Pass Labs Aleph 3 power amplifier Page 3
What listening indeed
The Aleph 3 takes at least an hour to warm up to its final operating state. Both measured distortion and noise are higher when it is cold. Still, the amp sounded so good that, even in its handicapped cold state, it was fun to listen to. I didn't leave it on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, because I'm one of those tree-hugging wackos who likes to conserve electricity.
The amp was very quiet. It was necessary to place my ear right next to the speaker to hear any noise at all. The low noise floor allowed the music to emerge out of a very black background, even at ridiculously low listening levels.
I had trouble thinking of ways to describe the sound of this amplifier, for it had very little sound at all. When I put on A Meeting by the River (Water Lily WLA-CS-29-CD), the guitars and drums sprang to life in an incredibly precise soundstage, with the emphasis on sproinggg! Muddy Waters's Folk Singer (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 593) was just plain surprising. A deep, round, scratchy-voiced, big, black man was in the room with me. The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Live at Winterland (Ryko RCD 20038) took me back to the old analog daze. It was a toy store called Stadiums 'R' Us, with grumpy bass, sweet singing, and lively drums encouraging plenty of mind-altered wandering. And that distortion coming off of Jimi's amps—yeaaaaaaaah, it hurt so good!
Treble, midrange, bass: Describing the Aleph 3's treatment of these would be like choosing the color of a chameleon. Never was I aware of any region existing separately from the others, or receiving more or less emphasis than the others. The frequency balance of the system changed with changes in recording, source components, speakers, and cables. If there was a persistent balance that was attributable to the amp, I did not hear it.
One of the most striking things about the Aleph 3 was the way it helped recreate the sounds of individual instruments. Each instrument in an ensemble could be picked out of the precisely defined soundstage. When I concentrated on it, the instrument had body, as though I could reach out and feel its physicality vibrating with the music. Of course, this ability was not just good for highlighting soloists; it also created a more detailed and interesting sound when I concentrated on the whole band or orchestra. Nowhere was this quality more endearing than on R. Carlos Nakai's Desert Dance (Celestial Harmonies 13033-2), a collection of Native American prayers to a very important place, the San Luis Valley. Alternating on wood flute, drum, and voice, Nakai's whole being appeared, with the size and form of each sound, and even the Lindisfarne chapel, completely obvious. Reverberation came streaming off the walls of the chapel, almost as if the ancient spirits who were the subjects of some of his prayers were actually accompanying him.
No doubt the capability to flesh out individual instruments was partly due to the Aleph 3's incredible preservation of detail. Thanks to the low standards of the mainstream recording industry, this detail was a mixed blessing. Crummy recordings had no place to hide, being presented in their fully imperfect states for the first time. I listened to them and enjoyed them anyway. True, they would have been much more enjoyable had higher-quality gear or engineers been used to record them, but the Pass amp managed to give them a liveliness they really didn't deserve. Those flaws were plenty lively too, oh yeah.
Though the amp only puts out 30Wpc, the power increases considerably into lower impedances. In months of listening, I was never able to get the Aleph 3 to clip or even put out high distortion. Nevertheless, there are many who have much larger listening rooms and prefer much louder volumes. Of course, there are more powerful, more expensive Pass Labs amps for those people. A little reminder is in order: With only a 5dB difference in maximum sound level, if 100W is enough for someone, chances are she would do just fine with 30W too.
There is a definite drawback to this amplifier's sound. It's so good and so transparent that it will make you want to spend too much money upgrading the rest of your system. Other financial obligations will fall by the wayside as you buy better source components, better cables, better speakers. Every improvement will be easily heard, with seemingly no end to the potential for greater sound. The cash will flow for new recordings from audiophile labels, too, further raising your standards. Eventually you'll be sitting around waiting for the new 96kHz-sampled, 24-bit technology to appear in stores—all in vain, for you won't have any money left to buy it with. Don't say I didn't warn you.