In a word, majestic. Shozy has taken the best elements of the original Alien Gold Edition such as the excellent staging and imaging and added a whole lot new level of resolution and refinement. Doubtless, the upgrade in DAC chip and the PSU power management system will drive much of that resolving capability of the Alien+. With that in mind, you can also add impressive dynamics, a superior holographic presentation as well as more involving and precise imaging to the list of upgrades on the Alien+.
They have also taken steps to tone down the overall warmth of the tonality so it now sounds more “correct”. This is a more linear and controlled response with slightly less warmth but stays away from being analytical or decidedly neutral. This is still a very musical DAP, a trademark of sorts from Shozy (and to some extent AK chips) but it differs from previous efforts producing what I think will be a very audiophile friendly natural and detailed sound.
With the Alien you got a full sound, warm, and rich in body. With the Alien+ it loses a bit of that mid-bass warmth opting instead to present a more linear and cleaner response that sounds snappier, incisive and more detailed. It also bleeds a little less into the lower mids so instrumental note body is shade thinner but it actually benefits with superior clarity and articulation. You still get a natural sounding powerful low-end but this time the greater dynamic range is more in evidence sounding less soft and better defined.
Whereas the Alien could sound overly smooth and euphoric in places the Alien+ instrumental separation and timbre is much more natural, accurate and life-like on the Alien+. Lower mids, in particular, have a cleaner edge with less sub 1k boosting to retain an excellent level of instrumental clarity.
Vocal presence on the Alien+ is still forward as it was on the Alien but the cleaner response and great resolution yield a slightly airier quality. They also benefit from the greater staging depth with instrumental positioning just slightly behind whereas on the Gold Alien they tended to sound a bit thicker, richer and further forward taking away a little air and space away from the vocal performance.
Treble on the Alien+ has a cleaner tone and better contrast with its impactful bass response than the older Alien. There is a little uptick in energy starting around the upper-mids that injects a slightly harder sound than the liquid and laid back signature of the Gold Alien but it sounds more energetic and articulate as a result.
You also get a vastly superior snap in percussive work with the Alien+ which delivers a more exciting and energetic top-end. Once again Shozy has tuned the Alien+ to be very sibilant free with little if any peaks or nasty partial overtones. I wouldn’t define it as forgiving as the Alien Gold Edition, not sure anything can be that forgiving but sounds a lot more involving.
The additional gain features of the Alien+ make this DAP far more versatile than the previous Alien incarnations for efficient IEMs as well as yield enough voltage control levels for decent headphones. Our testing found that pretty much all IEMs could be setup with one or the other gain levels to reduce channel imbalance and noise to a minimum or non-existent level.
The one caveat is the analog volume and how far you push it regardless of gain settings. Once you start hitting around 75-80% in any gain setting you will start to hear an appreciable level of background hiss, particularly with IEMs. Sensitive BA IEMs such as the Andromeda and even the Katana will pick it up a little quicker than the less efficient Vega or RE2000.
The key here is if you hear it at your comfortable volume settings just switch to a higher gain setting and drop the volume. You will get less wiggle room but you will get a blacker background.
I still feel you need a quality headphone amp to get the absolute best out of TOTL planars such as the LCD-4 but having said that the Alien+ has some excellent levels of power and even planars such as the LCD-2 rev 2.1 pre-Fazor sounded competent when paired though you will have to jack it up to its highest gain setting, 0dB.
If you are rocking an Oppo PM series planar, a Hifiman Edition X or HE400s then there is plenty of power on tap. You will find medium and high gain coming more into use than the lower gain settings but there will be fewer instances where noise becomes an issue.
We were particularly impressed with the Audeze SINE DX pairing which we feel benefited immensely with the additional power and quality of signal producing a far more dynamic sound than weaker sources and some competing DAPs.
Campfire Audio Andromeda
Volume level: Min Gian setting – around 50-60%
Excellent gain and volume control but it will pick up background hiss from the noise floor at higher volumes though channel balance on this min gain is minimal if any at all.
Spacious sounding with good extension and width. What will strike you with this pairing is the imaging control with fantastic separation and placement. Without injecting too much volume the background sounds enticingly black and clean. Just watch the voltage levels as it goes higher as noise will creep in.
Tonally this is a neutral yet musical pairing with plenty of top end sparkle. It is ever so slightly hard edged in its top-end but otherwise, you won’t find any peaking or irritating sharpness.
The extension and air are excellent, the low end is tight and well defined. The vocal focus is very good, very natural rendition with little in the way of sibilance. Instrumental timbre is very neutral to natural, never sounding too thick or too brittle.
Volume level: Mid gain – around 60-70%
The RE2000 can sit happily on high voltage settings in min gain or lower settings in medium gain. It does require a lot more juice to drive well than the Andromeda, Katana or A91. Channel imbalance and noise are non-issues with the RE2000, you will get a nice black background and zero hiss with these settings.
The Alien+4 is made for the RE2000 in terms of staging and filling out that spacious sound the RE2000 can create with a very accurate imaging performance and a fantastic holographic presentation.
Tonally this is a musical and involving pairing with a slight V-shaped FR but it doesn’t sound overly unbalanced. The Alien+ doesn’t really upset that balance by retaining that full smooth and impactful sound without dulling it or thinning it out. Bass texture is excellent, mids, though slightly dipped towards the lower end sound energetic and spacious with a solid vocal emphasis.
Treble is the one area with the Alien+ that might be debatable. The RE2000 has a contrasting treble that is reasonably easy going but very resolving and detailed. That slight uptick in treble energy from the Alien+ injects a little hardness into the lower to mid treble attack and there are times I would like a little more body to go with that detail and attack.
Campfire Audio Vega
Volume level: Mid Gain around 40-50%
This is Campfire Audio highly scalable single dynamic driver flagship and it does suck up powerful quite easily but not quite as much as the RE2000 pairing with about a 10-20% reduction in volume. Background noise is low with a superb black background.
There is a tiny amount of right channel bias at low volume levels but rights itself pretty quickly once you start getting to comfortable listening levels.
Tonally another very good pairing. The Alien+ delivers enough power to ensure the Vega’s low-end physicality is tight, defined and very impactful with superb sub-bass rumble. I also didn’t detect any sibilance or brittleness in the top end delivery which retained a healthy sparkle and articulation. Mids are clean, articulate and flow really nicely with the Alien+ with a neutral to natural timbre and good vocal focus.
Fidue A91 Sirius
Volume Level: Low Gain around 70%
The hybrid A91 sits somewhere between high volume setting on low gain and low volume medium gain. Given the Alien+ will present some background hiss at very high volume levels you might find your preference setting to be medium gain though the noise floor will in general just be that little bit higher. Low gain offers the most volume control and less channel imbalance at lower volume levels.
Tonally the A91 pairing has a politer low-end than the Vega. It is not as physical, not by a long stretch but it does sound a little more balanced. The A91’s laid back treble response fits in nicely with the brighter Alien+ treble response injecting some nice energy and pop without any nasty partial overtones.
I have always liked the DD response on the A91, one of my favorites for its focus on sub-bass power and the Alien+ pairing keeps it very tight, well-defined and spacious sounding, which is exactly the response you need for the A91 to sound optimal.
Noble Audio Katana
Volume Level: min gain around 80%, low gain 60%
Like the A91 the Katana straddled min gain and low gain. The key here is to avoid too much voltage levels which can amplify the faint noise levels in the Alien+ which starts to kick in around the last 20% of the analog rotary dial. I was just able to keep it under that level in min gain but it felt more natural for higher volumes in low gain.
On the flip side min gain on the Alien+ gave me the best channel balance at low volume levels and the most wiggle room on the analog volume dial.
It is very hard to find any weak spots in this pairing. The Katana really laps up the resolving capability of the Alien+, especially its staging capability, sounding spacious with excellent imaging and control.
That little kick in the low-end the Katana delivers sounds very defined and well textured with the Alien+ pairing. Mids are not overly colored and very detailed with good body, perhaps slightly richer sounding and more euphoric than the likes of the X7 or the AK240 pairings. Surprisingly, the Katana treble was the natural sounding of the IEMs tested when paired with the Alien+. I was half expecting them to be brighter but no so.
Hifiman Edition X
Volume Level: Mid gain around 50%
Easy to drive, very clean and clear with no background noise. The medium gain will be enough to drive the Edition X and high volume levels remain quite clean with very little if any channel imbalance at low volume levels.
Again a very impressive low-end with a palatable snap, excellent texture and detail. This pairing for me works very well with EDM and RnB. Vocals are beautifully rendered with a ton of detail and a very natural sound.
The Alien+ though will not smooth over the energetic and contrasting treble response of the Edition X V2. It is clean, articulate and forward but it will also sound a bit brighter than say the AK380 pairing though far from peaky or sibilant. Again a very clean attack.
Audeze SINE DX
Volume level: Mid gain around 50%
Another planar headphone and we move up to mid gain around 50% before the SINE DX sounds optimal. This is a fairly to easy drive planar noise wise but in terms of power, it prefers a quality output for optimal sound quality Background hiss and noise in mid-gain are non-existent. This is a beautiful black background and almost ideal channel balancing in low volumes.
Possibly my favorite on-ear headphone pairing because the Alien+ gives the SINE DX exactly what it needs or is lacking with other DAPs and that is more air and better headroom. It also really punches hard in the low-end with excellent dynamics and clarity, you simply do not want to lose that strength in trying to drive some air into the mids and highs.
Mids remain natural if slightly dark but instrumental separation and width are superior with the Alien+ pairing than the X5III. Treble has a bit more sparkle and slightly more airy with the Alien+. That little treble up-tick in the Alien+ offers a perception of increased detail and air with the SINE DX.
Audeze LCD-2 Rev 2.1 Pre Fazor
Volume level: 0dB gain around 40%
Driving wise I think a full-scale amp will get the maximum out of a planar such as the LCD-2 but there is no faulting the Alien+ in terms of output power and quality of signal delivered to the LCD-2.
It is pretty potent as far as portable sources go and certainly much more capable than competing DAPs outside of maybe the Questyle QP1r. Noise floors are very low, the background is superbly black and the channel balance is perfect.
This took me by total surprise. Normally I wouldn’t bother testing this combination simply because I do not feel it’s a target market pairing and most will opt for a desktop experience but in actual fact, the Alien+ has enough power for the LCD-2 to sound dynamic and full sounding.
There is nothing tinny, compressed or brittle about this pairing. It is up there perhaps with the QP1R in being able to drive big cans to satisfactory levels though battery will take a fair hit as a consequence.
What I love most about this pairing is how well the low-end responds which is something I do enjoy about this pre-Fazor edition. It sounds deep and impactful yet clean and clear with bags of texture and detail.
Can I get more out of the LCD-2? Sure, maybe the Bakoon HPA-01M will give it more crunch and speed and a bit more treble body but that’s a full-scale amp so the results should not be too surprising.
The X5iii is FiiO’s latest mid-fi 3rd gen DAP and is touchscreen Android based. The Alien+ is nowhere near that level of software interaction so you if you want Wifi, BT, streaming, apps, color screens and tagging capability then simply pick the X5iii. Battery life is also stronger, you also get a balanced output, however weak I feel that is and the more complex FiiO Pure OS, however buggy that might be.
However a few things in the favor of the Alien+. The first is the fantastic gain options making the Alien+ a highly matchable DAP for sensitive IEMs as well as high-end planars and the lightning boot time and speed of the simple UI. Simply put it gets out of the way and gets you right to playing music first and foremost.
It also means the Alien+ is quieter than the X5iii in general unless you pump up the volume on your gain setting way to high. The FiiO X5iii also has demonstrably less power than the Alien+ and is noisier on the lowest settings so it is more of a compromise than the Alien+ with regards to amplification and quality of the signal.
The Alien+ has a more aggressive, dynamic and better-separated tone and presentation. The X5iii has a full rich and smooth sound that is more laid back, slightly compressed by comparisons with a flatter staging quality to the Alien+’s more 3-dimensional soundstage.
Tonally the Alien+ has a brighter top end with more lower treble energy and snap, it can come across as more demanding than the X5iii’s more placid performance but it does provide more vigor and engagement for my money and much better contrast with their respective low-ends. Vocals on the Alien+ are further forward than the X5iii, not that the X5iii is recessed but just a touch more neutral and slightly softer in its leading attack.
Luxury & Precision L3PRO
Sometimes an interactive touchscreen enhances a UI and software workflow and sometimes it simply draws focus to problems. The L3PRO sits somewhere in-between. So, whilst on one level the Alien+ cannot compete with the fast access touchscreen based LP3PRO, there is still a level of frustration with the L3PRO’s basic UI. In reality, the L3PRO is not far removed from the Alien+ software functionality. It is just a little bit more flowery but still lacks connectivity, apps and other features that place other Android based DAPs well ahead.
Still, there are some nice technical features in the L3PRO that you will want to consider such as phase settings, DSD decoder settings, and DoP over SPDIF settings. It will offer ID3 and lyrics displays during playback, it also has an equalizer and can pull from your meta tags. None of which the Alien+ can do. It can also decode a much wider range of file formats than the Alien+.
Again, the Alien+ has the superior gain controls making it more matchable to a wider range of headphones and IEMs as well as having more output power. It also has the faster UI and in the July 2017 firmware, it has 2 more digital filters over the L3PRO.
This is also a fairly musical presentation with a planted low end, rich and clear mids and very nicely textured vocal presence with a natural sounding and articulate top-end. The Alien+ differs in its presentation with a slightly tighter and more linear low-end with a leaner lower midrange, a more focused and resolving vocal presence and a brighter and more forward treble delivery.
Note thickness favors the L3PRO with its slightly smoother attack and better weight to instruments whereas the Alien+ is cleaner, quicker paced and possesses a slightly superior dynamic presentation.
The pros and cons on a technical level for the i5 are much the same as the X5iii in terms of what can be done and what cannot compare with the Alien+. Again, the touch based i5 trounces it for connectivity, a more complex and involving UI, more media management options and a much wider range of file format compatibility. It can accept apps though it is not quite as wide ranging as a smartphone simply due to hardware and software restraints.
Battery time is also longer on the i5 at 10 hours compared to the Alien+ 6 hours. Gain levels are a touch high though for sensitive IEMs so noise floors are higher than the Alien+’s much broader selection menu, perhaps the N3 in that respect can compete better with its 3 gain setting options. Output power from the i5 is excellent and much more competitive than the X5iii but it is still not as high as the Alien+.
Both have AK implementation so their tonal bias is a bit similar with a more aggressive and immediate sound. The Alien+ though is a bit cleaner and brighter in its timbre as well as having a slightly more linear low-end than the weighted but warmer i5. If anything the i5 has the more low-end body but with slightly less detail and not quite as defined.
Treble is also a bit brighter and harder sounding on the Alien compared to the i5 which pulls it back a bit so it loses a tiny touch of sparkle in comparison to the Alien+ but sounds relatively more forgiving and less aggressive.
Vocals are cleaner thought harder sounding on the Alien+ but they are also more forward with better focusing and space. Much like the X5iii the i5 has a thicker note in the lower mids instrumentals and they are slightly more forward compared to the cleaner quicker Alien+ which has them a little further behind the vocals.
If someone gave me the Alien+ and told me not to turn it on or put an earphone or headphone in it I would tell them to get outta here. The system is clunky, there are a ton of competitive features missing that we now accept a de facto in modern DAPs and frankly the whole thing is archaic in its application. It works, do not get me wrong, the bugs are few and far between but the sparse feature list and steep learning curve will keep the whole physical experience relatively niche.
However, the sound is glorious. That is what it is all about. It is one of the most dynamic, powerful and musical sounding DAPs I have heard south of $500. If it is sound alone then the Alien+ retains the fun and entertaining legacy of the older Alien screenless DAP’s and just throws in a ton of resolution and clarity wrapped in a very holographic presentation. For on sound alone, I could listen to this all day and it is on sound alone that I score the Alien+ very highly indeed.
I really hope though this is a taster. Shozy is boutique, resources may be stretched. I am not even sure they can roll out a better one given the money plowed into this one, it is still a work in progress for me on that score. However, it does give me hope that perhaps 2-3 years down the line the Alien+++ will be all singing all dancing and still sound this good if not better.