Of all the component-to-component relationships in an audio system it’s vinyl playback that most reminds me of a track-and-field relay race. It goes something like this: As the cue lever drops at the start of a record, a tiny signal is handed off like a baton from the vinyl groove to the stylus/cartridge, where it travels down the back stretch straight through the tonearm, and rounds the home stretch into the phonostage—the phono preamp being virtually the last leg before the signal hits the finish line—aka, the linestage preamp. By this point there is so much that has to go right or disaster ensues—and down goes the baton.
In this metaphorical race pretty much everything goes right with the solid-state XP-17 phonostage from Pass Labs. It’s a single-chassis design with internal power supply that builds upon and updates the popular XP-15. At $4300 it is comparatively mid-priced in today’s market, but for Pass Labs it represents entry-level. It is also the companion piece to the XP-12 linestage preamp that I reviewed in Issue 286. Like the XP-12 it uses a new, shielded, low-noise toroidal power supply and input-filter module. There is also an extra stage of RC filtering in its power supply for lower radiated and mechanical noise. Further, the XP-17 has an all-new input circuit that is both symmetrical and lower in noise and distortion, and offers greater drive capability. Like the upscale twin-box XP-25 and XI Phono, it was designed with a split EQ network, which is said to be more accurate and can handle greater signal levels.
Construction quality of Pass Labs gear has always been nothing short of exemplary, and so it goes with the XP-17. Heavy aluminum plates fit together with seamless integrity, creating an enclosure of vault-like solidity. The front panel visuals are a model of elegance and understatement with only a tiny power light to indicate operating status. The rear panel has a standard fused IEC socket. Designed for solo tonearm rigs, the XP-17 is also equipped with a single set of inputs and both balanced and unbalanced outputs, plus a five-way grounding post.
The XP-17 unboxes with the most typical moving-magnet values pre-set at the factory—56dB gain into a 47k ohm load. However, the numerous loading options and gain settings will easily accommodate any moving-magnet cartridge and all but the most persnickety moving coils. To that end there are two sets of eight-pole DIP switches per channel for the selection of gain and cartridge loading. (A graphic on the panel is provided for guidance.) Three capacitive loading switches enable a broad range of values—from 100pF to 750pF. For low-output moving coils, Pass suggests an initial gain setting of 66dB, rather than risk overloading the inputs of a linestage by immediately jumping to 76dB.
Even in idle with the system volume elevated, the XP-17 is consistently quiet, as I expected a solid-state unit with the Pass Labs pedigree to be. Throughout my listening sessions, there was virtually no hash or extraneous ticks or buzzes. Are there measurably quieter phonostages? The answer would be yes, but in the majority of high-end systems in less than dedicated rooms those highly sought-after noise measurements begin to swing from the perceivable to the theoretical.
In my opinion, Pass Labs components, pretty much without exception, have a voice that is consistent throughout the line. They speak fluent, refined analog with an appealing warmth, liquidity, and midrange bloom. Pass gear doesn’t colorize the frequency range but suggests a more complex dimensional component that encompasses the width and depth of soundstages and concert halls and auditoriums. I think of it as a “house sound.”