GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published December 1, 2004

 

Parasound Halo P3 Preamplifier and A23 Stereo Amplifier

A preamplifier and amplifier serve as the heart of any audio system. Without a good preamp and amp, your source components, no matter how fantastic, will not be able to deliver the music to the best of their ability. It behooves anyone contemplating a new stereo system to try out and become familiar with as many preamplifiers and amplifiers as possible that fit within their budget. It’s particularly important to try these components with the source components with which you’ll be using them. Here I take a look at a preamp and amp made by Parasound, the Halo P3 and Halo A23.

Parasound has been around for more than 20 years, and the P3 and A23 are part of their new Halo product line. Parasound works with well-known engineer John Curl to design components with circuits that have short signal paths and few parts. Curl’s ideas have evolved over time, and the Halo line is one of the latest results of that evolution. Parasound’s impressive ten-year warranty on parts and five-year warranty on labor illustrate the pride and confidence they have in their products and designs.

Products

The Halo P3 preamplifier marries a stylish appearance to a feature set that is impressive for its $800 USD price. The P3 measures 17.25" wide by 4" high by nearly 14" deep, and has a beautiful silver-gray finish. The front panel contains a collection of useful pushbuttons, the display, and a volume knob and headphone jack. A faint blue glow emanates from the buttons when the unit is on (the glow stays on around the power button at all times). This appealed to me. I’m no fan of the black-box aesthetic so prevalent among audio manufacturers, and I often listen in the dark -- the soft blue glow added some nice ambient lighting to my listening room.

The controls on the P3’s front are laid out in two rows. On the bottom, from left to right, are: On/Off, Source, Tone, and two buttons for changing the balance. The top row begins with a headphone jack (perhaps a sign of the times, the headphone jack is a 1/8" mini jack, not the larger 1/4" jack), two small buttons for adjusting the bass, the large display, two small buttons for adjusting the treble, and the volume knob. The display provides blue text on a black background and is easily readable from across the room.

The P3’s rear panel is an example of the careful design of which Parasound should be proud. Everything is neatly and logically arranged. Starting on the left are a pair of balanced inputs, a toggle switch, and a pair of RCA inputs for the source, labeled Direct 1. The Direct inputs allow for the shortest signal path and bypass all of the P3’s tone controls. Parasound suggests that you connect your best components here. The toggle switch allows you to decide whether you’ll use the balanced or unbalanced connections for this input.

Next is another pair of RCA connections, for the Direct 2 input. Following this is one of the P3’s outstanding features: two sets of RCA connections for the Aux/Phono input. Another toggle lets you decide whether to use this input as a standard line-level input or to use the P3’s built-in phono preamp (there’s a screw for your turntable’s ground wire). The addition of not only a phono preamp but the ability to turn it on or off puts the P3 at the head of the pack at its price.

The row of RCA connections continues with two more inputs (CD, Tuner), two sets of connections for a recorder of some kind (one set of inputs, one set for recording), and two labeled External Loop. The balanced and unbalanced outputs are next, these followed by connections for various remote-control possibilities: RS-232 control, 12V trigger input and outputs, external remote in/out. Finally, there is a receptacle for the power cord.

The P3 also comes with a remote that provides all of the basic features one would want: On/Off, tone-control adjust, select input, and change volume. The remote also has a silver finish, and its buttons are big enough that even those of us with fat fingers won’t have to worry about hitting the wrong one. I much prefer this remote’s layout to some of the others I’ve seen, which cram in so many buttons that you can never tell by feel which one you’re hitting. (This is important to me -- I listen in the dark.) It also has all the buttons you’ll need to control Parasound’s matching Halo T3 tuner.

The Halo A23 power amplifier ($850) provides 125Wpc into 8 ohms and shares the P3’s appearance, though the Power button is the only one that glows blue. Other blue lights indicate that the two channels are functioning normally; when they’re dark, the unit is off or there’s a fault in the amplifier channel whose light has gone off. If there’s a problem, the blue glow behind the Power button will turn red. Another button glows red to warn of overheating.

On the A23’s rear are the inputs, outputs, and controls. On the far left are the controls for how the power will come on: it can be set to Manual or Auto (i.e., when a signal is present), or with a 12V trigger. You can also send a 12V trigger from the amplifier to turn on other components. On the far right is the receptacle for the power cord. In the middle are all of the connections, in two rows. The top row includes balanced or unbalanced inputs, unbalanced loop outputs, sensitivity knobs, and three small toggle switches (one sets the balanced or unbalanced inputs, one sets the amplifier as mono or stereo, and a third is a ground lift). If you set the sensitivity knobs as far clockwise as they go (this position is marked THX Reference), the two channels will be perfectly matched; in some cases, however, you may want to set them at another spot. This would most likely happen if your preamplifier has a very high output. I set them at THX Reference for the entire review period. The Stereo/Mono switch is a welcome, if seldom used, feature. The ground-lift switch can help eliminate the 60Hz buzz that might arise if your system has a grounding problem. On the bottom are two five-way speaker terminals.

The Halos came with well-written, easy-to-follow manuals. A little fooling around would have been enough to master the amplifier, but when you have a preamplifier with as many features as the P3, a useful manual is a godsend. The good news is that the functions are all logically implemented; once you’ve read the manual, you should be able to remember how all of the functions work without constant rereading.

Sound

I used the Parasound combo with a system comprising a Rotel RCD-1070 CD player, a Rotel RT-02 AM/FM tuner, and a Pro-Ject 1.2 turntable with Oyster cartridge. The speakers were Quad 21L; interconnects and speaker cables were all Audience’s Conductor series.

I was excited to have a phono preamp available, and quickly grabbed a few LPs to throw on the turntable. I began with Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth [Impulse! A-5]. This is one of my favorite records; if records do really wear out, then I should be looking for another copy. The Halo P3’s phono section was good, but produced more high-frequency information than I like. On "Stolen Moments," both Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet and Eric Dolphy’s flute were exaggerated, which at high volumes was occasionally distracting, though I didn’t notice it during more casual listening or at lower volumes. The phono section revealed the careful brushstrokes of drummer Paul Chambers on the same track; I felt as if a great deal of detail was coming through loud and clear. If you’re a new vinyl listener or looking for a wise budget decision, I think you’ll be happy with the P3’s phono section. And, with the ability to toggle between the phono section and a line-level input, if you ever want to branch out to an outboard phono preamp, you’ll be ready without having to lose one of the other line-level inputs. For now though, get an entry-level turntable such as the Pro-Ject 1.2 or the Thorens TD190 (review in the works) to accompany the P3 and you’ll be in business.

Steve Earle’s new The Revolution Starts . . . Now [CD, Artemis ATM-CD 51565] showed that the Parasound could serve up raucous, rockin’ good times. The guitars and drums on the title track were well articulated and distinctly placed across the soundstage. When the cymbals crash during the chorus, they did not blend into the crunch of the guitar at all. I noticed this particularly because I had just heard this CD at a friend’s place, where the mix sounded really mushy to me. Apparently, it was my friend’s equipment that was contributing the mush; the Parasounds played everything clearly. My son began dancing while I played this CD through the Parasound combo -- they passed the toe-tapping test with flying colors.

While playing the new Gipsy Kings album, Roots [CD, Nonesuch 79841-2], I decided to see how the Parasounds performed while playing loud. I was not disappointed -- the Halo A23 never sounded strained, nor did the sonic picture lose coherence or take on unwanted coloration with the increased volume. When I turned it back down, I noticed that, as with the Steve Earle recording, the imaging was very good -- each instrument occupied its own space. The brightness I had heard through the P3’s phono stage remained, but seemed less pronounced.

My recent favorite classical recording is a disc of chamber music by Richard Dubdogon [CD, Naxos 8.555778]. With Trois Evocations Finlandaises for Solo Double Bass and Cinq Masques for Solo Oboe, I was presented with a real acoustic space; the ambient sounds of the recordings provided a real sense of place. I did have some slight concerns while listening to this CD, namely that the bass sounded more delicate than it should have, the oboe’s tone thinner than I expected.

Comparison

In the past year I’ve had two other pre-power rigs here that could be considered direct competition with the Parasound Halos: the Anthem TLP 1 preamplifier-tuner ($699) and PVA 2 stereo amplifier ($649), and the Opera Audio Consonance C100 integrated amplifier ($1249). Unfortunately, neither was still here when the Parasounds arrived, so I was unable to do a direct comparison. Each of these options has pros and cons, so I suggest that potential buyers audition all of them. The Opera competes with the Parasound in providing balanced inputs, but beyond that they were very different. The Consonance is a one-box, minimalist solution, the Parasound a full-featured, two-box affair. The Anthem pair is more of a direct competitor, and each has its strengths. The Anthem provides a built-in AM/FM tuner, while the Parasound has a built-in phono preamp (a Halo T3 AM/FM tuner is available). Depending on your listening habits, that difference might seal the deal. If looks matter, then the Parasound comes out ahead.

But because I no longer had those review units, I compared the Parasound Halos with my Rogue Audio Tempest integrated amplifier ($2195). Among the recent batch of Columbia Duke Ellington reissues is Piano in the Foreground [CD, Columbia CK 87042], a rare trio record by Duke. The Rogue was much more holographic in its presentation; the instruments sounded full-bodied, and more as if they were in the room with me. The Parasounds provided solid imaging, but their sound was leaner and brighter than the Rogue’s. During "Cong-Go," the Parasounds provided a clear image of each of the instruments and their placement, but Duke’s piano was missing that last oomph of palpability.

When I compared the Gipsy Kings CD, the Parasounds provided a "faster" sound than the Rogue; the Rogue made it seem more deliberate. I wouldn’t characterize the brighter, faster Parasounds or the darker, slower Rogue as better or worse, but they were very distinct sounds. Some of these differences are probably due to the two distinct design choices: The Parasounds are solid-state, the Rogue is tubed. Though at first resistant, I’ve become quite attached to tubes. If this is your first time spending a good deal of money on amplification, you might want to throw a tube amplifier, such as the Cayin TA-30 ($800) we reviewed in March, into your decision-making process. But even with my tube bias (so to speak), I found the Parasounds’ sonic virtues to be many and their overall value to be greater than their prices. Good value and good sound: a winning combination!

Conclusion

Parasound’s Halo P3 preamplifier and Halo A23 power amplifier are sexy in appearance, easy to use, and sound solid and satisfying. Their sleek cases and glowing blue lights will make them showpieces in your living room, and should earn them easy spousal approval. The remote and front-panel controls are straightforward, and all changes are made in a logical and well-thought-out way. Other amplification options in this price range are worth considering, but anyone seeking a new pre-power pair within the GoodSound! price range owes it to him- or herself to check these out.

...Eric Hetherington

Prices of equipment reviewed


GOODSOUND!All Contents Copyright 2004
Schneider Publishing Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Any reproduction of content on
this site without permission is strictly forbidden.