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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 3
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yba

Passion Intégré integrated amplifier

as reviewed by John Brazier, Victor Chavira, and Larry Cox

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JOHN BRAZIER'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.

ELECTRONICS
EarMax Tube OTL headphone amplifier.

SOURCE
Rega Planet (transport only), Perpetual Technologies P1A Digital Correction Engine and a Perpetual Technologies P3A Upsampling DAC (both with IS2).

CABLES
Acoustic Zen Silver Phantom digital cable and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)Why are integrated amps so slim when power amps of equal power by the same manufacturers are much more beefy? That was the first rhetorical question I asked myself while unboxing the YBA Passion Intégré. Of course, we all know the answer, yet I am usually disappointed in the size of integrateds. I gleefully accept their cost-saving functions, but am an American, and "bigger must be better." Thankfully, I can accept the tidy package that is the YBA Passion Intégré if I adopt the "less is more" theorem.

The review sample is flat black and fairly dull in appearance, but I hear there is a silver version, which I imagine would be more attractive. Centered in the faceplate is the illuminated YBA logo behind a glass half moon, nice but otherwise trivial. This was my first experience with a stepped attenuator, which is said to have the benefit of lowering the noise floor. Since the signal drops for the millisecond between steps, I felt the attenuator was more of a distraction then a benefit. Also, the YBA was not the quietest amp I have heard.

My setup for this review included my Rega Planet CD player and Sonus Faber Grand Piano loudspeakers, with Acoustic Zen Hologram speaker cables and Matrix Reference interconnects, in addition to the YBA. The results were really really nice. Right out of the box, the YBA had a substantial influence on my speakers. The Sonus Fabers are "2.5"-way, and have never delivered the lowest of lows convincingly. A Bryston 4B-ST amp I once owned satisfied me that I had reached the lowest that the speakers could reach, but I now stand corrected. The YBA snapped nearly three-way performance out of the passive radiators which account for the ".5" in the Sonus Fabers. The lows were lower and more forceful than I had ever heard. Still, three-way performance surely gets another few Hz’s deeper. "Maria," track one of Willie Nelson’s newest, The Great Divide, gets off the ground slowly, then the full weight of the band kicks in. The bass is deep, tight, controlled, and nearly chest thumping. Note the "nearly."

The midrange was as smooth as I have heard. Even inherently raspy voices were smoothed out, though not rubbed out. Throughout his Neighborhoods disc, Ula Dara maintains a slightly rough voice. The YBA smoothed it out, just enough to take the edge off while keeping the character of the voice intact. Remarkably, the amp was able to overlay the individual elements, to create the whole without confusion or muddling. In this it reminded me of the Bel Canto Evo I once owned. As I have described the sound of the Evo, "The whole presentation is made up of clearly distinct and separate entities." The YBA also has that, along with a bit of "air" surrounding those individual elements. The YBA captures more of the ambience of the recording, while the Evo sterilizes it.

The YBA gives a sense of urgency and excitement. I like to measure microdynamics with piano recordings. With the YBA, the leading edges of most piano notes were crisp and clean, and had a healthy snap. When appropriate, the notes nicely drifted away into the black. From Willie to Ula to Joan Osborne, the music energized and transported me as very few setups have.

Does the amp have any shortcomings? Yes. I have to admit I was pretty disappointed in the soundstage. It was deep and wide, but not as deep or wide as I know my room and speakers can support. This was not a problem, but I just never fell into that lost-in-space-and-time feeling that a really grand three-dimensional soundstage can give you.

$4500 is a lot of money for an integrated. For that, I would not want to find any quibbles. The YBA sounds really nice, and truth be told, my immediate impulse response was to buy one, but for that kind of money I could perhaps get a better soundstage, lose the stepped attenuator, and still get all the positive stuff this amp has to offer. John Brazier

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LARRY COX'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
ATC SCM 20.

ELECTRONICS
Majeel Labs Pristine S-10 amplifier and E.A.R 864 preamplifier.

SOURCE
Audio Note CD3 CD player.

CABLES
Ensemble Dynaflux and Calrad balanced interconnects. Speaker cables made from Belden 1219A wire & IXOS 6003a.

ACCESSORIES
API Power Pack. BDR cones.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)Have you ever felt like you were not up to a task, but there was no way to get out from under it? The YBA Passion Intégré brings me to the point of having to speak and not being sure what to say. Oh, I know my opinion, but not how to describe my experience. Clearly, the YBA is a very good integrated amplifier, better than every integrated I’ve heard to date, including YBA’s own 50-watt Intégré, Simaudio’s Moon I-5, Air Tight’s Audio Masterpiece, and the Magnum-Dynalab MD 308 we recently reviewed, but I’m frustrated in having to describe the sound, so let me tell you about the Passion Intégré’s design and features.

The Passion line is YBA’s second from the top, and differs from the rest of its lines by having higher power ratings. For instance, the Intégré is a 50-watter, the Passion Intégré a 100-watter. YBA gear does not pop out of someone’s garage, but out of an ISO 9000 certified factory. Yves-Bernard Andre, the designer and namesake, goes to extraordinary measures to ensure excellent performance, including listening to each and every product before it goes out the door. Yves-Bernard may also be the ultimate tweaker, and I really mean the ultimate. He’s experimented with every parameter of his designs. He was quoted as believing that adding 3 millimeters of wire will affect the sound. Believe it or not, he’s experimented with different-shaped footers. YBA’s heat sink fins are designed not to ring—try flicking your heat sinks to hear micro-vibrations that might be affecting your music system. This seemingly obvious element has been left unanalyzed by others.

YBA stuff is small to allow for short signal paths. Instead of the usual potentiometer, YBA uses a special set of relays that click in and out of the circuit, providing a clean, short signal path with remote control. As a listener, you’ll have to get used to the clickety-clack of the volume knob as it moves up and down. It is a little disconcerting, but the sound didn’t come through my speakers. The amplifier’s design and execution are simply extraordinary. It is as though YBA has looked at each known problem or concern and done something to address it. Yves-Bernard has left no stone unturned.

As I said, the sound of the Passion Intégré is somewhat enigmatic. Neither typically tube nor typically solid state sound, it is distinctly immediate and up front. Distortion characteristics are hard to detect, and the amp clips in a polite fashion. Without sounding pinched, the Passion seems like a tiger ready to pounce. Perhaps I should say it had a "passionate" sound. I had the opportunity to listen to the Passion Intégré with three sets of speakers. Naturally, my reference ATC SCM20s were on hand, but I also had the JM Labs Electra 936 floorstanders (see www.positive-feedback.com/Issue3), and I briefly heard the amp with Verity Audio’s Fidelio speakers. In each case, the music was fast and immediate, with nary a grain of sand, in a tube-like, but not tubey way.

The Electra 936/Passion combination had a little too much immediacy for me. I tend to like a mid-hall sound. Though the speakers are fairly large, they sounded nimble as mini-monitors, with a bell-like clarity. I could not only hear the shakers inside maracas, but how far the shakers moved inside the instrument, as well as how the instrument moved within the soundstage. I liked all the detail, but when I returned to my reference system, I heard less clearly what was going on with the maracas, but I relaxed a lot more. The JM/YBA combination was a bracing listening experience, but not what I’d choose for a long-term reference. It was too much like listening through an electron microscope.

I’ve been looking at floorstanding speakers, as Simone and I are planning to start a family, and I figure that floorstanders won’t be damaged as much as stand-mounted speakers might. When we listened to the Verity Audio Fidelios, I brought the Passion Integre and my Audio Note CD3.1x CD player to, believe it or not, Passion Audio in Encinitas, California. The Passion Intégré’s immediacy was there again, and that bell-like clarity was there, too, but this time the presentation was slightly sweeter, more laid back, and more suave. Bass was very fast, though perhaps not as warm or rich as I expected. I tried Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Facing Future, and enjoyed a vivid representation of a very, very big man singing in the room. This was closer to a sound I could live with.

We also got to hear the Fidelios and my Audio Note player with the Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 10 amplifier ($7500) and Synergy IIi preamp ($5500). They trumped the YBA in terms of ease of presentation, but the much less costly integrated amp gave up nothing in terms of clarity or grainless-ness. Against separates three times as expensive, the Passion came in second, but how fair is that comparison? Although Simone and I were smitten by the Rowlands, we are not making plans to buy them. We are, however, considering the YBA as part of a simpler system.

Hooked up to my ATC SCM 20s, the Passion Intégré was still fast, richer than with the JM Labs or the Fidelios, and almost, but not quite sweet. Whether or not it would be sweet enough for me in the long haul, the sound was very desirable. Having enjoyed the Passion’s remote control, I’m sure I’m going to end up with a remote-controlled preamp in the near future. I loved being able to change volume and swap sources from my seat, especially with the odd times (usually in the middle of a movie) and uncertain lengths (from thirty seconds to forty-five minutes) of Simone’s telephone calls from Germany. The Passion’s remote allowed me to pause a movie, switch to CD, and select an appropriate volume level while I waited to see if this would be a short or a long call. Do I sound lazy? You bet, but if such things happen often, you come to appreciate remote control. I threw all kinds of music at the Passion with my very inefficient ATCs, and everything sounded very good, far better than would be expected from a $4500 integrated amplifier. Now, I realize that $4500 is a lot of money, but I’m saying that this integrated amp competes against stuff at nearly double its price.

The Passion’s speed, drive, and liquidity put it ahead of my reference Majeel Labs Pristine amplifier (see www.positive-feedback.com/Issue2) and E.A.R. 864 preamp combination. My reference was softer and a bit warmer, but just a bit sluggish by comparison. With the Passion, images were more precisely placed and with greater precision of outline, with a depth and boldness to the tonal colors. All things considered, I’d probably prefer the YBA. I put on Grieg’s Piano Concerto Number 1 in A Minor (Lydian 18106) an emotional piece with which I have a personal history. With the E.A.R./Pristine combination, the sound was good—warm, emotional, albeit a little soft around the edges. The YBA was more clear and precise. Piano splashed like the real thing. Tonal colors were bold, transients were in high gear, and all the notes moved as one. The presentation was more immediate, a bit more forward, and the sense of excitement was a little higher. By the same token, the YBA amp was just a little bolder than reality, at least in my system, so I was a long way toward heaven, but not quite there.

When I switched out the Passion’s preamp section and used it with the E.A.R. 864, the shortcomings of the Pristine were laid bare. More clarity, a slightly more rich color palette, and a bit more space around instruments emerged. I got the tonal clarity of the YBA with the warmth and realism of my E.A.R./Majeel system. Clearly, in my mind, the YBA/E.A.R. combination ($7500) was a step above either the Passion alone (second place, $4500) or the Majeel/E.A.R. combination (third place, $8000). This was among the best setups I have had in my place, certainly something I could live with and have thought about buying.

As a spoiler, I had ATC’s marvelous and sweet SPA200 Professional amplifier, which, you’d guess, would be a better match for the SCM20 speakers. Using the balanced inputs and outputs of the E.A.R. preamp and the SPA200, I got more power and more relaxation. Frankly, the watt-hogging SCM20s just want 200 watts, and show it very nearly every time there are two amplifiers of similar caliber—the one with more power sounds better. The piano crescendos of the Grieg piece were vibrant, conjuring up a piano sitting solidly in the room, with an awesome sense of drive and nimbleness but with more ease than the Passion, either alone or coupled with the E.A.R. preamp. This result speaks mostly to the need for power and the fact that the YBA, however wonderful, is a bit underpowered for my speakers. The YBA is an extraordinary amplifier, but it is still only 100 watts. In my system, it was coupled to speakers with which there is really no substitute for power.

I like YBA components. You get great build quality, with unexcelled attention to detail and design. The value of the Passion Intégré is great. With the right speaker and source, you will get a beautiful yet dynamic source of power in a grainless package, combined with remote control of source and volume. YBA deserves more attention in the audiophile press, and by you come buying time. Larry Cox

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VICTOR CHAVIRA'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Magneplanar 1.6 and B&W DM 302.

ELECTRONICS
Magnum Dynalab 208 receiver.

SOURCE
NAD T541 CD/DVD player.

CABLES
Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects, Blue Heaven speaker cables, and El Dorado power cords.

ACCESSORIES
Monster Cables HTS 1000 AC center. Vibrapods, Lovan Trisolator, and Echo Busters.

 

three.jpg (8484 bytes)... passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I have listened to more integrated amplifiers than any other type of component. My reference is the Magnum Dynalab 208 (see www.positive-feedback.com/Issue1), which is essentially a 100-watt integrated amp and an FM tuner in one chassis. I also have a 60-watt Kora Explorer hybrid integrated in my bedroom system (see http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue3). The YBA Passion Intégré is at the top of the class. Meticulously crafted in France, the Intégré features transformers and capacitors custom manufactured by YBA. Separate circuits are employed for power and preamp stages. A moving magnet phono stage is included, with moving coil available as an option. Volume is controlled by a series of resistors and relays actuated by a knob. Source selection and volume are both accessible with the slender, pen-like remote control. The unit’s level of fit and finish is exemplary.

The YBA was set on the floor next to my MD 208 in order to facilitate comparison. The Passion and the MD 208 produce 170 watts and 160 watts respectively into my 4-ohm Magnepan 1.6s. The ten watts may not seem like much of a difference, but the YBA’s power advantage resulted in greater depth and control in the bass. I listened to Anthony Jackson’s six-string contrabass on pianist Michel Camilo’s Triangulo CD or Calle 54 DVD. His bass line often doubles Camilo’s left hand, but the YBA never blended the timbres of the electric bass and grand piano. The extra-low notes on Jackson’s unique bass were reproduced with great definition and energy.

The midrange performance of the YBA reminded me of the sound of a great string quartet—balanced, communicative, and refined. The Kronos Quartet’s latest recording is Nuevo. The compositions on this CD are regional postcards of Mexico’s diverse musical styles. The first cut, "El Sinaloense," can only be described as the sound of mariachis on acid. Another selection, "Perfidia," is heartbreaking in its plaintive simplicity. The YBA rendered the strings better than any solid state integrated I’ve heard to date. The sound was utterly grainless and charming. Another example of the YBA’s expressive quality could be heard with Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22. Much of this composition’s harmonic beauty depends on subtle dynamic changes. Music from the massed strings seemed to flow as naturally as breath. Each line of melody and harmony was distinct, with proper "lighting" given to the space around the orchestra. The Passion outperformed my reference here, capturing the essence and sweetness of massed stings more convincingly than the MD 208.

The YBA could also party with passion. Rousing recordings such as Tremenda Rumba! by Orlando "Maraca" Valle and the Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars never failed to motivate dancing feet or the playing of air timbales. Like the musicians on these discs, the YBA kept steady rhythm all night long. The Intégré never sounded harsh or glaring when horns blared or cymbals crashed. Sibilants were very smooth and flutes resonated with silvery overtones.

I acquired a Linn Axis turntable soon after the Intégré left my home, too late to assess the Passion’s phono stage, but the line stage is exceptionally transparent. The Passion Intégré is a remarkable product. YBA’s obsessive attention to detail and quality pays high musical dividends. The Passion produced a sweeter and more refined musical perspective than my MD 208. I would not trade my Magnum for the Passion, as I would miss FM too much, but the YBA Passion Intégré is highly recommended for those who seek simplicity of use and high musical values. Victor Chavira

 

 

 

Passion Intégré
Retail $4500 or $4650 w/phono

YBA
web address: www.phlox-electronique.fr

US Distributor
Audio Plus Services
TEL: 866. 759. 4138
web address: www.audioplusservices.com

 

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