Review: Phatlab Audio PHAntasy – Uniquely Phantastic

Usable volumes vary depending on the headphone. The DT880/600 is as stable as can be at a volume of around 50% on hi-Z, and 35% on low-Z. The PS1000 is equally stable in both Z settings at a volume of about 50%. The SM2, meanwhile, can be cranked up to 55% without inducing heaps of IMD.

At the end of the day, it’s the flaws inherent in SET designs that endear some listeners. Typically, I am a solid state fan. Hybrid designs like the CDM bridge what I love about both valves and transistors. Phantasy is a no-holds-barred valve amp. It’s the most tubey take on clarity I have heard, and far better tuned to a wide variety of music.

Because it never gets hot or heavy, it is more than capable of producing engaging trance. Because its clearest and stablest frequency band is from 200Hz to about 10K, midrange instruments and voices are bright, clean, and crisp. No, it isn’t best suited to earphones. But if you have a pair handy, I highly recommend pitting the Ultrasone IQ against Phantasy. It’s a battle of wills that works interestingly, if not completely convincingly. Interestingly, Verisonix’s brilliant N500 is driven wildly by Phantasy, due, probably, to its more complex crossover system.

At low listening levels, IQ users will note a slight channel imbalance, meaning that if you can, lowering the volume of the source is a good idea.

I can’t get over Phantasy’s grainless, bell-like guitar, horns, and chimes. I can’t get over how it smooths out the DT880’s sometime-tendency toward aggravated upper midrange percussion. That it does so whilst sustaining energetic, clear, and bright tones is icing on the cake.

But I’m torn: is Phantasy a perfect match to high-Ω headphones, or no? Its favouring of clarity over warmth makes it wonderful for a LOT of classic headphones from bright to dark. And the roll off of frequencies below 100Hz by up to 9dB in hi-Z works even for bass-neutral headphones like the DT880, albeit with a variable hit in authority. You mileage may vary. In most cases, I really really like what I’m hearing.

I’m just not hearing reference. I’m hearing interpretation.

Phatlabs - Phantasy - box

End words

So, to what headphone is Phantasy best tuned? 1st-gen Beyer T1, DT880, HD800, HD600 – these are, in my opinion, its sweet spots- the HD600 and DT880 being my favourite matches. To a lesser extent, and with a number of provisos, low-Ω headphones such as the Grado PS1000, are brilliant matches – just not always.

I’ve encountered no battery-powered amp on the market that is as exquisitely made, both for looking at, and for operating. On the one hand, Phantasy is a flawless balance of function-informed design. It charges from a 5V micro USB port. Brilliant. It is heavy and sits on perfectly stable feet – a perfect addition to the HiFi. On the other, its output is tastefully, if obviously skewed to high-impedance headphones. Its brilliance is obvious when you’ve got the right headphone, no so brilliant when your headphone trips impedance mismatches.

And herein lies my biggest complaint: why do we have to choose? I’d rather it spit perfectly stable signals with its light-hearted, bright, and engaging signature intact.

Phantasy has a wonderful, special place reserved atop my Lynx Hilo. I expect that it may be interesting if not addictive to many of you. But, if you can, audition it first.

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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.

12 Comments

  • Reply March 31, 2016

    Barun C

    Very enjoyable images and words as always Nathan. I do agree with you on the last point, one should audition this before purchase, especially considering the price point and the trend going on with cheaper alternatives available these days.

    • Reply March 31, 2016

      ohm image

      It is pretty obvious that Phatlabs spent LOADS designing Phantasy to be used. It sits solid on the desk, the volume pot is unlike anything I’ve used, ever. The machine work on it speaks volumes about Phatlabs’s market. The case work itself was probably very expensive.

      In terms of ergonomics mixed with what I consider the tubiest of valve sounds out there, Phantasy has no rivals.

      • Reply March 31, 2016

        Barun C

        Agreed. The photos clearly indicate that. Pity I won’t be able to hear this sitting in India. Although, I will come to Japan in the foreseeable future and spend a considerable amount of time listening to various gear including this Phatlabs offering.

        • Reply March 31, 2016

          ohm image

          When you make it here, let’s sit down over coffee or something and try Phantasy out.

          • Reply March 31, 2016

            Barun C

            Thanks. Now I have got another reason to come to Japan.

  • Reply March 31, 2016

    Carl

    Very cool review; my favourite of yours so far.
    I’m also very interested in this device. Any clues to availability in Europe? I live in the UK and depending on the price (Hi-Fi+ magazine reckon it’s $1300 for this model?) I likely would spring for this just on the basis of your review.
    Again, thanks for a great read!
    Be well.

    • Reply April 1, 2016

      ohm image

      I responded yesterday but didn’t get past the harsh moderation team. I will post RMAA results that may help you in your decision. I suggest listening first. That said, the sweet spot of around 300Ω should serve as a reference point. If your headphones fall between 150 and 300Ω, Phantasy is one of the most timbrely beautiful amps I’ve heard (my opinion of course), and if it is lower than 100Ω, it is more hit and miss in terms of the impedance matching of amp and headphone. As I said, however, even the 32Ω PS1000 can sound wonderful, despite getting somewhat harsh spikes in both bass and highs.

      YMMV.

      Finally, thank you for the kind words.

  • Reply March 31, 2016

    Jeff

    Very nice! How about the Sassy?

  • Reply March 31, 2016

    dalethorn

    Phatlab is appropriate, i.e. “That’s phat, dogg.”

    • Reply April 1, 2016

      ohm image

      I know where they got the word, but it is my opinion that ‘Phat’ and cleverly-designed, hi-end audio do not good bedfellows make.

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