Pass Laboratories XA60.8 monoblock power amplifier

Years ago, when I was young and foolish (instead of old and foolish, as now), I was hanging out with a friend at a strip-mall strip club in a small southeastern city. A youngish lady approached our table in G-string and pasties and did a tableside dance. My friend's jaw scraped the floor; I, noting her lack of enthusiasm, was unmoved. The stripper noted my impassivity and stated, with irony that at the time I somehow missed, "You're a hard man."

John Atkinson, too, is a hard man, at least when it comes to audio gear. When, in January 2014, he reviewed the Pass Laboratories XA60.5 monoblock amplifier, he concluded, "It is the best-sounding amplifier I have ever used." High praise.

But years later, when a pair of the XA60.5's successor, the XA60.8, arrived for review in JA's Brooklyn abode, he promptly stuck them in a closet. Apparently, he doesn't fall in love too easily.

Many months later, in midwinter, it became clear to JA that his dance card was still full and he wasn't going to get to the XA60.8 monoblocks "anytime soon." He asked me to give them a listen. It took a few more months for me to make it out to Brooklyn to pick up the XA60.8s. On returning home, I promptly put them in my own closet for a while.

When I finally hooked up the XA60.8s, it was August. In New York, August's only saving grace is that bridges out of town are not far away, and neither is fall, with its promise of new love and cooler weather. In August, most of my neighbors have fled to various hills and Hamptons—anywhere there might be a cool breeze. I, lacking funds and rural real estate, embrace my fan and nurse cool beverages.

Obsessive Stereophile readers will recall that in the December 2016 issue I wrote a Follow-Up on Lamm Industries' M1.2 Reference Signature monoblocks, which JA had originally reviewed in April 2012. I called the Lamms "awesome music machines," but my apartment, which has no AC, was oh, so hot. The Lamms' weight, size, prohibitive cost ($27,390/pair), and—especially—the heat they produced offset their considerable musical merit. They "literally do not fit into my life," I wrote, concluding that "I want my stuff to work with me, to complement the way I like to live."

After I wrote that quasi-review of the Lamms, one perceptive online commenter made a compelling point: When you're in love, you don't care if your partner (in this case, identical twins) is hard to live with—you just want to be with them all the time. And surely, the hotter they are, the better.

So, will I fall in love? Listen in.

Point 8
The Pass Labs XA60.8s do have some logistical—that is, non-audio—advantages over the Lamm M1.2 References. At $13,500/pair, they cost less than half the Lamms' price, and put out significantly less heat.

But at 88 lbs, the XA60.8 is even heavier than the Lamm, which makes each of them the heaviest component I've had in my system, not counting loudspeakers. And because, at 19" wide by 7.5" high by 21.25" deep, the Pass monos are low-slung, deep, and wide, they take up more floor space than the Lamms.

1217pass.bac.jpg

If you consider only its size and weight, you might conclude that the XA60.8 is a powerhouse designed to drive difficult loudspeaker loads. But that size is deceiving. As the model number implies, it's specified to produce 60W RMS (120W peak)—almost 1.5 lbs of heavy metal per watt, and easily the greatest ratio of weight to power of any amplifier I've directly experienced (footnote 1).

Brute force, apparently, isn't the XA60.8's nature. "We approached the development of the XA series with an eye to creating a warm/sweet X amplifier, or conversely, a powerfully dynamic Aleph," said Nelson Pass in an article quoted in JA's review of the XA60.5. It might be best to think of these amps as delicate little flea-watt flowers scaled up—way up—to provide enough practical class-A power to drive reasonable loudspeakers. The sonic goals are touch, texture, delicacy, sweetness, vividness, corporeality.

Then why are they so heavy? "The weight is mainly in the massive aluminum heatsinks and the steel power transformers," Nelson Pass told me in an e-mail. In contrasting the .8 with the .5 series, Pass Labs' ad copy focuses on refinements that yield synergy, but the most obvious change is the increase in mass: Each XA60.8 has the same power as its predecessor but is 22 lbs heavier. "When you start making all things equal, the amplifier with the bigger hardware seems to have the advantage," Pass told me—a subjective observation, but surely one based on long experience, and it has a certain appeal. As an old engineering friend who raced motorcycles used to say, there's no substitute for cubic inches.

Bigger hardware, though, can bring downsides, Nelson Pass told me. "[Y]ou can find yourself trading off other qualities, so you have to be careful what you might be giving up."

Listening
I currently have in my system a pair of Alta Audio's Titanium Hestia loudspeakers, in for review. The Titanium Hestias replaced the DeVore Fidelity The Nine speakers with which I started my auditioning of the XA60.8s, and are big and produce a lot of bass. With appropriate recordings, they cast a huge soundstage: wide, tall, stable, and—especially—deep.

I've long been ambivalent about recordings with a lot of venue sound, as they tend to mix up the acoustics of the original venue and the listening room, causing sonic confusion. I've generally preferred close-miked recordings that deliver intimacy and texture and put musicians in the room with me, instead of transporting me to a different space. With such recordings, there's only one main acoustic involved, so the opportunity for aural confusion is minimized.

That preference, I now realize, was partly a result of a dearth of experience: I'd never had speakers in my home that could convincingly reproduce the illusion of a big space. You can't completely get rid of the local room—I wouldn't want to (footnote 2)—but you can tilt the balance toward the recording venue in a convincing fashion.

Pass Labs' ad copy emphasizes the XA60.8s' accurate reproduction of recording venues. I speculate that this goes back to something Nelson Pass said in my interview with him in the September 2017 issue. He noted how his First Watt experiments with amplifiers based on static-induction transistors (SITs) led to an insight into the subjective effects of second-harmonic distortion, particularly its phase, and in turn influenced his design of his big Pass Labs amps. "The SIT being very much like a triode, it is easy to make a single bias adjustment which affects the second harmonic distortion of the device, ranging from a relatively large amount [of] positive phase second [harmonic] through a null point with no second [harmonic], to large, negative phase second-harmonic distortion," he said. "Negative-phase second harmonic tends to expand the perception of front-to-back space in the soundstage, separating instruments a bit. Positive phase does the opposite, putting things subjectively closer and 'in your face.'"

1217pass.side.jpg

The changes Pass was describing were first implemented years ago, in the amps in the X, Xs, and XA series, but according to a Pass Labs marketing brochure, "The Point 8 amps present a more accurate representation of the recording venue." Having heard the XA60.8, my ears tell me that Nelson Pass must have gone with negative-phase distortion. When I put the Pass Labs monoblocks in my system, the Alta Titanium Hestias' ability to create a huge, convincing soundstage was enhanced not a little but a lot. I couldn't help but hear it. I'd never heard an amplifier make such an obvious difference.

Now that I live in New York, I interact often with other audiophiles. On separate occasions, two audiophile friends who are familiar with my system noticed the change as soon as they walked through my door. (My listening chair is just a few feet away.) That big soundstage was bigger and more precisely rendered, and images on it were more vivid, precise, and real. To walk into this room while a good recording was playing through this system was to enter an immersive aural space. There was synergy here—the Pass amps were accentuating these speakers' best qualities.

During his auditioning of the XA60.5s, JA listened to a high-resolution recording of Mahler's Symphony 2, "Resurrection," with Benjamin Zander conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (24-bit/192kHz ALAC files, Linn CKD 452). It was, he noted, "recorded by the team responsible for some of Telarc's great-sounding orchestral recordings, including Elaine Martone as co-producer and Robert Friedrich of Five/Four Productions." He went on, "The 'Resurrection' is an enormous, episodic work with huge orchestral climaxes contrasted against chamber-scaled sections in which a single solo instrument, a violin or a woodwind, takes the lead. Despite their modest power rating, the XA60.5s had no problem coping with the work's huge dynamic range." In my room, with this system and the XA60.8 monoblocks, the orchestra was huge, even as voices and solo instruments were reproduced with impact, sweetness, body, and texture. There was no hint of hardness.



Footnote 1: The XA60.8's younger sister, the XA30.8, has half the power but weighs just as much. Is there an amplifier out there with a higher ratio of weight to power than 3 lbs per watt?

Footnote 2: An aural image is an illusion; the space I listen in is real. Overzealous attempts at room correction, especially the digital kind, can take us too far out of what's real. Fix the flaw in your listening room, but don't bury the character.

COMPANY INFO
Pass Laboratories Inc.
13395 New Airport Road, Suite G,
Auburn, CA 95602
(530) 878-5350
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

The differences you describe confirm what I've experienced so many times, although I'm not privileged at this point to hear these monoblock beasties. Our ears, when normal, hear a dynamic range of nearly a trillion to one, a frequency range of 500-1000 to one, and numerous other effects like timing and phase differences. Despite not being a mathematician, I'd guess that the combination of these hearing properties are near-astronomical, which means that we have plenty of room for improvement in sound reproduction.

smargo's picture

"A youngish lady approached our table in G-string and pasties and did a tableside dance. My friend's jaw scraped the floor; I, noting her lack of enthusiasm, was unmoved. The stripper noted my impassivity and stated, with irony that at the time I somehow missed," "You're a hard man."

Isnt this too much information - really

mrkaic's picture

It isn’t.

es347's picture

..a hard man is good to find...apparently

amgradmd's picture

Just off the top of my head, the Decware model SE84UFO at 17 lbs and 4.6 total watts RMS (2.3 per channel) gives a weight/power ratio of 3.7, slightly higher than the ratio of the XA60.8.

tonykaz's picture

First the Surprise: PS Audio in the same breath as Pass! Those years ( 1980's ) that I was selling PS Audio stuff were years where Audio Research seemed to be the Top Gear Brand, PS Audio was "Entry" level.

Now-a-days, PS Audio's DACs, Pre-Amps, Amps & Power all stand with the Greats. No more looking down at PS, no more up-grading from PS. PS Audio has Arrived!!!

Yet again,

has there been any designer, who's work found it's way into more reviewer's personal music systems than N. Pass ? ( other than T.Edison )

I ( kind-of/sort-of ) tried to carry the Threshold Line ( back in the 1980s ) but already had the superb Electrocompaniet Line. I even had the Threshold National Sales Manager staying at my house for a short time but he couldn't/wouldn't let us have his stuff ( not even a try-out sample ). Sooooooo, I've never had my hands on any of these many Pass designs.

Now, today, it's too late for me. I have a rather pronounced leaning towards Active Loudspeakers with built-in Amps. Of course, Pass amps could be configured for an Active Loudspeaker System but it'd take some hefty convincing for me to consider it.

Tony in Michigan

ps. the little 30w. Pass Aleph SET Amp. still seems exciting

mrkaic's picture

The distortion at higher frequencies is unacceptably high. Also, Since when is 0.05% THD+N “extremely low” (see Fig. 7)? That is -66dBFS — average performance that you can get from many mass produced amplifiers.

johnnythunder's picture

over your comment that the THD is for this amp is "unacceptably high." JA didn't flag any measurements as being objectionable, flawed and able to heard (JA feel free to chime in here.) There is ZERO correlation between the sound quality of a mass market amplifier and this PASS amplifier even if the mass market amp has lower THD. Was your idol the late Julian Hirsch?

mrkaic's picture

So, is JA your god? He needs to flag something before you agree? Don’t you have your own views?

The Pass amp is mediocre and overpriced. And you could not tell it from a $300 TEAC class D in a blind test.

Finally, how much science and engineering have you studied? ANSWER WITHOUT EVASION!

ChrisS's picture

Baiting

Trolling

Shame on you, mrkaic!

mrkaic's picture

So unable to counter my devastatating scientific arguments. So angry as a consequence.

johnnythunder's picture

are what they do to your reputation here.

mrkaic's picture

Being disliked by subjectivists and/or anti science types is a badge of honor. I would hate to be liked by anti vaxxers, for example.

johnnythunder's picture

and you can continue to make your inane remarks in a forum where you are happily a rare, isolated minority opinion. The audio obectivists have long been on the verge of extinction anyway. Find a medium and have a nice laugh over cheap wine with Julian Hirsch.

mrkaic's picture

As far as I can see, subjectivists are very anti science. If they were not, they would admit several things.

1. The human ear is an imperfect instrument, not suited to analyze electronic components like modern amplifiers, DACs etc. You should admit that auditory illusions, placebo effects, and psychological factors play a major role in "hearing or listening to music". See this video and maybe you'll understand that what you "hear" is actually a product of your brain where the brain produces the "hearing" based on prior information and sensory inputs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyu7v7nWzfo

2. You would accept blind testing, no ifs, and or buts.

3. You would stop making unscientific claims about being able to hear the difference between different high resolution components, like modern DAC chips or amplifiers with distortion that is small enough to be below the threshold of hearing.

4. You would stop making unscientific claims about the effect of "audio grade" cables, fuses etc. on sound. There is none, unless the cables or fuses are damaged or really poorly made. Also, stop making unscientific claims about directionality of cables and fuses. It is stupid, flies in the face of science and engineering, as well as the practical experience of never noticing the directionality of wires while building an industrial and information society -- an effort that has required trillions of wires and connectors to be installed.

5. Stop claiming that audio memory is too short for blind testing. If it is too short for blind testing, it is too short for sighted testing as well.

6. There are other indications of anti-science stance by subjectivists, the above five should suffice for now.

ChrisS's picture

This is retail.

No one does blind testing.

No one does "science".

mrkaic's picture
ChrisS's picture

...scorned and ridiculed is the badge of a troll.

ChrisS's picture

Your posts have nothing to do with science.

Your baiting and trolling only inspire scorn and ridicule.

You have a devastated ego, mrkaic.

mrkaic's picture

...you wanted to say a DEVASTATING ego. :))

ChrisS's picture

Only someone with a devastated ego baits and trolls.

ChrisS's picture

...is your spelling!

johnnythunder's picture

he writes primarily about how MUSIC sounds to him on the components being reviewed. You never talk about MUSIC. You fixate on measurements and which immediately disqualifies your opinions on equipment to me (and to many many others here.)

My dad was in the record business. He was the district manager of a major music/hi-fi chain. i grew up living with good stereo equipment (Marantz etc.) I play bass guitar. I listen to music and go to classical concerts regularly. i know what an emotional connection to music is and i trust the writers of Stereophile to illuminate those things to me. I make my own decisions.

You troll and make inane remarks about THD. Argue with Paul McCartney about the high harmonic distortion in his bass guitar amp. Tell him that his VOX amp is overpriced and could be bettered by a mass market amp that can be bought for less at Guitar Center.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review- JA
I like your sense of humor and play on words- "stripper" and "hard man". She should have been more grateful ;)

Allen Fant's picture

2nd Note;
one could never own too many copies of Getz/Gilberto!

dumbo's picture

I noticed in the recently posted Golden Ear Triton video interview by the real JA that he was using what looked to be the XA60.8's. Perhaps the real JA will also offer his own 2cents on how the new XA60.8 sounds compared to XA60.5 he liked so much before?

Of course if he says the .8 is bad or worse I will disagree either way being a happily biased owner of this very Amp myself :)

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