At this stage of my reviewing career, I should be a touch jaded and a bit blasé about reviewing another solid-state amplifier offering. After all, as a result of stone cold luck, my reviewing resume reads like a who’s who in audio design and engineering. Rowland, Vitus, Krell, and my current reference Behold, are some of the amplifiers that have spent time in my system, as have amplifiers from the subject of this review, Pass Labs. And yet, I am giddy as a newcomer at the chance to review the Pass Labs XA200.5 mono block amplifiers. Put simply, I am an amplifier nut. I admit it. I am fascinated by how amplifiers affect the chain of an audio system.
Anyone with even cursory exposer to the high end should know at least a little about Pass Labs and it’s founder Nelson Pass. A pioneer in advancing the state of the art of solid-state design, Nelson was one of the founders of Threshold, of which I owned the Stasis Fet 9e preamp and S150 Amplifier before my reviewing days ensued. Shortly after leaving Threshold, Nelson formed Pass Labs in 1991. Starting with what Stereophile called the amplifier of the decade, the Aleph 0, Nelson and his team had hit the ground running. Methodically building a product line, upgrades to his products are only implemented when real improvements could be made. That is something I really respect. I am not fond of rolling upgrades that leave components lost in no man’s land. Wayne Colburn is responsible for preamp and phono stage development while Joe Samut and Desmond Harrington free up Nelson from the day to day operations in order to focus on research and development of the amplifier designs.
The “A” designation in the XA series represents the fact that these are pure class A amplifiers whereas the X.5 series runs in class A up to a point then switches to class AB. The Pass website is outstanding and intuitive, and can answer any and all questions you may have technically regarding the XA200.5. But as I found out, these amplifiers are far more than the sum of their parts, transcending the technology to bring great, joyous music. As for Power, the 200 watts into 8 Ohms doubles down to 400 watts as the load drops to 4 Ohms. One thing is for sure, you will lust for the power the XA200.5 provides, and long for little more. Priced at $34,100, I can say you will get what you pay for in both build quality and performance.
Along with being very good sounding products, no Pass product I have owned has ever broken down, gave me a hint of trouble, or showed any kind of peculiarities even under the rigors of my ham fisted reviewing-plugging and unplugging, swapping out speaker wire and interconnects with all the grace of Hugh Heffner swapping out playmates. This is no small issue and one that gets precious little attention in reviewing. The high end is filled with products that break down and un-ravel like a character from Valley of the Dolls. Few things are as frustrating as highly touted yet unreliable gear. Pass Labs is a company that stands behind its products; were there to be a failure, Pass will stand behind them with steadfast resolve and will go the extra mile to make the customer happy. I have learned the hard way how important this is in building a system that offers long-term satisfaction.
As far as I’m concerned, Pass amps are some of the coolest examples of industrial design, kind of the anti- i-pad approach. Bold-assed casework, with the oval cut out framing the voltage meter this oval shape designates the “A” version as a round cut out designates the .5 model. This over-built approach is a bit old school. And I love it. Weighing in at a massive 150 pounds, they sure as hell looks the part. These are pure class A amplifiers whereas the .5 range run in class A up to a point then switches to class AB. In addition, patented super symmetrical design provides true balanced operation from input to out put. All in all, the XA200.5 along with all Pass products offer a pride in ownership and a solid investment in high-end audio.
The amps were wrestled out of the cartons WWF style. And yes, they are really heavy. Once plugged and wired the XA200.5’s were turned on and have not made even a squeak since.
Squeaks no, music yes.
Pass amps are known for hitting the ground running and these were no exception. However, I noticed a loosening up of the sound after a full day and even a few months into the process, the sound seems to be really relaxing and steadily gaining fluidity.
Like my experience with the 350.5, the first thing that struck me was how organized and structured the sound and imaging are. There is an “Architecture” to the sound that is unmistakably Pass. The other quality that was readily apparent was a full, rather lush mid-band. This was a bit less decidedly classic Pass sound. This warmth and fleshy-ness did not come at the expense of transparency or rendition of fine detail. As a matter of fact, the XA200.5 renders music in an up front, highly resolved, almost high def quality.
The low-end transparency, for instance, is outstanding. Listening to Earl Wilde playing the Grieg Piano concerto from Chesky, towards the end of the first movement there is some serious left hand pummeling of the ivories and the XA200.5 rendered these with leading edge precision and bloom, while passing along all the dynamic explosiveness the piano could muster. Even as the left hand begins to ascend into the lower mid band there is no shift in dynamics or timbre; the transparency in this range is just outstanding, avoiding any opacity or lumpiness.
Classical music thrives on nothing if not precision. Here the Pass XA200.5’s
serious precision serves the music beautifully. Music tends to ebb and flow with great ease, each transient in perfect alignment with the whole. What’s great about what the XA200.5’s offer is the richness and bloom of real music and the steadfast solidity of a great amplifier. This combination of traits does not come easy, nor cheap.
On an even deeper level, the XA200.5 can be downright seductive. Listening to the Theme from Boys in the Hood on Stanley Clark’s east river Side Drive, the music washed over me, yet each element was distinct and well focused. This recording is full range, with super deep and tight bass and a good deal of high frequency information. Yet an acoustic piccolo bass takes the show in this one. The sound of this instrument is the stuff tears are made of. Open, resonant and lightning quick, the ears have little choice but to listen and listen good. Listening to Red Garland play “On green dolphin street” from Bright and Breezy via the awesome George Warren turntable, I was nearly brought to tears. My father, a great jazz pianist, played this record incessantly. It is burned into my DNA. The sound is great, with very tidy imaging and a nice sense of space. Tonally the sound is a bit light weight, but fitting for the style and content. Again, the image stability and great resolution come through to create a very believable musical event.
I could have left this as a flat out rave, and justifiably so. Not many amplifiers can do what the XA200.5 can. There are a few very small colorations that when compared to the real thing that come into view. First off, there is a very fine — and I mean very fine — talc like grain in the treble. This ever so slightly affects the timbre of instruments and compared to real instruments, can sound a bit less realistic. Some may find the lower mid band a bit dark. I find the transparency in this area more than makes up for a possible slight downward tilt. Other than these perceived small deviations, the XA200.5 is an all round stellar performer.
I would like to say a few words regarding the XP-20 Preamp that I have used through out this review. If you need an analog preamp to accommodate many sources and one that sounds like very little sound at all, theXP-20 is a no brainer. Put a good month on the unit and sit back and enjoy the staggering silence, we’re talking a black background. Music has a wonderful unfettered flow thanks to the ultra grain-free treble. The only edge came from instruments themselves or the recordings they are captured on. Following in suit is vivid high-def like imagery fills the stage. This is a preamp that only a few years ago seemed hopelessly out of reach. While not inexpensive, the listener is well paid back with that musical voodoo that a great analog preamp can provide. Priced at $8,600, this may well be the last preamp you will ever buy.
Mid way through the review, I hosted my annual Halloween party. This is usually a 75-plus attendee event and requires a dynamic showing by the system. Playing a good deal of disco, from early seventies to todays R&B dance tunes, the Pass amps gripped the speakers and had no problem getting the crowd bouncing. You don’t hear a lot about dancing in high-end reviews, which I think is a shame. Dancing is a primal response to music, and when the music swings, as it does through the Pass amplifiers, those who are so inclined have little choice but to move their feet.
Switching from my Behold Transport to the new EsotericX-05, the transparency of the XA 200.5 proved to be full bandwidth. I was able to easily detect the difference between the two within seconds. I won’t give away which did what to the signal, that is left for the Esoteric review that is forth coming.
Towards the end of the review period, one of the out board power supply for my Lansche 4.1’s flew south. The speakers were promptly replaced with the Davone Rithm’s, a very small, but incredibly cool floor standing speaker. It had been about a year since I listened to them so I was kind of excited to see how they would perform. With the XA200.5 strapped to them, they sounded absolutely wonderful. Imaging way above the top of the speaker, with incredible coherence due to the coaxial tweeter/midband/bass driver. At $6k for the Rithm you could call it a mismatch, I call it musically convincing and a bit of a magic show.
As a result of good luck, I was able to take possession of the Kawero! Classic loudspeakers. With the Pass XA200.5 driving them , I was treated to some of the best sound I have had in my room. Vibrant, effusive, and engaging, the XA200.5 really shined lashed to these music-making speakers. The XA 200.5 proved even more transparent in the bass region than I thought as played through the Lansches. My experience with Pass amps has led me to conclude you will be sure to get the best out of nearly anything you hook them up to.
If it is not clear by now, I am crazy about these amplifiers. I will be desperately sad to return them to their rightful owners. They really do inhabit a different universe than do the X.5 series. More liquid and resolved, greater transparency, you name it the XA200.5 has it. I plan on keeping them as long as Pass allows me to. When they go, I will miss them dearly. These amplifiers are just my cup of tea- built to a level many aspire to but so few achieve. Powerful, iron fisted grip yet able to handle subtlety as delicately as can be. In addition, they have outstanding dynamics, and great handling of timbre, all wrapped up in a killer mono-block package. Not to mention the customer first attitude and commitment to service makes the XA 200.5 an investment in a lifetime of great musical enrichment.
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