This review covers two chic looking products from French audio designer Yves-Bernard André who started the YBA brand in the early 1980s. A multi-faceted and thoroughly modern pre amplifier, the YBA Passion PRE550 MkII and a powerful solid state amplifier, the Passion YBA A650 Power Amplifier. The PRE550 caters for analogue and digital sources and has its own twin DACs on board. How will these French audio fashionistas perform?
The A650 (also referred to as AMP650) is rated at 200 watts per channel with the ability to be used with a second A650 in bridged mono configuration to produce 600 watts per channel into an 8 ohm speaker load. Looking timeless in an Art Deco inspired design both components feature brushed and bead blasted aluminium fronts and a centralised oval Source or VU meter with warm amber back lighting. Inside the oval is the product line ‘Passion’ and the product name. A laser etched YBA logo in black sits below at the centre of each front. On the A650 the heat sinks on both sides have been machined into multiple YBA letters. A discrete on/off switch sits underneath at the front left hand side of both units.
Yves-Bernard André began designing audio products in the early 1970s with the first products bearing the YBA initials (a preamplifier and amplifier) released in 1981. In 2009 shares in the YBA company were sold to a Chinese component manufacturer of high-end components (this company also releases audio products under the renowned Shanling brand). This cooperation has allowed for further innovation and significant growth in product lines and components. Since 2013 the YBA hierarchy starts at the Design line and includes: Heritage, Genesis, Passion and top of the line Signature with the Signature being the only range to be made in France.
The YBA lines include cables, integrated amplifiers, preamplifiers, power amplifiers, CD players, DACs, receivers, streamers and Phono stages. Handpicked and specialised French made components including resistors, transformers, wires and solder are used. André tests each of his units during the design stage ensuring that the YBA product embodies the philosophy of simplicity and reliability. André follows the principle of symmetrical design with only active components in the signal path. Also followed in design and construction is YBA's mantra of "Memory Free Design Technology". This embodies the use of the soft metal Indium in solders, rectifiers and transistors to reduce variations in temperature and increase conductivity as well as proprietary designs to reduce unwanted thermal, vibration, electrostatic and electromagnetic distortions.
The 12 kg brushed aluminium-bodied YBA PRE550 MkII Preamplifier sits on the YBA signature three feet, one at the front, two at the rear. The three supporting feet layout has been a hallmark of YBA design since the beginning. Two 30mm diameter rotary dials on the front control source on the left and volume on the right. Volume control has a smooth action while the source selector clicks through ten different inputs, two of which are analogue marked CD and Video. Video has a Bypass (volume) feature which can be set via the attractive aluminium remote control. Two small toggle switches on the front panel control muting and phase switching. LEDs above the switches light up in amber colour to show the switch is on. The mute toggle is sprung loaded so that after applying, the switch springs up and pressing again takes the PRE550 MkII out of mute. The phase switch is also sprung loaded and allows the preamp to generate a 180 degree phase shift between input and output signals. Phase shifting switches are not that common in modern preamplifiers, so this is a welcome addition.
A large oval dial in the middle of the front panel shows the source in yellow dot matrix lettering on a black background. The back OLED lighting is in the same amber colour as the switching toggles. The yellow dot matrix letters stand at between 5 and 10 mm tall, so are not that visible from a few meters away. The back lighting on the display can be adjusted from the remote. Black YBA lettering is laser cut into the front panel and the aluminium is finished in a natural brushed look on the top half and the bottom in a matt bead blasted look. An optical illusion is created with this effect, making the front appear as though it's cut back on an angle from the brushed half and up. In all it's a stylish Art Deco inspired design that is elegant and understated.
The YBA PRE550 MkII has multiple inputs and outputs including XLR and RCA. It has the ability to play Bluetooth from your smart devices and it has an onboard DAC to connect source transports/streamers. An updated DAC section replaces the previous CS4398 chips with two AD1955 chips from Analogue Devices and will support up to 24-bit/192 kHz PCM and DSD64 natively. This change has led to YBA changing the PRE550 to MkII status. According to the Analogue Devices specification sheet, the AD1955 has been around since 2002 and is designed for use with SACD, DVD Audio and home theatre devices. Despite the 20 year age of the design these AD1955 DACs are still highly regarded. The DAC on the PRE550 MkII can be turned off via a switch on the back when using analogue sources in order to reduce any digitally generated noise.
The YBA Passion PRE550 MkII Preamplifier caters for three analogue inputs including one XLR and two RCA. The RCA inputs are designated for VIDEO and CD on the back of the PRE550 MkII. Digital inputs are well catered for with one S/PDIF (75 ohm) coaxial, one S/PDIF (75 ohm) BNC, Toslink, AES/EBU, I2S (RJ45) for receiving signals from separate digital sources and USB for connecting to a computer or streamer/server. Bit rates of PCM32/768KHz, DSD512 are accepted via XMOS USB. An inbuilt Bluetooth aerial is included which, according to the manual, supports high quality music output. Separate and shielded transformers supply the necessary power to the analogue and digital sections. The PRE550 MkII stands at 118 mm high, 430 mm wide and 412 mm deep and weighs in at 12 kilograms.
The YBA Passion A650 Power amplifier stands at 178 mm high, 430 mm wide and 397mm deep. At 25 kilograms the A650 Power Amplifier will need a couple of people to lift. Maximum output is a quoted 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms speaker loads with a doubling of power into 4 ohms loads. Another A650 Power Amp can be added to increase power to 600 Watts at 8 ohms using the XLR Mono input. The front panel has the same oval lit display and this sports the single VU meter. On the rear panel two pairs of speaker connectors are available. The bottom pair called speaker A are of a heavier grade and can carry spade and 4mm banana connectors. The A650 manual states that these supply a higher quality sound. Quality IEC power connectors allow for user preference power cables.
Both pre and power amp come with a smartly made aluminium remote that operates power to both units with source and volume selection catered for the preamp. At 240 mm long and weighing around half a kilo, the remote is not likely to be lost down the seat of the couch!
And a special note about the owner’s manuals which are comprehensive with detailed drawings and easy to follow instructions.
Power & The Passion
Connecting my venerable Technics turntable and DS Audio 003 optical cartridge to an RCA input on the PRE550 MkII preamplifier, I began my listening with the jazz film track Round Midnight BT 85135, released 1986, which features among others saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Ron Carter on bass with pianist Herbie Hancock, who composed the film's soundtrack. The first composition, “Round Midnight”, starts with Herbie Hancock's piano laying a short melody then Wayne Shorter blowing the opening motif on his soprano saxophone with an answering refrain from Pale Mikkelborg on trumpet. The bass then lays some notes with Gordon Dexter playing on tenor sax with brushes passing languidly over the cymbals of Billy Higgins. The details were clear on the right hand of a wide soundstage. Bass on the left was nuanced and dynamic, changes within the notes revealing good micro details. Low notes sounded full-bodied. The layout on the recording setup was revealed with trumpet at the middle right back and tenor sax in front with soprano to the left, revealing the A650’s ability to render the soundstage in a believable sonic stage.
“Bérangère's Nightmare” is a high-tempo track with drums sketching out the beat with sticks on cymbals tracking across the top. The tenor sax and bass get into the swing with the sax sounding natural with a top end squeal. All natural and neutral. Fast and clear, dynamic with a good soundstage the YBA pairing comes across as sounding in the middle ground between tube designs of airiness and liquidness and solid state designs’ heavier hitting. The YBA pairing did not expose the harsh sounds that can come across from the beryllium mid and tweeter domes of the Yamaha NS1000 monitor speakers when using some solid state amplifiers.
Through all the music playing, the YBA Passion A650 runs just warm even at relatively high volumes with the single VU meter moving gently in the yellow backlit oval gauge.
Next track “Call Sheet Blues” starts with a short burst of notes from Gordon Dexter over the running bass line before leaving the bass to continue. Drums and sax then kick back in with some comments and chuckles picked up from the players. It sounds intimate and with a good three-dimensional feel. Piano has good sustain with a well-articulated rendition of percussive notes. This Blue Note album is a Direct Metal Mastering DMM which has quite explicit playback qualities which are well portrayed through the YBA power amp.
Now to the recording on vinyl called Friday Night in San Francisco. This is a live recording featuring three classical guitar maestros Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia. Recorded in The Warfield Theatre in front of an energetic audience in 1980, with the vinyl cutting engineered by Bob Ludwig at Masterdisk studio New York. Performances from all guitarists are first rate and if you don't already own a copy of this record I strongly urge the reader to seek one out, it’s that good!
First track “Mediterranean Sundance/Rio Ancho” features Paco on the left channel and Al Di Meola on the right. The guitarists trade places on leading the melody throughout the performance, with the speeding finger plucking and strumming coming across with lots of detail. Individual notes are easy to follow even in the fast music parts. The guitars come across with natural tones and warmth. The acoustic rendering of the Warfield Theatre and the enthusiastic audience are well portrayed with good back to front depth and wide soundstage.
Moving over to the digital side of music I played the CD La Serena from Canadian singer Aviva Chernick. This is music heavily infused with songs from the Sephardic Jews in the 15th century. The songs are simple but hauntingly beautiful, with instrumentation provided by guitar, mandolin, bass, piano and percussion. The recording is very well done, highlighting the beauty of this centuries old music.
Using another classic source this time the Marantz CD12/DAC12 transport and DAC I was able to pick out subtle differences between the Marantz DAC12 and the onboard PRE550 MkII DAC.
First track “A Ti Espanya” (For You, Spain) is a gentle song expressing the loss of the homeland of Spain. Singer Aviva Chernick is accompanied by bass, percussion and acoustic guitar in a well-lit three-dimensional recording. The vocals are placed in the foreground with the YBA combination allowing the lyrics to soar. Words are well articulated and easy to follow with a lovely flow to the music underpinning the song. Not digital sounding in the least but as readers will already attest, the modern CD sound has moved on from the digital afflictions of the 1980s…
Second track “Min Hameitzar” (From the Narrows) uses words from Psalm 118:5 with Aviva placed in the centre of the soundstage. Percussion and guitar provide a subtle melody to the depths and soaring heights of the vocals.
Now turning my attention to the YBA Passion PRE550 MkII preamp’s onboard DAC I heard deeper into the music of Aviva Chernick (through a digital coaxial 75 ohms interconnect) as though a slight veil had been lifted from the recording. Hand drumming was easier to follow on Track 2 as the separation between instruments improved. The overall tone to the music remained almost neutral, just slightly on the warm side. Clearly the new onboard DACs are well suited on the MkII version of the preamp.
I also used the onboard DAC to run sound from my Pioneer Bluray player while the image went through the projector. If you’re like me and reside in a smallish apartment, then the YBA pairing could be perfect as a 2-channel stereo and cinema setup where physical space is limited.
I briefly tried the Bluetooth V 5.0 module after pairing my iPhone to the YBA PRE550 MkII. Playing “Back to the Bridges” from the self-titled US band Black Taj, the song held-up well with some loss of spatial cues and dynamics. Some users of Bluetooth equipment may agree with me that the Bluetooth ability is great for social gatherings rather than serious listening events, so the YBA Bluetooth ability is more than adequate for the task. A self-confessed Digital Luddite I was not able to play music via the USB and home computer as most of my music is in the physical world, so my apologies to the readers.
So, to wrap-up on these well thought out and feature laden products from YBA. The Passion PRE550 MkII preamplifier is extremely well provisioned for analogue and digital sources alike. The unit is easy to use with a smart and comprehensive remote control.
The Passion A650 amplifier has plenty of power and control to suit even the most difficult speaker loads. The power amp, even when run hard, never gets beyond a warm temperature so that will keep power bills down and help avoid overheating listening rooms in the summer days ahead.
Musically engaging across all tried formats these French designed units from YBA will give many years of great sound and joy. Classy looks will mean that they can go on proud display in the owners’ listening room. Given the company’s wide range of product categories, including Phono stages and Streamers, this power couple combination could the start of an aspirational YBA system.
… Mark Busby
- Speakers – Yamaha NS-1000M, custom 18-inch subwoofer
- Preamplifier – PS Audio BHK, Music First Audio step up transformer, EMIA two-box tube phono stage
- Amplifier – Yamaha B1, Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 300, Leak Stereo 60, restored Leak Stereo 20
- Sources – Analogue: Technics SP10 mk3 turntable with Stax UA7 Tonearm, Garrard 410 and SME V arm, Thorens TD 124 Mk1 with Woodsong bearing, SME 3012 silver wired tonearm, Music Maker 3 moving iron & DS Audio DS-003 optical cartridges, Tube Sound Audio phono stage, Sansui TU-717 tuner. Digital: Marantz CD-12/DAC-12
- Cables – Vertere Pulse-C, Revelation Audio Labs
YBA Passion PRE550 MkII Preamplifier & Passion A650 Power Amplifier
Price: PRE550 MkII AU$9400, A650 AU$11,650
Australian Warranty: Two Years
Australian Distributor: Audio Heaven
+61 (0) 412 650 723