By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
As Neil Young readies his Pono Music store and player, which will place an emphasis on sound quality, another option for playing back high-definition music files is available today: The Astell & Kern AK100. This device actually came out last year, but recent improvements to its firmware, which we’ll get to below, have essentially doubled its functionality and made its $700 price tag much easier to justify.
We’ve been testing it for weeks, in part to try to get a feel for what it’s like to go back to a portable audio player that lacks an internet connection for cloud music. In that regard, using the Astell & Kern AK100 was like going back in time to when you had to load music onto a dedicated music player, rather than beaming songs down from the cloud, or streaming them from internet radio services, as so many do with their phones today. Instead, music gets stored on the AK100′s 32GB of internal memory, which is expandable via two microSD card slots.
The most telling aspect of this device: It includes no headphones. Astell & Kern (a fancy name for iRiver, the veteran music player manufacturer that makes this device) was smarter than that. Anyone who buys a $700 portable audio player already has nice headphones, and would therefore throw out any chintzy pair that came bundled with an audio player.
Luckily, for audiophiles who are seeking a way to bring HD music with them on the go — or for people who just like high-end stuff and don’t mind paying for it — the AK100 has a decent interface with a touchscreen — an omission that doomed the last portable HD player I tested, which sounded great, but suffered from unwieldy controls. The AK100, on the other hand, is a pleasure to use, right down to the analog-style volume knob, and its construction feels solid and durable, which is good, because this device should outlast your next smartphone.
As for its internal workings, the AK100′s crystal-clear sound comes from its Wolfson WM8740 digital-to-analog converter (DAC). This chip, which is the thing that turns ones and zeros into analog sound that powers the little speaker cones in your headphones, is a legend in audiophile circles, and this is the first time it has been sold in a portable audio player. (Note: The $1300 AK120, which we didn’t test, actually has two of these DACs in it, which apparently lowers crosstalk a bit, but the AK100 sounded fantastic to our ears with its single DAC.)
Crucially, the AK100 can also act as a standalone DAC. Why would you need this? Well, say you spend a lot of your time working on a computer and listening to music. That computer — especially if it’s a laptop with a hard drive, but really, any computer — has a DAC that’s almost certainly inferior to the Wolfson chip — and besides, computers have myriad other ways of fouling up sound, because there’s a lot of other electronics in there, obviously. Following a firmware upgrade earlier this year, the AK100, like the more expensive AK120, can now connect to your computer via USB (or to anything that has an optical output) and function as a standalone DAC. In this way, you can listen to all of your cloud-based and streaming music, routed through the AK100 for optimal sound quality.
Setting up the AK100 as an external DAC for your computer is super easy — just connect the USB cable and choose the USB DAC option, and then choose the device as your sound output. We did this in seconds on a Mac; on Windows, it took slightly longer to get things working, as usual, but using the AK100 as a computer DAC is pretty easy on Windows too. In under a minute, we were listening to This Is My Jam, with the audio processing handled on the AK100 for improved sound.
So really, you’re getting two devices for that $700 price tag — a portable player that rocks 24-bit, 192 kHz music, plus a DAC for your desktop and laptop music listening. Other reviews that came out last year, before this capability was added, were essentially reviewing half of what this device is now.
The problem, with this or any other high-end audio player, is, well, where do you get 24-bit audio files? Astell & Kern partnered with HDTracks, and supports AAC, AIFF, ALAC (Apple Lossless), APE, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA files [updated] from anywhere, but still, you’re not going to find much 24-bit audio, which is one obstacle faced by Neil Young’s Pono ecosystem.
However, if you have some extra cash; listen to lots of music on a computer; don’t mind transferring music to a portable; don’t already have a DAC; and love great sound like a brother, the Astell & Kerns AK100 is actually worth its $700 asking price, as hard as that might be to believe.