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 faÃ§ade. 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 . . .
As I said, I began my evaluation of the Halo P 5 connected directly to my Paradigm A2s, sans amp and subwoofer, in an effort to minimize variables. My initial impression of the P 5 compared with my Emotiva XDA-2 was that the Parasound preamp was a weensy bit meatier and fuller-bodied, with a smoother high end. It's a subtle difference, no doubt about it, but an appreciable one nonetheless. Which is more accurate? I honestly couldn't tell you, but I do prefer the bit of extra meatiness and smoother treble delivered by the P 5.
It took a bit of listening before I picked up on another, perhaps subtler but more meaningful difference. In the track "What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?" from Hans Zimmer's score for Man of Steel (WaterTower Music), there was no denying the fact that the rapid string riff that kicks in at the 1:27 mark, as well as the sledgehammer percussion assault starting at 2:39, were cleaner and more precise via the Parasound, with a sound that more accurately represents actual instruments (). Perhaps it's better handling of transients. Perhaps it's the fact that, despite only supporting USB Class 1 Audio, there's better digital-to-analog conversion going on here. At any rate, it was clear that, on its own, the P 5 does a wonderful job of resolving fine details in music.
Moving over to the full setup with the Halo A 23 amp and GoldenEar Triton Sevens left no doubt that the resolution of finer details is one of the combo's strong points. The seventh track, "U," from Thomas Dybdahl's album Science (Universal Music) is a fine example of this. Apologies for what may seem like a rather gross observation, but the P 5 resolves this cut with such precision that you can really gauge the level of moisture in Dybdahl's mouth at any given time. Likewise, starting at about 3:28 into the track, when the track's Hammond organ kicks into overdrive, I can't say for sure whether it's tube saturation or speaker breakup that gives the instrument its edge, but I do know that the P 5 captures and delivers it wonderfully, with sumptuous richness and oodles of warmth.
"Franklin's Tower" from Grateful Dead's album Blues for Allah (Rhino) (actually, if you want to get picky, it's the eighth disc from HDTrack's Complete Studio Albums Collection downloaded in 24/96 ALAC) also does a great job of revealing the P 5's exceptional imagine and soundstage capabilities. The various rhythmic guitar and percussive elements of the mix hang in the air like aural ornaments hung with care on an invisible sonic Christmas tree, whereas Jerry Garcia's voice emanates from rock-solid center of the mix on a wholly different plane of depth from the rest of the mix.
Satisfied that I had a pretty good handle on the P 5 and A 23's capabilities, I kicked back for some purely fun listening, queuing up "Descending" from The Black Crowe's Amorica (American Recordings). Unsurprisingly, the intro fares beautifully through the Parasound combo; the piano exhibits a wonderful richness and ambience, while the accidental percussive resonances in the background are precisely resolved in the background. When the drums and Dobro guitar kick in at around the 0:28 mark, though, I'll admit that it didn't come across as dynamically as the best two-channel setup I've heard. It's satisfying, mind you. Very satisfying. But it felt to me as if some small measure of oomph was missing. I figured this would be an excellent time to add a subwoofer to the mix, which was a quick and easy affair, thanks to the P 5's high- and low-pass crossover knobs on the back. (Each crossover can be enabled or disabled individually via switches, and crossover frequencies for both range from 20 to 140 Hz.)
Despite the fact that the GoldenEar Triton Sevens extend quite well down to 30 Hz or so, and there isn't really much going on in "Descending" below about 40 Hz, adding the sub did help a little with the kick I was looking for from the track, and thanks to the P 5's excellent bass management, the sub blended seamlessly with the towers. That said, the moment of that explosive transition from solo piano to all-out twangy rock didn't kick me in the seat of the britches quite as hard as I would have liked.
Likewise, I wouldn't say that "Hey Nineteen" from Steely Dan's Gaucho (original MCA CD release) left me flat. Far from it. The track comes through the P 5/A 23 combo with plenty of very nice dynamic range ... just not quite to the level I anticipate from truly world-class gear. Close, but no enchilada.
As I was doing my more casual listening, I finally pulled out the P 5's instructional manual to peruse it in full and was rather surprised to find that barely any mention is made of the preamp's headphone amp. There's a reason for that, unfortunately: it's pretty unremarkable. Not bad at all, just unremarkable.
Granted, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the P 5 had absolutely no trouble driving my Audeze LCD-2 planar magnetic headphones (with a quarter-inch to eighth-inch jack adapter, that is; there's no full-sized headphone jack), but at best I would describe its handling of headphones as "serviceable." Certainly light years better than plugging straight into a PC's headphone jack, make no mistake; much cleaner, much more detailed, with very nice imaging. But if it took a good bit of listening to the P 5 through the A 23 and a pair of speakers in the open air to pick up on its slight reservations when it comes to dynamics, that lack of oomph was immediately apparent through its headphone amp. Whereas "Hey Nineteen" out in the open left me ever so slightly wanting more, through headphones it failed to seriously engage me at all.
My only other big beef with the P 5 is its emphasis on stereo analog inputs over their digital counterparts. For a preamp with such a good DAC in it, it's odd to see only three digital ins (one USB, one coax, one optical) and six analog ins.
Comparison and Competition
If you've read all the way to this point, it probably comes as no surprise that the closest competitor to Parasound's Halo P 5 that I have much experience with is Emotiva's XDA-2 USB DAC/digital preamp/headphone amp. The XDA-2 does sell for quite a bit less than the P 5 ($269 vs. $950), but it's still a fair comparison, I think. Overall, I definitely lean toward the P 5 for its little bit of extra meatiness, its incredible bass-management capabilities, its actual twistable volume knob, and its overall aesthetic. The Emotiva does earn points because of its headphone amplification capabilities (although it too only sports a one-eighth-inch headphone jack), its wealth of digital inputs (one AES/EBU, two optical, two coaxial, one USB), and its superior remote control.
There are, of course, a number of step-up options on the market these days. Class 's CP-800 stereo preamp/processor comes to mind. I've heard it. It's awesome. But then again, it's also in the neighborhood of $6,000, if memory serves me, which certainly puts it outside the budget, I think, of anyone shopping for something in the price range of the P 5.
For more comparisons, please visit our Stereo Preamplifier Reviews page.
My biggest regret with the Parasound Halo P 5 2.1-channel preamplifier is that my turntable went kerflooey a few months ago and I haven't replaced it yet, so I didn't have a chance to check out the phono-input capabilities of the device. That said, the support for both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil cartridges, with a selector switch for 100-ohm or 47k-ohm loads with the latter, is promising.
Overall, I adore the ergonomics of the P 5, I love its twist knob input selector, I love its volume knob ... I just adore touching the thing, to be quite frank about it. And with the vast bulk of my digital music collection, I simply adore listening to it. If you aren't the type of listener who scours the online Dynamic Range Database and throws out or deletes any album that doesn't rate at least a 13, I think you'll dig it, too. It weaves a wonderful, and wonderfully detailed, soundstage. It's quite revealing without being overly analytical. And I think it hits a very nice price point.