September 9, 2011

Pass(t) Statement, Pass Labs X-0.2 Preamp.

All 3 chassis of the Pass Labs X-0.2 preamp, top is control/power supply unit and both the mono audio boxes below, one for the left and the other for the right chanel.

If there's one thing that I'll admit to about hifi is that I am kinda of a bottom feeder within the high end circles. I am not a wealthy man with unlimited resources, however I do crave for excellent sound quality in my pursuit for musical satisfaction. What's a poor guy like me to do?

The answer is to obviously buy "terpakai", or used gears! In the context of my hifi system, for the purpose of system matching synergy, I've always been secretly hoping to find a used bargain in the form of a Pass Labs X-1 preamp, to complement my existing X-Ono phono stage and especially the Aleph 0 mono block power amps, due to their 20db only, 3 gain stage topology, which requires preamps to have a certain level of gain, unlike much of today's latest zero gain designs. Clearly the X series of Pass Labs preamps is the more suit able candidate to match my power amps.

As fate would have it, I have out done my self again in spectacular fashion, the moment I crossed path with this Pass Labs X-0.2 three chassis of a former flagship preamp. I asked for a home audition and as they say, the rest is history!

I've separated the control/power supply unit to the shelf on the left, just below the Linn LP12 turn table, and placed the two mono audio chassis on the bottom right  shelves.

Switching over from the entry level Pass Labs X-2.5 preamp, it was easy to hear where all the compromises were made with the cheaper model. Not that the X-2.5 is a bad product, in fact far from it. I've been a happy camper for a good 4 years or so in terms ownership satisfaction. However, when compared to the alpha X-0.2 sibling, it's easy to experience a whole new level of refinement, bloom and dynamics in musical performance. By today's high end standards, the X-0.2 is not particularly neutral on the tonal front, compared to the 6H30 tube based ARC Reference 3 and the latest batch of reference level preamps which we reviewed recently. While the entire Pass Labs X series preamp shares similar sonic characteristics, the level of high frequency refinement with less grain and mid range smoothness improves as one moves up the range with the X-0.2 most charming with a certain romantic bloom, so evident in earlier tube preamp designs. The X-0.2 offers subliminal, textured, and solid bass reproduction. It's noise floor levels are not as low as the latest XP-20 that good ol' Odiosleuth had up graded to recently, but still amongst the most quiet of preamps as they come. Out right transparency and low level signal preservation is another area where the newer preamp designs like the XP-20 has clearly marched on. So clearly, statements about the XP-20 out performing the Pass(t) statement product are not without substance.

The X-0.2 claws back with superb micro and macro dynamics, plus top notch linearity to boot. This is where the X-2.5 tends to fall short, during orchestral performance climaxes, with the string and horn section on full tilt while the tympani beating relentlessly, as experienced when playing the opening track from Reference Recording's Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, performing Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. During playback of orchestral materials like this, the X-2.5 will sound hardened, with the sound stage collapsing syndrome clearly apparent, while the X-0.2 sails on calmly, with not a hint of stress. I suppose the wider(double) volume range of the alpha preamp helps too. The Pass X-0.2 also better preserves timbre and harmonics of  wood wind instruments like the flute and oboe, not to mention string instruments like the violin, cello and piano, especially of the "grand" variety.

Like much of the older tube based preamp designs too, the X-0.2 offers an expansive sound stage, with clearly perceptible layers within the depth portrayed. It's ability to add a "halo" of air around each vocal, or instrument presented within that deep sound stage makes the musical reproduction just that bit more convincing. Many people, including Odiosleuth commented that there's a certain tube like sound element in my system since the addition of the X-0.2 preamp.

When last available in year 2009, the X-0.2 retailed for nearly RM$36k. I got this clean 2006 example for half the original outlay. It's certainly not cheap, but this is a very charming, if not the most neutral sounding top flight preamp I've come across. I'd certainly think it's got character, with it's Y2K millennia retro lab chunky styling and robust enough build quality to last a life time. Pass Labs certainly thinks so too, because after a 2 year break, they had decided to re-introduce the latest 3 chassis statement design again, this time in the form of the XP-30, which incidental had just started shipping out of the US now!

A closer look.

With the 3 chassis(connected by no less than 4 umbilical cords) Pass Labs X-0.2 preamp, I had re-align my hifi rack space requirement, as along with the 2 chassis X-Ono phono stage and 2 box Bryston BDP/BDA-1 combo digital source and a Linn LP12 turn table, pushing my shelf space levels to a grand total of eight!  Thank fully, the FE Spider clone design is as modular as the original, which I'll touch on the set up soon.

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