We reviewers have our favorite vendors and in a sense always desire the ones who we really want to succeed. Those that offer a lot for the money, that prioritize sound over looks, build quality over specifications, that don't introduce change just for the sake of change. Under all these criteria, Parasound is one of my favorites, and within the Parasound umbrella, the Parasound Halo Integrated as reviewed here (and the whole Halo range in general) merits special affection. The Parasound Halo Integrated is the newest of 11 components in the Halo line. This is what Parasound claims for its Halo line. "Halo is our premier line. Halo products have a reputation for going head-to-head with some of the most expensive reference equipment on the market while costing a fraction of the price. The sheer quantity of rave reviews and honors is unmatched and without precedent." I can personally vouch for the excellence of their JC2 Preamplifier, designed by the very distinguished John Curl (that's the JC in JC2). Mr. Curl has contributed heavily to the design of the Parasound Halo Integrated, which combines features of the P5 2.1 channel stereo preamplifier and the A23 two-channel power amplifier.
I built a system around the Halo Integrated comprising a Meridian G08 CD Player, Linn Sondek LP12, Itok and ClearAudio Virtuoso Wood Cartridge feeding into Totem The One speakers. Phono cables from Cardas, Coaxial digital cable from TMC, interconnects from Soundstream, Atlas Mavros bi-wire speaker cables and Nordost power cables completed the system. For headphones I used AKG K701 and Ultimate Ears UE10Pros.
A word or two about the remote control. A fairly substantial animal, it sports optional backlighting, volume, muting and a full set of inputs, tone control bypass, and something you rarely find – separate buttons for off and on. There is no control over subwoofer level, balance or bass or treble adjustment. For that, you need to get out of your chair. I can live with that. I did experience one small mechanical issue. Parasound includes a cable for the AUX input, but it was faulty and only played through the right channel. I eventually found another lurking in a bag with a foxL speaker and now all is right with the world. Other than that, everything worked as advertised. Parasound have indicated they check into this QC issue immediately.
I settled on the digital input and put in some extended listening hours, which gave me a lot of pleasure. Even a very large scale orchestral work like Bruckner's Ninth Symphony [RCA Red Seal 88697765827] could not faze this amp. It kept me on the edge of my seat with an exciting upfront presentation which may not have the realistic color or low level detail of more expensive systems but remains musical to a fault. Diana Krall's "If I had You" has a lovely, lively forward sound which appears to emerge without effort. Deep bass is not as strong as elsewhere, that rich voice is full of detail but the location of the musicians in space not as strong as it could be. But Holly Cole's "My Baby Just Cares For Me" [Alert MusicZ2-81016] tells a different story – a big wide image, a strong voice and immaculate bass reproduction. It's quite amazing just how good this relatively inexpensive system can sound.
"Baby You Can Drive My Car" on the Beatles Love album [Capital 094637981023] brings out a tremendous momentum with deep bass support and fast clean limitless power. "Something" has real gravitas – the detail may not be leading edge but the voice is strong and realistic. "Help" and "Strawberry Fields" are not particularly relaxed or easy to follow, having a rather relentless feel, while "Yesterday" sounds clear as a bell. So on CD, the sound varies greatly from disc to disk and even from track to track. Something which is already aggressive will sound really in your face, while something laid back can sound very beautiful.
It's good to see a serious phono section and I can assure you this one is thoroughly sorted. My LPs don't get out much anymore, and my 35 year old Linn took a while to build up speed. But the sound is really fresh, sweet and dynamic. You can choose between Moving Magnet with a 47k ohms load and Moving Coil with either 47kOhm load or 100 Ohm load. I used the MM setting to match my ClearAudio cartridge and it performed very well across a broad range or recordings, ranging from Harry James on Sheffield (Direct to Disk) to Haydn Symphonies on DECCA.
I tied the AUX input by playing Apple Lossless tracks from AfroCubism through my iPhone. Once again the sound is upfront and beautiful and dynamic by turns, although of course no one expects the iPhone's DAC to be the last word in fidelity. Since my laptop has just found its way over to the UK, I did not get the opportunity to test out the Integrated's USB input provided on a USB B socket, but I'm pleased to note that it will accept PCM sampling rates up to 384 kHz with 16, 24 or 32 bit word length, and also native DSD and DoP (DSD over PCM).
I wanted to give the Integrated a spin in my reference system, to see how it would fare with a much higher resolution source, exceptional full range speakers and a much larger listening space. So using the same cabling I inserted the Integrated between the EMM Labs XDS1 SACD Player and the YG Carmel 2 speakers in my main listening room and repeated my listening tests. This was a rather dangerous thing to do, because both these components are ruthlessly revealing. Any faults in the Integrated that might be masked in a lower resolution system would now be readily exposed. I would not have done this if the Integrated had not been performing so well in my second listening room.
Now I could get a much better handle on the imaging and deep bass performance. Certainly the Integrated can reach down deep, and maintain its pitch article all the way down. There is no noticeable roll off. It doesn't quite maintain the absolute focus of the reference preamp / amp (EMM Labs Pre2 / ModWright KWA150 SE), or reach the same levels of resolution and speed, but this is still a strong performance. However the treble does not have the sweetness of the reference, sounding a little aggressive on material such as Benny Green's Greens, particularly on the brushes. The biggest difference is that the reference electronics (at over ten times the price) sound a lot more relaxed and throw a significantly deeper image into the room. Still the Integrated is not embarrassed in this company, and I don't know of another amplifier in this price range I would want to try this with. I would also point out the Parasound offers a high end preamp (Halo JC2) and monoblock power amps (Halo JC1) of their own, priced well below the Pre2 and KWA150SE, which I can strongly recommend if you are building a high end system.