Astell&Kern AK70 Portable Music Player

Balanced and Well-Connected

Equipment report
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
|
Products:
Astell & Kern AK70
Astell&Kern AK70 Portable Music Player

Sound
I must stress that your choice of earphones will have a far greater effect on the overall sonic character of the AK70 than the AK70’s intrinsic sound quality. Having said that, I did find the AK70 had a different sonic character than the Onkyo DP-X1. The Onkyo has a more relaxed presentation (with the same in-ears, of course) with slightly more depth, but less presence, as if you had moved back several rows at a live concert.

The two headphone pairings I returned to on a regular basis during the AK70 review period were the MrSpeakers Ether Flow ’phones and the Ultimate Ears UE 18+ Pro in-ear monitors. In both cases the AK70 was absolutely silent when it was supposed to be silent, yet had gain to spare with excellent bass extension when playing the most demanding sources. Another pairing that proved to be a particularly synergistic combination that I would recommend for an AK70 owner on an extreme budget was the KZ ZST in-ear. This $25 (available primarily from Chinese Internet vendors such as AliExpress) hybrid earphone (one balanced armature and one dynamic driver) required very little power, with normal listening settings around 75, and delivered a smooth, almost lush harmonic balance that lent itself well to brighter pop music mixes.

Competition
There is certainly no shortage of competition in portable players priced around $500. Although Astell&Kern’s AK Jr is still available, for the extra $100 the AK70 clearly delivers a better value. With the addition of balanced output capabilities, streaming, AK Connect, and USB DAC features the AK70 does more of the things that a portable DAC should do. I also prefer the AK70’s physical size and shape.

Deciding between the AK70 and the Onkyo DP-X1, whose street price is currently running around $599, is a more difficult choice. The DP-X1 has more onboard storage thanks to its dual micro-SD slots, but does not have the ability to connect with a NAS unless you add an App such as Foobar2000 from the Google Play store. With its open Android system, the Onkyo has greater flexibility than the AK70, but that can lead to compatibility issues since some third-party apps introduce more problems than they solve. The DP-X1 also supports and decodes MQA files, which could be a major advantage now that Tidal has begun streaming MQA. Size-wise I prefer the AK70’s smaller dimensions and lighter weight. In sonics, as I’ve mentioned, your preference will probably revolve around your choice in earphones. Both are excellent players and neither could by any stretch be considered a bad or wrong choice.

The Sony ZX100HN that’s currently priced at $699 offers 70 hours of battery life playing MP3 files and uses a “closed” Android system like the AK70. It does not have a balanced headphone output and was not as good a match with difficult-to-drive headphones. But it does come bundled with a dedicated pair of noise-canceling earphones which work quite effectively, and it also has Sony’s Sense-Me shuffle, which I found to be the best “random play” feature I’ve experienced.

Summary
With its previous players Astell&Kern firmly established itself as a purveyor of the finest (and most expensive) portable players available, but the company was never in the running to offer the best value for the money at entry level. But with the AK70, A&K has a player that offers more usable features and flexibility at an affordable price than any of its previous offerings. With the ability to easily handle a wide range of earphones thanks to its balanced and single-ended connections, combined with features such as AK Connect, which allows you to play back anything on your home NAS through the AK70, this player delivers more value and bang-for-the-buck than most of the current crop of players priced between $500 and $700.

If I were in the market for a portable player priced under $600, as of right now the AK70, along with the Onkyo DP-X1, would be my first choice.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Portable player with network capabilities
Display: TFT LCD
Supported formats: PCM to 384/32, DSD 2.8 and 5.6
Outputs: Analog single-ended and balanced digital
Battery life: Not listed
Memory capacity: 256K
Dimensions: 2.37" x 3.81" x 0.51"
Weight: 4.6 oz.
Price: $599

U.S. DISTRIBUTOR
iriver, Inc.
39 Peters Canyon Rd.
Irvine, CA 92606
(949) 336-4540
support.inc@iriver.com
us.astellnkern.com

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