Disclaimer: I received the ALO International sample from ALOAudio. AnalogHead is also an ALOAudio retailer, and we currently are selling the International on the store.
I didn’t see this one coming and the first question I asked myself was: “What’s going to be the unique selling point on this one?”. I thought ALO’s line up was pretty much complete with the Continental, National, PanAm, and the RX line ups, so I didn’t really think that there is a need for another amp in the line up. I didn’t want ALO to become like Samsung in the way that they release new models every other week. So I was concerned that the International was not going to offer anything new. Of course, I was prudent to reserve my judgement until I get the actual product.
Caleb at ALO said something about the International having matching footprint for pairing with the new Astell & Kern AK100 DAP. The AK100 seems to be the next hot thing in audiophile DAPs, and it’s understandable if ALO wants to tap into AK100′s user base. If you’ve tried stacking some of the conventional sized ALO amplifiers (or even other manufacturers’ amps) with the AK100, you know that it doesn’t make a very nice stack the way a regular Ipod/Iphone does. Yes, having a matching footprint is a big deal for day to day use, but how many people are going to spend $599 just for that? And out of the people who’ve bought the AK100, how many are really looking for an external amp, and an ALO one? I think ALO is taking a pretty big gamble if they’re only depending on the AK100 player to sell the International.
Apparently in addition to the AK100-matching footprint, the International will also come with a built-in DAC. Nice addition, I thought. DACs make for a strong selling point these days, as most enthusiasts know how important a good quality source is (I don’t even listen to my Ipod anymore these days). But again, how good is the DAC going to be? As far as I know ALO doesn’t really have that much experience in Digital-to-Analog Converters, other than the ALO PanAm.
Lastly, the amplifier is supposed to be a solid state, and since there was no special topology announced with the International’s solid state amp, my enthusiasm for the updated Continental V3 aka “Continental with more bass” sort of eclipsed the International’s.
Having used to the large build of ALO amplifiers (from the National, Continental, to the RX MK3B), I really liked the fact that the International comes with a smaller dimension. Together with the AK100 they make for a pretty compact build, though later when I used the AK100-International stack daily, I found out that the stack is still a bit too thick to fit my jeans pocket comfortably. I also liked the addition of the other features such as the balanced in/out, the three position gain switch, and the new ALO-logo engraved volume knob.
Overall, I think they did a good job on the build and features. But I still have yet to listen to the amplifier.
Sound Comparisons: The Continental V3
The debut fight I picked for the International was an extremely tough one. The Continental V3 is an updated version of the Continental V2 which is one of the best portable amplifiers around. With the added bass body, the V3 not only retained that special midrange offered by the V2, but also a fuller sound to the low frequencies. Not to mention that the Continental is a pure amplifier, compared to the all-in-one philosophy of the International with its fully balanced and internal DAC. The odds are certainly for the Continental V3.
The tube-based V3 has that nice midrange bloom which always been the Continental’s selling point. None of ALO’s other amplifier, or even anything else in the market that I’m aware of can quite offer that midrange, and likewise the International. Against the clean, clear, three dimensional vacuum tube sound of the Continental V3, the International seemed to offer nothing extraordinary in comparison.
Nothing extraordinary but there is no denying that from the first minute, I really dig the solid state sound of the International more than the Continental. Taughter bass section, faster pace, better PRaT, all while remaining warm, full bodied and with a relaxed treble. There was no special adjective I can attribute to the International’s sound: no spacious soundstage, no special midrange. It was simply a smooth and mature sound with a very strong musicality. The tight, full, and deep bass is extremely nice and toe tapping factor was very high. PRaT is great without being harsh or too forward. Treble is extremely smooth. The frequency response flows very well from top to bottom, with no dips or peaks.
The Continental V3 definitely has more wow to it: the soundstage is larger and depth is deeper. The International on the other hand just has enough technicalities so you never feel that music is congested or claustrophobic. While the Continental’s qualities are somehow expected due to the hybrid vacuum tube circuitry, I actually appreciate the maturity of the International sound more. It’s a very mature tuning that doesn’t try too hard to sound impressive, and yet long listening time would reveal that it’s absolutely proper from top to bottom. It has no striking flaws, no irregularities in the tonal balance, nothing but pure musicality. I know that from my experience listening to a lot of amps, this kind of a smooth and mature tuning is extremely rare. Whoever did the tuning on the International really has a ton of experience evaluating amplifiers.
Sound Comparisons: National and RX Mk3B
The International sound sounds like a cousin to the earlier released National, so I did the National – International comparison next. What I found was mostly a smoother sound from top to bottom on the International, while the National sounded dryer and thinner on the upper region. In this respect I’m starting to draw some comparisons of the International to RSA’s latest Intruder, as I thought the two amps having some similarities in the way that they are both full bodied, warm and smooth. The RSA being more lush, smoother, while the International has a better PRaT, the RSA more relaxed. But I didn’t have the RSA to do an A-B this time, so I’ll go back to the National comparison. The National is a good amp at $299, but the International better and would be a good amp at the $400 bracket had they not included the internal DAC (more on that later).
Pairing the two amps with anything from sensitive IEMs (I used Aurisonic’s ASG-1, Earsonics’ SM64, and JHAudio’s JH5Pro) to several mid-range dynamic headphones (UE9000, Z1000, ESW-11, etc) to big orthodynamics (Audez’e LCD-2, Hifiman HE-400), I clearly preferred the International than the National. Bottom end is tighter and hits fuller lows, maintained to a fuller and more lush mids, and finally a smoother treble, the International sets itself apart from the National especially on the LCD-2 pairing. It’s simply a better amp.
The ALO Rx Mk3 comparison is next. I didn’t think that the two amps cater to the same crowd, but I know that some people would still ask for a comparison. The Rx sounds bigger and more spacious, but again my preference falls to the International. One reason I think is the treble where the International is smoother, but overall I find the International to be more lush, fuller and more coherent. I think people who likes a spacious sound, powerful bass impact, and some treble sparkle would still opt for the Rx Mk3B, but a smooth sounding HD650 lover like me is naturally more drawn to the International. Not to mention the form factor which I absolutely love the International for.
The DAC Section on the next page…