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XLH M-2000 Mono Amps and SL-11XS Preamp
Top Notch Heavyweight Contenders from China

 

October 2008


    




A rare opportunity repeats itself
I was talking to our esteemed editor, Dave Thomas about the XLH amplifier and preamp from China. He had an opportunity a couple of years ago to review the pieces but circumstances did not present themselves favorably for him. He mentioned that the opportunity to review the pieces had re-emerged, but as fate would have it, he was pretty much tied to other projects and was still unable to take on the review. He asked me if I would be interested and after some fake posturing, Isaid I would. It’s not every day an opportunity comes along to review what some have called the best built electronics to ever come out of China. I soon was in contact with the super friendly Ping Gong of AAA-Audio, the importer for the XLH equipment. Ping soon let me know where the amplifier and preamp were, and since they were located in the Chicagoland area, I was soon in possession of them.

Something you don’t see every day
Having done a review on electronics from another company from China, and having seen other Chinese-made gear from Xindak, Ming Da, and a few others, I thought I had a handle on what the XLH equipment would be like. The Xindak gear appears to be finely built and similar to what you would usually see produced here in the states at rather moderate price points. The Ming Da equipment, while being larger and more exotic, are very well built vacuum tube electronics. Think of the Ming Da electronics as being the Dared electronics (that I reviewed about a year or so ago) on steroids. My assumption was that gear from China must be similar to this and is sort of what I was expecting the XLH equipment to be like. Once I finally saw the XLH amp and preamp up close and in person, I was surprised at how beautifully constructed, solidly built, and mind-bendingly massive these pieces were. It was nothing at all like I was expecting. This was a lot more like Krell and Rowland Research equipment of the late 80s and early to mid 90s.

The M-200 amplifiers are beautifully finished in black with silver trim accents on the face plates and large, tastefully done heat sinks. They each measure in at a robust 22.5 inches deep, 19 inches wide at the faceplate (17 inches wide heat sink to heat sink) and about 9.5 inches tall. Each mono-amp weighs all of 196 lbs! There are only two handles on the back which is hardly enough to sustain the weight of the amplifier, other than lifting the rear slightly to move a cable out of the way or something of that nature.

Now, don't get me wrong, because I have never claimed to be an electronics genius when it comes to audio gear, but poking around inside of a 600 watt, nearly 200 pound amplifier is not something I ever imagined doing. That, along with the fact that I did not receive an owners manual with the amplifiers that I could glean anything technical to share with you guys leaves us a little high and dry on what's going on inside of the amplifiers.

Power on/off is controlled by a slightly oversized, but nice looking, triangular shaped switch located in the middle of each face plate. On the back of each amp, you will notice the large 20 amp, 5 foot long, captured power cord. Each cord has what appears to be Hubbell connectors on the end and look to be of good quality. It’s also very important to note that these are twenty amp power cords so make sure you are plugging them into a receptacle that's rated at 20 amps and can handle that amount of current. I have dedicated twenty amp lines for each amp and they showed me no difficulty at all with all of the powering up and down I do for switching out cables and electronics. You should be sure and speak with Ping Gong if you have any questions regarding plugging them in and powering them up. There are two sets of speaker connections on the back of the amplifiers and three input connectors. One of the connectors is for XLR connectors, the other two are single-ended connectors with the top one for normal “in-phase” preamps and the one underneath it for preamps that phase invert. This phase inversion done at the amplifier sure makes things a whole lot easier than doing it at the speaker end each time and is one feature that I was happy to see. Also on the back is a power “on-off-reset” switch.

The preamplifier is a bit more manageable, measuring roughly 19 inches wide at the faceplate (17 inches from side to side), 12 inches deep, and 5 inches high, though still weighing a hefty 37 pounds. Like the M-200 mono amps, the SL-11XS is built like a tank and has an extremely solid feel to it. If ever there was a minimalist approach to a preamplifier, especially one this size, then the SL-11XS would win the prize - or at least be in the running. For starters, there is no remote control. The front panel of the preamp holds only a power on/off switch and two volume controls. I must admit that the volume controls have a very nice feel to them and emit a smooth click with the slightest of turns. The problem I had with the controls was that there was no way of telling if you were matching the two channels, other than by ear, or counting the number of clicks for each control. A few more markings on the part of the faceplate surrounding the controls would be very much appreciated. There is no mute switch on the front so you have to turn the volume controls down whenever you change a record or a disc, and then bring the volume back up. To its credit, the SL-11XS never had any pops or humming in the absence of having a mute switch. The back panel is also minimalist having only one pair of single-ended (RCA) input connectors, and two pair of output connectors: one for balanced (XLR) cables and the other for single-ended. Other than the IEC connector for your power cord and another “on-off-reset” switch, that's it for the rear panel. As I did with the M-200s, I did take a look inside of the SL-11XS and was impressed with what I saw. The preamp is divided into thirds and each volume control has its own component-packed circuit board that runs from the front of the preamp to the connectors on the rear panel, and a large transformer that sits in the middle between them.

What they sound like

   
All of the good looks and all of hardware that the XLH pieces contain on the inside would mean nothing if they didn't sound good, but sound good, they do. The XL-11XS preamplifier has an open airy top end that is similar to my reference Klyne Seven. The XL-11XS has very good high frequency extension that’s detailed without sounding aggressive or bright. Decay is also good. On complex jazz or classical music, individual lines are easily followed even when the music gets loud with multiple performers playing their instruments simultaneously. Micro and macro detail retrieval was very good and lead to several moments of discovery of sounds on several discs. Tonally, I felt the XL-11XS was just a tad bit on the warm side of neutral, which I did not think was a bad thing at all. The XL-11XS has very good staging capabilities as well. It created a fairly wide and deep stage in my listening room and had the uncanny ability to make performers at the rear of the stage have as much focus and dimensionality as those situated at the front. The XL-11XS is extremely dynamic, especially when the music calls for it, and produces deep, taut bass that contains a good amount of detail and information. Transient response is another of this preamp’s strong points, lending lifelike snap and impact to percussive instruments.

The M-200 mono amplifiers were a revelation. I was not accustomed to hearing 200 pound, 600 watt amplifiers being this musically nimble and exciting. I came up in the generation where the large amplifiers, such as the Krell KMA 200 and the Rowland Models 7s, had prodigious amounts of bass slam and impact but were slow and not all that musically involving. The M-200s grabbed my attention almost immediately. Don’t let the size and power of these mono-amps fool you; they do all genres of the music very well.

I was captivated by the M-200s’ ability to convey aspects of the music having to do with speed, detail, staging and dimensionality, as evidenced in music such as string quartets or solo piano. I was thinking of how nice the sound was right up until I heard that first whopping bass transient from an orchestral work that seemingly shook the foundation of my house. As an ear-to-ear grin appeared on my face, I thought to myself, “Oh yeah.” These amplifiers handle power hungry passages with aplomb and can play loudly without any hint of harshness or strain, better than any amplifiers I’ve heard, including the wonderful GamuT M250 mono amps. The dynamic range performance is top shelf as well.

Music references used included Andy Bey’s American Song [Savoy Jazz SVY 17354]. Every aspect of Mr. Bey’s deep, rich tenor with its sweet, dulcet tones and rich textures, were uncovered and fleshed out to a greater degree than what I get with most solid-state amplifiers, approaching the performance of tubes in this aspect. Likewise, listening to Dianne Reeves doing, “I Can't Believe You're In Love With Me”, accompanied by Terrence Blanchard on trumpet from his Let's Get Lost CD [Sony SK98607], sounded beguiling and true. I did notice that XLH electronics’ sonic presentation is neither set before the speakers nor behind them, but was dictated, more or less by the music itself. Some albums threw an image with their stage clearly in front of the speakers, and some were distinctly behind the speakers, making it difficult to tell if I could ascribe this artifact to the electronics or something else in the chain. For example, on Sarah McLachlan's, The Freedom Sessions [Arista], the stage was a good three feet in back of the speakers, while Nels Kline's wonderfully eerie and incisive guitar playing from his The Inkling [CG 105] CD was clearly up front and lively.

Moving on to larger scale music, John Williams' underappreciated soundtrack to the movie Rosewood [Sony Classical] contains a bit of everything to like. It has a chorus with some stirring vocals by Shirley Caesar, and is supported by a full orchestra. Lending to the performances are Tommy Morgan on the harmonica and Dean Parks on guitar. It should be noted that John Williams not only conducted this piece but also composed and produced it. From the powerful vocals of “Look Down Lord”, to the room shaking low end performance of “The Town Burns,” the XLH electronics convey the powerful emotions of the story being told during a dark day in American history. On a lighter note, Keiko Matsui's Dream Walk [Shout Factory] is a smooth sounding, easy listening CD that was enjoyable to listen to through the XLH electronics for the way they handle the plethora of synthesized music on “Dream Walk” and the driving bass line of “Children of the Oasis.”

Winding things up
The XL-11XS preamplifier has a sound that is somewhat similar to my reference Klyne 7LX 3.5 linestage. They both exhibit high end extension and detail without sounding bright or etched, unless the source material sounds that way. Where I feel the XLH preamp excels over the Klyne is that it is a little bit smoother sounding, has slightly larger staging capabilities and has noticeably more drive and impact in the midbass. The Klyne is well known for its deep bass extension, which the XLH is able to match, but having that extra power in the midbass gives the XLH an advantage when it comes to playing the more up tempo, electronically enhanced music of today. The XL-11XS does very well with acoustics instruments as well. I also had in for a review, during this time period, the Conrad Johnson ACT2 Series II preamplifier. The XL-11XS was the better performer at the frequency extremes, but the ACT2 had its way when it came to more life-like sounding midrange, wider deeper stage, presence and dimensionality of the performers on the stage. Though the ACT2 is 2-3 times the cost of the XL-11XS, the XLH preamp kept the comparisons relatively close.

The XLH M-200 mono-amps were truly special and will leave a lump in my throat when they leave. These amps sounded wonderful on every speaker on which I listened to them, and left me with the feeling that they brought out some of the best of what the speakers had to offer. Their ability to combine effortless dynamics as well as a smooth, musical presentation won the day and led to some truly memorable listening sessions. In terms of interactions, there were no incompatibility issues with either the amp or preamp. The XL-11XS worked very well with the Gamut M250 mono-amps as well as the Conrad Johnson ET250S, but sounded its best with the M-200 mono-amps. For that matter, every preamp I had on hand sounded it’s best with the M-200 mono-amps. My reference Klyne 7LX3.5, the CJ ACT2 Series II, and especially the Audio Valve Eklipse, all sounded exceptionally good. As stated previously, the M-200s have captured power cords and didn’t allow me to experiment with others. I did notice that neither the amplifier nor the preamp seemed to prefer cables from one company to another. I did have best results with the Silversmith, Argento, and my reference, Dynamic Design cables but also got noteworthy performance using the Element Signature and Atlas Mavros cables as well.

I can easily recommend the XLH XL-11XS preamplifier, especially if you don’t mind its minimalist approach in terms of inputs and lack of remote control. On sonic merits, it stands well on its own. The XLH M-200 mono-amps are a true revelation and get a “most highly recommended” rating from me.

 

                                 



Specifications
XLH M-2000 Mono Power Amplifier Specifications:
Type: Solid-state power amplifier
Power Output RMS: 600W/8Ω, 1200W/4Ω
Maximum Power Output: >2400W 2Ω
Input Sensitivity: 1.0V
Input Impedance: 10kΩ balanced (XLR)
Frequency Response: 20Hz ~ 20kHz 0.13dB (600W/8Ω), 5Hz ~ 180kHz -3dB
Signal-to-noise Ratio: >110dB A-weighted
Total Harmonic Distortion: < 0.0086% (20kHz, 600W, 8Ω), < 0.0058% (1kHz, 600W, 8Ω), < 0.037% (20Hz, 600W, 8Ω)
Intermodulation Distortion: < 0.03% (6W ~ 600W, 8Ω)
Input: XLR - 1 pair (balanced), RCA - 1 pair (single-ended)
Output: 2 pairs of speaker binding posts
Dimensions: 19.02 W x 9.57 H x 26.10 D (inch)
Weight: 176.37lb each
MSRP: $25,000 per pair

XLH XL-11XS Preamplifier
Frequency Response: 20Hz~20KHz 0.1db, 2Hz~150kHz 1.0dB
Output: 3.5V
Maximum Output: 10V (unbalanced)
Input Sensitivity: 500mV
Input Impedance: 1.2mOhms (unbalanced)
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.004% (20Hz~20KHz, 3.5V), <0.012% (100KHz, 3.5V)
Channel Separation: >123dB (250Hz~1000Hz)
Dynamic Intermodulation Distortion: <0.0015% (500nV~6V)
Signal Noise Ratio: >116dB(A)
Dimensions (W x H x D):19.41in x 4.65in x 12.80in
Weight: 18.0kg, 36.68lb
MSRP: $5,000

Manufacturer
XLH ZhongSheng ATV Engineering Co., Ltd.
ZhongShan, China

Exclusive Worldwide Distributor:
AAA-Audio, LLC
831 Beacon Street, Unit 169
Newton, MA 02459
Tel. 617-614-0562
URL: http://www.aaa-audio.com

email: info@aaa-audio.com