DSD or not, there's no denying that pretty much anything you pump through the Halo Integrated's speaker outputs sounds downright sumptuous. Detailed. Airy. Engrossing. Even stuff that you wouldn't normally think of as audiophile fare.
I'm thinking specifically of songs like "I Hear the Sparrow Sing" from The National Bank's self-titled debut album (Press Play Recordings). If you're not familiar with the band, it's a Norwegian super-group of sorts, made up of members from the electronic-jazz-rock outfit Jaga Jazzist, with vocals from singer/songwriter Thomas Dybdahl. The sound is pretty much exactly what you would expect from that aggregate: ethereal and soulful, but heavy on the synths.
"I Hear the Sparrow Sing" begins with a percussive synth melody, surrounded by a sort of ambient haze of background accompaniment. The first thing that struck me about the Halo Integrated's delivery of the track is just how three-dimensional that background haze is. It seems, almost, like twisting columns of nigh-tangible ephemera. Like the smoke monster from Lost pumped full of Methaqualone, not necessarily reaching out into the room, but undulating and lazily folding over itself in real three-dimensional space. When Dybdahl's voice joins the mix, the depth of the stereo image becomes even more striking.
The fact that the Halo Integrated can eke such depth out of such a minimal mix says to me that its jitter must be exceedingly low. Unfortunately, Parasound doesn't report just how low, but maybe they don't need to. It's pretty plain to hear.
At any rate, the Halo Integrated's performance with The National Bank put me in the mood to explore some of the more stripped-down tunes in my collection, like "Lies" from The Swell Season's equally excellent self-titled album (Overcoat Recordings). The mix here consists primarily of the perfectly synchronized voices of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová--accompanied at first by solo piano, then an intermittent string section, and eventually acoustic rhythm guitar as the tune reaches a fevered crescendo.
Again, what strikes me most here is the stunning precision of delivery. The nuance. The unveiling of even the tiniest details buried in the mix. And yet, the Halo Integrated never borders on what you might describe as "overly analytical." It somehow manages to shine a light on beautifully recorded albums like The Swell Season, without punishing you for listening to the fun tunes in your collection that might not expect to hold up well to close scrutiny.
I'm thinking, in particular, of "Down on the Corner," from the 24/96 HDTracks.com download of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willy and the Poor Boys (Fantasy Records). No doubt the album has its rough edges here and there, but the Parasound Halo Integrated manages to tap right into every last ever-lovin' ounce of fun to be had with this record. Every element of the mix is plopped into space exactly where it belongs, from the multi-tracked vocals emanating from the center of the thick soundstage to the oodles of percussive elements that seem to stretch out from here to the edge of town.
What's more, I noticed during this track that one of the few minor reservations I had about the P 5/A 23 combo definitely isn't a concern with the Halo Integrated. With the smaller separates system, I felt like I was missing something in terms of dynamics. That certainly isn't the case here. Not with the CCR tunes; not with The Black Crowes' "Descending," which features an explosion of Dobros and drums at around the 0:28 mark, after a delicate piano intro; and not with "Rosalee," from Chris Robinson Brotherhood's Big Moon Ritual album (Silver Arrow Records).
That last song is a bit thickly mixed, an unabashed mélange of trippy, southern-fried, soulful jam-band rock with a side order of funk. And whether played through the Triton Ones or the Bryston Mini A/Model A combo (making use of the company's excellent analog bass management), the Parasound Halo Integrated delivers it with perfect tonal balance, a gorgeous soundstage, and every ounce of oomph one could hope for. The one thing I've noticed about this track when listening to it through a variety of gear is that Robinson's voice can be a bit harsh and brittle. A little hard to listen to. I never found that to be the case via the Halo Integrated, though. The edge that I've noticed with certain other electronics isn't there, yet it lacks for nothing in terms of detail.
I only wish my music collection were as well-populated with DSD tracks as it is with southern rock albums and Grateful Dead bootlegs, but I did have the opportunity to spin a few cuts from David Elias' Acoustic Trio - DSD Sessions album (Sketti Sandwich Productions), as well as from James Englund and Bobo's Blue Coastal Special Event 29 (Blue Coast Records) in both DSF and DFF file formats. This was my first opportunity to hear both recordings, so I can't speak to how they sounded on the Halo Integrated versus other DSD-capable systems, but both played beautifully and sounded incredible present, detailed, and engrossing.
Which is more than I can say, sadly, about anything played through the Halo Integrated's headphone output. The fact that the only headphone output is an eighth-inch mini-jack is troubling enough. More troubling still is the fact that, no matter which headphones I connected to the Halo Integrated, it simply sounded weak, constricted, confined, and rather bland. Since reviewing the P 5, by the way (which I had the same complaints about), I've upgraded my desktop PC. When I reviewed Parasound's P 5 preamp, I noted that its headphone output did sound better than the onboard sound of my computer. This new rig, with its RealTek onboard sound solution, quite frankly blows the headphone output of the Halo Integrated out of the water. Perhaps not in terms of clarity, but certainly when it comes to dynamic punch, tonal balance, and soundstage.
Honestly, the only way I could eke any enjoyment out of the Halo Integrated's headphone amp, with anything and everything from large planar magnetic cans (Audeze LCD-2, HiFiMan HE-400) to custom IEMs (Westone ES50, Ultimate Ears UE RM Studio Reference), was to engage the amp's tone controls and crank the bass up to about three o'clock. Still, I felt underwhelmed at any volume, which is a shame for an one-piece sound system that delivers such exceptional performance otherwise.
Comparison and Competition
The market for stereo integrated amplifiers seems to be exploding at an exponential rate these days; so, if you're in the market for such a product in the $2,500 range, you're not without choices. NAD's C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC Amplifier comes immediately to mind as a likely competitor, as does Marantz's PM-14S1. Of those, the former lacks DSD capabilities, and the latter lacks a built-in DAC altogether. Truth be told, I haven't auditioned either of them.
I have spent a lot of time with Peachtree Audio's $2,000 nova220SE Integrated Amplifier, though, which served as my main reference throughout this review. That probably isn't overly fair, since the two integrated amps are quite different in terms of design philosophy, architecture, and sound. The nova220SE relies on Class D amplification, with a Class A preamp and optional tube buffer. It does produce a more dynamic sound than the Halo Integrated, and I do prefer its sound when listening to my 80 gigabytes' worth of Grateful Dead live recordings, but it isn't as detailed, nor is its soundstage as deep or expansive. It also lacks the Parasound's analog bass-management capabilities, but it features one of the best integrated headphone amplifiers I've found in any product. And, of course, the Peachtree taps out at 24-bit/192-kHz via its USB input and 24/96 via its two optical and one coaxial inputs, whereas the Parasound accepts up to 24/192 via its coax and optical inputs and 32/384 (plus DSD) via USB. The Peachtree also lacks the Parasound's wealth of analog inputs, including its feature-rich phono input and preamp.
As I said in the intro, I (reasonably, I think) expected Parasound's Halo Integrated 2.1-channel amplifier to perform pretty much identically to its P 5 preamp mated with one of its own amplifiers...and I would have been quite happy with it had it done so. In practice, though, the Halo Integrated is so much more than the sum of its parts with a few extra bits thrown in. Its performance blew me away, and its incredible bass-management capabilities make it stand apart in what is slowly but surely becoming a crowded integrated amplifier market.
Yes, it's a shame that the headphone amp isn't more robust, especially given the all-in-one nature of this integrated amp, but you could always plug a dedicated headphone amp into the Halo's preamp outputs. Still, if that's the only significant thing I have to complain about (and it is; even the tricky USB setup is easy to forgive, given its DSD and ultra-high-res audio support and the complicated nature of computer audio), I'd say Parasound has a winner on its hands here...especially for the price.
• Parasound Introduces New Halo Integrated Amplifier and DAC at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Parasound Ships New Zdac V.2 DAC/Headphone Amp at HomeTheaterReview.com.
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