Pros: Dynamic, vigorous mids that pairs well with sub-100 ohms cans
Cons: Loose bass, small soundstage
Project Palaios IONA (Rosewood)
It’s infinitely difficult to judge sources without qualifications. Come to think of it, everything becomes relative to something else when the assessment involves terms like “better than” and “lesser than”. Take the case of the new Project Palaios Iona portable amplifier. I have been very fortunate to receive a loaner unit with a Black Cow interconnect courtesy of Mr. Wong Kwan Wae of Singapore. Both have been with me for a week before any appreciative or critical thought was allowed to congeal into judgments that I am now struggling to transmit to my laptop as comprehensible words.
Encased in cured and finely sanded Rosewood, the Iona couldn’t scream any louder its desire to be different. In a world of metal enclosures, Iona sticks out like a Caucasian in the streets of Praetoria. Measuring 3.5 inches x 2.13 inches x 1 inch (length, width, thickness), the amplifier looks thick but is a joy to hold. I’ve heard of people complaining about the smooth metal surfaces of portable amps being too slippery in hand, the Iona’s cured but unpainted wood case provides plenty of grip. The build and finish may hint of custom DIY but the feel is solid and smooth.
Because only one side holds all the ports and knob, there’s no mistaking which side is the front and which is the rear. Topside up, the rightmost control is the volume pot; the middle 3.5mm jack is the headphone out terminal while the leftmost 3.5mm port is the audio line-in. There is no dedicated power on button. Turning the volume knob clockwise powers on the amp with the blue LED indicator sitting flush between the two 3.5mm jacks.
At the rear is a hinged battery door that is held shut (rather weakly) by two steel pins and a magnet. Lifting the door reveals a connector for a 9v battery and the internal gut of the Iona. Based on my one-week of usage, the 9v Alkaline Energizer battery lasted me around 17 hours before the blue indicator light started to flicker and the volume weakened.
During the week that I had the Iona, I was also given the opportunity to borrow Ajay Santos’ Apex Glacier for comparison. Both the Glacier and the Iona are warm-sounding amps but the latter sounded about two or three notches closer to the neutral or flat frequency amplification than the Apex. I had the feeling that the Apex was tuned to have a bell-shaped frequency response curve while the Iona had a near-flat V.
That said, Iona is undeniably warm. Now I am of the opinion that whenever people speak of warmth they refer to that bit of fuzzy thickness in the mids and mid-bass regions. Mid-bass looseness is also quite prominent in the Iona as that was the first thing that struck me when I plugged in my AKG-K3003, driven by my AK100. I tried pairing it with the Yamaha EPH-100 but found the inherent mid-bass bloat of the Yamaha was given even more push. The same effect can be heard on the VSonic VS01 but the mids sounded fuller than when paired with the FiiO E17. The Black Cow interconnect that it came with was quite good in pushing out the mids while keeping the treble smooth. It sounded a bit like the mid-centric Van Den Hul sans the penchant for sibilance.
Over the course of a week, I have tried to use the Iona with the following:
Beyerdynamic DT 1350
Beyerdynamic DT 770 LE
Sennheiser HD 800
Given my preference for clarity and detail, the tandem upon which this review is based was the AK100 + Iona + AKG-K3003. Sub-bass was tight if only a bit wanting in both quantity and slam. Mid-bass bloomed rather loosely giving that initial impression of bottom heft and warmth. Mids and vocals were the areas where the Iona did its magic. Not nearly as thick and forward sounding as the Glacier, this woody baby gave out textured and resolving push that makes my K3003 lose a bit of that metallic zing, rendering them analog-like. Bee Gees’ “Alone” with its almost falsetto vocals came off fuller than straight out of the Astell & Kern dap.
Generally speaking, I find it sounds closer to the iBasso D42 which costs twice its price than to a FiiO E17. In its pairing with the DT1350 it shares with the D42 the same superb separation but with a reduced soundstage. Treble air is also a bit lacking but otherwise, I find the Iona’s tonality more akin to iBasso’s than to FiiO’s. In contrast, my DT1350 enjoyed has harder-hitting bass when driven by the E17. Please understand my hesitation in employing the term "lush" in describing how the vocals are presented through the Iona. There are just so much body and details that may be ignorantly lost in that oft-repeated adjective that I loath to use it here.
I'd rather temporarily abduct and deploy the terms vigorous and dynamic if only to stay away from the much-abused one-term-descriptions. However, the Palaios Iona is, at the end of the day, a rather midcentric amplifier. Its midrange is vigorously more dynamic than FiiO's and iBasso's. Each belting voice is made more forceful and visceral by the contrast of how subtly and nuanced it can make a low guttural hum. There's a drawback though to having a soundstage of that size. Midrange presentation often sounds a bit congested.
If only I can end this review at where it shines the brightest, the Iona would be given at least four stars out of five. Despite tolerable treble roll-off starting at around 12 kHz, it was the audible scatter at the tail end of cymbal hit that really marked down what would have been a great score for this wood amp. High hats, cymbals and on occasions, even high-pitched piano sounded as welcoming as the shrieks of a petulant child. Oh no, it is not sibilant. This amp operates nowhere near that neighborhood. In fact, it is one of the only two amps that I have tried with the K3003 that didn’t require the AK100 to be EQ’d. It is that smooth.
Aye, smooth save for the faintly-audible scattering in the decay of trebles. My co-admin Frances Haw, M.D. suggested this line: "It is the tailend of a decay that refuses to go gracefully into the good night." I have tried using the Iona with Sony Walkman’s new flagship, NW-ZX1, and got the same result. Also paired it with the iBasso DX50 and found that to be present as well. It is not obvious but if you listen closely, you hear it. A friend who has only recently started in this hobby gave it a listen. He didn’t notice it until I pointed it out to him.
Regardless of the qualifications, the ultimate end of any review or assessment is to find its place in the dichotomy of binary human judgment. 1s and 0s. Black or white. Good or bad. Buy or pass. This is where a frame of reference becomes invaluable. Compared to other products in the entry-level segment, this amp has the following advantages:
- Wood case
- User-replaceable battery
How does it scale in the value-for-money meter? At US $ 125.00 (excluding battery, shipping and handling), the Iona shoots off the scale and should be considered a better buy than most entry-level portable amplifiers.