... a downstairs Nagra Classic DAC II really cottoned to it. At first I'd run it direct into my usual Lifesaver Audio Gradient Box II. That's an active analog xover with precision PGA chip for remote master volume. Energetically that had sounded a bit sedate. The Nagra's lower output voltage versus our customary Cen.Grand DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe's whose PGA-administered volume control and stouter signal are optimized for an amp-direct connection was a further indicator. The Swiss really expects to see the kind of active preamp which Nagra make. XP-22 with its signal-conditioning action to the rescue. Now that drove the 6m interconnects to the xover instead, volume control in its hands. Now the Nagra perked up.

It's back at the age-old argument between passive/active preamps. In my book, both breeds see scenarios which openly welcome or repel them. Others fall in the middle of sideways not clear up or down moves. The Nagra clearly elevated. The CanEver was far better off soloing it. The Sonnet benefited but arguably gave up some res in trade though still booked far more gains than losses. As usual there's pure white and black then 50 shades of grey in-between.

Something for nothing. The Pass XP-22 comes surprisingly close to that lazy man's dream or miser's paradise. To stack our deck so much in its favour obviously comes at a price, €10K to be precise. If it's just so-called resolution we crave i.e. an ultra-low noisefloor and ultra-minimalist signal path, I know of nothing better than multi-tapped autoformer volume controls à la icOn. If it's pouty lips, booty and gravity-defying busts we crave, 2nd-order THD and some subliminal tube microphonics could fit the bill. The real trouble comes when we want big helpings of speed and curves. It seems virtually impossible to combine both without diluting respective strengths. To my ears the XP-22 comes quite close. It's the old have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too thang. It's actually easy to project what happens past the XP-22. With prime examples of either camp on hand, it's painfully obvious. Moving up gets ever more challenging to insure that no step gained entails a slip elsewhere. Ever higher magnification powers coupled to still more dynamic dynamite and physicality has a foot each on two balance beams. Now a dastardly worm drive increases the distance between them. Soon we get at the Van Damme splits, then it's ouch and the inquisition. Growing longer legs would work, too. In theory.

Mono amps on the speakers, matching stereo amp on dual 15" woofers, 100Hz/4th-order Linkwitz-Riley filter beneath monos, speaker ports sealed.

If the XP-22 doesn't sit atop the hill of incremental refinements—the mere existence of two dearer Pass models shouts against it—then its refinements are also rather less incremental. I can't readily foresee a scenario in which a prospective buyer would insert it and not hear what it does very quickly. Whether its 'dose of does' fits the bill is another matter entirely. I simply doubt that there would be any argument as to what makes it an active not passive pre. To segue back at the opening's glance at Hollywood, the Action Jackson character comes to mind. Carl Weathers actually frequented a wheatgrass juice bar I briefly manned during my Venice Beach days. Straight after a workout in ripped shorts, he really was as stacked as he looked on screen. Sonically that's the opposite of being invisible or in our case, not audible. It simply means to not take up all the space to leave room for the qualities from the other side. To be factual, we now must strike the word 'simply' or the XP-22's designer Wayne Colburn should get cross. To fashion a component which for all intents and purposes ought to be redundant in a 21st-century hifi only to prove that it needn't be by any stretch must be a tough job. I imagine our man bounced between scope and factory system like a ping-pong ball. And that's before a prototype travelled to trusted beta testers only to start the yoyo process all over again.

And yes, we're way late to this party. But that only goes to show that what was great in 2019 when Stereophile named this its Component of the Year still turns heads—and ears on—four years later. It also goes to show why some people still insist that a preamp is the heart of a premium hifi. Once everything is dialled just so, the amp/speaker/room trinity polished and the source of the best quality we can afford, dropping in a preamp of Pass XP-22 pedigree won't derail what's already there, just make all of it better still. Whether that renders a top-quality preamp a system's heart, head or liver I'll leave to others to debate. Listening with the Pass preamp in the loop is far more fun than winning silly arguments!