Review: SPL Phonitor 2 Preamplifier & Headphone Monitoring Amplifier – by George Walker Petit

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WHAT, WHY, HOW ??

You might have read my article “Mixing in Headphones” which appeared on sonicscoop.com’s website a couple of years ago.  After rather verbosely delving into my reasons for incorporating this approach in my own mix process, I detailed what equipment I used to make this possible and effective.

One of the pieces of gear mentioned and still in constant use here in my NYC studio is the SPL Phonitor.  I won’t duplicate the article here, but have a look if you like; a link to the article is included at the end of this review.

In short, when I first auditioned and subsequently bought the Phonitor, I became an instant fan of, and advocate for this creation, fresh from the lovely folks at SPL in Germany.  The capabilities and in fact new possibilities the Phonitor introduced with its 120 volt technology, yielding incredible sound quality, added to the loudspeaker and room emulation controls and straightforward operation, made this piece of equipment an irresistible and eventually irreplaceable asset in my studio work.  The Phonitor also became one of my very favorite ways of listening to music for pleasure…not work.

Yes, irreplaceable.  Until now.

As it happens, I have found a machine that does everything that the SPL Phonitor does – and does it all better – better sound, more logical layout of controls, better specs.  Just plain better.  So, a big “I’m sorry” to my good fiends at SPL, but the Phonitor will be leaving my studio and living room this week.  It will be replaced…such is the way of progress.

Phonitor, your supreme position will be usurped by…the Phonitor2 !

Now there's something meatier -- the SPL Phonitor 2.

Now there’s something meatier — the SPL Phonitor 2.

Why Mixing in Headphones Matters

Before the “meat” of this review, let me briefly recap my motivation for using such a device.

I believe that using high quality headphones, when used as an additional, alternate monitoring option, give the engineer a microscopic look into the mix.  But a set of great cans are not enough…the correct interface with the audio is absolutely crucial. For work on noise detection, identification and control, exact panning of instruments and their effect returns, crucial balances and relative ambience, you really need to get into this sonic space.

For checking compatibility of mixes, Phonitor2 gives you phase, solo and mono switches which can be used to great benefit in a variety of combinations.  Additionally, if you are a “traveling engineer” and at times have not been 100% happy with room or monitors at another studio, this device offers a brilliant sounding alternative – one that you know.  You can also match monitor angle and room interaction with the Phonitor2’s intuitive controls.

Working with the original Phonitor for a few years now, I have found additional uses for it in my work…it’s truly a life-saver at times…a multi-use tool that has without doubt improved my workflow and my end product.  Mixes don’t leave my room until they are checked in headphones – with the Phonitor and a set of top of the line Grado headphones.  I should add that I recently tried a set of Audeze headphones out at NAMM and was hugely impressed – and hope to review those later on in the Spring.

As you can see from the images in this article, SPL have added to and improved upon the original design of Phonitor.

Flexible connectivity can be found in the back.

Flexible connectivity can be found in the back.

DESIGN AND OPERATION:

The visual aspect of the new Phonitor2 is a great improvement over the Phonitor1.  The unit looks great.  Mine is that sexy, black matte finish…the build quality is top shelf. It has larger footprint than the original Phonitor and is completely solid and stable on it’s four round legs.

SPL has given us more real estate with the new model.  The controls on the “1” always seemed a bit cramped together for these fat fingers!  And squinting to read controls has always been a bother, especially for a guy that wears glasses.  So SPL spread things out a bit on the new model; more space in which to operate and a layout of switches and meters that is a far easier read for me.  The meters are side-by-side, closer together than they were on the old model.  The new location of the controls just works better for me.

Let’s get right into a few words on the controls themselves.  The extremely clear and readable user’s manual goes deeper, but an overview of the controls is important here.

As you likely know, there are inherent issues with mixing in headphones…the super stereo effect, proximity of sound to the ears, lack of room interaction, EQ issues, ear fatigue.  I tended to shy away from headphones in mixing until SPL came out with the Phonitor but, with its development, “critical listening” became truly critical.  SPL designers have addressed all of these issues quite inventively and successfully.

ANGLE refers to speaker angle and controls the speaker orientation to the listener just as you would set up in your room – from 10degrees to 75degrees.  CROSSFEED emulates the effects of room interaction with sound.  The three controls for Crossfeed, Angle and CENTER are grouped as a triangle on the same side of the unit…this is actually a huge improvement for me over the Phonitor1, and completely logical.

SPL names this array the ‘Matrix’.  Makes sense.  One gets a far better feel for these controls now.  Spreading the Crossfeed and Angle far L/R widens the stereo listening environment; closing the controls narrows the spread.  This has now become visual as well as aural.  The Center (level), which can be switched into the matrix if desired, impacts the level of signal to the center of the mix.

Headphone listening often results in a quieter center signal than is present L/R; but as you work with Crossfeed and Angle to reflect your desired monitor position and room interaction, the signal present at the center channel can increase…you can compensate for that level build up with the Center knob.

You get a three-position SOURCE switch now.  Big change here on the new “2” again.  The older machine had only one pair of XLR ins.  But now, you have a second set of XLR ins…and an added set of RCA ins as well.  Connect your converters or players…you have more options now.

The “2” also has a three-position OUTPUT switch…and here is yet another game changer.  SPL decided to react to the many requests of engineers, impressed with the amazing signal quality of the unit.  So impressed, in fact, that they (we) asked for a set of speaker outputs.

So now the Phonitor has become a stereo preamp…time to buy another pair of small active monitors for my trips to Brazil and Europe.  What a travel rig!  Switch to the left and you hit your speakers. To the right, your headphones and in the center position, the machine output is muted – you’ll see the light in the meter windows turn red in that case.

The SOLO switch is standard L, R or “off” (stereo signal monitoring).  But when used in combination with the MONO switch, you get the desired left or right channels in both ears.  Think of that – a possibility to identify L/R channel differences in EQ, instrument levels and placement or effect returns in mono, hearing the signal in both ears.  Pretty nifty.

PHASE switching is a 180 degree phase reversal control with L/R and again, OFF.  Standard and needed.  But again, pair this with the MONO switch and you can hear the difference in remaining stereo information from L/R channels, depending on which channel you choose.

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  • ashoke bhattacherjee

    Nice review.
    So for recording guitar and other recording and listening purposes, how do i set it up with an USB audio interface?
    How much will the quality of the USB interface affect the pristine quality of the Phonitor?
    thanks

  • Modulo m

    If you want to listen to music from a computer you should buy a USB capable DAC with XLR outputs.

  • charnk

    Feed the monitor output of your interface into the input of the Phonitor 2. If the volume is controlled digitally, set the output to 0dB FS. In other words, all the way up. This is very important as setting a digitally controlled volume to anything less than full scale will degrade the signal. If, on the other hand, the volume is controlled by an analog attenuator, I would still turn it up all the way with the SPL Phonitor. The 120v rails allow over 30 dBu, a voltage that most interfaces can’t reach. As for your second question, if your interface is less than state of the art, you will hear it. This, in fact would be useful. You’ll hear exactly what your audience is going to be receiving from your recording. You can mix accordingly with that very useful information.

  • Thak you very much! Very interesting your review. I woul like to know if you have had the opportunity to compare Phonitor 2 with SPL 2Control. It has 2 headphone amps, also with Crossfeed feature, but with less options (and less money, too). Can this do the trick to mix on headphones or do you think it’s completely necessary the Phonitor model? Thank you very much.

  • One question more: Waves has just released their plugin NX (Virtual Mix Room over Headphones), have you tried it and compared to Phonitor 2? I’ve read some people comments saying that Waves NX is the best plugin for this purposes and, some of them, claim that in many cases they can’t find diferences between NX plugin and Phonitor.