Country of Origin
Reviewer: Dawid Grzyb & Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Main system: Sources: Retina 5K 27" November 2020 iMac (i5, 256GB SSD, Ventura 13.4, 40GB RAM), 4TB external SSD with Thunderbolt 3, Audirvana Origin, Qobuz Sublime, Singxer SU-6 USB bridge, LHY Audio SW-8 switch, Cen.Grand DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe, Sonnet Pasithea DAC; Active filter: icOn Gradient Box 2; Power amplifiers: Kinki Studio EX-B7 monos, Goldmund/Job 225 on subwoofer; Headamp: Cen.Grand Silver Fox; Phones: HifiMan Susvara, Meze 109 Pro; Loudspeakers: sound|kaos Vox 3awf + sound|kaos DSUB15 on Carbide Audio footers, Audio Physic Codex, Qualio IQ [on loan] Cables: Complete loom of Allnic Audio ZL; Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all source components, Vibex One 11R on amps, Furutech DPS-4.1 between wall and conditioners; Equipment rack: Artesanía Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc amp stands; Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators, LessLoss Firewall for loudspeakers, Furutech NCF Signal Boosters; Room: 6 x 8m with open door behind listening seat
2nd system: Source: Shanling M3 Ultra into Soundaware D300Ref SD transport to COS Engineering D1, iFi iDSD Pro Signature or Denafrips Terminator Plus 12th Anniversary firmware; Preamp/filter: Vinnie Rossie L2 Signature or icOn 4Pro, icOn 4th-order/80Hz active filter; Amplifier: Crayon CFA-1.2; Loudspeakers: MonAcoustic SuperMon Mini or Acelec Model One + Dynaudio S18 sub; Power delivery: Furutech GTO 2D NCF, Akiko Audio Corelli; Equipment rack: Hifistay Mythology Transform X-Frame [on extended loan]; Sundry accessories: Audioquest Fog Lifters; Furutech NFC Clear Lines; Room: ~3.5 x 8m
Desktop system: Source: HP Z230 work station Win10/64; USB bridge: Singxer SU-2; DAC: legacy Auralic Vega; Head/speaker amp: Enleum AMP-23R; Speakers: EnigmAcoustics Mythology M1; Headphones: Final D-8000
Upstairs headfi system: Source: Shanling M3 Ultra, Soundaware D300Ref; DAC/headamp: iFi iDSD Pro Signature; Headphones: Meze 109 Pro
2-channel video system: Source: Oppo BDP-105; All-in-One: Gold Note IS-1000 Deluxe; Loudspeakers: Zu Soul VI; Subwoofer: Zu Submission; Power delivery: Furutech eTP-8, Room: ~6x4m
Review component retail: $9'975
Vudu Juan o' Juan? From Carlos Castaneda's primary sorcery instructor Don Juan to the latest in quantum mechanics, inexplicables abound. Those could make for a new Stallone franchise once he kills off all The Expendables. For The Inexplicables, he'd not hire from Pass Labs where calm Engineering 101 rules. Should inexplicables arise, they get sorted until everything works. Longevity from reliability is key. Expendables ship out to Hollywood elsewhere in the state. That's apparent in no-nonsense cosmetics, beefy chassis, external power supplies to increase their footprint and categorical absence of iGen frills. In fact, the iGeneration won't know what to do with a full tape loop. Balance control and trigger port still will be obvious. It's also why today's two-chassis XP-22 linestage from small-signal expert Wayne Colburn has an infrared remote, not a tablet app. It's why the power umbilical gets 12-pole 'aviation-grade' twist locks, not wobbly 2.1mm plugs with switching wall warts. In fact, the only thing that switches is the on/off rocker. Not even the new-old stock Toshiba A1837/C4793 Jfets in the patented Super-Symmetrical topology or current-buffer Mosfets biased via opto-coupled LED-stabilized transistor are allowed to switch. No class D at Pass Labs. Class AB is fine but class A preferred. That's the XP-22; plus a dual-mono power supply with tall twin toroids and 4 x 10'000µF/50V caps per side. So forget Bluetooth, touch screens and DSP-based tone controls.
Voltage gain is a low ~9/6dB XLR/RCA. After all, the input sensitivity of modern amps to drive them to full output rarely ever exceeds the output voltage of modern sources. Input Ω is a standard 22k, Z-out 25/50Ω on RCA/XLR. The power supply is true dual mono, the single-ended output stage overbuilt to drive even long cables. At 40lbs, this is no lightweight needle drop on a scale and "measuring spectacularly well" is confirmed by Stereophile. There are 99 steps for the single-stage but dual-mono volume control repurposed from the $18'375 XP-32 which displays in big blue numbers. Frequency response is claimed to hold to within ±0.05dB of ruler flat. Input 5 may be configured for home-theater bypass to offline volume control. And that's essentially it. Why should a preamp be more complicated? To rephrase, the XP-22 is for listeners who find that quality active preamps improve the sound and properly condition their signal with current drive. That's so despite being theoretically redundant with variable sources that perform digital on-chip attenuation. It's also a purist single-purpose analog machine without digital, headfi or phono. For the latter two, Pass Labs have dedicated kit. And if your wallet must know, they still have two preamplifier models above today's. The next one spreads across three chassis, the flagship runs over 100'000µf capacitance per channel and weighs 80lbs. What do those buy extra? Incremental refinements. As they ought to, they pursue ever lower noise to shave off more signal-to-noise points and add those to dynamic range. And they probably run still more current for even lower transmission loss.
When is good enough enough? I don't know about you but for today, the XP-22 is. For the majority of readers and this writer, a nearly $10K two-box preamp is plenty posh. That included Stereophile who awarded this machine their Amplification Component of 2019. By living in the hinterlands of Ireland's rural west coast where the sheep roam freely, it simply took us two years past me writing this intro in July 2021 to catch up. Covid came and went. Parts shortages ruled. Review loaners were in short supply. Entire production runs sold out to dealers and their clients. It left foreign reviewers who subside on free loaners on a dry spell. With it finally broken, my unit headed for Warsaw to give Dawid Grzyb first dibs. I'd follow up on our usual 2-some; and then some. Now it's opportune to ask what we believe the sonic importance of active preamps is in 2023. Are they a diehard carryover from bygone times when source components couldn't generate sufficient gain? Are they made redundant by PGA chips from Muses or BurrBrown, by 32- to 64-bit digital volume controls or Leedh code embedded in modern DACs, streamers or even player software like Audirvana? Do they remain essential to superior analog signal processing? It's far from a clear-cut picture. Opinions diverge, tech arguments clash. So let's contribute more to this subject matter by contrasting the XP-22 to passive-magnetic volume control; to buffered passive resistive volume control with nude Vishays; to DAC-direct connections involving analog resistor ladders on chips or variable reference voltage; and 64-bit dithered software-based digital volume. They all do the job. But they certainly don't do it the same. Here come Dawid's findings.
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