Last year, I was so thrilled by the performance of ALO’s Pan Am tube headphone amplifier and USB DAC that I bought my review sample without hesitation. I was so impressed with it’s musicality and it’s unique portability! How often can you shove a tube Amp/DAC into your messenger bag? (The Pan Am even comes with a slick carrying case.) Couple the portability factor with its black sonic background — via the Passport battery pack or Gateway power supply — the Pan Am is undeniable. The thing is cool, pure and simple. (My formal review for HPsoundings soon followed and you can check it out here. And for technical info on the Pan Am, you can refer to my original review or check out ALO Audio’s website.)
Now I’m writing about the fun I had while re-discovering this piece of kit — one that I’ve perhaps taken for granted as of late. This is an obvious danger within the world of high performance personal audio. The technology is evolving at such a rapid pace and from all origins: Sonic integrity, foward-thinking design concepts, and even a homage to the Golden Age of stereo through innovative tube technology. After hearing about ALO Audio’s recent offering of vintage 1980′s French tubes for the Pan Am, I reached out to Ken Ball to hear what difference this upgrade could possible make.
I was eager to dig back into my Pan Am. I always keep it nearby in the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab. It rests in its case, and sees most of its action when I want a lil’ tube sound on the side porch. So, I do use the thing, just not all the time. But the French tubes changed all that. These glass gems have transformed the musical presentation of this already overreaching amplifier. The tubes are NOS Radiotechnique (RTC): French, from the Eighties. ALO says they’re military issue EF95, 6AK5, and 5654 tubes that are compatible with the 6J1′s we Pan Amers have been using all along (well, many of us, I suppose). I’m admittedly not a tube-rolling guru. I do it often, but not without getting the advice of people who are in the know about these sorts of things. Usually, that means Dan Meinwald (of E.A.R USA) or Ken Ball (ALO). The overall tonality and dynamic charge is more decipherable with this tubes in this amplifier after tube-rolling.
On Beacon’s “Bring You Back” off their The Ways We Separate LP, there’s a rolling, pounding kick drum and a wavy bass line that permeates the track. The killer combination keeps the groove rollin’. Before installing the vintage French tubes, the bottom had punch, but lacked power and depth. It wasn’t underwhelming, but it didn’t wow me, leading me to think that the problem was in the mix. Nope. With these vintage tubes, driving my Audeze LCD-XC‘s, I felt as though I was back at Club Twilo in New York City in the 90′s, listening to Timo Mass rock the turntables (when people still spun actual vinyl LPs). The intense sway of the music made it impossible not to bob my head. I don’t care of you think the headphones experience is claustrophobic or second-rate to in-room stereo playback. To me, this sound is closer than I can ever get to the music, unless I have six hundred thousand dollars laying around. I close my eyes and I’m gone baby, gone. I have transcendent experiences like this with my headphone gear. I’m having one right now with the Pan Am, running the French tubes, streaming MOG (at 320kbps)!
Rockin’ “George Square Thatcher Death Party” (Justin K Broadrick reshape) from Mogwai’s A Wretched Virile Lore – this track always gets me, especially during heavy emotional times like these (family health issues). I hate to sound like a dipshit, but the track sounds like the perfect after-hour peak song. The ascending vocal samples, the high keys sound like the sun comin’ up while your shakin’ your head next to your girl as the bass fades and laughter and hugs commence. The echoing kick is a toe-tap trap. I can never escape it. Jesus, I’m sounding like a dirty Hippy (as my boy Peter Wohelski would say). Sorry about that. Why does any of this shit matter? Because I’m talking about the emotional power of the song, not the merits of the sound. The song gets me in the gut. On a resolute and soulful sound system, this songs clamps me in a reflective mood. I think of my circle of friends I grew up with. I think about my parents. Real emotional shit. Music has got to bring something outta you right? Well, this track does, but only on a system capable of translating its seductive qualities effortlessly. The Pan Am with NOS French tubes and Audeze LCD-XC had me hitting repeat all night.
Overall, I feel obligated to say that if you’re a Pan Am owner you would be selling yourself (and the Pan Am) short without giving these magnificent vintage tubes a try. They brought about a significant change in the actual gestalt of the music: The power behind the rhythm and melody. Everything appears with more clarity and power — the kind of upgrade I’m looking for. It was like pushing a giant “boost” button, but not like the bullshit ones that cloud everything up with tubby bass.
Unlike many writers, I don’t think I can discern with certainty in an Amp/DAC combo which component is doing what at all times. I prefer to comment on the whole component as that’s what I experience. Either way, detail retrieval was a huge improvement with this tube upgrade. For me, it’s a no brainer. Not only have these tubes reinvigorated my love for my ALO Pan Am, but they’ve enhanced its musical prowess to extreme levels. Bravo ALO. Bravo.