Up to and until designer Wayne Coburn gets around to an Xs version, the current top-of-the-line linestage from Pass Labs is the XP-30. It’s an exercise in meticulousness. The entire thing is dual-mono, and when I say dual-mono, I mean it. There are three chassis to the damn thing. That’s quite a bit of real estate on your audio rack! And for those of you wondering, yes, it’s worth the space. It is the best solid-state linestage I’ve heard here in the man-cave, and I would cheerfully Thunderdome this bad boy up against any Master/Blaster you care to choose. It’s just outstanding.
With the XP-30 in front of my amplifiers, which were variously some Pass Labs XA-100.5 monos, some Veritas monos from Merrill Audio, and even an S10 SET amplifier from BorderPatrol, the sound I got was dynamic, grainless, and sweet. It was also friggin’ impossible to put a pin in the “contribution” made by the XP-30. It’s all stealth tech, totally silent, both operationally and sonically. I think this might be the closest I’ve gotten to a “straight wire” component, and at no time did I get an indication that there was something “being done” to the signal. No massaging or smoothing or manipulating. The sound was, however, far more detailed — at all positions on the dial — than I was able to get with my reference all-digital front end, a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC, run DAC-Direct. I say “far more”, but what I mean is, “I could hear the little things a bit clearer”. Yes, I’m talking about crickets, among other things. Bass performance, a strength of the Alpha, was every bit as organically precise with the XP-30 in the chain. Treble, on the other hand, had a bit more life, air, and ease. And with that “I’m going to bludgeon you” aluminum remote, I was able to enjoy this marvelous state of affairs from the comfort of my couch. Ta DA.
I also compared the XP-30 with several tube line stages I’ve been lucky enough to have on hand, including the fabulous Sonus Veritas Genoa ($16,999) I reviewed back in March, as well as my current reference, the Border Patrol Control Unit EXT-1 ($12,250). Of course, since both of these are tube line-stages, this isn’t really apples-to-apples, but since they’re both completely awesome, I figured, what the hell.
With the Control Unit, music has tactile tonal texture, and with my DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers, the soundstage gained not only depth but height — a feature that simply has not been matched to date (with only one, notable, exception). Quite frankly, it was this three-piece combo that sold me — on all three pieces. Together, the BorderPatrol+DeVore combo knit together an audio image that was not only convincing, but breathtakingly so.
I think it’s fair to say that the Control Unit is unapologetically not neutral — even if that became obvious only in comparison to the XP-30. There’s clearly something “being done” with the BorderPatrol linestage. Whether that has a pleasing effect or not may have more to do with the amp it’s paired with, and in the case of the S10, which 300b tubes I’m running it with. I preferred the “fatter” sound of the Sophia Royal Princess tubes with the XP-30, and the “faster” Takatuski when I run that amp with the Control Unit. Pulling out my scalpel, I can say that with the XP-30, my system sounded more like it did when run DAC-Direct. Clean. Clear. Open. Fast. The Control Unit with different tubes might be a different story, but as-is, the sound was — comparatively — full and romantic and just a bit lush.
The Genoa cleanly split the difference. The Genoa, if you’ll recall, was also hard to pin down as to what it was doing to my system’s overall sound. Compared directly with the XP-30, the Genoa appeared to give a little ground on transparency and speed, but brought more roundness and tonal texture to the party, yet did so without any lush indulgences. I can see why someone would choose the slightly smoother Genoa over the XP-30, but that’s totally system-dependent.
That said, can you do better for less? Honestly, I have no idea — but I do know that I haven’t. I’m not an encyclopedia of experience on audio gear like some, but I’ve heard more than a few, and this one stands out. Kinda way out. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
As I said, in summary, in conclusion, at the end of the day and finally, the Pass Laboratories XP-30 is an incredible linestage preamplifier and, in my experience, easily one of the best of its kind. That makes it a very straightforward recommendation and clearly worthy of a Editor’s Choice designation. If you can, you really should try this one out.
Specs for the XP-30 can be found on the Pass Labs website.
For another take on the XP-30, check out Stereophile’s review.