When stepping through the threshold of the online retail living room we find the tendency of manufacturers to make equipment that’s “just good enough.” That isn’t to say that their equipment is bad or even sub par. It could very well be good, it just means that it’s just good enough so that consumers don’t go out and do the comparisons to slightly more expensive models.
More often than not, marketing mumbo jumbo predisposes us to like certain equipment before even opening the box. As was perhaps my conception of the XPA-1s, and they certainly are wonderful. However, rather than being happy with that judgment, the child in me who is never satisfied decided to compare this unit to some other amps I was also playing with at the time.
Before the XPA-1 I had been powering my mains with the XPA-2. However, I had also recently brought home a Bryston BP-14SST, Linn Klimax, and Mark Levinson 433 to play with. Also, a note before I get carried away: the price points of these items are in the realm of 5 times that of the XPA-1.
One of my concerns when purchasing the XPA-1 was that I might ultimately be disappointed with the upgrade, wishing I had just forked over the extra cash for the Levinson or Linn pieces, which I was able to get a good deal on.
However, I pulled the plug and ordered a pair of XPA-1s, unpacked and plugged the heavy suckers right away and started doing what I do. They sounded great out of the box, and after about a 15-minute warm-up their initial edge faded.
I don’t generally do in depth listening tests before a component is broken in, especially when comparing it to other units. And so I gave the amp 300 hours before actually taking notes on what it sounded like. This unit does need about 150-200 hours of break-in time before it sounds its best.
For most review readers, you want to know how a component sounds. And while I could sit here and describe, in my audiophile vocabulary stuffed with confectionary treats, how exactly the component sounds on my system, I feel that unless you have my system the response will always vary. So my review will be merely a comparison of the amplifiers listed and the sound and enjoyment I experienced from each. Personally I think components, like cabling, are very system specific when it comes to the actual sound you get. To have a good component it should be a neutral conduit through which the music can flow. It should add little and take little away. However, musical listening is all about fun, and neutral is boring right? Certainly not! I would go as far to call this a very neutral amplifier. This amplifier, which is smart enough to get out of the way of the music, is effortlessly fun to listen to. The 1000watts pumping into my low sensitivity Aerial 10Ts was like a fresh glass of lemonade on a warm summer day. The speakers drank up every bit of power this amp had, and happily dished out something that could only be defined as truth. I found my toes tapping, the music moving organically throughout my room, and received more compliments on my system than ever before.
Okay that’s great, Ryan. Big deal, this amplifier sounds good, there are lots of good sounding amplifiers out there. BUT, how does it compare to the big guns? Honestly, it’s not as good as any of them, but that’s to be expected. That being said, it does come relatively close in a few areas. The Levinson could be classified as extremely neutral and detailed with very good extension and openness. On film soundtracks the Levinson made an expansive sound field that was broader than the speakers and added a sense of scale that is absolutely superb. I heard information in ways I’ve never experienced before, this Madrigal amplifier is truly reference.
The noise floor of the XPA-1 is quite low. It exhibited exceptional clarity and detail, but wasn’t as forward in its performance as the Levinson. While the scale and openness wasn’t anywhere close to the Levinson amp, it was a big leap up from the XPA-2.
The Linn, on the other hand, is a very different beast from the Levinson. It is the most musical amplifier I have ever had the chance to listen to. The swing and acceleration of the music is both refined and foot tapping. While the Levinson is probably more accurate, the Linn is more fun to listen to. Every piece of music I listened to seemed to dance around the room, up and down, back and forth, and throbbed in ways which left an emotional appeal that the Levinson lacked.
One of the reasons I am happy with the XPA is that while it is detailed and open like the Levinson, it also provides a sense of musical acceleration and swing. Nowhere near the grand scale of the Linn, however. The XPA-1 is smooth and extremely easy to listen to. It’s relaxing and mesmerizing.
The Bryston is one of those units that you either love or hate. Bryston has a slightly cold sound, but it’s a pleasant sound that is exceptionally clear and controlled. I preferred the Levinson to the Bryston for detail, but the base control on the Bryston was unrivaled in any of the units I played with. The base is tight on the XPA-1, but it has an airier sense to it. It’s more organic, but less solid than the Bryston. I preferred the fullness of the XPA-1 to the clarity of the Bryston. This is a slightly warm amplifier, but I would more so classify it on the warm side of neutral rather than plain warm.
I also had the chance to listen to some Levinson 33H monoblocks. These mammoths, retailing at $24k outclass anything and everything short of a DartZeel amplifier. The large price tag surely made the fat lady sing in the most pleasant way. These and the DartZeel amplifiers are the best of the best that I have had the chance to listen to. I was able to listen to a friend of mine’s system running DartZeel Preamp/amps powering Evolution Acoustics MMThrees with TARA Labs omega/Zero cabling. If you ever get the chance to listen to any of this equipment, please ruin your life by doing so.
While this verbiage is veering most verbose, I want to briefly mention that my dealer stopped by my place and was very much impressed with my XPA-1s. I was able to play these bad boys on some of the systems there, but rather than making this review endless, just message me and I can add to this review if necessary the details of that adventure.
While it lacks in a few of the areas that the high dollar amplifiers excel, it is only a 1% difference. If that 1% loss saves me $8-10k then I am by all means happy to accept that deal. The XPA-1s will be staying in my system until I can afford something Earth shattering… like a 5-dimensional music system.
Mac Mini – server
Sumiko Pro-Jekt USB DAC Box
Mark Levinson 380S Preamplifier
XPA-1 Monoblock Amplifiers
Aerial 10T speakers
Cables were changed often: Virtual Dynamics Master, Goertz MI3 Boa, Transparent MusicWave Super MM2, TARA Labs The ONE.