NEW integrated amp from Kinki Studio: EX-M1 - Good enough to replace my Pass Stack?? YES!
Okay guys just for fun I made the thread title the same as my old one with an extra word added ;) sorry if I don’t get into the physical descriptions of my gear much, I don’t fetishize my gear like others might. I know some of you have been waiting to hear my detailed impressions for a while. :p
I’m going to sum up my impressions I’ve had with the Kinki, vs my reference amp. Gear used was: Harbeth 30.2 40th Anniversary standmount loudspeakers, JBL 4367 Studio Reference Monitors, Pass Labs XA30.5 power amplifier, Pass Labs XP-10 linestage, Schiit Yggdrasil digital to analog converter, Blue Jeans speaker cables, Dyson Audio Facemelter interconnects, and some DIY power cords. All electronics I run into a Cullen Cable 6 outlet power strip, into the (sadly) sole power outlet in my room.
The Kinki arrived safe and sound, only 5 days from placing the order. Packing was excellent, double boxed, plastic corner protectors on each edge of the inner box, and plenty of precisely foam. The unboxing experience was a delight for me, this was actually the first amplifier I had ever bought brand new. It was quite a rewarding experience, I think I shall buy all new components brand new from now on, if I can :)I did not have my JBL monitors at the time yet, so I was doing my initial tests on the Harbeth 30.2. I let the Kinki warm up for 2 hours after hooking it up, in the meantime I put on some reference tracks on my Pass. As always, I found the slightly relaxed presentation of the xa30.5 to be highly rewarding. I’ve never heard an amp handle bass as refined as the Pass combo.
Next, I unhooked the interconnects dangling from the Yggdrasil, to the XP-10, and to XA30.5, and simply hooked the Yggdrasil’s outputs straight up to the Kinki via balanced. I immediately thought to myself that having one set of interconnects seems like a much better way to do things. Anyway, what did I hear? Right away there was a sweetness to the midrange that I never noticed on the Pass. Soundstage was wider. Imaging more pinpoint. I felt right away that this was a vast improvement. I put on as many vocal songs I could and strained my ears, Buddy Holly, Sarah K., Diana Krall, they all had more inflection to their voice, weightyness, air, presence. It was a more enjoyable, relaxing experience than with the pass. "This class AB kinky is really good!," I thought.
I listened a lot more the next day and realized that though the Kinki has better defined bass, it lacks some of the texture and refined nature of the Pass. I think the best way to describe this was the characterization of the Pass, which I call ’round’. The best way I can describe it is, the Kinki is razor sharp, like a square, clearly defined, and THERE. You can hear what is there. The Pass on the other hand is a circle, and it rounds out everything, the midbass, bass, and the vocal range, and as such is a little less focused, but more refined. Talking more detailed specifics: I think the Pass had a slightly taller soundstage, and a little more depth in some tracks. It was interesting, because I remember reading Brian’s review of the XA30.5 in Stereophile, and he described a passage in Telegraph Road, where you hear a glass shatter. I actually found that the Kinki provided a more deep presentation of that sound. The glass felt like it was farther off in the distance! Interesting... it really seemed to depend on the track.
As far as strengths and weaknesses of the two amps, we’re talking VERY minor here, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like the Pass might be more suitable for Jazz music and the like. It’s certainly got a more ’hifi audiophile’ presentation than the Kinki.
In summation: I found the Kinki to offer extraordinary value, rock solid build quality and great performance. The fact that it outshone the Pass in almost all areas is a testament to it’s value, and performance. The Pass Labs stack had a msrp of about $11,000 plus taxes. The Kinki is $2200. When you consider that the Kinki comes close to, and perhaps even surpasses the Pass... well I think I’ve made my point.
I highly recommend the Kinki Studio EX-M1 at this price point.
Set the DAC-10 to it's Unity Gain setting then connect it to the Kinki using either the SE or SLR connections. Kind of a shame that Jason, the CEO of Nuprime, has people selling his gear that don't know how to use it.
Great review d2girls. I believe that sweetness you mention is a result of the greater amount of realism you get with the Kinki. From what you say about the Pass gear, it sounds like it does to the signal what a tube device does: round things out a bit giving an illusion of depth, size, and a fattening of the lower mids and bass, which can be a pleasant, but not accurate result.
And I have to agree with maritime51. When funds become available, try out some Darwin ICs and you'll be amazed. You won't return them.
So happy with the new setup. I don't feel like I've "downgraded" at all. Even though the Pass Labs stack was $9,000 USD more expensive, it was actually not as good. The JBL are singing beautifully, the soundstage and imaging gets better ever day. That is obviously the amplifier, since my speakers are already broken in!
The Pass Labs XA30.5 is a full Class A amp (to 30 watts). That means it's going to be very warm and rounded. The Pass "Class A" amp is also going to sound very thick in the midrange and midbass. Pass is very neutral and controlled. --- I suspect the Kinki is a Class AB design, with Class A bias somewhat low (could be under a watt or just a few watts). This is probably the biggest reason why there is such a difference in "perceived clarity" and dynamics. The Pass Labs do a very controlled sound, so the dynamics are not as accentuated as other amps. -- Kinki looks like a very good layout, but I can see that it uses op amps for the input stage and preamp stage (part of the reason for the low cost). The Pass equipment will all be fully discrete analog stages. On the Kinki, the op amps are all in pluggable sockets, so it is radically easy to swap them out. I would suggest trying some Burson V6 Vivid discrete op amps. Those are about the only discrete op amps that would fit in that space. I think that would give a huge increase in sound quality and resolution. It looks like there are 5 op amps in the Kinki, but make sure you figure out if they are single or dual channel op amps. There could actually be both.
@nonoise - by the way, in my computer audio system (highly modified DAC and a highly modified RANE stereo line mixer), I am running a combination of Sonic Imagery 994 bipolar op amps and Burson V6 Vivid op amps. The only reason I went with Burson is that I have several spots in the devices where the Sonic Imagery just won’t fit (they are absolutely huge with a very wide footprint). In actuality, I think the Burson definitely add an element of "organic" to the sound that the Sonic Imagery may not have done (though I cannot be sure because I can’t test with all Sonic Imagery). I will say that the Burson do have excellent resolution, but too many will start to be too warm. In my system, from the DAC chip to the speakers, I have 5 op amp stages that the sound actually has to go through. 3 of those are filled with Burson, and the sound is just fine. You will not have any problem with "too warm" if you load the Kinki with Bursons.
@auxinput, thanks for the in depth explanation. It's going to be awhile before I gather up the courage to do something like this.
The thought also occurred to me as you just stated about not needing to replace all of the op amps, but, again, as you say, with the Kinki there shouldn't be any fear of going overboard because one can always benefit from a more organic presentation.
The Kinki is so highly resolving that an almost stark (not in the negative way), in the recording studio presentation happens. I really like it. If it were to become even more organic, that would be a plus.
Someday I may ask Alvin to ask Liu what his thoughts would be on the matter and if replacing all of the op amps would be necessary. Sometimes, the engineer who designs it already addressed the matter when it comes to the final sound as some op amps are fine where they're at. But, there's always room for improvement.
heh, engineers have different opinions and do not necessarily match what the "audiophile" thinks. I am not knocking the Kinki engineer. Engineers actually do a very good job in a lot of places because one of the things they have to combat is the overall cost of manufacturing. This is a place where op amps become a much cheaper alternative to fully discrete circuits. If you are designing with a $2200 end-point cost to the consumer, you have so many other challenges. Of course, the Kinki is not going to be fully discrete, but then if you wanted fully discrete integrated you are looking at $4-6k at a minimum. ---- I have tested so many different op amps. Some are nice, some are not. All my testing is with very high end power supplies and I pay specific attention to compensation capacitors to reduce/remove oscillation that occurs on op amps with higher slew rates. However, all the monolothic op amps were compromised in some fashion or another. Not one of them matched the sound quality of the discrete op amps. Even the Sparkos which tend to push too hard the attack of the signal and become harsh will have a better overall sound quality than any other monolithic op amp.
--- To give another view on the 5 op amps. I think the one "odd" op amp that is closest to the RCA inputs is there to convert the single-ended RCA to a fully balanced signal. The remaining 4 op amps in the middle of the board are your normal "preamp stage" and/or the amp board pre-driver circuits. So, if you are only running a balanced source, you probably don't need to replace that single "odd" op amp.
I'll admit I'm biased since I have the Kinki but I'd have to be in the room to be able to really judge them. The Class D Rowlands sounded a bit flat and unemotional compared to the Kinki. It could be my computer rig, which is no great shakes.
@maritime sorry to disappoint but the only "review" I've done (ever, so far) is my post at the beginning of this thread. I hope to write something a bit more comprehensive when it comes time to write up my jbl 4367 impressions.
Back to the topic, what are the specs of the monoblocks? Are they biased into class a at all? People describe the EX-M1 as being based on a goldmund design. What's the monoblock based on? Brinkmann? :D
So after several months of ownership. To start nothing has gone up in smoke. Thumbs up. The amp runs pretty cool and is silent. The sound is detailed and has a lot of colour and dimension. It doesn’t do it’s 200 watts plus justice in the bass though. Sure it goes louder but the bass doesn’t punch you in the gut like it maybe should when called for. It’s quick with percussion and bass instruments and separates quite well but no wallop. Honestly for the money a nice piece and well built yet some will find it somewhat gutless.