Astell&Kern AK380 Portable Music Player

The Summit Just Got Higher

Equipment report
Categories:
Music servers and computer audio
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Products:
Astell & Kern AK380
Astell&Kern AK380 Portable Music Player

Needless to say, all the attention A&K has lavished on the AK380’s build-quality, features, technology, parts, and extended functionality would be pretty much moot, especially at its elevated price, if the unit didn’t sound the part. Admittedly, I was skeptical on this point. I thought the original AK100 was a landmark in both design and sonics. In my review of that unit, I compared it with a fifth-gen iPod Classic—the best of its breed—and there was simply no contest. I didn’t see a lot of room for improvement—until I heard the AK120. The subsequent Mark II versions of these models sounded even better, much to my surprise. Then came the AK240, and I finally felt I’d reached the summit in personal player sound. Honestly, I had zero complaints.

But the AK380 has once again bushwhacked me. It stretches the boundaries of what’s sonically possible from a personal player in a way I never imaged possible. For instance, with the AK380, instruments exist in a field of air, as they do on a well dialed-in dedicated system, and in real life. These air pillows are missing on the AK240. But the air around instruments is merely one example of the AK380’s greater transparency. The ability to draw more detail from the bits also manifests itself as richer timbre—for instance on brass and string bass—that makes instruments more lifelike. Previously hidden details, such as the decay of reverb, become easy to hear.

The AK380 is also “faster”—that is, notes start and stop more quickly—than the AK240. This gives it the ability to trace rhythms more accurately. Consequently, beats are tighter and more infectious through the new flagship. This is true not only with rock but with material like chamber music, which relies on less overt sources of rhythm. Through the AK380, you can definitely tap your feet to a chamber quartet or octet (try the Dvorak Serenades on Praga), and you can more easily pick up on rhythmic variations such as syncopation.

With each succeeding generation of AK players, Astell&Kern has managed to lower the noise floor. This has the obvious benefit of a more relaxed listening experience, but there is another, equally important advantage. With a lower noise floor, instruments not only stand out from the background, they stand out more clearly from each other. Even compared to the already quiet AK240, the AK380 is better at allowing each instrument to be heard more distinctly. Once more, it’s not necessary to enlist complex music to hear the difference. Even on something as uncomplicated as a jazz trio, the AK380 better conveys what each player is up to, as well as the sound of his specific instrument.

The final distinction wrought by the AK380 is superior spatiality. The new flagship exhibits tight (but never edgy) imaging and an extremely wide soundstage. I suspect this is due to better channel separation. Whatever the cause, material such as the HDtracks 192/24 version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” becomes mind-expanding.

Since the AK380 can also serve as a music streamer (in either portable or cradled mode), I wanted to test the quality of its sound in that regard. It’s been my unfortunate experience that many otherwise excellent digital source components fall down when asked to stream. This is especially true for wireless streaming, which is the only type the AK380 supports. One encouraging sign, though, was that the AK380 supports DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), a rigorous protocol for exchanging media files between servers (such as a NAS drive) and clients (in this case the AK380).

So I proceeded to compare the sound of the AK380 when streaming over WiFi versus playing directly from its internal memory. What I found was that the difference is nearly impossible to hear—a welcome and astonishing result. If I listen hard, I can detect a slight veiling of voices when in streaming mode. Norah Jones, who is always recorded in such a way that her voice comes across intimately, sounds subtly less “there” when streaming. But that’s about it. As it turns out, the AK380 sounds great regardless of how it’s accessing music.

With the AK380, Astell&Kern has created a flagship that transcends the genre of audiophile-quality portable players. Never, to my knowledge, has such a device incorporated features and parts comparable to those found in the best high-end components. And never, in my experience, has a portable device delivered sound so uncannily similar to that of the best high-end systems. But the AK380 goes beyond delivering superb sound. Thanks to a set of clever peripherals, this player can serve as the digital front end in any audio system. Combine all that with generous storage, a large, bright display and next-generation resolution, and the AK380 becomes the portable player to beat.

SPECS & PRICING

Display: Four-inch WVGA touchscreen
Supported audio formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
Maximum input rate: 384/32, DSD256
Battery: 3400mAh 3.7V Li-Polymer
Outputs: Phones (3.5mm), optical (3.5mm), balanced (2.5mm, 4-pole)
Memory capacity: 256GB plus 128GB microSD
Wireless: 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz), Bluetooth V4.0 (A2DP, AVRCP, aptX)
Supported OS: Windows XP, 7, 8, and 10; MAC OSX 10.7 and up
Dimensions: 3.14" x 4.42" x .70"
Weight: 8.11 oz.
Price: $3499

ASTELL&KERN
39 Peters Canyon Rd
Irvine, CA 92606
astellnkern.com