Pros: Sexy looks, packed to the brim with unique features, amazing cross-feed control and performance, very fine construction, very detailed and musical
Cons: Hefty price tag, hefty size, gotta read the manual to get a handle on how best to use the amp and what to avoid with it
Note: this is my first review of what I would consider to be a truly high end component. Perhaps that means it deserves a stepped-up, crazily thorough review with detailed write-ups on how it behaves with various sources and music and headphones… but I like to keep things informal and relatively simple. So that’s what I’ll be doing here, as well. Also, I apologize for the lack of pictures—I know how Head-Fiers love their pictures. If I get my hands on a decent camera (and someone capable of operating the durn thing), then I’ll post some pictures. Until then, I dunno, use your imagination. Or Google it.
-Let’s start with the looks. Boy, is this guy a looker. I think it looks sexy and aggressive and classy, with a sort of hard-edged but luxurious aesthetic that really makes it the center of attention on my desk. My girlfriend says that it looks like a cute puppy dog begging for a treat. So, whatever, we don’t exactly see eye to eye, but the important thing here is that there is a lot of ugly audio componentry out there that your significant others will try to force you to get rid of every time they have to look at it—the Phonitor is not one of them. I could go over more of the details, but honestly, just look at a picture.
-The features. The front panel of this amp is loaded with them. And they are, each and every one of them, pretty awesome. Now, that’s not to say that all of them are equally useful—at least, not if you’re an average Head-Fier like me who is just using the Phonitor as a regular old headphone amplifier. However, the Phonitor is not just a regular old headphone amplifier—SPL calls it a monitoring amplifier, and with good reason. If you need to check volume levels on each channel, you can do that. If you need to listen to a single audio channel or mimic your monitor setup, you can do that. If you need to reverse or invert phase or whatever such studio voodoo is called, you can do that. (Look it up! This is informal, remember?)
-Even if you’re just using the Phonitor as an amplifier, however, the features are still worth playing with. Granted, pretty much all of the ones I mentioned directly above are, well, just for playing with. You can certainly do some pretty interesting things with them though, like practically stripping the vocals away from some songs, or bringing background instrumentation to the foreground so that you can actually catch that fiddle lick you’ve always wondered about.
-The really important features, however, are the cross-feed controls. Initially, I was afraid that they’d be a bit too overwhelming (I really like the simple on/off of Headroom’s cross-feed implementation), but their effects on the music is beautifully subtle—unless you turn everything to fairly extreme settings, flipping a switch or turning a dial is really going to require you to use your ears to notice the difference, and I like that. Drastically altering the musical output is possible, but I like playing it soft and easy with the cross-feed, which is controlled through three dials: Crossfeed, Speaker Angle, and Center Level. I’m not going to go through each of these controls—not only because I’m lazy, but because SPL’s excellent manual for the Phonitor (and Jude’s Head-Fi TV review of it) do a considerably better job than I ever could. Check those sources out if you want more information.
-With regards to the cross-feed, it is simply the best implementation of cross-feed that I’ve ever heard. Granted, my first-hand experience with cross-feed is fairly limited. I’m a certified newb with regards to this hobby, and I just have not had the opportunity to get out there and play with all of the gear that I’d like to. That said, once you home in on a cross-feed setting that you really like (or 2 or 3—having different settings for different recordings is actually pretty reasonable, in my opinion), you’ll be treated to the most natural, fatigue-free music you’ve ever heard. Or at least, that’s how it was for me. Now, like I said, the cross-feed effects are *very* subtle—with some recordings, clicking a dial over one position or even two will yield no noticeable difference. Just play with it, try out different recordings, and give each setting you tinker with time to burn into your brain. I will say that the Center Level is my favorite aspect of cross-feed tuning—finally, you can get all the benefits of even the most extreme cross-feed levels without turning the center into a mud-pit!
-The volume control. This thing is pure sex. I’ve never used a smoother control in my life, and I love the numbers arrayed around it—makes it very easy to remember ideal volume positions for each of your headphones, and even for some of your recordings. (I’m looking at you, John Zorn and Iggy Pop.)
-Speaking of the volume control—between it and the beautiful and hypnotic (especially at night) VU meters you may gain a new appreciation for listening to your headphones at reasonable volumes. I don’t have any way to directly measure the volume output of my headphones in db, but I can figure out a rough approximation by taking into account my headphones’ specs and the Phonitor’s volume control and VU meters. I personally have always aimed for a listening level of about 70-80 db, something I’ve always tried to home in on by ear, based on what I’ve read about the various noise levels of average, every-day sounds. The Phonitor makes such homing quite a bit easier.
-The sound. A quick caveat—I suspect that my relatively inexpensive, though still impressive (to my ears) Headroom Micro DAC probably bottlenecks my system a bit. Add to that the fact that my ability to accurately describe and pick apart sound has always been somewhat lacking, and, well, this part of the review is going to be sort of incomplete, is basically what I’m saying. Note also that the ‘signature’ of the Phonitor I’m describing below is fairly generalized—the extent to which it affects a particular headphone’s sound is, of course, entirely dependent upon the headphone’s inherent qualities. If you want good sound impressions, I’d really recommend you look elsewhere. Try Headfonia or Head-Fi TV.
-The first thing I noticed was the bass, and how *controlled* it was. For example, I’ve always thought the bottom notes on Sufjan Stevens’s track ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ were fairly shapeless—blobs of low frequency information without any clear edges. I’ve just figured that they were a fault of the recording. However, the Phonitor seems to almost remove a thick veil from the low notes, revealing nicely detailed and clearly delineated bass notes that sound, well, analog. Not only can I ‘feel’ the vibrations—I can hear them too. Such control is evident in other tracks I’ve always thought prey to unsightly and muddy low frequencies, as well—such as The xx’s ‘Fantasy.’
-The second thing I noticed was how the backgrounds of various tracks don’t seem as far back as they used to be—which is not to say that they are brought really far forward, as that would only lead to their details running rampant over the ‘important stuff.’ It’s just that now I can pick out those minor string or keyboard parts in art pop without having to even actively listen for them: the Phonitor has given Joanna Newsom’s back-up orchestration on her album 'Ys' a whole new lease on life. I can’t reconcile how this is happening without pushing the foreground and the background onto one chaotic ‘plane,’ but it works. It works beautifully.
-Lastly, things just sound less congested on the Phonitor. I suspect it’s the pitch black background that does it—even noisy recordings where you can hear the room and environment in which they were born still manage to pop in a vibrant way I've not experienced before.
-The manual. I wish every product came with a manual as informative as this one. Indeed, it’s almost a little too informative in spots—and I can’t help but feel that some of the more technical aspects it covers suffer from a bit of a wonky translation into English, assuming that this manual was translated directly from the German one. (Or maybe I’m just dumb and it all goes right over my head.) Still, that and a couple of typos aside, this is one product manual you probably won’t mind actually settling down to read.
-The rear panel of this thing is laid out really well—I typically hate having power switches on the back of devices because I can never find them that way--but here that’s no problem. Everything just feels like it’s right where it should be, and the fact that some of the labels on it are printed up-side down so that you can read them when you’re looking at them over the front of the amp is a nice touch.
-The ability to change the sensitivity of the VU meters is a nice touch, as is the -20 db adjustment switch. I use both a lot more than I thought I would—the -20 db switch for quick volume suppression and the VU sensitivity switch for getting a better read on the volume of especially loud (or poorly mastered) music.
-The Phonitor runs very cool. When I saw its huge vents all over the case, I was worried it was going to be one hot piece of machinery. That is just simply not the case. Only thing I’m worried about with those huge vents is dust getting in and colonizing the interior.
-The cost. The Phonitor is not a cheap amp—I got a deal on it and my wallet was still aching afterward. Is it worth it? I think so—I’m really loving it thus far, and am eager to feed it something from a higher-end DAC in the future. Still, I suspect that this amp’s price is quickly approaching the point of diminishing returns. At least, it is for someone with an income like mine.
-The Crossfeed dial was loose upon me receiving the amp and spun freely, rather than clicking into place. This was nothing that a little readjustment and a hex wrench couldn’t fix, but still, just goes to show that despite its buff looks and German heritage, not even the Phonitor is indestructible.
-Those looking for an immediate and noticeable improvement over a previous amplifier with the Phonitor may be disappointed—the Phonitor works its magic only on a very subtle level. Or, at least, it does so with my stable of headphones and my sources.
-The Phonitor is huge. Making room for it can be a challenge. Not recommended for people who have a covert setup or who have very little space to begin with.
-There’s no way to dim the Phonitor’s front VU meters, or the bright red lights within the case itself.
-Leaving your headphones plugged in after turning the amp off will result in rather startling, loud noises emitting from your headphones after the amp’s power-down process is complete. The manual does include a warning about this (it recommends unplugging your headphones whenever you turn the amp off), though I doubt it’s actually doing the headphone’s drivers themselves any harm. Just don’t leave them on your head after you’ve powered off. I made this mistake once, and it was unpleasant. (The intensity of the noises differs depending upon your headphone. For example, it’s hardly there on my Denon AHD2000s, but it sounds like a banshee on my HD650s.)
-Perhaps I'm just imagining it, but it seems like the Phonitor requires a bit of warm-up before it starts sounding its best. Listen to it right after flipping the power switch on and it can sound a touch on the thin side.
-Don't expect to be able to perfectly drive low-impedance headphones off of the Phonitor. While there is a -20 db switch that should give you a wider range of volume control, you will get a noticeable background hum out of low-impedance headphones when you are driving them with the Phonitor. Note that this hum may not actually be noticeable while music is playing over it, but you'll probably catch it in between tracks or during silent moments.
The Phonitor is a hell of an amp, and I love it to death. My current system does not do the thing justice I’m sure, but I plan on rectifying that as time goes on. More headphones, a better DAC, maybe I’ll even play around with expensive cables at some point, who knows. I plan on updating this review once in a while as my system evolves, and I’ll post the volume settings I use for each of my headphones as well—which I’ll update when I add new headphones to my stable. Or try borrowed headphones with the amp. (You know, if any of you guys want to send me your LCD-2s and HD800s and T1s and whatnot... :-P) If you see any obvious mistakes in this review or have any questions, let me know! Thanks for reading!
My listening levels:
(Please note that these just represent my comfort level with the gear I use.)
Loud (no more than a couple minutes at a time): -19
Beyerdynamic DT1350 (Background hum noticeable on all volume levels):
Loud (no more than a couple minutes at a time): -24
Loud (no more than a couple minutes at a time): -19
Loud (no more than a couple minutes at a time): -19