PASS LABS XP-30
I've been developing the Belden ICONOCLAST TM series of audio cables, and have used a Pass Labs XP-10 almost through the process for it's stunningly good resolution and transparency compared to about anything I threw at it. I was told to aim for the XP-30 as nothing has the tonal balance of the Pass Labs, which I so admired. Sure, everyone should have one of those except the cost!
That line of reasoning didn't work too long and as things go, I kept saving for the XP-30 up grade (I'm told it IS and upgrade!). So after two years of stuffing money aside, I took the plunge and ordered a unit from Pass Labs. It comes in ONE rather big HEAVY, for a pre-amplifier, box.
I won't go into detail on the unit as it's been out awhile, except that it is a three chassis unit that DOES take several days to reach stable operating temps. LOTS of metal. Unlike any pre-amplifier I've ever owned, the two channel gain stages DO get warm. Initial plug in sound was warm and hazy, and my cold MOON W-8 amplifier and not recently played Martin Logan CLX with stereo balance force 212 subs were just telling me to go away. I turned on the radio to about 75 dB SPL and left for two days. When I stuck my head in the basement, the RADIO was simply amazing sounding, not like I've heard it before. I sat there and listened, I swear to it, the RADIO for several songs. Times a wasting...on to records and the VPI classic 3.0 signature with a SUMIKO Blackbird cartridge.
The XP-30 is super easy to get used to, and is essentially like my XP-10. I did set the internal gain to +16 dB from 0 dB stock, with a +23 dB still unused. I am using an Austin Audio Works head amplifier that is a lower gain output, so I need a little OOMPH from the preamplifier. The switches are on the inside, and I wish they were located on the bottom of the unit so the circuit length could be near the same, but improve the user experience. But, it is generally a one time thing and it done.
More on the XP-10. This unit has excellent resolution and openness. The bottom end is VERY tonally good but softer sounding than typical. It has tight resolution, but is dynamically just shy of ideal. It is great sounding, but lacks some PUNCH at times. The mids are the XP-10's strong suit, and it leverages them to great advantage. Treble is either great, or can be on the hard side depending on the source material. And, they are slightly out of character with the rest of the XP-10's “sound”. The treble tends to say, “listen to me” at times. It very good, but can be a touch pushy for attention through the CLX.
Look at it like this, a speaker can have trouble BLENDING all of the drivers to a single whole and so do electronics. It doesn't seem like they should but they do. The XP-10 has a tweeter that is great, but of different character. The softer bass response isn't an issue with me as it is still well blended to the great mid-range. The wonderful 3D sound-stage the XP-10 throws out is also a HUGE bonus in it's price range. This pre amplifier is no slouch.
Until I entered the realm of the XP-30. The XP-30 is a master piece of tonal oneness and natural dynamic impact. The amplitude response seems to be EXACTLY uniform top to bottom, and absolutely seamless in frequency integration. There is but ONE single driver and the frequency or dynamics doesn't change it's spots. It is so uniform you quickly forget all about the pre-amplifier in the chain as your head zeros in on just the music, in one expansive aural view, and I mean ALL of it. Immense in width, height and depth, with seemingly infinite amplitude response. I don't mean in a slam bang kind of way, but even on micro textures, the sound is simply so, so natural in an unbelievable way. They talk about the CLX as ONE driver operating over a wide frequency range, this XP-30 runs away with that idea on the electronics side.
I played the original AMERICA - America album and the acoustic guitar harmonics are so fully fleshed out and right it seems implausible a pre amplifier change could do it, but it does. The richness off the string plucks is simply exquisite. The dynamic response and harmonic structure are way past the best I've heard. Wide band instruments on the XP-10 had an artificial “brightness” to them that was just different enough to take on it's own stage, and you ear taken away from the “whole” at times. Not so with the XP-30. The entire sound stage stays in character, always.
I then went to Peter Paul and Mary - in the wind. This is an old album that is beautiful to listen to. Again, the ability of the XP-30 to throw everything at you in such frequency linear and amplitude linear fashion is unheard of prior to this getting the unit. Female and male vocals are stunning in edge character some refer to as holographic placement. There is no overemphasized leading edge zing to create resolution, but a dead nuts locked on transient response that won't let the music get away. The music is there, and so is the XP-30. When you hear it, you KNOW it is right.
Digital is an achievement too. With my worst stuff the XP-30 has that awful hard edge much more under control (Hootie and the Blow Fish CD). Here is where the XP-10's treble was too eager to please and could spit at times with red book CD's. Not so the XP-30, oh it is still HOT, but it lacks the over eager edge that can wear on you. The XP-30 makes sure it isn't any worse than it really is, and I appreciate it immensely!
A incredible run through on Loreena McKennitt - Journey So Far: The Best of Loreena McKennitt CD is just divine. I can't figure out why artist like this aren't WAY out in front of the industry. The XP-30's talents are in kind with Loreena's. Both are a beautiful thing. The XP-30 layers this unique listening experience with the precision to matching her rich and controlled voice.
Bass impact and depth is no longer an issue, you hear the music instead. The electronics vanish. There is virtually no artificial blending of the bass, mids, or treble as there just aren't any seams in their delivery. If you want a pre-amplifier to announce something unto itself, don't get an XP-30. This pre- amplifier is all about the flow of music. The XP-30 doesn't shout anything except the music. The XP-30 is an invisible element in the presentation, not a participant per say. This is how it should be but seldom is.
No tube unit that I've heard comes close to the vast extremes this unit manages with ease. Tubes seem to excel in the mid range, but can't get the exact same wonderful act going down low or up high. I'm not saying tubes can't be darn good, but I can say I want way past darn good, and I want it all the time, and I want it everywhere. SS gives me that in the XP-30.
True, there is the newer Xs line, but the XP-30 gets you squarely in the I can't believe it sounds this good arena at a way lower price. To me, the XP-30 is a deal to be reckoned with. The three boxes take up some space but trust me, you'll be glad to give it up to the XP-30. Change is always full of apprehension, but the buyers remorse on the XP-30 lasted mere minutes. I might be fibbing there as I never heard it try to make me doubt it's character, ever. Yes, it is THAT good.