The First Watt F8 is the latest amplifier design out the door of famed audio legend and designer
Nelson Pass’ barn. I don’t know about you, but I get a bit excited whenever a new First Watt design is announced and launched. Why? Well, in my opinion, the products are kind of unique and special; Mr. Pass definitely marches to the beat of his own drum with these.
As a quick reminder, First Watt is sort of a spin-off of Nelson Pass’ other, and perhaps better-
known company, Pass Labs. As a rule of thumb, First Watt products, when compared against those of Pass Labs, tend to be lower in power, simpler in design, more experimental, and less expensive. They aren’t audio jewelry–not by a long shot. The amps are all housed in the same unadorned metal casework, and the power switches are inconveniently located on the rear. For those of us who love these works of audio art, none of this matters. If it’s a pretty face with lots of power and creature comfort conveniences that you want, then the lovely products of Pass Labs should fit the bill just fine.
Words and Photos by John Richardson
If, however, you’re a bit of an oddball (like me), or if you are into exploring the outer limits of
what solid state amplification can do these days, then First Watt may be your ticket to ride. The big caveat for most audio enthusiasts will be power. First Watt amplifiers typically put out around 20-25 watts per channel, all Class A. Therefore, component and speaker matching will be somewhat important to get these gems performing at their best. There is good news though. Speaker efficiency has been creeping back up in recent years, so the little First Watt babies might find themselves more relevant to the “typical” audio consumer than in times past.
First Watt F8 Design Background
For me, all First Watt amplifiers I’ve tried are kinda special. The longer I find myself captive to
the audio habit, the more I value simplicity of design. To say that Nelson Pass engages in the “less is more” philosophy is probably an understatement. Forget that: the guy is absolutely minimalist when it comes to his First Watt design philosophy.
The progenitor to the First Watt F8 on display here is the venerable J2, which has been perhaps the most popular First Watt design. It’s also had a really long run and is still in production. Nelson in a sense decided to play the “Limbo” game with the J2: how low could he go? By “how low,” I’m referring to parts count and transistor gain stages. Could the J2 be improved by simplifying its design to yield the F8?
Since the F8 has been out for awhile now, lots of folks have written about it and how it differs
from the J2, so I will be brief in my explanation. First off, the output stage is pretty much the
same as in the J2, but the input stage uses fewer amplification devices. Further, the F8 utilizes
current feedback, as opposed to voltage feedback, thus requiring fewer components. Another feature of the F8 is that it displays a very small, but apparently audible, dose of second-harmonic character riding on the main output. This reportedly provides a bit of welcome warmth and dimension that too many solid state amplifiers lack.
Considering also the fact that the F8 provides improved damping factor and high frequency response, as well as lower overall distortion numbers relative to the J2, we’ve most likely got a winner on our hands.
Well then, let’s have a listen and see for ourselves…
Listening and Setup
I ended up trying out the First Watt F8 in two separate systems. The first relied on a Bricasti M1
Special Edition DAC driving the F8 directly, which powered a pair of Charney Audio Maestro X
single-driver speakers. This setup was a must, as it was relayed on to me that Nelson Pass is a big fan of the highly efficient Voxativ drivers used in that speaker. The second setup was a bit
unexpected, but turned out to be something of a sleeper: my Crane Song Solaris DAC passing signal to my ancient, but heavily modded Cary Audio Design SLP-70 preamp, which drove the F8, which in turn powered my reference ATC SCM100 studio monitors.
It’s worth re-iterating here that the First Watt F8 puts out 25 watts per channel into a typical 8-
ohm load, but decreases its output to only 15 watts per channel into four ohms. Fortunately, both sets of speakers I used are nominal 8-ohm loads, so the F8 was able to give me its best power in both situations.
I’ve been using the First Watt F8 almost continuously since it arrived in the cave here several
months back. My feeling is that like a fine wine, it has indeed improved with age. Running in took a solid month, I’d say, but once the amp opened up, it really opened up.
First Watt F8 with the Charney Audio Maestro X
One potential drawback of First Watt Amplifiers is that most have a smaller gain than is typical of solid state amps. As such, users need either a good preamp or efficient speakers, or both, to wrest the greatest benefits from these products. To this end the 100 dB efficient Chaney Maestro X speakers loomed as an excellent mate to the F8. I’d used the speakers before with the First Watt SIT-3 I have, and the coupling was pleasantly congruent. I therefore expected great results using the F8 with these same transducers.
I’ve spent most of my time with the Charney speakers being driven by low-powered vacuum tube amps, mainly of the single-ended triode variety. I’ll be quick to admit that there’s a certain synergy here between tubes and single-driver speakers–they just work super well together. Subbing in the First Watt F8 definitely gave me a bit of a different sound, and a quite satisfying one at that. My first impression was that the solid-state amp really juiced those drivers, placing them into an almost vise-like full-Nelson (get it?). Bass notes took on more definition, extension, and depth compared to the more languid and loose sound I was getting with tubes. I had expected this to be the case, so no real surprises there.
What did catch my attention was how non-“solid state” the F8 sounded with the Maestro X speakers. Was the experience the same as when using my ToolShed Transcendence 300B amp? Well, not exactly, but I was somewhat surprised by the liquidity of the First Watt F8 when powering the fast Voxativ drivers installed in the Charney speakers. We’re talking a fast, detailed, and highly refined paper driver here, and my experience tells me that such devices, while crazy resolving, can sound a bit dry and un-involving. But… they didn’t!
As I write this, I’m listening fairly intently to Lionel Loueke’s album “HH” (24/96 kHz flac,
streamed via Qobuz), a compendium of Herbie Hancock’s hits. This is a highly atmospheric recording, focusing on Loueke’s deft guitar playing, voice, and limited percussion. There’s a lot of ambient detail to be had here, and the First Watt F8 really digs in. The three-dimensional presentation of space is quite remarkable, especially for a solid state amplifier. Neither can I complain in any way about instrumental or voice palpability, as there’s more than enough “grunt” to the music to make it seem real, and not some plasticky facsimile of a real event or moment in time. Stated a bit differently, there’s no shortage of tonal complexity here.
The First Watt F8 has left me thinking that good single-driver speakers really can be driven
effectively and to great sonic heights using solid state amplification–perhaps tubes aren’t
necessarily the “be-all-end-all” for this type of transducer. I’m not saying that I’m giving up my
300B (or my 45 triode) amps; no, not at all! What I am saying is that it’s good to have options and the ability to present the music in a slightly different way when the mood hits.
I also found that the First Watt F8 allows me to enjoy the Charney Maestro X speakers with louder, more aggressive music than I normally like to play through them. Hitting the treadmill for a good workout was a pleasure with the system cranking out some Led Zep or Snarky Puppy at higher-than-normal volume. The F8 put me on notice that the Maestro X speakers can go to pretty high SPL levels without distortion; something I didn’t expect from a single-driver speaker design.
With the ATC SCM 100 Passive Monitors
Since I have thoroughly enjoyed my past experiences using First Watt amplification with my
reference ATC SCM 100 monitor speakers, I had little doubt that the F8 would deliver the goods. And that little bit of extra power couldn’t be a bad thing either.
While the ATCs look like real monsters to drive, they are really more like playful kittens. There’s
a bit of a misunderstanding about ATC speakers out there, in that they supposedly need massive power to open up and sound good. That’s partially true; it depends on which model we’re talking about. The smaller sealed-box units like the SCM 20 (I had a vintage pair of these; they sounded fantastic!) really are inefficient and appreciate some serious power. However, the larger ported-cabinet models such as mine are pretty sensitive (e.g., upwards of 90 dB) and can be driven quite effectively with a much wider range of amplification. My SCM 100 monitors love 250 watts per side of Pass Labs power, but they can thrive just as nicely on 20 watts of First Watt goodness. The trick here to get the best sound is to put plenty of gain on the front end with a good DAC and preamp while listening at reasonable playback levels.
Sure, there are differences. The big Pass Labs X250.8 really controls the woofers and goes audibly deeper in the bottom end while achieving lower distortion at high playback levels. However, the little First Watt amps collectively provide more nuance and resolution with less front-end smear. In this regard, the First Watt F8 is no exception.
Via the F8, I got consistently resolved and satisfyingly nuanced sound from the big ATC monitors. At my normal listening levels I never felt the speakers to be underpowered or anemic in the lower registers. What I got was just plain great sound. The SCM 100s have a unique way of pressurizing my listening space, and with the First Watt F8 powering them, they didn’t leave me wanting in this regard.
I had a grand ole time listening to Oregon’s live album Oregon in Performance (16/44.1 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz). The highly resolving ATC speakers gave lots of welcome hall ambiance and space, with plenty of micro details resolved thanks to the F8. That’s the hedonistic beauty of a low-powered solid-state amp: it just plain gets out of the way and lets the details through, as if not really trying to do anything special. It just does. I heard lots of micro-dynamic detail with no sense of smearing or strain. Leading edges of notes were snappy and well-articulated with plenty of audible decay on the back end. In fact, I felt like I was getting a good dose of the speed and resolution of the F8 driving the Charney single-driver speakers, but with more harmonic density and tonal meat on the bones of the music, especially in the midrange and below.
The ATC SCM 100 monitors don’t throw as precise an image and soundstage as do the Charney Maestro X speakers, no matter what amp I use to drive them. Even so, I was impressed by how realistically the wide-baffled monitors resolved the soundstage when driven by the F8. This amplifier does a special thing when it comes to carving out realistic three-dimensional space. Perhaps it’s that little touch of second-order distortion strutting its stuff coupled with the coherence of the speakers themselves? Either way, it was really rewarding to hear the complexities of the hall and the instruments within swirling around in all dimensions when listening to the Oregon album.
Finally, no First Watt amplifier review would be complete without some mention of how the various First Watt products on hand compare with one another. I have here three of these: the F7, the SIT 3, and the F8.
I’ve commented at length on my observations of the F7 and SIT 3; each is a superb amplifier in its own right and a great value. My take on the F8 in comparison is that it carves a tight line right down the middle sonically between the F7 and the SIT 3. Alright, so it lacks perhaps that last degree of incisive crispness and inner luminosity that the F7 does so well, and it doesn’t sound quite as mellifluous and dimensional as the SIT 3. What the F8 accomplishes, however, is balance. It combines enough of what is great about both the F7 and the SIT 3 into a single device to really scratch that itch for desired sonic purity and listening enjoyment.
To this end, the First Watt F8 squarely carves out a niche for itself in the pantheon of First Watt goodness.
If it hasn’t already become apparent to the reader of this review, I will state clearly my take-home. The First Watt F8 is not only a great all-around amplifier, it’s also quite a triumph of design. Nelson Pass has again succeeded in designing something that is different enough from its stable mates to be truly interesting and enjoyable while still pushing the envelope of amplifier design and implementation.
While I love both the F7 and the SIT 3 for that unique listening experience each can provide, I find the First Watt F8 to be the almost perfect all-around amplifier for the two stereophonic setups that I spend most of my time enjoying. That it can be swapped between two such different speaker systems and still provide an equally satisfying and engrossing listening experience is remarkable.
I would even go so far as stating that the F8 is my new favorite amplifier for driving the ATC SCM100 speakers. That it couples sufficient power along with superb finesse and touch with these speakers is remarkable in and of itself. The overall effect is breathtaking and most satisfying.
The First Watt F8, at $4,000, is indeed the pinnacle of what refined solid state amplification is all about today; as such, it merits my recommendation for a Reviewer’s Choice Award. Well done Mr. Pass, well done indeed!