In recent times, Chi-Fi (Chinese Hi-Fi) has become known for offering excellent value for money in the earphone segment. Of course, it was only a matter of time until we started seeing full-sized headphones start to emerge as well. In today’s review, I’m taking a look at the Thieaudio Phantom planar magnetic headphones.
This sample was provided for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
Thieaudio Phantom Review
Lightweight and very comfortable
Low clamping force
Warm and smooth sound
Excellent bundled accessories
No 6.35mm adapter included
Package and Accessories
The Phantom comes in a simple black box with Thieaudio branding embossed in silver on the lid in a subjectively ghastly typeface. Thankfully, things start looking up once you remove the lid. Seated in a black foam insert is a semi-rigid zipper clamshell case which reminds me of a Sith Lord every time I look at it.
Inside the clamshell case are, of course, the Thieaudio Phantom headphones. In addition, there is a small nylon pocket where you’ll find the rest of the accessories. Let’s break down the entire box contents in a list:
Thieaudio Phantom headphones
x2 pairs of velour earpads
Semi-rigid clamshell storage case
Braided 2.5 mm copper cable
Braided 3.5 m copper cable
2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter
2.5mm to 4.4mm adapter
It’s unusual to see two different cables bundled together but even more rare when both are of excellent quality as well. The first is an all-copper fabric braided cable with a 2.5mm termination. With this cable, you can use the two included adapters to make it either 3.5mm or 4.4mm termination.
The plug, matching Y-split and cable cinch are aluminium with a matte finish. Above the Y-split instead of the fabric cover, the cable has a TPU shroud which lets you see the rich copper wire within. Not only does this cable look and feel great but it handles superbly as well. There is no microphonics and it drapes beautifully. This is one gorgeous cable.
The second cable is also braided but it feels less premium (although it is still very good). It has a standard single-ended 3.5mm termination which is threaded, meaning if you want to use a 6.35mm adapter you’ll need to find a screw-on one. Compared to the aluminium components of the other cable, this one just has a plastic plug and Y-split.
Build Quality and Design
These headphones have a very simple physical build and that is something I can appreciate. They’re basically made up of the headband, yokes and earcups. The headband is covered in pleather and is very flexible, so it kind of conforms to the shape of your head. On the underside of the headband is a nice layer of soft padding that prevents and pressure buildup.
From the lower parts of the headband, the metal yokes emerge with notched adjustment sliders. The metal yokes look rather nice and have a champagne colour. Although the housing at the bottom of the headband is plastic, it doesn’t look cheap or bad, in my opinion. However, the same cheesy font found on the box is present here too and that definitely cheapens the overall aesthetic.
The earcups are circular in shape and have a wooden outer ring. There is a lightweight metal grille on the outer side of the earcups with a black, silky material underneath. There were some early reports of build issues but the set that I have feels very solid. It feels (and looks) quite similar to my Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro which has held up remarkably well over the years. Additionally, don’t creak, squeak or rattle and the build quality legitimately instils me with confidence.
Comfort and Noise Isolation
Comfort is definitely a strong point of the Thieaudio Phantom. Thanks to the low clamping force, the flexibility of the headband and soft earpads, they are extremely easy to wear. Oh, and they’re very lightweight too, plus the adjustment sliders have a good range of movement that should accommodate almost any head size.
Noise isolation is frankly almost non-existent. Due to the open-back design, outside noise can be heard almost as if you weren’t wearing headphones at all. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it is something that needs to be considered if you’re thinking about grabbing a pair.
Sources used for testing
PC > Foobar200 > Singxer SDA-2
As far as sources go, the Phantom is not particularly demanding. Although they can be used straight out of a smartphone, it’s not optimal and I would strongly recommend at least using a reasonably powerful modern DAP with a balanced output.
The Phantom has a very laid-back presentation that is easy to listen to and doesn’t become fatiguing over time. It’s a warm headphone that has a very analogue and mid-forward sound with satisfying bass and a relaxed treble.
Planar drivers tend to produce nice bass and that’s how it goes with the Phantom too. The level of bass is not exaggerated here but sits roughly in line with the midrange. Bass notes have nice weight and body but they are lacking somewhat in impact.
Kick drums have more of a thud effect, rather than a snappy punch, due to either a slow attack or excess foam damping in the earcups. Sub-bass notes reach sufficiently low and to my ears, the bass doesn’t lack in quantity or depth but can feel a bit sluggish.
The midrange is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s deliciously smooth and organic with good separation and moderate resolution. On the other hand, it is noticeably veiled and lacks clarity. It kind of feels like you’re at a live performance but there’s a thick curtain drawn across the front of the stage.
It’s not all bad though: the Phantom is perfect for non-critical listening where you just want some background music and they’re great for movies and casual gaming too. I will also say that despite the veil, the mids have a warm, natural tonality. I think the lack of clarity is most likely due to a dip in the frequency response somewhere in the upper mids and lower treble.
The treble is quite subdued and a little muted. While this keeps the sound from becoming harsh or sibilant, it sounds a bit stuffy and lacks any sparkle or energy. Not only does it affect the airiness and spirit of the treble, but it’s also the cause of the lack of definition in percussion instruments. While this should suit those who are treble-sensitive, it will be disappointing for others looking for micro details and accuracy.
If width in the soundstage is your thing then the Phantom has you covered. It’s not the most expansive of stages but does go outside of the headspace to the left and right. The depth is more modest but still enough so you won’t feel confined or pressed in. Vocals and instruments suffer from a lack of density which results in some vague imaging. While sounds to the left and right are easy to distinguish, everything else comes from a diffuse ball in the centre stage.
Can the Phantom be improved with mods?
If you’ve been following the discussions regarding the Phantom on a couple of popular audio forums you’ve probably heard about some of the mods people have suggested. Out of curiosity, I tested a couple just to see what, if any, improvements they made.
Grill and Foams
First I removed the outer grill and the attached fabric screen. This resulted in a slightly clearer sound and elevated bass. While this might seem like a magic pill, it has its own drawbacks and in addition, the effect is only mild as well. The negative effects of doing this deal mainly with the imaging, which is already one of the Phantom’s weaker points. Removing the grills and screens opens up the sound but at the same time, it makes the central image even more diffuse and less defined, resulting in sounds coming from everywhere (as opposed to being pinpoint accurate) and less density in vocals and instruments.
Another mod suggestion was the removal of the two circular foam pads on the outer side of the driver. I found the difference doing this to be negligible while at the same time introducing some unnatural ringing in the upper mids when you turn up the volume.
The final mod I tried (and ultimately, the only one I left intact) was a simple earpad change. I ordered some generic “sheepskin leather replacement memory foam earpads” from AliExpress. Although they have regular foam instead of memory foam and I doubt the authenticity of the sheepskin leather, the difference was immediately noticeable and positive.
First of all, the earpads made these already comfortable headphones even more comfortable. With these pads installed, the Phantom is now one of the most comfortable full-size headphones in my collection.
Furthermore, these pads create a more secure seal around the ears which stabilizes the soundstage a little and offers a slight improvement in imaging. Sure, they get warmer on the ears than the stock velour pads but the benefits outweigh the detriments. However, it should be noted that this simple mod will add more cost to the headphones unless you already have some spare earpads laying around.
Hifiman Sundara (Currently $375)
The Sundara (review here) are a little harder to drive, requiring a bit of extra juice to reach the same volume level as the Phantom. Both headphones have a warm sound and similar overall tonality but there are several key differences.
Sundara has less bass quantity but the bass is more defined and textured than the Phantom. This leads to the Sundara having less mid-bass bleeding into the midrange as well, giving them a cleaner sound with better resolution and detail retrieval.
Sundara has a more forward treble, giving it a hint of sparkle and energy up top. One thing I notice right away when comparing these headphones is the veil is lifted with the Sundara, while the Phantom sounds kind of blurred and lacking definition in comparison.
The soundstage is another key difference with the Sundara having more precise imaging and positional cues, while the Phantom can feel rather vague and diffuse. Sundara’s vocal and instrument density are superior, as is the clarity.
In terms of comfort, I prefer the Sundara’s headband but with my custom earpads installed, I think the Phantom is slightly more comfortable for me. When it comes to build quality, the Sundara definitely looks and feels superior but only time will tell which one has better longevity.
BLON B20 (Currently $450)
Starting with the physical aspects, the BLON B20 has a really solid build quality and feels decidedly more premium than the Phantom. Despite that, however, the clamping force is a bit intense and these headphones are also very heavy. Luckily, the stock pads are really lush, which makes them fairly comfortable despite the head squeezing and substantial weight.
In terms of tonality, the B20 sounds brighter, and cleaner with superior clarity and dynamic range. Bass is similar in quantity and quality although the B20 has slightly more impact and punch in the mid-bass.
The midrange on the B20 is more controlled with smaller note size and increased density. This makes it sound more contrasty than the Phantom’s buttery mids, plus an upper midrange boost adds vibrancy while its extra lower treble brings extra definition and presence.
There’s a little more crispness in the B20’s treble compared to the Phantom, which again reinforces its cleaner, lighter sound. Imaging is better on the B20 too, with less warm air in the stage for more precision. However, the stage dimensions are about the same as on the Phantom.
The Thieaudio Phantom is a competent headphone and one that brings affordable planar technology within the reach of consumers. While the sound may not suit everyone, it is a good choice for anyone who is treble-sensitive or wants a warmer, more relaxed presentation. There certainly is a lot of promise here, both in terms of sound, styling and build quality, so I hope we will see further iterations in the future.