SPL PHONITOR X & E REVIEW

Phonitor E MSRP: $1499/1799 USD Phonitor X MSRP: $2499

  • TONAL BALANCE / NEUTRALITY   97%
  • PERFORMANCE FOR THE PRICE   82%
  • (X) FEATURES / FUNCTIONALITY   95%
  • (E) FEATURES / FUNCTIONALITY   85%
  • SOUND FIDELITY   92%
  • MUSICALITY   90%
  • BUILD QUALITY   68%

PROS

  • Non fatiguing sound
  • Refined sound quality
  • NEAR PERFECT Tonal balance
  • Matrix System / Well implemented Crossfeed options
  • Natural Soundstage
  • Excellent resolution

ON THE FENCE

  • The bass has presence and isn’t sloppy  but a little more focus and control wouldn’t hurt. 

CONS

  • Must be careful how you plug the headphones in or it can destroy the amp
  • (Phonitor E) boosting the input signal causes loss of fidelity
  • Transients could sound more snappy
  • Dip Switches. Kill all Dip Switches

INTRO

I was recommended the SPL Phonitor 2 when someone saw my posts in a forum regarding my preferences. When I decided to do some research I found that SPL released newer models and inquired where I could find a review. Sooner than later I was put in contact with a representative of Plurison.com who was not only happy to send review units but was enthused to let the units go on tour in the forums. 

Many thanks to Plurison for sending these units out and offering kind support along the way. 

Just to let you know, I have no reasons to fluff up or hide anything. I have no ties and here at earphiles we will not be posting disclaimers because there is no need. To follow are honest impressions of these units. 

SPL is not a brand that gets much coverage on the forums and more often than not I have been impressed by the less popular hands vs some of the more popular ones. I have been rewarded nicely by not being scared to try things. While this has bit me in the rear a few times I have discovered some cool gear in the process and the SPL’s are of the latter. 

 SPECS

Phonitor E full specs click here

  • 120 V Rail headphone amplifier
  • Separate connections for headphones driven balanced and unbalanced 
  • Suited for all headphones with impedances >10 ohms
  • Balanced and unbalanced analog inputs (XLR and RCA)
  • Optional digital inputs: USB, coaxial and optical
  • Optional DAC: 192 kHz and 24 Bit, Win driver supplied, Apple Class compliant
  • Phonitor Matrix with two presets for speaker-equivalent listening
  • Volume remotely adjustable (learns any IR remote control)
  • Maximum output power: 2 x 3.7 W (into 120 ohms)
  • Frequency response: 10 Hz – 300 kHz
  • THD+N: 0.00091 % 
  • Dynamic range: 135.5 dB
  • Standby/power on switch
  • Linear power supply with toroidal transformer
  • Front and Lid made from aluminum, housing made from sheet metal
  • Made in Germany

Phonitor X full specs click here

  • 120V rail headphone amplifier and preamplifier
  • Separate connections and power amplifiers for headphone driven balanced and unbalanced 
  • Suited for all headphones with impedances >10 ohms
  • Balanced and unbalanced analog inputs (XLR and RCA)
  • Optional digital inputs: USB, coaxial and optical
  • Optional DAC: 192 kHz and 24 Bit, Win driver supplied, Apple Class compliant
  • Balanced and unbalanced analog outputs (XLR and RCA)
  • Innovative Phonitor Matrix: speaker-equivalent listening on headphones
  • Laterality control: super-fine balance control
  • Mono switch function
  • Volume remotely adjustable (learns any IR remote control)
  • Maximum output power: 2 x 3.7 W (into 120 ohms)
  • Frequency response: 10 Hz – 300 kHz (-3 dB)
  • THD+N: 0.00091 % (HP), 0.00085 % (Line)
  • Dynamic range: 135.5 dB (HP), 136.3 dB (Line)
  • AMP CTR connection with Performer power amplifier for coupled On/Off switching 
  • Standby/power on switch
  • Linear power supply with toroidal transformer
  • Front and Lid made from aluminum, housing made from sheet metal
  • Made in Germany

BUILD/DESIGN

Upon receiving both units I went straight for the Phonitor X to unbox it. I wasn’t expecting any fancy case or packaging. I really don’t care about that stuff no matter how much it costs. Just double box it and don’t ship me a 2.5k piece of equipment in a pizza box and I am fine. The packaging met my humble standards easily. Once I pulled the Phonitor X out I was slightly underwhelmed at the thin and hollow chassis but equally pleased that it didn’t weigh as much as its size would lead me to believe. The unit from the front looked pretty nice to me. After I unpacked it and got it all hooked up on my desk it didn’t take long for me to admire Vu Meters and aesthetics on the faceplate. Also the wonderful chrome feet that were secured under the unit gave it that high end look. What did take me long was to notice the gap between the faceplate and the chassis where you can see the lights of the meters shine through. No worries….It’s all good. “So how does it sound?… I think it looks nice and even though it feels kind of cheap it doesn’t look like it is” I thought. Well we will get into the sound later because there is some information in this section that is actually worth NOT skipping over this time. 

I enjoyed the Phonitor X’s sound a lot so I unpacked the E unit to see how it would compare in sound quality. Well the E unit with the meterless gray faceplate is obviously the less attractive but some of the lettering was kind of smeared. “Well this is a demo unit so It must have been the one the sent me because it could have been returned by an unhappy customer (as seen above)” I thought so …No worries…. It’s all good.

Well, as ‘a first time for everything’ would have it, I went to use the single ended jack of the Phonitor X and I heard pop, faint music playing, and the smell of burning metal emitting from the Unit. Ahhhh… man…. Well at least I got to thoroughly assess its sound quality. I only got to play with the Matrix / Crossfeed knobs a little bit though so the forthcoming section that describes the functionality of the X will be very limited.

I shipped the amp back and inquired about the problem. The rep told me that unfortunately users fail to read the manual and this problem has occurred before because you are supposed to mute the amp before plugging into the single ended jack. They didn’t accuse me of misusing the product and were very polite and responsive. I can see how it does pay off to read the manual but it does not say that you need to mute it before turning the music on. It mentions that you must not plug in a mono jack (who in the heck has that for a headphone plug?)  into the single ended output. Apparently I may have failed to realize that if only one of the rings  of the stereo terminated plug makes  contact it can be considered mono for the split 10 milliseconds it takes to finish fully inserting the cable termination. I don’t know… I am admittedly very shallow in my technical knowledge on how it all works but I can’t rate the amp highly in this section due to my experience with it. The manufacturer is about the customers interest and uhhh…so am I. Please be careful with this unit and how you handle the single ended output jack. If I were to take this to an SBAF or Head-Fi meet I would tape the single ended jack so users wouldn’t accidentally blow up my precious new toy.

FEATURES/FUNCTIONALITY

Phonitor X

The Crossfeed of the X unit sounded very good with the HD6XX. The center image got pushed back and the midrange thinned out just a bit but the stereo image seemed more precise and easier to focus on. None of the fidelity seemed lost but the soundstage increased favourably depending on the setting. I preferred minimum and 1 on the crossfeed notch and found myself using the more accute angles (20 and 30) vs the larger ones. The effect was substantial but with less of the peakiness that the Pro iCan exhibited with its crossfeed. I did hear tonality change and the upper midrange and lower treble get a little more peaky but not as strongly as on the Pr

The Laterality is a welcomed feature that allows you to fine tune channel imbalanced with speakers and headphones.

Even though the face of the Phonitor has a lot of features on of them is hidden underneath the amp and is implemented in the form of Dip Switches. Dip Switches 1(headphone output +22 dB) and 2 (headphone output +12 dB) provide gain increases and were activated during use with no loss of fidelity during playback when boosting the signal.  Dip Switch 3 is for VU Meter Sensitivity. Dip Switch 4 and 5 make the signal paths direct and isolate the signal to either RCA or XLR output. It was very inconvenient to mess with these features under the amp though. I was always careful to not scratch it or the equipment around it while lifting it up to mess with the switches. 

As far as power goes, despite the X unit having much room on the dial the HE-6 exhibiting clipping when being brought slightly above normal listening volumes so that headphone is a no go with this unit in my humble opinion. 

The pre-amplifier I did not get to test as circumstances didn’t allow me to have a go at it with my monitors.

Phonitor E

The Crossfeed presets of the E were far less effective but still proved useful. Hardly any of the tonality and sound quality was ill-effected but the soundstage only expanded a little with the presets if any at all. It seemed less fatiguing listening with these presets which is what it is all about in the first place. The Matrix is not made to stretch the soundstage as much as it is made to reduce fatigue and provide a more natural soundstage where width far outweighs depth. Thats what I heard and had no wows or complaints here for the E unit. 

There are two Dip Switches under the E unit as well that serve similar purpose to the first two under the X unit. However here is the other area that you see the E unit is not as souped up out as the X. They both have the same power ratings yet the way they reach that power and position of the volume knob differ quite a bit. I was trying to get the E unit to have as much headroom as the Phonitor X but it couldn’t, even with both knobs activated. Let me take a step back to the X unit and cross my fingers in hopes that I don’t confuse you. All of the knob of the knob of the X is not usable. You will either cause a hard to drive headphone to clip or you blow up your headphones before you get past 12 oclock on the dial this is because the unit is also a preamplifier and the dial serves two purposes. Yet and still, even if you turn the E unit past 2 you won’t get close to as loud as the X unit does before it clips.

  • It is only boosting the RCA input signal with Dip Switch 2
  • The soundstage depth decreases
  • If you boost the output signal (Dip Switch 1) and boost the input signal (Dip Switch 2) then you will still not seem to have as much headroom as the X. Also If you boost both the input and output signal of the E unit the following happens
  • The XLR output loosed clarity and becomes less refined 
  • ONLY the RCA output becomes louder and and will sound better than the XLR output

I recommend only boosting the Output signal and you will have the same sound quality as the X unit without as much headroom. So a headphone like the HD650 sounded great on both amps. Also most planars don’t need any more power than that anyway. Especially now. 

*Unit X does not have a selectable Input signal boost and does not need one. 

Unit E did not blow up when I plugged the single ended jack into the headphone output but it has the same warning as the X unit.

Internal DAC Option

It was a tough task to tough task to test the internal DAC with no other point of reference than my Pavane. They were light years apart in sound quality. In fact switching made me curious if others with a sub 1k DAC would appreciate the amps sound quality as much as I did (more to follow).  What I pulled away from it was that the DAC as well as the AMP were tuned neutral and non fatiguing with no detectable emphasis anywhere in the spectrum sans a hint of warmth. I would have loved to compare it to something of equal calibur but honestly you are just severely limiting the amps ability if you plan on using the internal DAC as your primary source. 

 

SOUND

  • BASS EXTENSION   90%
  • BASS BALANCE 95%
  • LOWER MIDRANGE BALANCE 98%
  • MIDDLE MIDRANGE BALANCE 96%
  • UPPER MIDRANGE BALANCE 99%
  • TREBLE BALANCE 95%
  • TREBLE EXTENSION 89%
  • BASS CONTROL   85%
  • TONE DENSITY (BODY , OPPOSITE OF THINNESS) 84%
  • MACRO DYNAMICS (SOFTS TO LOUDS) 88%
  • MICRO DYNAMICS (SMALL GRADATIONS OF VOLUME) 81%
  • SOUND STAGE WIDTH 90%
  • SOUND STAGE DEPTH 84%
  • BLACKNESS OF BACKGROUND 91%

BASS

If an amp does poorly in this category it will be a deal breaker for me. The bass delivered by these amplifiers is not the best I have heard but it is most definitely not the worst. The amplifiers are not bass shy but sit pretty much at my targeted amount of what I believe is neutral in regards to quantity. My appetite for bass is a little more than your average enthusiast but I have come to like the amp itself to be neutral (true neutral, not bass shy) and my headphones to do the boosting. What I like the amp to do is make what ever bass is there slam. The Phonitor units deliver an average amount of slam so if you are looking for the most engaging experience these may not be for you. What I do hear though is  body, texture, and natural decay. It is neutral in the sense that it sounds unbiased in any direction and is neither emphasized, lacking, dry, or too wet, super controlled, or loose. When it comes to bass control you will notice that while it’s not necessarily loose, the natural decay gives the bass a more rounded presentation than a dry and technical. At first I thought they were a little rolled off in the sub bass because the organic sound can give that impression but listening to sub bass rumbles and tone sweeps show the sub bass is all there and deep even. The sub bass with EDM is rendered by the SPL units as bouncy instead of hard and fast with very linear sub bass rumbles that sound very well integrated into the music.

Personal preference in this area would be a smidgen tighter and more dense but as is still does the trick. Another listen would call that a nitpick. Why? because often times some solid states sound as if they do not let the bass resonate and the decay can often sound as if it does not have a realistic decline. I am I calling it wet? no… just slightly and tastefully bloomed with good extension and presence without sounding emphasized. 

MIDRANGE

First of all there is a markable lack of grit and grain. I have heard a blacker and more holographic background elsewhere but this amp is very refined and still has a nice black background with great clarity. Sure those are the technical aspects but… the midrange was laid across those traits with an almost perfect balance from the lower midrange into the upper midrange. It sounded round to me and slightly-minutely boosted but that was only compared to my other amps. Spot on…When I first plugged my 650 into the Phonitor X I thought to myself “Well this sounds pretty good but nothing better than anything I have heard before”. I should have known better than that because the first(short) moments of hearing the Utopia were a little similar. Comparison is an agent of revelation because it only took one swapping of amps to hear how natural and clean the midrange really was. I had to fight hard to find any digital facets while this amp was being fed by my Pavane and Rednet 3 and am still not convinced I did. The midrange only barely drew attention to itself but this is warranted since the midrange is the matter of music. But the bass is not left behind next to the pure midrange and neither is the treble. 

It could have been all mids and nothing else but the whole picture is well put together. You can say that the midrange is emphasized and I would disagree with you. If you said that the midrange was withdrawn, anyone who has heard anything would disagree with you. Vocals neither lack sweetness or sound overly lush. You get an honest window into the music all while knowing there is little flattery going on. Even compared to some tube amps the midrange is more realistic sounding but maintains good balance. The lower mids sound even. The midrange proper is full but neutral. The upper midrange has good presence without ever sounding honky. 

“Oh well Lee, thats because the 650 has a good midrange…duh” Nah…nope. The HD800 sounds a bit more natural but its thinness is still there. The Ether flows sound neutral and a little shouty albeit a tad less sterile than normal. The Ether Flow C’s still sound hollow (like on my other amps). The Hifiman Edition X sounds evenly balanced but still distant. Basically I am being bold in saying that most other solid state amps may be off in some area by comparison. First impressions led me to think there was emphasis here but that going back to other amps made them seem wrong and the phonitors correct. Realism is what this amplifier excels at. What does this amplifier emphasize? Reality. So the point is that the midrange will do maybe a little favor to your headphones but this amp is not to make headphone ‘x’ sound like headphone ‘b’. 

A brief comparison to the Pro iCan (an amp that I was very impressed with) would affirm my sentiments here. The iCan had a sweeter, fuller lower midrange (that I find emphasized)  and even more so than  my trafomatic Head 2 but the upper midrange was less present than the Phonitor E. Sure its blackground was possibly a tad blacker but the phonitor was not far behind and has better balance as well as harmonics and never sounds as weighed down. Also the phonitor X has a better soundstage display to help the midrange spread its wings.

TREBLE

I want to be short and sweet here. I am admittedly not a ‘treble head’ but I understand the role of treble in harmonics and at the same time do not like being distracted by harsh and metallic sounds. The Phonitor’s are not dark. They are not the most airy amplifier around but the air is present. The treble balance is neutral and I mean “true” neutral but it lacks the glare, grit, splashiness, and grain a lot of solid states are notorious for. Can you take an HD800  and hack away its 6-7Khz notch and turn it into an HD800S absolutely not but the treble of my modded HD800 was tolerable and much more refined than on my Cayin iHA6 with its more sparkly but offensive nature. Yet, tons of harmonics and overtones are rich and musical because of the treble that is there. Don’t get me wrong, I like my Cayin a lot but I have come to believe its a bit emphasized in the mid treble. Consequently the iha6 has good definition but relatively speaking definition(from 6-10khz ) is not softened on the phonitors, it’s just not emphasized. The non-fatiguing aspects of the upper band is with a smoothness that therefore squelches a little bit of that snappyness and energy some look for so some may want more energy as well as body here. As for me, I am totally fine and in fact the distinct lack of plasticky sounding textures and digital like steeliness is very appealing to me. 

To sum it up and for the sake of simplicity I’m calling the treble smooth, present, realistic but not as snappy and energetic as some may prefer. Personally I’d pick this treble over 95 percent of the solid state amps I have heard…no I’m lying … 100% of the solid state amps I have heard but I can totally understand if someone found it underwhelming as tastes vary. 

PERFORMANCE

I have already covered this area briefly. The short story is that these amps do very well technically. If they are worth their asking prices based on technicalities alone, I would hesitate and say yes. Not a firm yes but a committed one. The features of the E unit are limited. With the X you are paying for more headroom, the full blown Matrix system, and a preamplifier that if it performs as good as the headphone amp is potentially a very good preamplifier. The E unit still performs admirably but this is what 1799 should sound like at minimum in regards to technicalities. For that price you can purchase the equally performing (in technicalities, relatively speaking) Pro ican and have features that compete with the X unit as well as even more power. I must make it clear though that merit by merit the features of the X outshine the PRO iCAN. I just rate the Pro higher in features because it costs less thant he X unit by 700USD. However, the Pro iCan cannot touch this tonality even if it does possess a slightly blacker background and similar refinement. The iFi amplifier has a little more density and tonal weight, smaller soundstaging, snappier transients, a slightly blacker background, and more power. But as gear like the 650 proves balance and tonality go a long way especially when amps like the pro sound dark and the soundstage is narrow. That combination can be a turn off.  To find all around spot on tuning, along with the refinement, lack of grain and grit that the SPL units deliver is also pretty rare for solid state amps so that has to be considered as well. My Cayin iHA6 is equally detailed but less refined in the treble, less organic, less spacious, less dense, and less clean. The Cayin is 999USD but is also faster, has tighter bass, has more power, better control, and snappier transients but is the personification of what powerful neutral solid state amplifiers are usually considered to be and it doesn’t possess nearly as much realism and tangibility. When I listened to the Pro iCAN or Cayin, I felt I was listening to equipment. The SPLs possess equal technical performance but more realism than any amp on my desk during the time of review and that aspect of performance was from the marriage of tonality and good technicalities.

 

CONCLUSION

%

There are those times when I ignore what I have read about a product and want to hear it for myself. The truth is that you can read so many reviews about something and once you hear it find that it is not for you. If you like an amplifier to play the music as it is and not add to it or take a way from it then you’d be at a loss to overlook the SPL units. Perhaps almost equally at a loss if you purchase one and overlook its warnings in the user manual. However, there is not one product launching with a 100% success rate in build quality, but these units come from a world where you would expect a more ruggedized build to take the abuse from a musical engineer. I will say though that if ‘Pro-Fi’ is a trend that SPL is trying to start, I’m with it. There ought to be more units built with that concept of tuning.

Can I fully recommend these products with a clean conscience? No. Only because at this point I have to conclude the review and the reasons for the amplifier blowing up remain to be known. But I will say that this is the best solid state amp I have heard the 650 with bar none and the sound quality is very rewarding to the discerning ear.

%d bloggers like this: