Parasound are an American audio company based in San-Francisco who specialise in making audio equipment for movie making in studios as well as equipment for the home. They have been used to help with sound reproduction in studios for some huge films and blockbusters such as Star Wars I, II and III; so plenty of history to suggest they now there way around a circuit board. But despite this, I had never actually heard of the company until very recently and there hasn’t seemed to have been much hype or even recognition of the brand here in the UK.
P5 and A23
The current Parasound line-up includes a compact range named ‘Parasound Z’, the next line up that is full sized is named ‘New Classic’ and finally their Premium range that carries the title of ‘Halo’. The P5 Preamplifier I have here is a 2.1 channel product part of the Halo range. It retails in the UK for £999.00 (remarkably steep in comparison to the US price of $1095).
Now I have been looking forward to this product ever since I heard about receiving it because the abundance of features was even more profound than the NAD D3020 that I reviewed previously. Now although one is a DAC incorporating preamp and one an integrated DAC incorporating an integrated amplifier, they both show the direction that Hi-Fi is going and how it is becoming more accepting of the digital environment many of us now find ourselves in. I like this change; I really do, especially as the P5 has inputs for a turntable too.
Due to the integrated DAC in the P5 you may be wondering what the inputs are and what they allow. We have a single BurrBrown PCM1798 DAC chip which is capable of 24/192 over both optical and coaxial while it only offers 24/96 when connected via USB. Which I thought was a shame as my entire library of music is on my laptop and limits me to only using up to 96 kHz over USB. But yes we have one coaxial, one optical and one USB, which, to be honest, is ample for most people’s needs.
Digital Inputs for P5
The Halo P 5’s analogue audio inputs include RCA line-level stereo input, one pair of balanced XLR inputs, a Phono input, and a front panel 3.5mm mini jack for portable audio players or smartphones. The line outputs are balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA, plus a choice of balanced or unbalanced subwoofer outputs. The main and subwoofer outputs can be run full range or placed under the quite useful regulation of variable frequency high-pass and low pass crossovers which are great for removing those low frequencies from your main speaker woofers and dumping that specific range on your sub/ subs.
Analogue Inputs/Outputs for P5
The Phono input is compatible with all moving magnet cartridges, and virtually all moving coil cartridges, with a 100 ohm/47k ohm switch to select the appropriate load impedance matching so whatever your component, the P5 will hook up.
• 17″ (437mm) W by 4.5″ (114mm) H by 14.5″ (368mm) D (dimensions include knobs and feet). Weight: 13.9 lbs (6.3kg).
A few features of the P5 indicate the home cinema intentions such as the home-theatre bypass circuit and the ability for up to three powered subs, one output is an XLR socket for a balanced connection, but I didn’t use this. On the other hand you have the front-panel tone controls which allow you to adjust the bass, treble and subwoofer level. The tone controls also have a defeat option so the circuit can be bypassed altogether and for the purpose of my review tone control was ‘off’ for the listening period.
Aesthetics and build:
The chassis of the Parasound is a nicely formed aluminium casing that appears far more premium than the price would suggest. It feels tough too, there’s no flimsiness or warping of the material at any point and on my unit there were no imperfections that led to the belief that this was anything other than a premium product. To me though, something about the chassis feels not quite top of the line, it is difficult to explain but it feels sort of manufactured rather than formed or crafted which is a shame but something I don’t notice when it’s in my stand. The front panel looks lovely; the subtle lights that illuminate the Parasound logo and the power switch are something that I love, especially when the room is dark. The feet look good too and blend in with the design of the unit itself. So the front fascia looks good the lights are good the feet are good, and in a rack, it looks really premium.
The front has quite a few adjustable knobs for things such as bass, treble, sub level, balance, source and obviously volume. And one of the things I hate is controls that don’t feel sturdy. Even the volume control on my AK240 is a little flimsy for my liking. It feels loose. The same goes for the MyST products I have tried. Not the P5 though. The controls all feel stiff and strong which gives me great confidence in using this product all day every day and I have no doubt it would last years and years.
As you may have noticed the Parasound comes with a remote control. You may also have noticed that it is errrm, minimal in design and function. It does a job and it does it flawlessly but it’s not quite in the same league as the likes of the remotes from Antelope Audio which are a pleasure to use and hold.
BUT. And this is a big but. Either side of the front fascia are two strips that are a different colour and texture to the aluminium front. This is because they are plastic. They feel cheap, they look cheap and realistically they are cheap. As far as I can see they serve no purpose whatsoever and I genuinely do not understand who could think this was good thing for them to do. Make them aluminium! This may seem like a small thing but why go to all the trouble of developing a chassis that looks like this and then put plastic on the front panel? I don’t get it. Overall though, considering everything, it would be unfair for me to say the build was anything other than great and the same goes for aesthetics.
A word on the A23 poweramp:
So, I’ve been lucky enough to be sent the A23 power amp to help with the review and to hopefully show exactly what the Parasound combo is capable of. This unit follows the same aesthetic design as the P5 as they both belong to the Halo range. It employs class A/AB amplification and its pretty darn good.
Continuous power output:
125 watts RMS x 2, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, 8 Ω, both channels driven
225 watts RMS x 2, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, 4 Ω, both channels driven
400 watts RMS x 1, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, 8 Ω when linked in mono.
Both balanced and RCA inputs are on offer and I can tell you the P5 and A23 look fantastic together as you will see in the pictures.
In terms of sound, in a word, it’s great. Wide soundstage, detailed, natural, unfussy and refined are all words that spring to mind with the Parasound A23. Also, its heavy, this thing weighs in at just less than 13kg. This is something I am a fan of. For some reason to me, weight tends to be an indicator of build quality and longevity. But anyway this review isn’t about the A23 it’s about the P5.
My Roksan Kandy K2 is an amp I know very well and it has served me brilliantly over the last year but it isn’t a pre-amp and it isn’t a power amp. It is both. So comparisons could be considered unfair. However, the Roksan has a pre-out so I began using this feature with the A23 to give me a grounding on the sound of the A23 power amp. This would also allow me to make direct comparisons between the P5 and the Roksan. The quad 33 is also something I can use with some nifty adapters.
The P5 is really very neutral, that’s the first thing that I noticed. It honestly makes the Roksan sound a bit coloured and warm for my liking and this is something I hadn’t noticed about the Roksan previously. The flatness across the frequency range makes for a very enjoyable listen every time I took a seat to appreciate the technical capabilities of the P5. The lack of unwanted spikes also makes the listens very unfatiguing over 3-4 hour sessions, even the introduction to ‘Time’ from Dark Side Of The Moon are at no point harsh or undefined like it can be on some less refined gear. I’ve heard this track sound piercingly unrealistic on amps that are allegedly pretty good, the musical fidelity M3i for example; however this could have been poor synergy.
The imaging and presentation was a great surprise to me, I have used the LS-50’s with numerous amps and I am aware of their incredible ability to put up a wall of sound and immerse you in the music. BUT the whole idea of the speakers disappearing was something I got on certain tracks with other amps but not completely, I knew more expensive, more refined gear would do it but £1000? I hadn’t expected the P5 to offer up such a precise, spatial presentation to allow the speakers to disappear but they are almost there! It is an imaging level that I hadn’t experienced with the Roksan, but it’s not just the size of the presentation; the precision of how each instrument is located it really nice especially on higher res stuff. There is a sense that sometimes the staging is a little artificial with orchestral stuff because there is occasionally a struggle to knit the entire performance together. This is only a minor gripe though; overall the space between instruments and the general accuracy of imaging is wonderful.
The soundstage is big. I use the opus DSD128 to test the soundstage of any equipment I’m using at the moment because it is such a test of the capabilities of the individual unit. The width, as you have probably realised is great, no other word for it. The male choral arrangement is something special, you genuinely feel involved in the piece of music and as much as I love the Roksan, it doesn’t compete. Even on Eric Prydzz ‘Pjanoo’ in 16/44 CD rip was stretching the width of the room with a sparkle and refinement I didn’t expect from a CD or a £1000 pre amp. The depth of stage is good too, a good couple of feet behind the speaker, but not as impressive as width or height. Another thing I like about the soundstage is the airiness of the silence and space between instruments. This pre-amp is shaping up to offer sound qualities you would expect from gear of a much higher value.
This actually leads us quite nicely on to the mid-range performance, specifically vocal; it is dead centre, just how it should be. Voices are very detailed and articulately reproduced with great focus, so technically vocals are very good….. I have to say though I find the tonality slightly off on occasion. Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ requires a delicacy and softness with the odd edgy attack that I felt the P5 struggled to grab. His voice didn’t sound as warm as I would like. But again I really am nit-picking here as this was a small, rare imperfection in an otherwise great performer vocally. On to some orchestral ensembles then: the staging and imaging is a huge plus for this type of music it helps it out immensely. In every way this genre sounds better than the Roksan and the Quad stuff, whether it is in terms of dynamics or detail retrieval but there are areas for improvement such as the decay on brass and organs. It sometimes falls short of ‘realistic’. Pretty darn close to being great but the timbre is not quite to my taste.
Bass is more extended and pronounced than on the Roksan, this is one of my favourite things about the P5, bass is articulate, controlled, detailed and rhythmical. The P5 loves to grab a rhythm and it never loses its grip. It flows along tricky rhythms with apparent ease which was a delight coming from an amp that is so detailed and analytical. It extends low too, the LS-50’s pair very well with the P5 in this area. The bass offers up a touch of added warmth, not bloated or over-egged, but just a level of richness and impact that is a pleasure to listen too. I thought this quality might make the TLS80’s bass a bit too much but you soon realise the bass is off such a good quality in detail and control that there is no concern here. Treble as I have touched on, is airy with buckets of detail without ever becoming sibilant harsh or sounding ‘toppy’. The clarity is an area that impresses especially when fed from the AK240, but it can be generally described as spaced well, nicely positioned and well extended. This can all be adjusted to suit your preferences but I found it to be bang on at 0 on the tone control. Having said that, the P5 does respond well to its tone control, occasionally I have found tone controls to make the product sound disconnected but this is not the case here. It’s coherent and ‘finished’ even when adjusting. This is partly thanks to the A23 which I have grown to love hugely.
DAC and Phono:
The DAC on offer is a BurrBrown PCM1798 and yes it’s not a bad offering at all but I have tried my beloved Teac UD-501, my AK240 and Sonny’s PWAudio PWAK120-B and all of them sounded better in their own way. The PWAK120 was far more dynamic and rhythmical, the AK240 was more spacious, controlled, detailed, precise and timing was better, the UD-501 was more dynamic too, and offered up a more enjoyable sound. I really consider this as a pre-amp without a DAC, not because the DAC is bad, but because the DAC isn’t as impressive as the Pre-amp at all.
The Phono stage is better than the one in the Roksan, that’s all I am going to say as I have never owned an external stage so I will not pretend to be an expert on them as of yet. There was a clear improvement from the Roksan with clarity, detail and presentation all being improved on.
I think the reason I started to become very picky was because you listen to how good it sounds and you really cannot help but think of it as a higher valued bit of kit. It doesn’t sound £1000. It offers more qualities of higher end gear than it does of gear in its price range and the P5-A23 combo can only be described in the same way, it is wonderful; a truly outstanding combination at the prices (especially in the USA). The neutral sound is just what I want from a pre-amp and the level of detail across the board is really a stand out feature. Analytical and detailed are words I often associate with cold or edgy audio products but this really isn’t the case here. When the Teac DAC is fed into the P5 into the A23 it really is a great audio experience at a genuinely low price for the performance. Despite a couple of picky problems such as the front plastic bits, the instrument decay and the rare vocal tonality, the P5 is outstanding; I will miss it hugely and will be sad to post it off. But all good things come to an end, and the P5 has left a lasting impression on me for its ambition to be so much better than its price suggests. So long Parasound, it was a joy having you.