Hands-on with the SPL Phonitor xe (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

The first I've heard of professional headphone equipment becoming an audiophile go-to gear was the RME ADI-2 DAC/headphone amp, and it makes total sense. The pursuit of precision and excellence in the professionals has an understandably large overlap with the audiophile's mission to get the most accurate reproduction of their music.

The SPL Phonitor xe is another example of how a product developed for the professionals can be a godsend to music purists. Originally meant for sound engineers to master music on headphones, it promises to deliver an amazing listening experience for music lovers. Just how good does music sound on it? Let's dive in to find out.

This could be the next centerpiece on your desktop (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

A Desktop Centerpiece

With the red variant of the Phonitor xe, the crimson brushed aluminum face is the first obvious thing to draw attention on a first encounter. The entire unit is aimed at heat dissipation performance instead of compactness, coming in at 278 x 100 x 300 mm (11 x 4 x 11,81 inch) and 4.9 Kg (10.8 lbs) so you do need to make sure that your desktop has enough space for it. But once you do, it's mostly likely going to be the most beautiful thing you have on your desk.

The SPL Phonitor xe is by no means a compact headphone amplifier (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

The front face of the Phonitor xe is well stocked with switches, dials and ports, with the large 45mm Volume control smack in the middle adorned with a red LED power indicator to mark its position. The satin finished machined metal dial allows for very smooth, weighted adjustments, while looking iconic under the large SPL logo above it.

The other visually focal point are the dual mechanical VU meters, which are illuminated with LEDs that switch from red to a vintage yellow once the DAC/Amp bootup process is complete. These are unmatched visual decor that will blow any RGB competition off the desk, and they actually also play an important practical function, which we will cover in a later section.

How the Phonitor Matrix differs from conventional headphone amplifiers (Photo: SPL)

Unmatched Ability to Create Soundstage

When you're finally ready to get over your admiration for the SPL Phonitor xe's visuals, it's time to turn the focus to its auditory competency. As mentioned in the introduction, the Phonitor xe was originally meant to be used for audio engineers to master music using headphones instead of studio monitors, simulating the tilt angle of the sound source with the flick of a dial. As a result, this is a device that has mastery over soundstage that no headphone amplifier I have ever seen.

Labeled the 'Phonitor Matrix', the top two miniature dials on the left hand side allow the manipulation of the simulated monitor placement at 22/30/40/55 degrees from the center line. This makes an enormous difference in the soundstaging, as well as the separation of instruments.

If the user wants the wide soundstage but finds the separation unnatural, the Phonitor xe has the ability to make adjustments to the crossfeed between the channels to allow for a more natural separation.

Audeze LCD-2C and the SPL Phonitor xe (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

Hands-on Test with Audeze LCD-2C and Sennheiser HD660S

To test the Phonitor xe I first plugged in an Audeze LCD-2C, which despite being an open-back headphone, doesn't have the widest soundstage by default. With the Phonitor Matrix, I'm able to completely open up the LCD-2C's soundstage and turn up the immersiveness of its energetic sound, giving depth and breadth to each instrument in the music.

The Phonitor xe with the Sennheiser HD660S (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

Pairing up the Phonitor xe with another open back headphone - the Sennheiser HD660S yielded another sort of immersive experience. The warmer, 'reference' sound of the HD660s with its natural timbre, when presented in a wide soundstage sounds even more organic and realistic.

This is a headphone amp that immensely improves the listening experience when it comes to live music, when you have multiple instruments that are arranged with spatial separation. My jazz and live unplugged collections sounded especially good. Furthermore, watching movies with the Phonitor xe is quite a cinematic experience, making good use of the immersive stereo sound. In some movies I can even hear clear separation between the background music and the foreground sounds.

A hidden IR Programming Button on the rear (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

Analogue Controls and the Hidden Function

Adding to the visual and auditory experience of the Phonitor xe, it also offers a sensory one. All the switches and dials on its front face are analogue ones that flicks and clicks, offering that old school tactile feedback.

The lack of buttons and touchscreen makes for a timeless and legatine headphone amp design. But don't confuse the traditional inspiration with old-fashioned, as the Phonitor xe has a trick up its sleeve: a covert button in the back allows the user to pair any IR remote to the amp and control the motorized volume knob. I tried it out with an old remote control off a Sharp Aquos TV and it worked like a charm.

The mechanical VU meters: what are they for? (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

Mechanical VU meters and Adjustable Centrality

Being an headphone amp meant for audio engineers, the Phonitor xe has the ability to tweak another characteristic of the music: its centrality. This is actually where the mechanical VU meters go beyond being decorations, but have actual functions. While most of us are content with seeing the needles move up and down with the music, by balancing the readouts, you can use the 'Center' knob to visually adjust where the center of the music is with precision.

Plenty of I/O with Flexible Front or Rear Outputs

With the DAC768 attachment, this SPL Phonitor xe that we're reviewing only needs a USB cable for its sound source. It also has all the other input options that you would expect from an amplifier, including XLR, RCA, Coax, Optical and AES.

As for output, the Phonitor xe has both a balanced XLR out as well as a standard 1/4 inch output. SPL didn't stop there however, but included a second set of XLR and 1/4 inch in the rear panel for those who really want to keep the front face clean. The output can be selected by a flick of a switch on the front panel.

If you value soundstage above all else, this is the DAC/Amp to get (Photo: IBTimes / Jeff Li)

Final Verdict

Beyond driving larger headphones, providing a clean and dynamic output, headphone DAC/amps add their own color to the listening experience. While most focus on gain and equalization, the SPL Phonitor xe provides the best soundstage to the listener. To people who deeply appreciate the symphony of instruments having clear separation and a wide spread of spatial locations, this is the amp to get.

For its unique ability to master soundstage, its premium build and striking aesthetics, we are awarding the SPL Phonitor xe with the IBTimes Editor's Pick badge.

David is a tech enthusiast/writer who is often on the move, but since the lock-down is on a mission to explore gadgets to improve his 'home work'. This is a contribution to an ongoing IBTimes review series on gadgets for Home Productivity.