Call me jaded. Call me cynical. Call me downright Antisthenian if you're in the mood to adjectivize a proper noun. But when Parasound originally announced the new Halo Integrated amplifier, I immediately assumed that the company had simply soldered its excellent P 5 2.1-channel stereo preamplifier and A 23 amplifier together inside one unified chassis--which, when you think about it, wouldn't have been a horrible idea. Sure, the P 5 is a USB Class 1 Audio device, which limits it to 24-bit/96-kHz files via USB; but, that aside, it's a stunning-sounding, feature-packed preamp with one particular feature that few stereo preamps in its price range deliver: an LFE output and really superb analog bass-management capabilities. Had Parasound simply stretched the box of the P 5 and thrown in some solid amplification, it would have had quite a robust integrated amp on its hands.
As you've probably either guessed or read elsewhere, though, that isn't the route that Parasound decided to take. While the new product's analog preamp section remains the same as the P 5, the company decided to build the Halo Integrated on a foundation of ESS's top-of-the-line SABRE32 Reference 32-bit DAC, instead of the Burr-Brown PCM1798 DAC chip utilized in its 2.1-channel preamp. As such, the Halo is capable of decoding PCM at 32-bit/384-kHz, as well as native DSD256 and DoP DSD.
Also, while the topology and design of its Class A/AB amp section is the same as the Parasound A 21 and A 23, the Halo Integrated's amp isn't an exact match for either in terms of power. It's rated at 160 watts RMS per channel into an eight-ohm load with 0.05 percent total harmonic distortion (180 watts times two at eight ohms with 0.9 percent THD), both channels driven. With a four-ohm load, those numbers jump to 240 and 270 watts RMS, respectively. All of which pretty much splits the difference between the output capabilities of the A 23 and the much, much pricier A 21. And yet, the Halo Integrated ($2,495) sells for only a few hundred more than the combined price of the P 5 and A 23 combo, making it a pretty spectacular value overall.
In terms of controls and industrial design, the Halo Integrated is, unsurprisingly, a near-twin for the P 5 when viewed from the front, aside from the obvious size difference. Input selection is straightforward, the volume knob is a silky-smooth treat for the digits, and overall the device looks and feels worth every penny of its price tag.
Around back, things also remain remarkably similar, despite the addition of speaker outputs and an AV voltage selector. The Halo Integrated sports the same complement of digital inputs (one USB, one optical, one coax); standard analog inputs (five stereo RCA); a phono input (with a toggle switch for selecting between 100-ohm Moving Coil, 47-ohm Moving Coil, and 47-ohm Moving Magnet cartridges); home theater bypass; dual RCA subwoofer outputs (with low-pass control); stereo RCA preamp outs (with high-pass control); balanced XLR stereo ins, stereo outs, and subwoofer output; 12-volt trigger inputs and outputs; and a mini-jack IR input and loop out.
The back panel is arranged spaciously enough that I had no trouble connecting both sets of speakers I used to audition the Halo Integrated. I started off with a pair of GoldenEar Triton One towers, connected via a pair of Kimber Kable 12TC speaker cables. That setup remained in place for the bulk of my testing; however, near the end, I did switch to a pair of Bryston Mini A bookshelf speakers, mated with that company's Model A subwoofer, to test out the integrated amp's bass management.
Despite the ease of the speaker setup, the configuration process as a whole isn't quite so straightforward--especially if, like me, you plan to rely primarily on the Halo Integrated's USB input as your main source of music. As I said above, the P 5 preamp only supported USB Class 1 Audio, and it required no drivers when used with Windows. The Halo Integrated does require drivers, and installing them isn't quite as simple as most USB devices you've probably used. After installing the typical drivers suite, you have to run a separate ASIO utility to unlock DSD playback capabilities, then set (and leave) the Halo Integrated as your default playback device. In other words, you effectively have to set up the Halo Integrated amp twice.
I did run into some problems with the setup process at first, mainly related to how I tend to use digital audio systems in my home office. I usually run one preamp, Emotiva's XDA-2, as the main source for all of my system's sounds, YouTube videos, gaming audio, movies, etc., and another, separate system purely for music. Going this route, with the XDA-2 set up as my default DirectSound device and the Halo Integrated driven directly by JRiver Media Center, I often suffered hard crashes and reboots of my entire system. After some discussion with Parasound's Director of Product Development Bob MacDonald and some serious digging through my crash logs, I decided to uninstall the Parasound software completely, reinstall it, and skip the last step: the activation of the ASIO utility. That totally did the trick. The crashes stopped altogether. MacDonald pointed out that leaving the ASIO utility out of the loop may prevent me from playing back native DSD files, but it doesn't seem to have impeded my ability to play back DSF and DFF files. So, whether or not you find the above to be troubling (or an issue at all) probably depends largely on how much you value the Halo Integrated's native DSD playback capabilities and how dependent you are on your computer as a source.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...