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Positive Feedback ISSUE 78
march/april 2015


The Audio Circular: #15 in a Series of Parallel Narratives
by Gary Beard


Pass Labs XA30.8

The Pass Labs XA30.5 vs. XA30.8: A Classic Matchup!

[In my best Michael Buffer ring announcer voice]

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Pass Labs Class A Lightweight Ch(amp)ionship of the World! In one corner, weighing in at a svelte 62 pounds without cardboard, the reigning champion, XA30.5! In the opposite corner, weighing in at 106 pounds boxed and in its first year of professional competition, the challenger, XA30.8!

Let's get ready to Rhumba!

As the former owner of a small herd of tube amps, I knew the switch to transistor amplification would be one of trade-offs. I thought I would have a terrible time giving up glowing glass bottles, but it was not as difficult as I had expected—mainly because I found almost everything I was looking for in the Pass Labs XA30.5 stereo amplifier. Then, just when I thought it was safe to fire up the stereo, Pass decided to pull the satin robe off the new XA30.8…And it got glowing reports too…Dang it. It wasn’t long before I found myself with two "entry-level" Pass amplifiers in house at the same time; the perfect opportunity for a comparison! So with a little amp boxing (and unboxing) under my belt, I am ready to dance the canvas ring!

Gloves touched, bell rung; time to Rope-a-dope!

Pass Labs XA30.8

Round 1:

The XA30.5: Floats like a Butterfly

Until I purchased the XA30.5, the only place I had heard Pass Labs gear was at AXPONA in Chicago. I think most people would agree the massive XA100.5 monoblocks sounded glorious driving Magico speakers. But that system cost megabucks; what about Pass Labs for a more modest hi-fi system like mine? I’d owned Class D and AB amps before, so the obvious way to change things up was a solid-state Class A amp. On my affordability index, that was the Pass XA30.5. It has been months since I first put the XA30.5 in my system and I have formulated firm opinions about it. My Bent Audio AVC-1 passive linestage mates fabulously well with the XA30.5, but I was initially concerned the 30 Class A watts of the XA30.5 would have difficulty driving my Von Schweikert Audio VR-35’s. I needn’t have worried; the amp could drive the VR-35s spectacularly well in my medium sized room.

It’s no secret that the 30.5 is a tube lover's solid-state amp, but it is also what I call, a "sneaky good" amp. The XA30.5 has an edgeless, creamy sound that belies its ability to hit hard when necessary. Just when you think you’ve heard all it can do, it surprises with an overhand right to the cranium. I am continually amazed by this amp’s ability to sweetly convey the musical message; and while the 30.5 is an easy listen, each recording is distinctly rendered; good and bad; although it does slightly gloss over fugly.

While not the Technicolor glow of 300B, the XA30.5 certainly has a warm, beautiful pallet of tonal color—there is nothing cool or whitish about this amp. The 5 has very good depth and a terrific, wide stage. The stage is a little flatter on the XA30.5 than it was with tubes--it generally starts at the speaker plane in my current system, with players occupying their own space, the musical performance flows as one. Transparency is very good as well and the resolution of fine detail is excellent. I love the 30.5's ability to give me detail without crossing the Too-Much-Information, and because there is no etch or ear-burn, you can listen for hours without fatigue. Treble is airy, sweet and well integrated, but I can't say I notice lots of highest octave twinkly-sparkly "hifi" sounds (the 30.8 has more). Quite honestly, my aging ears may be a contributor to that result. The baby Pass’ midrange is fantastic; a wonderfully dense, fluid, fabulous, floats like a butterfly flurry of punches to the midsection! It is so good, it is hard for me to imagine another solid state amp that could significantly better it. Bass is warm and rich, yet a little rounded and perhaps even a bit soft. It is also wonderfully tuneful, never wooly and can give a gut punch when the music demands it…Yep, the XA30.5 is sneaky good.

Pass Labs XA30.8

The XA30.8: Stings like a Bee

XA30.8 is on the rack…Whoa! The specs didn’t fully prepare me for how much bigger and heavier it is than the 30.5. This amp is a beast! I had to enlist the Ring Maiden to help me get the damn thing out of the trunk and into the Tune Saloon Listening Room. I let the Point 8 warm for a few hours then fired it up for a preliminary taste. I had a strong first reaction and penned some quick listening impressions:

The 30.8 clearly has a more dynamic disposition and just as obvious is its deeper, more prominent bass response. Green as grass, the amp also sounds congested and will need a few days to settle in; still, my initial observations tell me the differences between the XA30.5 & .8 are more pronounced than mere cosmetic changes and more capacitance in the power supply suggest. In the ring, I believe them to be as different as Frasier and Ali...

A couple evenings later, my impressions were even more marked:

The 30.8 is incisive and bold whereas the 30.5 is languid and relaxed. I won't say the 8 is faster than the 5, but it couldn't be more obvious that the 30.8 is not just an "upgraded" .5...There is some graininess in the upper registers and the sound has not jelled yet…

Early on I could tell it would be difficult to articulate the sound of the XA30.8. The 30.5 is easy; everyone knows it is supposed to sound like a tube amp; whether it actually does or not. The 30.8 is much more difficult to critique and I wasn’t even sure I liked the XA30.8 as well as the 30.5. The XA30.5 does in fact, remind me of a triode amp, and as a recovering "Tube-o-holic" I could have called a Standing 8 Count right then and kept the 30.5. The XA30.8 is not as lush as its older sibling, and it does not sound like a tube amp. But what really confounded me was how the XA30.8 required me to listen differently. Gone is the XA30.5’s tubey undergarment and minor MOSFET "haze" and there is nothing left but a noise floor so low, that the XA30.8 simply is, or maybe, is not. Where the XA30.5 adds just a little of itself to every recording, the 30.8 reproduces each signal distinctly without a hint of uniformity that can be attributed to amp voicing. It is clear the XA30.8 imposes its will on the signal, but I am finding it difficult to tell you exactly that means beyond making music... 

Round 2: Blow by Blow

All audiophiles have biases. One element of sound reproduction where critical listeners frequently differ is the importance of staging and imaging. I am in the camp that enjoys the illusion of players on a stage. I wouldn’t say it is the key to listening for me, but it is certainly an important element of my high fidelity experience. The Von Schweikert VR-35 speakers can reproduce a thrilling stage, but are not "head-in-vise" imagers. Off-axis listening is excellent with the XA30.5 because the center image remains intact, yet slightly diffuse. In contrast, the XA30.8 throws a highly precise image; musicians can easily be heard (and visualized) in very specific locations on the stage. And it is the widest stage I’ve ever experienced in my listening room. The center image was so specific, that if I moved my head one way or the other, I quickly lost it. I surmised I might need a speaker location adjustment, so I moved the VR-35’s two inches closer together as well as two inches back toward the wall. This made two substantial improvements; it tightened up the 30.8’s more powerful bass as well as solidifying and widening the center image.

In addition to majestic staging, I was unprepared for how good the layering of instruments and voices would be with the 30.8. It is much more dimensional than the 30.5. Background singers voices come from behind the band, organ notes rise up like smoke from the background while the guitar player rips a riff and the beautiful voices of the chorale sing praises from the riser above and to the rear of the Cleveland Symphony. Unlike the relatively flat staging of the 30.5, the 30.8 recreates the space that exists on the recording and music simply leaps from the blackness. The Pass Media verbiage describes the amp as "lifelike" and indeed, there are moments when the blats of a trumpet, soaring vibrato of a vocalist, or movements of symphony, sing with improbable realism. Certainly the amp’s spot-on tonality as well as its incredibly quiet background are main contributors; without "big tone" and fine reproduction of spatial cues to give visual meaning to the auditory, life would be less lifelike.

I believe break-in occurs for some components, but I will admit, at times I am not sure whether it is the gear breaking in, or me. That said, there was a moment when the sound changed so dramatically, it can't be attributed to many other possibilities. With about 50 hours on the Point 8, I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel...No, sorry, that was Zevon...I was sitting in my listening chair, quietly considering if the Point 8th wonder of the world was jelling in my system. It sounded very good of course, but part of me was thinking about how great the 5th had sounded. I wasn't surprised that I might prefer the sound of the 30.5, but I was confused that it should sound so much better than the brand-spanking-new, in-development-for-a-gazillion-years, 30.8. Then I remembered…Both the XA30.5 and the INT-30A required a good five days of power-on conditioning. Although they improve even more as time and signal passes; just switching the unit from stand-by to full-tilt, Class A utility-consumption mode, then left to cook for a week, makes a quite an audible difference. Pass amps don't particularly like being turned all the way off either. It's almost like they regress to that green-as-grass stage for a day. Anyway--sidetracked--it was almost bedtime, and a Bonnie Raitt song that I know very well came on via the Sony HAP-Z1ES and there was something new happening. I was clearly making out words of the background singers that I had been incorrectly acknowledging for years. But there was also a growlingly raw emotion, something the XA30.5 has in spades, but the 30.8 had been lacking. Suddenly, all the whiz bang audio-technicalia was taking a backseat to feeling the music and I couldn't tear myself away from listening. Yes, I was sober...Yes, break-in...

Get the Cut Man, spit in the bucket, ring the bell…The fight is on!

Round Three: Win, Lose, or Draw

It's kinda weird, but I find myself turning the volume on my AVC-1 up about 5 steps or so louder with the 30.8 than with the 30.5. Their similar specs would not indicate this as an electronic issue, so I can only surmise this is due to the 8's lower than a snakes belly noise floor in comparison to the relatively pedestrian, low noise floor of the 30.5. It is almost too easy to turn up the volume on the 30.8. This could be dangerous when combining a couple glasses of Papa Van Schweikert (a joke for you Bourbon fans) with Led Zeppelin!

Keeping a leash on the volume is easier when resolution is good at low levels. I usually listen at lower volumes and both of these amps have an incredible ability to keep a musical flow at quiet levels. The 30.5 is my favorite at extremely low volumes, but the 30.8 quickly catches and surpasses the .5 as the volume level is slightly increased. And this is where the contender’s relentless jabs begin to tally points against the champ. The XA30.5 speaks with a consistently pleasing voice of musical purity and lacks little as the heart of a high end system until compared directly to the XA30.8. The Point 8 punches harder dynamically, has a more delineated and extended foundation in the lowest octaves, a wider, deeper, stage and that incredible, layered resolution. I fully understand the love shown for the Point 5. It has absolutely zero grit or hardness and a simply wonderful midrange presence. There are times when the differences between these two brilliant amplifiers do not seem so great, but then I put on my tin foil hat and the gulf between them grows. But while it may take a seasoned listener to discern the measure of their dissimilarities, it only takes a music-lover to hear how wonderfully both make music.

The Sweet Science

Whenever I read Nelson Pass' remarks in Pass Labs operations manuals, threads on DIY Audio and elsewhere, his perspective is clear. After all the math, research and electro-mechanical design, Mr. Pass gets that a part of audio is, and probably always will be, subjective. Maybe it’s a Left Brain, Right Brain thing. I'm a bit ambidextrous, but mainly a Right-hander. Yes, design is paramount. Yes, measurements matter. Yes, looks and fancy knobs can persuade our minds into thinking something sounds more fabulous than it really does...I understand the DBT and Measurement junkie's messages, but my own reality tells me my ears are the final judge, not yours, not other reviewers, not even Nelson's. So, when you read my findings or those of anyone else, remember this: YEMV (Your Ears May Vary)! 

The Judge’s Decision

The XA30.5 and XA30.8 duked it out with different styles. The fight was a Donnybrook but ultimately, the 30.8 won on a split decision (head over heart). When I started this comparison, I had two specific areas where I wanted to improve my system; macro-dynamics and deep bass performance; all while hoping to keep the liquid midrange that I enjoyed with the XA30.5. The XA30.8 is without question, more dynamic at both the macro and micro levels. It is also more powerful than the XA30.5. It grips the drivers in a way that the XA30.5 cannot match. Low to mid-bass performance is also a win for the 30.8. Not only does it play subjectively deeper, bass is more distinct as well. From the midrange through the upper octaves the call is a tough one. Both amps are wonderful--the Point 5 is still the tube lover’s solid state amp—but the Point 8 is…yep…more lifelike. I’ll call that a draw.

The 30.5 seems almost syrupy sweet, melodramatic and slow compared to the blistering speed and incisiveness of the 30.8. It’s sorta like drinking sweet tea on a sweltering Alabama day versus a cuppa Joe on a crisp New York City morning. Even so, I love the languid 30.5 sound. Love it. Love it. To this listener, the 30.5 is the more emotional amplifier, whereas the 30.8 is more cerebral. Yet there is no question the XA30.8 can be passionate too. It has an exhilarating, swashbuckling attitude when it’s firing on all cylinders, and a deft, delicate touch when the performance calls for such.

During the first week I had the XA30.8, I fed it a steady diet of digital trying to quickly get some hours on it. Even as late as day four, I was still firmly in the XA30.5’s corner. After continuing to burn-in the 30.8 for an appropriate amount of time; I fired up the turntable and played an old favorite, Al Di Meola’s captivating Elegant Gypsy. Within seconds of the needle drop, there was this sound, amazingly real and alive, yet warm and sweet; as if a honey bee slurped a bit of Alabama tea, flew to NYC for a Latte and cross pollinated the 5 & 8 in Central Park. And at that moment, clarity hit me like a roundhouse and I realized that I could never let the XA30.8 out of my room.

I must warn you, I made my choice after only two weeks of intense listening. The XA30.8 was a demo, so I believe it was fully run-in and only needed some settling time. Once I started to hear the passion beyond the technical prowess, the fight was over.

At the time of this writing, the XA30.8 is ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, marginally more unforgiving at the upper extremes, but in no way fatiguing. And it is still improving incrementally day to day. The decision was tough, but as referee, I could only award the win to one fighter: The new Middleweight Champion of My World is the Pass Labs XA30.8. It is an amazing amplifier in every respect and cannot be denied victory. In fact, the margin is perhaps larger than I suggest, but I must give the XA30.5 my respect and admiration for its long and celebrated career. I don’t think anyone would argue that the XA30.5 is a modern classic and will continue to be highly prized even after retirement.

All worn-out boxing metaphors aside: For me, listening to the XA30.8 is not unlike the first time I heard a really great stereo system; it is different, alive, and fantastic. No, it's not cheap, and yes, it's big and heavy and hot and eats electricity for lunch. It’s also my new reference in amplification.

Gary L. Beard

Pass Labs XA30.5
Retail $5500 (Discontinued after Sept. 1st, 2015)

Pass Labs XA30.8
Retail $6500 ($6800 after Sept. 1st, 2015)