Review: Phatlab Audio Sassy – sassy?

Disclaimer: Phatlab Audio suppled Sassy for the purposes of this review, which is now ingloriously late. It goes for roughly 700$ USD. You can find out all about it here: Phatlab Sassy SET amp.

Equipment related to or important to this review:

1. Phatlab Audio Phantasy; Phantasy RMAA measurements
2. ALO Audio CDM Part 1; CDM Part 2; CDM RMAA measurements
3. Cypher Labs Trio; Trio RMAA measurements
4. Ultrasone IQ
5. Grado PS1000
6. Beyerdynamic DT880

The Sassy Mr. Lin showed off at last autumn’s Fujiya Avic headphone show laboured with hiss and noise. As a result, Phantasy stole the show. Not that Phantasy isn’t incredible. It is. Ducks all in a row it is the most memorable SET, and in my opinion, beautiful battery-powered valve amp I’ve yet tried. I have a feeling that it will feature loudly in 2016’s roundup.

Unlike Phantasy’s transformer-coupled design, Sassy is a hybrid design with a solid state output stage. As a result its sound is familiar where Phantasy’s is unique. Sassy is warmer, drier, and measurably better-suited to a wide range of headphones and earphones. It is compact, and while not as painstakingly designed, eminently utilitarian.

And then there’s its name.

But Phantasy is sassier than is Sassy. Sassy’s laissez-faire warmth, and more equitable frequency response, is stable, wholesome, nutritive. To pull another meaningless adjective from between my pelvis bone, I will call it chocolatey. As long as we’re not talking addiction (because, at least for me, Phantasy is far more addictive), chocolatey is actually a pretty good word.

The ODE has the following to say about the word sassy.

sassy |ˈsasi|

adjective (sassier, sassiest) informal

lively, bold, and full of spirit; cheeky: Toni was smart and sassy and liked to pretend she was a hard nut.

While I don’t understand what a ‘hard nut’ is, I reckon I get it. Sassy means anything but plaintive. The ODE definition is the measure against I will stretch Sassy’s various tones, angles, and functional elements to decide whether or not Phatlab Audio screwed the marketing pooch.

Phatlabs Sassy - ISO front

Not Sound

I kind of have to start with its knob. It’s a knob. It’s solid, well aligned, and tied to an accurate left/right spread. Unlike Phantasy’s brilliantly machined grippy, and anchor-like thing, Sassy’s is pretty plane. When prised to the right, or rotated one-handed, it budges enough to rub against the nearest roll cage. Like Phantasy, you can slide your finger across it to adjust the volume, but Sassy’s is typically smooth-moving, not Mazak CNC machine-like silky like Phantasy’s.

Speaking of roll cages, does Sassy not borrow a little from the Sony PHA-3? I’ve come around to the roll cage since ragging on it when the PHA-3 was first introduced. My guess is that it prevents inadvertent volume changes when you’ve wedged the thing into your jeans. Actually – and it would be remiss of me not to mention this – Sassy doesn’t get hot, so why not shove it in there?

Phantasy-level quality 6,3mm and 3,5mm jacks line Sassy’s front. And, the two appear to be spaced just as widely one from the other. The 6,3mm jack sits flush with the chassis. About 8mm sit between it and the left-hand roll cage. If you’re using a 3,5mm to 6,3mm step-up adapter, you may have a Dickens of a time cleaving the two without lifting Sassy up. The 3,5mm input jack sits in a shallow well with enough space to accommodate fat plugs. Sassy’s 5V charging port is every bit as good as Phantasy’s is. It’s every bit as deep, every bit as utilitarian and functionally designed. No mains adapter required. How sassy is that?

Hardly.

Phatlabs Sassy - ISO box

What’s kind of sassy about Sassy is toaster oven eyes. They glow all hot and Cylon from the moment you switch on the battery mains. They’re behind a lovely bit of rear-printed glass. The printing on that glass is a marked step down from the precise and clear text adorning Phantasy. It’s functional, legible, but not pretty. It is, however, a bit alien.

That’s kinda sassy.

Sassy’s feet are just as solidly inset, it’s chassis nearly as rigid, and it sits perfectly flat on a perfectly flat surface. Its fastening hardware is high quality and strip resistant. Not sassy at all.

Like Phantasy, Sassy takes a while to warm up. Unplug a headphone, plug a new one in, and it rings like the the fading undulations of a high hat. It’s a ring that you’ll hear for less than a minute through most headphones. It’s neither obnoxious, nor is it comforting. It’s there. It goes: hey geezer! you’re listening to tubes! before fading to black. You’ll forget about it until you plug a new pair in, or turn the amp off and then on again.

Kinda sassy.

Sassy’s shape and UI is a marked step down from Phantasy’s. One-handed pot operation? Can do, but grunt work is required. And again, you’ll grind the pot on its roll cage. Overall, it’s a good UI, but is neither as natural, nor as smooth to operate as Phantasy’s. And while Sassy’s build quality stands up to the latest ALO’s, it doesn’t hold a candle to the CDM’s concise, Bauhaus shape and branding, but then again, neither does Phantasy’s. Its two-tone case is attractive, and the glass up top promises fun viewing. But why do the phatlab logo and Sassy’s explanatory text obstruct part of the window when there’s ample room above and below?

Sassy.

Phatlabs Sassy - bolt

Sound impressions continues on the next page:

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

7 Comments

  • Reply April 7, 2016

    Carl

    Another really nice review!
    Could I ask again what I asked with regards the Phantasy – do you know from the company (or could you find out from them, as my attempts at contacting them have failed) where I could buy either or both of these in Europe? I live in the UK but perhaps there is some alternative place I could order from, preferably without import duties as the Phantasy will be stretching my budget as is! And I kinda fancy both to be honest!
    I was about to purchase two relatively expensive desktop amps but one could go and be replaced by definitely one of these, perhaps both.
    I know you ultimately prefer the Phantasy, but do you consider its limitation in matching many headphones to the fullest to be a drawback that makes the Sassy almost a better option (money not being an issue)?
    Hope you are able to find this info for me, as well as for others who may be interested.
    This is not flattery (I abhor flattery!), but i really like your writing style in these reviews; hope there’s more to come.
    Be well.

    • Reply April 11, 2016

      ohm image

      Carl,

      I’m sorry this reply is late. I burn out over the weekends and move as far from audio stuff as I can. I will ask Mr. Lin to check his email or to give me information re: European distribution or direct sales that I can then append to this post.

      Phantasy’s drawback is exactly what you said I said: you need to match it to the right headphones. But when/if you do… Phantastic. Sassy is, as I hope I outlined, far stabler across a wide variety of headphones – and therefore the more logical choice for a person intending to use it with earphones, headphones, and low-Ω headphones.

      That said, the sound between the two is quite different. Sassy is much closer to – though ‘warmer’ by way of higher distortion levels – than the ALO CDM and even closer again to Cypher Labs’s Trio. Phantasy is completely different. I’ve not heard its like among portable tube amps, and even among SET amps, it is perhaps the clearest, bell-like amp I’ve used.

      So… while I can’t decide for you, I can say this: if I had to choose just one for my favourite headphones (excepting the PS1000, which tend to be high-Ω), it would be Phantasy.

      As to the compliments: thank you. I am trying my best.

    • Reply April 11, 2016

      ohm image

      Mr. Lin said that you can buy from him direct until his European (or other) distributorship is finalised. I will update the article tomorrow or the day after with his instructions.

      • Reply April 11, 2016

        Carl

        Many thanks, and no worries about the initial delay in your response; I know you guys are busy at the best of times, and more often than not in life, times are frequently not ‘the best’.
        Take care of oneself and ones loved ones, and the rest will wait till its time comes.
        Be well.

  • Reply April 11, 2016

    Barun C

    Nicely done Nathan, although Phantasy still piqued my interest as it seems to be a promising portable setup for people on the move who want a portable desktop amp. The portable amp market has shrunk but I still see quite a few people using portable amps like the FiiO E12A and recently Mojo (although it is more than an amp) with lower tier to mid tier DAPs and phones. Do you still see people carry their AK DAPs with portable amps in Japan?

    • Reply April 11, 2016

      ohm image

      I rarely see naked DAPs. It is strange. People even strap amps to Mojo! so stacks today are as big as ever. That said, I’m sure they do this mostly at meets. Geek street cred. I can’t imagine it being popular or comfortable to strap on on the way to work or school.

      Personally, I go naked.

      • Reply April 11, 2016

        Barun C

        I also consider carrying naked or solo for a while now for convenience, currently with the QP1R and earlier with the iBasso DX-50, iPod Classic 160GB and Zen Vision M 30GB.

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