T+A P3100HV PREAMPLIFIER REVIEW
I've had my Pass Labs XP-30 pre amplifier for a very good while, and I do mean good. The value the Pass Labs preamplifier provides is excellent. What could be better? This is where the T+A P3100HV comes along. The general feels of the unit is superb and it certainly feels like AAA equipment. All the rear panel connectors are ultra-high quality and superb design considerations and interface touches. The remote is a brick of a thing, solid and precise. The remote isn't an afterthought bought off the market. The remote is common "looking" through the line so I keep trying to use the DAC remote with the pre, most of the time it is fine, but some functions are specific, so that's gets me once and awhile until I switch remotes.
For a full technical discretion of the High Voltage series T+A P3100 go here;
The manufacturer can do a better job on getting all the tech explained than I can chew through a second time so I'll relinquish superiority to T+A's and save you from my attempt to mirror image the data and not screw it all up.
What features sets the T+A P3100HV apart from other preamps that are worth noting, though? The P3100HV is a different sort of preamplifier, oh it can be used as the infamous straight wire with gain anthology no problem, but it also allows a low frequency parametric EQ (six point) and has tone controls including the forgotten loudness setting(s). The loudness has several “steps” (-30 to +10) you can use based on how quiet and how much bass EQ you want based on where you sit relative to the speaker. That's nice as most old fashioned loudness button that tapers off the feature as you go up in volume, and that method ignores different rooms, speakers and taste.
The tone controls can be used Siamese identically between the two channels or separate such that the tilt is different for bass/treble between the left and right speaker. That's a nice advance, too. Not all rooms load the speaker the same and this lets you tune room imbalances out.
The parametric EQ is a separate function from the bass/treble and is intended to smooth the worst offender to the audio...the room's influences on the bass. There are six EQ center frequencies; 25,50, 65, 80, 100 and 200 Hz with a -12 dB cut and a + 6 dB boost. This should get most rooms pretty nicely smooth out. Hint, do not try to make the room FLAT. This removes the room entirely and when this happens, we all of a sudden have a recording. Real music is in a room, so let your rooms general sound influences remain, just tame the room down, don't eliminate the natural response in the room.
All of the tone control features can be turned on or off separately in the incredibly feature rich, but easy to use menus system. None are hijacked by the others so you have complete control over what's happening and where.
In my room, an “L” shaped finished basement,there are decidedly different bass loading speaker to speaker. My speakers are five feet out from and front or rear walls, but one speaker is side loaded and one isn't. The separate tuning properties of the P3100HV are real handy in rooms like mine. I have 64 year old ears and sometimes a touch way up top is nice too!
How did I listen and evaluate the P3100HV? I let it play twenty minutes or so and it sat in the room several hours so it is at set-in temperatures. Being new, I also decided to just feed it streaming data for 24 hours and let it do it's thing one way or the other. I didn't listen for change at all, I just avoided the early in-use break-in hours.
Can the P3100HV be that different than my Pass Labs XP-30? It turns out yes, but not really in the way that I expected. I did hear an immediate differences, but it wasn't easy to consolidate the difference. I decided to use the P3100HV “flat” for eight solid hours with a set mix of music to run it all around some. I used a series of U2 albums for rambunctious rock (studio and live), Eva Cassidy female vocal source for simpler music and PASSENGER for a male vocal source.
It wasn't until I listened for many, many hours that I could describe the differences I heard early on. The XP-30, as good as it is, does add a, some say tube, glow to the music. This is a nice sound but it adds a 3D effects to everything. I don't think this comment is unusual for Pass gear at all. The sense of 3D transparency gets in the way the busier the music gets. That shimmer seems to widen the sound stage at the expense of specific image specificity and locations. The sound is visually likened to a translucent plate that allows a shimmer of light through the edges. You can't see through plates, but with the XP-30 you can see the halo around the edges. As nice as this can be on simple music, it does steal away absolute image resolution in space. The softer edges detract from image location, size and definition and dynamics some.
The P3100HV doesn't have that translucent ambiance added in. It is more true back to the source's effects, and leaves it alone. The image is more solid and defined everywhere in the sound stage. If a source uses Q-sound or like ambiance phasing, it complies but only then.
The general tonal balance is different. I class stuff according to the seasons as such;
Spring – mostly cool, touch of warmth.
Summer – warm, lots of moisture filtering the colors and how we see the day.
Fall – mostly warm,touch of coolness.
Winter – Cool. Most contrast possible, like a 10 degree and sunny day with no wind and 5% humidity.
The P3100HV tonal balance is early spring with the XP-30 moving more, but not fully into summer. The XP-30 is more a late spring sound. That tube glow creeping into things. The added moisture is added and distorts the views but in a pleasing way.
Both preamps have excellent noise floor's and dynamic responses, but the P3100HV is always firmer in the overall control up and down the frequency range. It is a “whole” piece as they say. The XP-30 is too, but it is softer around the edges...that glow. Neither unit has too much bass, is bright or too forward or recessed. They are both too neutral on those attributes for those descriptions to work. Differences lie in the dynamic responses and edge detail. The impact capability the P3100HV has is more like a howitzer than a black power cannon which is a softer WHOMPH than a CRACK. The nice thing is, the P3100HV can do BOTH, the XP-30 tends to be softer around the edges all the time...like tubes, I guess. The XP-30 never sounds “slow” or restricted but it does carry it's own tune with it. With the cleaner edge detail and crisper dynamics, the P3100HV always seems more right there and in the room, things sound real more often.
Is the P3100HV more solid state sounding? If that means a wider dynamic presentation, than yes, it is. If it means a more defined image width and depth than yes it is. Notice I didn't say “wider or deeper”. The XP-30 seems to accentuate that width and depth some with that ambiance as it blurs the lines around the far reaching edges of sounds. Image location inside that defined, or less so, sound stage is less precise compared to the P3100HV. The P3100HV has the immense sound stage of the source and not it's own. Differences source to source are larger with the P3100HV, and that tends to indicate a more neutral path. You may not like the neutrality but that's a choice.
With the speakers I use, T+A CWT 1000-40, I set the right speaker -1.5 dB on the bass to even it out compared to the left speaker in the open end of the L shaped room. The bass EQ was too slight to need the parametric in my room. It is pretty smooth being 40 feet long. I don't get the obnoxious mid-bass bumps typical to 15-25 foot rooms. For my 64 year old ears, a added the minimum amount of treble boost, +2 dB, to the P3100HV tone control after extended listening. I can't do that with the XP-30, and after the change to the P3100HV the XP-30 is a touch more more closed in up top. Is that cheating? You'll have to decide that but the feature is there to use to tweak your room to your liking and I can't do it with the XP-30. Yes, I can turn it all off on the P3100HV, but if it is better, why?
In summary, the P3100HV is more neutral back to the source. It has better flexibility to tweak the sound to the room. It has more dynamic range largely because it removes that “ambiance” present in the XP-30. The build quality is to die for, it is so sexy to interface with. No, it isn't flashy looking it is pure functional perfection. One note if you use the power saver mode, it will turn off after ninety minutes if you don't change SOMETHING because it figure you left and shuts down. The P3100HV sounds so good who will leave after just ninety minutes? Maybe they need to change that to allow a three hour setting!
Price wise the Pass Labs XP-30 (newer unit is available!) and P3100HV are close enough to be competitors. Neither is a bad preamplifier. Listen to both but the more you listen to orchestra music or busier sources, the better and better the P3100HV sounds. The ambiance of simpler music with the XP-30 is nice, and may be a fit but the XP-30 can't match the P3100HV's total dynamic reach, flexibility and neutrality to the source.