Parasound Halo Integrated integrated amplifier
Like baking bread or watering my garden, playing records in my monk’s cell is an expression of my devotion to living mindfully. It is part of my search for identity and comfort. It shows me how my thoughts, feelings, and poetic imagination fit in with yours, Keith Jarrett’s, and everyone else’s. The only problem: Often, the stereo components that most enhance my experiences of devotion and identity are not those that I can sincerely declare to be the most accurate or neutral.
Actually, there’s another problem: I am an audiophile who only minimally comprehends what accurate and neutral actually mean in terms of reproduced sound. But! Stereophile‘s founder and prototypical audio sage, the late J. Gordon Holt, thoughtfully defined both in his “Sounds Like? An Audio Glossary”:
accuracy The degree to which the output signal from a component or system is perceived as replicating the sonic qualities of its input signal. An accurate device reproduces what is on the recording, which may or may not be an accurate representation of the original sound. [my emphases]
neutral Free from coloration.
Almost perversely, JGH’s definition of accuracy requires 100% speculation on the part of the critical listener. All I can conclude from this definition is that, if I listen to the same recording through a number of different high-end systems, I might develop an imaginary construct of what was written on the disc.
His definition of neutral is easier. I learned it from Goldilocks: not too warm, not too cool, not too bright or dull, nor too hard or soft, etc. In short, just right.
I asked my Facebook friends what they thought is meant by a reviewer who describes a component’s sound as “neutral.” Surprisingly, many of them said, “boring or dull.” Some, agreeing with Goldilocks, thought it meant “just right.” But several said that neutral means “no personality.” I gulped.
I read John Marks’s excellent column in the August 2015 issue, in which he addressed the question “Should a loudspeaker have a personality?” I thought, How can it not? How can any audio component not have a personality?
Then I began playing some favorite recordings with Parasound’s new Halo Integrated amplifier ($2495). I kept playing discs and listening for a Parasound personality—an obvious sonic signature—but I couldn’t hear one. This lack of a Parasound sound threw me off my reviewer game. Frustrated, and for the sake of this review, I was forced to speculate about the nature of accurate and neutral.
Since 1981, Richard Schram, founder and CEO of Parasound Products, Inc., has built the brand on making audio components that look and sound expensive, but sell for much less than it appears they should. Schram has also built Parasound on the substantial legend of audio engineer John Curl, designer of such enduringly influential classics as the Vendetta Research SCP-2 phono preamplifier. The SCP-2 was a high-quality, high-gain, low-noise RIAA stage from the 1980s that probably spawned the oft-abused reviewer term: ink-black backgrounds.
Parasound products are built in Taiwan. In an online report posted in July 2014 by Jason Victor Serinus, one factory there “has been engaged in continuous production of Parasound products since 1982. Quality is checked both in Taiwan and the United States, which assures that the products maintain their reputation for quality in the 60 countries in which they are sold.”
The Halo Integrated, which measures 17.25″ wide by 16.25″ deep by 5.875″ high and weighs 33 lbs, is the first new integrated amplifier from Parasound since 1986. Its class-A/AB output section, which provides 160Wpc into 8 ohms, is based on bipolar transistors, while its input and driver stages use JFETs and MOSFETs, respectively. Like the Halo P 5 2.1-channel D/A preamplifier, the Integrated has built-in, variable-frequency high- and low-pass crossovers, a home-theater bypass input for integration into a surround-sound system, and a front-panel level control for a subwoofer. According to Schram, “The Halo Integrated is the only amp on the market that provides a sub channel/out for the two-channel analog and the digital sources that are connected to it.”
When I asked to review the Halo, Schram was a little worried: “Herb, I thought you only liked integrated amplifiers that come stripped down, with features like DACs, phono stages, and headphone amps going Ö la carte.” Truth is, I like any integrated that plays music enjoyably. If, like the Halo, its standard equipment includes a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage, a discrete headphone amplifier, and a 32-bit ESS Sabre32 DAC chip, then please, Mr. Schram, make it better than what I can afford to add on my own. (Is that a gauntlet I see lying on the floor?)
The Halo’s phono stage has RCA inputs with gain that’s switch-selectable for MM or MC, and with a choice of loading MC cartridges with 100 or 47k ohms. I like having two turntables and sometimes two or three external computer/DAC/CD sources; gloriously, the Halo Integrated’s rear panel has five line-level inputs (RCA). There are also an XLR input (when used, this replaces the fifth RCA input), and stereo line-level outputs and a subwoofer output—all balanced, all XLRs.
The Halo’s USB, optical, and coaxial digital inputs are selectable from the front panel: That’s a lot of inputs. Also on the front panel, starting from the left, are: a 3.5mm headphone jack, a 3.5mm Aux input for a portable MP3 player or mobile phone, and Bass and Treble controls and their defeat button. On the right is a small Input knob: As this is rotated, 11 tiny blue LEDs light up in sequence below a row of 11 minutely labeled input choices: Aux, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Phono, Opt, Coax, USB, Bypass. The labels are so small (2mm high) that I needed a flashlight and a jeweler’s loupe to see which input I’d selected. Next to the Input knob are the Sub Level and Balance controls. I love balance knobs—I call them imaging controls—but why oh why does the Halo’s balance control not appear on its blue-lit remote handset, so that I could fine-tune it while listening?
Speaking of Listening
Throughout my listening for this review, the Halo Integrated played with generous measures of that afore-defined neutrality. What little personality it had remained hidden, like a cat in the bushes—which made it easy to hear the sonic qualities of every associated component I used with it.
Moving-Magnet Phono Stage
The Halo’s MM stage sounded quiet and gentle. (I’d begun to type soft, but gentle is more accurate.) I used it extensively with two combinations of turntable, tonearm, and cartridge: the Technics SL1200MK2, SME M2-9, and Soundsmith Carmen; and the Acoustic Signature Wow XL, TA-1000, and Ortofon 2M Black. Both cartridges were fastidiously fine-tuned for correct vertical tracking angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA), but even so, the Halo’s MM stage imparted a slightly hesitant, placid touch to all transients.
But enjoyably, on the 1981 Munich concert included in Keith Jarrett’s Concerts: Bregenz München (3 LPs, ECM-3-1227), the Parasound reproduced the pianist’s vocalizations, as well as the applause and audience sounds, with an easy, intimate realism that I think all Jarrett enthusiasts would appreciate. (During a recent solo performance at Carnegie Hall, Jarrett urged his fans to embrace his LP catalog: “I believe my work is best understood by listening to the LPs.”)
Jarrett’s close-miked foot stomps and spontaneous vocal provocations had extremely natural tone through the Halo Integrated. I love Jarrett’s music, but I feel I have only begun to grasp the bigger picture of what he aspires to creatively. The Halo’s MM phono stage seemed to figuratively slow his music just enough to let me examine his improvisations from a more intimate vantage. Dynamics, especially microdynamics, were enjoyably natural; their well-scaled action made me feel closer than usual to Jarrett’s disquieting art.
Moving-Coil Phono Stage
In contrast to its MM stage’s gentleness, the Halo Integrated’s MC stage exhibited more punch and openness. Macrodynamics and inner detail dramatically increased. Using Jasmine Audio’s Turtle and Zu’s Denon DL-103 MC cartridges, I played John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, with pianist Yuji Takahashi, and Lukas Foss conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic (LP, Nonesuch H-71202). Cage believed (as I do) that art continues to be vigorous and useful as long as it continues to be difficult and irritating. I never actually find Cage irritating, but with the Halo Integrated, this razor-sharp concerto startled me, and fastened my attention on a simple musical question: What could possibly happen next?