Pros: Bass, Midrange, Separation, Looks Great, Hand Made
Cons: No Charging Circuit, Soundstage
From the moment Charles told me about the new project that he was working on, “Project Palaios”, I was intrigued. A wooden amp? That’s certainly not what you hear everyday and from the pictures that he put up on the website, all 3 colours of the amp looks amazing. It just so happened that I was going to Hong Kong around the time the Palaios was released so I decided to meet up with Charles and buy one off him. I think that the Palaios amp is a model from his new company called SQD Tech which he founded after he left Rhapsodio. I think that they primarily make amps and cables.
I have always been an IEM lover but I have never really been into amps and the Palaios Iona is the first higher end amp that I have owned but certainly not the first that I have tried. Personally, I never liked the hassle of stacking a DAP and a player together and charging 2 things instead of one, but upon demoing at the Noisy Motel, I was instantly hooked. It was different from all the other amps that I even preferred it over the Tralucent T1, which although technically better, was missing that excitement that the Palaios had.
These were burned in for 100 hours and a few minor changes were detected; whether the changes were truly mechanical or psychological is for you to decide. The main difference was that the soundstage opened up a bit and the separation was slightly improved.
**Disclaimer** I am in no way affiliated with Charles’ company and I was offered a discount in return for an honest, unbiased review.
Although some people don’t think that DACs in portable players make a lot of difference, I hear substantial differences between lower and higher end sources. The majority of my listening was done through the line out of my iBasso DX50, which IMO is superb for its price, via a DIY ALO copper interconnect that Charles made. The IEM I used was my UM Miracle that I now know so well and my Beat Audio Titan silver cable. I also tested it on my iPod Nano 3rd Generation and a Dunu DN-1000. I thought that the DX50 really made the sound much more lively and enjoyable and that the Palaios really shone with that combo. The stack is massive though… Also, I found that using a better IEM really brings out the potential in the Palaios and as always, you should upgrade your headphone before your amp and source.
Build Quality & Design
Honestly, the finish on the Palaios is impeccable and there were no flaws in the wood that I could find anywhere, which is very impressive considering that SQD Tech isn’t a huge company. The only gripe I have is that the P logo on mine is put on backwards so it’s only a P if you use the amp upside down, but I hardly ever notice it anyway so it’s no big deal. The wood is very smooth, but still has that natural texture to it and it seems quite sturdy, but I feel like it would scratch rather easily so I have to be extra careful with this. Overall, the build quality is extremely impressive.
Personally, I love the look of the Palaios, but I have never really thought that wood is very practical due to how easy it scratches. One annoying thing is that the input and output jacks are in the wrong places. Usually, the input is in the middle and the output on the side, but it’s the other way around on the Palaios. Not really an issue for me, but it can be bothersome if you are used to other amps and I can see some plugs being a bit of a hassle.
The battery doors on the previous demo models have a latch, but the (final?) one that I have slides out but has 3 magnets to reduce the chance of the door falling out. Despite this, it has still fallen out a few times and I feel like it is a bit too easy to move it. I prefer the swivel design more. Also, this amp doesn’t come with any settings like other amps like gain, boost etc, but I don’t really care because I never really use those anyway and I like the simplicity of the Palaios.
The wheel turns very smoothly, but it is too easy to accidentally nudge and turn up the volume. From what I hear, Charles is working on a rubber ring to put under the volume knob to make it harder to accidentally change the volume. Another thing I dislike is that it doesn’t have a charging circuit, so you have to take the 9V battery out to charge it every time it runs out of battery. Other than those few quirks, the design is actually rather good.
Measurements & Impedance
Recently Charles published the measurements and there is one thing that I would like to mention.
Since there is no battery included, the battery life is obviously going to be different with batteries with different capacities. The 20 hours stated battery life is with a battery around 500MAH so if you use a 250MAH battery then the battery would be closer to 10 hours.
Also, if the impedance is indeed accurate, then I must say that I am extremely impressed. Really, anything under 1ohm is good enough, but the crazily low impedance of the Palaios should be able to drive the lowest impedance IEMs without a problem.
- Input: 3.5mm TRS socket
- Output: 3.5mm TRS socket
- Power: 9V battery (not included)
- Battery life: 20Hr
- THD @ 1kHz: < 0.0005%
- SNR @ 1kHz: > 86dB
- Voltage Gain: 2.5x
- Output swing: > ±4V
- Output current: 35mA
- Output impedance 0.00862ohm
Of course, no matter how good a piece of equipment is built, looks or how good the specs are, it all amounts to nothing if it doesn’t sound good. The sound section will be broken down into 3 main parts, the bass, midrange and the treble.
When I first heard the Palaios, my first thought was that the bass was very nice and solid with good impact. However, it didn’t have that slightly bloated bass that a few of the Fiios that I have tried do. The bass is perhaps a bit boosted, but it does not sound bloated at all whatsoever. I find that the detail level is a good step up from the internal amp in my DX50. Bass guitars sound really nice coming from the Palaios and I feel like drum beats have the perfect weight and punch to them as well as being very controlled. However, some people do enjoy that boosted bass that other companies like Fiio offer and if you are one of those people, the Palaios is definitely not for you. Overall, the bass is very pleasant, having good impact as well as retaining impressive control.
IMO, here is where the Palaios does its magic. As other people have posted, the midrange is rather lush and has that unique texture to the vocals which I happen to like a lot. Vocals have this slightly aggressive feeling to them which makes for a wonderful pairing with my UM Miracles. Vocal clarity is exceptional and you can hear the singer breathe. They seem to have this sharp tone that I feel makes vocals clearer and overall more pleasant, but they are not cold at all. I would say that the midrange is very liquid sounding and lush, but you really should listen to it if you get a chance. Instruments sound very natural and I feel like the entire midrange is just a tad forward. I certainly enjoyed the midrange very much.
When I first listened to this amp, I was under the impression that the treble was perhaps a little rolled off, but this is definitely not the case. After more listening, I realised that because the midrange is slightly forward and the bass hits hard, the rather flat treble seem to be rolled off, which it’s not. The treble has no noticeable peaks or dips which I appreciate. Just because the treble is slightly behind the bass and midrange doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still shine. Cymbals have a very realistic decay and are very detailed, but are not sibilant where a track isn’t. It also has very good extension. I would call the treble rather smooth with no unwanted emphasis.
Soundstage & Imaging
I’m afraid the soundstage is the one area that I feel that the Palaios is weak in. Other similarly priced amps such as the Tralucent T1 and the JDS C5 both have a larger soundstage and in result, sound more open. The Palaios does sound a tiny bit closed in comparison but it’s not too bad.
Imaging is rather good and to my relief, instruments didn’t all seem cramped together and hard to distinguish. I feel like the internal amp on the DX50 is very nice, but perhaps a little weak and lacking compared to better amps and this really shows with the Palaios. The imaging was a clear step up from the built in amp.
Separation, Detail & Clarity
I feel like one of the most important things that an amp needs is good separation, which makes for a much better listening experience. To be honest, I was quite surprised by how good the Palaios’ instrument separation was. It hardly ever got congested with my Miracles and for me that is god enough.
Vocal separation was just as good as instrument separation and on the songs that I tested it on, it did very well indeed.
The Palaios didn’t strike me as a detailed amp upon the first listen, but more of a relaxed sounding amp with which you can just sit back and enjoy the music without analysing it. After some more listening, it is actually rather detailed, but it doesn’t smack you in the face with it like other amps which emphasize the treble to makes it sound more detailed and to some people, exciting when people first hear it.
I felt that clarity was good on the Palaios, but the mids were a touch warm. Personally I would have preferred the mids to be a bit cooler, but I really love the midrange on the Palaios.
If you have read the whole review, you should have a good idea of the sound signatuire of the Palaios, but if you haven’t then I’ll sum it up for you:
The bass is very neutral, but a bit heavy; the mids are slightly warm and a tad forward and aggressive; finally the treble is very flat, but lags behind the bass and midrange making it seem like it is a bit rolled off.
Anyway, I do feel like the Palaios is very natural sounding because it doesn’t emphasize any part of the spectrum too much and has this realistic feel about it. If you are looking for an amp that is basically “wire with gain” such as the O2 (I actually think it’s a bit bass light but I didn’t have long to audition it) then I’m afraid that the Palaios isn’t quite going to cut it. It has a very slight emphasis on the bass and mids, but I wouldn’t call it coloured (like some Fiio models) by any means.
Here we are at the end of this review and if you were considering buying this amp, you are probably still unsure. My advice is that if you dig the IMO beautiful wood finish and like a neutral yet not entirely flat sound as well as the lovely midrange, get it. As White Lotus said, it really is like a luxury sedan without all the fancy gadgets. If you need a lot of functions then this amp is definitely not for you, it’s the most basic amp that I’ve ever come across. Now, if you are looking for an amp in this price range you are probably considering the T1, C5 and perhaps even the UH6S MKII. I haven’t heard the Leckerton so I can’t comment, but between the T1, C5 and Palaios, the T1 is probably the most technically proficient, the C5 with the most features, but I still like the Palaios the most.
Like always, I hope this review has helped and thanks again to Charles from SQD Tech. All pics were from Gogle Images, didn't have time to take any.