Portable Desktop: ALO The PanAm

alo_audio_panam_19

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.

 

Initial Impressions

Arriving in the store, we had plenty of headphones to try the ALO 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.

 

Continue to the next page…

  • bm885

    how does it compare to matrix m-stage amplifier+dac combo?the price should be roughly equal…i have akg k701 beyer dt 990 250 ohm

  • George Lai

    Hi Mike, can you clarify this for me?
    1. On photo 7 the Passport Output is connected to the Pan Am but on photo 9 the Passport 12V is connected to the 12V on the Pan Am. Can you tell me more.
    2. Is the Pan Am running off the supplied wall wart really that bad compared to off the Passport?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      1. It works either way
      2. YES

      Regarding #2 if you don’t want to get the Passport, try looking into their battery powered portables like Continental V3 and International. A Continental V3 review is coming up.

      • George Lai

        Hi, I’m not familiar with electrical plugs, jacks, etc but how does it work either or both ways? I’ll take your word for it though! As for Q2, I know I’ve been bugging you regarding the Continental, National, etc to go with my CLAS (my National is on the way), but I think my reservation with the Continental is that the tube is what one website called “a hearing aid valve!” so if I’m going to dive into tubes, a full sized one like the Pan Am seems better value when it’s practically the same price as the Continental. Then when I read your review it would seem that the Passport is a must so that messes up the cost comparison. Or maybe I should just pay Bottlehead to assemble the Crack for me. Decisions decisions.

        • http://www.facebook.com/dave.ulrich.7 Dave Ulrich

          In case you didn’t see it, on ALO’s Pan Am page, there is a tab labeled “buy together” and it gives you the option of buying the Pan Am and Passport together for $60 off the passport. Not a HUGE deal, I know, but thought I would point it out.

          • George Lai

            Hi Dave. Here in Singapore we buy from the dealer and there’s no such discount. Thanks for pointing it out though

            • http://www.facebook.com/dave.ulrich.7 Dave Ulrich

              Boo!

  • Joseph

    Hi Mike,

    Do you think buying an alternative battery pack like the Anker 14400 mAh would be a suitable replacement to the Passport? It’s cheaper and if the only issue is a source external to an outlet, I figure this would suit my budget situation. Thanks in advance.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      It may work.. I really haven’t tried that but it may work, yes.

    • elubis

      Hi Joseph – how is the Anker 14400 mAh battery pack performance after a year? Is the signal still clean and strong? Considering since i would save $80 by buying this versus the Passport.

  • Eli Segal

    If ill never move the PanAm from my desk, should I still opt for the passport. Just for the improved sound?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Yes

    • http://ohm-image.net/ ohm image

      The Passport is a phenomenal item. Being able to take your amp on the road is one of the best reasons for choosing the Pan Am. I consider it an essential upgrade.

      Also, because it uses batteries, its signal is cleaner than wall power.

  • Eli Segal

    Would the PanAm be a major upgrade in sound compare to my SR-71A+DAC for the HD650 (Yes, now I have the HD650 too, I guess you can’t read this site and not buy one)

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Maybe not so much, the 71A is a good amp. More of a different flavor, the PanAm has a nice midrange from the tube. The 71A stronger in bass.

      • Eli Segal

        So good that it’s comparable to a desktop amp? Nice!
        What would be a good DAC for this setup? right now I have the Saffire Pro 24 sound card

        Thanks!

        • Eli Segal

          Right now I’m thinking something along the line of HRT or dacport lx? What do you think?

          • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

            Both are good depending on what you like. The HRT warmer, the Dacport cleaner.

  • Joseph

    Has anyone tried pairing the Pan Am with the Beyer DT990/600s? I’m debating between the Pan Am and WA7 at this point for a very long term investment and most likely my last amp/dac.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Sorry no i haven’t

    • http://ohm-image.net/ ohm image

      I have the DT880/600. The Pan Am is one of the most powerful small desktop amps out there. It has beautiful balance, great impedance matching for headphones, and modular.

      I’ve used it with hard to drive headphones like the LCD-2, too. NO problems at all.

  • Black3020

    Hi Mike,

    You recommended me the combination RSA Intruder+V-Moda M-100 for alternative rock and metal. Can you recommend me other headphone amps (in the same price range) with a signature similar to the RSA, but available in Europe? And I wanted also to ask you if you think the Burson Soloist is better than RSA Intruder for this genres.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi,
      AHA audio can be an alternative but not quite the same.

      The Soloist is similar to the RSA Intruder yes.

  • BattousaiX26

    Hi Mike i just want to ask what is the benefit of getting gateway if you already have the pan am+passport? Will there be an improvement in sound?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      There is no need for the gateway then.

  • Minh Hoang Nguyen

    Hi Mike, does the Theorem 720 DAC pair well with The Panam. Now i use ATH AD2000X , HD580 and HD650. Thanks Mike.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      The Theorem DAC is very good. I tend to use it as my desktop dac lately for all of my amplifiers. You’re safe with that setup

  • Minh Hoang Nguyen

    Hi Mike and Lieven, now i have to choose ALO The Panam or Schiit Lyr for my HD580 and ATH-AD2000x. For source, I use Theorem 720 DAC . Which amp have benefits from rolling tubes and the sound quality better with my headphone. Thank you !

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Aren’t you happy with the Theorem amplifier? I would choose the Alo amp.

      • Minh Hoang Nguyen

        The Theorem amplifier is good, it’s clean and have a fantastic high that pair well with classical. But i don’t like midrange of it. I think with tubes amplifier, midrange will be better and more sweet. Do you think so?. Thanks Lieven, i will buy the Panam next week .!

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Not really, depends on the tubes but I do find the theorem and pan am mid range similar

  • Pingback: Head-fi clearance - Daps, Amps & IEM

  • Pingback: Head-fi clearance - Daps, Amps & IEM - www.hardwarezone.com.sg

  • KhoaNguyen

    Greetings to Mike, Lieven or Dave ;)
    I recently bought the Pan Am + Mullard cv4010 as well. It has been a great purchase for me, very powerful, musical and beautiful with the tubes glowing <3
    I am currently using the Grado Ps500 (blind buy last year). The amp did smoothen the treble of the Grado somehow, espically after the tubes burning period for about 20hs now. However my biggest concern is that the soundstage is not improving that much. I think this would be due to the Grado not responding well with amping becuz in the past i used it with the E17 and I thought, honestly, no change at all except louder sound. I used it with G-cush, the sound is open and separation on width is fine, but depth is really lacking. This appeared especially when I heard the saxophone sound, as if it is played in the same layer with the vocal. So the soundstage is quite unaccurate for me, very limited depth.
    You said you like the Pan Am with the HD650, could you describe it with more detail. Because I also heard that HD650 scales very well. And finally, is the cable upgrade very crucial for the hd650?
    Thank you very much! Really like reading your posts. Pictures were fabulous ;)