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Great mid level digital amp, but weak analog amp.

A Review On: Sony PHA-1 Headphone Amp

Sony PHA-1 Headphone Amp

Rated # 32 in Amp/DACs
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Price paid: $399.00
DrSheep
Posted · Updated · 6079 Views · 10 Comments

Pros: Great value for a medium level portable amp with asynchronous USB support.

Cons: (Weaker than usual analog amp even the spec said otherwise.) - Ignore, it was my F807's fault not the PHA-1

Update: it turns out to be my F807 having a rather weak line out and not the fault of the PHA-1.  Therefore please ignore my comments about the gain issue and I am bumping up my rating from 3 to 4.

 

Ok here is my take on the Sony PHA-1 along with their F806 Walkman and the Sennheiser Momentum, and to be honest, I think some of you may not like it…

 

Here is a bit of background, the PHA-1 is MSRP at $600, but I paid for mine at $400 from Amazon, and this is my baseline on judging its value. However, most of you should able to find it for around $350 if shop around.

 

My bottom line for this little wonder is that it does a good job as a DAC with good amount of features, but as an amp, not so much.

 

Let’s talk about its DAC first, which is asynchronous and can operates at 24/96, just like the AudioQuest DragonFly (MSRP $250), and they sounded almost identical to each other at the same volume with my V-MODA M-100 during A/B testing. The PHA-1 performs equally well with my iPods compares to the V-MODA VERZA due to the digital amp and it shows.

 

However, the same cannot be said with the analog amp, which is where the PHA-1 falls apart.

 

Since the PHA-1 is a Sony product, it supports their Walkman line of DAPs by providing a LOD cable, which I paired with my F806. To my surprised, I LOST volume at low gain by about half using the PHA-1 vs. straight out from the F806. Both of the Sennheiser Momentum and V-MODA M-100 are low impedance cans at 18 ohms and 32 ohms respectably, and they both performed very well with the V-MODA VAMP and VERZA in low gain at 1/3 volume dial. Since the VERZA and the PHA-1 power rating are comparable to each other, I fully expected that power and volume wise they would be similar, which unfortunately is not the same. Compare to the F806 set at 35-40% volume, at low gain, I have to set the PHA-1 to at least 50% in order to get a similar level of volume back. Of course this is not exactly a problem for me, as once I switch to high gain, I can get the same level of volume at 1/3 dial just like my VERZA at 1/3 dial in low gain. However, I foresee problems with higher impedance headphones with this amp in analog mode.

 

But this begs the question: why would you buy the PHA-1? If you want to use it for your PC/laptop, then the AudioQuest DragonFly seems to be a much better choice as it is cheaper and much smaller; if you want to use it for your iDevices, then at MSRP you can get the Fostex HP-P1, V-MODA VERZA, or the latest and greatest VentureCraft SounDroid Typhoon for even less; if you want to use it for a Sony Walkman or other DAPs that only has an analog LOD, then there are so many better and cheaper alternatives that makes the PHA-1 a moot point. The situation that the PHA-1 will be viable is that 1, you can get if for much less than MSRP; 2, you are moving up from FiiOs and the like but don’t want to pay $600; 3, you want an all-in-one device and don’t have other DAC/AMP that I mentioned or similar above; 4, you want to stick with Sony for your Walkman.

 

I might seems to be overly critical to the PHA-1 and I think I am, and to be fair at $350 it is a good buy for a DAC/AMP with asynchronous USB at 24bits/96kHz and reasons I mentioned above. And future models and variants will only get better.

 

One thing that might save me from returning the PHA-1 is that I might work with the F806 in digital mode since that series of Walkman are Android based. I was going to test it but I couldn’t found my female USB to micro USB adapter. However, even if this works, the setup is not going to be pretty, as I have yet to see a short WM-PORT to micro USB interconnect anywhere, plus the V-MODA VERZA officially supports Android and it will be more likely to work with the F806. So if the testing works out, at $350 this will be a great buy for all you F806/807 owners.

 

I know I left out a lot of other stuff like sound quality, but I think it will not be necessary for me to repeat the findings from other reviews. Feel free to pm or post if you got questions, and I will try to update the post once I get some decent pictures.

 

Update: I just found out that there is a WM-PORT to female micro USB adapter from Sony model WMP-NWM10 for around $10-$15 bucks, and with this you can make your own interconnect to your favorite DAC/AMP that supports Android. I am going to hunt one down and test it out.

 

Setup: Top: iPod Touch 1st Gen; Middle: Sony PHA-1; Bottom: Sony NW-F806 plus Sennheiser Momentum.

 

Silicone soft clips up close. They work pretty well on the rail system. However, it only works on the top but not the bottom, hence the bands for my double setup.

 

Sony NW-F806 need to connect to the PHA-1 via analog in from the WM-PORT with the included cable. Tested the connection from WM-PORT to the mini-USB port and failed. Technically the PHA-1 support PC connection via mini-UBS, so I was hoping it will work for Android like the V-MODA VERZA. Too bad that I tested the F806 on both and they both failed to connect...

10 Comments:

hey I've got a Walkman Z player and I'm looking at the sound quality difference with the analog connection. For portable use, I'm likely to be using Sony XBA3s and MDR1Rs and sometimes the Beyerdynamic DT1350s. I was just wondering if the sound quality difference between the Walkman with and without the PHA1 is worth it at the 350ish ebay price. What differences are you noticing? I'm assuming the Walkman Z and F series aren't super different from impressions on the forums. Thanks!
Most Sony DAPs, including the Z and F, suffer from very weak line out volume, which I didn't realized when I first reviewing the PHA-1 and blamed it for that. I can tell you that the SQ and volume greatly improved with the PHA-1, but you will need to use high gain even for low impedance headphones. You should have no problem with the 1350 even at 80 ohms, but I will worry about it if you go any higher than that with a Z or F. Remember, I am only talking about Z or F and not an iPod, because the LOD is digital you will be fine even at low gain.
Sweet thanks. I guess I'm more curious about the gains in SQ that you were hearing- what are we looking at in terms of lows/mids/highs? I realize that this is dependent on headphone as well, but if you could give me a gauge as to what I might expect that would be super. I'm unable to demo it in person myself unfortunately. Thanks!
Here is what I generally listens for in terms of the frequency range:
High: can you tell when and where the trebles getting cut off; is it clear, bright, and at a high enough volume relative to the mids and lows. High frequencies suffer the most with bad headphones and compressions, so it is the first thing that you should listen for during testing.
Mid: this is generally the vocial range and even average headphones will sound decent at this range. However, staging will play more of a role for the mids, as bass heavy headphones (or in a lesser case, high heavy/overly bright headphones) will tend to mask or drown out the mids. This is what happenes whenever you listen to movies with clear background music but hard to hear dialog, or what other people described as V-shaped sound stage. However, V-shaped sound stage is by no means bad if done correctly, as long as the mids are clear and not crossing over to the other ranges it will be fine.
Lows: there is good bass and bad bass. Good bass are basses that impactful, clear, but DOES NOT drown out or muddle the other frequencies; Bad bass are basses that just gives you non-stop headpounding that you can't hear the mids clearly and completely kills the highs. Most Beats, like the Solo, suffer from this, and this is why they are generally loathed around here.
Back to the PHA-1, I tested with my Sennheiser Momentum with my F, as mentioned in my review above, so it is not going to be the same as your DT1350 (18 vs. 80 ohms.) I am guessing due to impedance matching, your DT1350 will sound more neutal than usual. your highs might suffer slightly but not by much. I am not sure whether your DT1350 has a V-shaped sound stage or not, but if it is, the PHA-1 should flatten it out a bit and still with plenty of power to drives it. I think this is a good thing, as someone told me that the Z is a bit more bassy than the F, and I think the PHA-1 is a good package for most Sony DAPs.
ok thanks! On your momentums, did you find the PHA-1 brought out a particular frequency range more? Or did it just make it louder and easier to drive?
No problem. From my own experience, the Momentum responded evenly across all frequency ranges, may be slightly better on the mids and highs.
I find that the Walkman Z is able to handle my daily drivers which are fairly low impedence cans- the MDR-1R and XBA3 enough- I don't really need more power, but I would like better SQ.
do you think its worth the PHA-1's price for the slight increase in mids and highs that you got on your momentums? I'm primarily buying this as an amp for my walkman Z with low impedance headphones and not as a DAC.
If you really don't need a DAC, then you should spend your money for good portable amp, like the JDS Labs C5, Headstage Arrow, or Headamp Pico Slim just to name a few. No point on buying feathers you don't need.
I get a good SQ on my iPhone 5+m-100, but I can wonder if adding the sony pha-1would add more detail to it especially the mids as I can hear instruments and good bass, but the vocals is muffled. I'm not sure if I should blame the format of my songs which is downloaded straight from iTunes to my iPhone 5
Yes it will and you will not be disappointed.
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