What began as a single, brilliant, high-end portable music player—one that created the category virtually singlehandedly—has morphed into a broad line of offerings. Astell&Kern wants to make its products accessible to a wide range of consumers, from high-end neophytes to grizzled, uncompromising audiophiles. Recently, the company expanded its already-broad model range in both directions.
At the entry level is the new AK Jr., which brings A&K just barely into the under-$500 range. On the other end of the spectrum, the AK380 takes its place as the brand’s new flagship. The previous top dog, the AK240, remains in the lineup. The latter player raised eyebrows with its then unheard-of $2499 price tag. But Astell&Kern wasn’t cowed and/or the AK240 met with strong market success, because the new AK380 goes for a whopping $3499. Pony up $3999 if you’d like yours in copper.
That’s a whole lot of money for a portable player, but the more deeply you look at the AK380, the more its price seems justified. I’ll get to that shortly, but first let’s have a look at what the AK240 and AK380 have in common. Both have large touchscreens (the AK380’s is slightly larger) encased in aircraft-grade Duralumin bodies clad in custom-fitted leather. Both are oversized compared to, say, an iPod Nano or a Sony Walkman, but both feel substantial and swanky in the hand. Inputs and outputs are identical: There are ports for micro-USB, standard headphones, and balanced headphones. Feature-wise, both units feature dual DACs for better channel separation, native DSD with no interim PCM conversion, MQS support, streaming over WiFi or (heaven forbid!) Bluetooth, a 20-band parametric equalizer, and 256GB of internal memory that’s expandable by 128GB via a microSD chip.
Clearly the AK240 was already a richly featured device. Seems as if there wouldn’t be much to add, doesn’t it? But the AK380 goes the AK240 quite a bit further. Most immediately obvious is the new touchscreen. Aside from a bump in size from 3.31 to 4 inches, the new player trades an AMOLED display for WVGA. The difference is instantly apparent. The new flagship’s screen is brighter, sharper, and more colorful. Meanwhile, in terms of connectivity, the AK380 adds aptX Bluetooth. Trust me, if you’re going to use Bluetooth, aptX is the way to go.
But the most significant changes for the AK380 are deep inside. First and foremost is the switch from dual Cirrus Logic CS4398 chips to dual AKM AK4490’s. Aside from any sonic benefits, which are evaluated below, the shift enables the AK380 to support resolutions all the way up to 384/32 (the AK240 topped out at 192/24) and DSD256 (versus the AK240’s DSD128). Most users won’t need the AK380’s extra resolution now, but it’s if and when broadly available source material evolves to that level.
The AK380 goes yet another step further by pairing the new chipset with a high-precision VCXO (Voltage-Controlled Crystal Oscillator) clock. The clock module has a jitter rating of just 200 femtoseconds (a femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second, or 10-15), which in turn reduces the AK380’s overall jitter to just 30 picoseconds—roughly half that of the AK240. And just to make sure the new chip/clock combo can devote all its resources to sonics, peripheral functions like the parametric eq are offloaded to a new dedicated DSP chip.
If you’re getting the impression the AK380 is a very serious piece of equipment, you’re right. And bristling as it does with so much advanced technology, it would seem a shame to use the AK380 solely to play music through a set of cans. Astell&Kern certainly thinks so. Which brings us to what I consider one of the AK380’s most significant features: extensibility. Unlike nearly all others of its genre, the AK380 is not necessarily a standalone device. Rather, it can serve as the center of an entire ecosystem. If you need to drive low-sensitivity headphones, slap a module called AMP ($699) right onto the back of the unit. AMP has its own battery pack, so it doesn’t shorten playing time, and seamlessly integrates with the AK380 both physically and functionally. No interconnect necessary, no dueling volume controls. Astell&Kern also offers the AK CD Ripper ($349). Although it’s a physically separate unit, the AK CD Ripper, like AMP, is plug-and-play.
Now comes my favorite of these functionality extenders: the AK Cradle ($349). When nestled into the aluminum-bodied Cradle, the AK380 suddenly becomes not a portable player but a high-end streamer/DAC front end for a high-end audio system. You know, the kind that is installed in a listening room and doesn’t move. What the Cradle adds that self-contained portable players necessarily lack is a set of high-grade, balanced XLR outputs. The Cradle also powers the AK380, which means that if you run it in conjunction with the AK Connect app for your smartphone or tablet, you can leave the cradled player untouched and use it just as you would any other digital front end. The CD Ripper can also be directly linked to the Cradle, completing the scheme.