(Before I get started, I always post reviews separately from main threads, but especially this time, where The National, is an amp that I feel offers so much for its price, there needs to be some more personal love shown.)
In the TouchMyApps review, I called it a new class of portable amp. Here I'll call it a work of art. Really. There are so many ways to compare a portable amp, and so many amps to compare it to, but I think that sound AND polish should play a big role on how you decide to spend your money.
In particular, ergonomics are important. ALO nailed ergonomics. How? In/out ports are split across the amp's face. In the middle is the volume pot and the high/low gain. (The volume pot, by the way, has very good balance and the lowest left/right balanced volume is low enough for sensitive earphones, but quite close to the threshold for certain, sensitive listeners.) You can use big-arse headphone/input plugs and still turn the volume pot and switch to high/low gain with no problem at all.
The power plugs into the back so stacking the amp next to a CD player or on your desktop isn't ungainly.
I know that some people will disagree with me, but I am among the crowd that think an audio item that demands a goodly portion of your money should work and look important as well as sound good. Here's honestly where I don't get what ALO did. The National is a work of art. From its font to its boxes and layout in said boxes, it gives the impression of an amp that costs twice as much, almost as if ALO meant it as a signature item. I know they didn't, but they treat it (and by corollary, us the customers) with new levels of respect.
Down to the volume pot and screws, The National employs non-run-of-the-mill (for portable amps that is) parts.
You probably care about this. Of course you do. ALO deliver here, though they deliver in one way that surprised me more than the rest. I didn't expect absolute perfection from The National. And I didn't get it. Even without load, it allows a goodly amount of distortion in the signal, and what I will call 'heat' in the midrange shadow of certain instruments. It might be a small delay. Those are intentional marks. ALO designed a 300$ amp to have a sound, which is another mark, not of a 300$ amp, but of one much higher priced.
The VorzAMPduo and VorzAMPpro, for instance, amps that carry much higher prices around the world than the ALO does, are voiced by thick mid ranges and fast, extended highs. Some people insist they are made for pop music, some for jazz and IDM (amazing grouping, eh?). The National overall has a neutral image, but exchanges some neutrality for the above-mentioned heat. That minute delay (heat, remember?) coupled with a clear upper midrange creates the image of space. Images wrap further behind the ear in many cases and slightly forward, to about the eyes.
That mid range section is, under normal driving circumstances, very clear, very articulate. The National is, in that space, an epiphany. Of course there are clearer mids out there and more perfectly neutral frequency responses. But not so many amps give as engaging of a listen. I stand very solidly beside my insistence that The National is an amp that for 300$ will suit perfectly in the living room AND on the go.
There is a LOT of power beneath its bonnet. If you are maxing out a pair of headphones with it, you will probably max them out on anything not mains. At 80dB, the DT880 600Ω needs about 50-55% of the volume pot and high gain. It can be pushed to 100% with no distortion. Ditto (distortion) ES10 to about 95% of the volume pot. Both headphones then are over 100dB and sound like small room speakers.
That is power. Most portable amps can kick up over 95dB, but not with that sort of clarity. I'm ready to say that the DT880 600Ω are very close to being perfectly driven by The National, a portable headphone amp. For 300$. Made by a boutique maker.
IEM's are not a mixed bag unless you step into Earsonics SM2/JH13Pro territory where crossovers and many drivers play foul by dipping into very low Ω. Remember, not all multi-armatures do that. EM3Pro, SM3, CT7, W4 are driven nearly perfectly by The National. There is about the same amount of hiss as the zO2, which isn't a lot and isn't a little in the grand scheme of things. People with Shure SE530 and Westone UM2 who have sensitive ears may want to steer elsewhere.
For those of you who head to the TMA review, please note that I've not had time to update the RMAA and other measurement links. I get home lately at around 12AM and am dead. I think tomorrow night I should have time. I'm sorry. I will fix that as soon as I can.
Overall, I'm impressed. Very impressed. The National is possibly the best designed and implemented portable amp I've used for any length of time. Bar none. The Rx (MKI) has more impressive playback for any low-Ω headphone and so do a number of other amps. But not overwhelmingly so. For high Ω headphones, The National is firmly one of the best, if not the best in its category, delivering power, firm bass, and a little bit of heat for those of us who want to listen to an amp, too, not just the music.
At headfi, I dub it a work of art. At TouchMyApps, I dub it a new class. I think I'm right on both accounts.
Edited by shigzeo - 5/15/12 at 3:49pm