the preamp unit. When I saw how thick the umbilical cords were my mind went back to the ASR Emitter I Exclusive amplifierr and how difficult it was to work with those thick cords.What is a preamp?
The word "preamp" is used in many different ways by different manufacturers, marketers, and users. It is one of the most widely-interpreted terms I see when discussing audio gear; if you ask for a "preamp", you might as well be asking for a "furniture" -nobody will know exactly what you want.
A preamp may be built into an instrument, a pedal, a rackmountable unit, a mixer, a sound card, or a variety of other forms; and a preamp is also the input stage of every amp "head". Sometimes people confuse preamps with DI boxes; this is an easy mistake because so many devices include the functions of both.
A DI, which stands for "direct injection", is a device that converts a signal from unbalanced to balancedand sets the output level and impedance of the signal so that it will be ideal for connecting specifically to a microphone preamp input on a mixer.
There are many preamps which also include a DI output; and there are many units marketed as DI's which also contain functions associated with a preamp, such as tone shaping or gain boost.
But just because many products have overlapping features does not mean you can assume that any preamp will always work as a DI, or vice-versa. A preamp may be designed to do any of these things: -Increasing the gain -Changing the tone -Lowering the output impedance -Converting from unbalanced to balanced Or any combination of those, to any degree. Gain just means the amount your signal level is increased. The amount a specific preamp increases your gain is a critical thing to understand, because every device your signal will be sent to power amp, mixer, instrument amp head, etc.
Not every preamp can effectively drive a power amp, for example. Some preamps have no gain at all. Others may be intended to increase the signal level just enough to overdrive the input of a tube amp.
Some preamps have a gain control, while others like onboard bass preamps have a fixed amount of gain. Either way, they usually have a " volume " knob which just passively turns down the overall signal level at the very end of the preamp circuit.
Tone can include anything from EQ controls, to "warmth" or other subtle qualities, to outright distortion. Some people want lots of tonal changing and EQ controls, other people want absolute transparency, and of course everything in between.
Impedance can be described as the efficiency of the signal transferring from one piece of gear to another. An illustration I like to use is pedaling a bicycle uphill. If you are in the right gear, pedaling uphill requires some energy; but if you are in the wrong gear, it requires a lot more energy, and after a while you may not have the strength to go any further. An ideal impedance relationship is a very low output impedance number connecting to a very high input impedance.
That is being "in the right gear". If your instrument or device has an output impedance that is too close to the input impedance of the device you're connecting it to, you will be in the wrong gear, and your signal may be too weak. That weakness may result in a lower signal level or a dull tone. Preamps are usually " active ", meaning they require a power supply. This is because it requires energy to boost a signal, and it is easiest and cheapest to design the other functions of a preamp using small powered components.
There are a few products out there marketed as "passive preamps", but with passive components the energy of your signal can only be rearranged or dissipated, it cannot be increased. Passive boost is possible, using inductors and transformers to "rob" energy from one frequency range in order to boost another range.This is a case where I need to begin a review by reminding the reader that the name of this magazine is The Absolute Sound, not the Cost-Effective Sound.
They are new top-of-the-line components that push the state of art in audio to its limits, and they are priced accordingly. At the risk of eliminating any suspense from this review, they are the two best-sounding examples of a preamp and power amp I have yet heard. The kind of gear most audiophiles dream about—which only the truly lucky can afford—and that redefine the perceptions of reviewers during the all-too-brief time they pass through their systems.
Reviewing the Xs preamp and the Xs mono amps gave me the opportunity to put the merits of two true new assaults on state of the art in perspective. You begin with truly musical components, and they get better and better. Moreover— as is the case with every other top manufacturer of high-end preamps and amps—the level of improvement in sound quality relative to price is a matter of steadily diminishing returns. You have to pay more and more for less and less improvement.
Like car freaks, wine snobs, and stamp perforation-edge perfectionists, my goals are not to be cost-effective, but to go to the limits of the sound quality I can afford—and all too often beyond. Real audiophiles pursue the limits of the high end for its own sake. The Pass Xs Preamp So let me begin with the Pass Xs preamp, and try to explain why I soon came to feel the level of sonic improvement was both real and worth it to audiophiles who can afford it.
Let me also set the stage by noting that virtually all high-end manufacturers tend to voice their equipment to a consistent standard. That standard tends to evolve with time and becomes steadily more realistic and musically enjoyable, but years of reviewing have taught me that given manufacturers and designers have consistent biases in the sonic nuances they voice into their equipment.
Some manufacturers voice for a slight bass boost, some add a slight boost for midrange or treble detail.
Some voice for a more dynamic sound or more detail. Some voice for the warm and forgiving. This voicing of electronics also affects soundstage width, imaging size, and back-to-front realism and perspective. Some manufacturers voice for a wide, more front-of-the-hall soundstage. Some seem to play with imaging, and a few seem to play with depth. Centerfill is another related issue, and one I suspect we understate in reviews because—like depth—it is usually dominated by the recordings, speaker, and room setup.
To me, the best electronics have as little of this characteristic voicing as possible. This is one reason that I minimize references to the sound of individual recordings in my reviews.I had no problem distinguishing it from my previous reference, a circa YBA Alpha 1 linestage.
The XP was more relaxed in the midrange and had every bit as much detail while forming more realistic renderings of bass depth and register while still serving a more suave treble. The bass reproduction allowed me to hear quite clearly I'd been living with "one note bass" with nearly every preamplifier I've used previously. I struggled to characterize the sound of the XP Surely there was a signature to it, but it was not evident to me.
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My speakers tend to be cruel to match and so I tend to be "forgiving" in appraising gear. The XP was a good match with my speakers, allowing different sources to easily show their character. I held on to the XP thinking about buying it, while trying to live a normal life during a tumultuous personal period. When ended and I was ready to take the leap, Pass Labs' Desmond Harrington offered to send the XP before I committed to the XP, as buyer's remorse is a painful love letter to read. Did I want to?
Not really. In fact, though I'd previously asked to review the XP when it became available, I was wondering if it was bad form to ask to bow out. Monogamy doesn't work when you're dating outside the relationship, if you know what I mean, and if the XP worked well with my system But, if being an audiophile doesn't bear the markings of foolishness, then surely an audiophilish reviewer bears such markings writ large.
I've owned my speakers, previous preamplifier and turntable, each for more than ten years which I assert argues for being a monogamist, but I am merely a repeat repenter audio-slut. But the XP whispered in my ear and The newer preamplifier, like its progenitor, also has five inputs, three of which are balanced, one of which can function as a home theater bypass. Source and volume can be selected from the front panel or using the substantial remote control.
The XP has a new power supply that utilizes an electrostatic shield and a mu metal shield. As a lay person, it appears these two work to block the effect of an electric field, both external static and non-static.
Pass Xs Preamp and Xs 300 Mono Power Amplifiers
Sharing technology with a product priced nearly seven times higher would appear to bode well for an "entry level" preamplifier, even at this price. I imagine that some of these features play into the "sound" of the XPAmp is in excellent condition, conservatively rated I do not see any marks.
This Pass Labs XA Please call with any questions at Pass XA25 excellent condition. With all original packing, inspection slip from factory, and power cord. With all original packing, inspection slip fro I had the faceplate and volume control bezel replaced due to a couple of minor dings.
The unit was also given a clean bill of health. No need to mention how good this thing is - plenty of glowing Hello fellow enthusiasts! Turns out I don't need this much power for my speakers. I bought this from a Pass dealer this past December, but I am the second owner. The original purchase date from first I'm selling my beloved Pass INT to make room fo Amplifier functions flawlessly and is cosmetically excellent. Please call with a Up for sale is my Pass Labs X Just sold my Pass Labs X amplifier and no longer need this.
The unit is in good condition, originally purchased on Audiogon. Used in a smoke free, pet free environment. Please contact me with any questions. Prefer local pickup but w Just sold my Pass Labs X a Perhaps the preeminent solid state preamplifier on the market. The unit works great, and the faceplates of the power supply and control unit are flawless.
All of the xlr jumper pins, umbilical cables, and remote are included, together with the original packaging.
The top unit has some s The unit works Pass Labs XA These amps are functionally perfect. There are NO scratches, rub marks, or other cosmetic issues anywhere on either amp. These amps are functiona For your consideration.