Portable audio such as the new Astell&Kern AK120 as reviewed here, for me, started with a transistor radio decades ago. The AK120 may be the latest and greatest in the marketplace today, yet is also brings me back to my youth in some respects. As a teen I had the Sony D-5, Aiwa top-line stereo cassette/recorder, D-25, D-88, D-555, Panasonic's world's first dual driver 'fontopids' in-ear 'phones... Of course I'd wear the bright yellow Sony 'Sports' waterproof FM radio/armband while skimboarding on Florida beaches back in the 1980's. Have an interesting collection of both vintage and modern digital players, yet nothing here to date could play 'master quality' files including 24-bit/192kHz and DSD. Yes my Tascam professional HD-P2 field recorder is capable of playing 24-bit/192kHz music files, yet it is a portable recording unit more than an easy to carry portable music player plus the Tascam can not playback DSD. With all the new 24-bit/192kHz digital-to-analog chips beginning to reach the mobile market, portable audio has finally come of age in reaching the same resolution as digital master tape. What took you so damn long!
Sony's D-5 was the world's first portable CD player and cost me some serious money back in the day. With the Astell&Kern AK120 setting music lovers back $1299 when anyone can buy a 'normal' unit for $300; it makes one sit up and take notice. Sure it has many bells and whistles plus hits all the right 'audiophile' buttons in the specs department. Being the second generation unit also means the initial growing pains have been properly sorted. Looking at the AK120 build quality will quickly make one realize this is indeed a very special unit. Still, $1299 is long green and the AK120 had better deliver the audio goods. In the back of my mind I still have to ask the question....
Why would an audiophile want the new Astell&Kern AK120 24-bit/192kHz and DSD portable music player? Apologies for sounding a bit pessimistic here, yet many old-time audiophiles tend to sit in their darkened rooms, usually alone, listening to about five or six of their favorite albums that are recorded 'perfectly' to match their system. Then we have the modern mainstream music lover who seems to always be on-the-go. They want to hear their tunes at the best quality and desire to enjoy all the music they can at their fingertips. This music can be stored on a memory card, via Pandora/Rhapsody/etc, stored in their cloud, etc. Of course all generalizations are wrong, yet as the older generation of audiophiles seem to be dying off we welcome a new generation of music lover who wants to enjoy their tunes with friends, share their music with others online and be far more social than their dying off predecessors. In fact modern popular music has changed so dramatically from the early days of high fidelity that we in the industry are experiencing the push-pull of old school 'must be acoustic music or old rock' to the more modern thinking of 'I want it all to sound good including this electronic dance/pop/techno/house/trance/etc recording'. Of course both are completely false, unless on the former you were at the actual recording venue and the later, well, no one really knows how synthesized/electronic instruments should sound with 100% accuracy. Come to think of it, do any of us really know how Jimi Hendrix guitar truly sounds in the strictest and most absolute sense? Of course not!
Be that as it may, none of us can argue that portable music has been on the rise thanks to Apple's personal portable devices selling by the millions. We all know Apple devices have been going downhill in sound quality and of course we enthusiasts look for ways to greatly improve its deficiencies. Today we have a variety of devices that 'fix' this sound quality problem by using an external DAC connected to an iApple device. Sure this works, yet we are really trying to fix an inherently badly designed audio section within a multi-use device, which when push comes to shove is really just an all-purpose computer with the ability to handle apps and phone calls, with audio sound quality obviously taking a back seat by Apple. The good news is that soon many portable audio devices will take advantage of the new 24-bit/192kHz and DSD mobile audio chipsets only recently (as of this writing) reaching the marketplace. One day we will look back at the AK120, and its predecessor the AK100, as being amongst the first 'popular' high resolution portable music players. It will be akin to how I look back at the Sony D-5 and D-25 today. So until the next generation of phones and tablets come out in the coming months, for this brief moment in time the AK120 is ahead of the pack.
The Geek Files
Measuring in at a reasonably-sized 2.33" x 3.5" x 0.57" (WxHxD) and weighing only 5 ounces, this tiny unit packs a lot into such a small package. The protected volume wheel is a design statement of the Astell&Kern identity. Of coursed all the usual feature-set is included such as using the touchscreen to choose playlists, genera, track, artist, etc. Included is a very nice dark brown leather case that fits perfectly and provides easy access to all the most-used features. To help 'fix' the sound quality of some headphones or music tracks, there is a five-band touch equalizer (EQ) too. We all know .mp3 is low quality, yet that is what most mainstream consumers use today. Did I mention that the AK120 supports playback of 24-bit/192kHz and SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) DSD (Direct Stream Digital) too. The good news is that 16-bit/44kHz CD quality files within a portable audio device are so 1990's and today we have leapfrogged to 24-bit/192kHz and SACD that achieves many multiples of higher sound quality than mp3. To quote the company, "Astell&Kern natively supports MQS (24-bit / 44 - 192kHz) which is the closest to the original sound that the original recording artist intended. Mastering Quality Sound (MQS) is an acronym of collective lossless & high-resolution audio source formats that typically comes encoded with 24-bit, 44 to 192kHz of bit/sampling rates. Since MQS delivers about 6.5 times more detail than a conventional CD (16-bit/44.1kHz), listeners can enjoy more a realistic music experience."
As for the all-digital five-band EQ in the Astell&Kern AK120, did not need to use it as much as initially thought yet appreciated the ability to 'fix' certain albums that could use a bit of correction. The 2.4" IPS touchscreen is bright enough for normal outdoor use and was relatively easy to control. The volume knob is impressively designed and protected to some extent. This is a very smart move by Astell&Kern for those who tend to be more accident prone. All plugs were easy to access and inserting the two SanDisk Ultra 64 GB microSD cards was a snap. All in all the AK120 physical unit is a user-friendly design, though the GUI could use... read on.
With my fave Ultimate Ears 18 Pro custom IEM put to use, it was easy to hear the difference between lackluster mp3 and lossless file types of course. Like, duh!!! With high resolution music the AK120 allows one to delve deeply into the mix and enjoy the subtle nuances in classical and jazz music as well as explosive bass beats and phasing effects in pop music. Another benefit of the AK120 is the five-band equalizer, as not all albums are recorded well and some EQ can greatly help. The AK120 had no problem driving the Ultimate Ears 18 Pro to high output levels, the very challenging HD600 did not fare as well though. Still, for most sanely designed headphones and IEMs the high quality headphone amplification output from the AK120 should easily fit the bill. In fact the new AK120 uses a beefed up headphone amplifier as compared to their first model, the AK100.
If you love music with strong rhythm content, the AK120 will keep you dancing to the beat. PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) is very good and on the more neutral side versus boogie, which is also how I'd describe the sound profile of the AK120 in general. Classical and acoustic jazz music sounded very natural without being too thick (bass heavy) or too thin (enhanced high frequencies). It is a very neutral sounding unit that does not take any major liberties at the expense of achieving accuracy. While many current portable music players use only a single DAC to handle audio, the AK120 uses two DACs for a true dual-mono set up internally. This ensures excellent specifications as it isolates the left and right audio channels... which lead to higher sound quality. The internal headphone amplifier has an abundance of power to drive all but the most challenging headphones. My only very small complaint is that it seems to be missing just a touch of ultimate transparency.
As a died-ion-the-wool mobile music lover, the AK120 was not just used with esoteric setups or treated like a fragile Fabergé egg. The unit was also put through the paces while off-road bicycling, in the Bentley GTC and long walks (off short piers of course ;) ). In the durability department, the AK120 is excellent. Am not saying abuse the unit, yet if you just so happen to drop it from four feet high or it gets splashed with water while washing your car there are no worries. The AK120 is truly high quality in many respects.
Since the AK120 is a portable music player, naturally it made the rounds with off-road bicycling where it handled the rougher treatment without complaint and of course in the GTC. The brushed aluminum externals and included dark brown leather case looked appropriate in such a scenario against the handcrafted burr Walnut work, which shows you the high quality that Astell&Kern's AK120 exudes.
Ringing up Kimber Kable soon resulted in their all silver wire GQ Mini cable arriving at my doorstep. Spec'ing male stereo 1/8" headphone plugs on both sides, the advanced Kimber Kable OGQ/2 geometry (four-wire) braid keeps external noise such as EMI/RFI low while delivering top-quality sound. Use Kimber's silver Select cables in my main rig with great results, so their GQ Mini was a natural choice. Having all three 'solutions' to hook into the Bentley GTC -- two by Dice/Audiovox and one factory unit – decided the Dice Electronics/Audiovox MediaBridge AMBR-1502-AVW with its balanced analog audio circuit to sound best.
Now before you say car audio can't sound good, you closed-minded types can now take your head out of your ass, please. Yes I went there, yet did say "please" too. Car audio can indeed sound very good and anyone with even some sense of hearing will seek out a car with a great audio system or have one custom installed. You do love music wherever you go, right? Due to the car's intrinsic low noise floor combined with top-line three-layer acoustic absorption convertible top, it was easy to hear sound improvements over the stock system's maximum CD resolution of the same tracks in the car's CD player or via the AK120. I believe that once true music enthusiasts hear the difference they will be hooked on car audio! For those curious, the GTC sounds better than the GT due to the three-layer acoustic absorption convertible top. It is interesting how many of us may take great care of the acoustics within our home listening room via dampening the first reflection points yet forget about the detrimental time-smearing ceiling reflections.
My main gripe is the lack of speed sensing volume control. Thus fast turns of the knob would result in a faster-paced adjustment. Still, must admit whilst I do enjoy the fine control of the volume adjustment, which is excellent by the way, just wish it was a bit faster. My next complaint would be to make the top Left Arrow (back touchscreen arrow) a bit bigger. It is not my eyes more than the size of my fingers, which are normal, yet have trouble at times with the back GUI arrow. Odds are those with 'fat fingers' will be cussing up a storm at some point when using the AK120. Also, the internal processor seems a bit slow, thus as an example when I change from Album to Artists for the first time it takes a full six seconds to initially load up and appear on the touchscreen. To be fair, have fully loaded the unit with over 9,000 songs as a test to see how she handled them all and once these are loaded in the sub-menu structure for the first time after initial turn-on and six second wait, they do seem to load fairly fast.
My only other main gripe is that Bluetooth is, frankly, almost unusable as it adds a very low yet still discernable level of background electronic noise. Thus I can not use the AK120 for music and have my Samsung Galaxy Note II or Windows Phone, etc Bluetooth linked so I don't miss a phone call for true critical listening. Verified this Bluetooth radio noise problem with another reviewer and not sure if a future firmware fix is to be expected or this noise situation is an inherent design flaw with the AK120. Only time will tell as the Astell&Kern AK120 is still a 'young' unit with plenty of potential to be exploited with future firmware updates. Note that the final version of firmware used during this review is V1.32.
On the plus side, thank you Astell&Kern for including hardware buttons for track forward/back and play/pause. Too many manufacturers of touchscreen devices seem to think hardware button are not necessary. Far from it and am sure those of you with the AK120 will also prefer the fast response from the hardware buttons on the side of the unit.
Of course I did try the AK120 as a USB DAC too. If you have not made the leap to an external USB DAC for your computer system, the AK120 will bring high-quality sound to your once limited -- and usually lackluster -- stock computer setup.
So who should get the AK120? Good question! Early adopters and those who enjoy living on the 'bleeding edge' will of course buy one. Music lovers seeking the very best right now will jump aboard too. Cautious buyers usually stay on the sidelines until such things take a stronger foothold in the industry as will those who wait for refinements and the enviable lower pricing as technology matures. Of course many of the new devices probably won't handle DSD, nor be a USB DAC. One thing not to be minimized is how important the high quality analog amplification stage is within the AK120 and how crucial it is for usable output in a variety of situations.
Me? I'm sold hook, line and sinker. Send me the invoice via
e-mail or I'll hand the great folks at Astell&Kern cash money at RMAF 2013.
Do you want Visa or MasterCard, PayPal, CAD/US Dollars, Euro, Renminbi, Swiss
Franc, Yen... and as Astell&Kern is a Korean company could easily get Won
if needed. To coin a phrase, "I'll give you my AK120 when you pry it from my
cold, dead hands". Once you hear how great the 24-bit/88 to 192 kHz and DSD
files sound on the go, odds are you'll be extremely happy to have the AK120 in
the arsenal. If your car has a great sound system and offers analog input, until
you get one you can only dream of how great the AK120 can really
improve the sound… until you insert the AK120 and press play of course. The
high durability, excellent quality engineering and 192 GB of flexible storage
space means the unit should bring many years of musical bliss. Being an early
adopter is a great thing for music lovers, as we get to enjoy the music at the
bleeding edge of technology before others. Of course in the end what really
matters is that you…
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