Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

In July of this year I auditioned Parasound’s Halo A 23+ power amplifier and found it an exceptional performer for the price at $1495 USD. Parasound also sent me their NewClassic 200 Pre preamplifier-DAC ($895), a slim, solidly constructed model that occupies only a single rack space. I wondered if it could match the Halo A 23+ in quality of sound for dollars spent.

Description

The NewClassic 200 Pre’s controls are few -- Power and Mute buttons, Volume and Input knobs -- but it covers everything critical, whether from its front panel or its backlit remote control. Press Input to cycle through settings for bass, treble, balance, and subwoofer level. A small display with green characters on a background of lighter green -- not the easiest to read, and a bit old-fashioned -- shows the input selected (the inputs can be renamed) and the volume level, and other settings when those are activated. Also on the front panel are an auxiliary input and a headphone output, both on 3.5mm minijacks.

Parasound

On the rear panel is an impressive array of connections new and old. The 200 Pre’s Burr-Brown PCM1798 DAC chip supports two-channel PCM digital at resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz via the optical TosLink and coaxial S/PDIF inputs, and up to 96kHz via USB. The 200 Pre’s phono stage supports moving-magnet (47k ohms input impedance) and moving-coil (100 ohms) cartridges. When not connected to a phono-level source, Input 1 can be set to line level, to bring the 200 Pre’s total number of line inputs to three. Input 3 is shared with and preempted by the front-panel Aux input, which offers an additional 12dB gain, appropriate for the headphone jack of a portable media player or smartphone. The 200 Pre also has a bay of Bypass inputs on RCA jacks for A/V receivers and source components that have their own preamp-level outputs. With Bypass selected, the 200 Pre gets out of the way, not impacting volume, treble, bass, balance, or crossover. Conveniently, when the 200 Pre is switched off it automatically goes into Bypass mode.

Parasound

After following a pure analog signal path, music signals are sent to the 200 Pre’s unbalanced main, subwoofer, recording, and headphone outputs. While the recording output level is fixed, all other outputs are affected by the 200 Pre’s volume, treble, bass, and balance settings, and one subwoofer output includes a crossover. Yes, the 200 Pre has two subwoofer outs: one is full-range, relying on the sub’s own crossover; the other uses the 200 Pre’s built-in high-pass/low-pass crossover with analog bass management. Using a dial on the rear panel, the High Pass Crossover frequency can be set anywhere within the range of 20-140Hz. When this crossover is activated with a little switch just above this dial, it blocks all frequencies below the frequency set on the dial from being sent to the 200 Pre’s main channel outputs. (Until reading about this feature in the manual, I wondered where my low midrange had gone.) For system integration, Parasound provides an RS-232 port, a wired IR input, and a 12V trigger output. Finally, input level offsets and default power-on volume settings can be configured from the remote control.

Setup and system

For most of my listening, I used the NewClassic 200 Pre’s built-in DAC and phono stage. Using the included cable, I linked the 12V trigger ports of the 200 Pre and Parasound’s Halo A 23+, and set the power amp to turn itself on when the preamp sent it a trigger signal. As I’d placed the amp atop the preamp, this configuration made sense. The audio-sensing option worked reliably as well.

My primary source components were a Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player ($600 when available) and a Cambridge Audio CXN (V2) network player ($899.99), used as both analog and digital sources. At the other end of the signal chain were Sonus Faber Principia 3 stand-mounted loudspeakers.

Sound

I spent most of my listening time sending digital signals to the NewClassic 200 Pre and comparing it to the other options in my rack. Because with my Cambridge CXN (V2) network player I can control the volume and switch the output level from line to preamp, I sent the CXN’s unbalanced analog signal straight to a power amplifier. The CXN’s output level is much higher than the Parasound’s, but once I’d matched the levels it was immediately clear that adding the extra circuitry of the preamp was beneficial. With the 200 Pre bypassed, the control over the sound was looser, less definitive. Dynamic variations were also lessened. I also had to integrate my active subwoofer into the system by running the signal through the sub’s somewhat noisy crossover circuitry. My NAD C 356BEE integrated amplifier ($900) has two preamp-level outputs, one of them tied via a coupler to the main input. This allows the NAD to be used either as a preamp or power amp, so I also compared the NAD’s preamp section with the 200 Pre.

Used as a preamp, the NAD fell between the Cambridge CXN (V2) and the Parasound NewClassic 200 Pre, but closer to the latter. The NAD was able to successfully integrate the sub’s output into my system’s sound, but needed to rely on the sub’s crossover -- unlike the 200 Pre, the NAD has no low-pass filter. When I listened through the NAD to Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s recording of the rambunctious Scherzo of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 (24-bit/48kHz AIFF, Deutsche Grammophon/HDtracks), the bass punch was there but the surrounding silence wasn’t, which limited the drama of the effect compared to the Parasound.

Parasound

I next assessed the 200 Pre’s built-in DAC. Annu Salminen’s solo horn passages in Kalevi Aho’s Concerto for Horn and Chamber Orchestra, with John Storgårds conducting the Lapland Chamber Orchestra (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eClassical), were tighter and more defined through the 200 Pre’s built-in DAC than through the DAC in my NAD integrated via the NAD’s line output. I heard more detail and diction of individual woodwinds, and the soundstage was wider. Passages for full orchestra could sound a bit congested through the NAD. However, the two DACs’ reproductions of instrumental timbres and tonalities were rather similar.

When I played the cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie” on Meiko’s Playing Favorites (24/192 AIFF, Chesky), the Parasound brought a centeredness to the reverberations of Meiko’s strummed acoustic guitar. Through the 200 Pre’s DAC there was also a bit more texture in her voice, and her vibrato was more pronounced. The greater focus extended to the subwoofer in “Crush,” in which bass notes sounded too splattered through the NAD. A drawback of the Parasound was the somewhat greater attention it paid to sibilants. But overall, these two built-in DACs sounded similar -- hardly surprising, as they sport comparable Burr-Brown DACs -- with the Parasound having subtle advantages.

The 200 Pre’s built-in DAC sounded a bit constrained compared to the CXN’s analog output. With levels matched, the CXN’s DAC sounded more open, with a bigger soundstage. The 200 Pre was better balanced tonally, providing nice, natural tone from a collection of horn trios by Brahms and Ligeti performed by Marie-Luise Neunecker (French horn), Antje Weithaas (violin), and Silke Avenhaus (piano) (24/88.2 FLAC, BIS/eClassical). Bell tones were rounded and even, yet something was missing in terms of detail and imaging. There was nothing offensive in the 200 Pre’s sound, but it didn’t immerse, envelop, and engage me in the music as the CXN did. The Parasound easily kept pace with the trio, managing dynamic and melodic changes while letting the pianist’s rapid left-hand runs cut through the mix at the center of the soundstage in the Scherzo (Allegro) of the Brahms Trio in E-flat, Op.40.

Parasound

With Johnny Cash’s All Aboard the Blue Train (24/96 FLAC, Sun/HDtracks) the difference was less pronounced, though the Cambridge provided the deeper soundstage. The 200 Pre trimmed the reverberations around the strummed guitar, but in the instrument’s low range this made each strum more percussive. There was no real difference in the tonality of Cash’s voice, and the 200 Pre provided an insistent bass punch.

The NewClassic 200 Pre offers two ways to integrate a powered subwoofer into a system, depending on how you want to manage the crossover: in the Parasound itself, or by passing a full-range signal to an external crossover, such as those built into active subs. In either case, the 200 Pre’s subwoofer output is monaural. Its crossover frequency can be set anywhere from 20 to 140Hz -- a range plenty wide enough for integrating a sub with any but the very smallest or largest speakers, as activating that crossover filters the main output. I found it easier to disable the crossover of my Wharfedale PowerCube 10 sub and use the 200 Pre’s crossover.

That done, I liked how the sub filled in the lower range, especially for pop and rock drums and electric bass. It also convincingly reproduced the doo-wop walking-bass line in “Gonna Get Over You,” from Sara Bareilles’s Kaleidoscope Heart (CD, Epic 8697550352), only the essence of which flows from my Sonus Faber minimonitors. I’m a fan of subwoofer bass subtle enough that you notice it only when it’s gone, and toggling the Sub On/Off button on the 200 Pre’s remote control during Bareilles’s “The Light” revealed how comparatively thin the sound was without the sub. This welcome and well-implemented feature is found on few two-channel preamps or integrateds.

Phono stage

I connected my Goldring GR1 turntable with Rega RB100 tonearm, and for my Goldring Elektra moving-magnet cartridge selected the MM mode of the NewClassic 200 Pre’s Input 1. There was plenty of gain and headroom to spare with Bill Evans’s Return Engagement (LP, Verve V3HB-8841). With the solo track “A Time for Love,” his piano filled the room, the sound of each keystroke tapering nicely and naturally. On that cut the piano is mixed to encompass the entire soundstage, but it returns to a more naturally proportioned size in “My Melancholy Baby,” when Evans is joined by bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Paul Motian. The overall tonal character was relaxed and warm, but the trio’s overall image leaned to the right -- again, a problem in the recording. I appreciated the 200 Pre’s accuracy in reproducing this off-kilter mix while demonstrating its impressive channel separation.

The Parasound handled a large orchestra without overwhelming the singers in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, London OSA-1158). This recording eschews sound effects, instead relying only on the score for drama. Knocking on the door, demanding the key, opening each chamber -- each musical-dramatic event swelled the soundstage as the orchestra provided the aural surprise against a Gothic backdrop. Yet Judith and Bluebeard, respectively sung by mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and bass Walter Berry, remained consistently audible. When Judith opens the fifth door and Bluebeard sings of the grandeur of his lands, the full dynamic range the NewClassic 200 Pre could extract from an LP was evident. I was surprised at how quiet an LP could be, especially this old pressing -- no doubt the result of a good phono stage not unduly amplifying surface-noise transients.

Parasound

Comparing my Cambridge Audio 540P phono preamplifier ($99, discontinued) connected to one of the 200 Pre’s line inputs to the 200 Pre’s phono stage, the latter afforded a deeper, wider soundstage and warmer tonality -- and, by clearing some of the haze, made possible greater dynamic range, as heard in the closing phrases of Prelude à la Nuit, from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, in the recording by Pierre Dervaux conducting the Colonne Concerts Orchestra (LP, Sine Qua Non SQN-7775). Horns were punctuated and brassy in the fanfares in Malagueña, rather than brash. Along with more gain, even with levels matched, the Parasound provided a more even frequency response, particularly in the upper treble, which was too noisy through the Cambridge’s phono stage. With the Parasound, I could enjoyably listen to entire LPs. Additionally, I found the 200 Pre’s phono stage more musical than the NAD D 3020’s, which I’d liked when I reviewed it in 2018 -- the 200 Pre offered a sound of greater depth and complexity.

Headphone amplifier

Recent reports from hi-fi shows have indicated the current centrality of headphones to high-end audio. But the NewClassic 200 Pre’s front-panel headphone jack -- when in use, it mutes the speaker outputs -- is a bit unusual. It’s a 3.5mm minijack rather than the more common 1/4” phone jack. This makes sense -- most headphones I’ve encountered are terminated with miniplugs, and require an adapter to fit a 1/4” jack.

Parasound

I was pleased with the sound of the Parasound’s headphone amp through my HiFiMan HE-500 cans. It had no problem driving these ’phones, with plenty of headroom. The Speakers Corner Quartet’s “Sahara,” from the compilation Accidental Powercut 1 (16/44.1 FLAC, Society of Sound Music), is a binaural recording of acoustic jazz -- it had pronounced stereo separation and spaciousness as percussion entered to accompany the exposed flute at the center. I heard no self-noise from the 200 Pre’s headphone amp -- the full dynamic range of this recording was available, allowing good use of silence to punctuate this performance with definitive tacets (silences). If anything, the 200 Pre had too much power -- my easier-to-drive Grado SR80 headphones were deafening through most of the Parasound’s range of volume settings. The 200 Pre’s headphone amp was good enough that it let me easily distinguish between the HiFiMans’ and Grados’ reproductions of the opening drum phrases in Speakers Corner’s “Ant House” -- through the Grados these sounded merely percussive, but the HiFiMans conveyed the resonances of the room and the physicality of the drums themselves.

In short, Parasound’s NewClassic 200 Pre can serve as a good headphone amp.

Wrap-up

Rather than merely checking off a list of features and connections, Parasound has provided in the NewClassic 200 Pre a high-quality, well-built preamplifier-DAC. All of the most important features are here, plus an unexpected one -- the subwoofer output options -- and for $895, all are well executed. The extras included -- headphone amp and phono stage -- are hard to imagine being bettered without a substantial increase in money spent. The NewClassic 200 Pre will easily suit many buyers, as well as make a good first step into the world of audio separates.

. . . Sathyan Sundaram
sathyans@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Sonus Faber Principia 3
  • Headphones -- Grado Labs SR80, HiFiMan HE-500
  • Subscription service -- Google Play Music
  • Digital sources -- Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player; Cambridge Audio CXN (V2) network player; Google Chromecast Audio; Monoprice HDX-401TA; Raspberry Pi2 running Volumio 2.2389
  • Analog sources -- Goldring GR1 turntable and Elektra cartridge, Rega Research RB100 tonearm
  • Phono preamplifier -- Cambridge Audio 540P
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 356BEE with MDC DAC 2.0 module
  • Power conditioner -- APC Line-R LE1200

Parasound NewClassic 200 Pre Preamplifier-DAC
Price: $895 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Parasound Products, Inc.
2250 McKinnon Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124
Phone: (414) 397-7100

Website:www.parasound.com