Pass Labs XA160.8 Monoblocks

It’s no secret our publisher is incredibly enthusiastic about Pass amplifiers.  While the company’s flagship Xs300 monoblocks have been serving dual duty as his reference amplifiers and the furnace for the TONEAudio studio for some time now, his relationship with Nelson Pass is more than a mere bromance. It goes all the way back to the early 1980s, when we lived on Milwaukee’s East Side and he talked me into helping him carry his new Threshold 4000A power amplifier up a few flights of stairs.

I’m a tube guy; I’ve always been a tube guy – the tubey-er, the better. Back in 1980-something, that Threshold was a mind-bender because this massive solid-state amplifier made the room warmer than any tube amplifier I had ever experienced, sounded as musical as anything with glowing bottles, yet had killer bass output and control. It even sported an awesome set of red LED power output meters! The 4000A stayed in my system for a long time after our publisher’s terrier-like nose for all things audiophile led him sniffing down other paths and, as with one of my prized BMW 2002s, I still regret selling it.

It’s all about control

Don’t let Nelson Pass’s easy demeanor fool you; he wants control. At least control of your speakers’ cones. The major benefit to the massive power supplies and output stages in the two-chassis Xs amplifiers is the amount of control they enforce on your loudspeakers. Not letting the drivers act in a willy-nilly manner keeps distortion and non-linearity at bay, resulting in a cleaner, clearer, less fatiguing sound. Pass is fond of saying that he likes the sound of tubes without the hassle, and the Xs300s deliver this in abundance. But at almost $90K per pair they are not within the reach of every audio enthusiast.

Enter the XA160.8 monoblocks at $29,000/pair. Building on the success of the .5 series (you can read our review of the XA160.5 monoblocks here[1] and the XA200.5 monoblocks here[2] ) the .8 series of Pass amplifiers takes these designs a major step further. Larger power supplies and a more refined circuit allow these new amplifiers to be biased further into class-A territory. The changes draw more power from your wall, and generate more heat – something we put to good use here in the Pacific Northwest. The results put the 160.8 closer in sound to the massive, two-chassis Xs amplifiers than before. The price tag is still not pocket change, but a far cry from what the four-chassis, big boys will set you back.

Pass makes it a point to let you know that these are not cookie-cutter amplifiers, with each version sharing an input stage followed by progressively larger output stages. Every model in the .8 series is individually designed from the ground up with all nine amplifiers in the range using different input and driver circuitry optimized for progressively larger output stages. A peek inside the case reveals a prodigious bank of power supply capacitors flanked by equally huge heat sinks, each with “more output transistors than necessary.”

With balanced XLR inputs (the XA160.8 is a fully balanced design) and RCA inputs, this amplifier works well with any preamplifier. My ARC REF 5 proves a perfect match for the XA160.8, but after spending a bit of time with the top-of-the-line Xs Pre, I’m guessing it’s upgrade time again.  Even my standby CJ PV-12 turns in an amazing performance with these amplifiers and reminds me of when I used the Threshold 4000A with a CJ PV-2a preamplifier. Time does fly when you’re having fun. Watch for our review of that piece very soon. Suffice it to say that the XA160.8 will never be the weak link in your hifi system!

Taking care of business

Vicariously sampling the last four or five Pass amplifiers that have been in for review, it’s time to put the latest models front and center in my reference system and flog them. Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” does the trick, as the intro kick drum beats and bass riffs occupy separate spots in the soundstage, neither losing their focus as I turn the volume up, up, up – pushing my head back against the couch. Yet near the end of the track as the pace settles to light cymbal work, the delicacy and texture rendered stops me dead. It’s so quiet and precise, everything appears to settle into nothing.

Sporting the big, blue circular meters that adorn the face of all the Pass power amplifiers, the 125 pound (each) XA160.8s are a breeze to move after the Xs300s. However, they’re probably a stretch for one person lifting, so you should consider getting some help to keep your back in order. For those not familiar with Pass amplifiers, the meter needle stays centered, indicating that the amplifier is operating fully in class-A mode, which for the 160.8, is 328 peak watts. So when that needle starts to bounce, these amplifiers are indeed producing major power.

Driving my Vandersteen 5As with the XA160.8s is absolutely peachy and the synergy with the Audio Research REF5SE is near perfection as well. I have spent some time with the Pass Xs Pre that is here for review, and that’s even more revealing. It goes without saying that you won’t go wrong with an all-Pass system, and as Mr. Pass says, you’ll never have to look for tubes again.

Break-in has been the same experience we’ve had with all other Pass amplifiers; they sound great straight out of the box and improve linearly over about 300 hours, with a minimal increase in clarity after that. Though solid state, they take as long as, if not longer than, a vacuum tube amplifier to fully “warm up.” Due to the power draw (550 watts per monoblock) and heat generated, most owners will not want to leave them on all the time. The XA160.8s take about 90 minutes to come out of the gentle mist exhibited at initial power up that dissipates after they reach full operating temperature. You’ll notice it in the smoothness of the upper register and the depth of the soundfield portrayed – getting deeper and deeper, drawing you further in to the presentation as they stabilize.

The 160.8s are consistent at low, medium and high volume. They never run out of steam when cranking AC/DC to near-concert levels, yet when listening to solo vocals or piano at levels barely above a whisper, maintain depth and a tonal richness that you’d expect from a flea watt SET amplifier. To say these amplifiers are incredibly linear and dynamic is an understatement.

In the end

We’re all worm food. But for now, if you find yourself asking the venerable question, “tubes or transistors,” this tube guy says buy the XA160.8 from Pass Labs. Unless you can afford the Xs monos, then of course you know what you must do.

Additional Listening: Jeff Dorgay

Selfishly, it’s always wonderful when someone else shares my enthusiasm for a piece of audio gear, and in this case, it’s been an ongoing argument between myself and Mr. O’Brien for a couple of decades now. While I agree with his analysis, because of the nature of the Vandersteen 5As only needing to be powered from about 80hz up, (because of their internally powered woofers) these speakers don’t give the full scale of the XA160.8s’ performance. And, of course, we like to perform amplifier reviews with as wide of a range of speaker systems as possible to see if there are any rocks in the road. I assure you there are none.

As with all the other Pass amplifiers we’ve auditioned, the XA160.8 continues the tradition of being able to drive any load effortlessly. I began my listening with the toughest speakers in my collection, the Magnepan 1.7s and the Acoustat 2+2s. Both passed with flying colors, and it was an interesting comparison to play the 2+2s with both the XA160.8s and a recently restored Threshold 400A that I used to use with my 2+2s in the ’80s. The more powerful, heavier, 4000A only stayed in my system briefly, but the 400A stayed for quite some time and was always a favorite.

Thanks to so much current on tap, the 2+2s now sound like there is a subwoofer in the room, but more importantly, these speakers, known for their somewhat loose and flabby lower registers are exhibiting taut, tuneful bass in a way they never have. Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” shakes the listening room with authority. An even tougher test is acoustic bass, and again the vintage ESL’s dance through all of my favorite Stanley Clarke tunes.

Moving through the gaggle of great speakers we currently have here from Dali, Dynaudio, GamuT, Eggleston and a few others, the XA160.8s have no limitations. To get them to (softly) clip requires ear shattering volume, or perhaps a pair of horribly inefficient speakers. In that case, there are always the XA200.8s and the Xs amplifiers.

No matter what music is served, the XA160.8s perform effortlessly and get out of the way for your enjoyment of it. The biggest delight, aside from knowing you’ll never have to hunt down matched quartets of power tubes again, is just how much of the flagship Xs300s capability is locked up inside these two boxes at one third of the price. Mind you in a “cost no object” system, the difference between the XS160.8 and the Xs300 will still be easily apparent, but it’s like the difference between an $85,000 Carrera and a $175,000 GT3RS – it’s easy to see, feel and hear the lineage,  and for those who don’t want to go all the way, will still find the lower-priced sibling still highly enjoyable.

I’ve hinted that the Pass XA160.8s have the slightest bit of warmth in their overall character, which they do. However, this additional richness and palpability is not at the expense of softness, or compromise in transient attack. If you want a strictly “nothing but the facts” the Pass sound may not be for you, but if you’ve always loved a touch of the glow that the world’s best vacuum tube amplifiers possess without having to chase the glass bottles, you must audition the XA160.8 I guarantee you will be highly impressed.

The Pass XA160.8



Analog Source SME 20/SME V arm     Koetsu Urushi Blue
Digital Source Simaudio MOON 650D    MacBook Pro
Amplification ARC REF 5     Pass Xs Pre
Speakers Vandersteen 5A
Cable Cardas Clear

Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

The Coffman Labs G1-A preamplifier is among the most unique-looking pieces of audio equipment we’ve reviewed. It includes custom-made feet that Damon Coffman designed to reduce that unwanted vibrations that reach internal components and vacuum tubes. As a nice piece of trickle-down technology, Coffman found a way to adapt the feet for use under virtually any audio component.

Each type of material employed in the footers has vibration-dampening characteristics. Combining several layers of different materials makes it very difficult for vibrations to travel upward through the footer. Coffman’s design uses four different materials and when all the components are put together, the footer looks a bit like a thick Oreo cookie.

Custom-milled aluminum discs serve as the outer layer; between them—after experimenting with many materials like cork, rubber, carbon fiber, and other metals—Coffman concluded that felt served best sonically as the interior layer.

For the third material, a recessed circle is milled into one flat surface of each aluminum disc, with a dense, rubber-like ring pressed into it. This grippy material contacts the bottom of the component and the shelf it’s resting on, which helps reduce risk of scratches and also keeps the component from sliding, as it sometimes the case with other footers.

The final element holding the entire footer together is a threaded post. Coffman chose a synthetic post instead of a metal one, because it offered a more natural sound in his testing. Also, the post can flex a bit to ensure the footer rests squarely against contact surfaces.

While functional, the O-ring, post and felt don’t do much for aesthetics, but the specially made matte-finish aluminum discs make up for it. They are the bulk of the footer structure and the parts most visible from a distance.

Tightened down, each footer can support 20 pounds maximum. A set of three feet placed in a triangle formation supports a 60-pound component nicely. Coffman Labs suggests a weight limit, because too much weight could bend or strip the nylon post. For speakers or heavier pieces of equipment, additional feet can be purchased to handle the extra weight.

An assembled footer measures 1.5 inches in diameter and about 1.5 inches tall. Each footer can be tightened or loosened slightly by twisting it, changing its height by about 1/8 inch, if you want to make a CD player or a turntable shelf perfectly level, for instance.

Coffman suggests that, when placed under equipment, the footers contribute a slightly smoother, warmer sound while maintaining clarity and solid bass. We concur. A set of three footers costs $115. In the often-expensive world of hi-fi, that’s a very reasonably price to pay for a highly beneficial audio tweak.

Coffman Labs Equipment Footers

$115 per set of three

Pass Labs XA200.5 Monoblocks

All things must eventually come to an end, but this time the breakup is not sweet sorrow.  Living with the Pass Labs XA160.5 Class-A monoblocks has been a wonderful experience, and the heat that these massive monoblocks let off is a small drawback compared to the glorious sound they produce.  In a year and a half of flawless performance, driving every kind of loudspeaker imaginable, I didn’t jot down a single complaint in my mental logbook.  The XA160.5s even proved more engaging than a number of vacuum-tube power amplifiers parked here for various reviews and personal auditions, supporting Nelson Pass’ claim that listening to his amplifiers are like “listening to tubes, but without the hassle.”

But then the XA200.5 monoblocks arrived.  “More devices and more power equals more control,” says Pass Labs’ Desmond Harrington when asked about the difference between the XA160.5, the XA200.5 and the soon-to-arrive XS amplifiers.  If there was ever a case of specs not telling the whole story, this is it.  You might think there would be barely any difference between these two amplifiers—one delivering 160 watts per channel and the other delivering 200 per channel—but fire up the drum solo in Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” and the XA200.5 paints an entirely different picture.  “Stairway” is pretty damn good, too.

Hey, Ho, Let’s Go

Tony Levin’s bass playing on the Black Light Syndrome album, from Levin, Steve Stevens and Terry Bozzio, illustrates this perfectly.  This album offers some of the heaviest prog rock available; a dense, driving orchestral soup in which these three virtuosos repeatedly lay down notes like they’re firing automatic weapons.  Levin is solidly anchored, while his bandmates careen off to the far edges of the soundstage from start to finish.  Keeping all three musicians straight without blur is a tough task, but the XA200.5s handle it effortlessly, even at high levels.

The low, grumbling undercurrent of Burial’s “In McDonalds” takes on a more visceral feel through these amps, helping the listener truly feel the track’s deep bass and low-level texture in a way few amplifiers can muster.  The overblown bass in Cash Money and Marvelous’ “Ugly People Be Quiet” loses none of its rawness and boom, while rumbling the woofers in the GamuT S9 speakers as if a subwoofer has been added to the system.  Many audiophile amplifiers suffer from too much control and damping in such instances, taking the soul of the music with it, but the XA200.5s are true to the music, no matter what the genre.  Even a lousy-sounding record like Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque is better sorted through these amps—this thick, compressed recording actually gives up some dynamics, with a little help from the dCS Vivaldi source.

With two pairs of world-class reference speakers at my disposal (the GamuT S9 and the Sonus faber Aida), these amplifiers play to a painfully loud level without distortion.  Whether using the S9 (89 dB sensitivity) or the Aida (92 dB), the XA160.5s can be driven to a point of compression; the XA200.5s have no limit in my system.  But man cannot live by bass alone—transient prowess is another area at which the XA200.5s excel.  Romping through the title track from Carsten Dahl’s Bebopish Rubbish Rabbit, these amplifiers provide not only control, but also acceleration.  They equally render drum transients and brushwork with the proper scale and finesse.

On one level, a component can really only be evaluated in the context of a system, and it’s tough to attach a sound to said component without seeing how it reacts to the known performance of a number of other preamplifiers and speakers.  Having lived with a variety of Pass amplifiers for a few years now, I would characterize their overall sound as ever so slightly on the warm and harmonically rich side of the scale.

The XA200.5, like all of the other XA-series amplifiers I’ve auditioned, paints a big, spacious, three-dimensional soundstage—again, much like your favorite tube amplifiers do, but with considerably more dynamics, grip and control.  On the title track from Leni Stern’s album Smoke, No Fire, the XA200.5s capture her delicate guitar playing with every bit of the gradation she presents in a live show, while layer upon layer of overdubbed vocals hang in mid air, meticulously spaced between each other.  Too often, mediocre solid-state amplifiers fail musically when presented with these kinds of recordings, because their inability to resolve spatial information results in an overly flat and sterile picture.  Modestly powered tube amplifiers excel at this kind of thing, but are unable to produce the giant dynamic swings required to capture a large orchestra or driving rock band.  The XA200.5s excel here, providing the best of both worlds.  Thanks to their massive power supplies and big banks of output transistors, these amplifiers retain inner detail while simultaneously carrying a heavy bass line or the roll of a kettledrum.

A is A

The Pass Labs website simply states in the FAQ section that the reason the company produces Class-A amplifiers is “because they sound better.”  I love this firmness of conviction.  I must also admit to a bias towards high-powered Class-A solid-state power amplifiers in the same way someone might prefer tubes, SET amplifiers or a pair of Quad 57s.  At the end of the day, we all have a preference, and I won’t apologize for this one.  Pass’ large Class-AB amplifiers, as well as a few other massive AB amplifiers I’ve experienced (like the Simaudio 880Ms also reviewed in this issue), still have slightly faster acceleration and ultimate dynamic swing, but this always comes at the expense of that last bit of inner sweetness.  That being said, one person will always prefer the slightly softer ride of a standard Mercedes to the AMG version with sport suspension.

Pass Labs’ relatively recent .5 series of Class-A amplifiers come as close to offering it all as anything I’ve experienced.  While I still treasure my Pass Labs Aleph 3 (from the ’90s) and Threshold 400A (one of Nelson Pass’ first Class-A designs from the late ’70s—also a big favorite), comparing them to the XA200.5s clearly illustrates where Mr. Pass has built on his initial strengths, constantly refining the sonic delivery of today’s models.

Romping through a plethora of recorded male and female vocalists underscores these amplifiers’ combination of power, delicacy and tonal accuracy.  Anne Bisson’s gentle vocal stylings on the title track of her recent Blue Mind album are reproduced perfectly though the XA200.5s, as are the piano and soft drum work that accompany her.  If not for the enormous heat sinks on the side of each amplifier, you’d swear that the grain-free tonal texture that the XA200.5s provide is due to some vacuum tubes inside the box.  And that’s the entertaining paradox:  These amplifiers have too much sheer grunt to be tubed.  Like Nelson Pass said…

Setup and Synergy

During our time with these amps, we had the opportunity to power about 30 different sets of speakers, from a pair of freshly refurbished MartinLogan Aerius i speakers to Sonus faber’s flagship Aidas.  Nothing poses a challenge to these amplifiers or affects their performance.

The amp’s balanced XLR and single-ended inputs have an impedance of 30k ohms, which makes them easily mated to the preamplifiers at our disposal from Audio Research, Burmester, Conrad-Johnson, Robert Koda and Simaudio.  Cardas Clear cabling was used for the bulk of our listening tests, yet both speaker cables and power cords affect the XA200.5 less than many other high-powered amplifiers in recent memory.

One thing the XA200.5s benefit from, if you have the luxury, is dedicated power.  Drawing 700 watts each all the time, they will work connected to a standard 15-amp circuit, but will work better with a 20-amp line and better still with a pair of dedicated 20-amp circuits—one for each amplifier, if you really like to twist the volume control.  I’d suggest having your electrician install a pair of 20-amp outlets for your XA200.5s before you drop a few thousand dollars on exotic power cords.

Fortunately, these 159-pound monsters have conveniently placed handles on the rear panel, though (unless you’re incredibly buff) you will still need a friend to help you unpack these amplifiers.  Once you’ve installed the amps, be sure they have plenty of ventilation, because they do get warm.

The Big, Big Money

This extra power and control doesn’t exactly come cheap.  The XA200.5s have an MSRP of $34,100 per pair, compared to $24,000 per pair for the XA160.5s.  It’s always easy for me to spend your money, but if you can find a way to come up with the extra $10,000, you will not be disappointed—this is truly a case where absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The XA160.5s are no slouch by any means, and tonally identical to the XA200.5; yet, even at modest volume levels, the effortlessness provided by the bigger, beefier output stage and larger power supply is instantly evident.

If you are looking for a pair of monstrous Class-A amplifiers that take no prisoners, consider the Pass XA200.5 monoblocks, or stick around for a few more issues—the XS two-box monoblocks have just arrived for review!

Pass Labs XA200.5 Monoblocks

MSRP: $34,100 per pair


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge    AMG V12 turntable    AMG tonearm    Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge
Digital source dCS Vivaldi    Meridian Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Phonostage ARC Reference Phono 2 SE    Indigo Qualia
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida    Sonus faber Elipsa SE
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    GIK room treatments

Resonessence Labs CONCERO

Following the success of their statement INVICTA DAC(CA$3,999) Resonessence Labs have fired their first salvo into budget territory.  They’ve come armed with two-for-one ammunition:  a USB-S/PDIF convertor and DAC packed into a single unit (CA$599).  You can purchase direct from Resonessence themselves or via their dealer network.  An additional $50 bundles Apple remote (for playback control and filter selection) and USB power supply (required for S/PDIF DAC mode) into the bargain.  Accessories aside, the whole shebang is manufactured and assembled right there in Canada.

Custom coding

On paper, basic expectations are comprehensively met: separate clocks for 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz sample rate families and an in-house coded asynchronous USB solution.  Concerned that it will introduce jitter, Resonessence Labs have dispensed with PLL circuitry.  No, it’s not another XMOS implementation.

A DAC’s sound isn’t uniformly influenced by the decoding silicon – there’s I/V conversion and output stage to consider – but its sticker price certainly is.  The CONCERO is the digital guts of the INVICTA wedded to a cheaper ESS Sabre chip – the 9023.  Remember: the INVICTA runs a pair of Reference ESS Sabre 9018 and sells for CA$3999.

Resonessence combines their own custom (FGPA) code and the Cypress CY7C68013 chip in a USB receiver that uses their own asynchronous code and handles remote functions.  Their designer Mark Mallinson emphasizes that “they spent a lot of time making sure that the speed differences between the computer’s clock and the high quality/low phase noise reference of their DAC’s don’t cause issues – the code is written to handle when the computer is both faster and slower than the source. This required a custom solution.”

Remote control, up-sampling and filters

Team Resonessence have pulled some neat tricks with the CONCERO’s functionality.  Hi-jacking an Apple remote control is a clever trick.

The up/down buttons toggle on/off states for digital and analogue outputs; useful if you’re keen to minimize internal processing but I could discern no audible benefit when doing so.  Play/pause and fwd/next sends the same signal back down the USB cable to your host computer; a real boon if your existing PC or Mac has no existing remote control receiver.  Windows users will require the USB Class 2.0 driver (downloadable from the Resonessence Labs website).  Windows 8 compliance is now in the bag.

Unlike the price- and function-matched rival UD384 from Taiwan’s KingRex, no external power brick is required for the CONCERO to get going.  It runs on 5V USB fuel.  Engineering smarts have been deployed here too: connect the CONCERO (via USB cable) to a host computer to enable USB DAC mode OR plug the same USB cable into a power-only ‘phone charging’ brick (supplied in the power pack) for S/PDIF DAC mode.


Julian Cope’s epic and sprawling Peggy Suicide is presented as full, smooth and rich.  It’s a sound that’s free from digital glare and metallic sheen.  Not as obviously detailed or airy as the Micromega MyDAC , the CONCERO is much more conducive to longer listening sessions.  Build quality on the Resonessence Labs unit underscores the toy-like appearance of the Micromega.

There’s more.  Pressing the menu button on the Apple remote cycles through three filters: native mode (logo blue), IIR filter (logo magenta), apodizing filter (logo magenta).  The latter two 4x up-sampling filters work their magic only when fed 44.1 and 48 sample rate material.  I preferred the IIR filter.  It demonstrated greater heft with lower frequencies and was more rhythmically self-assured than both native mode and the apodizing filter.  The latter revealed more air in recordings but strayed into brightness on occasion.

Whichever filter is preferred for one style of music might not be suited to another.  Spinning (an ALAC rip of) the original CD of Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age Of Wireless, the IIR filter tamed some of the needling transients and added a little body and drive.  On the other hand, the lighter, crisper native mode filter dials back some of the bass on already-beefy techno: Sigha’s Living With Ghosts or Surgeon’s Fabric mix being two such examples.  The take away here is that the user can tweak the sound to balance out their existing system’s sonic characteristics.

Higher sample-rated source material – or digital music already software up-sampled  to 88.2kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz – is passed bit-perfectly down the chain; the filters remain dormant and the logo holds fast to blue.

The gift that keeps on giving

There aren’t too many combo currently units doing the rounds.  One could applaud Resonessence Labs for packing filtering flexibility into a six hundred dollar DAC and then go home.  But no.  There’s USB bridge mode too.

As a USB-S/PDIF convertor, the CONCERO is utterly superb.  The jitter-reducing sauce that got poured into the recipe brings greater fluidity to Peachtree’s Nova125.

In this reviewer’s broad experience with USB convertors, the CONCERO is the next device to join the Audiophilleo and John Kenny’s battery-infused modified Hiface as the goto models at their price point. If you find the Audiophilleo too dry or the JKSPDIF too smooth, a happy medium might be found with the Resonessence box: glabrous with excellent tonal saturation.  There’s less transient bite than the Audiophilleo.  Think black coffee laced with a few drops of cream.  Yum.

The same up-sampling filters are available in USB bridge mode but with some volume drop-away in all but native (blue light) mode, a necessity to avoid filter distortion on the digital output.

Note: both filter and native modes are level matched at 1.2V on the analogue outputs.  The Concero is quieter than rival units and possibly isn’t for ideal for those lacking headroom in their amplification chain.  Conversely, a cooler analogue output is suited those with too much headroom or those with more sensitive inputs on vintage amplifiers and receivers.

In a recent experiment to extract audio from an iPad with Camera Connection Kit and iFi’s iUSBPower, the CONCERO and iFi’s own iDAC were the only DACs to meet the challenge without issue.  A USB clocker and DAC for the iPad.  No other unit currently offers this one-two at any price.

A keeper

I could easily live with the Concero as a long-term decoder; its eloquence and articulation of musical spirit is simply terrific.  Selectable filters lift its flexibility when applied to different music genres (and listener mood) whilst the USB bridge operation is up there with the best of them at this price point.

For those wondering: yes, the Concero is a superior-sounding unit to the Schiit Modi.  It offers more refinement and tonal depth.  Modi aside, I can think of no greater bang-for-buck currently available in the budget digital space.  Hands down a triumph of innovation and sonic flair, Resonessence Labs’ CONCERO exceeds expectations by a healthy margin and then some.

Resonessence Labs CONCERO


Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

As I tear through some of my favorite reference tracks, I’m not only taken by the Viola Bravo stereo power amplifier, which I’ve heard sound fantastic at a number of recent hi-fi shows, but I’m also amazed at how much it shares with the best solid-state amplifiers I’ve heard, particularly the big Boulders.  We have here a new contender for the top of the mountain, complete with glowing green power indicators.

Rather than opt for a monoblock design, Viola takes a different tack by going with a dual-chassis configuration.  One of the boxes holds the majority of the power supply, including a 2-kV power transformer, and the other contains the amplification circuitry, with strategically placed 80,000-uF capacitors located near the output-stage nodes to keep power close at hand.  This setup works brilliantly; the Bravo produces a fast, clean sound, without sounding harsh or grainy.

This approach also makes for a sound not unlike that provided by a pair of monoblocks: a huge soundstage combined with amazing stereo imaging and precise placement.  As Prince walks between the channels on “Shy,” the speakers momentarily melt as the volume of the guitars gently increases and the other instruments join in.  This is a special amplifier indeed.

Viola Labs’ principals Paul Jayson and Tom Colangelo spent part of their early careers at Levinson, and the Bravo definitely has the trademark solid bass response of the best Levinson designs of yore, but with a much more palpable midrange and even more natural highs.  The bass line in the title track of George Michael’s Older goes straight to the gut, controlling my KEF Blades as few amplifiers in recent memory have.  Only the massive Pass monos have more grip in my system, but it’s really a close call.  Viola claims that the Bravo needs a 25-amp line to deliver the absolute maximum power, but we only have dedicated 20-amp circuits here, so we’ll take them on faith.  It is worth noting that the Bravo never feels strained in the least, even on a dedicated 20-amp line.

Put On Your Kidney Belt

With the power supply weighing in at about 125 pounds and the amplifier weighing about 90 pounds, you’ll need a friend to help you unpack and place these fairly large enclosures (17 inches wide by 9.6 inched high by 26 inches deep).  The duo also tips the price scale at $58,000, so if you are paying in small coins, you’ll need strong biceps there, as well.

These tidy enclosures eschew exposed heat sinks in favor of fan-cooled operation, with a massive umbilical cord joining the two boxes.  These two elements are the only shortcomings of the design.  The umbilical cord, which is connected via spade links on each box, can present a problem, especially if you’re among the 8 percent of people with some form of color blindness.  Either way, attach the umbilical carefully, one wire at a time, to avoid a loud (and costly) boom at turn on.  As far as the fan goes, it’s not completely silent.  Those living on a steady diet of rock, jazz and hip-hop (like yours truly) will never notice it, but if your taste turns more towards string quartets at low volume, the fan will be invasive.  The Bravo’s fan is not as quiet as the one in my ARC REF 150, so I’d say it could use some improvement.

The Bravo delivers 350 watts per channel into 8 ohms.  If that’s not enough juice for you, the power easily doubles as the load is halved, thanks to the Bravo’s true-voltage-source design.  Taking things a step further, the amp’s fully balanced design allows it to be configured in bridged or parallel mode for higher power.  The bridged mode is better for situations requiring higher voltage output (i.e. higher impedance speakers), while the parallel mode is better for speakers with higher current demands.  You can even link four pairs of amplifiers together to get 3,600 watts per channel into one ohm!  Viola certainly gets big points for being infinitely flexible with this amp’s configuration options.

Because it is a fully balanced amplifier, the Bravo offers only XLR inputs, which do not present a problem for the reference preamplifiers at my disposal from Simaudio, Nagra, Burmester, Robert Koda and Audio Research.  Whether running through a short length of Cardas Clear cables or a 20-foot pair, the Bravo works flawlessly.

The manual could use some photos to better describe the differences in operation, but it is well written.  One would think that paying almost 60 large for the amp would warrant a little more thought in this area (à la Sonus faber), but Viola is no more guilty on this front than most.  However, a well-written and well-illustrated manual is an essential part of the ownership experience at this level.

Nits Aside

You’ll forget about these minor points the minute you begin listening.  And while you’ll forget about the 40 matched output devices, you won’t be able to lose track of the control this amplifier brings to bear on your favorite music.  From the first track, you can tell this one is very special.  Where my Pass Xs amplifiers take on an almost tubey sound, the Bravo is extremely neutral, with no detectable sonic signature.  It is part of a miniscule subset of solid-state power amplifiers having no character, no grain and no coloration whatsoever.

All of the large speakers at my disposal (GamuT S9, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, KEF Blade, and Sonus faber Aida) are phenomenal matches for the Bravo, and thanks to its highly resolving nature, it easily showcases the differences in character between said speakers—making it a true reference-quality component.  The S9s and the Aidas in particular both have potent low-frequency reach and they both play to the Bravo’s strong points of extension and control.

A quick trip down memory lane to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here proves highly illuminating.  The heartbeat at the beginning of DSOM bores into my soul at high volume; the elevator at the beginning of “Wish You Were Here” is equally overwhelming as it blasts across the soundstage, reminding me just how great these recordings still sound, even after all these years.  I had an equally fun experience listening to the Bravo in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, when Genesis speaker designer Gary Koh was playing Infected Mushroom at discotheque levels.  Awesome!

We can go on and on about the complete lack of background noise present with the Bravo, but that’s selling it short.  What you really notice instantly is the tremendous dynamic swing that it is capable of producing.  Several major Music Matters Blue Note listening sessions keep me coming back for more.  The explosive nature of these records, not held back in the least by the Bravo, makes drums, percussion and horn blasts all the more exciting and all the more real.  I’ll even go as far as to say that it sounds better than when I was listening to a few of these albums via the master tape at Kevin Gray’s studio.

This astonishing level of dynamic clarity is even more persuasive with music that is limited in this area.  Records that you thought were somewhat limited (like the recent Slayer box set) still are, but with this much range at your disposal, they do come more alive than ever before.  And thanks to the Bravo’s effortless delivery of high power, you can really blast these tracks without fatigue.

Of course, lovers of big orchestral music will be in heaven playing their favorite large-scale masterpieces through the Bravo.  Make sure your speakers are capable, though!  While it is not an audiophile classic by any means, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition on DG is still a fun test track, with the end of the first movement coming to a major crescendo that almost always has the extreme dynamic peaks compromised.  Here, the Bravo sails through effortlessly.

All About Power

Again, thanks to the amp’s complete lack of grain, the level of timbral accuracy that the Bravo provides is incredible; yet, its ability to resolve the minutest details gives the last bit of realism to recorded music, doing so in a way that few amplifiers can match.  I firmly believe that this is what allows your brain to stop thinking about the gear, the system and the presentation, and just get further into the music and the performance.

Whether listening to Van Halen or Vivaldi through the Bravo, I never find myself entering the analytical reviewer mode.  This is something only the world’s finest components can do, and it is a rare treat.

Having spent a lot of time with great amplifiers large and small, I still prefer large—just as I’d rather drive a car with massive horsepower than one without.  Big power done right tends to eliminate many of the shortcomings of various speakers, because of the control it provides.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bravo is one of very few amplifiers we’ve tested that does not respond to any kind of power-line conditioning whatsoever.  Its massive choke-based supply has a power-factor correction of .96 (very close to the ideal PF of 1), providing plenty of current on musical peaks.  Connecting the amp to a dedicated 20-amp line is more than sufficient, and adding the Running Springs Maxim line conditioner or IsoTek Super Titan offers no improvement—a major testament to the Bravo’s power-supply design.

Top of the Heap

The Viola Labs Bravo power amplifier is, in every way, one of the finest we’ve had the opportunity to audition; it is definitely a destination product.  If your mindset is in sync with the Viola design ethos of the amplification being dead neutral, neither adding nor subtracting anything, this is a droid you should audition.  Build quality is equally superb and the amp carries a prestigious design pedigree, brought to life by two of high-end audios most respected men.  Just get a good workout in before you unbox it!

Viola Labs Bravo Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $58,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable     TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phono Preamplifier Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifiers Audio Research REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    Nagra Jazz    Simaudio 850P
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Aida

Pass Labs Xs 300 Monoblock Amplifiers

Even with a track that is not bass heavy, the Pass Xs 300 amplifiers immediately show their superiority.  Sinéad O’Connor’s luscious voice on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” from her album Am I Not Your Girl? lingers in the air between the KEF Blades in a way that it never has before—her voice is bigger and airier, with a higher degree of “reach out and touch it” than I’m used to.  And when Michael Jackson takes us through a time warp with minimal accompaniment, courtesy of The Stripped Mixes, he truly feels right in the listening room about five feet in front of the couch.  The realism is staggering.

In the world of high-end audio, where Internet-forum pundits loudly proclaim that expensive gear is not worth the money and that its curve of performance versus diminishing returns is incredibly steep, I must strongly disagree in favor of the Xs 300s.  Having lived with Pass Labs’ $22,000-per-pair XA160.5s monoblocks for over a year, and then having stepped up to the $34,100-per-pair XA200.5s (a huge jump in performance) and now taking the leap to the $85,000-per-pair Xs 300 two-chassis monoblocks, I’m still staggered at how much more of everything is available with Pass’ flagship amplifiers.

Here in Portland, Oregon, one of America’s greenest cities, my aging hipster friends would mess themselves if they knew I had a pair of amplifiers that draw 1,000 watts each, all the time.  Okay, so I’ve thrown concerns about my carbon footprint out the window with these amps, but I do walk to work and I’ve replaced all 22 of the 50-watt halogen bulbs in my studio ceiling (along with the 15 in the house) with LEDs that only draw 7 watts each.  That just about makes up for the power that these massive monos consume.  I’d light the place with candles and eat dirt before I’d give up these amplifiers!

As TONE staff member Jerold O’Brien helps me unpack these super-sized beasts, which weigh in at 168 pounds for the power supply and 130 pounds for the output stage, we become awestruck:  The Xs 300s have six banks of output devices per channel and Pass has increased the bias current by a factor of 10 compared to the XA amplifiers.  And as Pass Labs’ Desmond Harrington is fond of saying, “This means more control.”  Interestingly enough, Jeff Nelson of Boulder Amplifiers says the same thing, and both the Boulder 3050 monoblocks and the Xs 300s are definitely the two most incredible amplifiers I’ve ever heard (for those of us who are not worried about the price tag).

Where the mighty Boulders take more of a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, the Xs 300s sound more like a gigantic tube power amplifier with tighter grip and more bass grunt, while retaining the airy character and ravishing tonality that you would normally associate with vacuum tubes.  I’d happily put the Xs 300s up against any vacuum-tube power amplifier on the market, regardless of price, and I’d still prefer them to tube power.  The Xs 300s are equally yummy, and knowing you’ll never have to forage for power tubes again is a major bonus.

Love at First Listen

O’Brien and I are both equally stunned when we begin to hook up the Xs 300s.  Way too anxious to just let one stack sit there while taking the photos for this review, we connect one of them to the GamuT S9s.  We look at each other and O’Brien exclaims, “Dude, your system sounds better in mono with one of these than it does with the pair of XA200.5s.”

Strong words indeed; this is the level of performance increase that comes with spending twice as much money with a reputable company.  If you’ve ever fallen deeply in love at first sight then you know how this is.  The Xs 300s are love at first listen.  (After months of using them with an incredibly wide range of speakers, from the $1,500-per-pair KEF LS50s to the $150,000-per-pair GamuT S9s, I’m even more smitten with them now than the day I unpacked them.)

By the time we have the photos done and the second channel connected, it’s time for some shut-eye, so the Xs300s are left to play all night, and we’ll reinvestigate them in the morning.  As is the standard procedure with massive class-A power amplifiers if they are going to be on all night, no heat is needed in the studio.

The next day’s listening session begins with a comfortably toasty listening room, but more importantly, the amplifiers are now thoroughly warmed up.  Normally, we always leave solid-state power amplifiers on 24/7, but this is just not practical with the Xs 300s, because they produce such a prodigious amount of heat.

Boxes Ticked

The amount of sheer control the Xs300s provide is unbelievable—there is truly nothing they won’t do.  When we swap out a few of the other amplifiers we have on hand for the Xs300s (even the awesome XA200.5s), it feels as if a subwoofer has been added to the system, even with the tiny KEF LS50s—which, incidentally, sound amazing through these four-box wonders.

It isn’t just all power and punch, though:  These amplifiers offer the magic of incredibly high resolution, without throwing delicate tonality out the window.  You’ll notice tasty little nuances in your favorite well-worn recordings, prompting the desire to revisit as many of them as possible.  I predict many late-evening listening sessions once you get these fully broken in.

A perfect example is Ornette Coleman’s Ornette on Tenor. This straightforward bop record features great interplay between Coleman on sax and Don Cherry on trumpet, backed up with bass and drums—a sparse mix to be sure.  The sax and trumpet tear it up across the wide stereo mix, with the drums and bass exploding from the left and right channels, respectively.  The scale at which all of this takes place, especially in the way the Xs 300s render height, makes it all sound so convincing.

The Hammond organ sounds fabulous as it creeps into the mix at the beginning of War’s “The World is a Ghetto.”  The Hammond is barely there, just skating in and out of your consciousness, but it adds an unmistakable texture to the track—all the better in 24-bit/192-kHz resolution courtesy of HDtracks.  All the while, the funky, wah-pedal-laden guitars segue in over layer upon layer of horns.  Backing up to “The Cisco Kid” proves equally enlightening.  When a piece of gear can render a track that you’ve heard way too many times and still keep you riveted, you know you’re onto something special.  This is what the top of the mountain looks like, or rather sounds like—and it’s good.  No, it’s wonderful.

Those who live and die by the sword of pace and timing will be equally enthralled with the Xs300s.  The needle in the gigantic round meter on the front panel of the amplifier chassis stays firmly planted in the center, indicating that the amp is staying in single-ended class-A operation.  Until pushed well past reasonable and prudent levels, the needle barely ever budges, as is the case when powering the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blade speakers.

Jazzman Marc Ribot’s Silent Movies is a collection of atonal tracks that exhibit laser-sharp focus through the Xs 300s.  The decay of Ribot’s heavily processed guitar on “Natalia in Eb Major” is so realistic that I’m magically transported back to the 10th row at the Montreal Jazz Festival as I soak it all in.  As Ribot switches from distorted electric guitar to clean acoustic, the Xs 300s allow the notes to just linger in the air so that you can feel the strings resonate.

Comfortable at All Levels

Even at practically intolerable volume levels, the Xs 300s hold their poise completely, with no soundstage collapse whatsoever.  Audioslave’s “Gasoline” is by no means an audiophile darling, and it’s actually somewhat compressed; yet, on a great system this track can be unraveled.  With the meters just beginning to budge from their stops, I can feel my brain rattling around inside my head from the sheer sound-pressure level, but the pounding drums and lead guitars stay in place and Chris Cornell’s high-octane scream stays anchored, drilling itself into my being.  These amplifiers remain composed, even at these elevated levels.

Yes, this kind of listening is bad for your eardrums, but being able to pressurize your listening room at near concert levels (no matter what kind of music you enjoy) is enthralling to say the least, so use the Xs 300s with care.  A sound-level meter would be an apt accessory for these amps.

In the end, every aspect of music reproduction sounds more convincing with these amplifiers.  Pass Labs founder Nelson Pass has always been a proponent of the “first watt” methodology (i.e. if the first watt doesn’t sound great, why bother with the rest?), and he went so far as to built a pair of small power amplifiers bearing that name.  We’ve reviewed most of the First Watt amplifiers and they are superb; the massive Xs 300s manage to retain that same level of delicacy while still providing major power.  There are just some speakers with which 15 watts per channel simply won’t cut it.

Setup and Stuff

If you think you really don’t need 300 watts per channel of class-A power, think again.  The combination of speed, control and bone-crushing dynamics offers an experience you just don’t get with less power, even at low listening levels—it’s more about the control these big amplifiers provide than just power.  Incredible acceleration is an added benefit of all this power, along with the ability to stop instantly.  The Xs 300s are lightning fast with no hangover or fatigue.  They’ve been playing nearly nonstop since they arrived, and at the end of a 16-hour day I can still keep going back to the record rack for just one more.

Like the other Pass amplifiers we’ve used, the Xs300s require about 100 hours of play to be all they can be, but they are damn good straight out of the box.  Once you become intimately familiar with them, you will notice that they sound slightly hazy at first turn on, and gently yet linearly they come out of the fog over the course of about 90 minutes.  Everything just gets easier as they reach operating temperature.

Because of the heat they generate, these amplifiers need ventilation, and Pass confirms that you can stack the chassis one on top of the other, but be sure to give them plenty of room.  And if you are in tight quarters, make sure you have decent HVAC.

The Xs 300s can be used with balanced or RCA inputs, though they are fully balanced amplifiers.  The ARC REF 5 SE and Robert Koda K-10 preamplifiers work fantastic, as do the Simaudio MOON Evolution 850P and Burmester 011.  Even my vintage ARC SP-11 Mk. 2 works well, but the high resolution of the Xs 300s does reveal the limitations of this great vintage piece.  The only real downside to the Xs 300s is that you’re likely to find yourself wanting linestage and source upgrades.

A pair of enormous cables connects the chassis with the biggest Neutrik connectors I’ve ever seen.  I plug each monoblock set into a dedicated 20-amp line, even though the power cords are of the 15-amp variety—there’s no point in putting regular gas in your Aston Martin, right?  The four speaker binding posts are the super-coolio Furutech carbon-fiber jobs that ratchet tight and click when you’ve reached the proper torque, which is a nice touch.

The $85,000 Question

Though saying so may result in some hate mail, the Pass Xs 300s are worth every penny of their $85,000 price tag.  Considering a few other amps on the market that I’ve sampled, Pass could probably charge an even 100 grand for them and easily get away with it.

But you have to ask yourself a couple of questions before making this kind of a purchase decision:  Do these amplifiers take you somewhere you’ve never been before, giving you an experience that you just can’t get with a lesser product?  Are they built with a level of precision, care and attention to detail commensurate with other products at a similar price?

Yes and yes—and then some.  Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege of listening to a lot of fantastic amplifiers in the $20k-to-$40k range over the last few years, and the Xs 300s are considerably better.  They reveal more music and are more transparent, with bottomless dynamic power and they present no problem driving any of the speakers I have at my disposal.

So if you’ve got the system, the software and the scratch, buy these babies—you won’t regret it one bit.  And the couple of readers I’ve talked to who have jumped off the cliff agree with me.  These are indeed very special amplifiers.

Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks

MSRP: $85,000 per pair

Pass Laboratories


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar and SME V tonearms    Lyra Atlas and Clearaudio Goldfinger SP cartridges
Phono Preamplifier ARC REF Phono 2 SE    Indigo Qualia    Pass Labs XP-25    Simaudio MOON 810LP
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Speakers GamuT S9    KEF Blade    Sonus faber Aida    Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Manley Labs Chinook Phono Preamplifier

Around 2005, studio-tube-gear expert Manley Laboratories created an integrated tube amp with an iPod dock for the consumer market that had a triangular shape, and subsequently called it the Stingray iTube, keeping in line with naming the majority of its hi-fi consumer components after sea creatures.

“No one’s ever done fish before,” said EveAnna Manley (an avid scuba diver who is often referred to as the “Manley Tube Queen”) in a 2003 interview with Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, regarding the curious decision to name the company’s products after marine life.  “Let’s have some fun.”

And Manley keeps the fun going today—in terms of both its product nomenclature and the quality of audio that those products reproduce.  Earlier this year, the company launched its “bargain” phonostage, the Chinook, which goes for about a quarter of the cost of its pond mate, an $8,000 statement tube phono preamp called the Steelhead, which wowed vinyl junkies when it hit the market about 10 years ago.  As one of TONEAudio’s diehard analog guys, I get my share of vinyl-related products—cartridges, record cleaners, phono preamplifiers and the like—and, while phono fiends like myself still consider the Steelhead to be one of the industry’s best tube phonostages in its price range, the Chinook isn’t a bad catch.

Testing the Water

As I have gotten older, I have grown less tolerant of components that are tricky to install or exhibit quirky operation.  Thankfully, the Chinook phono preamp lacks these shortcomings.  Its default gain is set at 45 dB, a standard output for moving-magnet (MM) cartridges.  If you are a moving-coil (MC) freak like me, you can easily set the gain to 60 dB by removing the perforated cover (affixed with eight screws), flipping a pair of DIP switches for each channel, and replacing the cover.  Except for a blue on/standby button under the Manley Chinook logo (which illuminates with start-up), all of the action is on the rear panel, where you will find a ground post, a pair of unbalanced stereo inputs and outputs and dual banks of DIP switches for adjusting capacitance and resistance.

The Chinook offers a staggering 32 loading possibilities all the way up to 47,000 ohms, as well as 24 settings, which yield resistance values below 100 ohms—a setting that’s probably not the best option for most MC-cartridge users.  The preamp gives MM-cartridge users seven options for capacitance adjustments, ranging from 50 pF to 350 pF.  Manley supplied two pairs of 6922 dual triodes with the review sample, one pair for the gain stage and one for the output stage.  Tube rollers can also experiment with pairs of 7308s, 6DJ8s and ECC88s.

Given the Chinook’s $2,250 price tag, I matched it with the most appropriately priced gear available, namely my old standby table: a modified VPI Aries with outboard flywheel and a JMW 10.5i tonearm.  For my test cartridges, I used a stereo Clearaudio Stradivari and a mono Benz Micro Ruby 3.  Prior to serious listening, I broke in the Chinook a bit by leaving it powered on for 24 hours. (It has a light-bulb-sized appetite of just 42 watts.)  Manley recommends placing the Chinook in an area with adequate ventilation, although I noticed that it is only slightly warm during operation.  As a side note, this preamp safeguards its tube innards with a gentle 45-second power-up cycle, which helps provide some peace of mind, because there’s nothing more aggravating than blowing tubes at power-up.

Swimming Upstream with Ease

The ear party kicked off with Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius Records), a live recording from 1976 that features a bunch of plaid-clad Swedes hammering away at American standards.  I was immediately struck by the Chinook’s near-holographic soundstage.  I then moved on to Chamber Music Society (Heads Up) from bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, on which she plays a snappy duet, “ Inútil Paisagem,” with jazz vocalist Gretchen Parlato.  This cut really tests a phonostage’s ability to distinguish between two female voices that continuously alternate parts; meanwhile a discrete acoustic bass provides the backbeat.  The Chinook kept perfect pace with the exchange between the vocals and Spalding’s infectious bass line.

Next, I wanted to see how the Chinook handled a recorded pipe organ, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it does offer an objective lesson in deep bass and, because most are built into large churches, big acoustic spaces.  In the 1970s, speaker maker Dave Wilson recorded a series of recitals with organ virtuoso James B. Welch, playing some of the finest pipe organs in the country.  One such LP from 1977, simply titled Concert (Wilson Audio), treated me to some of the best renditions of bass and space that I have been privileged to hear, courtesy of the Chinook.

To test it further, I had to see how the Chinook handled mono, because some of the best phonostages can bring life and breath to mono LPs, astonishing those who faintly remember such records playing on their parents’ old phonographs.  If you scratch the surface of serious vinyl lovers’ collections, you are likely to uncover these relics, and reissue companies have recently begun releasing some classic LPs from the glory days of yesteryear.  One such example is from Julie London, a sexy siren who made it big in the 1950s.  She heated up my listening room (in more ways than one) with “Cry Me a River,” from a 45-rpm reissue of Julie is Her Name (Boxstar Records). I then spun the tracks of the iconic bop-era recording, Birth of the Cool (Classic Records), which were laid down between 1949 and 1950 and feature trumpet idol Miles Davis, his big-band arranger Gil Evans and a legendary supporting cast.  The Chinook made sure that you heard everyone in the studio with amazing recovery of detail, including some off-mic chatter, which adds a level of authenticity and nostalgia to the listening session

Many, many, many LPs later, the ear party ended with MoFi’s reissue of Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus, arguably one of the greatest live rock albums of all time.  On this record, the late Lowell George and his super-boogie band present dueling synthesizers, guitars, percussion, keyboards and brass, a combination that makes for some hefty tunes.  Listening to the opening cut, “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” through the Chinook was a refreshing auditory slap in the face, just like having a primo standing-room-only place right near the stage.

Hooked on the Chinook

Vinyl records can quickly become an addiction that, fortunately, won’t shorten your natural life or get you busted for possession.  How you support this habit depends on source selection and, most critically, playback equipment.  Choice of turntable, tonearm and cartridge obviously matter, but the delicate signal still has to navigate the rest of the sound chain, where the phonostage acts as the gatekeeper of the grooves.  On this front, the Chinook excels, offering a substantial taste of the audio high life without maxing out your credit card.  It’s also a versatile component that will appeal to a variety of listeners.

Tube-phobes can relax, as this baby is dead quiet, even when cranked to the max; so can audio newbies, because setting up the Chinook is a cinch.  But before rushing out to plunk down more than two large ones, note that maximum gain for MC cartridges is 60 dB, which proved more than enough gain for the cartridges used in this review.  Some top-flight cartridges, however, put out less than 0.30 mV, which may not be the best match for this phonostage in a system based around a low gain preamplifier and/or low sensitivity speakers.

In summation, the Chinook provides spot-on imaging and recreation of the original recorded space, along with killer dynamics and a broad frequency spectrum—all at a reasonable price.

Gone Fishin’ (additional listnening)

Before sending the Chinook to Lawrence for this review, I had the pleasure of putting some initial hours on the clock and running it with a few of my own turntables.  I auditioned it with everything from the meager Shure M97 to the mighty Lyra Atlas, with excellent result.  Nothing in my stable of cartridges has less than 0.4 mV of output, so 60db of gain was more than sufficient.

Having spent a year with one of Manley’s Steelheads, that phono preamp has always been one of my favorites, it has a ton of personality—you’ll never mistake the Steelhead for anything less than a fish of the tubus maxiumus family.

Now compared to the big fish in my current analog pond (the Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE, the Vitus MPP-201 and the Pass XP-25), the Chinook has a, shall we say, friendlier, more laid-back presentation.  But remember, my big-fish phonostages break the bank, with prices ranging from $11,000 to $60,000.  Everything else in the Chinook’s price is just StarKist tuna.

Mating the Chinook with the awesome and price-appropriate VPI Classic 1 turntable and the Lyra Kleos cartridge produced a relatively affordable analog front end of about $8,000, which won’t force you to take out a second mortgage.  That’s hardly Filet-O-Fish pocket change, but if you can find a heftier helping at this price, please, let us know about it.

The Manley Chinook gets down to the bare essentials, offering high performance in a basic box with no frills—everything you need and nothing you don’t.  We are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.   —Jeff Dorgay

Chinook Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $2,250

Manufacturer: Manley Laboratories,


Preamplifier “Pass Labs X-30”
Amplifier “Pass Labs XA-100”.5”
Speakers “Martin Logan CLX”
Power Conditioner “Running Springs Audio Dmitri and Maxim”
Cables and power cords “Nordost Valhalla and Odin”