Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
july/august 2013

 

Sonic Satori - ALO's Studio Six Valve Headphone Amplifier... Class Defining
by Michael Mercer

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Between what many perceive as the high-end of audio, and where most of the innovation is happening today is high performance personal audio. You know what audio-oriented web community is blowing up the internet right now? Head-Fi.org. Its founder, Jude Mansilla, helped create a community high-end audio used aspire to, from what I hear. Head-Fi is more than the world's top community-driven internet headphone resource today; it's a global community of like-minded individuals who share a burning passion for music. Their common method of sound reproduction is personal audio equipment: portable or desktop oriented. Generations (including Generation X and Millennials) were raised knowing we could take our music with us. However, we didn't generally equate portable audio solutions with high fidelity. It was just a means of not going without our music! And we want our music with us all the time. We also needed music in our dorm rooms and cars. So it's no great mystery how those needs proliferated, and how the explosion of personal audio occurred. What's interesting now is the fact that quality doesn't have to be sacrificed for convenience any longer. You can purchase playback, processing, and power products today that achieve high fidelity with the sort of price tags that the audiophile industry typically associates with power cables and isolation feet (or, resonance control devices as they're often referred to as). It's an exciting time to crave new sonic adventures!

alo studio six

Now we can experience the same goose bumps our stereos used to induce in our living rooms through high-end desktop or portable audio! It's a brave new world to say the least. I can honestly say I didn't see it coming this quickly. However, high-end personal audio is still a niche market. The good thing about the niche is that it attracts nearly two to three million unique visitors a month to a global gathering place: Head-Fi.org. What is one of the greatest attributes of an interactive and informed collective, where manufacturers communicate directly with end users about product development and other aspects of their goals and visions for the future? Well, some of the greatest products are built as the result of that communal dialogue! The community drives companies to keep pushing their limits. The ALO Studio Six valve headphone amplifier is a shimmering example of what a company can do when they stay engaged with their audience, and are constantly working on ways to not only improve the experience of their end users, but also their friends and peers in the industry. The Studio Six feels and sounds more like a celebration of music played through headphones than it does just another new amplifier. There's magic here, and I'm not a bit surprised, considering how their products have gotten better and better over the last few years. Every time I end up with a fantastic new portable product from ALO, like their RxMK3-B rechargeable headphone amp (given a Writer's Choice Award last year), they come out with something better soon after! Some consumers consider this a hassle, like you can never keep up. But, dude, time progresses! And so do companies who stay aware of the marketplace and give a shit about their place within it. ALO, which stands for Audio Line Out, is that company and more. The Studio Six is a triumph in many areas. But first and foremost it is a triumph in the fine art of musical reproduction.

alo studio six

As heavy as that may sound, the Studio Six had humble beginnings. ALO's founder, Ken Ball, drew the design of this amplifier on a napkin. Later he brought in their good friend Thomas Martens, with sixteen-plus years of tube design under his belt, to collaborate with ALO on the Studio Six. He is the sole designer of the amplifier's circuit. Now here we are a couple years later. That humble beginning may be part of the magic that surrounds this amplifier, because ALO has done what Audeze did with their LCD3 magnetic planar headphones: create a new class of product. You see, there were magnetic planar headphones before Audeze came around, but none like the LCD3. Their dynamic impact, sense of realism, and support from Grammy Award-winning producers and engineers, not to mention artists and other music industry echelon, put them in a class by themselves. ALO has done the very same with the Studio Six. Sure, we've seen our fair share of single-ended triode amps in high-end audio. But a single-ended triode packed with a 6SN7 (tube rolling anyone?), 6V6, 5AR4, OB2 gas regulators (x2), and an overly spec'd power supply in a headphone amp? Oh, I forgot to mention, this thing has four 1/4" headphone outputs and is capable of driving four low impedance cans without signal degradation. No loss in harmonics or break-up of harmonic structure. I know. I tested it. I connected my Audeze LCD3s, Sennheiser HD-800s, Audeze LCD1s (on-loan), and my Grado SR225s (not low impedance, but I only have three of those available). I made sure to use different lengths of cables on the headphones so I could listen to each without being disturbed by the other. The result? All four headphones sounded as good as I've ever heard them sound. They were punchy, airy, authoritative, and capable of finesse when called for.

alo studio six

alo studio six

So, a new statement in valve headphone amps and it can drive up to four low impedance cans at once! Thank God it also looks fantastic! Ken Ball and his team managed to sink the transformers so they sit flush, and there are no hard edges on the Studio Six. The industrial design flows wonderfully. It's clean. I also love the "running light," a seeming nod to leading-edge electronics of the fifties with its crystal-shaped light (which lets you know the amp has reached its operating temperature). It's all class. I'm also psyched that I was offered the honor of taking the black one home from T.H.E Show Newport Beach! Ken Ball surprised me to say the least. Thanks for that mind-bender Ken! I liked the silver units too, but the black just looks so much sexier. Man, there I go again using the word sexy to describe a piece of hi-fi equipment. I'm gonna have to deal with this sooner or later. In the meantime, I haven't been able to pull myself away from the Studio Six since I got it a couple weeks ago. My wife's complained a few times, one of the very few drawbacks to headphone listening, you end up in your own world! She's been calling herself "the headphone widow" ever since I brought the Studio Six home from T.H.E. Show.

With the following associated equipment:

MacBook Pro SSD running Amarra 2.5.1(best sounding Amarra thus far by the way)

Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC

ALO Studio Six headphone amplifier

Audeze LCD3 headphones

Sennheiser HD800 headphones

A VPI Traveler turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge

Unison Research Simply Phono tube phonostage

I've experienced some amazing shit using my Audeze LCD3s and Sennheiser HD800s on the Studio six! My utmost apologies for that seeming shortcut to thinking, but it's true. I wish I could articulate the magic of those listening sessions in a more formal way. But fuck it, I'm having so much fun with this amplifier I couldn't care less about niceties. For a while I couldn't even take notes as I was so engrossed in the music via the Studio Six. I felt like my mentor Harry Pearson must have felt when he first experienced the Genesis I loudspeaker system (a quarter million-dollar, four giant tower, in-room speaker system). Listening to the Studio Six while playing Frou Frou's "Hear Me Out," a flowing pop ballad, I can discern each bass note as it hits. There is also texture, warmth, and definition. That's a tough combination of sonic attributes to find in an amplifier. ALO's Studio Six reproduced this tune in such a seductive way I had to listen to it at least twice every time I clicked play! Thanks to fellow Head-Fier, and now, fellow PFO scribe Warren Chi for reminding me about Frou Frou's album! Entitled Details, the record is a synth-heavy pop masterpiece. Perfect for a great headphone rig. I listened to the album over and over again via my Audeze LCD3s and the Studio Six. Could there be a better compliment for the system? It sounded so damn good I had to listen to just about everything I played twice!

alo studio six

The dark slamming kick and airiness of Depeche Mode's "Welcome to My World," off Delta Machine (review HERE), was as powerful as I've ever heard. That includes listening to this song on my own in-room reference system, as well as a few of my friends' systems. ALO's Studio Six has balls, plain and simple. The great thing about that, however, is that it also has finesse. I cry three out of five times when I play Mogwai's "Special N" off Les Revenants (review HERE). It's an ascending string and synth piece. The crescendo sounds like the sensation I feel while watching a sunrise after a long night of dancing my ass off with my friends. We're half worn-out, half ecstatic, but we feel alive more than we ever do during the work-week. That's how I feel when I listen to this song, and the Studio Six put me right there in the club parking lot. I wept like a child, and as strange as it may sound, I loved every minute of it. That's the power of music, and that pureness, that intangible thing that keeps us listening, keeps us talking about it, writing about it, and living our lives around it every day, is greatly enhanced with a killer sound system. The ALO Studio Six belongs not just in the reference class category of headphone amplifiers, but its own class as well. One that recognizes innovation, like driving four low impedance headphones at once! For some this may seem like overkill, but the biggest issue I have with headphones is that they're so solitary it's tough to share the experience! With the Studio Six, I've had friends over for listening sessions just like I do with my two-channel system. The way we interact and listen to headphones is changing rapidly, and the Studio Six is at the head of the pack in high-end desktop personal audio. I can't get enough of the damn thing. Ken Ball and his team have reason to be proud. The Studio Six is a blast to listen to, and its aesthetics are modern and clean. If you're in the market for a first-rate reference headphone amplifier, be sure to put this amongst the top of your contenders list. I love it, and ALO is going to have to send armed men to get it back. Most highly recommended.

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