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ALO Audio ‘The Island’ headphone amplifier / USB DAC review

  • 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.


    Associated Equipment

    • Macbook Air w/ Spotify
    • Resonessence Labs Herus
    • NAD Viso HP-50
    • V-Moda Crossfade M-100
    • Sennheiser Momentum
    • Mr Speakers Mad Dogs

    Audition Music

    • 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)

    Further information

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Nice write-up as usual John.
      While some might prefer the convenience of the thumb drive sized units that plug right into a USB port, I’m sure there are lots of us who would end up inadvertently moving the wrong way one time too many and end up damaging the unit or buying a few as they disappeared – even given the higher price and need for an additional cable, I would much sooner opt for the Herus, or Island, but for sheer aesthetics, the Island is hands down winner, IMO.
      The poor little HiFiMan HM101 USB sound card thingie I’ve been using for years is getting a little long in tooth – that and my fat head are probably the main reasons I don’t do ‘phones often!
      Cheers from slowly thawing Canada, Shel

    2. I like the new Future Islands album, but one thing that keeps bugging me about that bands sound is how the instruments are so much on the background. They sound like indierock flavored elevator-music. The singer’s voice and style of singing is bad-ass, and it saves the day. But the whole thing could be so much better…

    3. I’d be interested to know how the NAD HP50 do with a DAC/Headphone amp. I own them, and even through my Galaxy Note 2 they sound pretty good. Both my laptop and the Samsung have plenty of power, so that’s definitely not an issue, but maybe the noise floor can be improved with the ALO or similar solutions.
      John, are you planning on reviewing the NADs? Have you tried the Dragonfly out of a smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy’s?

      Thanks and keep up the good work

      • I shall be reviewing the HP50, yes. Listening to Moderat II on ’em as I write this with power coming from the mighty AURALiC Taurus MKII. But obviously you don’t need to go so hi-end to get a decent result from the HP50. They sound terrific with pretty much every headphone amp I’ve thrown at them, the ALO especially.

        Getting my hands on the v1.2 Dragonfly soon I believe but testing on smartphones might be a bit hit n miss: I have a Google Nexus 5 which doesn’t natively support USB audio and I flashed my Galaxy S3 with Cyanogenmod which I believe also kills USB audio. The USB Recorder Pro app might yet save the day though – it worked well with the Herus!

    4. Hi John,

      Can you let me know how this compares to the AK120 (when used in USB DAC mode)



    5. While trying to buy DSD files from Acoustic Sound website:

      We currently cannot allow allow customers outside of the United States And Canada to purchase certain Digital Products due to licensing restrictions. The digital download has not been added to your cart.

      How can this still be possible in 2014? Isn’t crazy that since I don’t live in US I cannot download legit music in the format I like best? This really puts me off!

      • Welcome to the wonderful world of lawyers and licensing laws. Each territory must be individually negotiated.

      • Damian – I’ve yet to hear the v1.2 Dragonfly but I too wish to know how it stacks up. The Island is certainly the smoothest, most refined of all the portable USB DACs to come across my desk to date.

          • I think I said “Getting my hands on the v1.2 Dragonfly soon”. Not heard it yet, no, but it would still be my $150 pick based upon the reviews of others, especially in the absence of almost zero cheaper, credible rivals!

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