July 20, 2011

Are You XP-erienced? A Second Take From X to XP. Pass Labs XP-10 & 20 Pre-amps.

Both me and Odiosleuth have been using the Pass Labs X-2.5 pre-amp for quite a few years now. Our latest craze for high end pre-amps have told us that pre-amp circuitry has marched on since. I know there's a group of audiophiles out there who think we're plain nuts to spend that kind of $$$ on a pre-amp. To that group, the pre-amp is a non necessity, as long as you have a CD player with variable volume output control. Now I've tried that approach many years ago my self, but never bought in to the argument presented. I still prefer my sound with a high quality pre-amp in the signal chain. Am I any more wrong or right compared to the non pre-amp advocates? Who knows? Then there's that passive pre-amp group too, but let's not worry about them for now.

All I know is that pre-amps should be rather simple devices used to switch sources and control volume as it's primary function, and no more. Then why is it, in the scheme of high end audio, that the pre-amp becomes critical to the matching of a given system's synergy? Some would argue that impedance matching is the other main(yet unseen) role that the pre-amp plays.  For me, I am not much for arguments, let alone discussion. I just like to play with hifi and hear the sound which allows me to enjoy my music.
Odiosleuth's new up grade, the Pass Labs XP-20 pre-amp. The XP-10 looks exactly the same,  only without the power supply box at the bottom.
I am sorry I digressed, but let's get back to point, the Pass Labs XP series pre amps. They've been around for some time, but due to Pass Labs streamlining their dealership process, their availability has suffered some what in the local context. I managed to get my hands on an XP-10(not supplied by dealer) for this article, to evaluate as a possible upgrade option from my current X-2.5 pre-amp.

From the moment the XP-10 was inserted in to my system, I thought I heard many similar sonic cues that reminded me why I liked and bought the X-2.5, rightly so, because the Pass XP series is a re-working and tidying up of the earlier versions of the same Super Symmetrical X circuitry. I first tried to use the 0db gain setting as recommended by Pass Labs, but the XP-10 did not have sufficient drive to match my low(20db only, normally at least 26db with other power amp designs, including the newer X and XA series by Pass) gain Pass Aleph 0 mono blocks. So I selected the gain on the XP-10 to +4db, which is the default, and recommended setting for the older X-2.5 design. With the higher gain setting, I heard exactly the same warmish neutrality sonic signature with slightly dried high frequency characteristics of  Pass, but only lower noise floor and improved transparency. Sound staging too is a little more vivid, with images slightly more fleshed out, compared to the older pre-amp. By the way, the XP-10's high frequency reproduction is much more refined too.

Coming from my point of being owner to an X-2.5, I'd probably not rush out for an upgrade now and save longer for something with a bigger margin of improvement. However, if one is looking for a high quality pre-amp within the RM$20k budget range, then the XP-10 is still very much worthy of your consideration, with though competition coming from the Ayre K-5XeMP and the much cheaper, if just as good "Small Wonder" Jeff Rowland Capri.

Odiosleuth tested the XP-20 pre-amp when it was first launched, but could never quite forget about it. That's how much he liked it. I did not get the chance to play with it then. However, with the dealership issue settled, Perfect Hi-Fi has kindly allowed us to try the XP-20 again, and this time, Odioslueth did not think twice about doing the up grade. Luckily, I managed to wrestle it from him for just a day to test it out in my system.

The moment I fired up the XP-20, I was thinking to my self "now this is more like it!" The two box XP-20 came with very bold expectations as the foreign reviews already claimed that it's so... good, that it made the much more expensive and higher end X-0.2, three box model redundant. I found the XP-20 to again, have that similar familiar neutrality with "a tinge of warmth" tonal balance, which is good. The highs are super refined and made the X-2.5 sound somewhat course and splashy by comparison. I have never had the opportunity to play with the older X-1 model so all comparisons will be referred with the X-2.5 pre-amp. The XP-20 is astonishingly transparent and can give those pre-amps costing 2, even 3 times it's price a run for their $$$. Again, the XP-20 also came close to those more expensive designs, when it comes to the handling of micro and macro dynamics. Acoustic guitar strings and violin reproduction were very live like and vocals have great density within. Bass is not earth moving, but of the more supple kind in quality. Sound staging is wide open and images with stability, plus the layers within the sound stage easy to discern. One particular area I thought the Pass XP-20 to be out standing is the linearity factor. Here, it holds the musical performance tightly at all volumes, unlike the X-2.5, it never suffered from symptoms like a collapsing sound staging and  lost of control, as a result of high playback volume during musical peaks.

The word that kept coming to my mind as I was listening to the XP-20 was "coherence". All musical reproduction aspects have been rendered as such, where any area of performance is particularly focused, or poorly rendered. You may also say "balanced performance" comes to mind too. Compared to those more ambitious and expensive designs, the RM$32k XP-20 gives away very little in musical performance. I must congratulate Odiosleuth on his fine choice of pre-amp.

One question keeps coming back to my mind, "Why pay more for a pre-amp?"

Due to the very short time I had spent with both the Pass Labs XP series pre-amps, I'd rather label this post as a preview.

Pass Labs is sold by Perfect Hi-Fi, contact Andy Tan at 03-58821693.

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