While I felt into that sinking feeling of Dawid's proxy wallet, his loaner travelled the skies between Warsaw and Shannon. I thought back on my first car, a high-mileage Volvo 240D. I bought it used just after getting married to no longer tempt fate on motorcycles. In the Northern Bay Area of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol at the time, this roomy Swedish station wagon was super popular for its stout reliability. By dint of not running a complicated black box for sophisticated electronics, it was cheap and easy to service. Its appeal was its tractor-like imperturbability, not any brisk acceleration, corner cleaving or sexy styling. But getting out of the rain and the wintery smell of chimneys which clung to my beard whilst riding a big BMW Enduro was ace. So was having Ivette sit next to me safely ensconced in heavy metal, windshield wipers keeping the wet outside but vision clear. Without yet having laid hands on the XP-22, I rather thought that it and that long-ago Volvo were brothers in arms on the unperturbable yeoman score and being built to keep going and going. It speaks to an old-timey honesty before built-in obsolescence became the law. I appreciate that. I will add that outside of reviewing, I'm a one-source guy. I need no input switching, just control over volume.

I expected the XP-22 being rather more than a very costly control over SPL. Being a twin-chassis Pass, I also expected an unusually burly shipping carton. To explore the more-than angle, I had a plan. Early in the year I'd accepted a trade of two compact monos for this smaller system. Unbeknownst to me, the model I'd committed to and the one I received half a year later were most different. Post-Covid parts shortages had enforced a redesign. It's only when my amps were finally airborne that I learnt they are stock Pascal class D repacks, not the previous Powersoft GanFet implementation with class A input buffer that had prompted the arrangement. Though being clarity champs of ultra-low self noise to appeal to eyes-first listeners with superlative imaging/layer specificity, these amps certainly are no bringers of big tone, hangers of generous textures or painters of saturated colors. I felt sure that with the XP-22 in their driver's seat, that description would require a solid rewrite. It did; with an unexpected consequence.

It amplified the failings of my stolen-identity class D compadres. From ~1kHz on up, suddenly enhanced dynamics and gumption emphasized their lack of treble finesse and natural decay to become unwelcome glare and frontal explicitness. It didn't take long to accept that this was no happy match. Once I swapped in the class AB direct-coupled 2.5MHz Kinki EX-M7, the XP-22's difference over my usual DAC-direct path—variable reference voltage of an elite R2R DAC—asserted itself as one purely delightful intensifier action. It had two parts. One, the likely millivolt swings of microdynamic nuance scaled higher. If we view musical sounds like written text, certain words now felt underlined, bolded, italicized or capitalized. That crystallized melodic expressiveness and heightened rhythmic insistence and certitude. Two was more multi-hued timbre differentiation. Take Jan Garbarek's In Praise of Dreams album, a most worthy 2005 Grammy nominee. His soprano and tenor sax plus spacey synths, Kim Kashkashian's viola and Manu Katché's assorted drums and percussion all felt more individualized. They were more different from one another. Their otherness compounded. In culinary terms we'd combine micro doses of balsamic vinegar, honey, salt and cayenne. Mathematically those opposing tastes should cancel out. Instead they increase contrast and flavour friction. In hifi terms, greater dynamic swings plus deeper colour saturation equalled more umami by way of greater presence and projection. Bolted onto the OEM Pascal amps, it also projected their overdamped clipped gait and lack of harmonic envelope more intensely. That was weirdly but effectively detrimental. Mental; and very unexpected.

Did I sacrifice anything versus my DAC-direct link into the Kinki amp? I might have given up some resolution on ambient recovery. Or it could have been the usual subjective lazy-Susan effect. That's about moving jump factor and density into the foreground to automatically push resolution and transparency farther back though nothing need diminish in quantity. It's a shift in attention which causes the effect. By habit we tend to be most attentive to just one thing at a time. Massive parallel processing is for computers. So I'll simply say that giving up some raw detail magnification was more than made up for in the already itemized win column. This math—of real gains for barely anything in trade—leapfrogs back at the sterling measurements of Stereophile's far earlier review. The much more common denominator really is quid pro quo, not something for nothing. Win some, lose some is typically the rule when we play the game's later rounds where advances become sparsely incremental and often prickly. On that very score, the Pass math (path mass?) was unexpectedly weighty and far from sparsely incremental. Though I already had ultra-transparent control over gain and zero need of source switching, the XP-22's apparent redundancy was anything but where sonic relevance was concerned. My 1st round had been impressive indeed. But I had more to roll; including a brand-new arrival from Venice with Lundahl input transformers then direct-coupled small-signal tubes and transistors paralleled/summed for a different kind of hybrid.

1 + 1 = ? In the less-is-more game, the answer could be 'too much'. As soon as valves enter, we tend to expect additive textures, decays, tone, space and noise, subtractions for resolution, transparency, bandwidth and transient perspicacity. There's always exceptions so I'm painting broadly. In the more-is-more game, the answer is often 'never enough'. So I was truly unclear on what to expect when the XP-22 met Mario CanEver's ZeroUno Ultra Plus. Coming from a real engineer, the latter's ECC88 wouldn't be trophy bits but there for additive reason. A top Cirrus-Logic CS3318 for volume wouldn't need the Pass either. Given how well the XP-22 had coupled to the above Sonnet Pasithea DAC set to full fixed output, would my ears prefer the presumably chunkier heavier Venetian DAC/pre amp-direct? Or could the XP-22 bolt on the same intensifier effect without overloading the scales on weight, likely darkness and in combination, onset of portliness and resultant drag on momentum?

Incidentally, the XP-22's unity gain setting equals a volume readout of 89. There it passes the input signal voltage straight through without any attenuation or extra gain. In = out; except that unlike our passive autoformer volume control from Britain's Lifesaver Audio aka icOn whose fingerprint is a just very faint textural 'atomized oil' infusion, the XP-22's effect is far less subtle. I shall call it an analogue line-level signal conditioner. It's not a do-nothing device aside from source switching and gain trimming. For our far from insignificant buy-in, we get rather more. In = out+. As it turned out, the Venetian DAC/pre already packed its own '+'. Now putting two proper preamps in series was clearly counterproductive. Alas…