This is the first time we’ve reviewed a product from SPL, and we’re mighty glad we did. The company is based in Germany and makes all sorts of processors, DACs and amplifiers, mostly targeted at the studio world. It does make some products that crossover for home use though, and the SPL Phonitor xe is one of those.
We love the way this thing looks. The nerd in us is drawn to all the control dials and a multitude of switches. We like the finish options too, with standard offerings such as black and silver being augmented by a bold red. But there’s real substance here from the solidly-made casework and high standard of fit to the robust feel of the controls. This is obviously a product designed to take heavy use over many years.
The Phonitor xe is an analogue headphone amplifier. It has both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA line-level inputs and delivers the output through a 4-pin XLR or a standard 6.3mm socket. This pair of outputs is available from the front panel, but if you want things to look a little neater, they are repeated at the back. There is a small toggle on the front panel to switch between the two.
Look at the base of the Phonitor xe and you’ll find a pair of dipswitches. One of these increases the unit’s output level by +22dB, in case you are using particularly inefficient headphones, and the other adjusts the RCA input sensitivity to account for variances of source output levels. Both are useful to have if you swap between a range of sources and headphones.
Type Headphone amplifier
Inputs Balanced XLR, single-ended RCA
Outputs 4-pin balanced x2, 6.3mm x2
Dimensions (hwd) 100 x 278 x 330mm
Finishes Black, silver, red
There is an optional digital module available for the Phonitor xe, which adds £875 / $850 / AU$700 to the price, but that’s not included on our sample. That module offers USB, optical and coax inputs alongside a balanced AES/EBU, and is compatible with signals up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD256.
Analogue headphone amplifiers are traditionally simple-looking things, but this one is different. We like the twin VU meters, even if they serve little practical purpose, but it’s SPL’s Matrix processing that catches our attention. Once switched into the circuit it offers an adjustable amount of cross-feed to the signal to bring the in-the-head presentation of headphones closer to that of a pair of speakers positioned in front of the listener. It is possible to fine-tune the results with the angle switch, which attempts to replicate the difference that adjusting the speaker angle makes.
We spend quite a bit of time playing around with the various settings and conclude that we prefer the Phonitor’s sound with all the processing out of the circuit. While the Matrix processing does as promised, there is enough of a drop in terms of transparency and openness to swing our vote away from using it. Having said that, it's not a night and day difference so some may be happy with the compromise.
A component at this level demands a top-quality source. We have Naim’s ND555/555 PS DR music streamer to hand as well as the Technics SL-1000R/Kiseki Purpleheart record player feeding a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage. When it comes to headphones we have a good choice ranging from the Beyerdynamic T1 Mk 3 and Grado RS1x through to Focal’s range-topping Utopia and closed-back Stellia.
Given a few days to settle, this headphone amplifier proves to be a delight. It’s not a ‘fireworks’ kind of product that tries to thrill at every turn, though. This is more of a slow burner; one that gently worms its way into our affections over time.
The SPL's sonic character proves consistent regardless of the partnering headphones we use, delivering a combination of refinement, authority and insight that’s rare. Listening to the Taylor Swift/Bon Iver duet, Exile, shows the Phonitor xe to be a smooth performer; one that is fluid and full-bodied without sacrificing articulation. Voices come through with natural warmth and passion with the SPL communicating dynamic nuances superbly. We love the weight it lends to the piano and also the way the Phonitor xe allows music to flow. This is a highly detailed presentation but it never feels overly analytical.
While this headphone amplifier has a transparent sound, it remains forgiving of aggressive recordings and refuses to make a meal out of things. Eminem’s Recovery can sound thin and harsh, but through the SPL we’re made more aware of the rapper’s vocal brilliance and the crunching beats than any shortcomings in the production. There is a good sense of space here despite the often cluttered feel of the production, and it remains easy to keep track of low-level instrumental strands even when the music becomes demanding. It’s this sense of control that helps to mark the SPL out as something special.
This is a product that doesn’t go out of its way to hype up a recording to make it sound more exciting, but there is still enough in the way of rhythmic drive to get our feet tapping to tracks such as No Love. While Recovery is not the most bass-leaden album, there is still enough here to show that the amplifier is taut and tuneful at low frequencies. Subsequent listening to the bass-fest that is Massive Attack’s Heligoland reinforces the point.
We shift genres to Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and the SPL responds with a controlled performance that brims with insight, punch and composure. The music’s demanding dynamic sweeps are delivered with power and there is a good impression of scale. By its very nature, listening to headphones usually comes second best to speakers when it comes to things such as scale or authority, so it’s fair to say that the SPL does a great job.
If you’re something of a headphone obsessive the Phonitor xe certainly deserves to be on your wishlist. It has a considered, refined but still entertaining approach to music replay that we really enjoy. Given a suitably talented source and headphones, this SPL headphone amplifier delivers a level of sound quality that is among the best we’ve heard.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Features 5
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