What is the Exposure XM5?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
How was the XM5 tested?
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.
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.
- 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 Review
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.
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