Disclaimer: The unit for this review was provided free of charge from ALO Audio. ALO Audio is a Headfonia sponsor, and also a supplier for Analog Head (a headphone store I own).
I really didn’t see this one coming. After the Continental, National, and ALO Rx MK3, I thought ALO pretty much has covered the needs of everyone. In the portable realm, at least.
A few weeks back I started receiving emails from ALO communicating their new PanAm amplifier. I had no idea what the amplifier looked like, and when they mentioned the availability of a Gateway power supply and a Passport battery pack, I was quite puzzled. I knew then that this was going to be a desktop amplifier, and the proposition of an ALO desktop amplifier seemed great, especially after seeing what a high quality ALO amplifier like the Continental can do. Roughly two weeks later, a package from ALO arrived and there I was, unpacking the four boxes carrying ALO’s new desktop amp. My very first impression was “Wow, the amp is very small. Tiny, even”. I was on the way to the store back then, so I put the amplifier back into the boxes and took them to the store.
Arriving in the store, we had plenty of headphones to try the PanAm with. There were some visitors and we let them listen to the amplifier even before I did. We had a few Sony headphones, including the 70mm open-back MA-900 and the flagship Z1000. Also present was the FitEar 334 ToGo as well as the Aurisonics ASG-1 and AS-2 IEMs. We also had the Mr. Speakers Fostex and the LCD-2 headphone, among other cans that I don’t remember specifically what.
Tonally the PanAm reminds us of the ALO Continental midrange, with a little less treble and more bass body than the Continental. ALO certainly has got the tuning right with the PanAm. It’s a darker version of the Continental sound with more bass body. Or you can say it’s like the National upgraded with a clean tube sound.
You get enough warmth without being sacrificing clarity. Treble was smooth and sparkly yet unoffensive. The midrange is crystal clear and very clean, and you get a good low end body to balance the presentation. With the MA-900, SA-3000 and Z1000 Sonys, I really have nothing to complain and the pairings are superb. The tonality of the PanAm is extremely musical and added with the clean technicalities, it was hard not to enjoy the Sonys out of the PanAm.
I also enjoy it extremely with the FitEar 334 ToGo and the AS-2 Aurisonics (though with the ASG-1 I still prefer a less tubey midrange). Moko enjoyed it with the Mr. Speakers Fostex but I thought the Burson Soloist is the better pairing with the Mr. Speakers. Little differences in taste, but overall we enjoyed the amp with almost everything we plugged into it. This is certainly a wide genre-bandwith amp, and even a wide headphone-bandwith pairing if I can say it that way. Of course at that moment I’ve yet to try the amp with my Hifiman orthos or my Sennheisers, but I’ll add that on later.
Overall Design and Build
Though the overall build quality is great, if there is one thing almost everyone I know agree on is that the amplifier is built too small. It does look nice in a tight desk and doesn’t take up too much space. I also love the fact that there is a USB DAC built in to make it even more compact. It also makes for a compact yet high quality audio package when paired with a high quality IEM.
For those of us who’re used to bigger sized desktop amps, something the size of a WooAudio WA6 or a Burson Soloist is a pretty good minimum for size. That way, not only does the amp look powerful, we also have the weight of the amp to hold itself in place when we plugged a headphone in and out. Of course a Burson Soloist sized amp is not quite as convenient on a packed desk, and I also love the fact that the PanAm being battery powered, the only cable I need to use is a USB cable from my computer to the amp.
So, while initially I was also in the camp that demands the amp to be bigger, the more I use the PanAm, the more I enjoy the tiny packaging.
Other features I enjoy having is the precise length of the DC-DC power cable (from the Passport/Gateway to the PanAm). They also give you longer cables just in case, but the short precisely cut cable is a nice touch. Additionally you also get two tube covers made from metal. I think this is purely for aesthetics.
The LCD-2 Amplifier
The real magic happens when we paired the PanAm with the Audez’e LCD-2.
At first we only wanted to find out if the PanAm can drive the LCD-2 sufficiently, and it did. We thought that the amp had enough power to drive the LCD-2 with good impact, and we enjoyed the pairing as well. But the more we listened to it, the more we got hooked into the combination, and at one point Moko remarked that ALO must’ve used the LCD-2 as a reference to develop the PanAm because the pairing is incredibly good. I gave that a second thought, and not only do I agree, but I can’t remember the last time I listened to a pairing this impressive with the LCD-2.
It’s funny because the LCD-2 doesn’t seem to work well out of the high end tube amps (pure tubes, no solid state hybrids) like the Woo Audio WA5 and the others. So far I’ve always been recommending the LCD-2 with the Burson amps, especially the HA-160 line up as the best pairing I know for the LCD-2. Lieven also swears by the Violectric amps which is another solid state. I don’t know how the Vio compares to the Burson when it comes to driving the LCD-2, but compared to the PanAm, the synergy is clearly better with the PanAm. You get a much bigger soundstage with the PanAm, the midrange is fuller, smoother and less grainy, and the dynamics is also bigger with the PanAm. PRaT is a little better on the Burson, but that’s about it. Clearly this isn’t a function of power output alone, and I really don’t know how ALO made this amp to be such a brilliant amplifier for the LCD-2, but it does.
For the past two weeks I’ve been telling all my local friends to go audition the LCD-2 with the PanAm.
Another magic with the LCD-2 and PanAm pairing is the genre bandwith. I haven’t been keeping track of all the changes that Audez’e does with the LCD-2, but this last revision with the wooden housing (not bamboo) and the new style cable connector (introduced in the LCD-3), had just the right amount of everything. I tried just about every genre out there, and the pair just played good music. I was especially blown away listening to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine as I don’t remember any LCD-2 pairing giving me that sort of a bass texture I hear from the PanAm. But more than that we tried so many different songs from mine and Moko’s Ipods; from Jazz to Rock to what have you. The pair just played music.
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