McIntosh C2500 to Pass Labs XP-20 Comparison

I had posted last week regarding the "house" sounds between these two preamps, as I was looking to swap out to the XP20.  I've ran the XP-20 through my listening paces and am posting my impressions.

Dynaudio C4 Signatures
REL 528T
Pass Labs XP-20
Nordost QX4 & QB8
PS Audio BHK300 monoblocks
PS Audio Direct Stream Junior & Ayre QB9
DEQX Premate
Shunyata Research Black Mamba power cables
Audioquest Colorado IC's
Audioquest Castle Rock speaker wire
GIK Acoustics room treatment

First and foremost, I should share I was a diehard McIntosh supporter.  Like many before me, I became mesmerized by the blue meters as a young kid.  Any upgrade I performed was to get into the next piece of McIntosh.  The C2500 was no different, I swapped the tubes out for Mullard NOS and it sounded epic.  I have not a single negative thing to say about the C2500.  It presented well, soundstage was great and produced a pretty organic sound, to me.  What I'm sharing below is what I was hearing after I popped the XP-20 into my setup.  Hence, I wouldn't say this is a comparison, as it would be an apples to oranges, tube vs. solid state.  In addition, I listened to all these without the DEQX engaged.  So, no speaker/room correction.

The first album I listen to, whenever I change something out, is Metallica's St. Anger.  It's a sonic piece of hot garbage and everyone knows it.  If we really think about it though, it's a sonic version of Yamaha's NS10s.  Essentially, if the album sounds worse, then I immediately know the previous piece was adding some form of coloration; which would make sense coming from a tube preamp.  But, with the XP20, I found myself not able to listen, due to ear fatigue.  I did became even more angered at Lars Ulrich...their drummer for those that don't listen to them.  Why?  Well, the first complaint many had with the recording were the drums.  I believe the mic setup was two overhead mics, with super low gate thresholds, 2 kick mics and a snare mic.  Now, for those of you that do listen to Metallica, the XP-20 will highlight what many of us have known for quite sometime, Lars Ulrich is a terrible drummer.  I've heard them live numerous times over the last 30 years and my only take away was, "jeesh, does this guy ever practice".  Live, he's constantly off measure.  Just count a simple 4 and you'll begin to hear him veer out of time.  But, St. Anger doesn't further highlight his timing, it's the studio, that's an easy fix, but his inability to remain constant with cymbal work and snare precision.  The XP-20 highlights this, over and over again.  The cymbals come way forward in the mix, further elevating this catastrophe of a recording.  Overall, the album lives up to it's presence as a "garage band" recording, as some have put it.  

Metallica ...And Justice For All is the second album I listen to.  Again, not a great mix.  The recording cost them $1M to do, in 1988 this was an astronomical amount for an album.  It's the mix, they pulled the bass mix down -6db, it's generally inaudible.  I use Blackened to see how soon I'm able to hear the bass.  Like the C2500, at 2:50ish is the first time I heard the bass, same with the XP20.  The mix is super compressed, sonically, the kick weighs heavy across the left/right pan with the guitars and vocals squished right up the middle.  Again, not a great song to bear fruit in attempting to assess the two.

John Mayer, Paradise Valley, Waitin' on the Day.  This song has a multitude of layers going on.  Notably, there's a B3 Hammond mixing nicely with the slide work.  With the C2500, the B3 was audible but didn't really punch through in any passage.  The XP-20, it's clear, very, very clear.  The B3 is way up in the mix, almost riding with the vocals.  I had not been able to locate individual notes with the C2500, it came off as a background drone.  The XP-20 really seemed to create a little separation between all the different instruments, allowing me to actually hear individual notes.  

Radiohead, OK Computer, Let Down.  I'll be a little biased here, I truly believe this song is a modern marvel.  The mix is super dispersed, with multiple vocal tracks panned at various levels to the right and left.  The guitars, they aren't super localized, but rather layered in the same manner the vocals are...wide and located at various levels on the pans.  Immediately, the vocals become more defined, with a definitive left/right.  It didn't sound off with the C2500, just not as much separation/isolation with the individual instruments.  Specifically, at 4 minutes in, during the crescendo, rather than deflating back into the mix, it's as if the right panned vocal is raised in db a smidgen for effect.  Further cementing, my belief, in the brilliance of this song.  I had not noticed this prior to the XP-20.  I had shuffle selected and it jumped to another Radiohead song, Reckoner, off of In Rainbows.  Again, I had never heard it before, but the song kicks off with just the drums.  The XP-20 picks up, what sounds like to me, their drummers headphone bleed.  You're able to hear the drummer, with a faint trace of the intro guitar.  I suspect they did a few measures of it, to avoid playing a click track.

I could continue to bloviate about the virtues of this preamp.  I suppose I'll leave this digital entry for future McIntosh owners looking to leave their beloved gear for something else.  It's intimidating and a little scary.  I, for one, would be hard pressed to re-enter into their world.  I like it, it sounds good to me, but the XP-20 sounds better.  Maybe it's the solid state vs. tube debate, not sure and I'm not concerned with that debate .  What I do know, the XP-20 takes what the C2500 does and moves the needle a couple notches.  Nothing astronomical, but enough to warrant a change, for me.  The XP20 isn't super verbose in any one area, it just sounds like it does all things, really, really, really well.  
Great comparison of these two excellent preamps.  Thanks.  As a McIntosh C2300 (not quite c2500) user, this was especially interesting.  You mention tube rolling the stock C2500 tubes to Mullards, which makes me wonder if some of the analytical (good analytical) side of the Pass unit might be related to your comparing it to the C2500 with Mullards, which may give a more romantic, less detailed sound.  I've been using Gold Lion tubes (not stock) in my C2300 pre, and that's made a nice improvement, although at least to my ears it seems pretty detailed and not overly lush, soft, or warm (which I take to be characteristics opposite from your description of what you like in the Pass XP20).
@goheelz Possibly.  I didn’t get into swapping out tubes and comparing them, so I don’t have a wide range of sonic memory for different tubes.  Kevin at Upscale Audio recommended the tubes, based upon my budget.  To his credit, it did change the entire dynamic of the C2500, for the better.  

The overall sound is still pretty warm.  This may be a byproduct of the PS Audio monoblocks using a tube stage.  With the Pass Labs, I do hear a little more detail, but with all the things I loved about the C2500, warm, not overly skewed towards any one characteristic.  We always run the risk of giving something up, when swapping out gear.  This would be a swap that made minor improvements.
Awesome review of these two pre-amps. Am a huge McIntosh fan, but have recently ordered the Pass XP-20 pre-amp! Also am currently using the BHK 300 monoblocks. I know that people don't often pair solid state pre-amps with "tubed" amps like the BHKs so I was wondering how this pairing sounded together? I stream Tidal typically and have a FLAC ripped CD collection. No vinyl. Any insight on the mating of the
Pass XP-20 and the PS Audio monoblock 300 BHKs would be much appreciated. 
Thanks, Knoxtoxbox
@knoxtoxbox, the pairing is epically awesome!  I believe the BHK is more on the “hybrid” side, vs. true tube amp.  It has a super fast attack, which I think responds quite well to the Pass pre.  Per the specs, the input/output impedances are matched well too.  

Per the mating, it’s the setup I run.  I really, really, really like it.  For me, a good barometer is if I listen to songs I’ve heard 1,000’s of times and discover some new layering or separation I had not heard before; which was very evident after swapping out the C2500 for the Pass Labs.  The BHK’s still impart a small tube flavor, but it’s not overdone, nor does it sound like a pure trade off between running SS amps vs. tube amps.  Little bit of tube, with the drive/attack/response of solid state.  

But, these are just my interpretations, some may not like it.  I prefer a more laid back, neutral sound, with detail in the mid to upper registers that’s not overdone.  Also, I run the PS Audio Direct Stream Junior, ran it with Tidal at one point as well.  I love this DAC.  I’ve tried a few others, they sounded good, but not as good as the DSJ.  

Let me know what you think once you get your Pass broken in.

A very informative review- toddcowles

 I enjoyed your musical selections. Any piece of gear that can capture Hard Rock/Metal is a keeper, as most of those discs, were not well recorded nor produced. In particular, you managed to pick the (2)  Achilles heel (one for each foot) of the Metallica catalog. St Anger was an interesting experiment of an album. The guys were taking a trip back to their garage -band roots, the recording confirms. Referencing And are correct about the mix. Luckily, the songs are solid, very solid from start to finish. Any listener will want to listen in-full for this album.

Happy Listening!

@jafant Gratzi.  My hope is they remaster ...AJFA for this years box release.  They released MoP last Christmas, I'm praying heavily it happens.  Though, I've read in various articles that it's not likely, due to the original analog tape being spliced so many times that the original integrity has been lost.  In various other interviews, James has stated that it's not likely, due to it needing to be preserved in its original release mix/form.  Hogwash, just do it and mix it properly.
My pleasure- toddcowles

I know that we will see some kind of remaster for AJFA.
I am a big fan of this album and boxed sets, in general. As developments  continue, I will keep you posted.
Happy Listening!
@toddcowles  Thank you for the write up and your impressions. Any additional findings now that you have another three weeks of exposure to it?
@david_ten I do.  I didn’t realize in many of Otis Redding’s mono recordings his vocals were panned way to the left.  I’ve listened to them previously, but the chorus would eat up a lot of the soundstage; which colored the vocal pan.  With the Pass, it’s clear as day and localizing where it sits is very noticeable.  I haven’t A/B’ed those recordings between the Ayre QB9 and Direct Stream Junior, possibly it’s a little more revealing with the DSJ, not sure.  

I’ve also noticed I don’t get as bored listening to music.  Though I sit with the intent of listening, because I’ve heard these albums/songs 100’s of times, I find I don’t focus as much while listening.  With the Pass, there’s just a little extra detail, which keeps my brain engaged.