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An Interview with Nelson Pass

05-24-2015 | By Gary L Beard | Issue 115

The is Interview originally ran back in 2015, but we felt it was worthy enough to run again...

Image of Nelson Pass by David R. Robinson.

Hello PF readers! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Gary Bread. I am a woeful reviewer—all that subjective metaphoric bullshit and all—but I like to think I'm kinda funny (although if you knew me, you'd question that statement), so I'd like to welcome you to the first installment of Factitious Distortion; a haphazard series of tall audio tales, ludicrous observations and absurdly ridiculous interviews with the glitterati of High-End. Much worse than Harmonic Distortion or Intermodulation Distortion; Factitious Distortion is supposed to be satirical and irreverent—except when it's not! In the following inaugural interview, Mr. Pass enjoyed playing along, so all or none of what follows may be true or false!

Pull up a chair with a short leg, put on your .99 cent cheaters, and read just a little off-kilter…

Factitious Distortion

He of All Things Deeply Biased…

He is an audio engineer extraordinaire and has the medal, golden sash and purple hat plume to prove it. His best friend was the Most Interesting Man in the World until he got tired of supplying all the beer and told him to go buy his own pet lion. His designs are reverently discussed in hushed tones during secret audio society meetings around the world; where he is known to audiophiles by many names; Nelly P, Fiddy Ohm, Maestro and of course, Papa.

"He" is Nelson Pass. And "he" has designed yet another winner in Pass Labs Point 8 series...

As the founder of a handful of audio companies (I didn't recognize any of them, but that's what his bio says), Mr. Pass is (apparently) an audio industry legend. His decades-long career is well documented on Wikipedia and his audio designs are universally praised, not only by audiophile end-users, but by other practitioners of the craft. Mr. Pass is generous with his designs, allowing DIY devotee's from around the world to screw up well his thought-out schematics of Firstwatt and other out of production amplifiers so they can build their own fugly crap from scratch (and I've got the Fugly F4 to prove it).

Much lore surrounds the enigma that is Mr. Nelson Pass. When not high-diving from the cliffs of Sea Ranch, there is a rumor he is designing a line of audiophile pajamas. (Here is a picture of him modeling the prototype on Six Moons.) There is also a persistent urban legend that indicates he was the inspiration for the blockbuster movie Men In Black, but that is undocumented.

In an effort to understand more about the shadowy Papa and the process that led him to design the Pass Labs Point 8 amplifiers, I asked him to respond to a few relevant questions. Below is a transcription of our correspondence:

GB: Mr. Pass, as a semi-professional hack audio journalist; I must ask you the hard questions. So here goes:

It's been suggested for some time by those "in the know" that the glowing blue meter on your amplifiers is not, as you are fond of saying, a meter to show how much Bias Current is being drawn by the amp, but rather a portal to an alternate audio dimension. Do you care to comment? (I assume you're going to stay with the [Air quotes] "bias meter" explanation, but give it a whirl.)

NP: The meter is there to glow and remain at a constant position, reassuring the listener that the amplifier is operating within the Class A region. In reality, it is just hooked up to a battery which requires factory service every couple years.

GB: Your amazing "kitchen table" venture, Firstwatt, is really cool, but when can audiophiles expect a fabulous amplifier without dried Lasagna on it? (Pasta seems to muddy the sound--except on Opera.) How about an option for a 1996 Jordan Cabernet stain. I'm sure it would sound magnificent!

NP: Most of these pieces require a high profit margin, so we have to make do with a 2010 Kendall-Jackson Reserve. The 1996 Jordan is an option on SIT-1's only. Thanks to said high profit margin, I have moved the assembly operation from the kitchen table to Tre Pazi in Auburn and now we have a wider selection, including Cannelloni, Orecchiette Bolognese, and Tagliatti.

GB: Truthfully, how many Lowthers have you really blown out with the Xs amp?

NP: Ha Ha. You might like to know that Jimi Hendrix was a Lowther owner, and kept three pairs: one pair for listening, one replacement pair in the closet and one pair back at the factory being repaired. Me, I keep five or six pair.

GB: I understand you are a big fan of Polka music and Vanilla Ice (Ice, Baby). What other kinds of music do you enjoy?

NP: Yes, well the Happy Wanderers (Shmenge Brothers) are a big favorite, as is anything played on a Sackbut, which incidentally provides the best Lowther break-in material.

GB: Do you believe in audiophile "break-in"? If yes, do you think it is measurable, if we knew which parts of the brain to measure?

NP: I am a strong believer in breaking-in audiophiles. Most of them can hear pretty good after an hour or so, but a couple weeks is sometimes required. Their wives are another matter.

GB: I've always appreciated that you have an objective engineering mind and yet give credence to the subjective in audio. While I understand the general call for Double Blind Testing (DBT), personally, I have never been on that bandwagon. Recently however, I developed a testing procedure that lessens the chance my own, purely subjective results, are flawed. This test must be performed correctly or it could leave the Tested in a state of confusion, causing headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, and perhaps even short-term illness. I call it the BDT* and it is performed thusly: In a specified time-frame (perhaps thirty minutes or less) I consume one glass of Orin Swift Prisoner (or similar beverage of choice). Within the first hour, I usually notice an increase in liquidity and musical flow from the XA30.8. After repeating this test over and over to assure no mistakes, the entire system improves dramatically, regularly causing spontaneous air guitar solos. The results are in the shape of the classic Bell Curve and I've found it is not good to be on the downhill slope of said curve. If I am, I usually throw up. The results of the BDT (Blind Drunk Test) are repeatable and I try to add a new data set each weekend. I think there is a lot to be learned here and I would be honored if you would attempt this test and report your findings.

NP: I'm familiar with that, and I would add another favorite test, the BNT, or Brown Note Test which is very effective for evaluating subwoofers and Class D amplifiers and encouraging uninvited guests to relocate.

GB: Okay, I've thrown you softballs up to now, but I wouldn't want to take this opportunity and not ask you a couple of a real questions: I've read you referencing "six systems" that you used to help voice the Point 8 amplifiers. Are you able to share with Pf readers a little information about those systems?

NP: Let's see, I have a pair of Tannoy HPD 15" concentrics from the '60's in Jensen Imperial enclosures, Sony AR1's, JBL 1400's, PL SR-1's and SR-2's, JBL L300's, Lowther PM6A's and Eminence Definimax 15's mounted in SLOB's (slot loaded open baffles), and Jordan J-92's. I also have a very large selection of drivers and horns, and recently hired a cabinet maker. Now all I need is the Indiana Jones warehouse.

GB: Of all the amplifiers you have designed, do you have any personal favorites? (You can lie if you want, but you'd better include the F4 and the XA30.8.)

NP: My favorite is always the next one. After that they all have equal status—each one of them does something different.

GB: Lastly, can you please give our readers a glimpse of what you are currently working on and where you see your efforts heading in the future? Yah, seriously!

NP: Big surprise, I'm working on amplifiers. Big amplifiers, small amplifiers, black amplifiers, silver amplifiers. They will all run hot. And the future? More amplifiers. Don't look for anything else.

GB: Thank you Mr. Pass for your time, insight and cogent answers to these hard-hitting questions. My hat is off to you, sir. Keep on electronically truckin' and building amps!

*(Disclaimer and warning: The BDT is not to be performed by anyone under the age of 21. Do not drive, attend the office Christmas party, or operate machinery, especially turntables with expensive cartridges, after participating in said test. You must have a designated driver and/or LP flipper to assist during and after the test has concluded. The BDT is strictly a joke for entertainment purposes only: DRINK AND LISTEN TO MUSIC AT YOUR OWN RISK AND DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE!)