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

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Synthesized selections

One of the gems I pulled out of my musical treasure chest was Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man.” The piece builds from the gentle guitar picking toward a crescendo of synthesized sound midway through that sustains until the end. It begins as a rumble and grows to a pitching, roiling run up and down the scale. The cleanness, body, and timbre of the electronic notes was richer than achieved with previous amps. That should be no surprise, given my descriptions of the XA200.8’s performance with more typical review music.

An interesting effect was achieved when playing Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire V: To the Moon, particularly the track entitled “Escape from the Atmosphere.“ For all the effort to make the group’s earlier music conceptually delicate, as evidenced by flowers and forests on the album covers, it’s plodding by comparison to today’s advanced synthesized sounds. Here, notes come in big chunks and with force, a goodly part of the time, as big, fat synth notes are held for several seconds until overlapped by others.

Just as the listener hears an oboe or tenor sax detached from the live sound of the instrument, and the listener judges the “realness” of the sound, which may not be terribly close to the actual instrument being recorded, so also the synthesized notes heard may not be all that close to the actual sound as the musician played it. The goal is satisfaction, appreciation of the music as it sounds good, or real, to you. In that respect I find the synthesized music on the system with the XA200.8 to be superior to past experiences. At 5:13 into the piece, lower notes appear, and just as with acoustic bass instruments, the notes are rendered more full, resonant, and deep even though synthesized.

Yet, it is easy to tell the beneficial influence of the XA200.8 on this music. The lower notes have more body, the upper notes less sharpness, the sound has been bumped slightly in the direction of acoustic performances. Particularly gratifying was how much of the hidden background was brought to the fore. What was heard previously as a flat performance, the Pass Labs amps scaled up and gave depth enough to emulate hearing the group in a stadium live.

I won’t discuss the harsh conceptualizations of Haslinger, or the obscure trash instrument recordings of David Van Tegem; in some respects they are no worse than the overrated mutterings of the over-the-hill duo Yello. More aligned with our readership here is Steve Miller Band’s “Space Intro,” which fans will know precedes “Fly Like an Eagle.” I don’t have enough words in this review left to expound upon the critical nature of scale as presented by an audio system. (Editors weep. –Pub.) Scale of performance is perhaps one of the most underrated parameters of performance. The XA200.8 has headroom galore, and it scales up the music superbly. “Space Intro” sounds engaging, opening up into “Fly Like an Eagle” because of the vastness of the soundstage well beyond the room’s boundaries. Again, the density of synthesized notes varies with the amplifier used. Some amps make synth notes seem constrained and whiter, while others such as the XA200.8 extend them just as an acoustic note, and colorize them better.


New generation acapella

My endpoint for this review was the combination of the XA200.8 and the Vapor Audio Joule White, a speaker capable of fantastic resolution and pinpoint imaging, which brought me the highest performance reached by any dynamic speaker I have reviewed. My custom build Joule White is extreme; the 11″ Sandwich Cone Audio Technology 10C77 woofer is a world class bass driver and is capable of 26Hz +/-3dB. The Joule White also employs a 6.5” Accuton C-173-6-90 Midrange and RAAL 140-15D Amorphous Core Tweeter. These are all premium drivers mated to an overbuilt custom crossover featuring ClarityCaps and Duelund capacitors the size of my palm, enormous resistors, and copper foil wiring. In addition, a silver winding was used for the transformer of the RAAL ribbon tweeter. At the time I reviewed and bought it the stock speaker had an MSRP of $16,895; with the additional customization my pair was $21,395. It may sound ludicrous, but that was a give-away price. Since that time the MSRP of the base speaker has been elevated to $32K and for the performance it delivers it is not out of line. The amount of labor in the speaker is excessive; the stacked Birch plywood cabinet was a construction technique used by Magico in the V3. It is a technique that is so costly and difficult that most companies revert to a variant of MDF.

Have you detected the performance pattern with speakers in this review? No matter the genre —electrostatic, quasi-line source, dynamic, full range, or horn — the pinnacle of performance has been attained in use with the Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblocks. Two particular curiosities of system building revealed themselves in this combination of amplifier and speaker, and which teach us once again that all variants of systems must be tried to attain optimum performance. The first was in regards to selection of the DAC. Previously, with the Legacy Whispers, the clear winner in terms of sound quality was the combination of the COS Engineering D1 DAC + Pre-Amplifier, and this was while using the Roon software for volume control while listening and keeping the DAC on full output.

It all changed when I set up the Joule White. One might think that the previously superior combination of the COS DAC and the XA200.8 would obviously be the best for the Joule White speakers. Not so. A clear, powerful improvement occurred when I swapped back into the system the Exogal Comet DAC with Plus Power Supply. Nothing else had been changed in the system, yet the Comet, at about one third the cost of the D1 DAC, matched up with the amp and speakers much more favorably. This is the kind of result that makes an audiophile scratch their head. How can results vary so strongly, such that one cannot be assured that the combination of gear used with one speaker will be the best with any given new speaker? You simply cannot be assured of it. Just as the received wisdom says that cables are “system dependent,” with time in building systems it becomes evident that all components, too, are system dependent. What works amazingly in one rig will work only acceptably in another. There is also no assurance that you will enjoy a new speaker; the combination of gear that was perfect with the previous speaker may be not so impressive with a new speaker. Do you blame the speaker? The amp? The source? Take your pick; no one can tell you which is the bottleneck. Audiophiles do not like to face such things, but it is the truth. There is more happenstance to assembling fine rigs than we would like to believe. Attaining a pleasurable result in no way means you have achieved the finest playback. You must compare all the permutations to find it.

That leads to my second discovery, and one that is embarrassing. For many years I have settled on the method of bi-wiring as the ultimate method for eliciting superior sound from speakers. I have seen conversations — more like debates — where some insist that using a fine set of jumpers trumps bi-wiring. Four years ago, I did a fair bit of experimenting with aftermarket jumpers with the Joule White speakers, and the results consistently convinced me that I should stick with bi-wiring, using two pair of speaker cables. Based on that result I broadened the conclusion to make it universal. That was a mistake.

I nearly sold the Vapor Joule White speakers about six months ago. I had them listed, but relented at the last moment when I applied to the Joule Whites a method taken from the review of the perky Tri-Art Audio Series B 5 Open Speakers. Over time I had become uncomfortable with what I felt was a too-aggressively tuned crossover and driver selection in the Joule White. It is capable of laser sharpness, and therein lies the problem. Over the years I found that, to my ears, the ceramic midrange and ribbon tweeter were overpowering the bass driver. On much of the music I listen to there seemed to be no way to settle these drivers down a bit and add some more warmth. If I would listen to some of my old rock, such as Little River Band or Simple Minds, it would be irritatingly harsh.

I always bi-wired and used the best all-round cable I have reviewed, the Clarity Cable Organic series (Clarity now has the Supernatural series, but with this speaker it was slightly brighter). I had failed to follow my own rule of system building to find the ultimate sound. I have two pair of short (2’) Clarity Cable Organic Speaker Cable sets that I use for positioning amps right next to speakers when possible. I obtained them specifically for use when setting up the PureAudioProject Trio15 Horn 1 Speakers in Landscape orientation, as I have Sound Anchor custom integrated speaker and amp stands that allow for the amps to sit directly below the horizontal speakers, an ideal solution, and the First Watt J2 amps were used for that purpose extensively. I never bothered to try the short speaker cables as jumpers with the Joule White. After four years of futzing to tame the slight edge of the treble and warm up the midrange, I finally did, and I am so angry with myself!

I obtained a new speaker system! It was as if a paradigm shift had occurred; the entire speaker’s tonality dropped downward several notches, as if switching a color swatch to one that is a deeper hue, which is precisely what I was seeking. In addition, it opened up even further, revealing an additional level of definition and resolution, which is always a good thing. Perhaps most pleasing was the additional coherence, for I had not heard the drivers quite as well integrated in the past. Those who mention higher driver coherence with fine jumpers are certainly right, at least in this installation. I did not think that the speaker was capable of warmth on the order of the Legacy Whisper, but it does have that capability. What I am hearing with the Joule White now has me sighing, “Thank you” prayers that I did not sell them. I have always loved the Joule White for what it could do; now I am enamored of it for what I thought it could not do —and it’s happening with the XA200.8. This setup will be running for some time now.

With this setup I am enjoying what is to me a new world of aCapella music. The term derives from Italian and means, “in the manner of the chapel.” Unaccompanied by instrument, the roots of this type of music reach back to Gregorian chant in the 9th and 10th centuries, recognizing that solo singing is as old as the Garden of Eden. Perhaps I have been sleeping the past decade, but it seems a paradigm shift has occurred in terms of group performances where all the sounds are made by the human mouth. Particular facets of such music have been given terms such as vocalese (also the title of an album by The Manhattan Transfer), scatting, or beatboxing. I have heard isolated instances, and am well aware of the popular use of beatboxing. However, I was pleasantly blindsided by a series of albums produced by the Vocals Only studio in Michigan called Voices Only Productions. The website explains, ‘Voices Only is an annual two-volume a cappella compilation album comprised of selected excellent tracks released by various groups and artists from around the World.” Highly skilled high school and college groups are prominent.

I was stunned the first time I heard a few of these tracks! Rapidly, this has become not only my favorite casual listening genre of music, but also a new and powerful assessment tool in reviewing. The series reaches back to 2005, so you if you are drawn to it, you can add many sensational albums to your collection at one time. Many, but not all, of these sets appear on Tidal, and I am enjoying wonderful sound through the previously noted Small Green Computer/SONORE digital front end and optional systemOptique Ethernet to fiber optic converter.

I urge you to check out such groups as The Michigan G Men and Exit 245; it is a label with “something for everyone,” targeting those who appreciate well-recorded vocal groups. The XA200.8 is simply splendid with such music. Every nuance of inflection, the incorporation of individual and group breathing, popping of the mouth and faux synthesized and percussive effects are showcased in rapturous fashion. To increase our joy, there is a Voices Only Forte series, featuring professional, semi-professional and amateur groups from around the world. Among my favorite performances are “Save It for Another Day” by The Funx, “It Was Always You” by Peter Yang and Mel Daneke, “Full Set of Heartbreaks” by Mister Tim, and “I’ll Be Waiting” by Liquid 5th. I have not ventured much beyond the compilations, so I make no endorsement overall for these groups’ extended performances. Exploration could lead to a favorite new group, and the collections are a gold mine.

I sit for hours thrilling to the sound of these performances as I sit before a speaker that previously I judged as too strident. For those with a hankering for a new amp, I think you would do very well to pick up a model in the .8 Series. If it’s not your time to buy an amp, at least take away the Voices Only music label recommendation. Keep your ears open as we return to attending audio shows (soon, God willing) as I suspect there will be a ramping up of these recordings in use for demos and evaluation. I certainly will be prepared with perhaps a dozen of these performances to play on show systems!


Unleashing refinement

Much of the filming and dialogue of Gladiator was seat of the pants, including Russel Crow’s line, “At my signal, unleash Hell!” I whimsically picture Nelson Pass in a Roman soldier’s attire, sitting atop a steed, shouting, “At my signal, unleash refinement!” The most popular pictures of him are taken at a workbench, his hair in polite disarray, sporting a boyish grin. He knows he and his team do exceptional work, but he modestly lets others praise him for it. Thus, I will conclude with a few comments of my own in praise of the XA200.8.

There is little to discuss in terms of faults of the XA200.8. Acknowledging the obvious facts of cost and weight, which are by necessity byproducts of the design, and focusing on performance, the only performance caveat I see would be if a person wished to use a low efficiency speaker, play recordings that were recorded at a lower level, and play them back at a higher than average level. Recall that this is a characteristic for many amps, including the ones compared above.

This amplifier is all about unleashing refinement. I have not used every monolithic amp in existence, nor the crowning achievement of the Pass Labs line, the Xs series, so it is obvious that there must be superior performance beyond the XA200.8. However, this amp pleased me in every parameter of sound quality, and with every system I had fully tuned I did not pine for a better result. Can I imagine better sound, as if imaging a higher mountain or a more beautiful wife — wait, scratch that one (my wife is plenty pretty). There is always a hypothetical superior result, however the XA200.8 is the pinnacle of performance of both tube and solid-state amplifiers in my room. Glance back at the amps I have used in 13 years of reviewing. If I could pick one (out of necessity, in this case, two) to remain, it would be the XA200.8.

Even with exceptional products, system matching and careful cultivation of the system is still necessary to reach ultimate performance. Compared to the older .5 Series amplifiers I reviewed, the .8 is a slam dunk, unquestionably superior in every respect. Pass enthusiasts who await significant upgrades should be on the horn to Pass Labs without the slightest hesitancy, for the appointed time of deliverance from deficiencies is at hand. In terms of tonal color and timbre when using the XA200.8, if the matching components do not contribute well toward that goal, the sound quality will still be excellent. It takes some work to try variables to unearth the real gems, the optimal combinations. That is true of all amps, and also true of the XA200.8.

Some may mistake the genteel character, or deliberate refusal of this amp to get in the face of the listener, as a sign it does not have enough definition/detail. Not so; if the power cables, signal cables, and source are accommodating, the headroom, expansion of the sound stage as well as population of it, microdynamics and resolution all will be first rate. I am a detail freak and want to hear it all, without strain. This amp absolutely can deliver definition, and importantly, without searing the ears.

It’s not about how loud, but about how refined. Mono amplifiers are not about simply driving a speaker harder, but about achieving holistically superior sound. I can get the dreamy King III to play as loudly with the Kinki Studio EX-M1+ or the Sanders Magtech monos, but I cannot get those amps to make the speakers sound lush. I have tried as hard as any man could to make those amps equal the XA200.8, and they simply do not. With each iteration of the system the Pass Labs amplifiers distance themselves a bit more from the competition. The impression given is that they have reserves of refinement inside awaiting release.

Releasing refinement is what Pass Labs has accomplished with the XA200.8, and presumably with the entire .8 Series. Now that my audiophile life has been changed by this amp, reverting to the sound that existed before it showed up at my door would constitute a crisis. Why? In reviewing through the years, I do not recall any amplifier producing a new reference in sound for five distinctly different (ESL, quasi-line source, hybrid dynamic, supplemented full range, and supplemented horn) speaker systems. In fact, I believe this is the only amplifier review during which I have been motivated to include five types of speakers, as the performance drove me to continue system building to discover their new reference performance. Normally I have to use two or three different amps to achieve reference performance from each of these speakers, and reporting that the XA200.8 has done so in such a dominant fashion is unprecedented. As a System Builder, it is the highest honor I can bestow upon an amplifier!


Copy editor: Dan Rubin



Source: Small Green Computer sonicTransporter AP I7 4T and SONORE Signature Rendu SE and systemOptique; Salk Audio StreamPlayer Generation III with Roon interface

Streaming Music Service: Tidal premium

DAC:  COS D1 DAC + Pre; Exogal Comet DAC and Plus upgrade power supply; Eastern Electric Minimax DSD DAC Supreme with Burson, Sonic Imagery and Sparkos Labs Discrete Opamps

Preamp: TEO Audio Liquid Preamplifier; Tri-Art Audio Series B Preamplifier with Tube Linear Power Supply; Cambridge Audio 840E

Amps:  Exogal Ion (PowerDAC, used exclusively with Exogal Comet DAC); Sanders Magtech Monos; Tri-Art Audio Series B 60W Class D with Tube Linear Power Supply

Integrated: Redgum Audio Articulata; Kinki Studio EX-M1+

Speakers:  Kings Audio Kingsound King III; Legacy Audio DSW Clarity Edition; Kings Tri-Art Audio Series B 5 Open; Vapor Audio Joule White 3; PureAudioProject Trio15 Horn 1; Kings Audio King Tower omnidirectional

Subwoofers: Legacy Audio XTREME HD (2)

IC’s: Schroeder Method (self-assembled) Clarity Cable RCA with Audio Sensibility Y Cables; Schroeder Method Audio Sensibility RCA; Schroeder Method Clarity Cable XLR with Audio Sensibility Y Cables; TEO Liquid Splash-Rs and Splash-Rc; TEO Liquid Standard MkII; Clarity Cable Organic RCA/XLR; Snake River Audio Signature Series Interconnects;

Speaker Cables: TEO Cable Standard Speaker; Clarity Cable Organic Speaker; Snake River Audio Signature Series Speaker Cables;

Digital Cables: Clarity Cable Organic Digital; Snake River Audio Boomslang; Silent Source “The Music Reference”

USB: Clarity Cable Supernatural 1m

Power Cables: Clarity Cable Vortex; MIT Oracle ZIII; Snake River Audio Signature Series; Anticables Level 3 Reference Series

Power Conditioning: Wireworld Matrix Power Cord Extender; Tice Audio Solo


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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