June 16, 2011

Even Better the Second Time Around - Pass Labs XP-20 Pre-amp

This is my second time having the Pass Labs XP-20 pre-amp, Pass’ current top dog in its 2-model pre-amp line-up, for a listening in my system. The first time was 2 years ago, in my old room, with largely similar companion components in the system. You can read about it here.

Then, I was extremely impressed with the advancement made by the XP-20 over my own Pass Labs X2.5 pre-amp, now discontinued. The senior and newer model showed its predecessor a clean pair of heels. I was so tempted to acquire the XP-20 unit, but my brain got the better of my heart and I reluctantly returned it to the distributor. I did go back to enquire about the unit again a couple of weeks later, but some lucky soul was ahead of me and the XP-20 was gone.

The matter thus lay dormant in my memory… until recently. We at Hifi-Unlimited are sort of having a pre-amp ‘phase’ now, triggered by the revelatory performance from Ayre’s KX-R pre-amp a few months ago. We became interested to know how the current crop of top pre-amps fare, possibly with the latest component improvement. So Big E got hardworking scouring for pre-amps from a few marquees to listen to. In fact, even as I am writing now, a Jeff Rowland pre-amp is waiting in the wings for us to tell its story.

Anyway, let’s go back to the Pass Labs XP-20.

The Pass Labs XP-20 pre-amp is a 2-box affair, one box containing the circuitry and the other containing the power supply. The additional space afforded by the additional box allowed Pass Labs to design a more elaborate power supply and also to reduce its interference on the audio circuitry. The only downside I see in this is that you’d need additional rack space to accommodate an extra box.

In terms of inputs, it has 2 balanced and 3 single-ended pairs plus a tape loop. The fifth input can be used as a home theatre pass through with unity gain, which I found handy to hook my AVR to, since I drive my main speakers as the front left-right channels in my 6.1 AV setup. In terms of outputs, it has 1 balanced pair and 2 single-ended pairs, all can be used at the same time.

The operations of the remote control had been improved on. Now, you can press a button to directly select a function, rather than the previous generation’s approach where you had to scroll through the menu using arrow keys to choose what you want.

All the qualities I heard in the XP-20 during the first encounter were still evident in this second helping. I’d go further to say that the XP-20 performed even better now in my system. Probably because of the bigger space and treatment of the new room, the system breathes better, allowing the quality of a component to come through easier.

The Pass Labs XP-20 sounded quieter than my Pass Labs X2.5, it also sounded more composed and calm, but, at the same time, had improved dynamic range and dynamic contrast. Music came through breathing and living, with greater excitement and more verve.

Focus was very good, image edges were clearer and it was done to a right degree, sounding natural to my ears as it avoided going overboard and became the clinical and etched type. With such good focus, the images had excellent separation, left to right, front to back.

The XP-20 conjured up a dense sonic picture, like it was made up of many more pixels. The pixels are finer too, giving the sound a smoothness that I rarely experienced and once experienced found very hard to live without.

The highs through the XP-20 was clean and transparent; the mid had good body; the bass, while solid, was the fist in velvet glove kind rather than the bare knuckle type. Overall, it has a very even balance without undue emphasis on any frequency spectrum.

Compared to the Ayre KX-R, in terms of tonal colour, both are essentially neutral but with a slight nudge in different directions. The KX-R had a tinge of golden hue and a dab of honey sweetness especially in the highs. Good recordings of female vocals tend to melt your heart. In contrast, the XP-20 was slightly more silver-ish, slightly more muscular sounding, and it emphasized the effort and energy in the singing which set one’s pulse racing just a tad more. Overall, the Ayre KX-R triumphed in the refinement department. Well, that’s what you’d expect to get paying more, I suppose.

I find that much as I love the Ayre KX-R, I love the Pass Labs XP-20 too. The KX-R’s pricing is prohibitive to me. The Pass Labs XP-20, though having a lower price tag than the KX-R, still lists for a 'financially challenging' RM31,200. But should a man let his love slip away a second time?

Should I?

Pass Labs is carried by Perfect Hi-Fi. Contact Andy at 03-5882 1693

1 comment:

mikelau.2 said...


Go for it man !