REFERENCE AUDIO – WITHAM ESSEX
BOB’s Review Series - No 22 – YBA Passion Pre 550A – Preamp and DAC
Introduction – YBA was established in 1981 by Yves-Bernard Andre and manufactured in France until around 2009 when YBA partnered with Shanling in China. After a short break and the appointment of a new CEO the YBA brand was relaunched in 2012 and now all their products are assembled in China using parts mostly sourced from France. Shanling have manufactured high end and high-quality components for many years and the quality of build and finish shows in all YBA products. Their current product range comprises the Heritage, Genesis, Passion and Signature models and YBA say they design products to last so they don’t make changes just for the sake of change, preferring to release products that will stay current for many years. The Signature range continues to be designed in France where all the parts are also manufactured for assembly in China. As a mark of his confidence in the Signature range Yves-Bernard Andre flies out to China to test every single unit post assembly and then signs every unit before it is boxed and shipped, attesting to its performance.
The YBA product list includes Pre, Power and Integrated amps, CD Players and Transports, DAC’s, Phono Stages and most recently a streamer. They also make a range of interconnect and speaker cables so apart from speakers and turntables they can deliver a whole entertainment system.
This is the first YBA product I have used at home although I have used them many times in demonstrations in our showroom so let’s see how the Pre 550A performs in a home environment.
Technology – YBA products are built with exemplary quality both internally and externally and come in natural silver only with the exception of the Genesis range which comes in black. All Models come fitted with three isolating feet, two at the back with rubber inserts and one at the front with a solid insert designed to give both protections from vibration and grounding of the chassis to your support stand or shelf of choice. The front panel of the Pre 550A which sells for £6,750 (at the time of writing) comprises two rotary control knobs, the left selecting source and the right providing volume control. There are twin toggle switches between the knobs allowing selection of Phase and Mute. The rear panel is packed with high quality sensibly spaced plugs and sockets with two line inputs on RCA labelled CD and a rather old fashioned Video and a single input on XLR. It has twin RCA outputs and a single output on XLR, and this is how I connected it to my power amps. The built in DAC module has inputs for AES/EBU on XLR, Optical, RCA and BNC and an output on RCA Coaxial. It also has an input for USB type B to connect a computer or server and a second USB type A input labelled iPod for direct connection to an iPhone or similar device. It also has Built-in Apple AirPort Express support that enables the Pre 550A to work via a wireless AirPort Express network. The DAC module uses a Cirrus Logic CS 4398 chip and only handles data files up to 192 kHz/ 24 bit, but for most users this is more than enough, higher resolution files still being a rarity. All incoming digital files are upsampled to 192kHz although there is no way of telling this is happening via the front display. It doesn’t support DSD files, nor does it fully unfold MQA files.
There is a rear mounted toggle switch to turn the DAC on or off and finally two ethernet connections, one labelled I2S for digital input from suitably equipped sources and the other providing a network connection but the manual doesn’t say what it can be used for and it seemed to have no purpose because the 550A is not a streamer, unless it can be used for service or upgrades. The mains on/off switch is discretely hidden under the front panel on the left-hand side so as not to clutter the rather nice front panel formed from profiled 15mm aluminium and has a distinctive central oval pinky orange display panel with yellow graphics. It looks much better in real life than it sounds. The Pre 550A measures 430w x 118h x 421d and weighs in at 12.5kg.
Performance – Via Outboard DAC and CD Player - I listened to a variety of streamed and ripped music files and also to some CDs and found the Pre 550A to be a more than capable line preamp and DAC. It delivers a smooth and slightly warm presentation, but this is not at the loss of any detail or dynamics, far from it in fact. This is not a lean preamp, but neither is it overly dark to the point of being laid back. It delivers a truly inviting sound over a wide range of music, no matter the volume level set.
Regressing to my student days I selected ‘Supernature’ by Cerone (Tidal 44.1/16bit) and the Pre 550A delivered a real dynamic punch to my power amps creating a wide soundstage yet able to maintain a firm centre image and focus, not an easy trick to get right. Vocals on ‘Not Too Much to Ask’ by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Joe Diffie were smooth and delicate with a real sense of belief that the duo were singing for each other and I was just eavesdropping. If you have read a few of my earlier reviews, you will know that some tracks recur again and again and one of them is ‘Dying Light’ by Oh Susanna and here the YBA Pre 550A gave added nuance to her plaintive vocals in a way that many preamps would fail to get right or even be able to approach.
Just as this review was ending the postman delivered a new CD – ‘Now That’s What I Call Music – Outlaw Country’ (recommended by Bob Harris) so I popped it on the Sony CD Player and was presented with a glorious collection of Country music tracks by various country artists playing at their best via the YBA 550A. There are 18 really good tracks on this CD and sometimes ‘Now’ seem to excel with content and should never be discounted as a source of great music.
Performance – Via Onboard DAC - I listened to the USB connection from my Innuos server and from the optical connection of the CD Player. Playing ‘Time Machine’ by Alan Parsons via USB (ripped CD file at 44.1kHz/16bit) and the YBA sound was not dissimilar to the line inputs and all the quality noted when using the outboard DAC was still there. This is clearly a very good built in DAC solution with a sound consistent with the preamps line inputs.
I can’t claim to listen to much Ambient House music but trawling Qobuz new releases I came across the latest album by the Orb (44.1/24bit) and found myself listening to the whole album, all 89 minutes of it. It sounded rather spectacular with a rich and dynamic presentation.
I have mentioned the Lucinda Williams track ‘West Memphis’ in other reviews and it’s a track that, on some systems, has hard to follow lyrics but the YBA with its internal DAC was more than up to the task and all the while presenting a much wider soundstage than I am used to hearing. Way outside the width between the speakers. I also found the 550A to reduce sibilance on many tracks noted for pushing levels of acceptability and made them much more enjoyable in the process. I’m thinking Martyn Joseph here.
Piano on ‘Into My Arms’ by Roger Daltrey was particularly clear sounding very much like a real piano which is always a good indicator of design quality. There is no doubt that the YBA DAC is on the warmer side of neutral but that’s not a bad thing today with so many DAC’s trying to out shout each other. If you buy this Preamp for both its line stage and its DAC module you won’t be disappointed either way and it would be some time and at much expense before you felt it necessary to purchase a standalone DAC and you may just stick with what you have for the longer term, as YBA clearly intend.
Conclusion – The 550A pre is never fatiguing, no matter how long you listen, it’s not any less detailed just easier on the brain and that is usually a good sign that distortion management is fully understood by the designer and is well under control. To understand this better listen to ‘You My Love, And’ by Chris Rea (Auberge) which is presented in a relaxed yet detailed way that ends up with wanting to listen to the whole album. Isn’t this exactly what a home audio system should be doing? And it presents this magic at all listening volume levels, not an easy trick to get right. This is a preamp that does not encourage track skipping and again this is a good sign that the designer knows his trade well.
The DAC module is of course a little behind the times in terms of resolution which max’s out at 192kHz but for many users this will not be a problem especially if you listen mostly to CD or vinyl. The 550A doesn’t include a built-in phono stage which might put some users off but YBA do offer excellent standalone phono stages for this purpose, including the Passion PH150. The line analogue side of the Pre 550A is more than able to compete with anything at or near this price and if you have no more than three analogue sources then it should definitely be on your shortlist to audition, especially when partnered with other YBA products such as the matching Passion A650 stereo Power Amp at £5,750 which can also be used in bridged mode as a pair of monoblocs. And the remote control is a work of art too.
Back in the day preamps were always considered to be the heart of any great music system but were, and still are the hardest part to get right. Recently that seems to be ignored by many manufacturers with a plethora of integrated amps coming to market and DACs that try to be preamps which seems to suggest that preamp design is a dying art or at least one reserved for the very high end only. Having spent time with the YBA Passion 550A Preamp I can only conclude that Yves-Bernard Andre knows his art and is more than capable of keeping the preamp alive as the heart of any good system.
Bob – Team Reference Audio