Pass Labs XP-15 Phono Stage




When Only Magic Matters

 

Like a lot of audiophiles I got to a place last year where I had become so enamored with computer audio that any device that I couldn’t control from the convenience of my sofa via an iPhone app got treated like the proverbial “red-headed stepchild.” Then in a moment of clarity I realized that I still had a considerable library of LPs that I had not yet replaced with a CD or digital download. I also reminded myself that I, in fact, had also been a red-headed stepchild during my adolescence. Something that my therapist assured me I had gotten over as he cornered me in his office and kept repeating, It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault...”
 
Good Will Hunting flashbacks aside, I’ll admit to neglecting my analog setup in favor of spending way too much time surfing through the offerings on iTunes and HD Tracks. That was a pity because it was just two years ago that I added the wonderful George Warren Precision Sound turntable to my system. This gorgeous table came fitted with an Incognito-wired Moth Arm2 tonearm. I added a Benz Micro Ace (early model) cartridge and the phono stage I was using at the time was the Clearudio Smartphono. This is where I suspected the problem was. Don’t get me wrong the ACE and Smartphono were fine products when I reviewed them eight years ago but by now had become the weak links in my analog chain. I addressed the cartridge issue by having our mother twist my brother (and former ST writer) Mike Wright’s arm and make him give me his Transfiguration Phoenix. Besides, he wasn’t using it and it looked so much better on my table that it did his. Thanks Mom!

But addressing the phono stage issue would be a bit trickier. Previous attempts at getting a top notch phono stage in house for review had been unsuccessful. But after we published the review I wrote of the Pass Labs XVR-1 Electronic Crossover, I received an email from Pass Labs President Desmond Harrington thanking me for the review and to my surprise, offering to let me review one of their preamps or amps. The timing couldn’t have been better as I had just started rekindling a love affair with my analog rig. So I requested that the XP-15 single-chassis phono stage be sent to me for review and within just a few weeks it arrived.

 

At Home With the XP-15
 

The XP-15 arrived in the usual nicely packed carton and was very easy to manage. As attractive as this unit had been in internet photos it was nothing compared to opening that box and removing the unit from its plastic cover. Stunning! Gorgeous! Built like a tank! These were the descriptors that immediately came to mind as I gazed at it sitting on my Adona Corporation equipment rack. As handsome as this rack is this was the first time that I sat a component on it and thought: Wow! This rack looks even better. The faceplate was perfectly clean with beautifully beveled edges and an artfully cut channel across the middle and only a single cobalt blue light that indicates the unit is powered on, sitting under the company logo. The rear panel is where all the action is. There are two sets of connectors neatly laid out for each channel. There are RCA inputs for both MM and MC cartridges and RCA and XLR outputs, 

giving you the most flexibility. In addition, there are two banks of rocker switches for setting the cartridge loading and gain. There is also an IEC receptacle for accommodating aftermarket power cords, though the one provided by Pass performs just fine. One thoughtful little design choice was the inclusion of a schematic of the cartridge loading and gain settings on the rear panel, making use of the switches simpler.


Overall, the build quality of this unit is flawless and substantial. Sitting the XP-15 side-by-side with my diminutive Clearaudio Smartphono was ample proof of the step up in phono stage caliber that I was making from a size and build quality standpoint. But considering that the Smartphono, despite its size, was still a very good performer and costs only a fraction of what the XP-15 cost ($600 vs. $3,800), the XP-15 would seem to have to do some serious magic in order to be considered a success… to me anyway. It’s time to start listening to some albums.


System and Setup

The reference system used for this review consisted of the previously mentioned George Warren turntable with Incognito-modified Moth2 arm and Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge. It sits on a Adona Corporation Zero GXT equipment rack. The digital sources were the Oppo DV-980H disc player (as transport) and Apple TV music streamer feeding the AMR DP-777 DAC/Linestage. Amplification came from the Bel Canto M300 and Ref1000M mono amps feeding the high and low frequency drivers of my Magnepan MG20s, respectively. Cabling was the Soundstring Generation II Platinum series and Entreq Audio Apollo series cables. My listening room is approximately 26’ wide, 20’ deep and with 8’ high ceilings. My floors are concrete covered with Berber carpeting.

 

Getting into the grooves

Since this is the first phono stage that I’ve reviewed since the Smartphono, I decided that among all the albums that I would listen to, I would have a particular focus on the same albums that I used in my Smartphono review some eight years ago. “Sierra Highways” is my favorite song from the limited edition 180g pressing of Pat Coil’s Steps [Sheffield Lab TLP-31 HQ]. This tune is just loaded with dynamics and details that feel fully fleshed out with the XP-15 in the chain. The Smartphono did a nice job with this too, but where the XP-15 separates itself from most of the other phono stages I’ve heard is in its ability to improve sharpness and focus of instruments and performers within the soundstage. If you’re one of those people who likes to be able to follow individual performers during a performance, then you’ll love what this unit can do for your analog setup.


The next recording was the Gain 2 Ultra Analog 180g LP version of Isaac Hayes’ classic, Hot Buttered Soul [MFSL 273]. This iconic 70’s soul album features the late Hayes’ memorable cover of the Dionne Warwick classic, “Walk On By.” The haunting guitar chords after the orchestral lead-in made me want to learn to play guitar when I was a kid. Sadly, that was only the first of many such unfulfilled dreams, but that’s a story for another time… and my therapist. Isaac Hayes was the epitome of soul in those days and made being bald sexy way before Michael Jordan’s follicles abandoned him. On this recording seemingly every single particle of his distinctive baritone gets burnished by the XP-15. The result is a deep, resonant and holographic voice that is downright goose-bump inducing and a spacious and airy soundstage that brings this performance to life.

Finally, I put the audiophile favorite, Jazz At The Pawn Shop [Proprius] on my George Warren turntable. This is a recording that still gets a lot of play during most audio shows because of its stellar recording quality. The amount of enjoyment that you get out of listening to this album will be guided by the quality of your source. It’s a live recording from a Swedish jazz club and is recorded in such a way that you can easily hear the patrons table conversations, waiters clanging silverware and glasses and of course some really wonderful music. Over the years, my favorite tune on this album has become, “I’m Confessin’.” Through the XP-15, it is rendered with sweetness and scads of detail, particularly from vibraphonist Lars Erstrand. You realize just how percussive in nature the vibraphone is when he plays. The same can be said of the airiness around the wind instruments played by Arne Domnerus. If you’re not familiar with this album you’d do well to check it out and you’d be even better off if you’re using a phono stage like the XP-15.

Conclusion

Yes, I do still enjoy scanning the web for new and old music to download. But sometimes you have to give the PC (or Mac) a break and get back to listening to music in the format that most of us know is still the purist form of recording and playback, analog. In this vein, the Pass Labs XP-15 phono stage has been a system transformer for me, and along with the George Warren table has reinvigorated a serious love of vinyl recordings. I’ve become a regular at places like Jazz Record Mart and Reckless Records, used vinyl stores in the heart of downtown Chicago and frankly, I haven’t had this much fun hunting down classic albums in years. Its everlast build quality and sleek, yet handsome styling make it something that will enhance your component rack and not draw a lot of attention to itself. It’s a component that is designed to be appreciated and enjoyed, which is exactly what I’ve been doing with it since it arrived and expect to be doing for some time to come. Highly recommended.


 

 

 

Specifications:

XP-15

 

Gain

40 dB @ 1 KHz (MM) max, single ended

 

-

46 dB @ 1 KHz (MM)max, balanced

 

-

71 dB @ 1 KHz (MC) max, single ended

 

-

76 dB @ 1 KHz (MC)max, balanced

 

RIAA response

plus/minus .1 dB 20-20 KHz

 

Distortion

< .01 % THD @ 1mV MC input

 

-

< .002 % THD @ 10mV MM input

 

Maximum Output

20 volts rms.

 

Output Impedance

300/300 ohms

 

Input Impedance

47 K or 1K / 0-650 pF (MM)

 

-

5 ohm - 47K ohm (MC)

 

Unweighted Noise

-90 dB ref. 10 mV (MM)

 

-

-81 dB ref. 1 mV (MC)

 

Power consumption

15 watts

 

Number of chassis

1

 

Dimensions, each chassis

17”W x 12”D x 4”H

 

Shipping Weight

25 pounds in packing carton

 

 

Price: $3,800.00

Contact:

Pass Laboratories
24449 Foresthill Rd.
Foresthill, CA 95631 USA

Telephone: 530.367.3690

Facsimile: 530.367.2193

Email: info@passlabs.com

Website: www.passlabs.com

 

 

 

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