Pass Labs XA160 monoblock power amplifier Page 2

You don't want to hear Jacintha sing a jazzified version of the Doors' "Light My Fire" backed by flute, seven-string guitar, and congas? Maybe that's because it sounds worse on paper than it does in the ear, which is surprisingly good. Should you listen, you might like it (though right now I'm more in the mood for musical assaults from groups like MarsVa and Melt-Banana). But you'll definitely appreciate the buttery-rich recording. Through the XA160s, the flute had a bit less air and a bit more roundness than through some of the other amps I tried, the congas had more wood and less hand slap, and the guitar had more body than string—but the overall presentation was so subtly turned in that direction that the result was more warmly seductive than smothering. A Merlot-like finish for the ears, for you winos—er, oenophiles.

Great audio gear is about balance, not "neutrality." In my experience, while neutrality would be the ideal, it doesn't exist. What do exist are some nearly ideal recordings, such as the new Jacintha album (or any of hers), which doesn't sound bright or etched, as many commercial recordings do. If a system leans too far toward warm and rich, a warm, rich recording will get smothered. While the XA160's overall flavor was lush and velvety, it wasn't so to the point of throwing a wet blanket over the sound. However, I'd be careful about mating the XA160s with speakers that sound overly warm. The Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s and Audio Physic Avanti IIIs turned out to be good matches.

There was nothing soft about the XA160's bass performance. It effectively controlled the WATT/Puppy 7's woofers on "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing" on the Modern Jazz Quartet's European Concert (2 LPs, Atlantic SD 2-603), which, because of what sounds like sympathetic stage vibrations, can sound sloppy and bloated. Through the XA160s, I heard each of Percy Heath's finger-slaps distinctly, even if leaner amps delivered them in a somewhat more nimble manner. If you want nonmechanical bass weight, heft, and texture, the XA160 should deliver. With them, I found the bass weight, speed, texture, and drive of many familiar LPs and CDs to be outstanding, if slightly on the "buttery" side of ideal.

As you might expect, amplifiers that don't blow a great deal of air around the room won't throw the most enormous soundstage, and the XA160s didn't—not when compared to the far more expensive Halcro dm68s, which I was fortunate enough to have here for a spell. The Halcros produced a noticeably wider, taller, deeper, airier stage, with greater image projection in front of the speakers, accompanied by a brighter, crisper, "faster" overall picture—almost like the difference between a classic warm Koetsu cartridge and one of A.J. van den Hul's detailed, razor-sharp Colibris. Advocates of either cartridge can be found, but not of both.

While the Halcros proved to be detail champs, separating out musical strands almost to the point of isolation, the XA160s did a better job of presenting the wholeness of the event and of imparting a sense of relaxation and flow. The XA160s' ability to subtly present "room sound" and a recording's spatial context was noteworthy, but they did a better job with big halls than with small clubs.

On Chesky's excellent-sounding 4 generations of Miles SACD (SACD243—yes, I know, it was originally a high-resolution PCM source), recorded live in a modest-size nightclub, the XA160s' warm presentation somewhat obscured the room's short reverb time, and thus the sense of the space in which the event occurred. With the Halcro dm68s, and later the Musical Fidelity KWs, the stage opened, instrumental images (especially Mike Stern's Chorused electric guitar) moved forward in the mix, and I could hear the delay on the guitar with far greater clarity. George Coleman's tenor sax was more reedy while losing some of its body, and Jimmy Cobb's drums, especially the snare, had more percussive crackle, but with less skin. Audience handclaps were somewhat more reserved via the XA160s, and while the folks sitting closer to the mikes protruded forward from the front of the speakers with the Halcro and MF amps, the Pass Labs placed them against the baffles.

Overall, the XA160s' picture had more weight, focus, and density; the other amps, more expansiveness and effervescence. I wouldn't say either perspective was right or wrong; they were very different but equally valid takes on the same event.

One of the XA160's most appealing qualities was its nonelectronic presentation—its freedom from etch, edge, grain, and grit while not sounding rolled-off or dark. Switching to the Halcro revealed greater transient speed and detail and a lighter, more nimble overall touch, but also apparent were more of the recording artifacts found on most discs, black or silver. What was all the more impressive about the XA160s' presentation was that, despite its sounding darker and richer, I couldn't say it was any less transparent than the other amps with which I compared it, and it resolved important ultra-low-level musical information from familiar discs as well as any of them, if falling somewhat short spatially.

Like choosing tires for a high-performance sports car, choosing the correct associated gear is key to getting sonic satisfaction from any high-performance amplifier. I found the Shunyata Andromeda speaker cables to be a bit too smooth for the XA160s, even driving the WATT/Puppy 7s. The same proved true of the Wireworld Electra Series III AC cords. Switching to the Harmonic Technology Magic Woofer speaker cables and Fantasy AC10 power cords tipped the balance toward just the right amount of treble extension and detail, subtle though the difference was. The balance tipped the other way with the Halcro dm68s—toward the Shunyata and Wireworld cables.

The XA160 produced a silky-smooth acoustic in which small dynamic gradations flowed effortlessly up and down the scale. When large excursions were called for, as in orchestral crescendos, the amp didn't wimp out but seemed to open up and deliver almost unexpected jolts of energy without strain or shifts in overall tonal character. If the XA160 had a slightly subdued overall character, this was noticeable only in direct comparisons with the Halcro and Musical Fidelity amps. Cymbals rang, but perhaps not as brashly as through other amplifiers. Handclaps placed more emphasis on the hands than on the claps, and male and female voices gave more weight to the body than to the larynx or mouth. But these emphases were so subtle—the whole message was delivered intact.

Edgy music such as the Japanese speed-punk-noise band Melt-Banana's cell-scape (CD, A-ZAP AZCD-005) passed through the XA160 with its leading edges and rhythmic vitality preserved, yet the Pass Labs also delivered the same kind of convincing weight and solidity as when reproducing audiophile-quality recordings. An enviable balancing act.

At $18,000/pair, the 160W, class-A Pass Labs XA160 offers build quality and industrial design befitting a top-shelf amplifier. Every visitor to my listening room was wowed, including competing manufacturers, one of whom exclaimed, "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to machine a front panel like that?"

Whatever your reaction to the XA160's sound, it's likely you'll have trouble taking yours eyes off its sleek, masculine good looks. As befitting an unusual design, the sound it produced was unique in my experience, which should be surprising—it's the first solid-state, pure class-A design I've encountered. The XA160 delivered a seductive combination of richness, solidity, purity, and cohesiveness that I'd not heard before. It was possible to relax into every genre of music at all times and not feel slighted. I've experienced other, very different, mostly brighter and airier presentations that also satisfied, but none has offered the remarkable image weight and density offered by a pair XA160s.

The amp that has come closest to the XA160's sonic temperament was, not surprisingly, Parasound's more powerful and one-third-the-price Halo JC 1, which runs in class-A for the first 25W, and delivers 400W into 8 ohms and 800W into 4 ohms. Everything positive I said about that amp I can say about the XA160, perhaps more so; I say "perhaps" only because I didn't have Wilson Audio's WATT/Puppy 7s here when I auditioned the Parasounds.

That brings up the law of diminishing returns. Is the XA160 worth three times the price of the Halo JC 1? While it delivers less overall power, it produces six times as much class-A power, and that class-A sound can be mighty seductive—especially when you push the Pass Labs amp to deliver big orchestral climaxes. If you like the richness and purity of the XA160's class-A sound and you need more than 25W to drive your speakers, then yes, the XA160 is worth it. Also, given the balanced design's circuit configuration, I think you'd be wasting some of your money if you didn't run the XA160 in balanced mode.

Based on my listening, I recommend the XA160s to owners of WATT/Puppys, especially the 7s. The amp's top-end performance was a perfect complement to the WATTs' inverted-dome Focal tweeters. Is there enough power in your room for your speakers in your system? Given the XA160's unusual circuit configuration, that's a question I can't answer. You also should keep in mind the unusual amount of heat a pair of XA160s throw off: the equivalent of two 600W hair-dryers!

Your $18,000 also pays for some dramatic industrial design, and while that's difficult to put a dollar value on, if presentation is important to you, you get an endlessly satisfying eyeful. The Pass Labs XA160 is an amplifier that's easy to love, easy to listen to, and just as easy to recommend—if your equipment and listening conditions qualify, and if you can afford it.

Pass Labs
P.O. Box 219
Foresthill, CA 95631
(530) 367-3690