updated 07:31 am EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Sony rolls out the PHA-2 portable headphone amp for smartphones, PCs
Just as Apple seems to have switched its attention away from standalone music players in favor of its iPhone and iPad businesses, Sony has made a play for the burgeoning high-resolution audio market. One of its latest high-resolution audio devices is the PHA-2 portable headphone amplifier that has been designed to work particularly well with Macs and Apple's iPhone and iPads. Not only does the device sport an in-built battery for use on the go, it also includes a high-quality DAC that supports 24-bit/192kHz audio files that includes a digital input for iPhones and iPads. Helping improve sound quality further, it also includes separate operational and headphone amplifiers.
Electronista recently had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with the Sony PHA-2 and came away very impressed. In addition to 24-bit files, the headphone amp supports DSD (2.8MHz), Double DSD (5.6MHz), FLAC and ALAC. However, because of the high-quality converters, along with the benefits of an on-board headphone amp, lossy formats including 256kbps AAC and 320kbps MP3 files also sound substantially better than they otherwise do when listening to music from a smartphone. As good as many smartphones when it comes to the reproduction of FLAC and ALAC files, in particular, they fall short when it comes to driving a decent set of headphones.
Helping Apple users greatly in the further enhancement of their iPhone sound quality is the fact that the Sony PHA-2 incorporates a direct digital input that by-passes the built-in DAC of an iPhone or Mac (over USB) to take full advantage of its hardware. The selectable gain switch supports impedances from 8 to 600 Ohm, so that users will be able to properly drive any set of headphones. It also includes a line-out when connected to either a Mac or PC. Helping Apple users out further, Sony also ships a high-resolution audio player for Macs, but the app requires one of Sony's high-res devices to work.
Getting technical, Sony explains that the PHA-2 utilizes an Asynchronous Transport Mode with a dedicated signal generator to reduce timing errors for more accurate and smoother converter performance. Its DAC and amplifier IC features a high slew rate coupled with ultra-low distortion operation. Inside its attractive, and interference-free, ruggedized aluminum enclosure is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It's good for 6.5 hours over its digital connection for iPhones, which should be good enough for most commutes.
Interestingly, even though Sony produces Android smartphones, the PHA-2 only supports Android devices over an analog input. This means that Android users will only enjoy the benefits of the amplifier, but not the DAC. The upshot is that this will give you up to 17 hours power on the go. While reliant on the DAC in your Android smartphone, you will still enjoy a substantially richer sound through your headphones. Rounding out this impressive package, Sony also includes mounting straps, as you can see in the photos, that allows you to pair your smartphone, or in this case, Sony's high-resolution NWA-NZ1 Walkman. A protection sheet and cables are also included.
We were able to listen to the PHA-2 through one of Sony's new high-resolution branded headphones using both an iPhone and Sony's high-res Walkman. The listening experience is exceptional. While there is a lot of debate about the benefits listening to 24-bit high-resolution audio files versus 16-bit ALAC or FLAC files, there can be no question about the benefits of listening to music through a high-quality DAC and a similarly high-quality amplifier. The clarity and fullness of the sound reproduction is outstanding. Whether listening to quieter pieces or more powerful rock tracks, the definition and sound separation is excellent. The EQ response is neutral allowing for clear and precise bass notes, accurate mid range and a pleasing treble sound that manages to be crisp, without being in any way harsh.
The fact that you can use the Sony PHA-2 headphone amplifier to supplement your Mac or PC audio when at home is an added bonus. If you are not familiar with using outboard DACs and amplifiers with your computer, you will be positively impressed with the difference it makes to your listening experience. Getting a high quality listening experience is not cheap, however. The Sony PHA-2 is retailing for $599. Compared to some high-end audio gear, the Sony PHA-2 comes up looking like reasonably good value. For a true music lover looking for the best sound on the go, its price and the added bulk of the PHA-2 is hardly a deal killer. The sound you will get will more than repay itself in the many hours of enjoyment that you will get from it.
By Sanjiv Sathiah