Several months back an article on CNN smugly and confidently proclaimed the "death of the home stereo system." Of course, I don't need to tell this audience that the report was, to quote the great Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Despite its pervasive wrongness, the article does accidentally make one decent point: high-end stereo system manufacturers aren't doing a whole heck of a lot to keep pace with the way most people actually listen to music these days. I, for one, can't remember the last time I held a music disc that wasn't multi-channel DVD-Audio, SACD or Blu-ray, unless it was to rip it to my hard drive. The bulk of my at-home stereo music listening is done in my home office, to music fed from my Maingear Vybe gaming/media PC to an Emotiva XDA-2 USB DAC/digital preamp/headphone amp.
Why the Emotiva, you ask? Firstly, I like its performance a lot for the price. Secondly, well, how many reasonably affordable combination USB DAC/preamp/headphone amplifiers can you name off the top of your head? I'd venture a guess the answer is, "Not many." So it's heartening to see Parasound fully embracing the present with its new Halo P 5 2.1-channel stereo preamplifier, a feature-packed product with nearly everything the digital and analog audiophile could hope for all wrapped up in one pretty package. In addition to its USB DAC capabilities, the P 5 features coaxial and optical digital inputs, five sets of stereo line-level inputs and one balanced XLR stereo input, a switchable Moving Magnet/Moving Coil phono input, home theater bypass capabilities and, perhaps most strikingly, as its name implies, a subwoofer output with analog bass management.
All of those capabilities are housed within a gorgeous rack-mountable chassis measuring 17.25 x 13.75 x 3.5 inches (not counting its tootsies) and weighing in at a respectable 14 pounds. The P 5 feels incredibly well built for a product in its price class ($1095), and although I'm not overly enthusiastic about the plastic that frames its brushed-aluminum front panel, that's the only subjective black mark against what is otherwise an exceptionally well laid-out and beautiful-looking façade. Its larger buttons at the bottom left and right (for standby power and muting) are a pleasure to the touch and seem quite sturdy, despite their delicate look; its smaller knobs (for bass and treble tone control, input selection, sub level, and balance) have a wonderful soft-touch feel, and its volume knob delivers exactly the amount of physical resistance, solidity, and smoothness of operation that I would aim for if I were in the volume-knob-design business.
Around back, the P 5 is equally lovely and very logically laid out - so much so that I didn't even bothering cracking the instruction manual at first, which did lead to one rather surprising discovery during hookup. I decided that my first experience with the Parasound would be as a direct replacement for my Emotiva XDA-2, in an effort to minimize variables and get to know the preamp with the Paradigm Shift A2 powered bookshelf speakers I use for most of my listening in the office. The instant I connected the P 5 to my PC via USB, though, I heard a disturbing sound: the unmistakable "ba-doomp" of a product whose drivers have been identified and loaded almost instantly. Why disturbing? Because I run Windows 8.1, which doesn't natively support USB Class 2 Audio and always requires dedicated drivers for such products provided by the manufacturer. Instant recognition by my PC indicated to me that the P 5 was probably a USB Class 1 Audio device, a suspicion that a quick peek at the instruction manual confirmed.
There are pluses and minuses to that fact, of course. USB Class 1 Audio only supports transmission of music files up to 24-bit/96-kHz resolution. Then again, I have a grand total of three tracks in my music library exceeding that so, for me, it's not a big deal. There's also the fact that USB Class 1 Audio devices tend to operate more reliably and, as I said, are truly plug-and-play. On the other hand, there's no doubt that the trend toward higher-resolution downloads isn't likely to subside anytime soon, and specialty online retailers like 2L have even begun offering recordings up to 24-bit/352.8-kHz. How much weight to give to each of those pluses and minuses is for you to decide, of course, but it should be noted that the P 5 does accept sample rates up to 24-bit/192-kHz via its coaxial and optical digital inputs.
After putting the P 5 through its paces with a couple of days' worth of favorite demo tracks through the Paradigm A2s, I disconnected it and moved it to the other side of the office and mated it with Parasound's gorgeous Halo A 23 two-channel power amplifier via a pair of XLR cables whose pedigree is a complete mystery to me at this point. I connected the amp to a pair of GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven tower speakers with Straight Wire Encore II speaker cables. My Maingear Vybe media/gaming PC running JRiver Media Center 19 in WASAPI mode remained my primary source.
As with the P 5, the back of the A 23 is beautifully laid out and, if you're in the market for this sort of setup, I have no doubt you could navigate all of the various connections, switches, and knobs with no help from the instruction manual, with perhaps one exception: the A 23 supports two different methods of auto power-on - one via a 12-volt trigger, the other via signal sensing. To select between the two, you simply flip the nearby dipswitch up for the former or down for the latter. If you prefer to turn the amp on and off yourself, you simply leave the switch in its center position.
Click over to page 2 for the Performance, Downside and the Conclusion . . .