One of the biggest reasons for the vinyl resurgence is its perceived simplicity. You choose a record, put it on the table, drop the needle, and enjoy. There are no playlists to organize, no menus or submenus to navigate, no worries about file formats and compatibilities. Records are software the way it used to be.
Hardware used to be simple too, but not any more, which is one reason why your friends listen to Bluetooth speakers. Nowadays your setup probably includes a computer, a mobile device, maybe a dedicated portable player and some flash drives, a turntable and a disc player — and that’s just for sources. Now figure in a preamp, a power amp, a DAC, maybe a headphone amp and a phono preamp, and we’re talking about gear creep that’s nothing at all like the way it used to be.
Back-to-roots simplicity, with enough sophistication to play today’s hi-res software as well as yesterday’s, was what attracted me to review Parasound’s latest offering, the Halo Integrated. It’s a one-box solution that combines a flexible 2.1 channel preamplifier, a two-channel power amp, a hi-res DAC and a phono preamp. It’s a fresh, up-to-date product idea from an company whose longtime rep has been excellent bang-for-the-buck ratio and overall reliability. Parasound’s upscale Halo line has impressed me since its debut in 2002, and since then, many Halo components — particularly the power amps — have become popular in the custom install market, as well as among budget-conscious audiophiles and not a few pro studios.
Specs and Features
The Halo Integrated is generously powered with 160 watts per channel into 8 ohms (240 watts into 4 ohms). Distortion is as low as would be expected, and it’s an honest spec; total harmonic distortion climbs from 0.01% to a mere 0.05% at full-on power output. The muscular class A/B amplifier design — 45 amps of current per channel are available for musical peaks — comes from John Curl, one of the rock stars of the audio design world, and a long-time Halo collaborator. The Halo’s built-in digital-to-analog conversion uses the high-end ESS Sabre32 Reference DAC that’s popular among many pro and upscale audio brands from Apogee to Oppo, and decodes up to 384kHz PCM, as well as native or DoP DSD.
The interesting connectivity and configuration options on the Halo Integrated shows that a good deal of thought went into pleasing its likely target audience, and making the product a kind of future-proof purchase. For example, the audiophile that’s likely to be interested in this product is a music enthusiast that uses both analog and digital source components, and one day might decide to bypass the Halo’s preamp section and use just the beefy power amp as part of a multi-channel system. Or if they wanted, they could bypass the power amp and use the preamp and DAC to power another amp altogether, maybe one of those fun Chi-Fi tube kits that go viral in the audiophile community. There are balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs to let you do these kinds of things; the Halo Integrated has a left-brain/right-brain jack panel that crosses numerous lines and ends up being exceptionally versatile.
For example, there are five analog audio inputs, plus a dedicated phono input that’s 3-way switchable for use with either moving magnet (47k ohms) and moving coil (47k or 100 ohms) cartridges. In addition, there’s a pair of “theater-bypass” (no processing) L-R inputs, as well as two theater bypass subwoofer inputs. The logic here is that if you were adding the Halo integrated into an existing home theater system powered by a conventional A/V receiver, you could send the main L-R signals out into the Halo, where they would enjoy the sonic benefits of the Halo’s 160-watt brawn, instead of taxing the receiver’s internal multichannel amplification, which in most cases will be puny by comparison, even if claiming the same kind of wattage.
The Halo’s connectivity includes 3 input ports for USB, coaxial and optical connections, and a front-panel mini-stereo jack for your phone or portable. Given the fact that there’s already a separate phono input, I would have gladly traded one more analog input for a 4th digital input; but for many listeners, 3 digital sources will likely be enough.
The front panel has a headphone amplifier (1/8″ connection), with 10 ohms output impedance, designed with high current to drive headphones rated up to 600 ohms. I tried it with cans from MoFi, Sennheiser, Musik and B&W, all with satisfying results. To the right, there’s — wait for it — a pair of rotary tone controls, which might be anathema to some, but which can be very useful, particularly in a setup where there’s no video screen to make menu-based tone adjustments. There’s also a front-panel balance control, and another knob for the subwoofer level, which in practice could make a big difference in your relationships with family and neighbors.
While all the flexibility and conveniences of the Halo — including a remote control — are delightful, they wouldn’t be satisfying unless the music comes out right. Based on previous experiences with Parasound, I expected in advance that the Halo would be able to rock out convincingly, and I was not disappointed. What did turn my ear was the way such an analog-y old school seeming box could make digital files sound so right, especially in the delicate moments where good digital is well, just hard to top.
I began the auditions with big-bang stuff; brawny rhythm sections, large scale orchestral, and big dynamic swings. I’ve been using SVS Utlra towers for 2-channel listening; in my dwelling, these puppies have little need for subwoofers and can deliver clean bass down to 28 Hz. The Halo Integrated matched with these speakers like meeting an old friend they used to jam with, forming an immediate rapport. Impact and slam were not only effortless, they were detailed and genuinely engaging. It’s one thing to feel and hear the big beats cleanly when they come in, but it’s another, greater musical experience when you can clearly hear the sense of timing, of the push-pull in and out of the pocket, the almost imperceptible modulations that make the sound music instead of audio.
Take for example the avant-garage of Pere Ubu’s classic “Final Solution” from Terminal Tower (Twin Tone LP), where the band intros with big snare slaps kept slightly behind the time by the criminally underrated rhythm section of bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krause. A microscopic lag on the 2 and 4 beats, combined with a ominous, deeper-than-dirt bass groove gives the track a tremendous, lumbering Led Zep heaviness, channeling John Bonham through Frankenstein’s monster. While I’ve been hearing this track for 30 plus years, I hadn’t had occasion to fully bathe in this little trick of musicality, but the Halo brought it directly to my attention. The major explosive bits on the song really exploded too; with enough finesse and separation so that the white noise from the modular synthesizers and the whitish noise from the cymbals and guitar distortions did not become a mass, they remained separate textures. Very impressive, and this from cheap vinyl from the 80s.
I kept feeding the Halo with the big stuff that needs volume and dynamics for fullest effect, and the Halo-SVS combo presented them like they’d been playing all their lives together. There was nothing lacking throughout any of Who’s Next (96/24 HDtracks) other than my willingness to blast it to levels that would literally shake my walls. Situations like these, and in the quieter ones where the bass is unusually deep and present, is where the Halo’s tone controls were a fabulous addition. I brought out one of my bass reference discs — Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble’s “Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission” (Axiom CD) which goes down loooowww, baby. At first play, the bass was overpowering my room. A tiny adjustment on the bass control immediately snapped the music into coherence; it took a second, no menus, no fuss, just back to the music almost immediately with better acoustic balance. Loved it, and without guilt.
Turning to more acoustically complex tones and moving the listening focus to nuance and transparency, I put the Halo through several demanding digital tracks. In particular, I was interested to hear what a harpsichord would sound like, because In my opinion, making this anachronistic instrument sound harmonically rich and beautiful instead of steely and grating is one of the most sure-fire tests in all of audio. I fed two classics; Bob van Asperen’s seminal rendition of Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier Vol. 1, (EMI Reflexe CD) and two of Couperin’s Pieces de Clavecin (Harmonia Mundi CD). In both instances, the listening was involving and not in the least fatiguing, an effect that is quickly apparent with poor reproduction (or recording) of this music.
Taking the idea further, I moved to solo piano; in this case staying with Couperin and listening to Angela Hewitt’s astounding piano transcriptions of this pre-piano Baroque master. Hewitt has become a favorite interpreter for me, and her recordings since the early 90s have been an audiophile’s delight. On Couperin Keyboard Music Vol. 2 (Hyperion CD) her delicate playing is a revelation of what is most difficult to hear in the harpsichord original. Coaxing tonal color out of that instrument has been a challenge for more than 400 years; here Hewitt uses a harpsichordist’s technique adapted to the broader color palette of the piano. The result is amazingly fresh — Baroque keyboard music like you’ve never heard it before. Through the Halo, this music was mesmerizing; colors you’ve never heard before from this music, presented in highly satisfying, living color.
Let me say it without a blush: I absolutely loved this piece of gear. It hits on so many touchpoints of convenience, flexibility, usability, and musicality that it’s hard to not develop an immediate crush. The Halo Integrated is like getting your old-school post-boomer rig back (well, if you’re as old school as I am), only now with outstanding D-to-A built in, a phono preamp that’s better than your old one, and can interface with all your modern music sources, all from one box. No video screens, no menus; immediate “room correction” from a couple of knobs with no fuss…excellent.
Besides being an outstanding value in and of itself at $2495 (think of all you’re getting), the Halo Integrated is a component that can grow with you and your upgrade path, whether it’s into multichannel, or a future second setup, or even desktop recording. The Halo Integrated can interface with just about everything, do no-compromise justice to both digital and analog sources, and you can easily visualize it being one of those classic components you still see in your friend’s rack 10 years from now, still doing its job day after day.
There are lots of ways to put together separate components that can do all the things that the Halo Integrated does right, but I don’t know of so many solutions that would be as capable, as immediate and as plain enjoyable as this was. Kudos to Parasound for making old new again, and dare I say it, fun again. This component is most highly HRAC approved.
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