The Pass Labs XP-12 Pre-Amp Review.
By Steve Huff
I truly can not believe we are already inside of February 2022. How time has flown by! Here I am again, sitting in my music room listening to some beautiful sounds as I write this. In fact I am listening to the new album from Molly Lewis called The Forgotten Edge. She makes whistling an art form and it makes for great background music as I write an audio review. The sound is lovely, supple, rich, expansive and oh so sweet. I am Listening with a Pass Labs XP12 and XA60.8 Mono block Class A Mono amps.
The Pass Labs sound is very musical indeed.
My time with Pass Labs Separates
It was back in the early summer of 2021 that I had my first real taste of a separate Pass Labs Pre-Amp and Pass Labs Amp combo. Before that I was thrilled with my Pass Labs integrated amps as they were among the best I have owned in the integrated world. I used to always prefer integrated amplifiers as they were easier, sounded almost as good as separates (sometimes just as good) and cut down on cable costs as well.
I always knew that separates were a little more refined in sound as well as more versatile. Having two boxes means I could swap my pre-amp or amp if I wanted a different sound character.
When Pass sent me the older XP-10 and XA60.8 to evaluate and review back in May 2021 I was pretty pumped as it was really only my third or fourth try with “separates” within my audio lifetime.
Coming fresh off of reviewing some high end integrated amps I was very curious to see how these much more costly separates would do.
I have been listening to a setup of the Pass Labs XP-10 and XA60.8’s for around seven months now and have been very pleased with the sound of these pieces embedded within my system. To me, Pass Labs offers up some of the sweetest sounding gear I have ever heard when its comes to amplification. I am a guy who loves the sound of a good Class A amplifier and the XA60.8’s are truly in the “special” category.
A lifetime set of amps indeed if you value a big, sweet, organic 3D sound. They have been the rock and the foundation of my system ever since they were set in place.
As for the pre-amp, the old XP-10 was doing quite nice in my system with those 60 watt class A amps. It wasn’t the perfect be all end all pre-amp (and I have heard better in more pricey offerings) but it had a great synergy with the mono block amps. The pairing just worked out so well and offered up a slice of that magical Pass sound that is never fatiguing or overdone.
In fact during my time with the XP-12 I also had a Nagra Classic Preamp in the house. This $18k pre-amp has three tubes inside and is about as clean, refined and sweet as I have ever heard. I was able to hear the $6k Pass Labs preamp along with the $18k Nagra and the differences were quite stark, but just that…differences. Not better or worse really, just different. I will speak some some on this comparison later down in this review.
From XP-10 to XP-12
Just before the start of 2022 I swapped the XP-10 review unit out for the XP-12 review unit. The XP-12 is not new. It was released way back in 2017, or 5 years ago. So this is not a “hot off the press” review of the XP-12 as there are many to be seen online. I am sure if you are reading this you may have perused a few of those already.
The XP-12 is a pre-amp that is still a current model within the Pass Labs lineup and that is one thing I love about Pass Labs.
They do not create a new product just to make a buck, they only release something new when it is truly an improvement on what has come before it. One can expect 7-9 years between new replacement products from Pass Labs. THAT IS AWESOME as it means we do not have to drool over new models every year or two, and in turn lose money every year or two by trading up.
Pass Labs has a few offerings in the pre-amp realm and the XP-12 is the one that comes in at the starting position of the price ladder replacing the much older XP-10 that is also a fantastic pre-amp.
The XP-12 is not exotic or fancy nor does it cost $20k. It is beautifully made and pretty easy on the eyes and easily warrants its asking price in that department. At $6,000 it’s really rather inexpensive in the realm of high end pre-amps.
Above the XP-12 Pass offers up the XP-22 which is a two box unit (and I have heard it is a nice jump up from this XP-12) that separates the power supply into a separate box. The XP-32 is a three box model and then there is the uber high end offering called the Xs which comes in at a cool $38,000 USD.
Each model goes up in performance and price.
LOOKS, DESIGN, BUILD…MADE IN THE USA
Pass Labs is a brand that is made here in the USA.
Based in California this is a company known for quality, service and reliability. Oh, and of course the big, elegant, detailed, magical and organic sound these pieces can produce is also a nice perk ; )
The XP-12 looks exactly like the XP-10 which is a good thing as the XP-10 is a nice looking pre-amp. It’s hefty with a silver faceplate that does not have the bling or flash of some high end brands who try to sell you on cool looks. Five inputs, RCA or balanced XLR connectivity, a massive metal remote (though I wish it lit up for night listening), and a large volume dial.
The blue display is somewhat easy to read as well, if not a bit on the smaller side.
THIS IS A PRE-AMP. Period!
There is no DAC. No Streamer. No gimmicks. This is a pre-amp. Period. It mates extremely well with Pass Labs amps but I have also tried it with another amp or two with beautiful results. Honestly I prefer pieces like this, without everything stuffed inside of it.
When you start adding DAC’s and Phono Amps inside of a pre-amp it can start to cause issues with noise. By keeping those things separate, we are keeping noise from the system.
The XP-12 is about as silent as a pre-amp gets. It provides a deep black background for the music to emerge from. This is the most noise free and silent pre-amp I have ever had the pleasure to have in my system. In fact, side by side it is a touch quieter than the much more expensive Nagra Classic PreAmp.
It is true that one of the best improvements we can make to our systems is to eliminate all noise as this allows the music to breathe and emerge from blackness. It’s how details and micro details emerge and create that magic I speak of often.
HOW the XP-12 DIFFERS FROM THE XP-10
When I read what was changed from the XP-10, I admit, I was skeptical. It did not seem that too much was changed to warrant an upgrade but in the audio world, things that seem small can be huge when it comes to sound.
The XP-12 has been improved in a few ways. First, the volume control is borrowed from the $38,000 Xs pre-amp. Yes, trickle down is nice ; )
In fact. I will just paste what Pass Labs says about this pre-amp as they talk about the differences..
“The new XP-12 starts with a new power supply. It uses an efficient toroidal design with both an electrostatic and Mu metal shield along with vacuum impregnating and epoxy fill. This gives us a very quiet transformer both electrically and mechanically.
The power supply circuitry itself is also lower noise and has additional filtering, a little more complicated but worth it.
The XP-12 uses the single stage volume control borrowed from the XS line preamp. This gives us one hundred 1 dB steps with lower noise and distortion while removing some signal path parts.
The gain circuitry continues to use our favorite transistors from Toshiba but has a larger higher biased output stage similar to the XS preamplifier auto bias. This makes longer and multiple cable runs easier to drive and gives us the advantage of simplifying our single ended output circuitry while increasing performance. Overall this makes for a quieter more neutral, musical and versatile control center for your system.”
So we get the single stage volume control from the flagship. For me this is a very nice addition/change. When I first put in the XP-12 to replace the XP-10 I noticed I had to turn up the volume to “54” rather than my usual 38″. This is because the XP-12 has 100 1db steps which is quite a change from the XP-10. The XP-12 adds a level of refinement that is normally heard in preamps that cost a bit more and I can hear the difference easily in my system.
The 12 is just more refined and even sweeter than what the 10 was giving me within my system. More details emerge with the 12 in place due to the absolute lack of noise.
The volume dial feels a bit different between the two as well. The Xp-10 is smooth, solid and silky. The XP-12 has this as well but it feels better, again, more refined, premium. Not sure I can explain it but it feels slightly nicer to me.
The proof will be in the sound though, and I had this new pre-amp running in 24/7 for a while before I sat down to listen for the changes between it and the older XP-10. I was not expecting a huge night and day difference but I knew there was going to be a change.
With the XP-10 removed and the XP-12 in its place I immediately noticed the differences. After one hundred hours or so of being powered up I knew exactly what these differences were and they were really not so subtle.
The XP-10 is a great pre-amp, even today. I could live with it for a long long time and not want for better. It produces sound that is a bit meaty and bold. It brings big bass, a touch of warmth and a seductive detailed sweet sound.
What I felt it was ever so slightly lacking during my time with it was all out delicacy, transparency, crisper instrument separation and finesse.
Honestly though, I did not realize these things until the Xp-12 arrived.
With the XP-12 the sound was quite a bit more refined and well, quiet. The music emerged from a blacker background. This means that the new power supply circuitry was doing its job and living up to its promise. The music emerges from the blackest backgrounds I have ever experienced and this in itself is worth the difference between the two pre-amps if you want my opinion.
But wait, there is more!
The XP-12 with XA60.8 amplifiers are truly a spectacular combo. I am hearing superb transparency, details, and a slight expansion of the soundstage in both width and height. There is a bit more depth.
The bombastic bass of the XP-10 is toned down a bit but not taken away. Rather, it is much more balanced, refined and realistic. It can be bombastic as well, but only when that info is in the music itself. In general though the XP-10 added just a little bit more body to the music which took away from it’s transparency just a little bit.
The XP-12 has a sweeter sound. It has a little more magic. It is indeed more transparent. It brings that “see through a clear window” kind of sound. It’s more holographic and spacious. It does the space thing very well. I just kept thinking how more open everything sounded.
The XP-10 can be a touch closed in (only in direct comparison) and warmer. While they share the same beautiful house sound, the XP-12 is just offering more of what made the XP-10 so good.
Within a a nice system the differences are not hard to hear and yes to these ears it is a worthy improvement to the much older XP-10. The XP-10 was released way back in 2008 so Pass Labs had plenty of time to bring these improvements. They hit it out of the park.
With that said, the XP-10 may be preferred by those of you with a desire for a more beefier direct sound vs the more spacious and airy sound of the XP-12. The XP-10 can also be found used for under $3k, which is a great deal and option as well.
THE GEAR IN MY MAIN SYSTEM as of 01/25/22
Fleetwood Deville Speakers – See review
Chord Dave DAC – See review
Lumin U1 Mini Streamer – No review yet but it’s amazing and all I need in a streamer.
Pass Labs XA60.8 – See my review
Audioquest Niagara 1200 – Review
Nagra Classic Amp (for comparisons)
Nagra Classic PreAmp (for comparisons)
Had an XP-10, now testing the XP-12
Another area I feel the XP-12 differs from the XP10 is in the midrange. While the XP-10 had a nice full and warm midrange the XP-12 cleans it up a bit. The result is a more realistic vocal performance that is so clean and realistic.
I tried this pre-amp with both a Nagra Classic amp and an Audio Research Reference 75 amplifier. Both sounded great with the XP-12 though I still preferred the XA60.8’s with the XP-12 as the synergy is perfect. The Nagra offered up a cleaner and punchier sound while the Reference 75 tube amp was almost like a mix of the Nagra and Pass. Lovely. They all sounded amazing, as they should, with the XP-12 driving them.
Compared to the $18,000 Nagra Classic Pre-Amp.
The Nagra Classic is a sweet pre-amp and one that is truly made to last a lifetime. It is said, once you have a Nagra setup you never go back to others. The fact is the Nagra is indeed a nicer pre-amp than the Pass Labs XP-12 but look at the price. The Nagra is $12k more expensive than the Pass Labs.
When I listened to them side by side the differences were there but I was happy to see that the XP-12 was not far behind the legendary and mystical Nagra.
The Pass was a touch more laid back, warmer, gentler. The Nagra was more sparkly, had a bigger sound and was more dynamic. The Pass was liquid, and brought forth the music in a natural way. The Nagra bright forth the music in a bigger, more detailed and realistic way.
Both sounds here were fantastic and I never felt anything was lacking with the XP-12. It held its own and allowed the music to come through with that Pass character. Big, warm, fluid and with musical beauty.
FAR BEYOND “STARTER”
Another thing that I love about Pass Labs is that their “starter” products such as this XP-12 are not really starter at all. They are fully fleshed out and refined pieces that offer up a true high end sound. Does it get more refined as you go up the line? Sure, but that doesn’t mean you will prefer the higher up the chain model! It all depends on synergy within your system, and your personal preferences.
But you can rest easy knowing that even the XP-12 sounds absolutely as you think it should. This is not crippled or hobbled, rather it sounds beautiful, is built to a high end standard and has a company behind it with a superb reputation.
I feel blessed to be able to experience the XP-12 as it has taken my system to new heights yet again. At $6k it may sound expensive to some of you but in todays high end audio and HiFi world it really is not. Not for a preamp of this pedigree. Made in the USA from a company with a stellar reputation for quality I would even say this is quite the bargain in the HiFi realm.
Made in the USA, beautiful build, gorgeous sound, and will last a lifetime.
IT’s EASY like Sunday Morning
The XP-12 is an EASY 100% full on recommendation if you are looking for a high end pre-amp that can inject some magic, beauty and holographic sounds into your room. It excels at transparency, air, 3D and is always smooth and effortless without any glare or edge.
It’s not the most super dynamic piece and in my experience it specializes in warmth, humanity, transparency, and a smooth detailed expansive sound.
Just be prepared to turn up the volume dial a bit more than you may be used to to get to the volume you expect.
While Pass amps are designed by the legendary Nelson Pass, the XP-12 was designed by Wayne Colburn who designs the pre-amps for Pass. It’s obvious to me he also knows his stuff.
WHY I LOVE PASS
There are a few brands I have grown fond of in audio. There are some I will never buy again. I have become a lifetime fan of Pass Labs as they deliver the sound I crave.
Below are some reasons why I love Pass Labs.
- Gorgeous build
- Amazing sound quality
- Made in the USA (I know, I repeated myself again)
- Amazing feel
- Ask anyone who has had Pass. The customer service is always rated about as high as it gets.
- They will last forever.
- Almost always problem free. If not, they will fix it fast.
- Nelson Pass is an Audio Legend.
- You can see more about the XP-12 at the Pass Labs website HERE.
LISTENING NOTES (vs the XP-10)
25 or 6 to 4 – Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall 4/5/71 – Listening to Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4 live with the XP-12 brought out every instrument in detail with vocals projecting dead center from between my two speakers. It had a big live feel and almost seemed as if these artists were in my room. The recording is a little thin but still sounds very live and very real within my system.
Super transparent and open. With the XP-10 in place the song had more “beef” to the mid bass yet lost some size in the soundstage. It wasn’t as transparent but also sounded fantastic. The Xp-12 was sounding like a more pricey preamp here with it’s imaging and wide open sound. Fantastic. Again, if it had a teeny bit more heft it could be the perfect preamp. Even so, we get much more transparency, air and magic so that is the tradeoff.
Look Up – Joy Oladokun – This song is about the vocals and acoustic guitar at first. Then it opens up into a sweet sounding expansive presentation with piano and sounds popping up all around me. With the XP-12 running the show the music is presented perfectly. There is warmth, scale and a super smooth huge window to the music and sounds that emerge from left right and center. The XP-10 sounds a little more closed in and a teeny bit less refined but I have to say, is just as beautiful. The XP-12 brings that high end refinement and there is absolutely nothing at all that is offensive or lacking.
My Little Love – Adele from her “30” Album – This is a well recorded album and this track brings out all kinds of sounds and energy shifts within the music. It can be explosive and fill a room with a full three dimensional presentation in the right system and the XP-12 exploits this wonderfully. It’s magic, it’s clean, clear and sweet. It’s got body, warmth and presence. With the XP-10 we hear similar traits but less of them. It does the vocal just as sweet but again, is a bit less open and expansive. Slightly. The XP-12 brings out the musical layers a little better than the older 10 and with this track the bass is served up wonderfully.