If you’re favourite headphones need a healthy dose of power to get out of the bed in the morning then you might find an Astell&Kern DAP wanting – such is the compromise of keeping everything under one roof. Adhering to the two-channel rhetoric of choosing one’s loudspeakers first and then finding suitable amplification later doesn’t translate to the land of the AK100 (reviewed here), AK120 (reviewed here) and AK240. Experience tells us that matching headphones to your DAP of choice is the way to go.
Even Astell&Kern themselves tacitly admit as much. At audio shows, the iRiver subsidiary regularly demo their wares with easy to drive headphones from Final Audio Design and last year they commissioned a custom version of the T5p closed-back from Beyerdynamic; that’s the AKT5p.
A more recent co-branding exercise with Jerry Harvey resulted in the Angie and Layla IEMs – yet another example of Astell&Kern leading their customers towards transducers with impedances and sensitivities that are more agreeable with their line of players.
However, not every luxury DAP owner heeds is heeding this message. Social media consistently spills with photos of these $1000+ players strapped to third party amplifiers, juicing the likes of Sennheiser HD650 and MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs/Prime.
The advantages of using an outboard amplifier are twofold: 1) more power for those difficult to drive headphones; 2) (hopefully) superior D/A conversion.
Then there are financial considerations. Dropping two-and-a-half large on an Astell&Kern AK240, only to surrender D/A conversion and headphone driving to a Chord Hugo (reviewed here) – which will run you the same length of green again – is a bit like fitting a motorbike engine to a half-decent road bike. You might get around town faster but why spend big on the bicycle in the first place?
With the Hugo handling DAC and amplification duties, file navigation and playback control are all that remain in use on the luxury DAP. Why buy the AK240? If digital transport duties all that’s required, why not opt for a first generation AK100/120 instead? It will supply bits over toslink just as effectively the top-of-the-line model.
Despite Astell&Kern’s 2014 product range overhaul, the first generation models have yet to be officially declared ‘EOL’. An original AK100 can be had for US$699 whilst the similar-looking original AK120 goes for US$1299.
There’s life in those old dogs yet. I’d like to detail how the original Astell&Kern models can still hold their ground against their new-and-improved descendants.
For outboarders, the original Astell&Kerns enjoy a key advantage over their second-generation variants: smaller screen size. That may seem counter-intuitive on the face of it. Surely bigger is better, right? In the case of portable audio, not always. The abundant blank chassis space beneath the AK120’s 2.4inch QVGA makes it much easier to rubber-strap external a to DAP without obstructing any touchscreen real estate.
Of course, Chord Electronics aren’t the only game in town. Two other companies offering portable DAC/amplifier solutions that are 1) smaller, 2) more affordable and – this is the kicker – 3) offer better sound quality than the AK100 II (reviewed here) and AK120 II are ALO Audio and Glove Audio.
The agricultural nature of rubber straps and the optical cable loop remain unsightly and more often than not preclude proper in-pocket use. Michael Goodman’s Glove Audio kills those two birds with one stone.
The Glove A1 DAC/amplifier (US$599) takes an original AK100 or AK120 into its belly before being locked into place via a screw-in base plate that accommodates two balanced outputs (Kobiconn and 2.5mm) in addition to the standard 3.5mm single-ended socket. Inside, a fully balanced circuit plays ball with an ESS 9018-2KM decoder chip. Battery recharge comes via a micro-USB socket – you can use your existing Astell&Kern charging cable here. Click buttons attenuate volume on the left side.
You can read my full review of the Glove A1 here but if you want the highlights: a Glove-d AK120 brings greater clarity and ebullience to the picture, leapfrogs the AK120 II on power output and so brings out the best in thirstier phones – something that neither AK120 can handle on its own. If you want a warm, romantic take on musical events, the Glove A1 probably isn’t for you.
Also noted in the Glove A1 review were comparisons to the ALO Audio International+ that at the time could only amplify an analogue signal. The Portland company recently updated the International+ with an ‘Optical Edition’ that allows for a digital connection to any device willing to spill with ones and zeroes via toslink. Enter again our first generation AK120.
Despite also running with the same ESS chip as the Glove, the ALO unit sounds quite a bit different to its rival: a fatter lower-midrange adds gravitas to male voices and the top-end is far less insistent than Goodman’s physically tidier solution; the ALO has the deftness of touch with which to deliver subtle textures and finesse in just the right way. A fuller-fat cream in its low end sees the ‘Optical Edition’ International+ contrast the Glove A1 as lean/er and mean/er.
On all-round aural satisfaction, I prefer the ALO Audio portable. On convenience and pocketability the Glove wins out: recharging the International+ still requires a mini-USB terminated cable (supplied in the box). And whilst the ALO unit also ships with one of the sturdiest, L-terminated mini-toslink cables that I’ve seen to date, when strapped to the AK120 the two-fer remains too bulky for front jeans pocket comfort. Those living in colder climates that wear larger jackets more often won’t find this so much of an issue.
Also of note here is the sturdiness of the variable gain switch and volume pot on the Portland portable. There’s almost zero chance of either being nudged accidentally whilst it’s in your pocket; a good thing, especially if you’re wearing super-sensitive IEMs. I noted not a hint of background hiss with the Ultimate Ears UE7 Pro. Moreover, the International+ manages to drag from the UE7 the finest portable performance I’ve heard to date. Better than the AK120 flying solo, better than the Pono player and better than the Sony ZX-1.
The bigger score is this: with the Optical-d International+ handling D/A conversion and amplification, even the AK120 II is surpassed on sound quality. Allow me to clarify through repetition: an original AK120 feeding digital audio to the International+ ‘Optical Edition’ > AK120 II. Astell&Kern counter with a 2.5mm balanced output not found on the International+ (there’s only a Kobiconn for balanced output). ALO return fire with a mini-USB data socket for connecting a PC, Mac or smartphone.
The second generation AK120’s taller design and associated full-height screen renders it less accommodating to the hired help of the ALO strap-on, whereas the original version is pretty much the perfect fit – the AK120 and International+ are of similar size.
A look at storage capabilities leads us towards my final point.
The first generation AK120 featured 64Gb of internal memory and a pair of microSD card slots – each supporting 64Gb – for a grand total of 192Gb. The second-gen version dropped one microSD card slot but upped card capacity support in the remaining slot to 128Gb. Paired with internal storage of 128Gb, that’s a maximum of 256Gb.
More is better, right? Not so fast. A move from Linux to Android operating systems for the AK100/120 II necessitated a switch from the PTP to the MTP file transfer protocol. On OS X at least, getting music onto the player was no longer as simple. Out went auto-mounting storage within Finder and in came the Android File Transfer app of which I’m not a fan: music must be retrieved to the host computer’s hard drive before edits to file and folder names can be applied.
Why does this matter? Auto-mounting drives are necessary when connecting storage devices to the second USB port on the rear of the AURALiC Aries streamer (reviewed here). The Chinese company enabled locally attached storage via last November’s 2.0 firmware update.
The upshot? If you wish to carry your music library on an Astell&Kern player whilst out and about during the day and then hook it into the rear of the Aries when you get home of an evening, only the original AK120 will do.
With the Sony ZX-1 (Android), Pono Player (Android) and AK120 II (Android) attached to the rear of the Aries, the streamer either refused to recognise the drive or complained of a ‘disk error’ inside the Lightning iPad app. Of the two, only the first generation AK120 and its Linux operating system can talk turkey with the Aries, from which music played flawlessly.
Libraries larger than the AK120’s inherent 192Gb limit could be stored across multiple microSD cards and swapped out when needed. This mirrors the Resonessence Labs INVICTA experience whose in-built playback system revolves around SD cards.
Whilst I believe the move from Wolfson to Cirrus Logic DAC chips and the attendant circuit revisions has resulted in the AK120 II offering greater transparency and crisper player definition than its forerunner, let’s not write off the original AK100 and AK120 just yet. They’ve still plenty to give as digital transports and music storage devices. And let us also not forget that they only came to market in 2013.