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DAR prize giveaway #3: ALO International+ headphone amp/DAC

  • Bricking it. To teenage minds, it’s the unfortunate – and one hopes metaphorical – side effect of being scared out of one’s wits. Urban Dictionary will clarify for those not up on time-old street lingo. In the land of portable audio, ‘bricking it’ means something entirely different. Rubber-strap a digital audio player to outboard amplifier or DAC (or both) – congratulations, you’ve just bricked it.

    With interface and transport duties handled by the source device an external portable amplifier will almost always bring more juice to your headphones of choice. And more power means better control of the driver which invariably leads to a fuller and (perhaps) more detailed sound.

    Bricking it isn’t for everyone though.The end result is more musically satisfying but in-hand it’s B I G G E R – two devices are heavier and bulkier than one. That’s not stellar news for those who a) travel light on pocket space or b) aren’t prepared to drop the double-up combo into a backpack. The extra bulk is especially inconvenient to those who get about in little more than shorts and a t-shirt for at least nine months of the year and for whom anything more that keys, wallet, smartphone, headphones DAP is considered too extraneous (especially if it won’t squeeze into a front pocket).


    One such amplifier is ALO Audio’s International+ (reviewed here). Its dimensions make it an ideal fit for first generation Astell&Kern units. When fed by an AK120 over its analogue input the International+ lays out a sound that leap-frogs the second generation AK120 on all-round heft and treble sheen. There’s a clear and unmistakable audible reward for finding a way to man-handle the uptick in hardware mass.

    Those wanting to also make use of the International+’s internal DAC will need to feed it via microUSB-terminated cabling. That means CCK for iOS devices, OTG cables for Android or – much simpler – a standard USB cable on the desktop. Yes, this ALO unit can be deployed as a standard desktop DAC/headphone amplifier. Incidentally, for those wondering, ALO is short for ‘Audio Line Out’

    Rather than have me return the review unit to ALO’s Portland HQ, founder Ken Ball has given the green light for this gold-coloured International+ to be given away as a prize to one lucky (and skilful) DAR reader.


    You’re required to do TWO things to be in the running:

    1) Add your email address to the DAR subscriber list database using this form:

    Fear not spam: list members are unlikely to see even a first missive before August.



    2) Use that same email address to add a comment below detailing your favourite headphones and why – 50 words or less please. It could be a current model or one long since discontinued. The best answer will be judged by yours truly and the winner notified via email. Fear not privacy intrusion: email addresses are not published alongside comments; the DAR privacy policy can be read here.

    The ALO International+ will ship with all original packaging, USB cables and rubber straps for attaching to a smartphone or DAP. And just to to be crystal clear with the obvious: neither the headphones nor the DITA Audio mini-interconnect form part of this prize giveaway. Cash alternative not available.

    Specifications look like this:

    • Frequency Response : ±1 dB: 5-50,000 Hz
    • Maximum Output: 12 V Peak to Peak
    • THD+N: 0.001% @ f = 1 kHz
    • Input Impedance: 30k Ω
    • Output Impedance: <1 Ω
    • RMS per channel, both channels driven
    • Output Power – Balanced: • 70 mW into 32 ohms • 100 mW into 50 ohms • 240 mW into 300 ohms • 120 mW into 600 ohms
    • Output Power – Unbalanced: • 70 mW into 32 ohms • 100 mW into 50 ohms • 60 mW into 300 ohms • 30 mW into 600 ohms
    • Battery: 3400 mAh Lithium-Ion (Sanyo UR18500F)
    • Battery Play Time: Min. 14 hours ( Amplifier ) / Min. 7 hours ( Amplifier + DAC )
    • Battery Recharge Time: 3 hours

    Those hoping for the International+ ‘Optical Edition’ will need to buy one – that newer version isn’t the model up for grabs here.

    Postage cost constraints prohibit this competition from being open to residents outside of Australia, New Zealand and the USA (with apologies to the rest of the world).

    Entries close midnight 31st July 2015.

    Our thanks go out to ALO Audio for their generosity here. Here’s to facilitating another case of bricking it.


    UPDATE 14th August: Congratulations to the winner of this ALO portable, Sean M of Kalamazoo, MI. We hope that the International+ brings you many hours of listening pleasure.

    John Darko

    Written by John 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. My favorite headphones are the Sennheiser PX 200IIi that I take everywhere. More music more often means more time exploring new reasons to smile. High-rez music files through a laptop or streaming via an iPhone while traveling, all with tight bass and clear highs in compact durable phones. Yes !

    2. My favorite headphone is the hd800. To me its perfect I prefer bright headphone with loads of detail and spacious soundstage. On the detail and soundstage side its the best I’ve heard up till now. Also the most comfortable headphone I have ever tried

    3. How about Haiku?

      My go to headphones
      Neutral, comfortable, sublime

      With proper amplification of course.

    4. Some of the headphones that i had the pleasure of owning are Momentum 2,Xiaomi Piston 2.0,HE400i,Sennheiser HD600,Oppo PM3,V-moda M80,NAD VISO HP50,Beyerdynamic T51p,Final Audio Heaven 2,Ultrasone IQ,Aurisonics Rockets.

      My favourite are the Bose Soundtrue AE. It’s is the most comfortable portable headphones i’ve known. It is also as light as feather, sounds almost as good as the momentums at half the price! Earpads and cables are replaceable and very cheap! It’s a headphone that you won’t feel guilty throwing it around and sounds good.

    5. Aaron likes Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs. Mad Dogs are headphones. Headphones for listening to music. Think buttery-soft leather ear pads. Like a warm hug from your rotund Aunt Esther. They are not uncomfortable. This is important.

      The sound is immersive and detailed with well-rendered low frequencies, but these Dogs are polite. As in they do not lick their own testicles in front of company. That was inappropriate. But you get my drift.

      I know there are better headphones out there, but I never feel as though I am missing out. I’m glad people like their $5k rigs. I do not have enough free time to justify such an expense. The Mad Dogs have brought me zero buyer’s remorse, yet they deliver enough of everything to eliminate the symptoms of upgrade-itus. That is some David Blaine-level magic imo. I wish I could say the same thing about any of my IEMs.

      That is all. Thank you, and good night.

    6. The HE-560 make me smile on a consistent basis. After a long day I don’t want to sit down and nit pick and judge my gear. I want to listen to music. These cans give me clarity, bombastic bass, a nice soundstage and smooth treble. The best part? I don’t wake up my wife in the middle of the night, even though Tool is rattling my brain. Headphones give me the freedom to experience my favorite artists without agrivating my loved ones.

    7. My Audeze LCD-Xs give me the closest glimpse of what it’s like to be a fly on the wall of my favorite artists recording session.

    8. Has to be the he500. The combination of detail, soundstage, and thump makes me reach for them more than any others, even my close-second lcd2s.

    9. My favorite headphones are the Stax Lambda Pro circa… Old. Fell in love with them probably about 30 years ago when I walked into a high end store with no money and put on the ones that are like speaker boxes… Have yet to find those again, but those things blew my brains, would totally get those now so I can pose as a cubist painting.

    10. My favorite headphone is the Sennheiser HD-598. It may look like an old man’s car but it’s as comfortable as one too. Comfort could also describe its sound. Spacious, with both detail & warmth.

    11. I love my Beyer DT 99o Pro 250 Ohm, but the Koss Pro/4AA Dad brought back from Vietnam in ’72 opened up my music listening world with nuances impossible for me to hear with loudspeakers and will forever be the most IMPORTANT headphones I ever used.

    12. the best i ever heard are the stax electrostats. on tympani, you can hear the effect of the drumhead skin stretching. the most intimate sound available. supex used to make electrostats too and the were likewise in the excellence department. AKG used to make a pair that looked like ribbon microphones suspended just off the ear. although the band was uncomfortable, the sound was exemplary.

    13. My favourite headphones are my Audio Technica ATH 70 electret condenser stereophones. I bought these after reading a great review by Ken Kessler in 1992 – they have been used every week since that time and are still going strong. Supremely comfortable, very well made, and delightful sound. I have tried many others since including several from Stax but I have always come back to the AT’s. I just love em.

    14. Just how do circumaural cans become my favourite? Those criteria are portability during city and international travel and accurately presenting an organic musicality with fair clarity and separation. The OPPO PM-3 is easy to drive, brings me into the sound completely, and is my current favourite.

    15. I loved my pair of Yamaha HP1 headphones because of their beautiful design by Mario Bellini.

    16. Currently enjoying V-Moda M100 with XL pads on my commute. Warm and bassy, but still plenty of detail – even with an iPhone. Mr Speakers Mad Dogs at work – different sound and really need an amp, but love them also. I have a pair of NAD HP-50 I need to get around to selling. Love them, but felt more comfortable using the M100 on the commute.

      • Yeah, the HP-50’s dorky headband isn’t for the style-conscious commuter.

    17. My favorite headphones are the HE-560’s because my hearing has dimmed with age and every minute detail is revealed with clarity even at low to medium volume levels. The comfort experienced during wear allows total relaxation, enabling maximum focus on the music.

    18. I have a pair of EL8s and a pair of Grado RS1s and the latter just rock so much harder. Whatever the RS1s give up in detail and refinement (the EL8s are refined and detailed and pleasant), they make up for in emotional power.

    19. Klipsch X11
      Profoundly revealing, easy to drive, articulate musical threads while organically coherent. Easy fit in ear, light weight and no fatigue for hours of listening. Ingenious! And reasonably priced.
      Frankly, they stunningly a gestalt. As soon as I heard, more than any other pair, I ordered another pair and shipped them to our son in South Africa spend 2 years in the Peace Corp. he promptly confirmed their value and proceeded to enjoy many hours of music on hi ipod in the bush.

    20. My preferred cans are the Grado SR225e due to their low distortion, controlled, accurate bass reproduction, lively treble and drivers balanced within 0.05 dB for flawless soundstage geometry. Add to that a classic look with sturdy open air polycarbonate driver enclosures, an 8-conductor copper cable and a 20-22khz response range.

    21. Recently I answered the front door to a friend with my clear plastic Shure SE 425’s in my ears and my iPod in my pocket.
      ‘You’re wearing hearing aids now…?’ was the witty greeting. Right. Hearing aids.
      Hearing-aid like transparent 425’s; bestest phones ever.

    22. Purchased the excellent akg k701 for classical music due to its crystal clear detail. Switching to rock music, bass is definitely lacking. Headband is painful on hour plus long listening sessions, but supposedly akg took care of this uncomfortable headband on later 701 variant(s).

    23. My favourite? The not-for-commitmentphobes HiFiMan HE-6. Go all-in, scale the amping mountain, and they’ll reward you with a very even-handed, neutral sound that makes mock of the notion that neutrality and musicality can’t coexist in the same headphone. Visceral, master of all trades, and the last word in engagement.

    24. {also, for a verbose guy like myself the word limit is challenging!)

      I wonder if I will give the same answer in ten days time or so though, with the MrSpeakers Ether arriving here to challenge the incumbent…

    25. As a kid growing up John Denver was about as risky as my mom allowed (not an exaggeration: Puff the Magic Dragon – banned). Paper route money in hand I bought records at K-Mart and snuck them into the house. Never mind internet, this was even before the PMRC labeling to signal to kids what albums to buy. So I only had the album art to guess at the good stuff. Our old headphones are long gone, along with the brand name but the memory of listening to Quiet Riot Metal Health in the living room under my mother’s watchful eye can be drawn upon as if it were yesterday.

    26. My favorite headphones are my ATH-ESW11 limited edition. I enjoy wooden headphones and a warm sound. The esw11 are portable headphones with a full sized sound. Rich, dark with detail.


    27. My current favorite is the Sennheiser HD650, which seems somewhat of an underwhelming choice I’m sure. I started with the LCD-2, but found the HD650 to be more comfortable, with a more spacious and deep sound, and a little more exciting overall tonality.

    28. My favorite headphones are the ones I have on me at the moment. The desire for music is as old as humanity itself, and whether seeking to float in bliss or drown in melancholy, when those desires swell one must take whatever is in reach to satiate this primal need.

    29. My best headphones – HD800. My favorite – the Oppo PM-3. The PM-3 is beautiful, very well made, portable and with a good source sounds much better than it’s price would indicate. I have been using the PM-3 with balanced cabling from Hifiman players or the Pono player. The PM-3 may be efficient enough for a smartphone, but with more power it really opens up. Should work great with the International.

      • Bryce, my experience with the Pono, listening with both SR225e and HD598 was disappointing, compared to both the AK100 and even the lower end 2nd gen FIIO X5, even when playing WAV 16/44khz! Very slow response, overstated mids, grossly exaggerated bass lacking definition. It also had an annoying variable pitch buzz when listening to it while charging, no circuit isolation or damping whatsoever.

    30. Hey.
      I love my bowers and wilkens p3 headphones. They are compact. You can easily swap out the cable by lifting up the magnetic ear pads. they should great. i love the mid range on these head phones. They could use a bit more bass.

      I had them for the last 3 years or so and they are still going on strong. Great build/quality. i believe these cans will last a long while. They have lasted longer than all of my previous head phones so far.

    31. Mr. Speakers Alpha Primes powered by Squeezebox Touch >Wyred Remedy Reclocker >Oppo HA1 > Moon Audio 10′ Black Dragon V2 Headphone Cable (XLR). Given the noisy presence of my wife and kids, closed headphones are a must. I couldn’t be happier with Alpha Primes. The recent sale price (200 USD savings) didn’t hurt!

    32. Hello,

      My favorite headphones are Kef M500 because they:

      1.- Sound smooth and balanced;

      2.- Are very comfortable;

      3.- Are so elegant;

    33. HD650 because it’s very musical. Lets me sit back and enjoy. I’d be interested in a planar magnetic model but I haven’t seen a review yet that convinces me that they are better than the 650s for listening pleasure.

    34. I love my Grado SR80s. They were recommended to me by my mentor, an Emeritus Professor who’s spent a large portion of his career researching cochlear implants. A recommendation on quality audio doesn’t get much better than that; and sound doesn’t get much better than Grado!

    35. We are blessed with so many great choices, and more importantly, stores that allow us to compare headphones. Which led me to buying my favourite phones, the Shure SE846 after some in store comparisons. It’s my most used piece of audio gear as I use it during my commutes, and at work/home.

    36. My favorite headphones are Sennheiser HD 250 II linear. It was my first set of good cans. Neutral and airy for a pair of closed headphones. I auditioned numerous headphones before I found what sounded like heaven to me at that time. Everything seemed so clear and detailed. After that i was ruined,the searched and lifestyle as an audiophile had begun.

    37. Hi John,

      V-Moda Crossfade M-100s are never too far away from me. I have used KOSS, Sennheiser, Open, Closed, IEM and I can honestly say that the V-Moda’s are the best. I bought these without audition based on the Darko review and also got the XL pads, which are a MUST HAVE accessory for the small cash outlay. The fold up design and awesome case are fantastic and after probably close to two years of hard use, they still look and function as new. I’d be VERY keen to try these with the ALO.



    38. My favorites are the Alpha Primes – the sound is so natural, quick and powerful. The most open-sounding closed headphones I’ve heard.

    39. Beyerdynamic T1, because up until I heard them I was a lost soul swimming in a sea of pseudo analytical audiophile jargon; an empty vat regurgitating phrases from past editions of Stereophile; a musician who had not yet ventured into the magical lands of the audiophile planet.

      But in all seriousness, I love the T1’s because of the intriguing soundstage created by their beautifully angled drivers. They are fun to listen to. Not the “fun” that is often thrown around and carelessly interchanged with “intense V-shaped sound signature”. The pure unadulterated kind of fun that is hard to come by.

    40. Right now it would be my Sennheiser Linear HD-250 closed headphones I got off of ebay. It’s my first real set of headphones. Using a DIY amp module, I finally knew what the fuss about hifi was and knew I was cursed to a future spending $$$ for smaller returns.

    41. My current favorite headphones are AKG’s K553s. With the closed back, I can use them at work or at home when the kids are in bed, but they have an excellent sound stage for a closed back headphone and are wonderfully detailed. I can’t afford much in the way of gear these days, due to the cost of the aformentioned kids, but these, coupled with an AudioQuest Dragonfly 1.2 on my laptop, hit a great sweet spot for a very modest price.

    42. When I was little, my ears were big, really big. I thought I would grow into them but sadly this didn’t happen. The only headphones that could accommodate my ears are light, airy, open-backed, soft, and extremely resolving. I love my HD800’s. Thanks for the contest! Sorry, I didn’t read the rules well. Forfeit this entry please.

    43. Aëdle. I fell in love at the first look and bought them on the second listen. So intimate, vocals are clear and life like. They are stylish too, just round and simple. When driven by tubes, I am in heaven. Good job done.

    44. JH13 Pro w/ freqphase are my favourite headphones! I have small and weard ear canals and going custom was the right thing for me. Natural with great bass and perfect isolation make my JH13 Pros my best companion at home or while commuting to work!

    45. My favorite would be the Sennheiser HD650. Summit-fi it might not be, but its still the best bang for buck headphone out there despite being over a decade old!

    46. My current favorite headphone is the Sennheiser HD-650. It portrays a large open soundstage , detailed refined treble. It is very comfortable and lite on your head. It also is easy to swap cables and fairly easy to drive.

    47. My favorite earphones however were my early Apple In Ear headphones! I was too cheap to buy phones with ear loops for running, so I used to sticky tape them to my ears to prevent them falling out!

    48. Well my favourite is only 1 week old to me and is the Julia from ultrasone, ah yes that’s right Greg is a guys name and the Julia is fushia in colour and marketed towards girls, so why? 1/ No one will steal them. 2/ No one wanted to buy them so good price. 3/ Makes everything sound great. 4/ They don’t look like geek gear 😉

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