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ALO Audio The National: The Continental's Younger Sibling (Review & Comparison to Rx MKII & TTVJ...

post #1 of 34
Thread Starter 

National1.JPG

 

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.

 

Sonic Impressions

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.

 

Final Thoughts

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.

 

ALO Audio The National @ALO Audio

post #2 of 34

Awesome write up! The tube vs. ss amp differences seem very apparent here.

post #3 of 34
Nice write up. Lots of competition in this space should lead to innovative products.
post #4 of 34
Thanks for the awesome review, austin! This looks like a really nice amp at a great price!
post #5 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by TheWuss View Post

Thanks for the awesome review, austin! This looks like a really nice amp at a great price!


Thanks TheWuss, yes, it's quite a good amp considering the price that you pay.

post #6 of 34

I'm actually falling in love. To be sure, the Rx is a better by-the-numbers performer, but the National is nicer to listen to on a sofa, after work, even before the fifth beer. It's not a relaxing amp, but it has such a pleasant upper midrange 'ring' (for lack of better term) that is addictive, and dare I say it, 'musical'. I'm slowly documenting my opinions on sound, build, design, and performance at TouchMyApps for the official review.

post #7 of 34

...I noticed on Touchmyapps you mentioned the battery sits loose inside the casing...Is this really the case (excuse the pun)? Not sure if I would like to tote the unit around if it is...

post #8 of 34

Nice pun. 

 

Um, yes, the battery clinks around a bit. If it bothers you, just wrap a bit of tape around it, or add some sponge. Quite a few amps are made this way, and in some ways it is good: less chance the battery affects signal inside the amp as the only thing touching it is the logic board. Also, there is more space for battery so it can be larger (which the National's is), and there is less stress on the logic board. It is also much easier to change as there is no adhesive on the main board.

 

Generally, I see this in more expensive amps, though the GoVibe Porta Tube and + are notable exceptions. Again, just add some tape or sponge to keep the battery from rattling. 

 

Movement is pretty feeble, probably less than 1,5 mm total movement in any direction.

 

The sound and build quality of the National, coupled with its price, are what advertises it. Personally, I prefer the battery this way to a smaller battery that stresses the logic board.

Quote:
Originally Posted by fleasbaby View Post

...I noticed on Touchmyapps you mentioned the battery sits loose inside the casing...Is this really the case (excuse the pun)? Not sure if I would like to tote the unit around if it is...

 

 

post #9 of 34

Ah...that makes more sense...was a tad horrified at the thought of walking about hearing the battery flop about loosely in there...in retrospect that sounds almost too ridiculous to be true :)...am looking toward my next amp purchase, and the National is up there on the shortlist (Headstage Arrow and JDS Labs C421 are the others).

 

I know its a controversial topic, but would you suggest springing for the Cricket LOD as per ALO's suggestion on their site as well?

post #10 of 34
Quote:
Originally Posted by fleasbaby View Post

Ah...that makes more sense...was a tad horrified at the thought of walking about hearing the battery flop about loosely in there...in retrospect that sounds almost too ridiculous to be true :)...am looking toward my next amp purchase, and the National is up there on the shortlist (Headstage Arrow and JDS Labs C421 are the others).

 

I know its a controversial topic, but would you suggest springing for the Cricket LOD as per ALO's suggestion on their site as well?

Exactly where I am at, I am also considering the three amps you mentioned, as well as The Continental.

 

I am looking at buying the Cricket LOD too.

post #11 of 34

The writeup and photos are lovely, OP. I disagree, however, with your assessment of power. If by power you mean volume, that depends heavily on what source is powering the National. I've found it scales effectively to high output items such as CD players and the CLAS. An iPod has less powerful signal coming from its line, but still, there is ample power for higher than 90dB listens with the DT880 600Ω for instance. That said, the GoVibe Tube has a smoother sound when driving headphones well into 100% volume. But that is only for testing purposes, not for listening. Only at 100% and high gain driving the above headphones is there any hint of strain in the signal. That volume is way way way above my threshold for pain, though.

 

The National has a clear signature in its upper midrange that does in some ways mimic some valve amps. It's an analogue smear that is very attractive, but not what I would call warm. If warm means power to you, then I think we are are on the same page, but the National isn't about warmth as in traditional valve distortion; it's about strong signal with good accent.

 

ADDENDUM:

I confirmed today when using the National with the CLAS, there is a massive volume gain when used against an iPod or other portable (T51 may be different) line out. In fact, my Edirol FA-66 overloaded on high gain when used with the CLAS. The difference is not small. I've not directly monitored the difference, but my semi-educated guess is that when driven from higher line-level sources, the difference is upwards of 15dB, more than enough to power any dynamic headphone.

 

From an iPod line out, I'm getting more than 95dB from the DT880 600Ω. When driven from the CLAS, the National is so loud I can't have the DT880 on or around my head. For sensitive IEM's, when driven from CLAS, the National borders on too loud from the first 100% balanced volume setting. My ES10 border on pain by 9 o'clock on the volume pot (which is the 2nd full marking). The amp goes to 5 o'clock on the other side and sustains almost perfect signal up to about 4-4:30. Very impressive. 

 

Its internal input gain is obviously conservative and leaves lots of room for powerful equipment. I think this is an excellent way to attack output.


Edited by shigzeo - 5/2/12 at 5:03am
post #12 of 34
Quote:
Originally Posted by ExpatinJapan View Post

Exactly where I am at, I am also considering the three amps you mentioned, as well as The Continental.

 

I am looking at buying the Cricket LOD too.


Upgradeitis sucks, but at the same time, the researching and the hunt are fun :)....I am also waiting to see what Leckerton's new iteration of the UHA-6S is like...meant to get a release date soon. Any one of the above that is winning out for you at the moment? The ALO National is ahead for me at the moment, but the C421 gets points for all the positive reviews and its lower price point...

post #13 of 34

The National is looking good, but the slim lines and many functions of the Arrow are appealing, the JDS-labs c421 reviews are good.

 

The Continental price nearly gave me a heart attack.

 

 I think I am looking for lush mids, a colored sound - so whatever will give me that.

post #14 of 34

Expat - the National will give you that, but without extras such as bass and treble augmentation. Personally, I'm a fan of it - in a big, big way. I've a few amps at low and high price points in front of me that  have such functions. Sometimes they are implemented very well (Graham Slee Voyager) and sometimes they aren't. The Vorzüge VorzAMPduo is one that is done very very well, but it is mad expensive. The ALO is traditional and is all the better for it. It has more power than the VorzAMP does despite costing much less, and a better volume pot. The VorzAMP is also coloured, but focused more on the lower range and BASS. 

 

Both amps are gaining traction here in Japan.

 

One thing I notice about ALO amps: years later, they are still used and reference for many people. Their price alone may dictate that they don't become FOTM, and I don't' think ALO are looking for that. My review is pretty much done now and just awaiting editing (lots) and photos. The National is truly an amp that was designed to be used and enjoyed: from perfect layout to excellent volume pot, it is a sonic and ergonomic feat. 

post #15 of 34

It is looking like the National, with the Arrow coming in a close second. The Arrow is described as `clear, transparent`

 

The National doesn`t seem to have hit the stores here in Japan yet,

The Continental is still my first choice but may be a bit too much ¥¥¥ considering I only have ATH-EWS9 headphones.

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