ALO Audio recently released their new balanced USB-powered DAC/AMP called the Island priced at $299 and frankly folks this is about as small as it can get.

Ok so I saw the eye-catching pictures like everyone else on their website and Facebook pages and thought nice-looking “gold bar” design there but I was expecting something double the size.

Design

The Island comes in at a little over 3 inches long, just over an inch wide, and the same again in terms of width. It really does look like a mini bullion bar except for that fantastically user-friendly volume dial at the top.

With its origins from a 3D print design concept into a production reality sporting 4 different colored variations you cannot really accuse ALO Audio of being predictable.

It looks like nothing they have ever made before and frankly doesn’t even follow the conventional norms we tired old hacks are used to seeing in our headphone amp/dac designs.

The fact also ALO Audio saw fit to make this both a single-ended and balanced amp out as well as stuffing a 24Bit/192kHz capable Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chip in there (USB only) and a gain filter switch makes this a pretty decent value proposition.

Anyway enough of the size thing, we have seen portable amp/DACs achieve similar things I guess with ALO Audio’s own International though not at $299, and for some that may well be reason enough to empty the wallet.

ALO Audio Island

The “feelgood” experience

Out of the box, you cannot fail to notice the big analog 3-stage volume dial sitting astride the Island’s main body (we choose silver, but you can have black, blue, or gold also) like some sort of audiophile Major T.J. “King” Kong without the waving cowboy hat and when you get to grips with it actually it really is quite the liberating experience.

Gone is that incessant nerdy need to check where your volume dial is positioned before you start any new tracks like some other amps, this volume dial is intuitive and very natural to the touch. The control is effortless and requires zero eye contact leaving you free to focus on whatever else you are doing.

 

On top of that, it is a really smooth and tight pot also with no detectable channel imbalance and a nice consistent level of resistance to prevent any loss of control or accidental volume bursts.

If this is aimed at laptop users then the concept of surfing your laptop and using the Island wheel is going to feel awfully similar to managing your mouse. Why has no one thought of this before? Based on the pictures I didn’t get the big volume dial at all, in front of my laptop I do now.

ALO Audio Island

Sound Impressions

The Island’s tonality after a few hours of burn-in could be best described as smooth, spacious with a fairly bassy low end. The Island conveys a pretty large sound stage with a good handle on the power that drives most headphones pretty well including the LCD-2 to satisfactory levels.

It is far from neutral, sounding slightly veiled, warm, and perhaps lacking in a bit of bite compared to say the Theorem 720’s excellent full yet detailed and neutral tonality, and that large sound stage can sometimes equate to a slight loss of resolution on tracks requiring something more intimate and articulate.

The Island seems built to provide a “big sound” but perhaps not the final word on resolution or intricate detail. I would say that this is a pretty fair trade-off considering the price actually. I never expected a $299 balanced amp to beat out their pricier International or Continental but it does compete very well indeed against the National.

The Islands tonality for me is more about on the go musicality than a studied monitor like presentation. It has a sound much more in keeping with modern genres such as dance, techno, and R&B but that big sound stage can make it also more amenable to some classical works with imaging that feels more like mid-row than the mosh pit.

 

I actually got the Island at the same time as the Ibasso DX50 which uses a Wolfson WM8740 and after a few listens we felt that although the DX50 was more accurate tonally and a better sense of detail and sparkle it lost out to the spaciousness of the Island by some margin.

I did some checking against a few other DAC/AMP’s I had also such as the Miniwatt N4 which I actually rate quite highly for headphones but compared to the Island it had a noticeably higher noise floor with IEM’s and a more forward presentation and smaller sound stage.

What the Island does best

What I love about the Island is that although it packs a fairly powerful little amp it is not a clumsy beast with sensitive headphones and earphones like the RX-MK3 first edition could be at times.

The LCD-2 does indeed require the high gain setting on balanced mode but IEM’s are pretty happy to function at low gain without any noise floor issues. The humble but stellar AudioFly AF56 IEM which retails at around $100 and has a 118db rating handled excellently at low gain setting with zero noise floor and little or no channel imbalance at low volume levels.

I also tried working with some more treble orientated headphones such as the Soundmagic HP200 and the Beyer T70P. After the initial slight worry about the rather less detailed presentation, I actually found that smoother tonality and bigger sound stage to work in the Island’s favor making both these cans just a little less “hot”.

It also gave both the bottom a slight lift and slightly more satisfying impact than more neutral amps such as the JDS Labs C5 or the Theorem 720.

ALO Audio Island

Our Verdict

There is much to like about the tiny little Island DAC/AMP. The form factor and intuitive volume dial do make it wonderfully suited to an audiophile’s or road warriors laptop toolkit.

Its warm, bassy spacious tonality with a very flexible power handling makes the Island a “jack of all cans” that allows it to work well with a wide array of headphones even the LCD-2 rev 2.

It is not the final word in resolution and at times it can seem a bit veiled and distant but coming in at $299, with 4 distinctive colors and balanced to boot makes the Island a very accessible and modern DAC/AMP that is great fun to use.

 

ALO Audio Island Technical Specs

  • Input 1 x mini -USB
  • Output 1 x 3.5mm stereo jack socket
  • Output 1 x Stereo jack(Balanced)
  • Input: USB 2.0 Audio
  • Output: stereo analog, balanced
  • Sampling Frequency
  • 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4khZ, 192kHz
  • Resolution 16 up to 24 bit

Output power-Balanced

  • 130mW @32 Ohms
  • 200mW @50 Ohms
  • 160mW @300 Ohms
  • 83mW @600 Ohms

Output power-Unbalanced

  • 130mW @32 Ohms
  • 200mW @50 Ohms
  • 660mW @300 Ohms
  • 330mW @600 Ohms

Frequency response

  • 5-22kHz (+/-1dB)
  • THD+N: 0.001% @ 1kHz

Power

  • 5V DC from the USB bus
ALO Audio The Island
Its warm, bassy spacious tonality with a very flexible power handling makes the Island a "jack of all cans" that allows it to work well with a wide array of headphones even the LCD-2 rev 2.
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7.6
7.6
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21 Responses

  1. oldandcurious

    Hello again Marcus. Now that I have an HD600 and loving it plugged into my midi-component, which one would you suggest for 80% classical music listening: The Island or JDSLabs O2 w/ ODAC? Locally, both are similarly priced. I am also thinking of using my X3 as DAC and get the O2 amp-only. Or, is the E09K “good enough” to pair with my E07K?

    Thank you for any budget-oriented suggestion :)

    Reply
    • headfonics

      I would maybe veer to the 02 on this one though the Island has a big soundstage it might be too laid back and warm for top end articulation on classical.

      Reply
      • oldandcurious

        Thank you Marcus. I am now enjoying my Bach, Mozart & Vivaldi with a dash of Bolton, Vandross, Phyllis Hyman, Patrica Kass and Diana Krall passing through the JDS O2 :) For now, am using my X3 as DAC as I-don’t-why, but the X3’s DAC sounds more appealing to me than the E07K. The E09K w/ the E07K do perform quite well for my HD518 & SR60i at work.

        If you would be so kind to oblige me, will I smile with delight if I also get the ODAC? Or, would that be simply a “it must be better because I paid for it” experience? :)

      • headfonics

        My apologies for the late reply.

        I personally never tried the ODAC to be able to help you put there but the HD800 might need soemthing with a bit more oomph – try looking at the schiit modi and magni combo instead.

  2. stevej

    Marcus, thanks for the review. I love the aesthetics of the Island – you just want to get one. I was wondering, on the sonics and detailing, how you would you compare it to the Centrance Dacport? Any comments on Island or Dacport with the DT880? I mostly listen to classical.

    As an aside. I’ve never found the DT880 treble ‘hot’ – though, having heard a few pop recording, I get how some people may feel that.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • headfonics

      Never got to hear the DACport sadly but with the DT880 it should be a decent match given the island is inherently warm with plenty of bass “bounce”.

      Reply
  3. Nacor de Armas

    If the headphones output is worst than the balanced one, I think here we’ve got something rare, because it could be an option for a newie, who has no DAC or Amp, but a newie or any average user usually haven’t got balanced headphones.

    I ask for the 3.5 mm output, making comparisons with iDAC from micro iFi for example, because I am one of the users with no balanced headphones.

    Excellent site, thanks for your work.

    Reply
    • marcusd

      Thanks for the comments, unfortunately I do not have an iDAC to compare against.

      I dont think I actually mentioned that the balanced output was better or worse than the single ended output. Just that balanced was a great option for those that used balanced headphones.

      Today I am using my Island with customs with single unbalanced 3.5mm with no issues :)

      Reply
    • headfonics

      Thanks for the comments, unfortunately I do not have an iDAC to compare against.

      I dont think I actually mentioned that the balanced output was better or worse than the single ended output. Just that balanced was a great option for those that used balanced headphones.

      Today I am using my Island with customs with single unbalanced 3.5mm with no issues :)

      Reply
  4. ohm image

    I enjoyed this with the Audeze LCD phones at Tokyo’s headphone festival late last month. The volume know is amazing. Truly a work of ergonomic masterpiecage.

    Reply
    • headfonics

      It is amazing that something so simple as a volume dial in a certain position and weighting can make such a difference right?

      Reply
      • ohm image

        And I’m a big one for volume pots. The smoother and more precise the better. Wasted revolution is a problem as much as too much play. The Island really has a great feel to it.

      • 24bit

        I really wanted this Island to be more popular, seems like its everything people have always asked for and now that it is actually here, hardly anyone is making a fuss about it.

        Small, Cheap, Light, Practical, Great sound, Balanced…should be product of the year.

      • headfonics

        The Island is a great little usb DAC/AMP that perhaps lacks a bit of detail to really hit home, instead opting for power and sound stage. Careful matching can negate this for me with hotter cans being toned down a little. For $299 though its a blast.

      • Sylvain Gaudet

        Hi! Great review! I’m looking for a good amp/dac to match my Grado GR10. Could this one bring some bass and smoothness without noise floor for those very clean and sensitive IEM? Or should I look elsewhere?

      • headfonics

        I dont have a GR10 to try it out but both my customs showed no hiss or humm and had a very black background as a result.

      • headfonics

        I also tried an IE800 and it played just fine but I was not in love with the tonal match.

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