You know how people these days mime that their heads are “exploding” over some revelatory fact or idea? How their hands poof outward from their temples, their lips purse, and their mouths faux-detonate the nearby air? That’s a deliberate signal. But recently I witnessed my 14-year-old daughter’s head “explode” involuntarily— but no less dramatically. Her eyes bulged, her jaw dropped, and her temples visually throbbed. What on earth could have elicited a reaction of such astonishment? The latest from Apple? A surprise Abercrombie gift card? No, it was the simple act of listening to a familiar song through the Astell&Kern AK120 portable music player.
Mind you, this revelatory incident took place without the benefit of a decent pair of headphones. Rather, my daughter had auditioned Jason Mraz’ “I Won’t Give Up” [Atlantic] through both the AK120 and her regular music player, an iPhone 4, with her usual, standard-issue Apple earbuds. Nonetheless, she found the difference between the AK120 and the iPhone obvious—and obviously unexpected. “I can hear instruments I never heard before!” she exclaimed at one point. “His voice sounds much more beautiful!” When I offered my Sennheiser HD600 headphones and she listened to the track through the AK120 yet again, she fairly swooned.
It’s worth noting that the AK120 had a hidden advantage in this impromptu evaluation. The version of the song on the iPhone was in the typical low-resolution, lossily compressed format that populates such devices. In contrast, the AK120’s version was in glorious 96/24. So this was not a true apples-to-Apple (ahem) comparison. But that’s beside the point. The takeaway here is the amazed and enthusiastic reaction to high-quality sound from someone who had never shown any interest in it—despite regular exposure— until it was delivered on her own turf.
I was amused to note that my daughter’s response to the AK120 was identical to that of any audiophile smitten with a new component. After hearing the Astell&Kern, she began admiring it from every angle, clutching it like it was ... well, the latest from Apple. She asked how much it cost and began scheming to find the money. Then, my biggest surprise: She started exploring the music, all of it unfamiliar, that A&K had thoughtfully pre-loaded onto the player—exactly the way we audiophiles go through our own collections and seek out new material just to play it through a new component. Kids, it turns out, may all be dormant audiophiles just waiting to be awakened by something like an AK120.
I first heard the Astell&Kern AK100, which is the AK120’s lower-priced sibling, through some excellent headphones at this year’s New York Audio Show. As I wrote in my show report, the debut impressed me mightily. However, I added the usual caveat that I would have to evaluate the device under more controlled conditions before I could take its full measure.
What I failed to understand at the time was that that had already happened. Not until I was packing for a week at the beach, fretting about losing valuable review time and aware of the oncoming deadline, did I realize that a portable music player and a good set of headphones create their own self-contained conditions. This was a foreign thought. With more than a little incredulity, I grasped that I could review these devices pretty much anywhere—no reference system required.
And in the very next moment, another revelation: I can, for the first time, also simply enjoy music at the audio level I’m used to without being anywhere near my reference system. This was a liberating and bracing concept.
We audiophiles tend to associate high-quality sound with a particular system (or systems) in a specific place. A high-end portable player untethers us. We can travel with high-end audio, exercise with high-end audio, listen privately to high-end audio. The generation that “grew up digital” takes such freedoms for granted; but for us discriminating old fogeys, the concept of physical liberty without sonic compromise is new.
And so I threw my Sennheisers into my bag, stashed the AK100 and AK120 in the car’s glove box, and set off for the beach knowing that I could not only evaluate but savor high- quality sound in a house that contained nary a lick of audio equipment.