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Pass Laboratories XA200.8 pure Class A monoblock amplifiers Review, Part 3 – Conclusion

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Read Part 1 and Part 2

With premium program material

The greatest joy of an extreme system is not salvaging poor recordings, it is exulting in superb recordings. Experiencing “you are there” moments, as though planted in front of an artist, is one of the biggest thrills of the high-end experience. In design and execution of my room and system, my goal has been to create the environment of a recording studio such that all extraneous distractions from the outside world are banished. I wish to hear what the recording engineer hears, as though tapping into his mind. I want to envision looking through the glass at the artist performing their piece before the mic.

This system, with the XA200.8 pure Class A monoblocks and the Whisper DSW Clarity Edition speakers, more than any other, gives me the sensation of being right there in the studio. I hear Shelby Lynne’s “Don’t Even Believe in Love” and I think, “What a liar!” I can hear her self-talk not working, because it’s too earnest, too uncertain in her voice. She is getting older, and the spritely, bouncy character is leaving her. But her assurance is increasing. More than with other amp setups, the extra pinch of midrange magic is present with the XA200.8.

Marc Cohn’s Listening Booth is a masterful album, and all the tracks are meticulously recorded. I thrill to the immediacy of “After Midnight” as it is so palpable that you wonder if you could feel his breath; the sense of sitting so close is spooky. The scant percussion and drum work in the background hangs in the air like ornaments dangling around Cohn’s voice. The bass is particularly rich, and the bass solo rendered with a sense of restrained energy that other amps simply have not produced.

One of my favorite live performances is Ginny Owens’ Live from New Orleans, and my favorite song is “Let Love Rule.” The immediacy of the event makes it sacred, and as I have heard this track hundreds of times, the XA200.8 cultivated a distinct richness in her tonality that was lacking with many setups. Without resorting to several cable changes, attempts to tune opamps, or exchanging components, the XA200.8 brought success as Ginny’s every inflection, every intonation was evident, all without the slightest hint of effort.


Guilty pleasures

There is a fair bit of pressure in the industry to showcase systems using what might be termed “audiophile approved” music. Such music must be well recorded and must showcase vocals and acoustic instruments. Solo voice or instrument, symphonic, chamber music, and choral genres are typically approved. Not approved are poorly recorded pieces of any genre, and most rock music, including electric guitar, begins to be questionable. Disdained are pieces featuring synthesized music, which in the opinion of some is utterly worthless in assessment of an audio system. Country music is M.I.A., even though there is now a considerable amount of it that is well recorded. Consigned to the pit of hell are pieces recorded with dynamic compression. Snobbery that often accompanies such distinctions confirms that I am doing a good thing by incorporating both compressed and synthesized music in assessment of systems. Some people never figure out that the problem is their audio system.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred several years ago at a show. I entered a room where there was a pricey, but diminutive system. If I recall correctly, the floor-standing speakers were not four feet tall and had smallish bass drivers. The atmosphere of the room was cultivated to elicit the sense that the system was urbane. I asked to play a CD, and it was not an audiophile approved recording, but was Paul McCartney and the Wings’ “Live and Let Die.” As it played for a minute or two the elder company representative could not contain himself, as he strode over to the system and, removing the disc, declared, “this is garbage! Garbage!” However, the damage had been done— I heard enough in that minute or two to conclude that this was a vastly overpriced and underperforming system. I thought it curious that when I exited, the younger company rep caught my attention outside the room and told me the exact opposite, that the piece was a good selection for assessment. Why did I choose that selection? I was intentionally probing what I saw as weakness in the system, and the music revealed it quickly. I still regularly use that selection in assessment of systems; it was used during this review, and the XA200.8 rendered the song more proudly than any other amp I have used, including Class D amps that are supposed to have phenomenal resolution.

Industry members often keep their personal interest in music tucked away come show time or during reviews. Because they fear the disdain of the politically correct music crowd, they let on as though they are content with the approved musical genres, but in private they listen to their preferred music. It must be acknowledged that there is an advantage to having a fine recording of voices and instruments; I would not be without these for reviewing. Listening to choral pieces through the XA200.8 elevates my spirit. Conversely, putting on any of a dozen or so tracks from the Voices Only series of recordings draws me back down to the earthiness of human singing. More about that in a bit.

I respect the ardor and zeal in production and playback of beautifully performed and recorded music. However, nearly as much can be learned about a system from how it presents poor recordings, or pieces involving more obscure instruments, as long as the music is well known to the listener. I do not disdain approved musical genres; however, I do not spend the bulk of my time listening to them when I am relaxing.

I tend to push back against the expectations of a reviewer’s methods. I previously revealed I do not spend time on burn in. As an aside, some manufacturers know that I eschew that activity, and some do not. I neither advertise nor deny it. To their credit, not a single manufacturer has denied a review for that reason, and they almost universally enthuse that I understood and described the sound of their equipment well. Understandably, some of them, upon learning of my methods, have insisted upon burning in the review component before shipping. I never deny them the pleasure. There is currently a DAC being prepared for my perusal, and the manufacturer will get his two weeks of pummeling it with a signal before I ever see it. Do I think it would make a substantive difference in the outcome of the review? No, not at all, but I do not militate against the pre-review preparations of manufacturers.

A reviewer is supposed to listen over the longer term, i.e., weeks or months, to gain appreciation for what a system is supposed to do, but I don’t. I build more systems than average to gain a better grasp of performance. A reviewer is supposed to use audiophile approved music. Basically, I don’t. I select music in the genres I like that is well recorded. I have the approved music, and will use it, but I do not depend upon it. A critic might say it’s a wonder I can assess a piece of gear. My response is, it’s a wonder that others have such poor methods of assessing gear! I will go so far as to say that the genre of music is secondary as long as it is well recorded, and building more rigs is primary. I think most reviewers have their system assessment priorities backwards.

Last time I looked I had over 800 pieces of music used in reviewing. I have hundreds of fine pieces of music that are both enjoyable and appropriate for assessing systems. However, there are many more pieces of music that elicit joy and strong memories, but would not work the best for my reviewing work. I do so much listening for assessment of performance that I do not often get the opportunity to revisit my “guilty pleasures,” the non-audiophile approved music that I enjoyed decades ago. With the slowdown induced by the Covid-19 crisis I am less rushed to produce reviews and have more time to reminisce while listening. I am going to invite you into a corner of the private listening world of Doug Schroeder, to sit in with me on some of my oldest and fondest synthesized works.

Seriously, Synthesized? Am I trying to rile up the elitists? No, but I make no apologies. In terms of system development, to the same degree that acoustic music can be manipulated to achieve gratification, so also can synthesized music. I have been on the receiving end of the mockery, the dismissal of people who would never use synthesized music to assess an audio system. Well, good for them! As with so many other aspects of the hobby, I tend not to let peer expectations set my agenda. I chart my own path when it comes to the music used to review, or the music I turn to in order to reminisce and elicit strong emotions.

Speaking of strong emotions, synthesized music can do that very thing. You might be laughing now, but it is true. When I was a teen, I swore off popular music, as I discovered how it was rife with immoral lyrics. I turned entirely to instrumental music, and synthesized pieces were represented heavily. For years I had no vocals in my collection! Over time I realized that I was starved for hearing the human voice. Eventually, I applied what might be thought of as a “lyrics filter” to supplement my collection with vocals once again. (Hear hear. –Pub.)

I now turn to some music that I have in CD format up to 35 years old, and have ripped to file for playback. I grew up in the era of ELO, ELP, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues and other heavily experimental, theme album bands. I was selective, choosing to focus on particular selections on albums, and later, CDs that moved me. I was the person who could put on an album, hear my favorite cut or two, pull it off and put on another containing what I felt was an exceptional piece of music. I have no problem butchering an album’s continuity to hear the one or two pieces that I approve. My thought process was, “Why waste my life listening to something I don’t care about?” This makes me no less of an audiophile than the vacuous listener who puts on an album and listens through it, even though it is not redeeming musically or morally.

A short time ago an opinionated forum member attempted to correct me (three times) that very low frequency music (LF) is not worth paying attention to, is negligible in system development, and is likely not very audible. This after I had commented on the beauty of the LF in Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.” I looked at his system listing and it featured speakers with loose specs that go down to 40Hz (probably no deeper than 45Hz +/-3dB). I thought, “No wonder this guy doesn’t get LF!” His speakers would be severely challenged to reproduce the bass I am speaking about in the sub 20Hz range, much less render it with fullness and beauty. Played back at a higher level it would be significantly distorted on his system. I can imagine such an audiophile using the approved music, thinking he has close to state-of-the-art sound. When the yardstick used to measure the system is short, it is easier for the rig to seem long on performance! Deficiencies in performance are revealed clearly by pushing rigs to the extreme. Anyone can have a “pretty” sounding system that is not very high performance.

That kind of perspective is endemic in the HiFi community. The truth that few want to acknowledge is that the vast majority of audiophile systems do not sound good with compressed and LF heavy music, and the reason why is that the systems can’t handle it. They are simply not that good. It takes a serious audio system to make such music sound good, and the more extreme the rig, the better it sounds.

2 Responses to Pass Laboratories XA200.8 pure Class A monoblock amplifiers Review, Part 3 – Conclusion

  1. The XA200.8 is sensational with the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers! Vocal groups sound superlative! The Exogal Comet DAC with its internal volume control matches up quite well with he XA200.8, as I am going direct from the Comet into the XA200.8 monos with a Schroeder Method double IC (Clarity Cable Organic XLR), and Clarity Cable Organic Speaker cables (biwire). This is a very rich sounding combination. 

  2. Nelson says:

    It would be great to have a comparison of substituting Pass Labs XP12 preamp as the front end.

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