iriver introduced their Astell&Kern AK100 music player earlier this year, designed for the best music listening experience possible. Here's our 60-day review:Forward
Portable digital music has come a long, long way. From the song-on-a-chip, to the handheld library and all iterations in between, the quest to for a mobile entertainment experience has accelerated the way we think about media consumption over the past decade. This growth, however, also presented certain paradoxes. On one hand, as these devices gradually became cheaper to manufacture, their availability in mainstream markets skyrocketed. On the other hand, because these devices started out with limited storage, programs need to compress every track to accommodate for whatever capacity was available.
First - some background. When a song is digitized, a computer captures samples of a sound every second, encoding it into a digital representation. The resolution of information recorded at every sample is its bit depth. The more samples and resolution per second, the closer you get to the real sine wave. A standard CD has stereo audio captured 44.1 kHz, with a 16-bit depth.
So: 44100 samples/second x 16 bits/sample x 2 tracks (stereo) = 1.4 Mbit/s bit rate for CD audio. For the original iPod, which only had a 5 GB capacity, you can see how this could add up very quickly.
If you’ve ever owned a music player in the past decade, you’ll remember how your entire music library used to be full of 128 kbps media, most likely MP3 files. That’s an 11:1 compression ratio. Sure, the music sounded passable over little earbuds, but for price to quality, the CD always called you back. But wait - you can fit so much more of your music onto this little gadget that why would it matter? Thus, the war between fidelity and convenience began, and with it, a generation of listeners who grew up not knowing the difference.
It’s for this reason and many others why, until recently, audiophiles have long avoided the mobile lifestyle for enjoying music. After all, in the age of the immensely popular iPhone or newest Android device, both capable of pulling enormous amounts of data from the internet, who needs something that’s solely dedicated towards music? Astell&Kern
Enter the Astell&Kern AK100 by iriver, a company that’s been in the digital player game for quite some time. They advertise the AK100 as the first true mobile audio player for audiophiles, specializing in the playback of lossless formats such as FLAC, AAC, and ALAC, in specs up to 192 kHz / 24-bit. If you’re already invested in a great hi-fi experience at home, then this device will at least give you quality sound you can enjoy on-the-go.
As the first portable device fueled by a Wolfson 8740 DAC, the AK100 delivers rich audio with incredibly little introduced noise (110 dB SNR) and distortion, with a flat frequency response, driving even the most demanding pair of headphones. In fact, it can even be used as an optical-in DAC on its own, driving other devices like a CD or record player into another set of monitors.
The AK100 has a minimalist design encased in an aluminum housing, yet a solid build that feels like a serious piece of equipment in your hand. With a 2.4 in. touchscreen, hardware transport buttons, and a volume wheel, it has just the right amount of classic analog and hi-tech.
On the top, you have your headphone/optical-in and line-out jacks, and power button. On the bottom, a micro-USB port for charging and data, and a sliding door reveals two 32 GB SDHC slots. So combined with its internal 32 GB of storage, you can load up to 96 GB of music, which is more than plenty.
In the packaging they include a quick-start guide, music sampler micro-SD card, micro-USB cable, warranty card, and carrying pouch. Very simple ingredients, but an AC adapter would have been a nice touch.
It’s hard to believe that such great sound could output from a device smaller than a deck of cards. Yes, you’ve probably heard that line before at WWDC events over the years, but this little guy is meant for listeners with higher standards. That being said - if you’re looking for a multimedia device that handles your all your music, plus photos, videos, games, and all sorts of other bells and whistles, then Astell&Kern is not for you. The AK100, with all its componentry built in, is dedicated for music.Control
Now for the UI. The “Now Playing” screen offers quick access to all the controls you need on a music player, but you can still pause and navigate through your tunes or change volume with hard controls on either side.
Pressing on the bottom-right button takes you to playback options such as adjustable EQ, playlists, metadata, and repeat settings. The 5-band graphic user EQ is pretty neat, and has two ways to set your levels. You can swipe up and down each band or even draw your own curve along the “spectrum” to roughly get what you want. For fine tuning, tap on a individual band to set it -/+ 10 dB.
On the main menu, you have your usual selection trees of Artists, Albums, Playlists, and so on, but then there’s the “Mastering Quality Sound” (MQS) category. This category files any tracks that have a quality of 96 kHz / 24-bit and above, most commonly seen in vinyl rips. It’s a different way of approaching your collection, but like myself, listeners are probably more concerned with thumbing through albums instead. And if you own a device like this, you’re already importing at least CD-quality FLAC files anyway.
The AK100 has your basic setting controls for Date/Time, Display, and Language, but it also has... Bluetooth. Don’t get too excited though, you won’t be able to listen in with compatible speakers. Instead, it pairs with devices like your phone to at least warn you when you have an incoming call. Again, iriver wants to separate this player from the rest of your mobile arsenal, but with this option it can at least cohabitate when you’re headbanging on the subway. Besides, running audio through Bluetooth would compress and delay the signal, defeating the purpose of having an audiophile-grade player.
In general, the touch interface is not as responsive as one would expect from current hardware. There seems to be a consistent jitteriness to navigating up and down the menus, and we sometimes find ourselves having to swipe a few extra times than needed to get to a song. While this isn’t a deal breaker, it does distract from the listening experience. Hopefully this is a possible firmware fix, and not a hardware limitation. Experience
Aesthetics and control aside, the first time we listened to the AK100 on a road trip, we were absolutely stunned. Granted, the output from this device was much cleaner and stronger compared to our usual mobile players plugged into the AUX port. The Wolfson 8740 delivers a rich yet transparent signal that can make any car stereo sound brilliant.
We tested a bunch of albums from alternative indie, classical, electronic, hip-hop, jazz - it was able to accurately reproduce any genre or style we loaded up. Deep punchy rhythms, wide and crisp soundscapes, soft and subtle solos, this player broadcasts it all. Nuances in fidelity or coloration, if any, came from headphone choice or EQ settings somewhere in the delivery chain. Personally, I prefer to turn off the integrated EQ, and to fine tune that on the receiver instead.
Speaking of headphones, the AK100 handled a wide variety of high-impedance cans with ease, without the need for extra mobile amplifiers like most budget listeners would use. Here are some models we tested:
Sennheiser HD 800, HD 650, IE 800, Momentum
Sony MDR-7506, MDR-7510
Ultimate Ears UE700, UE900
AKG K 701
We did notice that more “reference” style headphones may need some EQ tweaking, as the sound may be a bit too flat for long sessions. However, listening with more music-oriented models like Sennheiser’s Momentum, which I think is a fine balance between comfort, fidelity, and price, was a real treat. When switching to in-ear models, keep in mind that this is a powerful device, without loudness safety features seen on other players. So make sure to adjust volume before plugging in (for your ears’ sake).
Adding tunes is very easy. Plug it into your system via standard USB, and any OS will recognize it as a storage device. Just drag and drop the folder into its directory. After a quick library scan, your albums are ready for playback. iriver does also have their own “iriver plus” music management software, which is purely optional, but is required whenever updating firmware.
The only feature that we wish it had is gapless playback. This becomes annoying on albums like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. There is a sudden 1-second gap after each track ends, where there should be a continuous flow, like the album originally intended. Verdict
Is Astell&Kern the next music player for you? Whether you already have a hi-fi setup at home, or you’ve just entered the world of audiophilia, if you’re serious about a premium listening experience, then the AK100 has the hardware to make it happen. Now, it does come with a hefty price tag of $700 USD with 1 year warranty, but if you’re already familiar with the audiophile lifestyle, it’s justifiable considering its portability and simplicity while driving your favorite pair. If you’re looking for an all-media solution, then you’re better off with your smartphone.
Does this mean your choices are lossless or death? No. Codecs and compression methods have also come a long way in the past decade. High-quality 320 kbps MP3’s are great for what they are, still retaining lots of information while keeping a fraction of the file size. In fact, if you already have an MP3 collection, the AK100 will support that and other lossy formats too. But players like these are for the most demanding listeners - and yes, we can tell the difference.
Personally, ever since iriver provided us with the AK100 in mid-April, I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s become my main music device for both home and mobile, especially in my car, and has given life to my FLAC collection that I thought would never leave my room. Like any other gadget, it has its quirks, but with so much focus on hi-fi packed into a compact form factor, this is the mobile solution that audiophiles having been waiting for.
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