Component Reviews

Pan Am Headphone Amplifier and USB DAC

A compact and effective little DAC & headphone amp with tubes for your computer desk.

Published on September 8, 2012

Pan Am Headphone Amplifier and USB DAC

Pan Am Headphone Amplifier and USB DAC
SRP: $599
SRP: $199 for Gateway AC power supply
SRP: $149 for PassPort battery supply

Optional Accessories: The PassPort or Gateway
Dimensions: 124mm (L) x 98mm (W) x (36)mm (H)
Battery Play Time: 10 hours
Battery Recharge Time: 5-6 hours
Frequency Response :+/- 1 dB: 40 Hz-30kHz
Input Impedance: 10KOhms
Channel Tracking: < +/- 0.2dB
THD+N: 1%

ALO Audio
1810 SE 10th Ave., Unit B
Portland, OR 97214

Slightly over 3¾ inches across the front, the compact Pan Am—with its two little glowing tubes sticking out of the chassis—is a lovely addition to any computer setup on a desk. You can put the metal sleeves over the tubes if you wish, but most users would want to see the glowing small  tubes displayed. They are offered as both Russian make and Siemens OEM upgrades. And you can roll your own if you wish. These are the compatible tubes: 6J1, 6AK5, 6BC5, EF40, 5654, EF95 and WE403.

I found the basic Pan Am headphone amp very close in fidelity to my Benchmark DAC1 DAC/headphone amp. It has a rich tube-like sound, of exceptional fidelity and clarity, with great detail on my Grado headphones. The low setting of the two-option phone output switch was fine for the Grados. (The Pan Am doesn’t have the umph to handle my reference headphones: the AKG K1000 with its dedicated amp.) ALO suggests that the with the separate and optional Passport battery or the  Gateway AC power supply, there is a quieter and “blacker” noise floor. I wasn’t able to hear that with the Passport (the Gateway wasn’t provided). However, I did hear a reduced distortion on peaks in the music from that provided by plugging the 12v wall-wart directly into the input on the rear of the Pan Am. The battery is said to run 10 hours before needing recharging.

The Pan Am comes in either a black or silver case, both beautifully finished, and the second case—should you get the optional Passport or Gateway—has rails on top and bottom, allowing it to next above the battery or AC power supply to a compact little assembly. Three different-length connector cables are provided so you can link your wall-wart to the power supply or the battery. On the rear of the Pan Am are input ports for stereo RCA plugs, stereo mini-plug or USB from the computer. There is also a small knob for selection of which option you have chosen. An amber indicator light on the front next to the small toggle switch lets you know when the Pan Am is powered on.

The Pan Am offers 96K/24 bit capabilities thanks to a Wolfson DAC. There are both the mini 3.5mm stereo output headphone jack and the ¼-inch stereo headphone jack, and the levels of both are controlled by a front-mounted adjustment knob.  The amp had plenty of power for my Grados at all listening levels.. Even though it wasn’t designed as DAC to power an integrated amp and speakers (there are no output ports for that), I found that by using the 3.5mm stereo output as the feed to my office integrated amp and speakers, it worked and sounded excellent.

The simplicity and small size of the Pan Am make it a highly-prized item. For those who are more on the go than I am, the Passport external battery could be quite the thing. It ensures terrific sonics wherever you are, and isn’t that heavy to tote around. There are no optical nor coax inputs on the back of the Pan Am—just the USB port. I don’t use a hub with my iMac, just plugging in either my printer or scanner as I use them. But these meant plugging the Pan Am into that USB port, rather than using the optical out port which powers my Benchmark DAC1. If you purchase both the Passport and the Gateway, you will have a nesting three-tiered stack of compact components which prepare you for any situation.

The new Fred Hersch albums—the first of his solo piano and the second of his trio at the NYC’s Vanguard, sounded close and intimate via the Pan Am and Grados. There was more detail and clarity than listening thru the speakers, and the Vanguard audiences were deathly quiet. The piano tone on both albums was gorgeous, and the audience applause was startling in its realism—always a good test of recorded fidelity.

Comparing the sonics of my Benchmark DAC1 with the Pan Am resulted in only a very slight edge in favor of the Benchmark.  Of course it does have two-channel, properly equalized, analog out jacks to feed my office integrated amp, which the Pan Am lacks. The amp is versatile as far as matching up various headphones, some of which have widely different impedances. I tried a few of my lesser headphones and they all sounded great with the Pan Am. You might start out with just the basic Pan Am and decide later if you need to go for either the battery or separate AC supply.

The only slight cons I found were the lack of a properly-equalized output to a separate integrated amp and speakers, not having coax or optical inputs, and the inconvenience that the Pan Am audio input frequently failed to show up in the sound options of my iMac’s System Prefs, and I had to restart the iMac in order to get it to appear again. Perhaps with PCs this problem wouldn’t occur. Rogue Amoeba has a free app called Soundsource which would correct this, but it is not yet compatible with the new Mac OS, Mountain Lion; probably will be in future.

—John Sunier

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