Pass Labs Aleph 3 power amplifier JA listens to the Aleph 3
The review text file from Muse Kastanovich in my CompuServe mailbox had an addendum attached to it. "Shake yo' groove thing, ya ya." it read. "I think it would be good for John Atkinson to take a listen to the Aleph 3 in his own system. I feel the Aleph 3 is worthy of Class A, and at its price that's quite a breakthrough. Thanks—Muse K." Then I read his review. He put the little Aleph 3 up against my personal reference, the humongous Mark Levinson No.333? And against a longtime favorite of Sam Tellig, the Quicksilver M-135? And found it superior to both? Time for the editor to wade into the fray!
I obtained a second sample of the Aleph 3 from Pass Labs and hooked it up with first my long-time reference speakers, the B&W Silver Signatures, then the Gradient Revolutions I reviewed last month, then the Epos ES12s and mbl 111s that I review elsewhere in this issue. (You can find the system details in those reviews.)
First thing to note was that MK hadn't sufficiently emphasized the amplifier's low sensitivity. With just 20dB of voltage gain available, I found myself operating the '38S preamplifier at much higher volume settings than I was used to. While this was not a problem in my system, it does mean that you need to match the Aleph 3 with a preamplifier capable of more than unity gain. Such fine-sounding units as the McCormack TLC-1 will not be suitable.
Second, trying to squeeze audiophile-approved cables with audiophile-approved spade lugs into the cramped space provided by Pass Labs for the Aleph 3's terminal posts was a pain in the you-know-what. The cables that I found to work best with the Aleph 3, a bi-wired set of AudioTruth Sterling, could only be used with Monster X-Terminators, an unnecessary complication.
Third, this inexpensive little amplifier sounded as good as MK described. Wide, deep, detailed soundstages; a delicious presentation of recorded detail without the sound getting in-your-face; a purity of tone that became addictive; and an ability to go sufficiently loud (in my room with my speakers) that belied the 30Wpc specification. And when the Aleph 3 did clip, it did so relatively gracefully.
The Mark Levinson still had better dynamics and control of a loudspeaker's bass, and throws a wide, deep, well-defined soundstage that is better than all other solid-state amplifiers I have previously tried in my system. However, I have to say that overall the little Aleph wins on points when compared against the Connecticut behemoth. Astonishing!
Given Martin Colloms's raptures over the Krell Full Power Balanced 600 elsewhere in this issue, it does look indeed that Class A in the "Amplifiers" section of Sterephile's "Recommended Components" is in need of an overhaul. Accordingly, over the next few months Wes Phillips will be comparing all the contendors.—John Atkinson