Parasound Halo P 6 Preamplifier & DAC Reviewed

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Parasound Halo P 6 Preamplifier & DAC Reviewed


Parasound's Halo P 6 preamplifier, priced at $1,595, is the successor to the company's wildly popular Halo P 5. The P 6 continues its predecessor's legacy by fully embracing digital audio and ups the ante through an improved DAC section. Parasound has ditched the P5's Burr Brown DAC-chip for an ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9018K2M, which means the P 6 now supports PCM audio up to 384kHz/32-bit (up from 96kHz/24-bit) and DSD up to quad rate.

While upgrades to the digital hardware are definitely welcome, the P 6 is still a preamplifier at heart, and Parasound hasn't forgotten about that. The P 6 has received an upgraded Burr Brown analog-resistor ladder volume control system, which Parasound says eliminates mechanical contacts in the signal path, giving way to greater resolution, higher dynamic range, better channel separation, and more accurate sound overall. Parasound was able to add volume memory functionality, as well, thanks to the new volume system.

The phono preamp section has been upgraded, too, with more signal gain, which means the P 6 will play nicer with lower output cartridges. Even though the phono stage has been altered, Parasound continues support for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, with selectable 100 or 47k ohm loads. 

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Parasound still offers the P 6 in both black and silver finish options, but a few small changes in aesthetics have been made to the chassis to differentiate itself from its predecessor. Parasound has removed the iconic red "P" logo and has replaced it with simple gold Parasound text inlaid in a matte black indent on the faceplate. You'll also find gold trim sandwiched between the new sandblasted metal end caps (as well as gold trim on the feet if you go with the black version). These changes match those found on Parasound's newest amplifiers.

The Hookup
The P 6 has an extensive set of input and output options. Because of this, I doubt many will run into setup issues, at least not many caused by the P 6. Starting on the front of the unit, you'll find an infrared receiver for remote control, as well as a 3.5-millimeter auxiliary input that features an automatic 12dB gain stage. You'll also find a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack utilizing a TPA6120 high current headphone amplifier from Texas Instruments. According to Parasound, the headphone amp circuit was designed with a low 10 ohms output impedance and high gain to drive headphones rated up to 600 ohms.

The front faceplate features a set of passive EQ control knobs to adjust treble, bass, and balance, as well as a ±10dB gain adjustment for the preamp's dedicated subwoofer outputs. Additionally, you'll find dedicated controls for power, mute, tone, input selection, display dimmer, and (of course) volume level. For those who sit far away, Parasound has included a handy digital display that will tell you the current volume level set. 

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Move around back and you'll find a plethora of analog input options, including a single set of XLRs, five sets of unbalanced line level RCAs, and a pair of RCAs to connect your turntable. Two pairs of unbalanced RCA jacks are included for dedicated home theater bypass input.

For analog outputs, the P 6 includes a single set of XLRs for left and right channels, a single XLR output dedicated for connecting a subwoofer, as well as two sets of unbalanced RCAs. One of the sets of unbalanced RCA outputs is a basic line level output meant to feed a recording device, while the other is meant to feed your amplifier and is fully affected by all of the analog EQ, balance, tone, and volume controls found on the front of the unit. Additionally, there is a toggle switch allowing you to activate an adjustable analog high pass filter if you plan on adding a subwoofer to your system.

Speaking of subwoofers, looking at the options available, I think it's fair to say that Parasound really wants people to add at least one to their two-channel systems. After all, this is marketed as a 2.1 channel preamplifier, so the P 6 adds in two dedicated unbalanced RCA subwoofer outputs and basic bass management through the use of an optional low pass filter enabled via toggle switch. Utilizing both the analog high and low pass filters make it easy to seamlessly integrate a pair of subwoofers in with your main channels. 

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For digital inputs, the P 6 features a pair of SPDIF optical inputs, coaxial SPDIF input, as well as a USB input. It should be noted that if you choose to use any of the SPDIF input options, you'll be limited to PCM audio only, up to 192kHz/24-bit. Only the USB input allows you to take advantage of 384kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD up to quad rate.

With that said, for most of my listening, I fed the P 6 digital audio from my desktop computer to one of its optical inputs. This is my preferred connection when using a computer as a source due to Toslink's inherent galvanic isolation. I do realize the relative limitations of using this input option, though, so to test DSD functionality, I did connect via USB for a short period of time.

a21_p6_stack_300.jpgOther components in my system include Parasound's Halo A 21+ amplifier (which I still had here after its review), my personal Nelson Pass designed VFET amplifier, a PS Audio Stellar Power Plant 3, a pair of Monitor Audio Platinum PL100 II loudspeakers, and a pair of Bowers & Wilkins PV1D subwoofers.

While the P 6 has a dedicated pair of subwoofer outputs, I chose to connect my subwoofers to the main channel unbalanced RCA outputs instead, to avoid the mono summing of the dedicated subwoofer outputs. If you choose this route, make sure you disable the high pass filter toggle switch, otherwise you'll end up cutting off bass frequencies from reaching your subwoofers. Choosing this route also means that all bass management needs to happen through the subwoofers themselves.

Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...

HTR Product Rating for Parasound Halo P 6 Preamplifier & DAC

Criteria Rating

Performance

4

Value

4.5

Overall

4.5

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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Performance
Even though the P 6 can be configured and used in various ways, I spent most of my time using it as a combined DAC and preamplifier, the way I suspect most people will. I also chose to pair the P 6 with Parasound's A 21+ amplifier for most of my listening tests. Unsurprisingly, I found that this yielded excellent results all around.

In typical Parasound fashion, I found the P 6's sonic performance punches well above its price point, with it offering good subjective dynamic range, stereo separation, imaging, and soundstage depth. Certain areas of performance stood out, though, especially considering the P 6's price. Of note, the P 6 has the ability to render tremendous amounts of detail. This was especially apparent when listening to many of the high-resolution audio tracks I use for testing purposes.

For instance, on the acoustic guitar track "Romance" by Jason McGuire, there is a lot of low-level detail present that can be tricky for many audio products to render faithfully. The track is intimately recorded, with subtleties like McGuire's breathing and his fingers gently sliding over the frets present on the recording. These tiny intricacies were easily heard through the P 6, something I've found other products near the P 6's price tend to gloss over a bit.

But, it's not just the amount of detail the P 6 can render that I find appealing; it's also how it presents that information. Details are presented in a particularly smooth and natural way, which seems to be a trait inherent to all Parasound products, or at least all of the Parasound products I've heard. I've found that competing hardware can overemphasize the top end, often giving you the impression that you're hearing more detail than what's actually in the source. Taken at face value, especially in quick demonstrations on a dealer's showroom, it can give you the subjective impression an audio product is higher performing than the competition. But I've found that once you take these types of audio products home, the honeymoon phase fades quickly as it often leads to listener fatigue. With the P 6, however, I found I could listen to it for long hours into the night, never feeling like I had to lower the volume or take a break from listening.

Similar to the P 6's excellent detail retrieval, I found it excelled with music that has a lot of layers that need to be presented at once. The eponymous track on the album Babel by Mumford & Sons has several guitars, string, and percussion instruments, as well as vocals all happening at once during the chorus. This maelstrom of sound can be difficult to render coherently, but the P 6 didn't seem to have any issues with it at all. Individual instruments, along with the vocals, were portrayed in stark contrast from one another, making them easy to pick out and hear individually.

Similarly, on the electronically produced track "Points Beyond" by Cubicolor, it was easy to make out all the subtle layers of the melody. Towards the beginning of the track, I could clearly make out the low-level bird chirps infused into the background ambiance, despite most of the other constituent layers on the track mastered considerably louder. Again, these types of small details can sound glossed over from competing products in the P 6's price range.

Bass performance from the P 6 is also quite good. In particular, the track "Lordy May" by Boy & Bear caught my attention. This track starts off with strong and resounding bass drum notes. Through the P 6, they were rendered cleanly, with a satisfyingly holographic tone. Playing genres of music that require good bass performance to accurately portray the music, such as Electronic Dance, I found that the P 6 didn't disappoint. For instance, I found that the bass line on the track "October" by Icarus was satisfyingly resolved, forcing me to dance along in my seat.

My personal taste in sound signatures is for audio products to add in a bit of warmth to the sound. I find a little warmth gives the music body and soul, and it's in this area where the P 6 left me a bit disappointed, or at least it did when compared to my PS Audio DirectStream DAC and Nelson Pass-designed VFET amplifier reference setup. The P 6 and A 21+ combination, by comparison, left me feeling as if the sound was a bit too flat overall.

The easy fix for this was to simply swap out the A 21+ for my VFET amplifier.  This resulted in richer tonality, better detail retrieval, and overall clarity to the music. Though, to give credit where it's due, pairing the P 6 with the A 21+ did offer better bass handling and dynamics overall.

While most of my critical listening tests were done using the optical input, I know not everyone will be using that. I spent a few hours listening to the P 6 using USB and I'm happy to report that the P 6 seems to be fairly agnostic in terms of sound quality when it comes to its digital inputs. I noticed no major differences in performance when playing several of the test tracks I used when testing the optical input.

I also spent some time pairing the P 6 with a Panasonic DP-UB9000 as an analog source component. Using the UB9000 through the P 6 resulted in a more resolved and dynamic sound signature overall. That's to be expected when pairing the P 6 with a source component nearly two-thirds its price. However, it's nice to know that if you have a high-quality analog source to feed the P 6, its preamplifier section is high performance enough to carry the sonic benefits of that source through to your amplifier and speakers.  

The Downside
With most audio products these days putting such emphasis on network audio capabilities, I really think Parasound missed an opportunity with the P 6. This is especially so when the P 6 has such a competent DAC section already built into the preamp. Adding in a network audio renderer with support for Spotify Connect, UPnP, and Roon would have set this preamp apart from much of the competition in this price segment. For now, people will still need a source component if they want to listen to network audio through the P 6.

This is a minor complaint, for sure, but I wish you could turn the LED lights on the front of the P 6 off completely. You do have the ability to dim the LED lights on the front of the unit, but no option to turn off the display completely. Luckily for the P 6, its display is fairly small, so if you're like me, it shouldn't be too bothersome.

Comparisons & Competition
Those shopping for a digitally enabled preamplifier near the P 6's price point will find quite a bit of competition to consider. If you're still shopping around, I would recommend taking a look at PS Audio's Stellar Gain Cell preamp/DAC. It's priced a hundred dollars more at $1,699, but, like Parasound, PS Audio is a company known for offering exceptional value with the products it offers, so it's worth looking into. It offers a slightly warmer sonic signature overall and adds in some niceties like an I²S input. You do lose out on the P 6's bass management capabilities and subwoofer output, though, as well as some analog input options.

Alternatively, you could look into NAD's C 658 BluOS Streaming DAC. At $1,649, the C 658 is also priced within earshot of the P 6. As its name would imply, the C 658 adds in a network streaming card, potentially eliminating the need for a source component. Even more impressive, the C 658 adds in Dirac Live room correction support, which can fix potential problems with speaker placement and problems caused by the room itself.

Conclusion
As I noted earlier in this review, Parasound has a history of offering products that punch well above their respective price points. The P 6 continues that trend, offering a level of performance not typically found in the neighborhood of $1,600. In particular, I found that the P 6 sounds especially impressive when paired with an amplifier within the Parasound family. It's also resolving enough that if you pair it with another amplifier or an analog source component, those sonic traits offered by those products are carried through to the rest of your system.

With its excellent build quality, handsome looks, extensive set of input and output options, as well as its impressive built-in DAC section and bass management capabilities, the P 6 is a no-brainer for anyone shopping for a digitally enabled preamplifier close to its asking price.

Additional Resources
 Visit the Parsound website for additional information.
 Parasound Halo A 21+ Stereo Amplifier Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
 Parasound Announces HINT 6 Integrated Amplifier at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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