SPL Phonitor XE Headamp/DAC Review Page 2

On to the meat of the review though, how does the Phonitor XE itself actually sound? To be honest, it’s spectacular. It is not the most liquid, sweet or holographically-3D amp I’ve heard, nor is it massively punchy and dynamic or snappy, but the Phonitor’s sound can basically be described as the sound of clean, open and plentiful headroom.

In professional audio, there is a lot of basically transparent audio gear that sounds quite similar when run at moderate signal levels, but reveals its individual character when pushed hard, and I find this is a useful way of understanding the Phonitor. Most audiophile electronics have obvious sonic colorations or flavors at all signal levels, and simply reveal more of their same character when pushed hard. The Phonitor by contrast is remarkable for not having a particularly strong frequency-based coloration, no matter what signal level it is pushed to. Levels in excess of 80dB+ do not sound radically different than more moderate or even quiet levels. The amp is rocksteady and dishes out the same effortless, clear and open sound no matter what’s plugged into it. Even when I plugged some intensely-hungry headphones into the Phonitor, headphones that were likely more demanding than what the amp had power for, it never buckled. I ran out of power, but did not detect any sound of ‘strain’ or telltale soundstage collapse.

If the Phonitor has a noticeable sound, it is in a more conceptual sense. The perception of a low noise background is very good, and there is an exceptional degree of smoothness to the sound. The smoothness is not the result of dulled transients, but rather a sense of space and depth to individual sounds that rather than emphasizing instrumental separation, seems to draw my attention to the musical presentation as a whole. Despite possessing the resolution capability to act as an audio microscope, I never lost the forest for the trees in any music when listening to the Phonitor amp. This exceptional smoothness and sense of space meant it also worked with somewhat forward or brighter headphones that typically don’t get along well with solid state. I could experience sensitive dynamics with the SPL that previously had only ever really spoken to me when run on tube or hybrid gear. The Phonitor seemed to drive just about anything I paired with it without complaint. It wasn’t always the best pairing, but it was usually the most sonically honest, and I felt the sound of the amp was stable enough that it really let me hear the characteristics of the headphones I was using in a way few other amps ever have. In this sense, I do feel the SPL was distinctive – I could always tell I was listening to it, not because it had any frequency response quirks, but rather because it lacked them.

And what about the DAC768 add-on module? I tested it with every input and found the USB, a sometimes weak format, seemed one of the better sounding inputs to my ears. I compared the DAC module directly to several other AKM4490 based DACs I had on hand. It had an almost emphasized version of the ‘velvet sound’ AKM is known for. Transients sounded very rounded and perhaps a little oversmoothed. I felt a slightly sharper presentation could have complimented the DAC well, though if you have overly bright or sharp headphones then this combination might be ideal if you find R2R and tubed setups a little too syrupy.

For the money, I do think you could find an even more compelling outboard DAC to pair with this headphone amplifier. It’s quite an expensive amp, and it seems a bit of a disservice to settle for a DAC which is slightly above average, which was what I found the DAC768 to be. It was always musical and never offensive, and during my listening I never felt it was holding the Phonitor’s amp section back, but in direct comparisons I did hear some competitively priced DACs that I felt bettered the DAC768 for similar, or less money. Its a modestly above average DAC in an amp that is anything but average. For those looking for a more incisive sound to compliment the Phonitor’s excellent resolution a good Sabre 9038 implementation would work, or if you enjoy a rounder sound, a Chord or R2R DAC could work as well. I would stay away from anything too dark sounding however.

As a final note on sound, I’ll mention that I did try both the balanced and single-ended inputs and headphone outputs, and found them remarkably similar sounding. Dynamics and a sense of headroom and ease were slightly better in balanced operation, particularly a sense of spatiality in the bass with planar magnetic headphones, but I actually heard the single-ended and balanced stages are more alike than different. To my ears, this is not an amp that transforms its personality when switching between the two modes of operation. I can easily recommend either output, and it was only on the most power hungry of headphones I felt the balanced offered enough of an improvement to warrant the extra work of getting a balanced cable.

The SPL Phonitor, in various iterations, is an amp I’ve heard many times at shows and even a few studios over the years, and if I’m being honest, my general impressions of it from those experiences haven’t changed, only deepened. This is quite unusual, as I almost always find living with a piece of gear changes my perspective – when you live with a piece of gear, you get fussy and address all of its small, but ultimately deal-breaking or making quirks. With the SPL Phonitor in for review, the issue of ‘best’ becomes a moot point. It is not a product that to my mind ever really captured the zeitgeist, or ever even really had its time as the flavor of the month, but I think it speaks to the degree of refinement that a product I’ve had so many run-ins with over the years is exactly what it appears to be: a phenomenal audio product.

So where do the discussions of ‘best’ leave us in relation to the SPL Phonitor? It’s the best solid-state amplifier I’ve ever heard if you’re looking for a neutral or reference-type amplifier. It’s among the best amplifiers I’ve heard for my personal tastes, because it will play a large variety of music without imposing unwanted colorations, and it will do so without sounding dry or sterile. I can’t say if this amp is going to the best at anything for you, but I can say that, whether at this high-end price or more inexpensive ones, I have not heard a solid-state amplifier which was so tonally even-handed, yet still enhances the music, and this is ultimately what scores this amp a spot on my shortlist of favorite solid-state amplifiers. There isn’t much audio gear I could be happy really living with for a long time, but if you told me I was stuck with an SPL Phonitor on a desert island, I wouldn’t make a fuss.

SPL Audio

Simply Nobody's picture

May be Grover could also review the Chord Hugo2 and the Hugo TT2, and tell us how they work with various headphones/in-ear phones :-) ..........

Grover Neville's picture

I've had good experiences with chord gear, but have, perhaps unfairly, never reviewed it as it's quite expensive. Perhaps I will give it a second look!

Simply Nobody's picture

One more for Grover to review ....... iFi Audio Zen DAC/headphone amp, $130 :-) .........

Grover Neville's picture

Just got sent one of these by iFi so keep your eyes out for the review!

Simply Nobody's picture

Grover could also review the new KLH Ultimate One headphones with Beryllium drivers, under $500 :-) ........

Simply Nobody's picture

As a reference (not as a review), Grover could listen to Focal Arche headphone amp and Focal Utopia Beryllium headphones, when reviewing the KLH Beryllium headphones :-) .......