ALO Audio has never been a company that rests on its personal audio laurels. A steady stream of ever-evolving headphone products have graced our ears over the past few years, and from the pace of things it doesn’t look to slow down any time soon. The newest headphone amplifier and DAC combo looks to keep stride with its latest competition by including both inputs and outputs in the balanced flavor as well as the more traditional SE connections. The ALO Audio International ($600) sports a 24/96 kHz USB DAC and an impressive headphone amplifier in a new smaller package.
The new size is a small departure from ALO’s previous headphone amplifier casings. The design incorporates a much leaner depth with a slightly meatier height and is just a finger smaller than a pack of cigarettes. The first thing that struck me when I picked it up was the weight. It has some real heft to it. I would say pound for pound it is a little heavier than similar-sized components out right now. Not to say its actually “heavy”, but it does feel solid to the touch while remaining extremely portable, given its size. The extra gravity is no doubt a contribution from the internal battery, which claims a 14-16 hour life for amplifier exclusive usage and 8-10 hours with the DAC section activated. The fit and finish is a nice combination of solid construction and just the right amount of texture and sheen for a metal casing. I would still consider the look to be a matte style, but it is still quite attractive when the light hits it. The overall build is just as solid as something portable needs to be. There is no independent on/off switch on the unit, the rotating volume knobs clicks the power on as you turn it up. I found the volume to be a wee bit jumpy on low gain with IEMs, but still much better than most amps in this range. Even with its high gain/full size headphone capabilities, the International still does a great job handling IEMs. I could detect no background noise on the lowest gain with my Jerry Harvey JH16s, a very nice black backdrop to lay your favorite tunes over.
If there are four observations I could leave you with regarding the International it is this: quick, tight bass, clean, and dynamic.
Like any good pool, the International boasts a deep bottom end. Bass slam and impact are pretty amazing with this little unit. The low end feels really potent in your ears. I was equally impressed with the overall dynamic feel of the entire frequency spectrum as it was presented. Listening to a David Chesky recording of the Brooklyn Funk Band track Pamafunk I couldn’t help but notice the realistic grunt of the bass guitar and the sharp, accurate snap of the snare drum.
Vs. The RSA Intruder
The closest contender to the International is Ray Samuels Intruder ($700). Even though the Intruder has a pretty good bass implementation, I found the International to have the edge in terms of punchier, cleaner bass and high-end extension. I also preferred the overall dynamics of the International as they seemed a bit more lively than the Intruder. The Intruders DAC section differs slightly from the International’s 24/96 kHz Cirius Logic CS4398 DAC Chip. The Intruders DAC tops out at 16/48 kHz, so high resolution files don’t get fully represented. On the flip side, the DAC is one of the very very few than can properly connect with the Android Galaxy S III phone. I could not get the International to properly connect to the Galaxy III via USB. The Intruder’s DAC draws power from the USB connection while the International does not.
Vs. The ALO Pan Am
I was really impressed with the Pan Am ($500) when I first heard it, so I was quite excited to see how the two compared. I found the Pan Am to maintain its richness in the mids, delivering an engaging, fun tone without sacrificing any detail. My unit is equipped with stock tubes, and with those tubes the vocals are just a hair forward in the mix. Part of the fun of the Pan Am is rolling the tubes, so individual results may vary. When paired with the Audeze LCD-3, I still preferred the richness of the Pan Am when listening to vocal-centric genres. Diana Krall’s vocals on Peel Me A Grape seem to have a lifelike whisper to them though the Pan Am. Where the Pan Am has a rib-shaking body shot, the International has bifurcated swing with a clean punch in the lows and highs. I would recommend the International for genres where speed and accuracy play strongly to its amazing technicalities.
With The CypherLabs Algorhythm Solo –dB
Aside from full size components, the balanced input in the back of the International is primarily designed for use with the Algorhythm Solo –dB’s ($700) balanced output. While the new size is a bit shorter than the dB, the two still can be lashed together with an iPod for a portable audiophile brick. As it often is with audio components, the separation of church (DAC) and state (Amp) isn’t without its benefits. I found the addition of the external DAC via the balanced connection to bring even better instrument separation and sense of three dimensionality to the soundscape. Playing high resolution files from my MacBook Air via Audirvana Plus and the dB’s balanced output to a pair of Audeze LCD-3s was quite the audio feast and one of the top overall portable headphone systems I’ve heard in terms of realism and dynamics. Of course this kind of setup is very revealing and is best suited for equally appropriate sources. A quick comparison revealed a digitized aesthetic fuzz covering most of Spotify’s streaming music service, which took a little to get used to.
Portable audiophile headphone systems are following much the same path as the rest of portable electronics. Updates driven by new advances in technology make product cycles even shorter and devices smaller and better. ALO makes it clear we haven’t hit the same plateau in personal audio that we are starting to see with the iPhone quite yet. The International delivers amazing clarity, dynamics and bass section that is simply outstanding. It may even make you forget everything you are hearing is coming out of a 3 x 3 inch box.