The Sequel: ALO Audio The National

alo_national_06
Day to Day Usage

The National itself is a pretty straightforward amp in a traditional Ipod-footprint enclosure. The only function you’ll get aside from the audio amplifier is the gain switch. Following the recent blog post I make, I keep the National mostly at low gain. It handles all of the dynamics headphone I tried it with just fine at low gain. From my Shure SE215 IEM, The Fidelio L1 Philips, the Superlux HD661, the new open back Shure SRH1440 and SRH1840, the Alessandro MS-Pro, the Hifiman HE-300, and Sennheiser’s HD580.

I tried driving the Hifiman HE-500 with the National and got to a pretty loud volume but it felt like the amp was slightly running out of breath. Pairing the National with the HE-400 was simply awesome and one of the best amp I’ve heard the HE-400 out of. I didn’t have a chance to try it with the LCD-2, but looking at the HE-400 – National pairing, I think the LCD-2 should not be a problem.

For day to day usage I sort of miss the slimmer form factor of the ALO Rx or the JDSLabs C421, and even more the USB recharging feature of the JDSLabs C421 (the National charges through a 12V adapter, supplied from ALO). But the bottom line as with any amplifier is in the sound, and I enjoy the National tremendously.

End Words

When I reviewed the Apex Peak and the Arete, I wrote that the hybrid tube Peak has a cleaner sound and is more impressive to listen to, but the Arete has a more balanced sound signature and would cover a wider variety of recordings for day to day listening. The case with the Continental and the National exactly mimics the Peak-Arete. As I’ve mentioned earlier the Continental still sounds cleaner, clearer, and more spacious. With the right recording, the Continental holds the bigger wow factor. However, on day to day listening, I think the weightier bass body of the National makes the biggest difference in my impression. The slightly darker tone, the full midrange and the good soundstage performance makes the National one of the best all rounder amps I’ve reviewed.

The National doesn’t come with a lot of flashy features. It’s fairly understated and the only “feature” you get aside from the audio amplifier is a gain level switch. It’s doesn’t have the flair of a flagship product, nor does it have a hype-grabbing technology behind it. It’s just a simple solid state amp done right, priced at what I believe to be a good mid-level price amp. But like all things done right, I love using the National day in and day out. The slightly smaller enclosure size may not look like a big deal in the pictures, but it’s quite significant when you handle it personally. It’s not a star in technicalities, but the midrange and the bass I’m hearing out of it makes music very enjoyable and that’s the number one reason I’m enjoying every bit of the National.

 

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  • Bookaboo

    Hi mike, between the c421 and the national, which would pair up better with the ms pro and hd600.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      National all the way! :D

      I love the bass impact on the National and I think the fuller lows help the MS-Pro tremendously. The HD600 would do just well with either, but again I love the bass impact of the National

  • Justin Q.

    How does the DACport feeding 2Stepdance (sonically similar to stepdance) compare against the DACport feeding Leckerton UHA6s MKII or the The National?

    Stuff I’m looking out for include soundstage, details and non-fatigue

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Justin,
      So the comparison here is basically the 2Stepdance vs the Leckerton UHA6s/National?

      I’ve never heard the Leckerton, so I’ll only be able to comment on the other two. The 2Stepdance is brighter and leaner, the National is darker and fuller on the lows. Soundstage should be more spacious on the 2Stepdance. Detail about the same, but the brighter presentation usually helps you hear more detail. Non-fatigue, should be more with the National.

  • http://www.facebook.com/imackler Isaiah Mackler

    Hey Mike,
    Does either the National or MK3 supersede the AHA-120 in your recommendation? I loved the AHA-120 sound sig but stupidly sold it. I’d like to replace it or find something else better. What solid state portable/transportable gets your current recommendation w/ the HD650? (Source: Line out of Ipod classic or HRT Music Streamer II (or maybe II+).
    Thanks, as always.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Isaiah,
      Right now I love the HD650 with either the Matrix Mini Portable or the National. HOWEVER, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better than the AHA-120. I think the AHA-120 is one of the better portable amps around and it’ll be tough to find something that betters it. You can give other amps a try, but I think it’s mostly going to be a different flavor kind of thing.

      • http://www.facebook.com/imackler Isaiah Mackler

        Thanks, as always, for the response, Mike! I was afraid you were going to say that! It’s tempting to try the National at nearly $200 less but the AHA-120 just owned the HD650. Since letting the AHA-120 go, I’ve been trying to find an amp (even a desktop) in that price range that does as good a job with the HD650. Is it fair to say that while the National sounds amazing with the HD650, in a dark, luscious, smooth kind of way, the AHA-120 would get the recommendation for being technically better and bringing out more of the HD650 potential? Or is it less about technical and more about flavor?

        (In other news, I’ve ordered the Yulong A800 Mini; have you heard it? Scary ordering something with 0 reviews (at least in English!)

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          “Is it fair to say that while the National sounds amazing with the HD650, in a dark, luscious, smooth kind of way, the AHA-120 would get the recommendation for being technically better and bringing out more of the HD650 potential? Or is it less about technical and more about flavor?”

          The AHA-120 is technically more refined, cleaner.. but I think at this level (portable amps) you really are not looking for technical superiority since the difference is quite small overall between different portable amps. I would choose more based on sound signature, bass impact, features, size.

          One of the best portable amps for the HD650, I think is still the RSA SR-71A. But no internal charging so it’s a bit of a pain to use it for daily use. Plus the battery is 2x9Vs, not exactly cheap to buy new pair every two days.

          Yulong A800 Mini: I don’t know, looks like the U100 without the DAC?

          • http://www.facebook.com/imackler Isaiah Mackler

            Thanks again!

            That knowledge that at this level its more a difference of sound signature is really useful. My other amps were the Asgard, P4 (Stock opamps), O2 and E9, and I thought the AHA-120 all handily beat them…It was just kind of addicting. At that time, it seemed ridiculous to pay that much for a portable amp though… Doh!

            I think I’m only now really figuring out what I like about amps. The Asgard was fine with the HD650 but seemed to lose definition and clarity with it (I know some people love the combo); the E9 had raw power but not really finesse; the O2 is clean but sterile. The AHA-120 had some nice bass slam, revealed how good of a sound stage the HD650 has but was still basically neutral. It was a good general that told the HD650 where to go, up to its natural abilities. I think that is what I’m looking for most: an amp that pushes the HD650 where it knows it can go. I’m looking for one that can slap it around if it needs to.

            Too bad the SR-71A needs replaceable batteries! Does the casing slide off or do you have to unscrew it each time? The National still sounds tempting too… Any other amps that you think really “own” the HD650? I’d say I tend toward neutral but really I like the HD650 more than the HD600…

            (The A800 is more powerful as a standalone, class A amp. It has the same casing as the U100 in case someone wants to use the U100 Dac. I’m expecting basically neutral, which from reading seems to be the Yulong house sound. Kind of hoping for a budget, desktop AHA-120! Silly me…)

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=692862021 Nick Tam

              Why not consider the continental or govibe?

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              The SR-71A you have to unscrew it each time that’s why it’s such a big pain.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dr.hilerio D.r. Hilerio

    How does The National compare to the Triad Audio L3?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think L3′s technicalities, especially the dynamics are very good and much better than the National.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dr.hilerio D.r. Hilerio

        Thank you, Mike. I figured that given the substantial price gap. R.I.P. my wallet!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      SHouldn’t be comparing the two, to be honest. L3 is in a different league.

  • http://www.facebook.com/imackler Isaiah Mackler

    I’ve been thinking about the National from your review. Would this be great with the HD600 and RE272? Headphones that are maybe just a little too bass light and a little too analytical… I’m king of rebuilding from ground up (with an ipod classic and line out). I like both of those a ton. W/ the National, seems like it could be a killer combo…

  • http://www.facebook.com/lesegal Eli Segal

    Do you know the weight of this amp? I can’t find it, thanks

    • http://www.facebook.com/lesegal Eli Segal

      If anyone is interested the weight according to ALO is 260 gr

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  • waxdoctor

    Hey! Is the National a class A amp?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Nope. Most portable amps aren’t Class A due to battery life, I think.

      • waxdoctor

        Thank you Mike! So I guess it is an Class AB – as it gets warm from time to time! And sorry if my comments are sometimes rookie-ish :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/kwa.zhiying Kwa Zhi Ying

    Excellent and concise review Mike! Currently I have a Cowon X7 and a pair of Shure SE535s, would you recommend the National for this purpose? Or what would be a strong competitor at this price point? Also, how does the National compare with the Rx MK2, is it worth the extra? I would like a little bass impact and treble extension to complement my SE535s.

  • Jethro Lubas

    Excuse me sir, Does this Portable Amplifier pair well with the Sennheiser HD700.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      It should be good, the HD700 is not that hard to drive. What you need is a high quality source.

      • Jethro Lubas

        Thank you sir! BUT, Between this, The Asus Essence One, and the E17|E9k, what do you think will sound the best? Can The FiiO E17 Drive this alone? Is The E17 a Good DAC?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Definitely the PanAm

          • Jethro Lubas

            I see. Thank you sir. That saves me the trouble that finding a 6.3mm to 3.5mm adapter as well. Will the Pan Am sound good without the Passport and the Gateway?

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              I’d recommend you going with the Passport, otherwise it’s not going to be as good.

  • Prasetya Nugraha

    Hello Mike,

    I’m thinking of buying the National for my Dacport LX + HD650, Do you think it will be a good pairing? Or do you have another portable amp in mind? Thanks in advance. :)

    • Trent_D

      It is a good pairing, although, can I ask, is there a reason you are looking for a portable amp for the HD650/LX?

      • Prasetya Nugraha

        I also own a Yuin PK1, so I thought it would be nice to own a high quality portable amp so I can listen to them on the go, and HD650 when I’m at home. My Fiio E11 doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with HD650/LX.

        Do you think it would be better for me to invest in a desktop amp instead? I was thinking of pulling the trigger on a Bottlehead Crack, but I want something that’s more practical/portable so I can bring my gear to the office and meetup.

        Oh, Thanks for the reply Trent. :)

        • Trent_D

          You have an office where you can use the HD650? Well, the Crack is wonderful with the HD650, and that is the way I would go. It still offers the best bang for the buck out there with the HD650 (although the La Figaro 336c comes close). Do you have a portable player you use when on the go?

          • Prasetya Nugraha

            Yeah, I got a room all to myself, so no coworker will be bothered by sound leaking from the HD650. :)

            I use an iPod Touch 5G as my DAP.

            On an unrelated note, I’ve read a review saying that if we use a lightning to 30 pin converter to connect LOD cable, the line out will be provided by the DAC inside the converter.

            The review also mentions the DAC quality inside lightning to 30 pin converter is the same as the one inside iPod Touch, What do you think Trent? Should I use a converter + LOD or just double amp the iPod?

            • Trent_D

              Well, I wouldn’t double amp it. With an IEM though, I wouldn’t bother with connecting an amp. I would just use the ipod’s amp. Where is this review? I haven’t keep up on the new ipods, but the LOD usually just takes the already converted analog signal, and sends it out bypassing the internal amp. So, if you wanted to use an external amp, that is how you would do it.

              • Prasetya Nugraha

                The 5th generation iPod uses lightning instead of 30 pin. Now the problem is, lightning is an all digital port, so the only way we can get an analog line out is from the DAC inside the lightning to 30 pin converter. Which might explain why its quite pricey, (around 40-50$ in Indonesia)

                Here’s the link explaining this matter:
                http://www.head-fi.org/t/635800/impression-apple-nano-7g-lightning-to-30pin-adapter

                It’s actually an impression for iPod Nano 7th gen, but since they both use the same lightning port, I think it applies to iPod touch as well.

                • Trent_D

                  I did not know. Thanks for that. In regards to your original question, the National is very nice with the HD650, however, the HD650 really opens up with a nice OTL tube amp, like the Crack. Another amp you might want to look at, if you are in the market for an office rig, is the O2. It retails for around $150 pre-built, and you can build one yourself for half that. Of course, the O2 is a fair controversial, love-it-or-hate-it amp. Mike and L hated it, and I loved it.

                  • Prasetya Nugraha

                    Thanks for the advice Trent, I might try the O2 for stationary listening purposes, since it’s way cheaper compared to prebuilt Crack. :)

                    Oh, boy, this hobby is really putting a big hole in my wallet. :D

                    • Trent_D

                      You have no idea. Although, one last plug for the Crack. It isn’t hard to build. If I could do it…

                    • Prasetya Nugraha

                      if I could find a cheap 2nd hand Crack on the local forums I will definitely buy it, but for now, I really want the National. :)

                    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                      Yes the National is pretty good for the HD650 and Yuin.

                    • Long Tran

                      I have the same setup in my office :) Dacport LX + The National + HD650 with ALO cable .. It’s a good setup, I’m sure :D And it’s just small enough to not cause curiosity.
                      I also own the continental V2. But because of its short battery life, I just use it at home :D

                • dalethorn

                  My ipod touch 5g with the Lightning adapter plus LOD cable sounds about the same as the 4g ipod touch with LOD cable, going to the same amps. At least in several comparisons I don’t hear a distinct difference. I’ve tried the adapter attached to the short cable that’s $40, and the adapter with Lightning plug right on the adapter (no cable) that’s $30, and don’t hear any difference between either of those. There probably is a difference, but the signal they convert and pass on probably doesn’t have enough resolution to make it obvious.

                  • Prasetya Nugraha

                    Thanks for the information Dale, have you tried comparing the output quality of lightning adapter versus iPod headphone out? I don’t want to spend 50$ if the difference is negligible.

                    • dalethorn

                      It’s the same as comparing the headphone out of the 4g to the LOD out. We know that the LOD (and hence the Lightning adapter) bypasses the i-device volume control. But here is where it gets interesting: Apple insists that the LOD analog out sounds the same (and is the same) as the headphone out. I haven’t been able to do a critical comparison between them because the headphone out would have to be at maximum volume. But as much as I did listen, I didn’t hear a significant difference. Certainly the headphone out on the ipod has a digital attenuator, and I could guess that when volume is at maximum, there is no attenuation and zero effect on the sound. And if that’s true of the ipod touch and iphone, I don’t know about the ipod classics. Some of those have a higher output impedance than the ipod touch etc. And even though the LOD of the touch sounds the same more or less as the headphone out, I don’t know whether they also have the same output impedance.

                    • Prasetya Nugraha

                      I see, thanks for sharing your experience Dale.

                      On my iPod Touch 4G, I feel that by using LOD cable from Fiio (L3), the sounds are clearer, I don’t know if it just a placebo or my ears deceiving me, but compared to iPod touch 4G headphone out I can hear a difference in clarity.

                      I guess I should go buy the adapter and try it for myself to see if there really is a difference.

                    • dalethorn

                      Yes, I think it will be clearer – the volume should be controlled from only one point.

                    • dalethorn

                      One test that’s fun to do if it’s not too clumsy is to plug the 30-pin end of a short FiiO LOD cable into the ipod touch, and the mini-plug end directly into the input jack of a headphone that has a detachable cable with 3.5 mm termination. I thought when I did that the sound had a greater clarity than the usual plug-in using the headphone’s regular cable. And I’m sure what I was hearing was the effect of eliminating the long headphone cable. Which suggests that headphone re-cabling might be good to do in some cases.

                    • Prasetya Nugraha

                      Interesting idea Dale, unfortunately I don’t have any headphone that has a detachable cable, so I won’t be able to do that test.

                      Right now I’m focusing on my source and amplification first before diving into the world of cables. After all, Garbage In Garbage Out right? :)

  • Alex

    Should I change my Arrow 3G to National for opera and classical music? I like forward vocal and natural musical sound. Phones: HD565 Ovation (150ohm). Thanks!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      ALO Continental

      • Alex

        Ooh, I see. 529$ impressive price… that’s mean step up for me cost $$$ :( a lot of $$$ :)

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Yeah unfortunately.