I heard about the Astell & Kern AK100 portable music player from iriver a few months ago and was impressed by its appearance online. The player looks really nice compared to almost every other player available including many mobile phones. Shortly after perusing the Astell & Kern website I moved on to other items of the day and completely forgot about the player. Fortunately iRiver contacted me a couple weeks ago offering the Astell & Kern player for review. I happily accepted. Since its arrival I've been like a little kid who received the latest game console for the holidays. I can't stop listening to my favorite music through the Astell & Kern AK100. The sound is so much better than my iPhone 5 that I really can't go back to such an unresolving and muddy sounding device. I'm rarely this excited about a new audio component. My excitement reminds me of the times when I've purchased a new component or pair of speakers and I couldn't stop listening to all of my favorite tracks just to hear them in a new way. I'm absolutely hooked on the Astell & Kern AK100 and I couldn't be more thrilled.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
What Is The Astell & Kern AK100
The Astell & Kern AK100 is a portable music player made by iriver. This player is so much more than its name implies and most importantly it sounds so much better than typical portable music players. The AK100 is made of nicely brushed aluminum that feels really good in the hand. The unit has a substantial feel to it although its 2.33" x 3.11" x 0.57" frame isn't heavy. When I unboxed the AK100 I was surprised by the unit's small palm sized housing. All the photos online make it look a bit larger than real life. Speaking of unboxing, the Astell & Kern is packaged like a true high end audio product. Opening the unit is like opening a finely wrapped present. Apple is no longer the sole portable audio manufacturer who has mastered the art of packaging. The AK100 features a 2.4" IPS touchscreen for all but the most basic navigation and playback control. The screen is nice but nothing to write home about. It enables the user to control the unit and get on with listening to music.
Internally the Astell & Kern AK100 contains a Wolfson WM8740 24bit, 192kHz DAC. The DAC supports all relevant PCM sample rates including 44.1, 48, 88.2, 176.4, and 192 kHz at both 16 and 24 bits. File formats supported include audiophile favorites AIFF, WAV, FLAC, and ALAC. The AK100 features built-in 32GB NAND memory that can be supplemented by two 32GB micro SD cards for a total storage capacity of 96GB. Considering the stellar sound quality of the AK100 I'm willing to give up my 160GB iPod Classic for the 96GB of sonic bliss. I realize this review is beginning to read like a commercial for the Astell & Kern but I have to be honest about how impressed I am with this little device.
The Astell & Kern is much more about sound quality and using the product than it is specs and features. Sure the ability to input or output optical digital audio and its signal-to-noise ratio, crosstalk, etc… are nice, but this device is about moving great sounding music from one's listening room to any location in the house or on the planet. I can't remember the last time I sat in my living room listening to such quality sound reproduction while looking out the front window. I'm usually stuck downstairs in my listening room with small rays of sunlight seeping through the bushes and small windows. It is really enjoyable to have great tunes and great sound anywhere.
As a music aficionado who can't get enough I listen to music through headphones every night while falling asleep. This is usually done with an iPhone 5 and Ultimate Ears ue11 Pro in ear monitors. The combination is less than perfect but the small iPhone and IEM earphones are hard to beat for convenience and staying on good terms with my wife. I also use this combination while traveling quite a bit. Thus the reason why I compared the Astell & Kern to the iPhone 5. Both are portable music players that can be outperformed by a number of large desktop headphone amps, but that's not the point. Portable high end sound is what the AK100 is all about. In my small headphone collection is a Ray Samuels SR-71A that I used to connect to my iPhone 4's analog output. Based on memory I believe the AK100 outperform the iPhone 4 / SR-71A combination in sound quality and easily inconvenience. The two piece iPhone 4 / SR-71A package was always a hassle. In fact I stopped bringing it with em on the road because I hated the two piece cluster with an extra cable.
Back to listening a night with the ue11 Pro and the Astell & Kern. One unexpected advantage of the AK100 is its inability to conduct business such as emails, phone calls, and text messages. I never realized how nice this would be until I laid down with the unit and pressed play. I was in my own uninterruptible world safe from the next flame war taking place in the CA forum or the next meaningless text message from a friend spending too much time at the local Regal Beagle. Most of my listening through the Astell & Kern was done with CD quality 16/44.1 music. This allowed me to compare apples to apples as my iPhone 5 only accepts 16/44.1. From the very first track it was no contest. Keb' Mo's Every Morning was crystal clear with excellent separation between each guitar string. The same track played through the iPhone 5 and ue11 Pro combo was very muddy with the guitar often sounding like a one-stringed instrument. Listening to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue through the AK100 was much closer to the sound of my main system than it was to the iPhone 5 or even the iPhone 4 / SR-71A combo. Switching to high resolution material was equally as enjoyable. Passacaglia from the Kansas City Symphony is a go-to track I both like and use as a test of audio components. Recorded by Keith Johnson at Reference Recordings this track has serious dynamic range and displays both delicacy and power of an audio system. The Astell & Kern reproduced this track very well. I don't think I've ever heard it this good on a portable system. Ottmar Liebert's One Guitar at 24/96 sounded excellent as well. Many of the attributes heard in the Keb' Mo' track were present with this complete album. Each pluck of the guitar string was clear as day and the overall sound put the iPhone 5 to shame. Switching back and forth between the AK100 and the iPhone 5 during this review I frequently lost interest in all the music played through the iPhone. Once one hears something better it's impossible to go back to subpar performance. Sure the music was good but both the music and the sound was good through the Astell & Kern.
The Astell & Kern AK100 is the best portable music player I've yet heard. The fact that it handles high resolution audio up through 24 bit / 192 kHz is just a bonus. Both my high resolution and CD quality 16 bit / 44.1 kHz music sounded superb through the AK100 and Ultimate Ears ue11 Pro earphones. The build quality of the AK100 is terrific with the exception of the volume knob that's a little cheap feeling to the touch. The all aluminum housing is a delight to handle. The AK100's expandable storage from 32GB (built-in) to 96GB (via Micro SD card) is a great plus considering how much music one will want to hear through this high end component. I'd love to make the Ak100 the heart of my portable audio solution. I highly recommend the Astell & Kern Ak100 for all computer audiophiles and music aficionados. It's simply that good.
- Product - Astell & Kern AK100
- Price - $700 at ALO Audio
- Product Page - Link
- Intro Guide - Link (PDF)
- user Manual - Link (1.7 MB PDF)