Pros: Marshall Amp Aesthetic, Decent Power
Cons: Low Frequency Distortion, Sub par overall SQ
I will start off by saying that I know it isn't entirely fair to stack portable amplifiers like The National and Continental up against a strong mid level desktop amp. I understand that the size of a desktop amp affords it certain advantages that portable units cannot compete with, however I have seen review after review after review praising the National and Continental as the "best sounding portable amplifiers ever" and feel that I need to offer an honest relatively objective opinion regarding these products as I feel the gushing over Ken Ball's products is a bit overdone and out of whack with the sound quality of his products. I dare say you'd be just as well off buying a Fiio.... even though they aren't half as sexy looking.... But money in the pocket holds some appeal as well.
I bought both of the ALO family members around June/ July of 2012 when the second wave of V2 Continentals hit the market. I got the bug bad... I was worried it was going to sell out... I was worried that I was going to miss my chance to own a collectors piece.... A portable tube amp... a one of the kind piece of kit.... Yeah I had gotten bitten and was quickly losing site of reality.
The Marantz 8b is a collectors piece... a McIntosh 275 is a collectors piece, a Levinson #33 or a Dynaco Stereo 70 is a collectors piece.... Not the Continental.
However despite having become a bit unhinged from reality in my desire to get this itsy bitsy little amp.... Once I got it and plugged it in.... one would think that it could do no wrong in my subjectively blind ears.... however this was not the case.... the over arching sense of happiness one gets when one scores a piece of kit that you feel far surpasses your expectations.... Think the first time you heard the Sennheiser HD650..... This feeling was elusive.... what was there was an unsure feeling... a "I guess it sounds okay!"
I will readily admit that the Continental adds just a slight dose of sweetness to the sound... the hybrid circuit tube adds just a tint of color to the picture without causing the sound to become overly syrupy or congealed. This sweetness is what the Continental has going for it... that tiny little tube glowing inside the vents... was dropping just a dose of honey into the sound. However where the Continental seems to have a sweet and colorful quality to is sound.... it's most basic function as power amplifier, seems very under cooked.
For $565.00 you buy yourself maybe a 8 more decibels over your average consumer DAP and a tad better organized soundstage... vocals step back out of your face the stage deepens a tad and is less crowded (athough I will hardly call it a wide soundstage)... the Continental was pushed to nearly 4:00 on the volume pot to get the loudn levels of music on my HE400's and by that point.... the Continental was beginning to sound ragged (yes on high gain) ... It's resolution suffers at high volumes with current demanding loads... the Continental is pretty, yes, it is unique and sublime with it's hybrid tube design, certainly, it is a gorgeous looking piece of kit with it's Marshall Amplifier aesthetic, for sure..... however in regard to its most basic function.... the skill set upon which all its other talents should be founded..... it is essentially a sub par performer..... Low level frequencies like bass, drums, chamber acoustics.... became confused, distorted, and covered with electronic hash whenever complex passages and/ or loud volumes demanded more of it..... Likewise for the National.... the National was more grainy and more sibilant while losing that touch of sweetness that the Continental had going for it... but the National is also more propulsive and dynamic.... It's slam slams harder and its bass booms bigger... but it suffers the same fate as it's slightly more tricked out big brother. When the going gets complex, loud or both.... the National and Continental get spooked.... start showing speed wobbles... they are the antithesis of confident and authoritative..... they are a slight step up from the nervous spastic tendencies of an iPod at max volume.... maybe a tad cleaner but that is not really any compliment... nor does it make things more enjoyable.
These are two amps that cannot hold form with demanding loads.... They begin to show static, hash, distortion and confusion when the going gets complex or descends into the lower frequencies.... At one point I thought I should return my Hifiman Headphones because I was starting to think they sucked.... I actually sold my Audeze LCD2's because the sound was so "unremarkable" with the ALO Audio retro styled duo that is seemed foolish to own a $1000 headphone that sounded so sub par.....
This was before I got the Violectric unit and realized what I was missing.... The German V90 showed up at my house and in short order had his foot upon the throat of both the National and Continental.... The Continental was the more expensive disappointment... so the German drove him out first.... he was sent packing back to Ken Ball and his crew in Portland.... It is worth noting that three weeks and multiple phone calls were required on my part in order to incite some response from ALO in regard to my refund for the Continental.... It isn't a big deal but I've never liked it when I have to be a squeaky wheel with a merchant.
The National however has been allowed to stay.... He just must be mindful of his place.... He doesn't get to play with the big boys.... his duties are relegated to the beater cans.... the Porta Pros... the Klipsch Image Ones.... if he's good he sometimes gets to play with the Ultrasone's.... but sadly they have to be worn backwards (with left ear on right side) because the 6k to 7k frequency spike on the Pro900's coupled with the National's penchant for turning hot treble into dental drill nerve rattling ear razors is just too much... so a Pro900 with S-Logic flipped backwards is a more veiled forgiving sound if not a bit muffled.... but its the only way these two will tolerate each other.... take note that this is not a synergistic pairing.
Running my headphones from the V90 I am met with a confident, authoritative sound that speeds down the roadway at 150 mph without flinching..... It presents hard hitting and full bodied lows, rich luxurious mids and smooth treble..... switching over to the National I am met with a added layer of harshness in the upper register that cuts through every now and then on rock, punk and some Hip Hop recordings. If I switch over to my Hifiman headphones which have a much lighter presentation on upper mids and treble then I am met with a different problem... there seems to be a layer of distortion in the low bass and low mid bass region.
Ken Ball and company seem passionate about this culture and he has made a name for himself by putting forward very sublime products with a very classy aesthetic value. The ALO amps are beautiful looking and are built like tanks.... I truly do love the Marshall Amp type aesthetic that they utilize for this line and enjoy the look of all of Ken's products... I am not a big believer in cables but do acknowledge that the ALO cables are very handsome and at the very least add some nice aesthetic value to portable rigs.... the price seems prohibitive and counter intuitive to me... but if I had the cash to burn... I'd probably bite just for the look alone.
And I think that is the blessing and the problem with these products... They look damn good. Ken, his engineers, his team (whoever is involved in their creative process) designs aesthetically pleasing products... However they seem to be lacking design chops in the most important place AMPS!. The National a last resort for music listening for me... and I chose it because it's qualities compared to its nearly $600 sibling were nearly indiscernable... yes there was that drop of sweetness in the Continental... but were talking a drop in a barrel here..... Beyond that the two sound nearly identical.... so for less than half... I'll forgo honey and use saccharine
The National and Continental do amplify the analog signal like they set out to do.... I just don't think they do it very well... they are underpowered and voiced poorly.
Brutal.... but that's how I hear it....