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Portable Amps item created by jacksonchansf, May 26, 2012
Pros - Powerful, dynamic, and full
Cons - Biit pricey, big, and sometimes fuzzy
I just got a pair of AKG K712s, so I needed an amp. It came down to choosing between ALO Audio's The National, and the International which were both being sold by the Headphone Bar in Vancouver. The owner lets people try out ALL of his products, so I spent a good hour playing around (and trying out some tube amps as well). And he had a pair of K712s in his store, so I used his instead.
Basically, I picked the National because I didn't really need a DAC, it sounded similar to the International, and it was $250 cheaper. Yes, I double-amped everything because I was lazy and didn't bother wanting to fiddle with a DAC.
So, onto the review!
Note: Yeah, I'm not the most keen audiophile. :\
Sources: iPhone 5S, max volume. Macbook Pro Retina, max volume. This creates a line-out-ish signal, I think*. Not entirely the same, but playing with the MBP's settings, if I max out the volume, I get a 0db gain. Any lower, and it starts cutting the signal.
Previous amps owned: FiiO e6. Not the best, but it did its job.
Music: A bunch of stuff. Punk, metal, choral, orchestral, jazz, all encoded at 320k. I have a very wide-ranging taste in music.
Build quality: Like a tank. My dark side has always considered this question, when judging build quality: Can I smash a person's head? The National definitely looked like it could.
First Impressions: I didn't find it exceptionally loud. But it was full-sounding. There was more of everything. A bit dark. Kinda like a record. Neat! It's probably due to the double-amping though, so I'll be getting a Dragonfly DAC soon to
Bass: Full, with slam and just a tinge of fuzz. It extends wayyy down, but doesn't mess with other stuff.
Mids: Clear, with a bit of liquidity to it. If you play the right music, it's downright awesome. Vocals and guitar solos are gorgeous.
Highs: With the K712s, no problem. Not too sparkly, and just right.
Actually, the thing sounds like a record player. Or tube amp, which I tried later on. The power was not the same, but the sound quality was similar.
Value: This is the most questionable. I'm not sure the problem of amping the K712s was a $315 problem. But alas. It sounds good!
All in all, this is something I'll be enjoying for sure!
Pros - Aesthetics & Build, Price, The Continental
Cons - Low Frequency Distortion, grainy, some electronic hash in complex passages
I bought both of the ALO Continental/ National family members around June/ July of 2012 when the second wave of V2 Continentals hit the market. I got the bug bad at the time and 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 by some consumer dementia 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.... The Continental.... eh not quite.
However despite having become a bit unhinged from reality in my desire to get this not so 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 was... elusive.
What was there was an unsure feeling... "I guess it sounds okay!"... I mean its louder.... it's really big... but it is louder than my iPod.
The Continental adds just a slight dose of sweetness to the sound. If you are buying a portable amp like the Continental assuming it is going to give you the rich harmonics, warmth and so called Honeytone of a bonafied tube amp (i.e. an EL84 type design) you won't find what you are looking for here. The hybrid circuit tube adds just a tint of color to the picture without causing the sound to become syrupy. This touch of 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.
But for a full $265.00 less, you get The National. Based on ALO's own marketing the National is supposed to provide an inexhaustable solid state derivative of the Continental that is not dependent on a finite supply of NOS 6111 tubes from Raytheon. The National is centered around the very cheap but highly capable NE5532 opamp and listening to both side by side I must admit to not being able to really hear much of a difference.
Switching back and forth from iPod Video, to Continental to National there are obvious differences between the amp stage of the iPod and the two ALO amps.... but very little to find between the two amps themselves. The sound from the iPod's headphone jack sounds crowded and closed in.... the singer of the band stands right in your face making it very difficult to appreciate the song as a whole. Switch over to the National and the singer takes 6 steps back, the band takes a couple steps forward and a more natural stage is set.... Likewise for the Continental.
Many reviewers have stated that the Continental is far less grainy and has a clear spotless sound.... I don't know that I hear that.... maybe the subjective viewpoint that a 'glass' tube somehow provides a clean, clear harmonic tone is biasing their viewpoint but both amps sound equally grainy.... What is more is that the National seems to have just a little more horsepower to wrestle with difficult loads like ortho dynamic headphones. Both my HE400 and LCD2 were out and out too much for the Continental.... In complex passages with multiple layers of low frequency action (like bass strings and bass drums) the Continental seemed to get a bit more tizzy and hashy sounding.... Electronic trash started tainting the lowest register and the transient edges seemed to get injected with static. however with the National though it does max out its volume pot on the LCD2 while still operating inside of "comfortable" listening volume it doesn't seem to lose as much forms. Admittedly it does show signs of insecurity with the loads.... There is a level of electrical hash in the upper register and a crunchy blurring together of low frequency passages on more complex numbers.... It still does not show quite the bad form that it's premium dual triode packing brother displays.
The Continental and National are pretty, yes, they are unique and sublime in their design aesthete. The Continental more so with its hybrid tube design, certainly, it is a gorgeous looking piece of kit, however in regard to its most basic function.... the skill set upon which all its other talents should be founded..... it is in my application, a sub par performer. The National is more confident (to a degree) 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 both get spooked.... start showing speed wobbles... and are far from confident and authoritative amplifiers. They are a step up from the nervous spastic tendencies of an iPod at max volume.... a tad cleaner and with better sound staging but that is not really a great compliment.
I actually sold my first set of Audeze LCD2's because the sound was so "unremarkable" through the ALO Audio retro styled duo that is seemed foolish to own a $1000 headphone that sounded so sub par. I eventually came back around to a second set of LCD2's long after the Continental had been returned to ALO Audio for a refund. With just the National playing portable amp duties and with as much as 300 hours of playing time, the National seems to a bit more stable in its presentation.... Mind you it still maxes out its pot at comfortable listening levels but seems to have gotten its legs under it to an extent.
So contrasting against the Continental.... it truly is a no brainer. The National sounds nearly identical in tone, is near a full inch shorter (right in line with the length of an iPod) seems to have more horsepower and offers a more punchy bass and costs over $250 less.
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 is the better price/ performance value to me and so gets 3.5 stars for that. However compared to other non-portable amps.... shows why the state of portable hifi has not quite reached full maturity... It is 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 a faster harder hitting saccharine.
They are better than an iPod.... but far worse than nearly any desktop source that I have utilized.... I have not tried power monsters like the Lisa 3 or SR71 Blackbird or even ALO's own RX Mark III but I do think that portable amps in the main, have a ways to go before they will be single source solutions for big time headphones like LCD2's.... Quite simply a National or Continental amp is not worthy of an Audeze LCD2 and seem better suited to your mid fi headphones like M-50's or Pro900's.
May not be what some people want to hear.... but it's how I see it.
But I do think that the National at $299 is a no brainer if one must have the ALO Audio experience.... Otherwise though it isn't half as sexy, I think the FiiO E12 or E17 is a much better route to go.