mardi 17 novembre 2009

PASS LABS XP15 phono preamp – Listening

Underneath a well broken-in
Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable,
the XP15 phono preamp is resting quietly is the system

First of all, we have to point out the extreme silence of the XP15, which, in open input, generates a very low intrinsic noise level. Connecting a cartridge just produces a slight increase of noise (most probably due to some antenna effect, which picks up the AC rumble and some other EMC products in which we permanently bathe). In all cases, this noise floor remains unnoticeable even at higher listening levels.

We can just admire the great transparency and colossal bandwidth shown by this unit – but also, above all, its superior musicality. For the one hand, this transparency allows to identify clearly the differences between cartridge personalities. On the other hand, it helps to rediscover many subtleties in however well-known records.

This is the case with Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass and Niels Orsted Pedersen in concert in Paris (Pablo records, 1978, played with the Transfiguration cartridge). Despite the limits of this recording (the double-bass is shortened but formidably stiff, the piano also is truncated at both end of the spectrum) and the much used state of my personal copy, one can feel the incredible virtuosity of this historical trio as never before. The attention is rapidly drawn and captivated by Oscar Peterson humming, which is for once perfectly audible. The flashing velocity of the bassist and the pianist technique never put a stress on this preamp, and the track intelligibility is entire in any circumstance. As a consequence, the strong personality of this live take does not prevent the listener from enjoying this performance at all ; it remains very lively and shows quite a natural immediacy. A somewhat anecdotic but informative issue: the applause at the end of tracks shows a lot of softness…

Another pertinent test was given by the original score from Bertrand Tavernier’s «Around Midnight» movie, which featured the jazz upper crust of the time. One can savour all tracks, as they pass with a wonderful realism and liquid character. Not to mention the quasi holographic sound stage. But the qualitative difference between voices take and instruments take is also much noticeable.

In quite a different style, we can also enjoy listening to the reissue of the mythical (at least this side of the ocean) reggae album «Aux armes et cætera» by Serge Gainsbourg on 180 gr vinyl. At least have we to agree to the fancy dub revisiting made by engineer Soljie Hamilton – which, to my opinion, do not misrepresent the original works. It even adds a little and fresh snap to it.

The original record of 1979 was reckoned to be a technical achievement, but the variable quality of the pressings at that time did not always allow to fully enjoy it. Here, Robbie Shakespeare’s bass is incredibly deep and stiff, we discover some miraculous guitar soli by Michael Chung, and the I Threes would almost have you collapse. Gainsbourg himself has never quite sung like that ! His voice is fully bodied, rather articulate, and surrounded by a handful of delightful crispy dub gimmicks…

I also extracted two among my favourite opuses from my classical record collection: the first Cello Concerto by Haydn (interpreted by Roland Pidoux et I Filarmonici di Bologna conducted by Angelo Ephrikian - Harmonia Mundi records) and the 2nd Cello Concerto by Schostakovitch (interpreted by Mtislav Rostropovitch and the Boston Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa - Deutsche Gramophon). If Haydn’s concerto is noticeable thanks to its almost baroque classicism, the one from Schostakovitch is obviously more tense and contrasted.

Being fed by the Lyra cartridge, the XP15 is paying tribute to these beautiful takes, which both bring the soloists very close to the listener, whereas the farthest instrumentalists are shifted well beyond the loudspeaker plane. Another reason for satisfaction : the marked instrumental grain of the cello (and of the other strings more generally), the purity of the woods, the acid vigour of the brass and the tremendous impact of the bass drum (Schostakovitch). Each group of instruments is analysed and replaced within a vast, tactile and hyper-accurate soundstage. At times, one can even hear Mtislav Rostropovitch tapping foot noise on the stage.

Beyond the excellent details resolution that commands respect – which also originate in the whole replay system – one has to feel the tension of Schostakovitch’s concerto first chords to realise that the fully musical task achieved by the XP15. The transcription of Haydn’s concerto also reaches some sort of perfection, within a more tightened acoustic, but where the cello and the instrumentalist seems all the like real and defined. With these works of so different a size, the physical limits of the listening room seem to have been abolished.


We don’t know what will the XP25 bring, but the XP15 is already close to the very top of phono preamps. We would feel like saying that this piece of equipment is showing a genuine absence of marked personality. Is that to say that it is flavourless ? Not at all ! But this preamp is so transparent – be it on transients, tonal accuracy or room artefacts – what we hardly can hear it. And this is something for the ones who cherish emotion, something one could almost buy with the eyes closed (if one can afford), since its purely musical performance is top level.

Eventually, it is quite difficult to find any shortcoming in this product, beyond the fact that all its settings are not accessible from front ! And this is a real pain for the reviewer only. Not so for the enthusiast, who generally owns only one turntable, equipped with one arm and one cartridge. To be frank, 4250 € is a somewhat reckless sum to pay for something which is nothing more than the complement of a line level preamp. But vinyl aficionados know the inimitable pleasure we feel as listening to perfectly read analogue records… And the XP15 is well above the mere word for word reading.