Parasound Halo Integrated Amplifier Review
Is this the most audiophile solution available for 2.1?
What is the Parasound Halo Integrated?The Halo Integrated (HINT) is the first time that Parasound has built such a product in the Halo range. The Halo series is best know for their power amps in two, three and five channel versions which are comfortably capable of driving pretty much any speaker that takes your fancy to any level you happen to decide is a reference. It isn't a coincidence that the company has decided to produce a stereo integrated amp at this point however as the resurgence in two channel continues unabated.
What Parasound has done with the HINT though is more than a by the numbers exercise. We'll cover the specification in due course but one part of the Parasound's feature set is unusual and possibly unique. As well as amplification for two speakers, the HINT has a subwoofer pre-out that features an adjustable crossover rather than the full range mono pre-out that usually features on such products.
What this means is that if you are a 2.1 user, this could be the amp you've been waiting for. This review is the second this month where we explore options for people who have looked at the requirements for AV for the next generation and felt that they would prefer to revert to stereo. If you are making this decision while looking to retain the services of a subwoofer, the Parasound looks like the perfect candidate to make three speakers rather than two sing- how does that work in practise?
SpecificationThe HINT is a two channel integrated amplifier. Internally it makes use of a conventional class A/B amplifier stage in contrast to a number of rivals making the decision to look at class D and other technologies. Parasound takes the clear view that there are performance arguments for the use of this older technology. The amp stage itself is designed by Parasound designer John Curl and uses some Parasound trademarks like matched JFET input and MOSFET output stages and a high bias to pure Class A operation.
A quick look at the internals suggests that this is a very serious amplifier indeed. From the hefty power supply to the large pair of heatsinks that run parallel to each channel, all signs point to the HINT being a serious piece of equipment. This is borne out by the power output. Parasound claims a hefty 160 watts into 8 ohms under demanding measurement conditions and having had the dubious pleasure of lifting the HINT out of its packaging, these numbers don't feel like something this amp would struggle to achieve. The output increases to a healthy 240 watts into four ohms which suggests that there are few speakers that are going to trouble the HINT in most domestic settings.
The Parasound is fitted with five line inputs and a moving magnet and moving coil phono stage. Input 5 is shared between an RCA and XLR connection to allow for the use of a balanced source. As you might expect from a brand with such strong ties to AV, the HINT is also fitted with a volume bypass to allow for its use in an AV system. Unusually, this also includes a subwoofer bypass too allow for LFE to by bypassed through the Parasound and out via the HINT's dedicated subwoofer outputs- and it is here that the Parasound breaks out some unusual features.
Nestling alongside the pre-out and subwoofer outputs on the rear of the HINT are crossover controls for both connections. These can be set independently of one another at levels between 20Hz and 140Hz. Additionally a subwoofer level control is fitted to the front of the amp. This means that the HINT is possibly the best equipped stereo integrated amp going if you are a 2.1 user. The clever bit is that none of this needs to be activated if you don't want it to- it all switches out of the circuit if you want to set the crossover on the sub and won't do anything at all if you don't use those connections.
This being the case, what may be of greater use to potential owners is the DAC section. The HINT has a digital input board that features a single optical, coaxial and USB connection. This is handled by an ESS Sabre ES9018K2M DAC and the USB connection has a fairly hefty range of abilities as a result. As well as supporting PCM to 24/384kHz, it handles DSD 64, 128 and 256. A windows driver is supplied and it works without one into a MAC. With a suitably equipped server, the Parasound doesn't necessarily need anything in the way of actual source equipment.
The specification is finished off by headphone amplifier that is completely separate from the main amp stage and is built around a Texas Instruments TI TPA6120. This is a fairly highly regarded piece of equipment in its own right although annoyingly, Parasound has only fitted it with a 3.5mm socket rather than a full quarter inch one. This is joined by a 3.5mm aux input on the front panel which is something I'm less and less sure of the worth of in this day and age- especially with the digital inputs but may be of use to someone.
DesignThe HINT makes use of the metalwork used in the rest of the Halo range and the result is convincing if a little on the large side. The review sample was silver but black models are also available. All Halo models have an indent that runs the length of the front panel. Parasound has used this indent to accommodate the input display lights of the HINT as well as the standby and mute control. The result is a tidy and sensible use of space. The casework itself is finished to a very high standard and the rear panel socketry is also solid, well laid out and feels like a significant amount of attention has been lavished on it.
The only areas where I think that Parasound has missed a trick are the points of interaction with the HINT. The volume control feels a little small and sad for something that has 160 watts at its disposal. The remote is also nothing to get excited about. It works well and is clearly laid out but it lacks any of the feeling of solidarity and heft that the amp itself has. Remotes are the main point of contact between us and the equipment and sadly the HINT remote doesn't really pass on any of the sense of engineering in the amp itself.
A quick look at the internals suggests that this is a very serious amplifier indeed
Parasound Halo Integrated SetupThe Parasound has been tested with a Naim ND5XS connected over both RCA and coaxial digital. The XLR input has been tested with a Cyrus Phono signature Phono stage connected to an Avid Ingenium Twin turntable. The latter has also been connected directly to the phono stage on the Parasound. The USB connection has been tested using a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running jRiver. All equipment has been routed via an Isotek Evo 3 mains conditioner. Material used has included lossless and high rest FLAC, DSD, Tidal and Vinyl.
Initially, the HINT was connected to my standard Neat Momentum 4 speakers which are effectively full range. In order to test the abilities running in 2.1, I additionally tested the Parasound with a pair of Audio Note AN-K speakers and a BK Electronics P12 300SB subwoofer running a 50Hz crossover set on the Parasound and the BK crossover bypassed.
Parasound Halo Sound QualityI have decided against splitting this section up into digital and analogue and into 2.0 and 2.1 and will cover the sections in due course. This is because the performance of the amp via analogue connections and the digital inputs is consistent across the two different speaker configurations and I will cover my thoughts on those at the end.
With the Parasound running over analogue connections- in this case the Naim ND5 XS via an RCA connection, there are some immediately noticeable traits to how the HINT functions and most of these are positive. Perhaps most importantly, the HINT manages to use its enormous power output in such a way as it sounds extremely powerful when it needs to but never at the expense of sounding clumsy or forced when you simply don't need it. Instead there is a sense of effortlessness that allows a wide variety of music to sound good.
The tonality of the amp is also extremely good. With Regina Spektor's Consequence of Sounds- as true a test of tonality as you can get- the Parasound has weight and texture to the vocals and piano that sounds unambiguously real. The presentation is also extremely spacious and airy with a sense of the space that the material was recorded in. With Hans Zimmer's score for Rush, the Parasound allows the material to sound effortlessly uncompressed and wonderfully room filling.
The only slightly discordant note about the HINT's performance is that with the final tracks of Rush- particularly the mighty Reign- it never fully engages and excites in the way that the resident Naim Supernait 2 or the Arcam SR250, which passed through at the same time, can do. It would be wrong to call the HINT slow- it has far too good a control over the low end to be that- but there is a slightly languid quality that it never completely shakes.
This is also true via vinyl. Both the Cyrus Phono Signature and the Parasound's own internal phono stage retain this slightly relaxed presentation although the internal phono stage of the HINT reveals itself to be a commendably quiet and tonally natural piece of kit that is more than an afterthought or convenience feature. It is definitely superior in the moving magnet setting to the moving coil one- even with a Goldring Legacy moving coil cart presenting the 100ohm loading that the stage was designed to, it can't match the noise floor of the resident Avid Pellar which would be roughly price equivalent. For owners of moving magnet cartridges, the performance is more than reasonable.
If you switch to the digital inputs, everything about the Parasound's presentation suddenly snaps into place. The ESS Sabre DAC in its many versions and implementations has consistently shown a punchy and enthusiastic presentation and this seems to have been worked into the voicing of the HINT. Used as both decoder and amplifier, the Parasound is a different beast. That same effortlessness and control is now joined but a bit more punch and drive. Playing the same tracks from the Naim via the coaxial input is a more intense and compelling experience than it is via the analogue ones. The USB input is also extremely well implemented. It had no difficulty with any file type played to it via jRiver and installation of the driver was also hassle free.
Dispensing with the Neats and rigging the HINT as a 2.1 system was problem free and the basic performance traits as described above don't change. As such, still using the digital inputs, the Parasound delivers a really very impressive showing with 2.1. The ability to implement a high pass filter on the amplified output of the amp has a welcome- and I will freely admit- rather unprecedented effect on the performance of the Audio Notes and the BK working together. With a 50Hz crossover in effect- even though the AN-K has an eight inch bass driver, its sealed construction means this is about the lowest it goes before severe roll off- the effect is not of a 2.1 system but a powerful and cohesive 2.0 system. If you are in possession of an agile and well implemented sub- and the BK is just that- there is a fairly reasonable argument that this is the best possible means of powering a 2.1 system on the market.
If you are in possession of an agile and well implemented sub there is a fairly reasonable argument that this is the best possible means of powering a 2.1 system on the market.
- Powerful and clean sound
- Excellent in 2.1
- Beautifully built
- Sounds best via digital inputs
- Ordinary remote
Parasound Halo Integrated Amplifier ReviewThe Parasound HINT finds itself in a busy part of the market right now. Integrated amps at all prices are sprouting digital inputs and the £2-3k point seems especially busy in this regard. This being said, there is a lot to like about the HINT. It is supremely powerful and unfazed by what you are likely to connect to it and sports a useful selection of inputs wrapped in a very solid piece of casework. It isn't perfect- it definitely sounds more exciting over the digital connections and there is little arguing that it is a big piece of kit to accommodate but the HINT should be on anyone's shortlist.
If you are a 2.1 user though, it needs to jump a long way further up that list. Put simply, the HINT is the best implementation of what is needed to do 2.1 properly I've seen at almost any price and the result is by far the most musical. If you want to use a sub with your music, the HINT is a truly superb option. The Parasound earns a general recommendation but in specific areas of performance, it needs to be seen as better still and something well worth seeking out.
Ease of use8
Value for money8
Our Review Ethos
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