Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplilfier Review Highlights

Best of 2014 Awards

With the resurgence of vinyl over the last few years, more and more enthusiasts are looking to get in the game to see what all the buzz is about. Now there is another affordable way to incorporate records into your existing system and it comes from none other than one of the premier affordable audio companies on the planet, Emotiva. Their little phono stage, dubbed the XPS-1 is compact, well made and universally adaptable to any system. The sound it produces is vivid and upbeat with very low background noise.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Highlights Summary

  • Review Highlight Points
  • Excellent build quality
  • Mates well with all types of cartridges
  • Low noise
  • Wonderful sound staging
  • Vivid, lively and upbeat presentation

Introduction to the Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

Emotiva is definitely within the league great high end audio companies of the 21st Century. Their products are serious pieces of audio engineering: well designed, solidly built and not bad to look at. And did I mention they usually sound terrific? So you may think, “What’s all the fuss about? A lot of companies produce decent high end products.” That would be true, but nobody else does it at similar price points. Emotiva really does offer you champagne tastes for your beer budget.

EMOTIVA XPS-1 PHONO PREAMPLIFIER REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS

  • Design: Phono Preamplifier; RIAA Equalization and Gain for Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC) Phono Cartridges
  • Inputs: 1 Pair Unbalanced Phono
  • Outputs: 1 Pair Unbalanced Line Level
  • Input Impedance: 47k kOhm (MM); 47 Ohms, 100 Ohms, 470 Ohms, or 1 kOhm (MC)
  • Gain: 40 dB (MM) and 60 dB (MC)
  • MFR: 20 Hz – 20 kHz +/- 0.12 dB (MM); +/-0.25 dB (MC)
  • S/N Ratio (A-Weighted): >96 dB (MM); >79 dB (MC)
  • THD: 20 Hz – 20 kHz <0.02% (MM); <0.05% (MC)
  • Dimensions: 1-15/16″ H x 2.5″ W x 7″ D
  • Weight: 7.9 Ounces
  • MSRP: $149 USD
  • Emotiva
  • SECRETS Tags: Emotiva, Emotiva XPS-1, Preamplifier Reviews, 2014, Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier

Enter their newest product, the XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier. This tiny component allows hook up of moving magnet or moving coil cartridges. But unlike other budget phono stages, the XPS-1 accommodates different loading requirements for your MC cartridge. This makes it a universally adaptable product that will never become obsolete. The bigger question is how does it sound?

 

Design and Setup of the Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier

Emotiva’s diminutive XPS-1 phono preamp is a highly flexible unit in a small form factor that is surprisingly well built for its price class. The case is just a bit larger than a pack of cigarettes with unbalanced ins and outs on opposite sides of the case. These are via high quality gold plated solid brass RCA connectors. The gold plated ground terminal is on the same side as the inputs while the DC power input is on the side with the line outs.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

The blue power indicator LED is on top of the case. Like many similar products, the XPS-1 is intended to remain plugged in and powered up all the time. The idling power consumption is very low.

All the controls are also on top of the case. These include a pair of toggles to set the gain for either moving coil (60 dB) or moving magnet (40 dB). There are also two rows of DIP switches for selecting the input impedance of your MC cartridge. Possible impedances are 1 k?, 470 ?, 100 ? or 47 ?. These are all common values to match your cartridge’s loading requirements. If the MC/MM toggle is set to MM, then the input impedance is fixed at the industry standard 47 k? for a moving magnet cartridge. All this represents an alarming degree of flexibility for a product in this price class.

The XPS-1’s case is a rugged all-metal design that offers enhanced immunity from noise and electrical interference. This type of shielding is particularly important for phono preamps as they must manage and amplify very small signals, particularly when fed via a low output moving coil (MC) cartridge.

Emotiva claims that the XPS-1 has sophisticated multi-stage power supplies for “superior noise performance”. My experience holds that well-engineered power supplies pay off with audible improvements and I will have more to say about this in the In Use section to follow.

Emotiva has further claims regarding the measured performance of this product. This includes an accurate RIAA equalization of +/- 0.25 dB along with claims of low noise (high signal to noise ratio), low harmonic distortion and exceptional channel separation. These claims are supported through rigorous, independent testing by Audio Precision that can be downloaded from the Emotiva website – Audio Precision Tests XPS-1.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

Setup was a breeze. You make the line-level and ground hookups, set the gain and load impedance and connect the power supply. Then you are ready to start listening. The XPS-1 is also great for those users who like to play around with the load impedance to fine tune the sound to their liking. So there is some room for experimentation after the initial hook up, but most everyone will be listening to their favorite records in no time flat.

There were only two things I didn’t like about the physical design of the XPS-1. One was having the inputs and outputs on opposite sides of the case. This required me to curve one set of interconnects for my particular setup. I also thought the power indicator was unnecessarily bright.

 

The Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier In Use

My experience with amplification products of all types has led me to the conclusion that well-engineered power supplies tend to support the drive in music. This is communicated by an energetic boogie factor that was the XPS-1’s calling card throughout the audition period.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

This was heard quite well when listening to Cannonball Adderley’s classic “Somethin’ Else”. I have a heavy vinyl reissue of this record that just sounds marvelous over proper playback equipment. So speaking of boogie factor, I heard it in spades through the sax solo/lead on “Love for Sale”. This part also showed an addictively vivid rendering. The bass was decidedly tame but with lots of space between the notes that helped propel the beat.

Compared to the best phono stages I’ve heard, the XPS-1 was a touch chalky sounding with an ever so thin presentation in the treble. Still, the cymbals stayed just on the warm side of neutrality so the realism factor remained intact. All in all, the XPS-1 showed its mettle time and time again by keeping everything in its place, even when things got heated up. It kind of impressed me, a lot.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

Speaking of boogie factor and complex arrangements, why not pull out another stellar reissue – Buddy Guy’s “Stone Crazy!” on Alligator Records. This is high octane, nearly incendiary material with Buddy’s regular band of the day (1981). Recorded in France, the album is meant to mimic one of his live shows and is chock full of rockin’ guitar licks! The Emotiva XPS-1 joined the party and laid down a rollicking performance complete with driving bass, edgy electric guitar and rhythmically precise drum work.

The XPS-1 offers a musical perspective I found to be program-dependent and in this case it was like an intimate live setting in a small Chicago bar. Another nicety was the low-noise performance of the XPS-1. Take “When I Left Home”. It started off with a soft passage and the background noise level was audible but not intrusive. It simply reminded me that this was vinyl but this light touch of noise wasn’t screwing up the music. Then once the band set off full bore, the dynamics were free of any audible limitation.

The little Emotiva also did an excellent job of handling vocal sibilants where lesser designs might over accentuate them or they may fuzzy or hard-edged, the XPS-1 did them very naturally. My final analysis of this album was that Buddy can really shred it and thank you Emotiva for facilitating this decadence!

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

Next up was Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty Ballet Suite” by The Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting. This was an original pressing on the Columbia Masterworks label. The slight chalky quality I mentioned before was not apparent on this disc. This quality would come and go but slowly diminished over time and I think it might just fade away all together given enough break-in.

The sonic highlights on this album involved the stage width, dynamics and the ability to sort complex passages. Starting with the stage width and perspective, these qualities were program dependent through the XPS-1 and with this record; I was in the first row. My favorite parts of this album were when the whole orchestra was playing at once and the XPS-1 did a very good job of managing the complexities.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

I’ll close out my listening impressions with Leo Kottke “6- and 12-String Guitar” on heavy, clear vinyl. This is Kottke’s most famous album and showcases his original finger-picking style on guitars fitted with steel strings. It is a true masterwork and I could hear deep into the music with the Emotiva in play.

Again, the sound from the XPS-1 was vivid and lively with a balanced frequency response that was warm but responsive. The fast-paced picking style brought out the strength in the Emotiva. The music was played with confidence by the artist as well as by the system.

Side 2 started off more lyrically and playing this back was a total breeze for the tiny Emotiva. There was some audible surface noise here but the XPS-1 was able to avoid it intruding on the music. I am not sure exactly how Kottke played these songs to develop all the amazing guitar sounds but it is definitely something to behold. Now was the time to just enjoy.

 

Conclusions about the Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier

Well, there you have it. A $149 phono stage with all the flexibility one could ask for. So of course it isn’t going to sound very good, right? Well not so fast! This little guy has a vivid, lively and upbeat sound with agile bass response. The vocal sibilants are impressively clean as is the channel separation. The audio performance does improve with break in and I would log at least 50 hours on mine before passing judgment.

Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

You can also expect great build quality in its compact form factor. The all-metal case and gold-plated connectors make the XPS-1 look like a little piece of jewelry. The Emotiva XPS-1 is a clear cut recommendation as a high value add-on for those without a phono preamp or as an upgrade for those with included phono stages in mass market receivers.

 

  • Carlos E Bauza

    This is truly a little gem! I have lived with various phono preamps over the years, including Dyna PAS-3, PAT-4, PAT-5, Marantz 7, McIntosh #?, Hafler DH-100, DH-101, DH-110, and Parasound Halo P3.
    I consider the XPS-1 equal to the Hafler DH-110 and the Parasound Halo P3. BUT it is more flexible than both by virtue of its MM / MC capability PLUS its tweaking controls which are also instantly available. The dynamic, tonal, and spatial capabilities are eminently natural.

  • Steve Woods

    Wow, that’s some high praise! Then again, after countless amount of adjustment, electrical issolation, different headshell, wires/cables, etc. I couldn’t get rid of the “signature” Grado hum out of my Grado Prestige cartridge. That is until I switched to this preamp. This beauty is absolutely silent with it. I was tempted to give up on the Grado MM in favor of the Denon DL-103 MC thus why I bought this preamp, but after enjoying this pairing for almost a year, I’m hard pressed to change anything.

  • Tony M.

    Hi Jim, thank you for the review. The specs of this little box are exceptional. Do you think the slightly “chalky” sound of the XPS-1 could be eliminated with a higher quality power supply? I assume by chalky, you mean a touch of grain? Thanks!