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Supercharge your laptop's sound with the ALO Island headphone amplifier

The Audiophiliac spends some quality time with this portable digital converter/headphone amp, and loves the sound!

The ALO Island comes in four colors. ALO

The ALO Island is a USB-powered digital audio converter/headphone amplifier, and it's a honey! Functionally, it's not so different than many of the other USB digital converter/amps I've covered on this blog, but it's a bit bigger. The others are about the size of a thumbdrive; the Island is a 1.25x1.25x3.25-inch aluminum "brick," but it's still small enough to be considered a portable device. It handles low- and high-resolution files, up to 192kHz/24-bit. The Island sells for $299 in the US direct from the ALO Web site, and it's also available from ALO's US and international dealers.

The all-metal construction and solid feeling volume control knob imbue the Island with a high-end feel. Thanks to the big knob it's easier to dial-in exactly the volume you want than it is with volume up/down buttons. My review sample is anodized blue, but the Island is also available in yellow, black or silver.

Connectivity goes above and beyond the norm for this type of device, in addition to the Micro-USB and 3.5mm jacks, the Island features a "balanced" four-pin headphone jack. This square jack is starting to be used on more and more high-end portable headphone amps. That's nice, but most users will use the Island's 3.5mm headphone jack.

The ALO Island's rear panel ALO

I was so impressed with the Island's sound I used it with the new Audeze LCD-X headphones, and that's where I took advantage of the amp's balanced headphone jack. I'll soon cover the LCD-X in a separate review, but the match-up between these state-of-the-art headphones and this little amp was enticing. This headphone exceeds Audeze's other headphones'already high transparency and you-are-there realism. The clarity is thrilling, and the Island makes it possible to take high-quality sound with you, anywhere! Mark Nauseef's all-percussion "With Space in Mind" CD had a fully tactile feel; the texture in the sound of the instruments was amazing! The dynamic shadings of each beat were reproduced with rare fidelity. The balanced connection sounded ever so slightly weightier than what I heard from the regular 3.5mm jack. A lot of USB-powered digital converter/headphone amps don't seem all that powerful, but the Island had no such problem; low-end bass oomph was never in doubt. In addition to the Audeze headphones, some high-end Hifiman and Sennheiser full-size headphones can run balanced, and so can select custom, molded-to-your-ears earphones from Ultimate Ears, JH-Audio, Westone, and so on.

High-resolution 192kHz/24-bit WAV files upped the ante, mostly by sounding more "live," so I felt like I was hearing the musicians in the studio. For those listening tests I was using my high-impedance Beyerdynamic T90 full-size headphones. My JH-13 in-ear headphones sounded warmer and fuller than I'm used to with my iPod, and that's a compliment. The Island is a purely solid-state design, and yet it delivers an almost tubelike warmth to the sound of many headphones. I just got a set of Westone UM Pro 10 in-ears for review, and their sound really clicked with the Island. The sound was surprisingly dynamic and vocals were immediate and present.

AC-powered headphone amps and digital converters, like my Schiit Asgard 2 ($249) and Bifrost ($449), with my Hifiman HE-400 headphones produced superior resolution and bigger dynamics, but the Schiits are stay-at-home devices. The Island sounds a lot more than decent at home, but can travel along with your laptop.