T.H.E. Show 2019: Phonitor X Preamp and DAC with Audeze LCD2 Closed Back

I was first exposed to the SPL (Sound Performance Lab) Phonitor X ($2,499 USD) a few years ago and its sound signature (or lack of one) has stayed with me since. It qualifies as a reference preamp/headamp/DAC in my books for a number of reasons, not least of which is its versatility for personal listening and two-channel audio, so when I saw it at the Audeze booth in the Marketplace at T.H.E. Show, I knew I’d have to revisit it.

First, some background. SPL was not content to offer a headphone amp/DAC that could just accommodate five stereo sources (Balanced XLR, Unbalanced RCA, USB 2.0 Asynchronous, coaxial and optical inputs), handle PCM up 24-bit/192kHz and utilizes “120V Voltaire Rail Technology” which the company claims is “…four times as high as in standard audio designs. 120V Rail Technology is our reference technology developed and manufactured to run on an operating voltage of 120 volts, which corresponds to twice that of discrete operational amplifiers and four-times that of semiconductor operational amplifiers.”  It added-in proprietary circuit-path options (Matrix system) which gives the unit up to 3.7 watts of output (Balanced or Unbalanced) and that means it can pull duty as a pre-amp for power amps or powered monitors.

The idea behind SPL’s Matrix system is simple: to mimic the time-delay effect that is inherent to loudspeaker listening, or what is known more commonly as crossfeed. Crossfeed, for those not inherently familiar with all the nomenclature of personal listening, goes like this; when a sound is produced in the right channel only, the listener will hear it in the right ear – the left ear hears nothing. The problem is that this pretty much never occurs in the natural world thanks to a principle known as diffraction. Diffraction is, basically, a sound wave’s ability to flow around obstacles – like your head – and allow that right-channel sound to bleed into the left channel. 

The company claims their Matrix circuit “delivers the most realistic playback on headphones. As almost all music was mixed for speaker playback the Phonitor Matrix lets you experience music on headphones as being played back through speakers.”

The Phonitor’s Matrix system goes farther than some other crossfeed-enabled headamps out there by combining an adjustable crossfeed capability featuring user-selectable “speaker-placement” settings and a “Laterality” adjustment which equates to a super-fine balance control.

Paired with the LCD2 Closed Back ($899 USD) the Phonitor X shone once again for me. Listening to a curated playlist of TIDAL files downloaded through the application onto an iPad showed off all the timbral and tonal reproductions I fell for in the Phonitor X the first time I heard it as the LCD2, like its brethren, adds little in the way of sonic translation, allowing the amp/DAC to come through unmolested. This is a superfast amp on transients, and leading edges of notes without a trace of bloat in the lower bandwidth of the frequency spectrum – bass was deep and very tight. Midrange magic with vocals showed off texture and color and the upper registers remained consistently clear, focused and never strayed into strident.

I didn’t fool around much with the Matrix settings, focusing instead on the meat and potatoes of the amp/DAC. This is definitely an amp/preamp/DAC that you should audition if you’re looking for a unit that has realistic tonality, speed, power and flexibility – it’s far from tubey or euphonic in its sound, but it does transparency without sacrificing a touch of warmth which is a great trick for a solid state designs that can tend to be on the lean side for me.

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