Parasound Halo P 5 2.1-channel D/A preamplifier Page 2

It will be to no one's surprise that the Halo P 5 is supplied with a remote control. Equally unremarkable is the fact that I had no real interest in using it, although I did note that the handset is about as straightforward and non-horrible-looking as such things get. It includes all of the most basic functions—power, volume, muting, source selection—and while one can't use it to adjust the bass and treble per se, the handset does have buttons for Tone Controls On and Off. Subwoofer level and balance—two functions that I believe would be useful from one's listening seat—are absent. (Yes, I know how hypocritical that makes me sound.)

Straight out of the box, the Parasound P 5 sounded a bit dry; it wasn't lean, per se, nor were its trebles harsh or exaggerated, but the top end had a very slightly chalky quality, and the sound as a whole lacked the natural, abundant note decays I hear from my reference Shindo Masseto preamp. Yet for all that, the Parasound had an engagingly tight and impressively clean sound, with excellent pitch clarity and musical flow.

Over the next few weeks the P 5's textural qualities improved, and the top-end chalkiness I'd noted became a thing of the past. A slightly dry tonal signature endured throughout my time with the Parasound—the lush, liquid, buckets-of-tone sound that I associate with the finest tube preamplifiers was beyond its reach—yet the P 5 played music with enduringly good musical flow and momentum, and superb freedom from distortions of pitch or timing. At no time were those qualities more evident than when I listened to the recent recording, by mandolinist Chris Thile, of his transcriptions of J.S. Bach's Sonata 1 in g and Partita 1 in b for unaccompanied violin (LP, Nonesuch 536377-1). Pitch certainty—and a high level of my engagement with the music—were maintained throughout the wicked-fast Presto of Sonata 1 and the Double of Partita 1, and the double and triple stops in the Allemanda of the latter were remarkably clear, all the while maintaining good texture and color. Right out of the gate, I was impressed.

414para.rem.jpgThe P 5 also played music with what can only be described as surprisingly good color and presence. The exceptional recording of Milhaud's Les Quatre Saisons, played by Ensemble de Solistes des Concerts Lamoureux under the composer's direction (LP, Philips 6504 111), sounded wonderful through the P 5. The first movement's double bass, the playing of which alternates between plucking and bowing, had very good color, heft, and texture; equally well textured and believable were the dark horns of the third movement and the wide-ranging strings of the fourth, the sound of the latter instruments also notable for their clarity of pitch and realistic note attacks (although decays seemed a bit lacking).

The Milhaud recording also has a distinctive spatial characteristic; it is the rare stereo recording that sounds more like spatially nuanced mono, with convincing substance and physical presence, yet with considerable depth and with distinctly audible space between the instruments—which the Parasound reproduced nearly perfectly. The P 5 brought the same unfussy spatial performance to bear on a 1968 recording, by Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, of Vaughan Williams's Symphony 3 (LP, Angel S-36532), the final movement of which sounded so engagingly pretty that I wound up lifting the needle and playing it over, four times in a row. With the Parasound in place, the distant kettledrum that opens the movement was nicely put across, followed by the even more distant voice of soprano Margaret Price. Then, when the tension of those opening measures came to a close, the sheer beauty of the strings and woodwinds that followed was almost overwhelming, the P 5 conveying far more of the color and texture than I would have expected from a $1095 transistor product. The soundfield had tremendous scale, and equally tremendous depth and image placement—and yet the music making was itself so good that I concentrated not on those sonic details but on the emotional whole. Lovely—and, again, the sort of performance I associate with far more expensive, far more sophisticated gear.

The P 5 also sounded great on an original UK Decca collection of excerpts from Wagner's Götterdämmerung, by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic (LP, Decca SXL 6220). The Halo preamp allowed the combined instrumental and vocal forces to sound entertainingly huge, yet it well maintained the perspective and precision of placement in the sounds of individual singers (and sound effects). Note attacks were splendid—again, there was no audible blunting of impact, just as there was no distorting of the music's drive or momentum—and the strings, in particular, were well textured.

Notwithstanding its fine, realistically colorful way with unamplified music, the Parasound was also enjoyable with edgier fare, including a new reissue of King Crimson's seventh album, Red (LP, Discipline Global Mobile KCLP 7). The shifting guitar and electric-bass patterns in the title song were reproduced with good impact—as is typical of so many King Crimson recordings, this one was made with far less compression on those instruments than on the drum kit—and the P 5 did a great job of allowing the music to sound big. Unexpectedly, a recent, all-acoustic album recorded in 1970 by Neil Young, Live at the Cellar Door (LP, Reprise 535854-1), gave further evidence of the P 5's facility with impact of the louder sort, as it reproduced the very forcefully played piano chords in "Expecting to Fly" with just as much clarity and startle factor as does my more expensive Shindo Masseto.

Because I rely more heavily on LPs than on other sources, I made sure to audition all of the P 5's phono-setup possibilities. From my experiences with the MC settings—both the 100 ohm and 47k ohm loads—I consider them adequate as a leg up for owners just getting into vinyl, but their sound lacked the impact and presence for which a good MC pickup is, or ought to be, known. Additionally, I experienced very slight hum with the MC settings—a shade less with the 100 ohm setting—regardless of ground wiring. The MM input, when preceded by a good-quality step-up transformer, was both humless and far better sounding. And I do mean far: Only after I restored my step-up transformer between the turntable and the Halo P 5 was the sense of touch restored to John Fahey's plainly recorded acoustic guitar on his landmark debut, Blind Joe Death (LP, Takoma 4447/8), or the impact to Art Taylor's drumming in Donald Byrd's "Tanya," from Dexter Gordon's One Flight Up (LP, Blue Note/Cisco 84176). Those differences were profound, and in every instance the addition of a transformer made the direct-in approach sound like a poor substitute.

Digital Sources
A few words regarding the P 5's digital performance: Used with its USB input and compared with my reference Wavelength Proton outboard DAC ($599), the Parasound's built-in DAC had a more extended and somewhat clearer top end. David Rawlings's background vocals in Gillian Welch's "The Way It Goes," from her The Harrow & the Harvest (AIFF file from CD, Acony 1109), were easier to hear through the P 5, with better articulation and more certainty of pitch. For its part, the Wavelength sounded timbrally a little meatier, but also a little more artificially textured. The Parasound DAC was considerably cleaner and free from obvious distortion; one could say that it sounded a little more "hi-fi," yet in this instance that quality was, on the whole, preferable.

The pros and cons tipped in a slightly different direction when I compared the P 5's built-in DAC with Halide Design's outboard DAC HD ($450)—which, in my estimation, remains the affordable USB converter to beat. Especially with 16/44.1 music files, the Halide had more color, more natural texture, more body, and a far deeper, more engaging presentation of space—as with "Wrapped in Grey," from XTC's Nonsuch (AIFF from CD, Geffen GEFD-24474). Through the Halide, Andy Partridge's voice stood in greater relief to its musical surroundings; through the Parasound, the whole of the sound was flatter and more spatially compressed.

Exceptional clarity. Exceptional dynamics. Neutral without being colorless. Very well made and complete for the price. What's not to like?

On paper, prior to its arrival, the Parasound Halo P 5 seemed like an awful lot of product for the money; that impression was borne out in my system, and while there remain many aspects of the P 5 that I did not try, its musical performance in my system was more than merely satisfying. During its time here, the Parasound Halo P 5 replaced a preamp that sells for 14 times its price—while the latter's superiority was never in doubt, neither did I itch to get rid of the former.

This is about as fine a $1095 preamp as I can imagine in 2014. Heartily recommended.

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

otaku's picture

The remark about "carving away everything that does not look like a guitar" is not very original.

"Struggling to emerge from the brute marble, they remind us that Michelangelo is supposed to have said that he simply 'carved away everything that wasn't the sculpture'."

John Atkinson's picture

otaku wrote:
The remark about "carving away everything that does not look like a guitar" is not very original.

If you click on the link in the footnote to my review of the book on Henderson's guitars, you will see that I did say: "Most important, the reader is exposed to how a guitar can be made by someone who echoes Michelangelo by merely removing the excess: sawing, scraping, whittling, and sanding away from a pile of raw lumber everything that isn't a guitar."

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

yaka24's picture

It would be great to have a review of Emotiva XSP Gen 2 to compare this to. Same price range, similar features. 

Eddie Currents's picture

This is a bit off topic but owing to the fact that it probably never will be a Stereophile topic I decided to post it anyway.  On page 106 of the May 2003 issue of Hi-Fi World, David Price had some nice things to say about what must be the most unloved piece of audio equipment ever (no it's not an equalizer) - the servo controlled Japanese linear tracking turntable of the 1980s.  Scratching a senior citizen itch I bought one (Technics SL 5) on eBay and after getting over the shock that it worked at all, I was amazed by its performance (and I'll just leave it at that). Price talked about the SL 10 but says the 7 is the one to look for.  Ortofon makes a high input MC P-mount cart and LP Gear sells an MM with a Shibata stylus.  Maybe Art could find one at a yard sale, clean it up, take a listen and prove that it's not just the Brits who have an open mind.

Muzicianx's picture

Mr. Dudley - 

I really must ask why you were given the obvious chore of reviewing the P5.  You did not integrate it into a surround sound system, you did not use a subwoofer, you did not try the balanced connections, nor did you try it with an amp that might suit this particular preamp - say the A23, or modest counterpart.

I'm super excited that the phono stage is adequate, and surprised about your reactions to the DAC (glad to hear the positivities), but it would have been nice for this thing to be run through it's courses, as I can't be the only one seriously looking to buy, and integrate it in a critical listening environment.  

I know, try it for myself, listening is speculative, but this review is about as vanilla as it gets.  At least Audio Advisor has a trial period!

John Atkinson's picture

Muzicianx wrote:
You did not integrate it into a surround sound system...

Even if the Halo P5 has a home theater bypass function, it is not a surround-sound component.

Muzicianx wrote:
you did not use a subwoofer, you did not try the balanced connections...

Those aspects of the P5's performance were fully covered in the Measurements section.

Muzicianx wrote:
nor did you try it with an amp that might suit this particular preamp - say the A23, or modest counterpart.

Guilty as charged. :-)

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

R2D2's picture

Hi, I am in between the Parasound Halo P5 or the Nad C165Bee. This will be used for vinyl cd/SACD only. Which one Do you think suites better? It is going to be used with a 50-70 watt Nad or Parasound amplifier and a pair of Atlantic technology At-1 or AT-2's.
If I'm going for an integrated system, I like the Arcam A19, Creek 50A or the Yamaha A-S2000. Would you go for a separate or an integrated system taking into consideration the ones listed here? Do you think this would make any sound improvement over my current sound system: Nad 326bee, Nad 245bee 4 channel amp (for biamping a pair of PSB's Image T6), Nad C446bee cd player, Nad C446 media streamer and a Musical Fidelity M1DAC?
Thanks for your help...

sumitumi's picture

Does it allow airplay?

KeithWrites's picture

my current plan is to actually use this unit as designed. The Modwright Oppo-105D will feed the 5.1 - of which the R/L/Sub will go though the P5 to the amp, the SR/SL/C will go directly to the amp allowing the oppo to do the whole thing for movies - and 5.1 SACD material. The analog Stereo out of the Oppo with the Modwright Tube analog section will go to the P5 R/L input #1, the FM Tuner (yeah I still have one of those) will go to R/L Input #2

The sub out will go to the Velodyne HGS15BG and the R/L out will go to the amp and then to the Sonus faber Concerto's - the remaining channels of the amp (fed directly from the Oppo) will to to the Sonus faber center and surrounds.

Here are the questions:
Should Vpi Super Scoutmaster with the Shelter 501 go to the MC phono In - and at which setting?
Or should it go to my Linn Linto Phono Preamp and then to R/L Input #3?

Just how good is the Phono pre-amp in the P5?

Rick1958's picture

I am maybe (but maybe not) confused about what was used in the evaluation. Seems like Art didn't like the MC input with either load setting, but apparently the carts he used were (MM) mono and (low output MC) stereo. So were all the stereo LPs used with the LOMC thru an external stepup transformer into the MM input? Seems like it.

I assume his comments are referenced to the same MC cart thru the same transformer(s) into the (MM) input on his Shindo preamp?

Apparently NO stereo LPs were evaluated with a stereo MM cart of normal output into the MM input. I also didn't see any comments about the sound when used with the mono (apparently normal output) cart into I assume the stereo MM input.

Similar comment for the line level inputs. Seems like the sources were digital sources thru external DACs into the line level inputs, compared to the same sources into only the USB digital inputs (and not either of the 'higher res' capable digital inputs). So the DAC (at least with USB input) seems to be a little better than the Proton but not nearly as good as the Halide ...

I'd certainly be interested in what a (possibly higher res) digital source sounds like into the other digital inputs, compared to other external DACs ...

Maybe a follow up? I'll probably buy one anyway, but it'd be good to read about what folks with lots of other listening experience think about it. Which to me is the main point of reading Stereophile. I could listen to other components in showrooms, etc., but the real test is long term listening to a variety of components in one's own listening environment ... that is why your magazine continues to be important to us 'regular folk'.

Rick1958's picture

I am 'afraid' that the MM input won't have enough gain for this HOMC cart ... and since the MC inputs are crappy, seems like I'd need another 10dB or so of gain ... BUT aren't all SUTs low impedance input? Not suitable for the Denon cart. Arrrgggghhh.

Probably only way to know is to try. Know of any ~10dB gain SUTs or whatever with 47k inputs?