I just sold my Emotiva UPA-2 on Audiogon, to be replaced by an Odyssey Stratos Plus, and while I wait for Klaus to build me my new amp, a buddy of mine offered to let me borrow his Parasound Halo A23. I've always been a fan of the Parasound Halo amps since the first time I heard them in a dealer's demo room, so how could I resist? I also have always wondered how my Emo stacks up against the Parasound. So I figured before I boxed up my Emo to send it off to its new owner, I'd spend some quality time doing an A/B comparison. The results were illuminating. Although I came away feeling that the Parasound is a superior amp (which was my hypothesis going in to this exercise), its very hard to say it is 2.5 to 3 times better (i.e the difference in price), and I actually have a better appreciation for what my Emo does (did?) well.
MacBook Pro (source, sending signal via wifi)
Airport Express (transport, sending signal via TOSLINK)
Emotiva XDA-1 (DAC, wired unbalanced)
dbx 223s (active crossover, wired unbalanced)
Ascend Acoustics CMT-340SE (main speakers, biwired)
Outlaw LMF-1 EX (subwoofer, receives signal from active crossover)
All electronics plugged into a Panamax M8-AV-Pro power conditioner
All interconnects are from Blue Jeans Cables
Power cord for amp is an Acoustic Research AP813N (12 AWG, shielded)
Test tracks (all Apple Lossless rips from CD)
Diana Krall, Fly Me to the Moon (Live in Paris)
Eva Cassidy, What a Wonderful World (Live at Blues Alley)
Dr John, Janko Partner
Duke Ellington, Minnie the Moocher (Recollections of a Big Band Era)
Erroll Garner, Lullaby of Birdland
Dave Brubeck, Hometown Blues
Istvan Szekely, Chopin: Etude #1
James Horner: Glory Soundtrack: Preparations for Battle
Mozart, Requiem: Track 1 (I unfortunately don't have this track properly tagged so I don't know who is playing/singing)
AC/DC, Back in Black
Led Zepelin, You Shook Me (BBC Sessions)
Stevie Wonder, I Wish
Clyde Carson, Slow Down
Disclaimer -- what follows is my opinion. YMMV
I came into this expecting to Parasound to best my Emotiva, but I wasn't sure by how much. To summarize my takeaway, I thought that the Parasound had superior detail recovery, had a wider spundstage but not quite as deep, and it did a better job cleanly reproducing high female voices, high piano notes, and high strings. However it did not image as well as the Emo (this did not surprise me, as I've always loved how well my Emo images), and I actually felt that the Emo had slightly superior dynamics (this surprised me). Finally, The Parasound is slightly warmer than the Emo. Whether this is because the Emo is neutral and the Parasound is slightly warm, or the Parasound is neutral and the Emo is slightly cool, I can't say. Both a darn close to neutral, but to my ears the Parasound is warmer and the Emo is cooler. Now for the specifics.
Fly Me to the Moon - I think the Emo does a very good job reproducing the band, and Diana Krall's voice is beautiful. However I could hear a little more texture in Diana's voice with the Parasound while. This, combined with its slightly warmer tone and wider soundstage, gave me more of a sense that I was listening to the music live.
What a Wonderful World - This is a go-to test track for me, both because I truly love it but also because it's dynamic and combines lush high piano with an awesome electric bass, and then oh yeah, there's also Eva Cassidy's amazing voice. While the highs sound plenty airy through my Emo, the piano has a sparkle that, while pretty, is probably not supposed to be there. The Parasound, on the other hand, nails the piano tone, giving it round texture without the extra sparkle. Having said that, I was surprised to find the dynamics coming through more with the Emo than with the Parasound, which in turn made for greater sense of being live.
Minnie the Moocher - This song lets the Emo show off what in my opinion is its best attribute, its ability to image like a champ. Every horn is fixed in a slightly different spot. You can tell exactly how the band members were sitting in the studio. This is also helped by a nice deep soundstage. The Parasound is no slouch, but it can't quite fix the various brass and wind instruments to the same degree as the Emo, and the soundstage sounds slightly flatter. It makes up for this in detail recovery. The Duke just has so much going on, and the Parasound find's it all. For example, there is a passage toward the end of the track, after the tempo picks up, where the trombones walk down into the upper bass register. The Emo loses the trombones for a short instant, allowing them to blend with the double bass, but the Parasound resolves the two.
Hometown Blues - The opening passage of this song requires a ton of control, and I was pleased to hear both amps were able to reproduce the micro dynamics of the piano. I didn't notice any audible differences throughout the track.
Lullaby of Birdland and Etude - Both tracks highlight the Parasound's superior reproduction of the piano's texture, which is just a little more lifelike. One area where I was disappointed with both amps is that on the Etude, it sounds a little bit like there is a film over the speakers. It may just be that I need better speakers, or it may be an issue with the recording. At any rate, this was the Parasound's opportunity to 'lift the veil' so to speak, but it didn't do that. In fact, while I have mentioned several times that the Parasound reproduces detail slightly better, I didn't have any 'lift the veil' moments. These two amps are both very good, and the Emo reproduces tons of detail. But as I listen critically, I can hear instances where the Parasound finds something that the Emo doesn't, usually texture in a voice or in a piano, or else resolving two different instruments playing in unison.
Janko Partner - Another sound where it sounds like there may be a film over the speakers, regardless of amp. In this case, I'm pretty sure its recording or mastering. The Parasound's slightly warmer tone was a bit better suited for to the song, giving it a more electric, rocking feel. I also noticed one passage where there is a piano playing high and soft behind several horns that are blaring. This piano in the background wasn't noticeable through the Emo unless I went out of my way to listen for it. It simply blends with another instrument playing in the same register.
Requiem and Glory - The emo's superior imaging gives me a better ability to pick out individual voices in the choruses. However, in both songs the violins sound slightly shimmery, which the Parasound can better control. Also, in the 'Kyrie' portion of the Reqiem, there are a few bars where the violins and sopranos sing/play in unison. The Parasound is able to separate to a degree that the Emo cannot.
I Wish, Back in Black, and Slow Down - The Emo's superior dynamics come through in these tracks. The Parasound can certainly find the dynamics and show you that they are there, but on Slow Down and Back in Black the Emo explodes just a little more (within the limits of its 125W, of course). Both amps were rocking on I Wish, with the notable features being the Parasound's somewhat wider soundstage and the Emo's better imaging of the individual instruments.
You Shook Me - Another song well suited to the Parasound's warmer tone. Also, Robert Plant's harmonica gives sounds a touch more realistic, probably because the Parasound handles the overtones a little better. The Parasound is rated as having a slightly higher SNR and slightly lower THD -- maybe this can account for the harmonica? That's just a guess.
To recap, the Parasound Halo A23 did not walk all over Emotiva UPA-2, I was pleased to find, though its superior detail retrieval make it a better amp, in my opinion. That said, there are certainly characteristics of the Emo that endear it to me (i.e. its excellent imaging paired with its deep soundstage). I'm not quite sure what to make of the comparison of dynamics. That was probably my single biggest surprise from this A/B comparison, and it causes me to doubt myself considering that the Parasound's power supply is a little beefier (48,000 microfarads vs 40,000). Finally, since I've had the Emo in my rack for a couple years, I've gotten used to whatever color it has. When I first fired up the Parasound, I was taken aback by what sounded to me like warmth. But this grew on me. It never got in the way, and for some tracks I think that it enhanced the experience, making it more lifelike. Again, none of the differences that I've been mentioning are huge. The amps are quite comparable, and I can get lost in the music with either amp. That said, for me differences are audible, and I can only hope that the Odyssey Stratos that Klaus is building me will capture the best of both worlds!