Page 1 – PHAT

  • Portability, a realm of high end audio in its own right, has evolved hugely in the last few years.
  • Headphones are the major player in this space, attaching speakers to our ears and giving us our own personal space.
  • class-A is a type of amplification, often known to give lots of reliable power, but not often seen in smaller portable products.
  • Tube or valves are something that are most commonly now used in audio but originally were military grade electronics. A glass tube holds a near vacuum which allows the free passage of electric current.

What the hell am I doing? I know, I know, this is an odd way to start a review but I am spelling out the acronym that brings the idealism of a new portable audio brand, PHATlabs to life. They believe that the way for portable audio to really move forward on a portable scape is for high end headphones to be leveraged via better designed amplification or as they say, their proprietary amp technology. Appearing recently out of what was seemingly nowhere, as is the case for a lot of brands at the moment, their products seemed much more than what I am used to seeing, unlike anything else and really bringing some fresh ideas. They landed with two models, the Sassy and Phantasy. Being in the early phases of life, distribution is not fully flushed out, Sassy had a stint on Massdrop which is always great for worldwide exposure but of course not permanent. I have found Jaben selling worldwide online and they are pricing Sassy, the cheaper of the two, at $713.41 (an alleged $50 saving) and Phantasy at $1587.82 (an alleged $110 saving). At this point in time these prices are as good as we can estimate. Currently converting to what is basically £545 and £1220 respectively, it is clear that these guys have started in the deep end and clearly mean business. As I am fortunate enough to have got my hands on both models we will be having a look at both, keeping it clear what we are talking about through out.

Starting with Sassy

Sassy is a hybrid amp, it combines both solid state and a pair of single ended triodes (SET), which for a portable amp of this size, is as close to being a pure bread tube amp as you will get. To even make such a sized portable amp work with a SET they have to opt for small, raytheon valves and rid of the usual output transformer you would find on a traditional SET amp.

I would like to mention early on that Sassy is much smaller than the behemoth Phantasy and while priced differently, they are at different levels of portability. That alone will separate purchasers and what they are after. It also seems that Sassy is a scaled down Phantasy, apparently inheriting quite a bit from the bigger sibling, just obviously doing things not so boldly or more so, hugely. As finished products though, they couldn’t be more different!

Back to what is going on in the amp and we have a pair of JAN6418 tubes, that are actually visible through a little window on the front of the amp. Any tube enthusiast will be a fan of the subtle glow emitted by any product featuring these endearing glass bulbs but Josh immediately pointed out feeling quite cheated by a backlight Sassy has to over emphasise and exaggerate this phenomenon.

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The main amplification is done by the Raytheons, obviously with one dedicated per channel but they do then go to a solid state output buffer. So the simplest way to put it is that the tubes are acting as the gain stage of amplification, and obviously that will have an impact! Just because there seems to be a focus on the tubes with this model it is also clear they have not messed around with the solid state side, which is fully discrete and smartly arranged to handle power perfectly!

More Simple than Sassy

When it comes to functions there really is not much to this amp.  It doesn’t mess around with different switches and buttons and prefers a minimalist approach with a volume knob that acts as an on/off switch, a 3.5mm input and a 6.3mm output. Oh and on the back we have the micro USB port for charging. The single cell inside actually does a great job in terms of battery life, from a full charge I was approaching 10 hours of playback.

The housing is completely metal, aluminium to be even more precise and as that is pretty light, Sassy comes in at 270g. 270g isn’t actually that light when I compare it to some of my other portable amps but it’s a 1/3 of what Phantasy weighs so maybe I am a little misled by that comparison. The build is second to none although I am less a fan of a couple of design cues.

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For starters I don’t like how they have gone about the volume pot. I can get along with its decision to be a power switch absolutely fine but why have the gain start at 3, whats wrong with the traditional 6 and even more frustratingly it is not even a decision they stuck to with Phantasy?! The two little LEDs on the front I don’t mind, letting you know when powered on, and when battery is running scarce. Quite contrary is the branding on top… which I find just grim. A shiny silver font that is embedded in the glass window above where the tubes glow. Why have the glass if you just want to scribble over it? Lastly I am cool with the want to stick the brand name on the amp, but why a lengthy description of what sort of headphone amp it is, by the time you have purchased you probably know all that, it seems like something better suited for a show demo unit, than a finished product.

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Even though it has little feet to grip down to a desk, I am fully under the illusion that Sassy is a portable amp, yes it is a tad taller and an inch wider than the modified AK120 I still use as a source when out an about but with a little satchel or a big pocket, we don’t have any restrictions.

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Something I have learned from actually operating the amp is that microphonics should have found its way into the acronym that is the company name. While I like the protection from the protruding guards at the edge of the front panel that stops anything weird happening to volume wherever it is placed while on the go as well as protection for the bigger nature of 1/4 inch jacks, the noise this amp can actually hurt the ears. That’s just a screeching the chassis of the amp relays to your choice of headphones. Tap the volume knob… aarrggghhh! Place your DAP on top of the amp… OUCH! Plug a jack into the line input… eek! It’s certainly something that can be improved, even if the noise does die down quickly. It is really bad.

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Turn the Page to Get the Amp in Use!

Sonny Trigg
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