Other Headphone Pairings
Afterwards I wrote an early impression on Facebook about the PanAm, mainly praising its performance with the LCD-2. Some readers started asking about an impression with the Hifiman Orthos and the Sennheiser HD800, and I realized I have been too excited about the LCD-2 pairing that I have completely ignored the Hifimans. A few days later I had some free time and I tried the Hifiman HE-500 and the HD800 on the PanAm. I wasn’t so impressed. The sound is quite clear and if you’re listening mostly to instruments with no need of powerful bass impact, it would do. Once I start listening to Rock and Electronics or even Classical, I feel a big lack of bass weight and that the sound is mostly treble and mids. The Burson Soloist is clearly the amp for the Hifimans, and the difference is not even close.
With the HD800, though the sound was quite nice, I’m still not getting the wow I know I get with some other tube amps. Of course my reference HD800 amplifier is mostly the big tube amps like the Woo WA5, Manley or the Zana, but I also enjoy the HD800 more from an OTL Bottlehead Crack than I do the PanAm. Weird, right? Of course the Crack doesn’t work with heavier headphones like the LCD-2. I just felt that although the sound is incredibly clean and clear, the PanAm doesn’t quite have enough soundstage to fill in the HD800’s huge space. It has to be OTL, I guess. Or something else high end.
Good news is that I enjoy the PanAm with the HD650 and the HD580 very much, so that doesn’t rule out the Sennheisers. The PanAm paired with the HD650 for instance is so enjoyable it’s taking over the role of my Bottlehead Crack as the HD650 amp. Likewise the Alessandro MS-Pro was very nice out of the PanAm, so you Grado owners should try this amp out. The tonality of the PanAm adds a good low end and mid body while relaxes the treble of the MS-Pro, so I would imagine this amp to work well with Grados and even Audio Technica AD-Series as well. Not to mention the clean, clear and grainless sound you get. Plus the sweet mids. This is just about as good as a sub $1,000 amplifier gets, and even comparable to some ~$1,500 amps out there.
The PanAm comes with its own built-in DAC that I don’t even know based on what chip. ALO’s website only said “Wolfson Digital to Analog Converter Chip”. WM8740/41 perhaps? It supports 24/96 out of USB so it’s all good. I sort of wish it does 24/88.2 since 88.2’s been my favorite sample rate for quite some time now, but no biggie, 24/96 is good enough.
After some early impressions, I tell people that the sound of the built in DAC was very enjoyable and musical, and even though it being a built-in DAC unit I don’t really see the need to upgrade the DAC section since the sound is very good already. For all I care, if the sound is good, why should I be bothered about the numbers and the comparisons? But of course it doesn’t work that way, and being a reviewer I am required to throw in a comparison. So I took out the Centrance Dacport LX which have been my favorite $300 DAC for quite sometime now and I compared it with the PanAm built-in DAC.
The comparison re-assured me that I really won’t bother upgrading the PanAm’s built in DAC. The Dacport is a little less grainy (mostly on the lows), but that’s about it. I enjoy the weightier lows and the slightly less upfront treble I get from the PanAm’s DAC more, where the Dacport now sounds a little too upfront in the treble and lacking low end weight. Soundstage width is mostly the same with the Dacport being a little more airy, but the PanAm has a superior depth which I always prefer. I think the fact that the PanAm DAC is powered by the PassPort battery adds a lot to the performance of the built-in DAC, because it hasn’t been easy to find a DAC that betters the Dacport LX.
Power Supply Comparisons
The best of all the three available power supplies is clearly the Passport battery pack. For this reason, I advise you to go straight for the Passport and not even worry about getting the Gateway. You get a bigger and cleaner sound than you do out of the Gateway PSU. The Passport works even while being charged, so I don’t think you’ll be needing the Gateway even if you listen to the amp 24/7. There is some concern about battery life, and indeed that is a valid one, but if you want the best sound then the Passport is the one you should get.
Second best is the Gateway PSU unit which is AC-powered, but a more proper power supply than the standard switching wallwart. Last and should only be used for charging, is the switching wallwart.
I received two extra pair of tubes from ALO so I’ll be adding tube rolling impressions.
The stock tube is a Chinese 6J1 tube. A good all rounder with good mids and lows and soundstage. I really have nothing to complaint with the stock tube. Tonality is great, just not as clean and as wide as the other tubes.
The NOS 6AK5W Siemens tube ($29 in a pair) gives a more forward and sweeter midrange, an even cleaner sound than the stock and an even bigger soundstage than stock. With some headphones like the Aurisonics ASG-1, I didn’t like the extra midrange which is a little too tubey. Also PRaT is a tad less than the stock tube. With the LCD-2 which has no problem producing PRaT, this tube simply rocks, and the more forward midrange is just perfect for the LCD-2.
Then there is a third set of tube which I call the “bass tube”. This is the NOS 6J1-P EV Russian Military tubes ($9/pair). I call this the bass tube as it gives me an extremely detailed bass section with powerful impact, more than the other two. Midrange is less full compared to the stock and Siemens. The sound however is bigger and cleaner than stock, though again not as big as the Siemens’ soundstage. This is my favorite tube but that’s just because I love high quality bass more than anything else.
Note: There was a question about using the PanAm with the bass tube to aid the K550’s bass. It doesn’t add bass quantity, rather this tube improves the texture, articulation and impact.
I think for most people, the NOS 6AK5W Siemens tube is probably the recommended upgrade. If you’re like me, go with the NOS 6J1-P EV Russian Military tubes. Brilliant bass out of a tube amp.
Along with the tubes I also received three different cables designed to hook up your source to the PanAm. The first is a long mini to mini cable with a angled jack on one end. This is what I use when I’m using my Tera Player or CLAS, or some other audiophile players. The second one is a USB cable which I use for connecting my computer to the PanAm’s USB DAC. The third is an Ipod dock to a mini jack, which frankly I never use since the Ipod DAC quality simply don’t cut it these days.
The cables are built very well, and the length is perfect for these applications. The cotton sleeving looks high end, but you need to keep them away from grease and dust.
I guess you can call this a miniature, yet semi high-end tube amp. It’s a no-go with the Hifimans, but for almost everything else out there it’s just a brilliant amp that pairs well with a lot of different headphones and IEMs. The pairing with the LCD-2 is just magical as many visitors to the store have confirmed. I still don’t get the whole “Portable Desktop” concept, but the good thing we get out of it is that clean power from the Passport Battery pack.
Initially ALO planned to sell the PanAm for $699 and while it was an okay price, I told them it would be great to have the amp for $599 since people will still have to spend extra money for the power supply / battery pack. I don’t know if it’s the result of my lobbying, but I’m excited that they finally decided to go with the $599 price. That way, you can tell the spouse that it’s only a $500 amp instead of a $700 one (don’t mention the extra battery you need to buy). Nice.