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REVIEW: ALO Audio Amphora SS headphone amp

post #1 of 237
Thread Starter 
Ken from ALO was nice enough to lend me an Amphora to review. I was very excited about the opportunity since I had thought very highly of the headphone section of the tube/SS Red Wine Audio Isabella, and the Amphora is based on that headphone circuitry, although the Amphora is purely solid state.

EDIT: since it has come up in question, brief note on my review methodology. I use an SPL meter and broadband pink noise from the Stereophile Test CD 3 to calibrate listening levels to 80dbA. All listening, with every headphone, and with other amps used for comparison, is done at this level, so that volume differences are eliminated to the degree technically possible. Headphones used in this review were the Beyerdynamic DT770, 880, and 990; the JVC DX1000, and the Kenwood KH-1000. Sources were my Denon CD player, the StyleAudio Carat-Topaz DAC, an iMod iPod, and my Vinyl Rig.

I am not going to spend any time describing the physical attributes of the Amphora, since this has been covered extensively by others, other than to say its lovely:




What I want to focus on here is the sound. However, this has proven to be a real challenge. How does one describe the sound of nothing? I don’t want to sell the Amphora short by calling it a straight wire with gain, but there are simply no colorations of the sound, in the frequency domain, that I can ascribe to it. Using the Amphora as a reference, it was easy to pick out the coloration in the excellent Audio-GD C2C. When listening to the C2C by itself, one has to listen hard to notice any real coloration – it’s that good an amp. However, when carefully level-matched comparisons are done with the Amphora and the C2C, it is very quickly clear that the Amphora offers a level of neutrality and transparency that even the excellent C2C cannot match.


What I also cannot talk about is noise. Because here again, there simply isn’t any. It just isn’t possible to ask an amp to be quieter, or have a blacker background, than the Amphora. In this regard, it is, I believe, the best I have ever heard. Tubes always involve at least a little bit of hiss at the very top of the amp’s volume range. There is nothing of the sort here, and it’s also quieter than any of the SS amps I have around. This may well be due to the battery operation – not sure. But it sure is one silent runner.


So given that I really can’t describe the Amphora in the frequency domain except as DEAD NEUTRAL and DEAD QUIET, what can I say about?


Well…let’s talk about its special presentation. Listening to Otmar Liebert’s Nouveau Flamenco was really, really impressive. I hadn’t played it in a while, and the naturalness of the string tone, and the amazing speed of the attack of the plucking was really something. But even more impressive, the sense of space and of the recording venue was just PALPABLE. The Amphora really, really did make me feel like I was there in this regard. And here again is where it separated itself from amps like the Audio GD C2C and the Purity Audio KICAS (which are both fine amps) – neither is able to recreate the sense of immersion into the recording that the Amphora can. In fact, only my Singlepower Extreme and MPX-3 are able to compete in this regard (of the amps I have on hand). For a purely SS amp, I am not sure the Amphora has an equal in terms of naturalness and believability of the soundstage.


Listening to an audience recording of The Dead’s performance at All State Arena on 5-5-09 (yes – last night! God bless the internet) emphasized the Amphora’s ability to recreate space well. The recording sounded just like I remember it from last night – the sense of space was very real, and very believable.


Distinguishing very minute differences between headphones was a breeze with the Amphora. The DT880 and the Kenwood K-1000 sounded really very different, which they are. The Amphora did struggle a little with the 600 ohm Beyers, though, and this is one of my very few “nits”. I cannot in good faith recommend this amp as the best way to spend $1,000 for the owner of 600 ohm headphones – you people should buy a tube amp. It’s not that the sound was bad, but with sources lower than 2V, there was only just enough gain available.


But for people with very low impedance headphones – this is an EXCELLENT choice. It drove the 40 ohm K1000 with no problem, and did wonders for the 70 ohm JVC DX1000. And actually, the DX1000 with the Amphora was heavenly. I have said before that the DX1000 really need a tube amp to sound their best, but now I am recanting that statement – the Amphora does the trick!


I no longer have any SS amps in the Amphora’s price class on hand to directly compare it with. But at least from memory, I would unhesitatingly say it’s the best $1K SS headphone amp I have heard. I know there are only a limited number of these available to be purchased – if this is a price point you are considering, and you want SS, I’d get my order in in a hurry.


But if you are considering tubes as well, that’s a little tougher for me. While I would never in good conscience recommend to anyone that they buy a Singlepower amp, I personally did slightly prefer the Singlepower Extreme versus the Amphora. But let’s be clear about something – in the frequency domain, the Singlepower is more colored. It’s a little more euphonic. But I like this coloration. Your mileage, of course, may vary. The Extreme is also better with my 600 ohm headphones. But I also preferred it with the DX1000, understanding that I am choosing a very slight euphonic glow versus strict neutrality. This works for me – but not for everyone.


So where does that leave us? Well, if you can spend a grand, want the very least editorialization possible, and highly value transparency, and highly value soundstaging capabilities, I would say the Amphora is the biggest no brainer in the history of Earth.
post #2 of 237
Thanks for the review Skylab, always a good read. It be really great if they would add on an inboard dac...hint...hint Vinnie and Ken.
post #3 of 237
Nice review. I liked the Amphora review sample enough to buy one. What about you?
post #4 of 237
Thread Starter 
I'd really like to - just can't swing it at the moment.
post #5 of 237
Quote:
Originally Posted by Skylab View Post
I'd really like to - just can't swing it at the moment.
I'm sorry about that. Didn't mean to rub it in. I had to sell a few headphones to help pay for the Amphora and an EC ZDT.
post #6 of 237
Thread Starter 
No worries! I didn't take it like that. It's really an issue of how I would rationalize another headphone amp to my wife
post #7 of 237
Quote:
Originally Posted by Skylab View Post
No worries! I didn't take it like that. It's really an issue of how I would rationalize another headphone amp to my wife
Tell her its a jewellry box
post #8 of 237
Nice review, I agree no noise whatsoever and it drove the low impedance Ultrasone HFI-780 and Denon D5000 very nicely.
post #9 of 237
aaarrrggghhh, your description of it being so neutral seems like exactly what I want. grrr too expensive though. So is the c2c hard to listen to after this one? Is it more mechanical sounding or is the c2c just tonally different.
post #10 of 237
Listening to mine now. Great review.

My Amphora still needs plenty of running in, though. Only have about 30 hours on it.
post #11 of 237
Thanks for sharing, quick question. What was your source?
post #12 of 237
Hi Skylab.

From your review, I gather that the Singlepower, even though it is more colored,is the more musical of the 2 amps.

Is this a correct assumption?
post #13 of 237
Hi Skylab,

So how does this amp compare with the Lisa? Both of them are transportable and in the similar price range (Lisa + LLP ~ 1000$). The comparison would be really useful for head-fiers.
post #14 of 237
Quote:
Originally Posted by Skylab View Post
Listening to an audience recording of The Dead’s performance at All State Arena on 5-5-09 (yes – last night! God bless the internet) emphasized the Amphora’s ability to recreate space well. The recording sounded just like I remember it from last night – the sense of space was very real, and very believable.
Thanks for the review, as always, Skylab. Im going to the show tomorrow night in Denver and you have me even more excited than before
post #15 of 237
Nice review, Skylab.

1. What source(s) are you using?
2. What gain setting(s) are you using for the low-impedance cans?
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