Exposure XM5 Integrated Amp Review
One of the masters of the old ways turns their attention to some new thinking - and the results are sensational.
Hi-Fi reviewSRP: £1,260.00
What is the Exposure XM5?The Exposure XM5 is a half width stereo integrated amplifier of a kind that is increasingly popular in both the UK and the wider Hi-Fi market. In some ways, the specification is very similar to some amps we have looked at recently- it will certainly be easy to make some comparisons. Like many amps we’ve looked at recently, it combines analogue and digital inputs to give you rather more flexibility than amps of old.
That amps of this type exist shouldn’t be a surprise. That one has come from Exposure is perhaps more intriguing. Exposure is a classic British audio brand. Since their founding in 1974, they created a name for amplifiers that embodied the typically British values of rhythmic engagement and that ever thorny concept of ‘timing’ to deliver musical satisfaction rather than biblical power outputs or design influences from the bleeding edge of technology. In comparison to their products of old, the XM5 is a complex beast. On the other hand, many of those older models came in compact casework so the size of the XM5 is less of a surprise.
As noted, we’ve looked at quite a few amps of this configuration before. These range from the excellent Audiolab M-One to the musically accomplished Arcam SA20 to the sensationally good Cyrus ONE HD. The Exposure commands a £250 price premium over the Cyrus - does it do enough to justify this price premium?
Specification and Design
The Exposure is an integrated amp and is built around a 60 watt amplifier. The purists reading this should be immediately delighted to know that this is generated by a Class A/B output stage and that volume is controlled by a conventional potentiometer with a start and stop point. It may sound strange that the last amp we looked that combined these two design features was the Rega Brio. What was once entirely common is now something of a rarity compared to Class D, rotary encoders and other new design practices.
In the case of the XM5, the components that this amp is made out of are also notable. The output stage includes Toshiba Bipolar output transistors and the circuit itself is a cascode design that breaks the amplification stage into two processes. It’s something of an Exposure trademark and not something that is routinely encountered in rival designs at the price. Exposure’s quoted measurements for the XM5 at rated power are seriously good and if you’re after something that should achieve the much maligned concept of ‘transparency’, this is very good place to start looking.
This amplification stage is partnered with a preamp that allows that you to attach a single analogue line in, a turntable with a moving magnet (or high output moving coil) cartridge and additionally use the XM5 with an existing AV system as there is a direct power amp input. I do think that Exposure might save a driver or two by more clearly specifying that the input in question bypasses the volume control but it is clearly explained in the manual. It might potentially be useful to have a second line level connection but this fitment demonstrates the declining importance of the analogue input.
The digital section is usefully comprehensive. Built around a Wolfson WM8742, it offers two coaxial digital, two optical and a single USB-B connection. This last connection is 24/192kHz and DSD capable and can be used with drivers for Windows, or driverless via OSX, and a number of NAS installations. Having two of each connection is very handy and while the use of BNC connections for the coaxial fittings might be an annoyance, the locking fitment is potentially very helpful.
There are some omissions to the spec as well as one connection that makes more sense when the rest of the range is considered. The first absence that will count against the XM5 is the lack of Bluetooth. Having recently had the pleasure of using the sensational Apt-X HD implementation in the Cyrus One HD, the lack of it in the Exposure does seem a shame as it is now able to match its convenience with genuinely excellent performance. The other omission is a headphone socket. This is something that makes more sense when the rest of the XM range is taken into account. Sat alongside the XM5 is the superbly specified XM HP headphone amp. As I am sure that Exposure is anxious is sell as many of these as it possibly can, it is not to going to risk this by fitting a headphone socket to the XM5.
The other XM components also give a clue as to why the XM5 has a preout on the back. As well as a quick means of adding a sub, it also allows anyone looking for a significant upgrade to make use of the XM9 monoblock power amps without also having to spring for a new preamp as well. If you wanted to go even further up the range, Exposure additionally makes stereo and mono power amps in the 3010 range and now makes a very tasty looking monoblock indeed in the form of the flagship 5010. In short, there is a bit of stretch to the Exposure if you want it.
It might by fair to say that Exposure amps of old fell into the camp of a ‘functional’ design aesthetic. The XM5 is a clever piece of kit because it manages to be a world away from that but still very recognisably an Exposure. The casework is all metal and feels extremely solid but there are enough nods to the Exposure aesthetic to ensure you know what you are buying. One minor feature I have found unexpectedly pleasant are the red LEDs. In 2018 you can have an LED shine in pretty much whatever colour you fancy but there is lot to be said for red in this context. It’s easy to see what the amp is up to and it’s far more restful on the eye than the blue and white examples that predominate at the moment.
One detail that might be an annoyance for some owners are the speaker terminals. The Exposure doesn’t use a post arrangement to bare wire and space connections will not function, only 4mm plugs. Ignoring for a moment any claims about sound quality, 4mm plugs make for a secure, reliable and long lasting connection so are well worth having but you’ll need to budget for cables fitted with them if you don’t already them.
The XM5 is supplied with a conventional remote handset and it is clearly of a design that is sent out with various different products around the world. It combines the amp controls with CD player commands which might be handier if there was an XM CD player. In more positive news though, it has direct access for every input and it works from a good range and over a wide angle, and has the good sense to mark the volume and mute commands in a different colour.
What was once entirely common is now something of a rarity compared to Class D, rotary encoders and other new design practices.
How was the XM5 tested?The Exposure has been tested with Spendor A1 and Neat Momentum 4i speakers. It has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner throughout testing. Source equipment has included a Chord Electronics Hugo 2 via the RCA input and a Michell Gyrodec with SME M2-9 tonearam and Goldring 2500 moving iron cartridge running into the phono input. The digital inputs have been tested with a Melco N1A NAS drive, LG 55B7 OLED and a Google Chromecast. Test material has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, some DSD, streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz, some internet radio and broadcast and on-demand TV and vinyl.
Sound QualityBefore we go any further, a short comment on personal preferences. I am by my own admission something of a ‘flat earther’ when it comes to music reproduction. I’m pleased to say that this doesn’t mean I question the shape of the planet, simply that without correctly sorting the way that that electronics deal with the time signature and beat of music, all else is literally noise. Almost since its inception, Exposure has been seen as one of the brands that adheres to this philosophy so there was always going to be a reasonable chance I was going to get on with the XM5.
Even taking this into account, the first 30 minutes with the Exposure were instructive. With the Melco sending a USB signal to the XM5 and on to the Spendor A1 speakers, the way it got stuck in (and there really is no better term than that in this instance) to Twin Shadow’s Brace is something that I pretty much defy a listener not to find enjoyable. The little Spendor is a truly wonderful device at telling you what the rest of the system is up to and in this instance, that is having fun. This isn’t an enormously fast piece of music - just 68BPM according to Google - but on this combo, it is utterly invigorating.
It also demonstrates that the XM5 has superb bass. The Spendor is never going to rattle internal organs but it responds to decent low input and the Exposure has this in spades. I have (entirely deliberately) tested the Cyrus ONE HD, Arcam SA20 and now the Exposure with the Spendor and the XM5 is comfortably the hardest hitting amp of the set. Neither is it a blunt instrument. The texture and detail to the low end of the DSD download of Depeche Mode’s Higher Love is truly outstanding. It also integrates beautifully with the midrange so that it sounds effortlessly natural.
Concentrate more on those higher frequencies and the Exposure doesn’t disappoint. The pared back Comme Ci of Christine & The Queen’s Chris is rich, detailed and possessed of a sweetness that isn’t always present with digital stages at the moment. Some of this could well stem from the use of a Wolfson rather than a more common ESS DAC. This possibly isn’t the feeling of being able to work out whether Héloïse Letissier used mouthwash that morning which is something that the almost etched presentation of the ESS can deliver but it is entertaining to listen to and it manages to flatter poorer recordings very effectively too.
Attaching a Chord Hugo 2 to perform the same decoding role as the digital board reveals that compared to the dedicated DAC - which let’s not forget is £550 more than the XM5, there isn’t the truly outstanding sense of three dimensionality that the huge processing horsepower of the Hugo 2 can demonstrate but the XM5’s digital board keeps it honest. With the basic £30 brilliance of a Chromecast Audio running over optical, the Exposure is a very entertaining listen indeed and able to carry out a huge range of functions. TV use is also good. Compared to the resident Naim Uniti Star that carries out most of my TV viewing duties, dialogue isn’t always as clear (although I am beginning to suspect that the HDMI ARC of the LG is for whatever reason, better than the optical out) but it is still a vast improvement over the internal speakers.
The phono stage also puts in a strong showing. It probably doesn’t demonstrate significantly more capability than the example fitted to the Cyrus ONE HD but given I like that very much, this is not a reflection of weakness on the part of the Exposure. There is no unwanted noise and that same effortlessly agile and invigorating performance that the Exposure shows through the other inputs is present here too. With my full size Neat Momentums connected and a shiny new copy of Orbital’s Monsters Exist on the Gyrodec, the Exposure is by far and away the cheapest link in the system but it more than holds its own. More than anything else, this is an amp that ensures you are never a spectator to the music but a constantly engaged participant. The use of the bigger Neats does suggest that there will be limits to the amount of headroom on offer with larger speakers but they will still be ones that most neighbours would describe as anti-social. If you really do need more power, it is highly likely that the 80 watts apiece from the XM9 monoblocks would see your way clear in most situations.
More than anything else, this is an amp that ensures you are never a spectator to the music but a constantly engaged participant
- Lively, detailed but refined sound
- Very well made
- Excellent selection of digital inputs
- Could do with more analogue inputs
- No Bluetooth
- Remote is rather prosaic
Exposure XM5 Integrated Amp ReviewFirst, a small moment of context. The Exposure is 25% more expensive than the Cyrus ONE HD and that remains an absolutely superb amp and one that has more features and more inputs than the Exposure. If this is to be a decision that is done on numbers alone, the Cyrus is a seriously good choice and one you should be happy with.
If you’ve got the extra £250 available though, and you can live with the more limited connectivity it offers, the XM5 is the better amp. It simply delivers a more engaging performance than any amp I have encountered under £1,500. This feels like the first rung in the next set of integrated amps and for that reason, the XM5 comes Highly Recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,260.00
Ease of use8
Value for money8
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