On Saturday, my friend Michael and I took a road trip to Reno to see Mark at RenoHiFi. I had been itching to upgrade my X250.5 for a while now... which I did on Saturday and it's breaking in as I'm writing, enjoying itself in its new home.
Based on my previous experiences with Pass Labs, I decided to stay with this brand. Top notch quality and sound from the Pass factory paired with unparalleled service and knowledge from Mark made my decision quite easy...
Mark was very kind to accommodate us for a quite extensive listening session so we could compare and A/B the following amps from Pass Labs: XA100.5(monos), X350.5(stereo) and XA160.5(monos). Here is a pic Michael took with his iphone of some of the contenders:
Yeah, as you can imagine we were in amp heaven...
The equipment used for the session, other than the amps:
Pass Labs XP20 preamp
Pass Labs SR-2 speakers
Klipsch La Scala speakers w/2 Sunfire subs
Wadia cd player
Sony turntable with Pass Labs phono stage (XP25 or 15??)
In addition to Mark's extensive LP and CD collections, I brought 2 cds I made. If anyone is interested I could post a list with he songs.
We mainly used the SR-2 speakers for obvious reasons, although the La Scala's were excellent, too! I must say that the SR-2's impressed me very much: imaging, soundstage, very accurate and detailed... They really made our listening session a lot easier in that we were able to spot the differences in the three amps and be on the same page. This is not about speakers so I'm going to move on but I must say that when the time comes these are on my list...
First off, there are many people who say that all amps sound pretty much the same. I could not disagree more!
Let me say that this was not a blind test. I was at some point going to request it, but although the differences were subtle, they were definitely there, no question. What also surprised me is that all three of us heard exactly the same thing in terms of differences between the amps and agreed on it, but at the same time we had different tastes as to which one we liked best. It just goes to show, you can't argue with one's preferences...
The XA100.5 and the XA160.5 are monoblocks and run in class A exclusively, while the X350.5 is stereo and runs in class A for the first 30 watts then switches to AB. The X350.5 was a one month old unit not broken it yet.
We started off with the 350 and my cds. It took me about an hour of continuous cycling through the songs I brought to get used to the overall sound of Mark's system and the room's acoustics. When we warmed up a bit, we switched to the XA100.5. For the extensive tests, we used Tori Amos' "Bells For Her". Listened to it about 2 times and switched back to the 350 and back to the 100's again. We went back and forth a few times... We all noticed the same thing: the 100s were smoother, warmer, silk like, soothing and very easy to listen to... The 350 however was more detailed - cleaner, faster. Both amps imaged the same and no difference in the sound stage depth or width. Both excellent sounding.
Mark then switched to the XA160.5 monos. Immediately we looked at one another. Personally, I expected them to sound just like the 100's. Nope...
Interestingly, they sounded like a hybrid between the 100's and the 350: a bit warmer and smoother than the 350, but more detailed than the 100's. I would venture to say that they were a bit, just a bit closer to the 350 then to the 100's...
So what's the verdict you ask?
Michael exclusively loved the XA100.5 monos for their silky sound. I liked the XA160.5 for the more detailed sound and it appears that so did Mark. Michael was dead set on the 100's, whereas both Mark and I agreed that depending on what you listen to, either the 100's, the 160's or the 350 would be do...
These are all amazing amps, and personally I learned a lot. I chose the X350.5 because of the overall impression it made in terms of balancing warmth and detail. If money was no object, I would have gotten the 160's. Price was a bit of a factor as the 160's are about double the price of the 350. I will use it with my Candela tube preamp which will also add a touch of warmth, so this was another factor in my decision.
I will plan another trip to Reno in the near future: I would like to bring my preamp and put it up against the XP series. Mark seemed very interested so there you have it!
I will post a pic with the new amp soon!