The 18th Annual Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021

Absolute Phase

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The following is an opportunity for our editors and writers to recognize superior merit in the audio arts though their "Writers' Choice Awards." Our writers and reviewers have been given broad leeway to cite excellence in fine audio wherever they find it: products, people, recordings, events, groups, etc. so that our readers can be better informed.

It is our hope that you will find the PF Writers' Choice Awards to be helpful to you in your audio journey.

All the best,

Positive Feedback

Pass Labs X250.8 Amplifier $10,000
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Weighing in at 100 pounds it boasts a thick brushed aluminum billet faceplate with a large, blue-lit A/B meter at the center, a standby button below flanked by its signature CNC router'd trough on both sides, and the engraved name, PASS, at the bottom right. Large heat sinks adorn both sides of its 19" x 21.25" x 9" chassis. The X250.8 is rated at 26 dB gain, boasting 250-watts into eight Ohms and 500-watts into four Ohms. It has an input impedance of 50k Ohms for single-ended and 100k Ohms for balanced, a damping factor of 150, and a slew rate of 50 v/uS. The manual also adds, "The input capacitance is just a few picofarads so anything will drive it."

The Pass Labs X250.8 amplifier is a serious and masterful instrument, superbly engineered, reflecting the pedigree of its namesake, Nelson Pass, with great aplomb, delivering a presentation that is powerful and immensely sensitive, and true to its source. It only flexes its muscles when needed, but when it does, it does so with great authority. In its owner’s manual Nelson says, "Since the release of the X.5 series seven years ago we began working on what has now become the X.8 amplifiers. They embody everything we know."

Bottom line, it's the best amplifier that's graced my listening room and, hence, it has more than earned this award.

Pass Labs XP17 Phono Stage $4300
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Pass Labs' entry-level phono stage priced below, and I assume outperformed, by their upmarket XP-27 at $11,500 and the XS Phono at $45,000. It is still a gem amongst its rarer brethren. The XP-17 accepts one RCA input but sends both balanced and single-ended output. It features adjustable impedance, capacitance, and gain. There is a healthy array of adjustments for moving magnet cartridges, and gain is sufficient for low output moving coils.

I am not sure whether break-in occurs in products or between my ears, but I preferred my EAR Phono Classic ($1800) to the Pass during the latter's initial stages with my low output (0.28mV) Dynavector XX2MkII, although not by much. The EAR was a little more pleasant, probably as a more forgiving and less resolving phono stage, making for more fun listening. At no point was the XP-17 harsh, grainy, or unpleasant. With more time, listening or break-in, the XP17 eclipsed the Phono Classic making it as pleasing as the tubed phono stage, while also allowing finer resolution. Both are wonderful sounding and your funds will determine whether it's worth the more than $2000 difference.

Coupled with my eBay find, a Thorens TD 125 (MkI) on an Audiocraft AC300, and a Shure M95EDM the XP-17 was fantastic, belying that front end's less than $1,000 cost. Fiddling with the Pass' settings on impedance and capacitance yielded striking improvements in performance from Shure's moving magnet design. Adjusting impedance and capacitance did not reveal a similar sonic transformation with my much more expensive moving coil Dynavector. It's possible that I simply did not fiddle long enough with the right settings with the XX2MkII in play, but I also got to good sound quickly.

In these days of more granular reproduction of ever more microscopic sound, the Pass left the corral of exacting reproduction for the open fields of beauty, pleasure, and relaxation. Is the XP17 a tube-y sounding phono stage? Sort of but not really. Grainless? Sweet? Smooth? Yes to all three which are commonly said to be the province of tubes, but tube amplification can create a palpability that solid-state and the XP-17 did not for me. It's possible with more tweaking, I could have gotten a palpable sound stage, but... that's not an attribute of importance to me. Realistic tone and timbre are hard enough to come by, and a value I prefer far above imaging, that I leave that pursuit of that character to terrorize other audiophiles.

In short, I loved the XP17, I can't imagine a music lover not enjoying it.

Isoacoustics' ZaZen II Isolation Platform $229
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An isolation device designed for turntables and other devices that vibrate—what in audio doesn't—you select the Isoacoustic model based on the weight it will be supporting. Many lighter weight turntables will be fine with the ZaZen I, (up to 25 lbs.) but my 35-pound table was better matched with the ZaZen II, (up to 40 lbs.). Do you have a heavier turntable? Look at the more costly, but not necessarily more appropriate Delos models. I imagine that devices that aren't within the sweet spot of the Isoacoustics product won't extract all the Canadian products can offer.

Vibration damping can be a mixed bag. Added to an overdamped setup, that can be a problem. Added to an underdamped and it could be "just right." I found it difficult to unwind exactly what the Zazen II Isolation platform did, just damp... or what. Its effect in use was non-obvious, but at the moment of taking it out or putting it in, there was a noticeable, and welcome, difference. Over time, whatever its colorations might be, they seemed broadband enough that their impact was not evident when in use. That's a good sign. I returned the review sample and wish I'd kept it. Living like a spendthrift for a year had me clutch my purse strings, perhaps too soon. I hope to investigate their Gaia speaker footers.



Pass Labs XA30.8 $6800
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I am writing a third pass at this Pass amp, to be published soon. An amplifier that operates to approximately 30-watts in Class A mode, before flexing approximately 200 watts into 4Ohms in Class A/B, physically it's a visual behemoth, albeit an elegant and well-executed one.

It might err on the side of polite, though it is slight enough that cable changes alter the perceived output. The XA 30.8 can still take a bite when the music bites. Talking Heads' "Blind" from their Naked album was thoroughly detailed, with musical bite and elegance. Sticking with the Heads' Remain in Light's "The Great Curve" was a tight, rhythmic, and entrancing selection. Numerous vocal recordings yielded the timbre that quickly, easily, and eerily distinguished the singer. There are more "just the facts" amps out there, a few of which are probably in the Pass corral, but this is pleasing and easy to enjoy amplifier. A bit more Marianne than Ginger, as well as more PG than porn detailed. Depending on what you want, the XA 30.8's performance could be "just right" for you.

Jeff Day

Every year when I receive the message from Editors Dave and David that it is once again time for Positive Feedback writers to turn in our three Writers' Choice Awards for the year, I reflect back on my year in audio, the products I've written about for Positive Feedback, and my long-term impressions about them.

The Writers' Choice Awards always creates a personal drama for me, as I down-select to three from a group of high-performance artisanal audio products that I have written about over the course of a year, with each potentially deserving the recognition of a Writers' Choice Award.

However, only three can make the final cut, so now for the drum roll announcing my three Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021!

Sorry, I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't narrow it down to three. So, after I wrote the above sentence, I sent a message to Editors Dave and David, begging them to allow me to expand my awards to five this year to recognize these five significant contributions to the audio arts.

Thankfully, Editors Dave and David extended grace to me for five awards. So now for another drum roll, and my five 2021 Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021 are:

February 2021: The Pass Labs XP-17 Phono Preamplifier: Wayne's World! $4300
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The XP-17 is a superb phono stage by any measure and has taken its place as my reference solid-state phono preamp.

Being able to optimize the Pass Labs XP-17 for different phonograph cartridge loading and gain needs turns out to be a big deal, and was quite the revelation for yours truly.

For audio writers, and those who like to keep a stable of various phonograph cartridges to listen to, the Pass Labs XP-17 phono equalizer is a particularly valuable and powerful device, which can deliver the best possible performance from any phono cartridge you may choose to listen with at any given time.

The Pass Labs XP-17 phono preamplifier possesses exemplary sound quality and musicality, has an excellent build quality, was non-fussy in interfacing with the various audio system equipment combinations I tried, and its very useful adjustability features allowed me to get excellent performance out of the moving-coil, moving-iron, and moving-magnet phonograph cartridges I explored for this article.

If you are in the market for a phono equalizer, I recommend you give the Pass Labs XP-17 phono equalizer a listen, and I think you'll come away impressed with its versatility and performance, just as I was.

August 2021: The New First Watt F8 Stereo Amplifier from Nelson Pass: Time Travel In a Black Box! $4000
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The elegance and simplicity of Nelson Pass' circuit design for the First Watt F8 yield big dividends when listening to music. There are just fewer components inside the F8's circuits to get in the way of the music, and you can hear that elegance and simplicity in the F8's pure and thrilling presentation of musical performances.

On my sensitive collection of loudspeakers—my Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers, as well as my various vintage Altec loudspeakers—the F8 was absolutely dead quiet in operation, which is an important consideration for the sensitive loudspeakers the F8 is likely to be used with.

The F8 lends a sense of almost eerie authenticity to recordings from any of the recording eras that made me feel like I was hearing the musical performances in the way they were intended to be heard. There's an uncanny feeling that the "spirits" of music's past were brought back to life, and were there with me in the listening room. The F8 is exciting and addictive in its musical resurrection powers.

The build quality of the First Watt F8 was superb. Like all of Nelson's First Watt amplifier designs, the F8 is likely to be utterly reliable, and will probably be on Planet Earth and making music long after all of us reading this are gone.

The First Watt F8 is very high-value in nature. At $4000 USD, the First Watt F8 is remarkably affordable for its lofty level of performance.

I have had a blast listening to music with the First Watt F8, and it is one of the easiest amplifier recommendations I can imagine. The First Watt F8 is one of the great amplifiers. Yes, very highly recommended!

Keep in mind that Nelson's First Watt masterpieces are usually only available in limited quantities, and once they are sold out you are out of luck. So if you have an inkling that the F8 is for you, don't dally, or you may be sorry.

Pass Labs, First Watt & IsoAcoustics is represented by Absolute Phase (Exclusive India Distributor)

A big congratulations to the above products for winning these awards.
 
Purchase the Audiolab 6000A Integrated Amplifier at a special offer price.
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