ALO’s Island DAC/AMP: The Tiny Big One

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

ALO’s Island DAC/AMP: The Tiny Big One
5 (100%) 1 vote[s]

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57 Comments

  • Reply January 3, 2014

    dalethorn

    I got lost on that ‘balanced’ issue – are you saying you can just add a plug or small adapter of some kind and then it’s not balanced anymore?

    • Reply January 3, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      It has a 1/8 inch headphone out and a balanced headphone out. If using it at home with a pair of headphones with a 1/4 inch plug, you can use an adapter to plug it into the 1/8 out. That is what I was saying.

      • Reply January 3, 2014

        dalethorn

        What I was really concerned about was the sound, and how the little adapter would change the “balanced” sound into normal sound. I read the review twice, but couldn’t see how.

        • Reply January 3, 2014

          Dave Ulrich

          One output is balanced, the other is single ended.

  • Reply January 4, 2014

    BlueInGreen48

    If this is a DAC, why no discussion of what resolutions it plays?

    • Reply January 4, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      Apologies. It plays both 16 and 24 bit. The sampling rate goes up to 192.

  • Reply January 4, 2014

    Marc

    I wish ALO would’ve placed a line-out

  • Reply January 4, 2014

    rob

    I was actually thinking about picking this up and maybe a balanced cable for my UE TripleFi10.
    Anyone know if this can work with iDevices/Driod?

    • Reply January 4, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      I don’t think so. It draws its power from the USB port of a computer. I’m not sure if they would be able to power it. I know it wasn’t the Island’s intended use.

    • Reply January 5, 2014

      Ford

      I think the island might work with device compatibled with the international.
      For android phone, try USB audio player pro or USB audio recorder pro – It works with the international.

      Some also mentions that the international works with ipad (iphone and others can’t)

      • Reply January 5, 2014

        Dave Ulrich

        I believe the International is always powered by the battery pack, where the Island has no such feature. It’s worth a try, but it isn’t something I would count on.

  • Reply January 8, 2014

    Jamie Shairrick

    Hi Dave, thanks for the review! The Island looks swanky (and seems to sound so)! I’m curious if you (or anyone else) has listened to the Shure 1540’s through it? If so, what’s the pairing like?

    Cheers!

    • Reply January 10, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      I have not, sorry.

      • Reply January 17, 2014

        unkle69

        what’s the pairing with HD600?

        • Reply January 17, 2014

          Dave Ulrich

          I only used it with the HD650. I think it would actually pair a little better with HD600.

  • Reply January 10, 2014

    RainHeaven

    I would really like to hear how the ALO Island and the Alpha Dogs pair. I am planning to order Mrspeaker Alpha Dogs and wait 6 weeks but I’m having a hard time finding a DAC/Amp that people have used (very) positively with the Alpha Dogs for around $500 or less. If the Islander does a great job powering them, I will most likely buy it.

    • Reply January 10, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      I will make a post on it as soon as I here.

    • Reply July 1, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      I FINALLY got my Mad Dogs upgraded to the Alphas, and I can say it is a pretty terrific pairing. I was suppose to get my upgrade at the beginning of January, and I did get them till the beginning of July. I don’t think they were quite prepared for its popularity.

      • Reply July 2, 2014

        RainHeaven

        Thats good to hear 🙂 I already got a different setup months ago though :d Thanks anyways

        • Reply July 2, 2014

          Dave Ulrich

          Well, I promised I would update when I got them…
          Anyway, what did you end up going with?

          • Reply July 2, 2014

            RainHeaven

            I went over my budget and got a Schiit Bifrost Uber and Project Ember by Garage1217. I also now have an iBasso DX90 which I will use soon as a DAC as soon as they release the drivers. Someone said that it is supposedly as good as a Concero dac. One last thing to say, buying the Alpha Dogs is the single best purchase I have ever made. The transition to hifi sound amazes me.

            • Reply July 2, 2014

              Dave Ulrich

              Well, it does use the same DAC chip, but there is a lot more to the sound than simply the chip that is used. How do you like your setup?

              • Reply July 3, 2014

                RainHeaven

                Don’t really know what to say besides it being pretty awesome. I love the well balanced sound and soundstage depth in particular. Very engaging. Only problem would be the tube I am using in the amp which has a small humming sound. I can probably fix that by replacing the tube with a lower gain one.

                • Reply July 3, 2014

                  Dave Ulrich

                  Does the humming get louder as you turn the dial?

                  • Reply July 3, 2014

                    RainHeaven

                    Yes, but only if you go to extreme volumes. The highest volume I can tolerate is with the knob turned at slightly less than 1/4 rotation at 9 o’ clock (like a clock). The humming won’t be any louder without going to dangerously loud levels.

  • Reply January 27, 2014

    Jeffrey Coleman

    With the new slew of Android based DAPs, I’m wondering if this (or other USB DACs) would pair with something like Sony’s new ZX-1 player?

    Rock solid review once again…

  • Reply February 1, 2014

    dalethorn

    I got this one courtesy of Marcus in the Philippines. It’s ultra-clean to my ears, sounds like a solid-state amp (good detail), works well with the 8-ohm FAD Pandora VI and other 30-60 ohm headphones I have. I haven’t noted anything less than excellent in the bass department. The Windows driver install is frightening – takes about 15 minutes to install a driver on a Win7-64 box, copying and registering mega-files!

    • Reply February 1, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      I didn’t have that problem with the windows driver. I hope no one else did.

  • Reply February 4, 2014

    Sylvain Gaudet

    Is it overkill amp for sensitive IEM like Grado GR10 (32ohm)?

    • Reply February 4, 2014

      dalethorn

      It’s a very nice amp with great sound, and very small. It should work well using the gain set to ‘Low’.

      • Reply February 5, 2014

        Sylvain Gaudet

        Thanks for responding! I asked because I’m little concern by background noises and hiss. I want something with a clean sound. The other dac/amp I was looking it’s the JDSLABS C5D who seems to have a very clean background with sensitive IEM. But this little Island do have a wonderful volume control on top! Decisions, decisions…

        • Reply February 5, 2014

          dalethorn

          In a more ideal world, our amps would have better gain controls, not just low, medium and high. Adding an attenuator in-line to a signal that’s already amplified would not be my first choice. Have you done any research on IEM’s and headphone amps for the general question about the amount of gain they have? There are reviews of specific amps here and a lot of user experience, but it seems to me there needs to be guidelines for IEM’s in general – what kinds of choices exist for high quality but low gain amplification. Then again, there are a lot of very good IEMs for low prices, so maybe another one, like the FAD models would be good.

  • Reply March 9, 2014

    oldandcurious

    For mostly classical music, how does this compare with the DAC section of the X3? The X5? For about the same price, is the Island a better “investment” than the O2+ODAC? I use the Senn 558 at home and am still undecided if it is going to be a 600 or the 650 that I intend to settle with. – Maraming salamat.

    • Reply March 9, 2014

      dalethorn

      I had the Island for about a month and then swapped it out. I thought it sounded very clean, like I would expect of the O2 / ODAC (I had the O2 only). But for the 600/650 and choosing between these, I’d pick the item with the most power output.

      • Reply March 9, 2014

        oldandcurious

        I will keep this in mind. Thank you.

        Perhaps I need to brave the city traffic to try both. So far, I just read and read and read, then trust my intuition after my wallet says, “okay, you may.” 🙂

        • Reply March 9, 2014

          dalethorn

          Trying out for sound quality is good, just make sure you have a lot of overhead for dynamics, since the 650 isn’t the most efficient headphone.

          • Reply March 10, 2014

            oldandcurious

            Thank you once more for this “signpost.”

    • Reply March 9, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      Well, I like the Island much more than the O2 and ODAC, but it wasn’t the best pairing with the HD650. I actually liked the HD650 straight out of the Fiio e7k better than either of those.

      • Reply March 9, 2014

        oldandcurious

        Thank you Dave. Your sharing helps me in which order to pay for this hobby. I should have either of the HD600 or the HD650 by the end of this month and I’ll take it from there.

  • Reply April 7, 2014

    Juan David

    hi, so in this price range, what would you recommend for the hd600/650? or, I like the P7 sound signature, what would be a nice step up open back headphone with a similar sound sig?

    • Reply April 7, 2014

      dalethorn

      Are you asking about an amp or a headphone?

      • Reply April 7, 2014

        Juan David

        headphone and it’s respective recommended amp if necessary

        • Reply April 7, 2014

          dalethorn

          I had the ALO Island for a few weeks and now it’s with a new owner. I would put it in the same general class as other small DAC/amps like the HRT Microstreamer or Audioengine D3 or Dragonfly etc. I can’t describe the critical details like this review does, but I don’t see any problem using the HD650 with it. I also don’t see an open back headphone to compete with the HD650. So if you had the Island and HD650, you will find that the various quality of your recordings will make 10 times more difference than you could get trying for a more precise match of headphone to amp. In my opinion, the critical matching of amp to headphone occurs under some of the following conditions: When the headphone has a loose bass like the B&W P7, when you’re choosing a tube(valve) amp, when the headphone is bright, when the headphone impedance is extremely high or low (or very irregular), when using one of the big power-hungry planars, when using a very highly detailed headphone that’s also a little bright like the Senn HD800.

          • Reply April 7, 2014

            Juan David

            what do you mean when you say
            “I also don’t see an open back headphone to compete with the HD650”
            you mean that at that price range, is the best open-back?

            • Reply April 7, 2014

              dalethorn

              Open-back headphones are uncommon these days, so finding an open headphone as good as the HD650 for what it sells for (sometimes at a discount) – I don’t know of any. There may be some open headphones near that price, but if they were anywhere near as good I would know about them. If you’re looking for open just because of superior soundstage, I think the better closed headphones like the Mad Dog are nearly as good in that respect, but give a better overall musical experience. Those planar drivers are wonderful.

              • Reply April 7, 2014

                Juan David

                I’m planning to use them mainly to listen to pink floyd, led zeppelin and the likes but not limited to those genres as I listen to edm and hip hop, but for my closed back headphones I’m very happy with the p7(I can use them for my more bass-heavy music aswell), and I find the mad dogs plainly ugly 😛 so between lets say, beyerdynamic dt880/dt990, akg q/k701-712 pro and hifiman he500 and sennheiser hd600/650 would be better suited for what I’m looking for?

                • Reply April 7, 2014

                  dalethorn

                  The only person I know who can put all of those together to make sense of them compared to each other is Edd of NobleHiFi. It’s not a discussion site, but he explains those headphones very well and I would read as much as possible there first thing.

                  • Reply April 7, 2014

                    Juan David

                    But your personal input would be the… hd650 I asume?

                    • April 7, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      It’s a safe recommendation and a headphone I have owned and enjoyed, and have a lot of respect for. I have had a number of Beyerdynamics, but not the DT880 or 990 or the AKGs, so to have a fair comparison of those you should check with Edd. Or get the Alpha Dog, which is what I ordered (31 days ago, not here yet). Look at this too: Take the top 50 headphones and top 50 amps, and you get 2500 different combinations of sound – so you have to decide where to draw the line. And if you really want to know about those other headphones there is no shortcut – you have to do the reading.

                    • April 7, 2014

                      Dave Ulrich

                      I didn’t care for the Island/HD650 pairing as much as I did the
                      Island/Mad Dog combo. They do go really well together. I guess it
                      depends on how much looks matter. I have read that the Alpha Dogs pair
                      well with it also.

                • Reply April 7, 2014

                  L.

                  I’ve had them all but I would say HD650 or DT990 if you like the V-Shape and happy treble. Best with a tube amp

                  • Reply April 19, 2014

                    George Lai

                    Lieven, I know you love the tube Crack with the HD650. The Geek Out 1000 with the HD650 apparently sounds eerily similar but I’ve never heard (or had) Crack! Now if you didn’t live so far away I’d send you the Geek to try.

                    • April 19, 2014

                      L.

                      Maybe I’ll get to listen to the Geek soon

                    • April 19, 2014

                      George Lai

                      It’ll be interesting when you compare it to the Herus you have.

            • Reply April 7, 2014

              L.

              In general people should first decide on open vs closed headphones and then start comparing. you can’t compare a convertible to a normal car cause it’s just too different. Once you know which one you want, then you can start comparing open or closed units

  • Reply June 24, 2014

    Rajes

    Just wondering, can I use LCD with Island using balanced output just to swing more power to it?

    • Reply June 24, 2014

      Dave Ulrich

      Sure you can use the LCD balanced with the Island. The LCD is nice with it. However, at 50 ohms, I don’t think the balanced actually outputs more power. I think it is only with higher impedance headphones. On ALOaudio.com, it lists the output at 50 ohms as the same for both balanced and unbalanced.

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