What is the Essential PH-1?
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.
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.
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.
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.
How was the PH-1 tested?
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.
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.
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.
- 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 Review
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.
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