Parasound Halo Integrated integrated amplifier Page 2

Over and over, this recording, engineered by Marc J. Aubort, parlayed the unexpected into the marvelous. It riveted my awareness on the deep volume of the recording venue. With my mind's eye, I watched as bottle rockets of harmonic energy shot from the piano strings to the hall's walls and back, on the way combining with the sounds of the lingering decays of orchestral bursts. My focus ricocheted from inside the piano, near the strings, to the ceiling of Buffalo's Kleinhans Music Hall, where this was recorded in March 1968. Energy swelled and vanished in fascinating ways.

With either MM or MC cartridges, the Halo Integrated's overall sound was spirited, naturally detailed, and alluringly three-dimensional, but clearly lacking in those extra degrees of slam and gratuitous resolution that audiophiles seem to crave.

Listening to Digital
The experiential differences between digital and analog playback can best be compared to the aesthetic differences between machine- and hand-sewn quilts. Each is the product of forms of encryption, decryption, and energy storage that are antithetical to the other. Each type of decryption feels significantly different.

The Halo Integrated's ESS Sabre32 DAC chip presented music with a relaxed and hand-sewn feel. This effect was especially noticeable with high-resolution music files, which the Halo's DAC delivered as an easy-moving, organic weave of tones and textures.

For three nights straight I played classical and blues CDs, switching like a mad audiophile between the Halo Integrated's DAC and my Halide Design DAC HD ($550). Each night I grew more impressed with the balance and neutrality of the Halo's decryption. The Halide, which uses a Wolfson WM8716 chip, was always way fun, with great boogie, but generally leaned toward the softer side of neutral. But the modest Halo came surprisingly—and enjoyably—close.

Listening with Loudspeakers
Magnepan .7: "Our amps will drive everything," Parasound designer John Curl likes to brag. They are, he suggests, "designed to pull trailers." Well, the Magnepan .7s are unquestionably heavy, low-impedance, current-hungry trailers that can be pulled only by tractor-like amps. Parasound power amplifiers, such as the Halo JC 1 (the "JC" stands for John Curl), have a longstanding reputation for lying back and smiling as they make Magnepans sing. But when I used the Halo Integrated with the .7s, I didn't smile. I laughed. I had never heard any Magnepan speaker move and hustle and boogie and croon as the .7s were now doing in my room. This combination of amp and speakers made for pure audio joy.

Rogue Audio's Sphinx class-D integrated ($1295) also played the Maggies with fun life and good authority, but with nowhere near the suave beauty and colorful delicacy of the class-A/AB Halo. Halo-Maggie soundstages were enormous and tangible. This duo danced like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, making every tune charming and exhilarating. They played holistically, never drawing my attention to any part of the audioband—except maybe the midrange, which was exceptionally textured and colorful.

KEF LS50: Here, tone character and dynamics were in the center ring. I felt as if the KEF LS50s gave me perhaps the clearest picture of the Halo Integrated's personality: clear and clean, pretty even and steadygoing—not dark or light, not hard or soft. Maybe the most neutral? This pairing felt as if it was replicating the sonic qualities of its input signal a little more than the Parasound-Magnepan combo—vocal intelligibility was better—but it wasn't as enjoyable or as emotionally engaging.

Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a: The Halo Integrated drove the Falcon LS3/5a's with ease and precision. The imaging was glorious. Tone character was pure and satisfying. My emotional involvement was higher than with the KEF LS50s. While listening to Susanne Rosenberg, Jean-Lou Descampes, Christophe Deslignes, and Thierry Gomar's medieval-style acoustic folk music on their Out of Time and Country (CD, M•A Recordings M080A), I was startled several times by the dynamics of this amp-speaker combination. However, the Halo had less instrumental color and vocal richness through the Falcons than had the considerably more expensive Vinnie Rossi LIO ($7855) or Line Magnetic LM-518IA ($4450) integrateds, both of which I've recently reviewed.

Headphone amplifier
Because the Halo Integrated has only a 3.5mm headphone jack (why not a ¼" jack?), I wasn't prepared to take its headphone amp very seriously. When I asked about it, Richard Schram said, "It is an independent amp—no cheesy tapping off the speaker outputs. It is located directly behind the headphone jack and isolated from all the other circuitry." He described it as "class-AB with current feedback architecture," and explained, "It could output 700mA per channel and slew 1300V/µs . . . which prevents odd-order harmonic distortion . . . that is even more fatiguing with headphones than speakers. . . . [O]dd higher-order distortion is anathema to John Curl."

I became more interested in the Halo's headphone amp when I discovered that it uses the same TI op-amp chip as my Burson Conductor headphone amp, which drives every set of headphones I've tried with an uncanny combination of crystalline detail, warrior punch, and breathy sophistication.

You say you believe in accurate and neutral? I say: Listen to AKG's K812 headphones ($1499). More than any other 'phones I've used, the K812s show me the input signal. At a Chesky Records recording session, I compared them with several other premium high-end 'phones, all fed a live signal from a binaural microphone. It wasn't even close. The K812s delivered an uncanny facsimile of what I experienced sitting with the musicians directly behind the dummy head in the recording studio, a former church.

So: Listening to Willie and Paula Nelson sing a Creedence Clearwater Revival classic—John Fogerty's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?," from Willie's To All the Girls (CD, Columbia/Legacy 88765425862)—I felt that the AKG K812s were giving me the emotionally charged but uncolored, accurate truth. I felt completely connected to the lyrics and the voices' expression—so connected that I choked up and rocked my head uncontrollably. The sound character was rich and strong. I knew that the Halo's headphone amp could make me sing, pump my fist, and cry.

When I asked Schram how the Halo's headphone amp drove high-impedance loads, he channeled John Curl: "It can drive anything—even 600 ohms!" I smiled. I remembered that I could listen to the Halo with both the 32- and 600-ohm versions of Beyerdynamic's excellent, moderately priced, extremely comfortable DT 880 'phones ($420). Game on.

Through the Halo Integrated, the 32-ohm DT 880s had lots of body-massaging presence and cheek-kissing charm. (Most audiophiles don't realize just how body-massaging and physical a good set of phones can be.) The Halo played Au Revoir Simone's self-produced first album, Verses of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation (CD, Moshi Moshi MOSHICD 08) with the same level of artful sincerity and pre-partum expectations this hip girl trio from Brooklyn put into it. Then I tried the 600-ohm DT 880s.

I was stunned. The Halo's headphone amp delivered plenty of voltage, which let the high-impedance Beyerdynamics recover so much more microdetail, fine texture, and midrange color that I found myself wishing I were young again and hanging out in that Williamsburg basement studio with Au Revoir Simone's Erika Forster, Heather D'Angelo, and Annie Hart.

The Halo Integrated drove both the 4-ohm Magnepans and the 600-ohm Beyerdynamics with such eager and joyful finesse that I am forced to declare: This trio of reasonably priced hi-fi products might comprise one of the best-ever audiophile systems for under $5000.

Okay, I lied. The Parasound Halo Integrated is not as neutral as I said it was at the beginning. After lots of listening, I realized that it has a recognizable sonic personality: easy flowing, mostly smooth, and decidedly mellow. I imagine a big part of this perceived mellowness might be a result of John Curl's disdain for odd-order distortion. But don't worry—it's not milquetoast mellow or unwashed-hippy-stoner mellow. It is, instead, an everything's-under-control, don't-worry-now mellow. The Halo played tunes and sang songs as if they mattered. It stuck close to the facts. It was never boring. It frequently enhanced my feelings of devotion and mindfulness.

I believe that J. Gordon Holt would characterize the Parasound Halo Integrated as neutral and accurate. Why? Because, with certain extra-vivid recordings, I perceived the Halo as tracking the input signal pretty close to the feeling of master tape. Likewise, it was neutral, in that well-considered, just-right Goldilocks way: It was never too anything—except, maybe, too inexpensive!

Parasound Products, Inc.
2250 McKinnon Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124
(415) 397-7100

Ishmael's picture

Herb, I think you may have been given bad info somewhere along the line. Your Burson does not use a TI chip for the headphone out. In fact Burson is very anti-opamp, and has been pushing that agenda for some time. I believe the Halo integrated uses the same headphone stage as Parasound's Zdac v2 incorporating a TI TPA6130a2 chip. Other than that, a very enjoyable write up.

Long-time listener's picture

Looking at the graphs showing the tone controls, I've realized this is not an amp I want to buy. The fashion in tone controls these days is to "keep them out of the midrange" by boosting mostly the extreme highs and lows. But the result is that all you get is a lot of extra hiss in the high treble along with some awful, thudding, one-note bass. I've had several amps with tone controls like this and I hate them.

To actually hear a subjective increase in bass or treble, tone controls need to center more on the mid-bass (100 Hz) and mid-treble (10 kHz), and should level off below and above those that points. This doesn't affect the midrange, except in the sense of providing a nice transition to it. The tone controls in this amp are useless. Fashions come and go; this one has never made any sense.

nick22samm's picture

I couldn't disagree more. Like most, I prefer to bypass the tone controls, but they are far from useless, and how important and useful a function they serve will be HEAVILY dependent on the rest of your equipment, the albums you're listening to/how they were mastered, and your preferences. Boosting treble a bit for certain albums, especially with my paradigm studio speakers, has proven to be an invaluable asset that brings the sound quality to a whole new level, allowing the entire system to work together in a way that produces sound rivaling systems and speakers 10 times the cost. It has also allowed tweaks to allow me to get a poor mastering of one album to sound identical to that of a known to be better master of the same album, in the same or different format. Some "audiophile," tenets really need to go away and people need to be more open to various features, formats, etc, instead of sticking to their preconceived beliefs with greater conviction than religious zealots.

the short of it: the tone controls are not useless, they're very valuable; and with true bypass inherent in its circuity, the worst-case scenario for its biggest opponents is simple: don't use it

Long-time listener's picture

You're not reading what I wrote. I said the tone controls "in this amp," are, for me, useless. I didn't say ALL tone controls are useless. I'm VERY heavily in favor of them. But again, if they only boost the very lowest bass and the very highest treble, it only results in a dull, thudding bass or extra hiss and brightness. Tone controls whose action includes a boost in the mid-bass and mid-treble as well as the further extremes are much more musical, and are the ones I favor.

nick22samm's picture

doing vinyl rips with and without tone controls on, set to various degrees, and comparing them to one another, as well as needledrops with the tone controls off, has completely debunked your assertion, verified not just by listening but comparing the visual audiowaves of each recording at the same point in the song to one another. And certainly no highlighting hiss unless completely maxing out the treble, or using it on an already hot or treble-heavy album/master

Allen Fant's picture

Very good review -HR.
the specs certainly make this integrated powerful. Maggies aside, the ultimate speaker to drive would be the Thiel Cs 2.4 or Cs 2.7.
These too, are current-hungry monsters that deliver the audio "goods" when fed properly.

wgb113's picture

My two primary transducers of choice. I wonder how the Halo would match up with my McIntosh MA6300 & Oppo HA-1 combo. Could be nice to "downsize" and have more flexibility in the subwoofer integration department.

tschwagerl's picture

thanks for taking the time to write about several different type of speakers paired with this particular amp. I wish more reviews would write little paragraphs detailing the differences between each one (what you liked and didn't like). Most helpful when trying to find the right combination.

schmonballins's picture

I know it's late to comment on this review, but I have owned my Halo Integrated for over a year and this review is entirely accurate. I have my Halo Integrated paired with PBN Audio's Montana EPS Speakers. This amp makes those speakers sing. I use every part of this amp, and I must say that this review is accurate. I just wanted to make a plug for this amp powering some more "affordable" Montana Speakers. It is a great pairing, I know that I am late to comment. Most people buying Montana speakers have a bigger budget for all of the other components, but if you are looking for a pair of used EPS speakers or EPS2s they can be had for around 5K, plus the 2.5K for this amp, you have an amazing stereo for less than 10K.