Mar 172011
 

This is the first review by 22 year old Jason Herzl and I want to offer him a very warm welcome to Adventures in High Fidelity Audio.

Jason is a college student on a very tight budget and as he puts it ‘this has caused me to become quite savy in the “cheap-and-cheerful” Hi-Fi arena’ This approach of looking for the biggest bang for the buck products led to him discovering the subject of this review the ALO Panda mini-monitors.

Over to you Jason.

Neil

ALO Panda Review

The subject of this review is a little known but fantastic widebander speaker and at $268 US, they’re a steal. I’ve owned them for about a year.

First, a bit about the manufacturer:

ALO audio (Audio Line Out) is a manufacturer of cables, most known for their iPod Line-Out Dock cables and headphone cables. They do an assortment of braided designs of copper, spc, and silver. They also make cables for Red Wine Audio. They are located in Portland, Oregon, USA, and operate out of the retail store 32 Ohm Audio.

I had previously purchased a LOD from them, but believe it or not, it wasn’t for me! Yes, I know two real live people near me who are into audio Nirvana too! The cable seemed to be of excellent quality build wise. Unfortunately, I never heard my buddy’s current portable rig with any other cable, so I have nothing to compare it against. However, I’d say the fact that he still has it in use today is a good sign.

The Pandas are ALO’s  first loudspeakers. They feature a 3.5” driver that is a clone of the Aura NS3. The specs of the bare drivers are:Frequency Response: 80hz-15khz, Impedance: 8 Ohms, Sensitivity: 82 db/w/m Xmax: Something ridiculous. The surrounds on these things are huge!, Max Power: 20 Watts continuous.

The speaker cabinets are made out of sustainably grown bamboo and finished with natural oils. They have large, nickel plated binding posts that can accept spades, bananas, and bare wire. The internal wiring is 18 gauge copper by ALO. They have two ports in the back that are fairly large relative to the bite sized cabinets. There’s a lovely engraving of a Panda on the back of each monitor with the model name, and “made in Portland, Oregon, USA, 8 Ohm.” These speakers are really beautiful, more so than the photos can reveal. They’ll surely have a very high WAF, so I anticipate them staying with me longer than most of my other gear. (I don’t have a ball and chain yet, I’m just a planner. In fact, I’m noteven close) Oh yeah, and did I mention? These things are tiny!!!

Before we talk about how the speakers sounded, we need to cover my prior sonic reference. The first real system I used as a reference was my Dad’s (and now mine) Sony STR-7055a and JBL L166. Since the age of 8 or so I grew up with that 70’s West Coast (sometimes derogatorily called “Boom, Tizz”) Sound. Right or wrong, I love it; it’s what sounds 100% like childhood, and frankly better than most $2,000 systems I hear today. I also have a TA2024 amp that is quite decent, although decidedly “cheap Class D” sounding with the JBLs.

Right out of the box, I plugged these into my T-AMP and used my iPod to test them out. I played a track off of Oscar Peterson’s We Get Requests. These little guys were REALLY excitable! As in, knife sharp piano and roller coaster bass! It was definitely a “jumpy” speaker. I put it in my basement with the t-amp and an old iPod set on continuous shuffle plugged in to the wall. I told my roommates to leave it alone, and I revisited it in ten days.

Set-Up

This was a challenge. After I was confident the Pandas had burned in, I brought them to my listening/entertainment/bedroom in my house. I use the term “entertainment room” loosely, as the entertainmentconsists of a 13” CRT, a Playstation 2, and a great stereo. I guess having some great gear and a terribleTV is the mark of a true audiophile…right? My room is small, like afterthought guest room small. However, acoustically it’s pretty dead thanks to a thick carpet, a ton of furniture, and piles of my disorganized stuff. Hey, I’m in college and I have a terrible job. What’s your excuse?

I wired these up to the Sony and turned it on. I put on my iPod and took a shower while the old, wood- clad beast stretched its limbs. Before we go anywhere further, we should be perfectly clear on a few things. First: my only sources for this review are an iPod, a Nintendo DS, and a Playstation 2. I have heard some great DACs such as the Benchmark DAC1, but I simply don’t have any of my own. In fact, I think my iPod sounds pretty damn excellent, and I just use the headphone jack! Second: I used 320kbps AAC files. For everything. Take a breath, everything will be all right. I can’t tell the difference between that bit rate and lossless. Maybe it’s my ears, maybe it’s my gear, maybe it’s years of being a firearms enthusiast, maybe I’m trying to deceive you for laughs, but that’s the way it is. Third: I know my room is far from perfect, but it is possible to get excellent sound from it thanks to its mildly rectangular shape, acoustic nature, and tone controls on my receiver. Ah yes, I like those too.

After everything had warmed up, I played some albums that had a really solid sound stage that I was familiar with. The JBLs don’t image very well, but I did get a good enough idea. I gave the Pandas The Dark Side of the Moon first. Cliché, I know, but I know where everything is supposed to fall in space, and where everything should be tonally. I placed the Pandas on top of my JBLs (yeah, I don’t have real speaker stands, get over it) at roughly the same ever-so-slightly toed in angle. I put them as far away from the wall as possible, but it was still only about a foot of clearance.

I put on “Breathe.” I was greeted by a very bright, very upfront sound with no bass to speak of whatsoever.Yuck! I almost felt burned, but I know how picky about placement certain speakers can be. I remember reading on some forum or perhaps some review site about how many widebanders like a really aggressive toe-in. I turned the Pandas so that each driver was pointed directly at the listening station (nothing at all really, I sit cross-legged on my floor when doing “serious” listening). I played a few tracks of the Zenph re-recording of Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Now, things were getting better. The piano was sounding nice and warm, but it wandered around the center of the speakers, never really locking in place. Also, the bass was still pretty light. I wasn’t expecting a seismic quake from these, but still a bit more than they were giving me. I decided to take two relatively drastic but easily reversible measures. My salacious Sony is the ultimate sonic band-aid. I have never heard another amplifier that is as forgiving, versatile, romantic, and groovy as the STR-7055a.

One of my favorite features is its “Loudness” switch. Every pair of speakers I’ve tried with it really finds their mojo when they’re used with Loudness turned on. Loudness is a bass and very lower mid-range boost that gives a little more booty-shaking authority to the low band and a little more foundation to lower male voices. Now, before you go squawking about one-note car stereo bass and cheap tricks, know that this is a very well implemented feature. The bass stays articulate and tuneful, and the lower registers are boosted with just a bit more swagger. I switched this on.

From now on, all comments about the Pandas are with the Sony’s Loudness switch turned on.Next, I toed them in even more. So much that I can see, at a sharp angle, the entire side of the speaker.If the speakers fired beams of light they would cross well in front of the listening position, but I really wanted to make that center lock. I fired up Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Now that’s what I’ve been waiting for! The image is huge, towering the height of my ceiling, slightly beyond the width of the speakers, and far deeper than my wall goes, and reaching out at me too! My JBLs have never done this! I’ve only heard imaging like this from my friend’s Zu Soul Superfly’s being fed by a Decware Taboo. But where those were a little more laid-back, these extended a bit more forward, although seemingly at the expense of precise depth. Still, far more than I expected. (Regarding almost everything else, these are totally different speakers.

Don’t expect that Zu sound from a pair of these. This is neither good or bad). Also, the bass was worlds better. It wasn’t as deep as the JBLs’ but it rolled off cleanly enough that you didn’t miss the mid-low bass on most tracks (more on that later). There was a weird hollowness on a small handful of upper-bass frequencies. It could have been from the cabinet getting excited, or it could have been a room interaction, or an effect of the controls on the Sony, but I fixed it quickly. I simply dropped a cotton ball down each port on the rear of the speaker, and it didn’t totally go away but it cleared up immensely. I tried adding more, but that reduced the bass output too much. From now on, all comments about the Pandas refer to them with my Patent-Pending single cotton ball down the ports mod.

Sound Quality – What I Strive For

I have a very limited use for true neutrality. Sometimes I want and appreciate it, but most of the time, I just want to watch the show. Go take the tickets sold, tech crew, and rehearsal footage to someone else. I just want the goods! And for me; that means a hefty coating of sugar and an incredibly overdone Ganja buzz. Extreme lucidity and exceptional sound stage size, solidarity, and depth. I don’t care too much for accuracy; I want it to sound larger-than-life. I’m willing to trade that last bit of upper air and that last slow vibration for a silky smooth and seductively warm mid-range. This assumes, of course, that the highs and lows don’t go completely MIA. I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing a 300BSET, but everything I’ve read about them tells me I would fall in love.

Sound Quality – A Trial with a T-Amp

The Pandas are advertised as working well with a low powered amp. This could definitely be the case, as they were able to reach ear-splitting levels with my TA2024 based amp (Muse M15 EX, $60 on eBay with power supply). However, the synergy just wasn’t there. My T-Amp just wasn’t delivering the low-end goods, and also it made the presentation a little more forward, and brighter, but not in a good way. The driver’s rating of 82 db/w/m at 8 Ohms is a little misleading; it sounds crazy inefficient but when you take in cabinet factors, room interaction, boundary reinforcement, and the cross-over-less design, they do pretty well on low powered loads. My T-Amp is a detail monster, and that came through on the Pandas. I suppose it depends on what your preferences are.

I haven’t heard a well designed TA2020 amp such as the King Rex or a good TA2022 amp like those from Hlly so I wouldn’t write off T-Amps completely, especially since those are said to be darker/mellower with more valve bloom. I reversed to the Sony and haven’t looked back. Now that I had achieved the ideal set-up and amp settings, I was ready to seriously listen to music. Note: these subjective impressions are from different days, at different times. I’ve just compiled them in a summary format for ease of reading.

Music

I returned to the Aphex Twin album I used during set-up. The first track, called Xtal, hits you nice and wonderfully slow, like lowering yourself into a warm bubble bath. The gentle, airy synths formed a beautiful wall of sound, and the recording’s rolled off bass was reproduced accurately by the Pandas. Some of these tracks were recorded on cassette, and they sound like it. However, this enhances the music with that weird Dolby sound, and a bit of persistent grain. The graininess works really well with the music and gives it a pleasing texture. The Pandas kept everything in balance. So far, so good. This track also features distant, ethereal female vocals, and the Pandas did that sexy widebander thing and locked them in the middle of the sound stage, and placed them accurately in space.

I decided to continue with the electronic trend, and put on Shpongle’s Nothing Lasts, but Nothing is Lost. This album is a sonic tour-de-force, with beautifully recorded samples, complex aural structures and bone-shattering bass. Right off the bat I was greeted with that huge, alluring sound stage. The intentional distortions of the album were spot on. Then…the bass track really started to kick in. The Pandas did their very best, but in the end, it just wasn’t good enough. They had provided all the space, air, and structure, but their low frequency response was too rolled off to give the music a real foundation. On this track, bass-wise, they sounded a bit like some iPod docks I’ve heard. They had a nice little bump in the upper-bass (I’d guess around 100 hz) but they rolled off too quickly to deliver that pumped-up, electronic sound. If you like dubstep, psy-trance, or comparable forms of music, you absolutely need a sub with these. This album also revealed another weakness of the speakers: when pushed to the high volumes I prefer with this kind of music, they began to sound a little strained/grainy. Not bad, but something I wish wasn’t there.

I listened to some Sublime at a comparably high volume and my impressions were generally the same. I decided to give the little guys a break from their high Xmax and I listened to John Holloway’s recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin on the ECM label. Now this is the kind of music that makes the Pandas sing! Holloway performs in a big hall with lots of reverb, and he plays in a very robust style with lots of buzz but not too much romance. That woodsy, rosin-y, syrup-y string sound was captured beautifully by the Pandas. Some people might prefer to hear a little more of that metallic bite from their strings, but not me. This is exactly what I’m looking for in the sound of a recorded violin. I ended up listening to nearly all of the two hour plus album, even though I didn’t really have the time to do so.

Later on, I listened to Bill Evans. I played the Alan Yoshida XRCD remasters of Explorations and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The Pandas displayed some solid imaging on these, although not with 100% spot-on accuracy. Of course, you can’t reproduce the full scale sound of a piano trio in my little room anyways. The bass was rolled off, but on this example, it was present and tuneful, and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the music. The piano was sweet and had a nice timbre, if a little on the warm side. The drums floated in space, although that last little bit of top end air and extension was MIA. However, none of these problems really detracted from my enjoyment of the music, and I had a toe-tapping good time.

Bill Evans was nice, but I needed something with a little more excitement. I decided to listen to Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I have a vinyl rip, as every digital version I’ve heard sounds horrid, but each in its own unique way. A track that really stood out for me was “May This Be Love.” Hendrix’s voice is rendered with all the roughness and haze that gives it its edge. His metaphorical waterfall just oozed out of the speakers. It was slow and involving at the same time.

Did you every eat Gushers as a kid? The sound oozed kind of like the filling of those delectable little treats, but with less artificial snap. Also, this recording is from the early days of stereo, back when engineers were swept-up in the “Gee-whiz, look what I can do!” phase of audio mastering. The guitar, drums, and bass all swap channels during this track in a rather clunky way. On the Pandas, it sounded awkward, clunky, and slightly jarring, just like it’s supposed to.

A critical thing that all speakers I keep must do is play well at low volumes. I do a lot of my listening at night, in total darkness by myself. I have to keep the volume low so I don’t disturb my room mates.

To test this out, I listened to The Dream Tracker, by Steve Roach, Byron Metcalf, and Dashmesh Khalsa. This album is a bizarre hybrid of ambient, didgeridoo, and house music. It’s very much a “slow burn” kind of album with rich, slowly moving soundscapes and intermittent driving beats. Right off the bat I was impressed. The didgeridoo and Steve Roach’s ambient landscape were gigantic and floaty, even at the low output level. The didgeridoo wasn’t as bassy/grunty as I’m used to hearing on my JBLs, but I still got the body of the instrument, that woodiness and the skillful articulations of Dashmesh Khalsa. The beats on the album, provided by Byron Metcalf, are put forward with immediacy and purpose, but missing a touch of LFE. All in all a rather splendid performance.

Movies

The Pandas are a poor choice for any movie that is heavily action-based. Michael Bay certainly did not design these. The lack of low lows and shear air-moving ability limits their ability to capture the grandness and scope of a big-budget Hollywood production. That said, for most films, these are actually quite good. They reproduce scores pretty well, and dialog is always clean and intelligible. Since many films are mostly dialog, they really aren’t half bad if you don’t watch a lot of shoot-em-ups. I haven’t heard a reproduced gunshot that sounds and feels like the real thing, and honestly, in a home entertainment context I don’t want to. That said, these are pretty bad at sharp, sudden loud noises like gunshots, car crashes, horror movie jump scares, etc. They don’treally sound right, and I wish I could describe it better, but something is just OFF, really off.

These speakers are also a great choice for fans of vintage movies.

On Criterion’s recent DVD edition of Fritz Lang’s M, they really take the harshness away from the mono German track. The dialog becomes a bit more intelligible and considerably less fatiguing than I’m used to hearing.

Games

I find that most video games have very pleasant sounding music, effects, and dialog. I speculate this is because the engineers know that most gamers will hear the sounds on poor TV speakers, so they master the audio in an inoffensive way. I have no proof of this, but from what I’ve heard it seems to be the case.

Lately I’ve been replaying Final Fantasy X, my very favorite PS2 game and one of my favorite games ever. The sweeping, romantic score washes over you during the cut scenes, and the action music is delivered with drive and purpose. Most of the effects come through strongly and cleanly, but a few of them sound a little sucked-out, like a poorly done hologram of the real thing. 95+ percent of the time though, no complaints from me.

Next, I plugged my Nintendo DS into the Sony and played some Mario Kart. The music sounds overly warm and grainy, but that’s the way it always sounds. There was lots of depth, and the sounds of other racers and crashing items were delicious.

Specific recommendation:

The Pandas are fickle beasts. They are super-placement sensitive, need some good boundary reinforcement, and they don’t sound good with all forms of music. The aggressively rolled off bass will be a deal-breaker for fans of dubstep, hip-hop, church organ music, etc. Large orchestral works can sound a little confused, and if pushed to high volumes, they can sound a little grainy. Also, by nature of their mini-monitor status, I’m guessing these would choke in a large room. However, they are sweet and warm sounding when set up correctly, pretty versatile all things considered, and they play beautifully at low volumes, which is a big selling point to me. I didn’t try these out with a plethora of amps, but based on how they reacted to my T-Amp and how they really needed the loudness switch on the Sony, I feel I can safely say that they are rather picky about amplification. ALO says that these have great synergy with the Mini Watt tube amp, which they sell in addition to other low-output tube amps and T-amps. I’d imagine that a voluptuous sounding SET with a fatter than average bottom end would be just the ticket for these. If you can live with the limitations, these have my highest recommendation.

Conclusion:

I’m very happy with the ALO Panda mini-monitors, especially for under $300. They are a great into to the world of widebanders, and they have inspired me to further explore this area (when funds permit). They work perfectly for my application, and these days I’ve been listening to them more than my JBLs. However, when I need to rage with some Trentemoller, they just don’t cut the mustard. Anyone wanting a fun second system, and a cheap primary system for jazz, vocal works, ambient music, light classical, and non-demanding rock will find what they’re looking for in these if they can move beyond the low bass issues. If you want a late-night outer space experience, the Pandas are the little engine that really can. I’m sold on widebanders, and ALO speakers if they decide to make some bigger/grander models.

Jason Herzl

Specifications of the ALO Panda

  • Cabinet 9 inches X 5.5 inches X 4.5 inches
  • Laser engraved logo
  • Wiring is ALO 18awg OCC 99.9998% pure mono crystal cryo treated
  • Driver is a direct replacement for Aura NS3 – 3.5 inch full range driver 8 ohm
  • Rubber-edged anodized aluminum alloy cone
  • Large excursion capability—4 mm Xmax, 20 mm peak
  • Self-shielded Neo-Sym motor structure
  • Full-range 80 Hz to 15 kHz performance
  • 3/4″ 4-layer underhung voice coil with polyimide former
  • 20 watts RMS power handling

Source of review product: End user owner

Manufacturer www.aloaudio.com http://www.aloaudio.com/about/


© Text and Photos Copyright Jason Herzl 2011

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

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