The consumer electronics industry has always evolved at a rapid rate, but the frantic pace of innovation, new product introductions, and price escalations in portable high-performance audio is now outdistancing anything I’ve witnessed before. Take Astell&Kern as an example.
Two years ago there were no Astell&Kern products on the market, as A&K was merely a glint in corporate parent iRiver’s eye. One year ago I reviewed Astell&Kern’s first product, the AK100, which at the time was the most expensive portable player available. Now, the AK100II has replaced the AK100, and the AK100II is A&K’s entry-level offering. The new AK240 is A&K’s current flagship model. At over three times the price of the AK100II the AK240 ranks as the most expensive portable player on the market. If you purchase one, and you lose it, you will have at least 2495 reasons to feel very, very sad.
Technical Tour & Ergonomics
The AK240 crams an amazing amount of technology into its duraluminum chassis. The chassis itself begins as a 435-gram billet and goes through a twelve-step process that includes laser-engraving the finished enclosure. This level of attention to detail carries through to all aspects of the AK240’s design, including its shape. Two of the AK240’s four corners are cut off. At first I thought this might have been a sly nod to the TV series Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the original) where all the papers have cut corners. But the cut-corner design is purely ergonomic—when you pick up an AK240 your pinky naturally wraps around one cut corner while your thumb rests on the other. The AK240 feels great in your hand with just enough heft to feel substantial without being overly heavy.
Inside the AK240 A&K you will find not one, but two, Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips, one for each channel. The AK240 supports PCM rates up to 352.8/24 and DSD up to 128x. It also supports all formats including FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, DFF and DSF files.
The AK240 is not only a portable player, but also a USB DAC and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth portable streaming device. What’s interesting about this dual-streaming feature is that unlike most streaming via Bluetooth, which goes from your smartphone or player to your home music system, the AK240 also streams from your home computer’s music library to the AK240. The idea, I assume, is that while you mop the floor or vacuum your bedroom you can be listening to anything in your main music library via headphones, not merely what is in the AK240’s 256GB internal memory or removable micro-SD card (provided that the AK240 shares the same Wi-Fi network as your computer).
The AK240 has a 3.32-inch AMOLED WVGA (800x480) touchscreen display that functions not only as a display that supports full-color graphics but also as a multifunction control surface. In addition to the screen’s controls the AK240 has a single pushbutton on top for wake-up and on/off, plus “forward,” “pause/play,” and “back” mini-buttons on the side opposite the volume control knob. The volume knob is large and more sculpted in shape than the AK100’s volume control. The case has protection on either side of the knob that reminds me of a Panerai wristwatch.
I found the AK240’s volume control to be much twitchier than the AK100’s control. If you want to increase the volume rapidly on the AK100 you merely turn the knob quickly, but if you try to increase the volume on the AK240 the same way, the control often takes the volume down instead of up. Only a smooth, slow touch would consistently yield “up” when I wanted up. But down was never a problem.
Unlike the original version of the AK100, which came with no case, the AK240 comes with a custom-fitted leather case available in a variety of colors. I know that it is expensive because I bought one made by the same company for my AK100, and it set me back $80 for a much simpler design.
When I used the AK240 as a portable player I inserted the same 32GB micro-SD cards into the AK240 that I created for the AK100. The AK240 can take a while to read a fully populated card. Some patience is required when you put in a new card because it will not play any of the files on the card until the card has been fully scanned. Unlike the original AK100, which has two SD card slots covered by a sliding click-lock door, the AK240, AK120, and AK100II all have a single SD card slot with no door. I understand that since the current series of A&K devices can accept a much larger card than the original AK100 the need for two slots isn’t as great, but having two slots and the sliding door was and is a nice feature on the AK100 which I miss on the AK240.
There are many unique playback options in the AK240 and some can trip you up. If you select MQS or DSD instead of “All” from one of the AK240’s sub-directories, the AK240 will not show you anything (or play anything) but MQS or DSD files. When this happened the first time, after I had just finished using the AK240 in streaming mode, I thought I had “broken” another component under review (which occurs more than you would think), but after a couple of e-mails with A&K’s technicians we figured out I had somehow gotten into DSD mode. My bad.