If I believed in signs, I would say that it was divine mandate that I do this review. See, the last time I talked to Mike, he told me I needed to find a product that I passionately wanted to review. So, I started thinking to myself, “what do I love?” “If I could magic up a product on which to give my thoughts, what would that be?” I like budget gear, especially with a strong bang-for-the-buck factor. I love simple, space-saving solutions as I don’t have much space, myself. I also love gear designed and built in America, and on that note, I would really love to hear some more from ALO. I really liked the National, and want to hear more. Shortly after I had these thoughts (and by shortly, I mean within 24 hours), ALO started advertising their new USB powered, portable dac/amp, the Island. Mike was gracious enough to let me take this review, and here we are!
Anyway, who is the ALO Island for? There are two groups of people who should be interested in this: those looking for a high quality portable, and those looking for an inexpensive, space saving home unit. Let’s start with those who are looking for a portable unit. It is USB powered, and it comes with a nice, short USB mini-B cable. This makes it easy if you want to take your laptop to a coffee shop or a library to do some… whatever it is people do on their computers these days. I had concerns that, with its weight (four ounces), that it would slide around on the table at the slightest movement. The USB cable is flexible, however, and despite the light weight, the Island stays where it belongs. Like the National (and I am sure other ALO gear), it is made of anodized aluminum, so it feels like a sturdy piece of equipment, which one wants in a portable unit. I actually find the Island to be quite a looker. It definitely looks like it belongs to a higher price bracket than, say… Fiio’s gear. At the low gain setting, there is some channel imbalance at very low volume with the Sennheiser CX-300 (an IEM), but by the time you get to a comfortable listening level, the imbalance has gone; it should be fine for IEMs. Special mention should be made of the wonderful volume control the Island has. It is large, sits right on top of the unit, easy to turn and dead silent. I understand why some designers go for the digital volume control, but I like what ALO has here so much better.
It is with its use as a desktop dac/amp that I find a quirk with the Island. Instead of including a ¼ inch headphone out, it includes a balanced headphone out. ALO has a few reasons for including the balanced out, according to them: increased voltage swing, and a wider, more natural sound stage. My issue with this is twofold. While the voltage swing is true, I don’t actually find the sound more natural coming out of the balanced out. Mike, in his review of the RSA SR-71b, nailed the difference between balanced and single-ended output. What you gain in clarity and width with the balanced connection, you lose in depth and center image. With the increased separation of the left and right channels, it reminds you that you are listening to headphones and not immersed in the sound. That’s not a tradeoff I am willing to make.
The other thing occurred to me when I was talking to Christopher Lacour, the owner of Charleston Cable Company, (the guy I got my balanced cables from). When I told him that I didn’t find the cost of balanced to be worth benefits, he mentioned that he feels that to really get the best out of a balanced setup, it usually means at least $1000 investment (I should mention here that he has not heard the Island and was making no judgment on ALO, he was just sharing a general observation). That got me thinking, if someone is buying this for an all-in-one budget desktop setup, are they really going to want to spend the extra money on cables? Even ALO’s least expensive cable, and I am sure it is a fine cable, will almost double the cost of the Island itself. It seems like an odd choice to me. Of course, I could be wrong here. The balanced output might be a hit. People might prefer the balanced sound. The very fact the Island has it, might tempt people to give it a try. You could always get a ¼ to 1/8 inch adaptor for cheap if you want to use it single ended. I’m sure ALO knows what they are doing, as Mike mentioned to me, the balanced out does make it different from any other gear at this price point. I, personally, feel a ¼ inch headphone out would have been more convenient in this case than the balanced out.
Now, I want to get that rant out of the way before I talked about the sound, because I absolutely love how the Island sounds. It is basically what I expected. It leans toward the dark side with punchy, full bodied bass, and solidly full mids. The surprise here for me was the treble. Despite its darker sound, the treble still had enough presence to make it count. After the pitch blackness of the Neko, I was happy to hear that the upper frequencies were not forgotten entirely. It isn’t forward or harsh, but it isn’t completely overshadowed by the mids or bass. The island also brings good sound stage performance to the table. Its width is nice, but even more so, the sound has good depth to it. The instrument separation is pretty decent. Compared to something like the Fiio e7k, the Island earns its higher price and then some. While the Fiio is a bit less grainy (and does have nifty treble and bass controls), the Island has a much more refined sound, making the e7k sound really harsh by comparison. Add to that a sound stage with much more width and depth, a more detailed sound and punchier bass, not to mention the much nicer, giant volume pot and the Island does sound $200 better than the Fiio. If I could change one thing, I might wish for a slightly more forward midrange. Voices don’t always pop out as much as I would like, but this is a very minor issue that doesn’t detract from my love of this thing at all.
According to ALO, the Island has the same driving power as the International. That means orthos, with the exception of easy to drive ones like the LCDs or Mad Dogs, are a no go on this amp. It should be able to handle just about all dynamic drivers fine. It has a three level gain switch in the back of the unit, and I kept it on low gain the whole time, as I like having minute control over the volume. Personally, I think the Island pairs best with headphones of a more neutral color. The HD650, though a fine combo, is a little too dark for my taste with the Island (I can see Mike scoffing at the concept of “too dark). I wish I had the Soundmagic HP 100 handy because I have a feeling they would make a wonderful mate for this. Of the headphones I have been able to try; my favorite is by far the Mad Dogs 3.2 by Mr. Speakers. Although, admittedly, the depth on the Mag Dogs isn’t great, everything else is wonderful about these two together. The bass hits nice and hard. The Dogs bring the mid and upper midrange forward just a bit, giving those vocals that prominence that I was looking for, and the Island’s laid back treble smooths over the occasionally screechy high frequencies that the Mad Dog is guilty of. If I had heard this pairing a year-and-a-half ago, I might have been content to live with these two and walk away. Since I have been listing to the Island/Mad Dog combo, I’m not sure I have fired up my Crack/HD650 combo once. I’m not saying it is better sounding, but for someone like me who has to store his gear anytime he isn’t using it makes large, separate dacs and amps a bit of a hassle. The combination of great sound, small size, and the ability to plug and play with no other worries, makes this combo very easy to live with. I am chomping at the bit to try the Island with the Alpha Dogs, but I have a month-and-a-half or so before I get that privilege.
I should mention quickly that, for PC uses, you have to install the drivers from an (included) CD. Mac uses don’t have to worry about that. It is a small hassle for PC users like myself, and should be listed as a negative, but I can’t say a three minute, one time installation hampered my enjoyment one bit.
So, what do I love? I love ALO’s the Island. I completely understand why Mike loves their stuff. It is easy to love. It is well-built, smartly designed and, most importantly, it sounds great. If you are looking for an all-in-one dac/amp solution that sounds great, but won’t break the bank, you search can stop here. Heck, you may even end up enjoying the balanced connection. Who knows?
The Island can be bought directly from ALO or their dealers and it costs $299