Phonitor E Impressions
Thanks again to @grizzlybeast
for organizing the tour. I got some time with the Phonitor E. Here are my notes:
Overall, I’d call the amp relatively neutral with a bit of warmth in the lower mids and midbass. It is a pretty smooth and musical signature I think a lot of people will like.
I'll just come out and say it, I’m not a big fan of the DAC. It sounds relatively inoffensive, but the depth layering is a bit lacking and the soundstage is extremely congested without the crossfeed enabled. Not as impressive as the amp is paired with, IMO. I don’t want to comedown on it too hard, because I think the depth projection is still pretty short even with a different DAC, if the crossfeed isn’t enabled. Regardless, I thought the Phonitor E took a leap forward as soon as I stopped using the onboard DAC.
Great for the HD800!! Crossfeed was totally awesome on the HD800 and the extra warmth and smooth treble really played nice with it. The extra bass was a bit overpowering with the ZMF Atticus, and it’s probably not a combo I’d recommend (grab the DecWare CSP-3 if you really want to hear the Atticus sing).
The Phonitor-E seemed to be a little bit pickey with planars, but mostly performed well. It displayed (what I assume were) some poor damping characteristics that caused an extra bit of harshness in the midrange on the Abyss (not surprising – the Abyss is a pain to drive), but was also a bit finicky with the MrSpeakers ÆON sometimes, which is exceptionally easy to drive (I should note that combo was pretty good for the most part, but the mids weren’t as smooth and sweet as most other combos). Not sure what was up with that, but I didn’t like it on some songs. In spite of that little oddity, it drove the HE500 and the ZMF Ori just fine. In fact, I thought both of those headphones sounded absolutely excellent from the Phonitor E and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it with either headphone.
The Crossfeed is pretty cool. It’s especially noticeable on the HD800, where you can really tell the difference between the settings. On other headphones, it was a bit more subtle, but still noticeable. There aren’t any particularly weird colorations, which kill most crossfeeds for me. C1 had a little more presence, I thought it was a little more transparent and less “processed sounding” than C2. It’s pretty subjective though, so YMMV. Both sound better than having the CF off, IMO.
I know Grizz wanted to hear how it compares to the Wells Milo, which is my current reference amp. I passed this along to him already in a PM, but I’ll repost here for the benefit of anyone who is curious.
From a technical standpoint, I have to assume that the differences between these two amps are mostly related to damping. At the end of the day, I can trace most of the major differences between the two amps back to attack and decay.
Overall, I would say the Milo is more transparent with a touch more dynamic punch, air, space and a tighter low end (which is more accurate and reference quality, IMO). Phonitor is a touch warmer and fuller in the midbass and low mids, but Milo is more accurate to my ears, hits harder (in many cases) and offers greater clarity so it’s a touch more satisfying, (again) IMO. The Phonitor’s extra warmth mostly comes from its warmer/looser decay.
Upper mids on the Milo have more lift and shimmer without sacrificing control or smoothness, which usually makes guitars and vocals more engaging. Every once in a while the extra bloom in the lower mids makes the Phonitor sound 1 or 2% better on a certain guitar lick or vocal passage, but at this point, my ears have sussed out that this is actually less accurate. Treble is also a bit airier on the Milo, but they both have really nice smoothness in the high registers. Overall, I’d say the Milo has more texture and life to it, while the Phonitor is a bit more relaxed sounding.
Drums on Milo have a more violent punch – they make you nod your head. Phonitor is warmer, but looser. It’s not damping or attacking with the same level of authority. It’s more laid back. Kicks are a touch sloppy in comparison to the violent snap-in and rip-out approach of the Milo. Milo sometimes makes me think of listening to a great pair of monitors in the studio – it is tight, clean, firm and immediate. It reminds me of watching those Kevlar cones punch out with a big drum hit.
Switching back and forth at a volume-matched level, Milo’s tighter attack may make it seem thinner for the first 4 or 5 seconds, but when your ears adjust, you realize the Phonitor is simply not on the same level technically and Milo is connecting you with the rhythm of the music on deeper and more nuanced level. Switching back to the Phonitor immediately removes a bit of the “boogie factor” because of the slower attack and decay. I notice that I am moving around in my chair and bobbing my head less within a few seconds of the switch pretty much every time.
There is just all of this microdynamic texture that the Phonitor is missing compared to Milo. The Phonitor just cannot damp with the same speed (so it actually has a little bit more apparent loudness, even when they are perfectly matched to pink noise – as soon as you introduce varying decay patterns, the Phonitor sounds louder because of the slower decay). Even when I turn up the Phonitor to be truly and obviously louder than the Milo, it can’t reproduce the texture. As soon as my ears adjust to the volume change, I find myself bopping around more to the music with the Milo. I’ll switch back to the Phonitor and get that extra jolt of volume, but 5 or 10 seconds later, I’m feeling the slouch of the slower amplifier and I can feel my fun levels dropping.
I don’t want to make it sound like it is a night and day difference between these two amps, all of this stuff is very nuanced, but I wanted to try and pick it all apart and articulate the little differences as best as I could. It should also be noted the Phonitor-E costs a couple hundred bucks less, comes with a DAC and has the crossfeed function, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff.
Overall, I think the Phonitor-E is a fine amp, and would make it a conditional recommendation, based on the listener’s individual needs. It’s probably not going to be one of my go-to recommendations like the Mojo, Liquid Carbon, Milo or CSP-3 - but if your main cans are the HD800 and the HE500 or the Ori, and you’re looking for an amp or amp/DAC in that price range, it’s a pretty solid value that will serve you well.