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Pass Labs XA30.8 class A stereo amplifier Review

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Pass Labs XA30.8 class A stereo amplifier

 

Listening

IMPORTANT, don’t miss this point. I’m going to spend a lot of time comparing the XA30.8 to the sound of my Wavac EC300B ($31,000 with the tubes I am using in it) and the First Watt SIT-1 mono blocks ($10,000). Please remember the XA30.8 costs $6,500 and puts out three times the power of these amps.

My first impression of the Pass Labs XA30.8 was that this amp was powerful and really controlled the speakers. The second thing was that it had real immediacy, transparency, and the alive sound I value so much, but it sounded fundamentally different than my Wavac EC300B or Nelson Pass’ First Watt SIT-1 mono blocks I reviewed not long ago. Don’t misunderstand me, just because they sounded different from my beloved EC300B didn’t mean they don’t sound damn fine; they do.

What do I mean by fundamentally different? Well, it begins with the way the XA30.8 really controls the speakers. It controls them even more than the First Watt SIT-1 did which I thought excelled at this point. By control, I don’t mean a lack of dynamics. Still even with 30 watts verses 10, the 30.8 is no more dynamic than the Wavac EC300B. The XA30.8 gets really big or really loud without losing control, but it does not have the same ability for the sound to swell and become bigger as well as louder in the same way the Wavac EC300B or the First Watt SIT-1 could.

To help you understand this I’m going to go back to my review of the First Watt SIT-1 where I said: “For example on Ella and Louie, Louie’s trumpet swells, comes to life, and gets very loud without a hint of glare or edge. Another example is Nancy Bryan’s voice on “Neon Angel” which swells, comes to life, but also sounds really under control. It took me some time to decide if this was a plus or minus, but in the end it was a bit of a minus to me. To others it could easily be a plus, but to me I prefer the raw aliveness of the Wavac.” This difference I’m describing was very close between those two amps, but is more significant with the Pass Labs XA30.8.

With the Pass Labs XA30.8, it’s the speakers not the sound that is controlled. By this I mean Louie’s trumpet comes to life, gets very loud, and has more bite than either of the other two amps. It does this still without any hint of glare. The fact that the trumpet has more bite doesn’t means it sounds quite as alive as the Wavac or the First Watt. The trumpet sounds just as loud or louder with the XA30.8 but not quite as big and not as much air as it has with the other two amps. Now if we know that Louie didn’t walk up and stick his trumpet in the mic the XA30.8 is more accurate. If he did as I often experience at live performances than the other two amps are more accurate. We can’t know this or do I know if it matters. What matters is that all three amps are very alive sounding and extremely emotionally involving.

Another way that the XA30.8 is fundamentally different from the two is how it builds the sound. Both the EC 300B, an SET tube amp, and the First Watt SIT, a single-ended class A transistor amp, build the sound from the midrange out. It’s like the midrange is the main attraction, and the bass and treble are there to finish out the sound. The Pass Labs XA30.8 builds the sound on a foundation of bass, mid-bass and power. The midrange is immediate, but does not sound as scary real as it does on the other two amps. I guess I’m saying that the Wavac and First Watt have that bloom that SET lovers so revere. Still, the XA30.8 is very intoxicating to this SET lover.

The bass of the Pass Labs XA30.8 has more weight, more slam and is still faster than the other two amps. What this amp did for the bass of the Audio Note K by the way, was just beyond words. I know everyone seems to think you need to play Audio Note speakers with their amps, but a couple of the best sounds I have heard from Audio Note speakers was with the XA30.8, and another time with a pair of Goldmund amps.

Like some great vintage amps and the deHavilland amps the 30.8 has big tone. This is the last thing I had expected from a 30-watt, class A transistor amp and may I say it was a wonderful surprise. This combined with the control and power of the amp is quite amazing. Don’t misunderstand me, in no way does the Pass Labs XA30.8 sound “tubey.” It just has a big, full colored tone.

Along with “big tone” the XA30.8 has great scale and a huge soundstage. In both of these areas it betters the Wavac EC300B and First Watt SIT-1. It’s not the kind of big that makes everything big, but it has appropriate scale for instruments and voices. Likewise the soundstage is not always big, but it can be wider, deeper and taller than I have heard my system get before. It’s the kind of soundstage that when combined with good imaging and detail lets you hear the recording with realistic, holographic imaging. Another area where the XA30.8 bettered the two single ended amps was in top-end sparkle. It was not the least bit etched, just simply beautiful.

There were three areas where both the EC300B and SIT-1 excelled that the Pass Labs was a close second on, and surely the best I had heard from any amp having more than 10 watts. Those areas were the exceptional layering the XA30.8 had. It was very close here to the other two more expensive amps and the best I have heard from any other transistor amp other than the SIT-1 monoblocks. Next was the way it let your hear the space and air around performers, and that was also the best I have heard from any amp that was not SET or the SIT-1.

Then lastly, the Pass Labs XA30.8 excelled at musical flow, something only a handful of amps do very well. The music flowed in a most natural and realistic way. Where the other two amps highlight the midrange and have a very impressive sense of air, the XA30.8 will simply let the music flow in so that you can experience the performance in a wonderful balanced and natural way.

 

Conclusion

From a dyed-in-the-wool SET guy, let me tell you I could easily live with the Pass Labs XA30.8. I will go further than that: If I was the kind of guy who owns more than one amp at a time, I would own this amp. The longer I listen the more I feel that way. If you don’t want tubes or you need more power than many SETs, I can’t imagine where you would find a better amp.

At HiFi show after HiFi show you see more rooms that use Pass Labs amps. It has also been my experience that these are often the rooms that sound great. This along with how much I liked the First Watt SIT-1 made me very excited to hear the latest version of Pass Lab’s 30-watt amp in my own system. I tell you in no way was I disappointed. At this point in time I can safely say the Pass Labs XA30.8 is the best amp I have heard for under $9,000 and with many speakers it’s the best amp I have ever heard. Very highly recommended and stay tuned to hear how the XA30.8 sounded with Wayne Picquet’s restored Quad 57.

12 Responses to Pass Labs XA30.8 class A stereo amplifier Review


  1. Mike says:

    Happy New Year Jack and thanks for a great review.
    I look forward to the conclusion.
    Various Pass Labs products are the POTY on several online audio sites.
    They apparently really nailed it with the .8s

  2. Charlie mathews says:

    Gosh Jack there you go again reviewing an amp that I would not have suspected you to give such a positive review. Well OK I just sold my 30.5’s and invested in 300b mono’s BECAUSE i have no mind of my own and I listen to equipment reviewers! BUT since you were the guy that directed me to the Devore 96’s I would like to know how THEY sound with the 30.8’s? By the way I love your reviews!

    Best wishes and happy new year!

    Charlie

  3. Charlie mathews says:

    A final coment…I have had the 30.5 Pass amp with reference 3a decapos for a couple of years and the pass amps were flat dimensionally; at a reviewer’s encouragement I bought a pair of 300b mono block audio space amps and they WERE much better 3 dimensionally that the pass 30.5! Here is the question amps/speakers are synergistic HOWEVER sometimes it seems that reviewers give special treatment to long established companies (i.e. Pass).

    • Jack Roberts says:

      Well Charlie no where in the review did I say the 30.8 is better than my Wavac or even the First Watt SIT ones. I said if that wasn’t enough power these would be a great choice. By the way the 30.8 is a huge step up from the 30.5 and I can’t really imagine a $6500 SET with anywhere near this much power that would be as good. By the way I was surprised how much I like them with my speakers, but I needed them because there is no way I would ask my amp to power and impedance load like the Quad 57s have.

  4. Pani says:

    Hi Jack,
    I too am a fellow Wavac EC-300B amp owner. Every amplifier review of yours gets me excited because you are ultimately going to compare it against the Wavac. At this point I was looking to get a more powerful amplifier because my Tannoy would love it. Another audiophile friend named Myron told me that you are actually now finding the Pass XA30.8 almost as good as the Wavac, please correct me if I am wrong. The only other amp I had in mind was the Lamm ML2. Have you ever heard a Lamm SET ? Can you please give me some idea of how a Lamm SET will differ compared to the Wavac ?

    BTW, the best thing about the Wavac is it really disappears from the system when it is playing (except when it compresses during loud complicated passages). This disappearing act has made me its addict.

  5. Allen Edelstein says:

    If I’m not mistaken the Pass XA30.8 actually does a lot more than 30 watts but passes into class AB to do it. Pass, being a really honest company only advertises its true class A rating. I recall a friend in the business who bought an integrated Pass class A amp and was worried the 30 watts was insufficient. He talked to the company and they told him that it put out at least 60 watts, if I recall, when it went into AB.

    • Jack Roberts says:

      Allen, thanks for reading my reviews. According to Pass on literature the amp puts out pure class A up to 61 watt peeks. Even with the inefficient Quad 57 ESLs I never saw the needle on the meter move pass center which indicates it never left class A.

  6. DAVID OSD says:

    Hello Jack

    My current system consists of preamplifier plinius M8 and amplifier SA201 to attack loudspeakers dynaudio C2. I am evaluating the possibility of replacing the SA201 by the amplifier XA30.8 pass. What is your opinion on this?

    Thanks, David.

    • Jack Roberts says:

      David, I’ve not heard any of the equipment you mention in my home. It sounds like a great system though. I find the XA30.8 very powerful a 30 or eve 60 watt amp, but if you need the kind of power you have now you may want to look at the monoblocks. Sorry, I can’t be more help.

  7. Hi Jack
    I am a high end audio distributor in New Zealand (Parmenter Sound) and represent Pass Labs, WAVAC & Lamm Industries.
    I have owned 2 WAVAC EC 300B amplifiers over the years matching them with Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Omega loudspeakers.
    The WAVAC EC 300 B is one of my personal favorite Single Ended Triode amplifiers along with the Lamm Industries ML2.1 (now the ML2.2) SET amplifiers.
    I have matched the Pass Labs XA 30.5 with the Avantgarde Duo Omega loudspeakers and I must say this was my favorite solid state amplifier / Avantgarde Duo Omega loudspeaker combination, I am sure the new Pass Labs XA 30.8 would be another step up in sonic performance. Jack I really enjoyed reading your Pass Labs XA 30.8 amplifier review and can relate to your impressions & sonic comparison with the WAVAC EC 300 B amplifier, both true reference amplifiers. Jack a wonderful review on the Pass Labs XA 30.8 amplifier. Thanks Jason Parmenter.

  8. Tim Naff says:

    I’m also using the XA 30.8 with Avantgarde Duo Omega loudspeakers, which are actually a weird load for a transistor amp. Remember how robust transistor amps can double their max output power when the speaker impedance is cut in half? What happens to the max output when the speaker impedance doubles? The Duo Omegas have 17 ohms nominal impedance and 107 dB sensitivity. That means the power amp is putting out just a trickle of current, which it must control to a correspondingly tighter tolerance. One reason I point this out is that my results are based primarily on this odd speaker load. I compared the XA 30.8 head-to-head with a 30.5, a McIntosh Mc275 (using 16 ohm taps), a Cary 300SE with huge auxiliary factory capacitor banks and running WE 300Bs, and a couple of other miscellaneous, less-stellar amps. Bottom line: The best of the lot was and is the 30.8. Second best was the XA 30.5, but it was a fairly distant second. The 30.8 is just plain magical with the Omega Duos. It has more presence and immediacy without a hint of harshness or stridency. I should add that the guys who love tube, and especially SE triode, sound, should audition the Pass Labs XP-30 preamp. It combines the tube bloom with solid-state grunt. It made a bigger difference replacing a Levinson 326S than the power amps did. And I Loved the Levinson. Of course, the XP-30 is expensive and takes up a lot of shelf space with its 3-box footprint. The only Pass Labs component I’m just okay with is the XP-25 phono preamp. I’m experimenting with cables to see if I can improve it.

  9. Kay Lu says:

    I bought a Pass XA30.8 unheard, based largely on this review and the fact that multiple other writers also bought this amp after reviewing it. I love tube tone and was exploring 300B options because I was dissatisfied with the ambiguous soundstage sorting of my $1500 EL34 amp. The knowledge that Jack ultimately switched from a high-end tube amp made me consider solid state for the first time.

    I am writing to say that this Pass amp is far better than I imagined. Its clarity, reverb presentation, realistic instrument tone, sharp image placement, and ability to scale the soundstage are just stupendous. I never realized an amplifier could have this level of impact on the music and the speakers (Harbeth P3ESR). It’s utterly transformational; my entire digital collection sounds like master tapes. I listen to jazz/classical/blues.

    I love that this amp doesn’t have an identifiable ‘sound’, it just presents so much information from my DAC so clearly that the amp feels non-existent. It gives every midrange characteristic I like about tubes and also gives just as much quality in the treble and bass. (The bass detail, grip, and depth… incredible.)

    I actually feel it’s a steal at this price. I would not be surprised if it sold for $20K. It will take the cost of a luxury car to better this amp’s performance, and that’s not something I’m about to do.

    A few notes from my experience: 1.) Upon being plugged in it takes a full 48 hours for this amp to come alive. It’s a big let down until then. But when it finally heats up the improvement isn’t incremental, it’s an entirely different amp. 2.) The heat output isn’t nearly so much as I was led to expect. The heatsink is quite hot but it puts off the same level of heat as my 8 watt tube amp. Very manageable. 3.) I find the amp quite resistant to the power line noise that occurs between 5pm and 11pm. It sounds the same then as it does at 3am.

    Thank you so much for the XA30.8 and XA60.8 reviews, Jack. I found your assessments to be spot on. This was a tremendous purchase that has brought me much listening joy. Really no downsides I can think of. I am very thankful they are selling this top tier piece of equipment at an attainable price (for me).

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