Nice but inflexible.
I decided to indulge myself while I was in Chengdu and bought a Sony DAC, the PHA-1A. It’s twice the price of my FiiO, probably produces better sound, but has certain limitations.
The unit is about 11 x 6 x 1.8cm. The on/volume control is at the front, and at least the light indicating the power is at the front. There’s also a socket for a 3.5mm jack plug (output). Otherwise, unlike the FiiO, there are no displays.
It can be connected to a laptop or PC, but is more specifically designed for Sony or Apple tech so that although I can connect it to my Windows phone, nothing happens. This isn’t much of a limitation because my music players are either Walkmans (although it only works with ones that play hi-res music) or iPods or my laptop (to which it’s currently connected). There’s no 3.5mm input socket, which does limit the PHA-1A in a way that the FiiO E17K isn’t.
At the aft end, there are the sockets. There is a micro-USB connection for a Walkman (or Sony phone), but this requires the cable which comes with the unit because there is an extra connection (power?). Possibly, this could be used with any player which has, say, a USB-to-micro-USB cable because this is how the laptop is connected to the unit. There’s a USB connection for an iPod, and a separate micro-USB socket for recharging. In addition to these ports, there’s a switch to change the gain from normal to high if it’s necessary to up the volume.
Apart from that, the PHA-1A depends on input from external sources. Thus with any hi-res Walkman it’ll no doubt process various sorts of FLAC files according to the information the data contains. Like the FiiO, adjusting the resolution of the laptop via Control Panel presumably affects the quality of the sound coming from that source.
The battery life is a mere five hours (about five albums, in other words), and the device can’t be used while it’s being charged because it has to be switched off. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but it does seem to be a needless design flaw. The ability to recharge a Walkman at the same time is useful, but it would’ve been better if the PHA-1A was more like a speaker dock, charging and operating simultaneously. My Alpen recharges while it’s connected to my laptop, but remains functional.
With the iPod Touch, the PHA-1A does have one major issue. The Touch treats the device like an external battery (which is probably why the Touch and the E17K won’t play nicely unless I switch USB charging off on the latter; the former is a leech). I don’t know what effect that would have on the DAC if it was fully charged, but if the battery in the Touch was in the red zone, I can imagine it rapidly sucking the life out of the PHA-1A.
01.08.16. It is a portable headphone amplifier, which may mean the battery is more durable when it’s being used with a Walkman or iPod and headphones rather than with a laptop and external speakers, which may result in the power being drained more quickly.
Another nuisance with recharging the device is that if the PHA-1A is connection to a laptop, the micro-USB cable needs to be switched to the charging socket. Again, this is not the most sensible piece of design.
The unit comes with a couple of rubber bands and a rubber pad to tie it together with a music player, although the binding isn’t always firm with thinner players and the positioning of the rubber bands can be awkward with devices with large touch screens. In fact, even with my Walkman it’s difficult to place the bands in just the right place.
As for the sound from it, that’s decent enough whether it’s MP3 or FLAC, but this also depends on the speakers or headphones as well. In comparison with the E17K or the X5 in DAC mode, the PHA-1A stands up well even if the sound quality doesn’t appear to be overwhelmingly superior. However, it does make a difference with the iPod Nanos as I discovered after listening to part of Telemann’s Tafelmusik (CD quality [ALAC]; Musica Antiqua Köln) first directly off the Nano, and then through the PHA-1A. When I switched to the latter, I could hear the continuo part much more clearly.
My overall conclusion is that the PHA-1A is too limited with respect to the number of DAPs to which it can be attached. The battery life is pitiful short, and the battery cannot be recharged while the device is in use. The sockets for connecting it to a laptop and for recharging it are different. The sound is decent enough, but this is not the DAC you’re looking for unless you have a specific purpose in mind such as brief moments of use and long interludes of recharging.