Sony PHA-2 DAC/ Headphone Amplifier

Capable, Quiet, and Portable

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Sony PHA-2
Sony PHA-2 DAC/ Headphone Amplifier

One clever ergonomic feature on the PHA-2 is the “rail” edges. These edges are for attaching two stretchy rubber straps that are designed to hold your playback device so it’s firmly connected to the PHA-2. I used the bands with the iPhone 5 as well as the Astell&Kern AK100. In both cases you end up with a fairly substantial mass that is too thick to fit in anything except a large cargo-pants pocket. Also, when you add the weight of the PHA-2 to your portable playback device, you are very likely to wind up with a package that weighs close to, and in some cases even more than, a pound.

If you want to use the PHA-2 as a DAC in a desktop system you’ll discover several minor ergonomic issues. First, with an analog source, such as the analog output from the Astell&Kern AK100, you will need to use the headphone rather than the analog-out to drive your preamp or powered speakers, since the analog output also doubles as the analog input. Also if you need two outputs, such as when you want to drive a set of speakers and a subwoofer, since the PHA-2 only gives you a single analog output you will have to split the signal in two via a jumper or Y connector, or get your amplifier/monitor-speaker feed via the pass-through from your subwoofer.

I used the PHA-2 with a variety of headphones from high-sensitivity models such as the Westone ES5 and Ultimate Ears IERM to more power-hungry cans such as the Audeze LCD-2, Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs, and Beyer Dynamic DT-990 600-ohm version. With the Beyer Dynamic DT-990s headphones I did long for slightly more gain and volume when I listened to my own live concert recordings, even with the high-gain setting engaged. The Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs and Audeze LCD-2 headphones had just enough gain to deliver satisfying volume levels with my own source material. With high-sensitivity in-ears, such as the Westone ES5, which exhibit hiss with many headphone amplifiers, the PHA-2 was dead silent with lots of gain, making it highly compatible portable with the ES5s.

If you are looking for a headphone amplifier to drive especially inefficient headphones, the PHA-2 should be auditioned to see if it will deliver adequate power. Some prospective owners will undoubtedly be disappointed that the PHA-2 can’t drive everything in their headphone arsenal, but in my experience finding one headphone amplifier that works equally well with all kinds of headphones is nearly impossible. A more reasonable goal is to find a headphone and headphone amplifier that have synergy together. For my uses the PHA-2 proved to be ideal with highly efficient headphones such as the Westone ES-5 and Ultimate Ears IERM, and certainly adequate with most medium-sensitivity cans. The new Oppo PM-1 headphone was an especially good match for the Sony PHA-2.

Since the primary reason for choosing the PHA-2 over other DAC/headphone amplifiers such as the ADL X1 is the PHA-2’s DSD capabilities, I spent a majority of my critical listening time playing my own live on-location DSD recordings through the PHA-2. One of my more recent recordings was done at a house concert in Boulder, CO, using a pair of Alesis/Groove Tube GT AM30 FET microphones with cardioid capsules to capture a performance by the mandolinist/clarinetist Andy Statman accompanied by Jim Whitney on acoustic bass. The microphones were set up approximately five feet away from Statman and Whitney in a coincident pattern. Statman’s spirited playing provided material with an extremely wide dynamic range as well as a rich harmonic palette. Listening with the PHA-2 tethered to my Ultimate Ear IREMs, which were the in-ear monitors I used while originally making the recording, I was instantly transported back to the moment the recording was made. It was as if I were listening to the live microphone feed. Even during Statman’s most frenetic and dynamic clarinet solos the PHA-2 never had the slightest feeling of stress or dynamic constriction.

On the audience’s applause between numbers the PHA-2 did a superb job of preserving all the subtle location cues as well as the not-so-subtle transients that clapping hands create. Frequency extension and tonal accuracy through the PHA-2 were especially good on Whitney’s acoustic bass. I could hear not only the transient pulse of his plucked notes, but also the way the acoustic bass bloomed as the notes spread through the room.

When I switched to using the PHA-2 as a DAC/preamp connected directly to an April Music Eximus S-1 power amplifier driving a pair of Audience Clair Audient 1+1 speakers in a nearfield setup, I was once more impressed by the PHA-2’s sonic abilities. All the dimensional and locational cues were preserved accurately by the PHA-2. I could even tell when Statman pointed his instrument in a slightly different direction, from the way the room’s reverberation and bloom changed. When Statman switched to mandolin all of his characteristic contrapuntal humming could be clearly heard and located in space, several inches above his mandolin. The PHA-2 also preserved the differences in room reverberance and bloom between Statman’s voice and his mandolin.

Since many prospective owners will be using the PHA-2 with smartphones, I spent some time near the end of the review period with the PHA-2 tethered to my iPhone 5 via its digital lightning connector. Using several high-definition Internet radio stations as primary sources I was impressed by how involving and musical the results were. Using the “HiDef Radio” app I listened to the 128KBPS Venice Classical from Italy, and heard reasonable depth and dimensionality from a recording of Brahms Piano Sonata No. 2, as well as an excellent feeling of weight and power from the piano’s lower registers. Switching to Boston’s WGBH at 160kbps feed on the TuneMark radio app I was greeted by a series of sonically spacious recordings that brought back fond memories of my time living in Boston and regularly attending the Thursday evening concert series.