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.
Cons - 9V battery, average/small soundstage, no limiter for voltage input
I've had the privilege of Charles Wong send me this prototype amp a few months back but didn't get a chance to listen to it until recently. Charles worked on this particular unit himself so it is still very much a prototype unit that I have in my hands. There were a few issues with the unit but since it's prototype, I won't dwell on that.
Overall, the unit is quite blocky due to the 9V battery it houses and the wooden case does have some thickness to it. The actual circuit board inside is actually quite small. Operation is quite simple, only a volume pot that acts as a off/on switch too. No gain switch option either. I did encounter an issue that any source with a "high voltage out" seems to introduce distortion in the amp. Therefore sources such as the HM-901 line out is too powerful for this amp. However other DAP/DACs (AK120, VentureCraft DD) I've tried seem to be fine.
The sound of the amp is actually neutral with a slight treble bias. It's actually quite a reasonable amp to use if one wants to "cleanse their sonic palate" in preparation for critical listening of other amps. The soundstage is somewhat smaller than what I'm used to but at the same time I don't really hear congestion. It's price of $200, it's actually reasonable for what it delivers.
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 3[sup]rd[/sup] 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.