August 2, 2009

A Leap from X to XP - Pass Labs' New Pre-amp

This is an old post of ours in the blog we previously contributed to.

"Hey, you want to upgrade your pre-amp? I am having a special offer on my last piece of XP-20." Nelson Chia, owner of Centre Circle Audio, called me and asked. Awwww...., this is the worst time for me to be tempted by another piece of potentially lethal hifi equipment. As I have said earlier, I have already busted my budget for hifi upgrade this year.

But I have to take it home for a spin anyhow. I wanted to know how far Pass Labs have progressed from its X-series pre-amp days, though it may not be entirely fair to compare the XP-20 to my resident X2.5 - firstly, the X2.5 was the entry level pre-amp for Pass Labs, while the XP-20 resides at the current middle rung; secondly, there is a more than two times difference in price (the XP-20 is listed at around RM30k).

The XP-20 has the traditionally high quality construction of Pass Labs' products. It is a 2-box pre-amp, similar to Pass Labs' previous X1. One box is the power supply and the other contains the control and audio circuits. The separation of the power supply provides the audio circuit with a much cleaner electrical environment to operate in. The two boxes are connected via an umbilical cord, the construction of which is similar to the parallel cable used for computers, though this one is chunkier and of higher build quality.

The pre-amp has 5 inputs - 2 balanced (XLR) and 3 single-ended (RCA), plus a tape loop. Unlike the X-series, the balanced inputs are not doubled up for single-ended operations, so if you use only single-ended components, you have only 4 inputs to play with (including the tape input). It has 1 balanced and 2 single-ended outputs, all of which can be used simultaneously, making bi-amping or feeding a subwoofer easy. The user friendliness of the remote has been improved upon, it is now a direct-select unit, where a command can be selected directly via a button (on Pass Labs' previous pre-amps, you have to use the arrow button to scroll to a function before you can activate it).

Let me say that the past week has been a hifi roller coaster ride for me. First, you have read how the Torus Power PLC elevated the performance of my system, then when I had to take it out to pass to maggielurva by mid-week , I was brought back to earth. Then the XP-20 was inserted in place of my X2.5, my spirit was heightened again, but came the end of the week, it had to go back to Centre Circle Audio and I was back to square one.

Well, the XP-20 is a big leap in performance from the X2.5. While I could still recognize the normal 'signature' of my system, the XP-20 took all the virtues of the X2.5 and ratcheted them up a few notches.

The XP-20 increased my system's transparency and resolution greatly, the sonic picture was packed with more information and details. This was extended to the entire sonic spectrum, the bass became more impactful and better defined, the mid was more articulate, and the highs shimmered. The stage was lit up and bathed in a nice attractive sheen, and its clarity left very little to the imagination.

The XP-20 also has a very fine sonic texture, if I equate my X2.5 to the smoothness of a teenager's skin, then the XP-20's textural fineness is like a baby's. The other great attribute of the XP-20 was its timbre accuracy, everything, be it a musical instrument or a voice, just sounded closer to real.

I had the XP-20 playing in my system for only 3 days, shorter than my normal period for equipment evaluation (however, the XP-20 has been run-in in the shop), so I would take this as an initial impression.

I could already sense that some of you want to ask how my system sounded with Torus Power + X2.5 compared to my own Hydra 8 + XP-20. I would say that the improvement is bigger with the XP-20. What this shows, I think, is that there is a limit as to the magnitude of improvement I could get with my existing equipment, and indeed the XP-20 is a superior piece of gear. But I shudder to think how Torus Power + XP-20 would sound - it could have been audio nirvana. (No, I did not try this combination, the timing did not allow me to)

Sigh... too much temptation, too little money! :-)

Centre Circle Audio is holding a special offer on the XP-20 and some Pass Labs items for a limited time. Please call Centre Circle Audio +60 3 77282686 or Nelson Chia : + 60 12 2876807 to enquire.

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