Published on September 20th, 2011 | by Greg0
Music Hall PH25.2: Awkward Name, Great Headphone Amp
Headphones are the way to listen to music. We said it- they can be so much more precise and adjustable than any pair of speakers. Spend $200-$400 on headphones and you’re pretty well-set… but $200 won’t get you more than a mediocre set of speakers when it comes to accuracy and tone. Placement issues can mar even an expensive setup, and driving that audiophile-level set of cones will take a major amp- sizable and also pricey.
For parties, we’ll throw on the speakers. But for serious listening- appreciating the production quality, the layers, sampling detail- we’ll throw on our headphones and pick a good amp. We’ve seen a few recently- the best we’ve tested so far, the HiFiMan EF5 bringing most anything we threw at it to a new level even for the untrained listener. The smallest of them, the OBH-11 from Creek Audio, was small, cute, and portable (and about half of the cost of today’s model) even if it did feel a little restrained. In previous articles, we discussed the value of a good pair of headphones (buy them first) as well as a DAC (if you’re using digital files).
But today’s piece of gear, the Music Hall PH25.2 is our largest headphone amplifier yet, and offers a mix of both tubes and solid-state operational amps (or op-amps). The bottom line: impressive sound, a good feature set, but a bit too large and bulky for us to recommend without some reservations. Let’s break it down.
For starters, it looks and feels serious. Right out of the box, you’re greeted with seven pounds of hardware, a nice solid feeling that makes a good first impression. Also, the jacks aren’t mini-jack- you’ll immediately notice two 1/4 inch plugs for your monitors. That’s right- two. You and a friend can enjoy the music simultaneously, without fighting over who gets to use it. Also, we loved the inclusion of two inputs (CD or AUX) and a small switch for toggling between them. Handy! Less useful for us on a regular basis was the inclusion of a pre-amp output, but it did make testing the amp simpler.
Setting up, then, was simple- RCA jacks to our DAC source and computer as well as a old Sony CD player, Grados serving as our traditional headphones. Flip a switch and bam- we had forgotten to adjust the volume first and were unfortunately caught off-guard. That’s a mistake that won’t be repeated twice, but luckily our ears and gear were fine. We let the unit warm up a bit, a couple of hours running solid, and then came back to try our listening tests. At first, we admit to being a little surprised- the sound wasn’t as rich or warm as we expected from a tube-based amp (and there are two of them). We wouldn’t call it clinical- there was still plenty of jazz added to the bass end and mid-range, especially on vocal tracks and pop. Country and acoustic sounded fluid and broad, though hip-hop and rap tracks felt a bit too snappy on percussion- we felt a little fatigue set in. The soundstage was great but not as impressive as we’ve seen- more like a mid-sized posh room than a concert hall. That’s fine for most songs- we preferred this unit over any other for pure technical virtuosity, less for listening to opera.
As always, it can depend heavily on what type of music you’re listening to, along with the source and headphones themselves. We might’ve wished for the headphone jacks to offer different impedance level- something that isn’t at all common but might help those with different headphones (GS1000i users and other folks with low impedance sets should look elsewhere). The design of the unit drew mixed responses- some liked it’s simple and classy brushed metal, others thought it looked a bit old-fashioned. That’s not a bad thing by any means- these are hand-built after all, and feature high-end components that should satisfy any audiophile. No one would walk away disappointed in the PH25.2, and we strongly recommend it for it’s versatility. Those in need of something smaller, more portable, or less expensive should pass this one up, but if you need a second headphone jack or want the flexibility of extra inputs or a pre-amp output then the Music Hall guys have your dream amplifier. At $400, it can take a toll on a pocketbook- but these are investments, meant to hold up for a lifetime, and looked at over the course of your music spending or other entertainment gear it’s worth it.