Essential PH-1 Smartphone Review
If you’re big into Tidal, you might have met your next mobile
What is the Essential PH-1?The Essential PH-1 is an Android mobile phone. Unlike a great many designs that have been launched over the last few years, Essential has taken the view that too many of our mobile devices are designed with a limited lifespan and overburdened with superfluous features. The PH-1 is designed with a view to being built, specified and used in a manner that should see it grow and should give a commensurately long lifespan.
For most of us, there are some immediate potential objections to this. Mobile phone features can periodically seem superfluous - I think we all have at least one on our devices that leaves us wondering if it was the result of a long and boozy lunch - but they generally appeal to someone. Getting shot of them does leave you at the risk of coming across as uncomfortably minimalist. Likewise, few other devices we buy take the abuse that a phone does. The reason we generally only see a two-year lifespan out of our phones is that they get dropped, covered in beer and put through use cycles that would have the designers weeping.
As such, there are some risks to Essential’s approach but one aspect of the specification sheet should have audio fans looking with a degree of interest. The PH-1 is MQA compatible and this means that combined with Tidal, this has the scope to be a serious audio performer. This is, should any of you be wondering, why the task of looking at the Essential has been handed to me rather than the more considered approach of David Phelan. So, let’s get cracking.
HardwareThe PH1 is built around a Snapdragon 835 processor, mated to 4GB RAM and an internal (and non-expandable) memory of 128gb. For a phone that at the time of writing (August 2018) can be had for about $500 direct from Essential, these are solid if not class leading figures. Some of the deals currently doing the rounds on Amazon however make it rather more competitive. I am not a truly demanding phone user but the PH-1 is able to do some of the more complex tasks I ask phones to do like render my UPnP library and plough through Google maps looking for my next house.
Power comes from a 3,040mAh battery which is good for a day’s fairly intensive use and the recharge rates are reasonably good too. There are some omissions though. The Essential has no wireless charging facility and it isn’t waterproof. I will be honest; I have thus far lived without either of these features so I don’t ‘miss’ them but they do crop up on some rival designs.
Information is relayed via a 5.7-inch display with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,312. This is notable because it is a hell of a lot of display to fit on a phone of this size - more of which in a bit. This fails to meet Google’s Daydream spec as the display is LCD and lacking the resolution required but how much of a downer this is will largely come down to how keen you are at the idea of bolting your phone to your face.
There are two cameras - front and rear. The rear unit is a 13mp dual sensor (that is to say it separates colour and monochrome sensors with a view to improving the low light performance). The front camera is 8mp and single sensor but this should be sufficient for most people to add whiskers to a drunken selfie to their satisfaction. If you want more camera than this, you can make use of the first if the proposed accessories that Essential has produced. This is a 360 degree camera that attaches to a pair of indents on the rear panel. Other accessories are planned but unspecified at this point.
From my determinedly retro perspective, the one aspect of the hardware fitment that is less welcome is that the PH-1 has no headphone socket. Essential supplies a headphone adapter for the USB-C output and it can currently also be ordered direct with a pair of USB ‘Earphones HD.’ As you might expect, it is a prime candidate for use with a USB DAC. The adapter works perfectly well but it’s still nowhere near as useful as an actual headphone socket. You do however get a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner and one that, once calibrated, recognises fingerprints very well.
SoftwareAs delivered, the PH-1 came shipped with Android 8.1.0. It proceeded to update to Android 9 very shortly after the official version became available. Better news is that the installation that comes with the PH-1 is ‘clean.’ There is no proprietary skin or indeed anything other than the basic Google suite of apps. This is great news; for starters, you genuinely have over 100gb of capacity on the phone as delivered and there is little in the way of memory hogging bloatware to slow everything down. You can instead select what you need and go with that. This does mean that features like facial recognition and other niceties are absent though.
The PH-1 also comes with Bluetooth 5.0 which is good news. As well as an increase in bandwidth, the power management of the devices - specifically their handling of low power devices like headphones and earphones. This is made more positive by the presence of Apt-X HD which means that the PH-1 plays nice with what is becoming the default means for the specialist industry to achieve high-quality Bluetooth performance.
In an audio sense, the most unusual aspect of the PH-1 is that it supports MQA. This means that if you use Tidal, the app can select and replay Masters files (and store them offline) and perform the full unpack on the device. Coupled to the hefty internal capacity, this means that the Essential is potentially a superb device for using the service. A quick check with a Qobuz Sublime + subscription revealed that can handle high-res material played via that too.
DesignThe Essential has been designed with a view to simplicity and robustness. The results have been partially successful but I’d hesitate to describe the results as utilitarian. Thanks to the use of titanium for the chassis, the PH-1 feels substantial and extremely robust. Essential claims that the PH-1 is very resistant to drop damage and while I haven’t flung it about, it does convey a sense of solidity. Essential has then gone on to cover the back in a reflective ceramic. This looks smart but it is the single greatest fingerprint trap that I’ve ever encountered. Simply put, the moment you pick the PH-1 up it’ll look smudgy.
The front of the phone is rather better news though. As noted earlier, the 5.7in screen is very substantial in the context of the chassis and the PH-1 has almost no bezel to speak of. This includes using a notch at the top of the display to give the required space for the front camera. On most apps it simply bisects the top information section and works pretty well. I’ve dialled out of noticing it after a little while and having the real estate that the PH-1 has on its main screen is very handy - apps like the Naim controller work better here than they do on my Sony Xperia XA1. Contrast is good and brightness levels are sufficient for all but the strongest direct sunlight.
How was the PH-1 tested?The Essential has been used with my existing Tesco pay monthly SIM and used as my sole phone. It has been used as the control point for a Naim Uniti Star and accessed a Melco N1A via Bubble. Further testing has been carried out via a Chord Mojo connected via OTG cable. Earphones used have included the Essential models shipped at the same time and the Sennheiser IE800S via the adapter. Additionally, the AKG N5005 has been used via Bluetooth. Music apps have included Qobuz, Tidal and Deezer with Bubble being used to replay FLAC and AIFF material over network.
General usageAs some of you have probably worked out by now, I am not exactly a ‘power user’ of mobile phones. I make and receive calls, potter around on some social media and listen to music. We’ll cover the music in a bit but judged on these slightly undemanding criteria, the PH-1 aquits itself well. Transferring my phone information from Google was painless and worked well with one curious exception. While the login detail of every existing network I’d logged into was present in the transfer, I have had to re-enter the login settings on all of them to get them to work. Why this is, I have no idea. The only other point of annoyance is that the PH-1 has nothing I’d describe as a normal ringtone as standard - it has been necessary to import one. Should I wish my phone to sound like a windchime, I’ll download a windchime.
All the other basics are handled well. Call quality is good and the Bluetooth system has worked well with the selection of devices I’ve used. I’ve not found myself being in danger of running out of battery on a usual 7:30-midnight use cycle and the ringtone and other sounds have been clear and easy to hear. The vibrate function is reasonably good although hard to discern in a loose pocket.
I have been reasonably happy with the camera though. On the understanding that changing too many of the settings slows it down rather uncomfortably, its performance in most light conditions is commendably good. Depth of field, colour accuracy and contrast are all handled well enough for you to capture an image of an on the fly event you’d be happy to make a keepsake of. The original of the test shot above can be viewed here.
Sound QualityI will be honest, settling down to judge the sound quality of a device that has no headphone socket feels a bit weird. Starting by using the supplied ‘Earphones HD’, the experience does little to alter my feeling that this is a convenience step too far for me. To be clear, nothing about the Earphone HD is truly poor but compared to a normal pair of earphones at the £80-100 point they’re outclassed and the experience isn’t helped by them being a little on the uncomfortable side.
The news via the adapter though is an awful lot better. Once it has performed a short update, it has worked seamlessly and connected to the Sennheiser IE800S, it has demonstrated sparkling performance. To be completely clear, the IE800S is an outstanding earphone and it’ll sound outstanding connected to most devices but the PH-1 gets the basics right. Noise levels are low and there is enough gain to hit the sort of listening volumes you might reasonably want to achieve.
Crucially, Tidal Masters sound outstanding. Stored offline and replayed at leisure (which avoids any momentary hiccups in streaming the relatively large files), the performance achieved is something I haven’t really hitherto experienced from a mobile phone. There are some aspects of MQA that remain frustratingly opaque in terms of what the format is doing, what sample rates you are truly getting and what, if anything, is being lost, but like the Meridian Explorer 2, there is a clear feeling that having native MQA handling on board does help Tidal Masters to sound that little bit better.
This means that the stunning Caer by Twin Shadow has a feeling of life, realism and energy that is simply a step beyond the standard mix. Brace has a wonderful combination of delicate, almost liquid top end combined with a weighty, detailed and agile low end. The result of this isn’t ‘good for a mobile phone’ it’s genuine Hi-Fi and something I’d be happy to listen to for as long as I wanted. If you are a Tidal user, the PH-1 is one of two phones (the other being the LG V30) that offers this extra performance jump and, honestly, if you’re a commuter, it’s well worth it.
Move away from Tidal and listen to some more conventionally encoded material and the PH-1 still impresses. Crucially, it is easy to forget you’re listening to a phone and simply revel in a performance that is assured and neutral enough to let the music set the tone rather than the equipment. Having to add the dongle to connect each time is a nuisance and it makes the phone harder to pocket but I’d live with it.
More importantly, I’d live with it because the Bluetooth performance of the PH-1 is good enough to ensure that I - a luddite who prefers to cable everything - can leave the adapter at home. Running with the AKG N5005- a unique IEM that can be run wired or wireless depending on the cable fitment - the PH-1 does enough for me to forget the connection type and enjoy the music. Now, like the Sennheiser, it is only fair to point out that the AKG is £800 and it ought to sound pretty good for that price. The thing is though that this is the first time I’ve spent time with a mobile phone without a headphone socket and felt that it wasn’t seriously hamstrung by the fact. The role that Bluetooth - and by necessity good Bluetooth - plays in this evolution is not to be underestimated.
This is the first time I’ve spent time with a mobile phone without a headphone socket and felt that it wasn’t seriously hamstrung by the fact
- Well made and designed
- Reasonable Spec
- Sounds excellent via Tidal in particular
- No wireless charging or facial recognition
- Not waterproof
- No headphone socket
Essential PH-1 Smartphone ReviewThere is no shortage of choice in the world of Android phones right now and awkwardly, not having immersed myself in the functionality of every single one of them, the conclusions I reach about the PH-1 as a phone in general have to be done with the caveat that I don’t have the immediate experience and recall that I can do with integrated amps for example.
With this in mind, the PH-1 is a very capable phone. Many will want waterproofing and wireless charging but judged on what there is, you get a well made, reasonably powerful and commodious piece of kit that benefits from a lean and clean Android installation. The camera takes a solid picture and you can reliably make and receive calls on it for the small number of people that still do so.
With specific regard to audio though, this is a seriously capable piece of kit. It has the capacity and capability to be a realistic contender to many more affordable DAPs and its performance with Tidal - to say nothing of Tidal Masters is truly outstanding. With the capacity to store a decent amount of content offline, this is a commuting masterclass. Partnered with a pair of Apt-x earphones, this is a phone that really does give a hint toward the future of mobile listening. It isn’t perfect but there’s more than enough of merit here for the PH-1 to earn a recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £699.00
Call and Signal Quality8
Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts8
App support and functionality8
Value for Money8
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