If you work in an office, chances are you listening to music on your workstation’s computer for some – or all – of the day. You probably stream Spotify, Deezer or MOG(Beats) or listen to songs in your iTunes.
In pursuit of better sound you’ve considered upgrading those earbuds that shipped with your smartphone or the $20 in-ears you snatched on a mad dash from supermarket to gym. Apple’s earbuds (and similar) sound horrendous; they’re easily the biggest roadblock to aural satisfaction for the majority of mainstream listeners.
Those that tried their mate’s Beats headphones and thought “Nein danke” might have purchased something more to their liking after considering the broader choices highlighted by the likes of this Forbes piece listing “10 headphones that are better than Beats”. The Sennheiser Momentum remain a popular choice at the $300 mark but I plonked my credit card down on the beefier sounding V-Moda Crossfade M-100.
Both of these headphones – and many like them – can be driven by a computer’s headphone output. However, something like AKG K-701/2 will present more of a challenge, with the end result lacking dynamic punch and sounding thin/dry. There’s a reason for that…
…the headphone output on your computer – IT SUCKS. It won’t drive tougher loads like the aforementioned AKG and it’ll still sound kinda weak and diluted with more standard portable-device-friendly cans like the Momentum and V-Moda. What to do?
A portable DAC and headphone amplifier is the answer.
There are many such devices on the market right now and they’re becoming more numerous, cheaper and better all the time. At time of writing and with a budget hard limited to $200, the Audioengine D3, the HRT microStreamer and (my pick) the Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2 will all sound markedly better than plugging your new headphones directly into the 1/8” headphone jack found on your PC or laptop.
These devices bypass the DAC and headphone amplification found inside your PC – often no more than 50 cent components – by extracting the digital audio via USB and then applying their own D/A conversion and headphone output staging.
ALO recently introduced ‘The Key’ as their own competitor in this sub-$200 space but those with a $100 more to spend might want to consider the better build quality – and presumably better sound – of the ALO Island.
At US$299 it’s as sturdy as portable DAC/headphone amplifiers come, a heavyweight clocking in at 114g compared to the Dragonfly-weight 22g. The Island’s anodized aluminium shell feels pretty much indestructible in the hand. Only the three-position gain switch looks vulnerable to the rough and tumble of bag life.
The Island is available in blue, silver and black but I went for the maximum bling of the gold model. On the inside, an asynchronous USB solution feeds a Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chip.
The Island is larger and heavier than the Resonessence Labs Herus (US$350) – possibly its nearest rival – and runs warm to the touch whilst the Herus does not.
The first thing that sets ALO’s Island apart from the competition is obvious from first glance: that volume knob. At the risk of flirting with Carry On humour, its knob is enormous (“Oooh matron”) but it’s the size that renders the Island all the more intuitive to use. No more fumbling for volume up/down smart keys on your computers’s keyboard (assuming it even has them). No more click and drag with software volume attenuation. It’s an ideal solution for klutzes and fat-fingered fiends.
The second thing is a balanced output. Output grunt is evenly matched between unbalanced and balanced outputs…until you move into the higher impedance figures.
If you’re more of a power user and your headphones run to 300 Ohms and above, you might find greater satisfaction with a cable that can tap the RSA mini-balanced socket – hello Audeze LCD-2/3, Sennheiser HD-650/800, Beyerdynamic T1 et al.
Comparing specification sheets, The Island offers slightly more go juice than the Resonessence Labs Herus via its unbalanced connection and emphatically more via balanced, especially as the load increases. If balanced connectivity is top of your desired feature set, The Island is the way to go, but you’ll probably need to talk to ALO about getting a balanced cable that’ll play (Ken) ball with The Island’s RSA mini-connector.
The Island isn’t capable of decoding DSD so if that’s a must for you then the Herus is your guy.
I figure most users coming up from their PC’s in-built soundcard will settle on the unbalanced socket. That’s my focus here.
Owners of lower impedance cans like the Sennheiser Momentum and V-Moda Crossfade M-100 (me!) will find the unbalanced output more than sufficient: 130 mW into 32 Ohms, 200 mW into 50 Ohms.
Straight out of the gate, the sound quality tapped from The Island runs rings around a 2011 Macbook Air’s headphone output: more detail, more acoustic mass, better tonality, bigger headstaging. It’s no contest – exactly what you’d expect from a $300 unit, and then some.
Moreover, this ALO headphone amplifier / DAC takes the V-Moda Crossfade M-100 from very good to sublime. One shouldn’t mistake the more recessed bass kicks of Lucy’s Churches, Schools and Guns for weakness; lower frequencies through The Island sounded better controlled than the Macbook because the Cupertino-infused bloat had been side-stepped.
The 1/8” socket found on The Island means Mr Speakers Mad/Alpha dog owners (me again!) will need to don the awkward pants of a 1/4”-1/8” adaptor in order to properly leash those hounds. On the Herus, an 1/4” socket – no adaptor required.
The Island’s USB input is also different to the Resonessence Labs DAC. The Herus offers a full size USB input, easily permitting the use of after-market wire. I could ameliorate the Herus with the Total DAC D1 and Light Harmonic Lightspeed USB cables as mood took me but these are well beyond the scope of newcomers.
The Light Harmonic and Total DAC D1 won’t talk turkey with The Island’s mini-USB socket but ALO offer more deluxe USB cables at time of ordering. They start at US$79.
For what follows I used a ‘basic’ USB cable with the Resonessence Labs unit and the supplied (standard) USB cable with the ALO.
Choosing one over the other isn’t just a matter of picking a ‘best’ from a features list stand off. Let’s get stuck in.
To adhere closely to the newcomer perspective I ran almost exclusively with high quality MP3 downloads sourced from Spotify only to find that it wasn’t simple to find a definitive winner in a sonic standoff either.
With Dean Wareham’s debut the Herus was feistier with more prominent bass compared to a more laid-back, presentation of the Island. The Island served up Wareham’s voice with more refinement, the Herus countered with better macro-dynamics.
You might think the kick-punching Herus would’ve played perfectly to the strengths of Max Cooper’s electronic vibes but it sounded a tighter in the chest than the ALO unit whose superior separation and midrange melody exposure delivered big time.
The Herus showed itself to be more crisp-fried on transient edges. I found it better suited to cutting through the thicker air of Mr Speakers’ Mad Dogs. Owners of the more autumnal sounding Sennheiser Momentum should probably opt for the more languid, more finessed delivery of The Island where Beck’s Morning Phase came on with more Mogadon and – more critically – moisturised away some of the German’s leafy dryness.
Perhaps this is why I hit paydirt when partnering The Island with NAD’s stunning Viso HP50. These easy to drive cans responded perfectly to The Island’s more delicate handling of micro-dynamics.
This ALO/NAD combo jives perfectly with last week’s piece on how mainstream users would be better served by newer, better hardware before worrying about the hi-res audio game that Neil Young is pushing with Pono; the ALO Island will lift any headphone’s performance, even when fed with music streamed from the Internet.
And if you wanna dip your toe into the hi-res content offered at HDTracks or the PonoMusic store (when it lands), the Island has you covered. It will decode up to 24bit/192kHz.
My review unit isn’t going back to Portland – recommendation enough.
- Macbook Air w/ Spotify
- Resonessence Labs Herus
- NAD Viso HP-50
- V-Moda Crossfade M-100
- Sennheiser Momentum
- Mr Speakers Mad Dogs
- Future Islands – Singles (2014)
- T54 – In Brush Park (2014)
- Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham (2014)
- Max Cooper – Human (2014)
- Lucy – Churches, Schools and Guns (2014)
- Beck – Morning Phase (2014)