Nelson Pass releases two low-powered amps, and jelt2359 is ready with his trusty Hifiman HE6
The F7 pulls you into its orbit immediately. It is vast. It transports you to endless outer space, and leaves you there to contemplate the notion of infinity. The sound is expansive, open, and joyful. But there are also downsides to this approach. You are forever in the orbit of the F7- and cannot get any closer. Like an iMAX experience, it’s a technicolour marvel; it’s a feat of engineering; but it’s on a screen, doomed to remain forever in front of you. Unlike Patrick Swayze in Ghost, the music never reaches out and puts you in its phantom embrace.
In contrast the XA25 stretches out its hand, and takes you on a journey. You will hear the venue as the music bounces back and forth from every inch of its four walls. Cue up a performance like Cirque du Soleil live in Vegas, and you’ll hear the corners of the auditorium, and every nook and cranny of the performing space. You’ll feel yourself there, transported in living colour as the show envelops and overwhelms you. It’s outside; it’s all around; and it’s even playing through you.
Again, though- it’s not all a free lunch. When the venue is not so impressive to begin with (for example, erm, a recording studio), the XA25 will sound comparatively flat and constrained. In these situations the F7 really shines, taking even the most mundane of settings and transforming it into an experience to be beheld. With the F7, you feel you are being whisked away on a magic carpet ride. A gorgeously live al fresco performance under the stars, you will never hear the reflections on the walls… But who wants walls to begin with!
What the XA25 manages- having the music unfold itself through you- is no easy task. You need to feel the rhythm of the performance. You need to be moved with a sense of urgency. Both of these are present in spades with the XA25. The music is dynamic, hard-hitting, and soul-searching. It is animalistic and instinctual. Nowhere is this more obvious than the bass. The F7 was always adequate in the bass, a solid B+, but bass lovers need not apply. The XA25 hits harder, deeper, and with more shades of black and grey. You see, hear and feel every low note in lush glory. On the other hand the F7 bass is a bit like a chocolate fondue. It’s always there, flowing like an endless fountain spring, so you will have no cause for complaints. But the chocolate cannot be too thick or rich, lest it slows the flow or starts to clog up. Instead it’s fast, light and caffeine-free.
The focus of the F7 in general is always on effortlessness, to a fault. The mids on the F7 are lean. They’re clean. They’re fast, and subtle. The XA25, in contrast, is velvety. It’s smooth, and it’s organic. The midrange notes it produces are rich, beautifully self-contained, and tungsten like a filament. The notes brim with desire on the XA25, whereas on the F7 they’re flat and thinner, with detail seemingly pushed aside to lighten the load on the music, and gaining that last ounce in raw speed. The XA25 is a sprinter, the F7 a marathon runner.
All this also means that the XA25 is bad at being a supporting actor. Its music calls to you. It has a distinct attention-sucking type of effect that makes for very bad background music. In fact, I had to turn off the XA25 in order to put pen to paper on this review, because I kept getting distracted by florescent musical notes sparkling their way into my ears. On the other hand the F7 is perfect for background. It’s always easy and never skips a beat, and when you want to take a break and relax a tad bit more, you can always sip on it and like a cup of soothing hot tea, it shows itself to be light, expansive and full of possibilities.
It’s the Fourth of July, and fireworks are in the sky. It’s explosive, it’s a treat, but it’s distant. You can see it, but you can’t feel it. It’s a beautiful experience but primarily a visual, not visceral, one. It will never engulf you. If this is the sort of contemplative experience that appeals to you, it is hard to say no to the First Watt F7. For that reason, I will be keeping this amp as well. I have rarely heard amps create as visual an experience as this, and its unique qualities are certainly to be lauded. The XA25, however, is richer, incandescent, punchier, and more dynamic. There’s something effortless and fast about the F7 that the XA25 cannot match, but the latter amp feels more organic, more emotional, and in the way it explores every venue of every performance, more true.
Yin, or yang. Which do you prefer? Me, I’ll be keeping both.
Both these new Nelson Pass amps are outstanding performers. The F7 and XA25 are both quiet enough, with low enough noise floors, to be used with headphones without any hiss. The XA25 is the better amp, but the pair are so different that fans of one may not enjoy the other.