Pass Laboratories HPA-1 Headphone Amplifier
It took a while, but Pass Labs is finally selling a headphone amplifier. One can only guess why Pass hasn't introduced one until now. I doubt it is because they felt that there really was no reason to make one, as Pass Labs has a reputation of communication with their customer base, and I can't imagine them not being aware of the fact that many of their customers are headphone devotees. So, perhaps Pass Labs didn't want to introduce a headphone amplifier until they got it right; that is, wanted to wait until there were sufficient models on the market to find which design parameters they would pursue, along which what features they would make available.
And so, here we have it, the Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier, which Pass Labs claims: "Like the XP preamplifiers, the HPA-1 is the result of great attention to detail". There isn't much to go on that vague claim, other than to correctly assume that the HPA-1 has been designed as a power amplifier rather than a headphone amplifier. Therefore, it can drive headphones with a very low impedance, such as some planar models. This unit is built more along the lines of a two-input preamplifier than most headphone amplifiers on the market. As you'd expect, this is not just any preamplifier, but a Pass Labs preamplifier.
Even before the Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier was broken in it revealed itself to be a superb component. It might sound like I'm overstating this, but the HPA-1`s volume control moved as if its interior was lined with silk, with just enough resistance for to make fine adjustments in level. Using a volume control with this type of liquid action is one of the simple pleasures of using a high-end component, and the Alps dual potentiometer that Pass Labs uses for this unit is a wise design choice.
There are some who are going to be quick to point out that the Pass Labs HPA-1 is a solid-state unit, and because they might claim there will be limitations to its sound in the areas of "sweetness" and "naturalness". I'm sure if I delve into the body of work that Nelson Pass has written on the subject I'm sure I'll eventually come across his many treatises where he discusses how he's discovered how to get his solid-state components to exhibit the qualities of tube units without any of the sonic disadvantages that come with it, and therefore construct a unit that is neither solid-state sounding nor tube sounding. Pass Labs isn't the only one these days designing components that don't exhibit the stereotypical sound of their innards. To me, Pass Labs is one of the leaders in this field. And so, the Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amp doesn't sound like a typical solid-state unit, nor does Pass Labs deliberately voice the HPA-1 to sound like a tube unit. It just sounds like a great headphone amp. Period.
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