Amplification can make or break your speaker’s potential performance. Getting good, clean Class A amplification is an audiophile’s dream. Class A amplification with lots of headroom has always commanded a premium in audiophile circles. Audiophile-grade amplifiers pumping out 200 or more watts/channel have typically cost thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars. Although good audiophile amps are already biased to run the first 5-10 watts or so in Class A, to get real Class A performance beyond those first few watts, you’ve typically had to to spend thousands more and deal with the significant heat that pure Class A amplifiers give off.
For the past several years, upstart amplifier maker Emotiva has gained some momentum by manufacturing amplifiers in China and then selling direct to consumer. Emotiva’s reputation has revolved around low-cost amplifiers that promise to deliver high wattage and high performance. This manufacturing and selling model has allowed Emotiva to hit a price/performance ratio that hasn’t typically been seen before in audiophile circles.
Until recently, Emotiva’s amplifiers were confined to the realm of Class AB. Class AB amplifiers attempt to give you the benefits of Class A and Class B performance without all the negatives. [Click here for a primer on some of the different amplifier topologies]. However, even though most solid state amplifiers tend to be Class AB, Class A amplifiers are still the sought-after standard for audiophiles. Thus, when Emotiva, announced a Class A amplifier, the XPA-1L, that would cost well under $1,000 each, home theater and audiophile sites and Internet forums lit up with activity.
The XPA-1L was announced as a 250 watt Class AB monoblock amp with an optional Class A mode. With the flick of a front-panel switch, you could run the first 35 watts in Class A and then the XPA-1L would instantly transition to Class AB beyond that. When first introduced, the XPA-1L’s were $799 each or $1,498 for a stereo pair. With the release of Emotica’s XPA-1L Gen 2 models, that price has now dropped to $599 each or $1,198 for a stereo pair. As far as I can tell, there have been no significant design updates between the Gen1 and Gen2 models. The differences seem to be primarily cosmetic between the Gen1 and Gen2 editions.
With Emotiva transitioning all their amplifiers to “Generation 2” designs and with an Emotiva E-Club discount, I picked up the Generation 1 XPA-1L monoblock amplifiers for $440 each or $880 for the pair. I have had several amplifiers in my system including the likes of Ayre and Lexicon, but I’ve never had extensive experience with Emotiva amps. I was curious to see if the Emotiva monoblocks would end up being a ridiculous value or a huge bust.
Arrival and First Impressions on Build Quality
I documented the arrival and my initial impressions of the XPA-1L s which you can read here
. Needless to say, as you can read for yourself in detail
, I was disappointed and underwhelmed. I had significant misgivings about Emotiva’s manufacturing and quality control. To compound my bad experience, I also ordered an Emotiva CM-X6 power strip, a CM-X2 power strip (review forthcoming), and an A-100x amplifier. Both units power strips manufacturing-related issues within a few months of use. The CM-X6 was replaced and the CM-X2 needed to be repaired. I don’t expect the repaired CM-X2 unit to arrive for almost eight weeks. The Emotiva A-100x mini amplifier and had problems with certain banana connections in the binding posts. Some of the binding posts were tighter fitting than others and prevented me from using certain banana connections in certain posts. Therefore with five products ordered from Emotiva, I had issues with each item. Not a good start.
Because Emotiva is targeting these amps to audiophiles, I figured I’d throw an ultra high-end two-channel audio and multichannel home theater setup at them. I complemented the pair of Emotiva XPA-1Ls with an Anthem AVM50v preamp and a pair of Revel Ultima2 Salons. I also played the XPA-1Ls with the SVS Prime Bookshelf speakers ($599/pair, review forthcoming) for a more limited time period. For music listening, I ran the Ultima2 Salons full-range without any subwoofers engaged. I did listening over several months with Anthem’s ARC both engaged and disengaged. The listening space that the Emotiva XPA-1Ls needed to fill was approximately 24’ x 30’ with a 9’ ceiling.
Class A Purity or Class AB Efficiency? Take your Pick.
Aside from the claimed 250W into 8 ohms and 500W into 4 Ohms, Class A mode is a clear selling point for the XPA-1L. The XPA-1L is designed to optionally run the first 35W in Class A. If you go past 35W then the remaining power from the amplifier is output in Class AB. It’s important to note that it’s 35W of Class A into 8 Ohms, 4 Ohms, or 2 Ohms. In other words, there’s no doubling of the Class A power. Class A is the first 35W — regardless of impedance.
I should also note that the XPA-1L isn’t the only amplifier to offer a bias switch to tune the amplifier’s Class A operation. Among many others, the highly-regarded Pass Labs amps, such as the X350.5 (350W into 8 ohms and 700W into 4 ohms) and the Parasound Halo JC 1 monoblock amplifier (400W into 8 ohms and 800W into 4 ohms) feature higher Class A biasing. The Parasound JC 1, for example, even has switch on the rear of the amplifier. Setting the amp to low bias, runs the JC 1’s first 10 Watts in Class A and a high bias setting runs the first 25 Watts in Class A. I’m not implying that the XPA-1L is the equal of the Parasound. I’m simply pointing out that Emotiva isn’t unique with this approach.
You select Class A or Class AB mode on the front of the Emotiva XPA-1L amplifier. As I did so to test out the different modes, I noticed yet another manufacturing annoyance. The Class A – Class AB switch was aligned slightly differently on each amplifier. On one, the switch went all the way to the left and on the other amp, the switch only went 3/4 of the way to the left. I then noticed that the faceplate on one was ever-so-slightly shifted off so that the top of the chassis was offset on the left side and flush on the right side.
|The Class A – Class AB switch wasn’t installed the same on the two amplifiers as you can see in the pictures, one was properly centered (left photo) and the other was offset to the left (right photo). This was just one more in a series of items that showed inconsistency in attention to build detail.
At this point, I started to feel as though if I looked at the XPA-1Ls casually or in detail, I’d find more and more indications of inattention to detail. I don’t care if this type of build is defined as being within tolerances. If an audiophile enthusiast is paying $1,000 for this pair of monoblocks, then they deserve to have build quality that exhibits attention to detail. Instead, the current state of the XPA-1Ls simply conveys a “that’s good enough” approach to amplifier construction. OK, I’m off my soapbox.
As you would expect, switching to Class A mode did produce an increase in waste heat generated from each monoblock. During one modest listening session in Class AB, I noted that the external temperature of the XPA-1Ls top chassis registered at 95 F (35 C).
|Playing the Emotiva XPA-1Ls in Class AB mode would register in the mid to high 90’s and peak in the low 100 degrees fahrenheit
Switching to Class A mode, the XPA-1L’s external temperature jumped to 131 F (55 C).
|I measured temperatures well into the 120s and as high as 131 degrees fahrenheit in Class A mode.
If you think that switching the amplifiers from Class AB operation to pure Class A yielded some sort of “aha!” moment where you could instantaneously hear a difference between the two modes, then you’d be sorely mistaken. Even with this very expensive and some would say very revealing setup, I was unable to notice any radical difference between the XPA-1Ls running between their Class A and Class AB modes.
If someone were to really press me, I would have to say that after extended listening sessions, I felt as though the Class A mode somehow left me feeling as though the amps sounded smoother vs. Class AB operation. I doubt I could tell a difference between the two modes in a blind listening test and any such feeling may be purely psychological. Even when they are in Class AB mode, the first several watts of power are in Class A operation anyway. Therefore, if you’re looking at these amplifiers thinking that you’re going to have a musical epiphany running them in Class A then I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Conversely, there were no acoustic anomalies when the amps were driven so hard that they would transition from Class A to Class AB during insane sessions with earsplitting SPL levels going into the mid 90 dbs or low 100 dbs. There was nothing audible to indicate that the amp was transitioning from Class A to Class AB. In case you are wondering, I drove the amps so hard at one point with the Revel Ultima2 Salons that I tripped one of the XPA-1L amplifiers into thermal overload protection mode.
I was so put off by the initial manufacturing quality of these amps that I refrained from writing this final review on them for several months to see if any further issues would arise. I therefore think it’s very fair to say that I got a solid feel for these amplifiers. I played them almost every single day with every genre of music imaginable: rock, jazz, pop, classical, theatrical scores, holiday music, acoustic, etc. I’ll highlight some specific tracks from my months of listening:
The Indigo Girls have an expansive musical anthology. While their third album, Nomads Indians Saints (1990), was not as popular as their self-titled sophomore album, it contains a number of tracks that I frequently use to test out new equipment. The second track, “Welcome Me” is among my favorites to use.
It’s a beautifully haunting track that gives you a good sense of a system’s timbre, soundstage, and ability to handle nuances. Playing this track with the Emotiva and Revel combination was thoroughly enjoyable. The opening to the song features a single guitar strum that resonated perfectly in space. Amy Ray’s distinctively raspy vocals were reproduced with life-like presence. I felt as though the Emotiva’s provided the Revels with all the juice they needed to handle the song effortlessly.
British soloist Dido is another artist that I frequently listen to when testing out systems. Her live performance from Brixton Academy in London features many of her well-known songs on a DVD/CD set.
On the track “Life for Rent” Dido’s vocals were smooth and seductive. The track’s synthesizer and bass notes were cleanly reproduced and had solid weight behind them. The same was true of the track, “Here with Me.” The Emotiva’s had good control of the low end but lacked what I felt was the exceptional dynamics I’ve heard with beefier amplifiers driving the Revels. The final roar of the crowd on both tracks maintained a sense of space and instead of a mush of sound, you could simultaneously hear the entire crowd roar while also distinctly placing in space individual sounds and expressions. I played the track at just a few dB below reference with peaks in the mid 90 dBs and there wasn’t a hint of strain. The Salon2s can be absolutely cruel to amplifiers; but the XPA-1Ls held their own.
Lorde’s Pure Heroine album is a bass-lover’s dream. Her hit “Royals” thundered in my room. Bass notes pulsed like subsonic explosions in my room.
There was great control and definition in the bass. I confess, it was pretty awesome. Not once did I sense that the XPA-1Ls were having a hard time keeping up with either the music or the impedance load that the Revels were delivering.
Imagine Dragons “Radioactive” is another energizing song. Drum and bass notes had good weight, control and impact. Even with a potential dueling cacophony between vocals and instruments on that track, the Revel/XPA-1L combo did a really good job of presenting the song’s energy while keeping superb separation between the vocals and instruments. Once again, as I noted earlier, I wished I had a bit more dynamics and bit more juice here. Somehow the drums felt a bit understated—although to be fair, much of the mixing done in modern music has sucked the life out of songs by taking away much of the dynamic range that is part of live performances.
I played U2 and REM extensively. From U2s “Mysterious Ways” to R.E.M.’s “Finest Work Song” the Emotiva XPA-1L gave the Revels all the juice they needed to handle the finest instrument nuance to big, bold, clean dynamics.
The XPA-1L fared equally well on orchestral pieces. The track, “Might of Rome” from the Gladiator soundtrack is a beautifully layered track. With deep synthesizers, drums, trumpets, violins, vocals, and other instruments weaved into the movements, it’s a superb track to sit back, relax, and let a sound system flex its brute muscles and simultaneously showcase how it can convey a sense of delicate majesty. The XPA-1Ls did a great overall job of handling this track. Turning the volume up didn’t uncover any harshness to the sound. Rather, instruments remained clean and maintained a sense of their tonal quality and weight no matter how loud I turned up the volume.
Perhaps my favorite sessions were listening to the XPA-1Ls with more intimate musical tracks. Ennio Morricone has composed some of the most memorable film scores and Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of these songs on the album, Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricono is breath-taking.
The opening track, “Gabriel’s Oboe” was so beautifully and delicately rendered it was enough to send chills down my spine. The emotive (no pun intended) quality presented by the Revel/Emotiva XPA-1L combo was beautiful. The Timbre of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello was spot-on and deeply engaging without being overly warm and too laid back. Playing this album showed how the XPA-1Ls could mellow down and present the delicate aspects of an intimate performance. The track “Dinner” was especially delectable, with silky smooth musical textures. It was just beautiful.
Overall, I will say that I felt as though the Emotiva XPA-1Ls did an excellent job of presenting any musical genre I threw at them.
If an amplifier can handle music well then it’s generally a no-brainer that the amplifier will perform equally well in a home theater environment. That proved to be the case with the XPA-1Ls I was able to play the amps as part of a 7.2 environment. They continued to drive the Revels, but were crossed at 60Hz to the dual subs.
Not once did I sense the XPA-1Ls running out of steam in any listening session. Action sequences from Man of Steel on Blu-ray had superb dynamics. From Superman’s heels digging into the pavement and hearing the crackle of stones to thunderous clashes to the hushed tension and musical score accompanying the final scene in Grand Central between General Zod and Superman—all of these were presented with great dynamics and refinement. The sound was bold, open, yet always under control.
Guardians of the Galaxy was presented in an incredibly spacious soundstage that was deep, stable and always filled with exceptional detail. Scenes from Captain America: Winter Soldier were enthralling. The opening scene on the cargo ship is filled with pinpoint, detailed audio and not once did I feel that the Emotivas failed to feed the Revels.
Lord of the Rings: Two Towers was perhaps the example where the Emotivas shined most. Howard Shore’s orchestral score in lossless audio was just awesome. The climactic battle at Helms Deep never came up short with the XPA-1Ls. The cinematic energy and clarity of the entire soundstage was reference-level. When it comes to describing any of these movies, it’s obvious that the speakers were overwhelmingly the cause. However, it’s the amplifier that makes or breaks a speakers potential. The XPA-1Ls were able to give the Revels the power and control they needed to sound like the reference speakers they are.
Whether it was recreating a musical experience or taming the demands of lossless movie tracks, the Emotiva XPA-1Ls did an admirable job no matter what source material was thrown their way.
Comparison to other amplifiers:
Budget-minded audiophiles will want to know how the XPA-1L stacks up to other brands. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but the Emotiva is no giant-killer. I’ll reiterate emphatically that build quality between amps from high-end brands and the Emotiva is night and day. It’s silly to even engage in that conversation, so I won’t any further.
Sonically speaking, however, the Emotivas did a pretty good job. Before the Emotivas came in, I had an Ayre VX-5 (MSRP $7,950) stereo amplifier come through my hands. While aural memory is a dangerous thing, my impression when comparing the two is the Ayre VX-5 sounded better but lacked the low-end dynamics of the Emotiva. The Ayre is more only a 175wpc amp vs. the 250 of the Emotiva. If I had to choose between the two, I would still choose the more expensive Ayre. I felt that it simply had a sweeter overall sound that came from a blacker background. The Ayre was extremely addicting to listen to but due to it’s greater power output I felt that the Emotiva was able to exert a bit more dynamics at the low end.
Amplification is the life-blood of an audiophile’s system. Having good, clean, and adequate amplification can bring your loudspeakers to life, recreating the sensation of a real performance. For more expensive or difficult to drive loudspeakers, amplifier performance is even more critical. On the surface, Emotiva’s XPA-1L promises to deliver thundering 250W performance in a relatively inexpensive Class A/Class AB amplifier. Overall, the performance of the Emotiva’s XPA-1L was excellent and pair of amps performed equally well with both music and movies.
To a degree, I do have to admire what Emotiva is trying to do: make audiophile gear at affordable prices. I do tip my hat to them. It’s frustrating for great-sounding gear to lie beyond the affordable reach of a die-hard audiophile. However, here’s the irony, while outsourcing manufacturing to China lowers build costs, I think it’s also the product’s achilles heel.
The adage “you get get what you pay for” is unfortunately applicable to the XPA-1L. Indeed, my major beef and reservation about the XPA-1L surrounds its materials and build quality—not in its sonics. There’s just no comparison whatsoever with the Emotiva’s materials and build quality to amplifiers from audiophile names such as McIntosh, Krell, Bryston, Theta Digital, Ayre, Lexicon, or Mark Levinson. Those high end brands are built like the pyramids with top notch materials, and intended to last for Millenia. 30 years later you’ll still see amps from those manufacturers proudly chugging along. I can’t say that I have the same confidence that I’ll still see these Emotiva amps performing the in the same way 30 years down the road.
I’ve admittedly been a bit harsh on the XPA-1L. To hit the price point that this unit sells for, Emotiva obviously needed to make compromises in materials and manufacturing. Otherwise, this amp would cost just like all the others.
So, here are my final thoughts: There are many out there who salivate and save for the speakers of their dreams but can’t yet afford a comparable amplifier. If you are on a budget and want a very good sounding amplifier with really good performance that can drive your speakers near their potential and you also don’t care much about an amplifier’s build quality and attention to details and you are open to the idea of possibly having to wrangle with Emotiva support down the road then the Emotiva XPA-1Ls do deserve your serious consideration. You may find them to be very satisfying. I did.
With their specs at this price-point, they are incredibly inexpensive, but I balk at calling them a great value. If you’re interested, I strongly suggest you take Emotiva up on their in-home, 30 day trial and try the amps for yourself first. Personally speaking, I’ll be keeping the Emotivas in my setup.
However, if you’re a discerning audiophile and you just can’t compromise with anything short of the best, then the Emotiva XPA-1Ls will leave you disappointed. At that point, I’d look elsewhere for the long-term and view the XPA-1Ls as more of a stepping stone up the sonic ladder as opposed to being the final rung at your destination.
REVIEW UPDATE: I have been living the pair Emotiva XPA-1Ls for almost two years with flawless performance. Am I glad that I kept the Emotivas? You bet. Not once have I experienced a quirk, oddity, or failure. Any reservations I may have had initially about long-term reliability haven’t manifested themselves in the least. Unfortunately, review periods aren’t all that long. They can range from weeks to perhaps a month or two. During that time period, you can make observations but often can’t make definitive conclusions about a product. I think it speaks for itself when a reviewer choses to purchase the equipment they have reviewed and then has a product in their rack for years. To that end and with the benefit of perspective (not to mention a few more Emotiva purchases), I need to amend my earlier impressions. Not only are these amps inexpensive, but I have also found them to be a really great value too.