On the soundkaos Wave 40 as my love child in the widebander genre, the aforementioned 4 x 6550 class A push/pull monos had already demonstrated that urban audiophile myths can get it wrong. Marja & Henk on staff found the same holes in the same one. It says that high-efficiency speakers will only sound their best on low-power amps preferably of the valve SET sort. So they've mated nCore 1200 class D monos to their 100dB horn-loaded AER widebanders as a stake through that argument's heart. As Blazar found with the XA30.8 and his 107dB Avantgarde Duo Omegas, our fearless Dutchies feel that such counterintuitive matings can have real merit (and they own the same Omegas for more proof). On the audiophile score card with its various attributes, it's of course expected that you'll loose some as you gain some. Martin Gateley as the Wave 40 designer too had noticed that some power in excess of the basics needed for full SPL liftoff can be beneficial. And at 93dB with a hi/lo-pass 2-way filter to segregate the 8-inch paper bi-cone Enviee and Raal ribbon, his widebander really isn't by the book in the first place. Even modern Magico and Wilson multi-way speakers can hit 94dB sensitivity specs today. Lines are blurring. All this by way of saying that seemingly excess power for the task can have unexpected benefits. Whether those outweigh potential takeaways is a question that must be answered case by case. To paint this particular picture, I first compared XA30.8 and F6, then F6 and SIT2, then SIT2 and XA30.8. In each case, both amps were powered up for one hour prior to get their output devices into the sweet spot as carefully calibrated by their designer.

Compared to the standard FirstWatt casing, the XA30.8 is taller and deeper.

The XA30.8/F6 juxtaposition was anything but subtle. The FirstWatt injected cubits of light into the picture like a classic William Turner painting. The presentation became more lithe, elastic and transparent. Envision being in a cathedral. At first you're properly earthbound like a repentant sinner. You look down on stone floors, dark wooden benches and the bases of stacked stone columns, the light muted and tinted by the richly stained glass windows. Once you've taken it all in, your head finally tilts back. Now you discover immense domed space above it all. That expanse is filled with natural not filtered light. Listening to the F6 looked at the scenery imprinted with the tacit memory of that light dome. Listening to the XA30.8 looked at it firmly planted on the ground. One was earthy, muscular, dense and heavy. The other was translucent, with anti gravity pulling up not down. This illuminated suffused effect also impacted the sense of soundstaging. The music seemed to occur even farther behind the speakers even though the XA30.8 was more specific about its layering. With the Swiss ovals starting out noticeably deeper in the tone woods than the Albedo Aptica, the F6's light injection and less muscular demeanour created more frisson and communicative spark. In this context, I'd call the F6 the better amp. But perhaps that's a vegetarian speaking. The meat-├╝ber-alles crowd would likely favour the XA30.8 on this speaker too particularly once you played really raunchy walloping stuff.

Here we see Martin Gateley's unusual solid-wood flared and curved 'scoop' loading as his take on a very shrunk quasi rear horn. Caelin Gabriel of Shunyata has a pair to represent this type of speaker.

Migrating to the SIT2—my amp rack only accommodates two chassis side by side to eliminate the SIT1 monos from a useful A/B—remained squarely in the summery F6 mould but added the layering specificity of the XA30.8 yet still exceeded it, particularly so laterally. The SIT2 most embodied the audiophile ideal of sculpted nearly eerie soundstage holography. Juxtaposing that directly against the XA30.8 truly magnified the collapse of light-enlivened top-down expansive thereness and the return of gravity to very concrete hereness. Whilst the Pass Labs' bass building and dynamic expander action played their role in this downward concretizing, the overall effect really went beyond. It informed all the audible bands. If lit-from-within makes sense to you as a gestalt, that's probably the key differentiator between my FirstWatt and Pass Labs models on hand. Airiness factors too. It's just not all-inclusive enough. Despite still sounding different than 300B or 45 SETs, I believe it is this inside-out glow or luminous projection which would most attract DHT fans to FirstWatt were they open-minded enough to consider transistors.

With the XA30.8 and during massed strings, in their higher registers and under climactic conditions, I once more came across a sudden sharpening or intruding metallic flavour which both FirstWatt models avoided. It felt related to how the F5 differs in general from the F6; except that the XA30.8 only played the 5 card during dynamically heightened passages and then most tellingly on violins. The degree of this was less on the Wave 40 than it had been on the Aptica speakers but still factored. Were I more enamoured of operatic sopranos—I frankly can't stand most of them, especially those whose vibrato warbles like egg-shell walkers—I'd predict that the XA30.8 would show the same effect which I noticed predominantly on violins. Another practical conclusion I drew from this amp swap was that for what most people would call background listening levels, the lither more illuminated less muscular presentation of the FirstWatt amps got informative and compelling sooner on the dial. Less mass teases out easier. The XA30.8 wanted just a bit more foot on the gas. Since listening quietly is very important to me, on the soundkaos the F6 and SIT2 would have another personal advantage.


Just to cross all the t's, I also tried the German Physiks HRS-120. Having by now a solid fix on the XA30.8, predictions about this being a lesser match for my tastes proved out. By being a bit of an empty bathroom speaker, it's tonally rich just as you'd expect from the increased reflective content of a full-bandwidth omni. By using the same carbonfibre widebander from the upper bass to the highest audible freqs and beyond, I also find its tonal balance to be slightly on the dark side even with the optional but minor HF contour engaged. For top-end duties, this driver is clearly heavier than, say Elac's omni ribbon covering 3-40kHz. As such, the XA30.8 contributed where the speaker was already very strong. To quicken and lighten it, the leaner dialed-for-speed Crayon was a better collaborator. Gallo's Strada II meanwhile was an instant sensation on the Pass. So would have been the compact Amphion monitors had I needed further proof.


Which returns us to the Albedo as my sample of a compact floorstander which represents contemporary hifi sound done well. Unlike both solid-wood Swiss which go after a different non-mainstream aesthetic, the Aptica would sound familiar to anyone after just one hifi show. It's the dominant sound one encounters. Just how sophisticated it gets depends on the amp/speaker pairing. If you're like me and call modern hifi sound thin, zippy and bereft of full colour intensity, you should find the XA30.8 a perfect antidote. Without defaulting to valve-sourced cotton taffy to soften edges whilst obscuring fine detail, its massive assistance builds out body, its drive control takes your woofers as low and articulate as they'll go, its 'warmth' kicks up colour temperatures, its butch power reserves expand dynamic contrast. Another app where the XA30.8 shines: direct-connected DACs. If you own quality preamps for comparison, such DACs often won't compete on tone density and embodiment. Yet they might flaunt all the features you need—analog volume, analog inputs like Lindemann's musicbook:10/15 for example—to make purchase of a preamp very unappealing. Then there's the more common AURALiC Vega type with on-chip digital volume that's nearly free to implement since it's already on the converter IC. If you play quietly to invoke a lot of attenuation, such types will get more and more pale, whitish and flat. Many such DACs also use basic op-amp output stages which, perhaps, aren't the final word in preamp substitution. The XA30.8's voicing opposes those trends. Think proper preamp built in. For the right person, it could really eliminate that fine costly linestage without sonic compromise.

My overdone take on the effects of overdone digital attenuation.

The left photo of Nelson in his jammies was taken after he'd gotten himself into a real jam trying to heave one of their bigger amplifiers. At least that's the photo credit he gave me. So I'm running with it even if not exactly with a straight face. But because curiosity hadn't yet killed Blondie our cat, I actually had a parting question for the maestro. What would, with pretty much its present hardware, the XA30.8 be capable of in output power were it biased in class A/B with, say, just the first 5 watts in class A? "If I wanted to bias the amp with the existing supply for 5 watts Class A (rms), then it would draw about 1/3rd the power for about 100 watts of draw at idle. If I wanted to set the supply rails for the same amount of heat at idle but biased for 5 watts in Class A, then it would do something like 300wpc into 8 ohms."


This segues straight into a closing comment I'd wanted to make but for which I needed definitive backup from the man to really pack the intended punch. Despite its 30-watt paper power rating—and unlike the FirstWatt F5 and F6 which nearly match that figure—the Pass Labs XA30.8 really is a bona fide muscle amp. It books the requisite hardware and power supply. It acts it and sounds it. But then it also does low-level micro resolution that's not usually the providence of this breed. It's really Dustin Hoffman's little big man. It acts like both a big and little amp. In the realm of so-called super amps, $6'500 can barely get one in the door. Because I'm a working-class bloke—some class perhaps but rather more work if I may say so—the XA30.8 not only is the closest I'll ever get to this sort. It's frankly all I could conceivably exploit and move about. I'm not into 4-way towers of power with 15-inch woofers. I'm not into gnarly panel speakers with power-sucking impedance plots. I'm not into sensitivity-midget mini monitors. I will however review speakers which should really take to the XA30.8 like mustard to sausage as long as I can physically manhandle them up and down our stairs. What's more, in the Aptica I already own a pair which sounds better with this amp than any other in inventory. That includes two class D amps of wildly higher power ratings and far far smaller power supplies. But then it seems that not all power is rated equally.


Coming to the end of this circuitous tale, I've asked the factory to email an invoice. The XA30.8 will become my new super amp and final 2014 business investment into my reviewer's tool box. Whilst Jack Crabb famously said that "if you want to really relax sometime, just fall to rock bottom and you'll be a happy man; most all troubles come from having standards", if you have standards and meet them head-on... then you too can relax and leave little big man Crabb to his rock bottom. Cheers.
 
Quality of packaging: Sizeable extra-strength double carton with thick foam cradles.
Reusability of packaging: A few times unless your delivery agent is lazy and drops it from the rear of the truck onto one corner. It is one heavy sucker!
Build quality: It's a Pass.
Value: $6'500 is real money. That said, this amp sprouts significant hardware aka stuff that shows clearly where the money went. This is no mostly empty voodoo box. Compare it to most any class D amp that sells for equivalent coin or double. That'll be quite a wakeup call. In short, high value for what your money actually buys. Very high pound-for-dollar or kilo-for-euro ratio.
Special considerations: Again, this is a big heavy amp than runs in pure not bullshit class A and as such would produce 300 watts as is were it biased in class A/B instead. Make sure you've got a strong rack or shelf, get help moving it about if you're not sure and provide sufficient ventilation. This beastie consumes 375 watts at idle so it's not one to advocate energy consciousness. Like all class A Pass amps, it wants about 30 minutes of warm-up to come on song fully. Based on actual user comments, it's quiet enough to run 107dB efficient speakers.


Pass Labs website