I just bought one of these things and, while the high-end audio community is small, every time I post on the subject, I get stimulating commentary. In particular, anyone who’s interested in the state of the audio DAC art might want to read this. Also there’s a little bug in the P 6 manual that I’ll mention to help future Web-searchers. First things first: The P 6 is a pretty great product, and reasonably priced, and might fit into a lot of peoples’ homes.

Why? · I listen to analog music on vinyl, and digitally via a Mac, which has 290G of music representing my former CD collection and also runs YouTube Music. If you sneer at vinyl, here’s why you’re probably wrong. If you thought “Huh, YouTube Music?” here’s why you might like it.

So, what happened was, my pre-amp was a thirty-plus-year-old Linn Kairn, which was a pretty hot item back in the Nineties. Notably, Linn products always have good phono stages. Which I need because I have a very-low output cartridge. For digital I was taking the USB out of the computer and into a fourteen-year-old Benchmark DAC1 USB, which probably cost hundreds of dollars. Both digital and analog music sounded very good, assuming the recordings were good.

Anyhow, within a few weeks, both analog and digital started sounding skanky, with various flavors of static. Something had gone wrong in the ancient preamp and (the symptoms were spooky) maybe the Benchmark too.

So I went searching for a new preamp with a well-regarded phono section, and several trails led to the P 6, and the price was fair, and now all the music sounds fine.

About the P 6 · Here’s what it looks like, front and back.

Parasound Halo P 6, front view
· · ·
Parasound Halo P 6, back view

Holy crap, is there ever a lot of stuff on that baby’s back.
(Too much, in fact — see below.)

If you want to read a whole lot of breathless prose about its wonderfulness, check the product page.

What’s unique about it? First, the volume control: A neat analog resistor ladder setup, and it just feels cool in your fingers, and uses the whole 100-point volume range smoothly. Second, the fact that the founder of Parasound is John Curl, one of the world’s more famous phono-stage designers. Finally, the fact that it comes with a well-reviewed remote.

And then there’s the DAC issue — would this thing’s built-in DAC be competitive with the pretty-elite-for-its-day Benchmark it was replacing? More on that later.

What’s good · The sound is great. A bit better than the decades-old predecessor on the analog side; digital is a wash.

The remote control is brilliant, has a white button you can see in the dark that makes the other buttons light up, has controls for everything you need. Also, it lets you fix the volume the thing turns on at, so you don’t accidentally get last night’s party volume in a peaceful room.

The subwoofer setup is terrific; you can set or disable the crossover for both main and sub outputs, so you don’t need to use the crossover on the subwoofer, which probably isn’t as good.

It was dead easy to set up.

What’s imperfect · There are treble/bass controls, superfluous among audio weenies, but they’re easy to disable. It doesn’t look as sleek and elegant as the Linn it replaced. And the Linn remembered different boost levels per input.

Also, isn’t having five line-level and four digital inputs stupid overkill in 2023? I think I’m totally typical in listening to vinyl and computer digital and not much else. I mean, CD players and tape recorders and FM tuners still exist, but I totally fail to understand who could need all these. The preamp is way wider than it needs to be.

The DAC issue · As I mentioned, I’m plugging the computer’s USB output into the preamp and using its built-in DAC. That Benchmark cost hundreds and, while well-reviewed, was not felt to be in a class with the really high-end DACs, which can go for $10,000 and way, way up. Am I confident that that DAC can do the music justice?

What is it, anyhow? Turns out Parasound tells you right there on the product page; it’s an ESS Sabre32 Reference DAC (ES9018K2M) — hmm, that data sheet has “CONFIDENTIAL” in big letters at the top of the page. How expensive is it? Reasonable question, and a quick Web search reveals the answer: $12.00 (quantity 1, $8.28 for 100 or more). OMG I’ve been robbed! This is a cheap piece o’ junk! I want my money back!

Wait just a second. First of all, you still have to collect the bits from the USB, feed them (and power) to the DAC chip, and route the analog signal coming out to the pre-amp circuitry, so a digital path costs more than just its DAC chip. Well, but OK, that still feels like a pretty basic part, not the thing for high-end audio.

You might think that, unless you’ve been reading the Archimago’s Musings blog. Archimago is a cynical, skeptical, and highly technical music lover and audiophile who blogs, like me, from Vancouver. Consider MEASUREMENTS: Topping D10s - an inexpensive high performance basic USB DAC with S/PDIF outs. And on "perceptibly perfect" DACs, in which Archimago digs insanely deep into a $100 consumer DAC and demonstrates, pretty conclusively by my read, that all respectable modern DACs sound like all the others.

If you’re going to build a consumer DAC retailing at $100 or so and make money, your DAC-chip budget is probably around $10. And there’s very little evidence you can do better for more money. Which means that my opinion, expressed in 2012, that D-A is hard to do well, may have been wrong then and certainly is now.

It seems that Moore’s Law and the relentless progress of semiconductor technology have got us to a place where DACs, good enough ones not to be the quality bottleneck in any sane audio system, have become a commodity.

Parasound P 6 turn on volume “Vol-Set” doesn’t work · [Sorry, that section header is SEO to get this indexed to help people with a problem I had.]

In the manual, to set the turn-on volume, it says to “Press the Vol-Set button” then “Press the Power On button”. Do they mean hold down one while you press the other? Do they mean press one and then the other, slowly and deliberately? None of those things. Press and release one, then the other, in a pretty quick cadence (a second or so) and it’ll work.

[Pardon the interruption.]

A good audiophile product · Look, there’s no denying that audiophilia is infested by snake-oil salespeople pushing things like those $100K DACs I mentioned. And exotic cables. And there’s more. But there are islands of real value, and the products are well-built and last decades.

And a nice audio system with good speakers and electronics just sounds totally, unsubtly better than your Sonos or Smart Speaker or Bluetooth blob. Like by really a lot.

While I was getting the subwoofer settings tuned up I put on Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert and just sat in front of the speakers, totally stuck, for most of the 26 minutes of Part 1. It’s wonderful music and it sounded so, so, great. I can’t help loving this hobby.

author · Dad
colophon · rights

June 03, 2023
· Technology (90 fragments)
· · Audio (21 more)

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