Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 Portable Music Players

Finally, A Portable Player Fit For Audiophiles

Equipment report
Categories:
Music servers and computer audio
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Products:
Astell & Kern AK100,
Astell & Kern AK120
Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 Portable Music Players

The decision, then, to spring for the AK120 boils down to two important features—more memory and DSD support— plus potentially better sound. To find out if the 120 delivers on that last promise, I first turned back to the now-familiar Jason Mraz track. As I compared the two players, I was furrowing my brow trying to detect differences. I ended up hearing two on this track (more on others), but they were obviously small in degree.

The first difference between the AK120 and the AK100 is that the former removes a very mild grain, especially from vocals. This is not to say the AK120 is quieter; both players boast wonderfully silent backgrounds. But the AK120 has greater purity. Although I dare say the AK100’s mild deficit in this area would likely go unnoticed without an even cleaner point of direct comparison, the AK120’s grain-free sound does make for even easier listening. The second difference this track makes apparent is in the bass. The AK120’s is a hair fuller and better defined. Yet, again, without a great set of headphones, hi-res source material, and an A/B comparison, I doubt anyone would find the AK100’s bass lacking.

To confirm these findings, I fired up a series of disparate recordings. The first was “Whole Lotta Love” from the terrific 192/24 version of Led Zeppelin II [Atlantic]. Let me state from the outset that both of these players rock out with abandon, and that this track is a bracing experience through either. Other than that, the previous comments—less vocal grain and better bass on the AK120—fully apply, with two additions. There is an extended instrumental passage in the middle of this track that consists mostly of noises. As the passage begins, the dominant sound is John Bonham’s cymbals. It is in the quiet moments between his cymbal taps that it becomes obvious that the AK120 conveys a sense of space that the AK100 lacks. Later in the passage, sounds swing from ear to ear—oops, I mean channel to channel. On the AK120, when the sound moves to one side, it moves far to that side, indicating superior channel separation and lower crosstalk.

Easing my way into orchestral music, I turned to Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom [Hear Music], a superb hi- res recording of standards that I reviewed in a recent TAS “Downloads” piece. Once again, both players have the right stuff, rendering strings sweetly, almost caressingly. McCartney’s voice has great intimacy; on “My Valentine,” you can almost see the dew in his eyes. Still, the AK120’s greater air and purity benefit the proceedings, particularly the strings. Further, the superior definition of the upright bass makes it easier to follow its line—and to a surprising degree.

Moving to classical music, I wondered if the AK120 could top the AK100’s sensitive portrayal of the Dvorak Octets. It did, and in now-familiar ways: a greater sense of air and better bass. The AK120’s timing is also a tick more precise than the AK100’s, as can be heard at the opening of the first Octet, where the strings should be metronomic.

The Final Grade

Assigning a grade to each of these players seems an efficient way to convey their relative overall merits. The latest generation of iPods and recent iPhones, thanks to its manifest sonic shortcomings, warrants a D—barely a passing grade.

The iPod Classic 5.5 is on a completely different level. This player has chops that allow real immersion in the sound and a real connection with the music. Still, it is a dated digital device, and it shows it primarily in a less-than-pristine background silences. In the context of mainstream music players, the 5.5 earns an A. In high-end terms, it still musters a solid B. If you can’t afford an A&K, you will hug yourself for spending a hundred bucks on one of these babies.

The Astell&Kern AK100 is very, very difficult to fault. Indeed, its subtle compromises come into focus only in direct comparison—using the highest-quality sources and headphones—to the AK120. Here is a player that brings true high-end performance to portable music. As such, I would feel churlish giving the AK100 anything less than a well-deserved A.

What, then, of the AK120? It is better than the AK100, though not drastically so. Yet the more you listen to it, the more addicted you become to its subtle benefits. If you can afford the tariff, the AK120 will reward your investment. This player deserves a higher grade than the AK100, though the differences do not justify a full grade jump. Conveniently, there is one last grade available on our scale. The AK120 gets an A+.

SPECS & PRICING

iriver Astell&Kern AK100

Display: 2.4" IPS touchscreen
Supported audio formats: WAV, AIF, FLAC, ALAC, APE, MP3, AAC, WMA, OG
Maximum sample rate: 192/24
Continuous playback time: Up to 16 hours
Memory capacity: 32GB (plus up to 2 x 32GB microSD)
Supported OS: Windows XP and up; MAC OS X 10.6.5 and up
Dimensions: 2.33" x 3.11" x 0.57"
Weight: 4.3 oz.
Price: $699

iriver Astell&Kern AK120

Display: 2.4" IPS touchscreen
Supported audio formats: WAV, AIF, FLAC, ALAC, APE, MP3, AAC, WMA, OG, DSD
Maximum sample rate: 192/24
Continuous playback time: Up to 14 hours
Memory capacity: 64GB (plus up to 2 x 64GB microSD)
Supported OS: Windows XP and up; MAC OS X 10.6.5 and up
Dimensions: 2.33" x 3.5" x 0.57"
Weight: 5 oz.
Price: $1299

iriver Inc
39 Peters Canyon Rd
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 336-4540
astellnkern.com