ALO Audio has been a long time cable maker and amplifier producer, and is well known for one of the first (and best sounding) portable tube amplifiers to ever come to the market, the Continental. While the Continental was a breathtaking amplifier in its prime, it has run low on production, and ALO Audio seems to be running out of tubes for the Continental. So, they made a new headphone amplifier to make up for the Continental, and it’s called the National.
Why the National?
First things first, let's get the general ideas about the National out of the way. What goal did ALO Audio have in mind when they set out to make the National? Well, the Continental, which I reviewed back in December and thought was an excellent portable amplifier, was tube based, and with all tube amplifiers, the tubes, sooner or later, will run out unless you can keep making them. This was the case with the Raytheon 6111 NOS tube, a tube that was rare to find on the face of the Earth. ALO realized this issue and knew that the Continental had a limited time as portable amp, so they needed something that could take the place of the Continental, something just as good, something that was solid state. Thus, the National was born, all solid state, smaller, and an even better price tag than before. But, did ALO really make the National as good as the Continental? Let's take a deeper look.
Out of the box, the National seems like a slightly sibilant and lifeless amplifier and comes off as being both brittle and too bright, but after a few hours of burn and a week of auditioning, the National has became one of the most awesome amplifiers that I have ever heard in the price range, and while I think that the Continental still has a lot more sonic authority than the National, it’s very easy to see why ALO Audio went this way and made the National sound the way it does. It’s neither fatiguing nor lifeless, but has a very musical sound signature that’s very enjoyable, and shines when it needs to.
The National has one of the most vibrant and silky midrange presentations that I’ve ever heard. It’s slightly forward, with great vocality, and is on par with the Continental. The Continental is still a significantly sweeter sounding amplifier, with less grain and more clarity, but the National has something that the Continental doesn’t, and that’s the vocality presentation. Super forward, very clear, and very easy on the ears. TTVJ’s own Slim amplifier is yet another amp with a price tag to match the National, and not even it has the silky smooth midrange presence of the National. ALO’s own Rx MKII amplifier, from what I’ve listened to on a number of occasions, is a little bit different. A lot more resolved, with a lot less forward vocality, more spaciousness, and no hints of lushness or warmth in the midrange.
At the beginning I used to think that the National was a slightly bright and sibilant amplifier, but everything simmered down after a while, and turned quite warm. Up top the treble presence is slightly smooth, but never too dark, and actually emits a good amount of sparkle when the track calls for it, not as sparkly and as resolved as the Continental, but just enough for satisfaction. Also, the National again beats the TTVJ Slim up top, more sparkle, with better cymbal crashes and slightly better extension. The only amplifier that tops the National that’s lesser than the Continental is the Rx MKII, but that’s always been known to me as a slightly bright, hyper detailed amplifier.
The National also has one of the most controversial bass presentations I’ve heard, as it’s a lot better than the Continental. Take the Continental’s bass, increase the amount of surge tenfold, and widen up the extension down low. Also, the impact and punch is a lot better, with more power and authority, and a lot better attack and decay times. A bit fast, but very energetic and perfect for bass shy earphones or headphones. The TTVJ Slim and Rx MkII can’t compare, as the National has the best presentation of all three, including the $529 Continental.
Now, the soundstage is what made me rethink what’s possible in a $299 portable headphone amplifier. The Continental still has the most spacious and biggest soundstage experiences, but when you compare the technicalities and minute details, it’s worth taking a deeper look at. The Continental has a wider presentation, but the National is much deeper, and actually isn’t bad when it comes to width, falling slightly behind the Continental. The Continental is still more spacious in terms of physical mass and air between every frequency, but when it comes to layering, instrumental separation, and precise imaging, the National seems to be a click better. More 3D, and more realistic layering makes the National a better amplifier overall when it comes to overall sound staging effects.
Driving Capacity & Power
The National is sort of underpowered for how big it is compared to other amplifiers. It works perfectly for IEM’s (even sensitive ones that don’t need much current at all) and earphones alike, but the problem is with full sized headphones, which need a lot more power than IEM’s. Don’t get me wrong, the National has plenty of power, but is vastly outperformed by the Continental. I’m constantly having to switch on the high gain switch for my HD650 and my Q701. While they are known to be very power hungry headphones, the National just doesn’t have the appropriate power. They sound good off the National, but still feel slightly underpowered.
Build & Updated Chassis
ALO Audio has taken a new approach to the design of their amplifiers, as they use a different finish and slightly different font. The chassis is about the same height as the Continental, but smaller in overall width. The new chassis is finished in the same high quality aluminum, but is now matte instead of the smooth, silky texture I am used to, and this actually deters scratches and fingerprints a lot more than the original design. We get the same controls, with a few added things as well. Still the same charger, inputs and outputs, and the addition of an added gain switch that really helps for full sized headphones, which you read previously.
For $299, the National is an excellent sounding amplifier and while the technicalities and clarity don’t exactly match the power and authority of the Continental, I can totally see what ALO Audio is trying to do with the National. It has characteristics of the Continental, but offers more in a much spicier sound signature, and with an all solid state design and a smaller price point. I can see the National going far as a solid state amplifier, and with a $299 price point, it vastly outperforms several other amplifiers in the same price range.