Mercer’s Winning Combo: Astell & Kern, ALO and Audeze







By Michael Mercer

Armed with Astell&Kern’s AK100 Hi Rez player, an ALO Audio International headphone amp and a pair of Audeze LCD3’s….

I never thought portable could sound this good.  Nor did I ever imagine I would have the majority of attendees at a high-end audio store, packed with middle-aged dudes connected through their love of the recorded arts (and members of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society) saying the portable system in my hands was “as good” as some of their “home systems”; which cost in upwards of a hundred grand! It blew my mind.  I think it blew everyones’ minds.  What was at the heart of the wonder?  The truth is, who cares what I think.  This is all subjective, and I’m sure there were attendees that would’ve hated the portable system – but they didn’t show up!  I may not know the key to this systems magic, but I do know one thing based on my personal experience: After living with all the components for months, I can say it’s the closest I’ve come to carrying a portable high-end stereo system with me: To the beach, golf club, on a boat, doctors offices, where ever!

The point is: I got head-bobs everywhere I went from those who gave this system a listen.  Here’s my dear friend Russ Stratton (a live sound engineer) who came up with a great line  quickly describing his experience: He said it scored very high on the “goosebump factor” while listening to Beck’s Sea Change in 24-bit/192k resolution (purchased from HDTracks) in the palm of his hand.  OK, so it’s still essentially a small pancake of Hi-fi gear rubber-banded together at the end of the day.  However, this pancake doesn’t look like a rubber-banded brick of eighties mini-cassette recorders like some high end portable headphones rigs do!

The Player

Astell & Kern AK100 MQS (Mastering Quality Sound) Portable System: $699.00

The Astell&Kern AK100 is a slick music player that supports all sorts of file types: FLAC, WAV, AIFF, etc.  It also supports data rates up to 192k/24-bit!  Since 24-bit is a standard in mastering houses across the globe, Astell & Kern set up the AK100 so that any high-resolution file you drag into the player gets placed into their “Mastering Quality Sound” folder.  Finally, a small, sleek portable solution for high rez files!  With a small brushed black aluminum housing (no sharp edges – a solid choice from the Apple playbook of industrial design) and sensitive touch-screen interface, operation is not just a pleasure, it’s a welcome one!  The whole tactile experience with the AK100 is both engaging in execution and first-class in presentation.  It just feels great in your hand.  Now, I was not a fan of the outty volume control initially; placed on the side of the chassis.  I thought it would snag on pockets and such.  So far I haven’t had any problems with it, but I’m often using the AK100 with The International so it’s not an issue.  Its far more stylish than an iPod Classic (still the choice of many Head-Fi devotees, including myself – as it’s still produced with a Wolfson DAC).  Once you get used to the touch screen navigation of the AK100 however, it’s a rough transition back to the scrolling dials of the iPod.  They’ve built a player that feels like quality in your hand and performs like quality to your ears.  I bought my review sample immediately.  And no: There were no big discounts this time, but it was worth it.

Firstly, for Mac users things couldn’t get simpler, just drag-n-drop your music files.  I didn’t use mine with a Windows-based machine, but I know Astell&Kern provide software that acts as an import/export suite so you’ll be well taken care of.  The player organizes your music into folders after you’re done transferring files.  You can search by artist, album, and you can also build your own playlists.  The AK100 also comes with an optical output, in case you need to use it as a player and DAC.  It’s pretty self-explanatory and you can get the specs off their website: http://www.astellnkern.com/.  This has become my favorite portable player of late.

The Amplifier

ALO Audio’s The International: $599.00

The International by ALO Audio is a true “giant-killer”.  Unfortunately that phrase is getting played out faster than “dubstep” but it applies perfectly here.  The amp is diminutive in physical size compared to the dynamic punch of its sonics.  The amplifier is also slightly thicker than an iPod Classic but shorter.  Can you imagine an amplifier this small driving a pair of Audeze LCD3 magnetic planar headphones?  If you don’t already know about the LCD3: They’re open-back headphones, and their magnetically-charged drivers are circular and large, making the LCD3 bigger than your average headphones.  Now, they’re my favorite headphones on the planet, hands down, but you do look a bit like Mighty Mouse when you wear them.  As I’ve said before: Is it really such a bad thing, looking like Mighty Mouse? I don’t think so.  Anyway, ALO’s International drives the 45 Ohm LCD3’s with ease.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never had to turn The International amp up all the way in order to drive the LCD3 to levels I’m uncomfortable with.  The most important attribute of this sonic pairing doesn’t lie in power ratings or specifications.  It’s about how their sonic signatures compliment each other: Reproducing a great overall experience.  I’m happy to report the match is the perfect pairing, which means, almost by default, that The International will be great for easy-to-drive headphones as well as IEMs.  To be sure of that however, I took a listen with my modestly-priced Sennheiser HD 25-1 II’s (a Head-Fi staple and favorite, mine too) and my JH Audio JH-13 Freqphase IEMs (not so moderately priced, but the only choice for me) and I found out I could use The International an all-purpose portable headphone amp.  That’s very cool.  It becomes a pain in the ass, having to remember which amps can drive certain headphones and not others.  I’m psyched to see more amps coming that are designed to drive a variety of headphones.  I think that’s becoming a key element, as many personal audio devotees have vastly different tastes, like in any other hobby.

The International drives a variety of cans very well and has a decent running time too: 14-16 hours (8-10 if using the internal DAC).  It’s the musical swiss army knife of portable headphone amps.  It’s also packed with a 96k/24-bit USB DAC for PC’s, so when you connect to a computer you get the warmth and dynamics of the amplifier, and the clarity of the DAC as well.  There’s a toggle on the rear allowing you to switch between DAC/amp and just amp.  It’s also very sturdily built.  The first time I had it in my hands I looked down and noticed how beefy it was.  Then I noticed the tiny toggle switches (high/low gain, DAC+headphone amp/headphone amp) and thought “these are gonna get wasted.”  Well, I’m psyched to report I’ve been proven wrong.  Many months and lots of miles traversed, all functions are working like brand new.  I’d love to be able to describe the sonic signature of this headphone amplifier for you, but to be brutally honest, I haven’t detected anything that warrants my commentary on the signature of the amplifier itself, because I’ve listened to it with so many different pairs of headphones and sources.  So far I haven’t heard anything greatly exaggerated (or sucked-out) from one album to another, frequency-wise, to the point where I started saying to myself “ah ha, this is the magic frequency-range of this amplifier” or anything like that.  I guess I could say this: I believe The International is accurate enough where I would feel perfectly comfortable buying this for an artist friend of mine who needs a tight traveling system for monitoring their mixes on the road.  No problem.  I know, you should take that with a grain of salt.  However, I played my own record through it and the amp was spot on in its representation of the three tracks on my first EP.  That’s typically my ultimate sonic test: Throw my own record at the amp and see how she does.

The Headphones

Audeze LCD3: $1,945.00

Audeze’s LCD3 magnetic planar headphones changed everything for me regarding what I thought the possibilities were for personal audio!  They have been critically acclaimed by all the major high-end bibles (including The Absolute Sound) and have been my reference for two years.  Now, digging deeply into personal audio culture over the last four years I can say this: For me, at the end of the day, nothing can beat an incredible sound system in a room, a hall, an outdoor festival, or the dance club.  There’s just something about the sensation of the sound waves washing over my body that I just can’t get with headphones no matter how loudly I play them and blow my ear drums to pieces.  However, considering the level of performance I get from the Audeze LCD3; their insane resolution, dynamics, SPL levels, believability, and overall musical presentation, well: You’d have to spend, in my opinion, at least five to ten grand on loudspeakers to get the same overall sense of realism you get from the Audeze’s.  It’s like putting a small pair of Maggies on my head!  As Grammy-Award winning producer/engineer Frank Filipetti said of his LCD3’s, “to call these the best headphones on the planet would be doing a disservice to Audeze, because these are not headphones at all. They’re head-speakers”!  My official review to come soon here at Part-Time Audiophile.

So imagine walking around with these killer cans, a player capable of reading files with data-rates up to 192k/24-bit, that’s fun to use and a kick-ass headphone amplifier that fits in the palm of your hand.  Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it.  Technology is insane.  Sometimes when I’m using this system I think about my old Sony Sports Discman (the ugly yellow one with the neon water-proofing) and how cutting edge that felt back in 1989!  Can you believe it?  We had to carry around those awful silver discs and we equated that with convenience.  It also makes you realize the things we take for granted today.

Given the overall musical performance of this little system I’d say it’s nothing short of spectacular.  The air around strings and other instruments is sublime.  The soundstaging is so unbelievable you have to hear it to believe it, and it also squeezes every drop of emotion out of the recordings for you to interpret.  That’s what’s most important to me – whether or not I can relate to the emotive power of the music through a system.  This one has actually brought me to tears on three occasions.  That says more than any fruitless words of mine could express.  If you’re looking for a portable, high res solution I can think of none at the moment that I would choose over this stack.  It delivers the sonic goods in spades, and keeps me listening until the power lights fade (which is hours of listening).  Sounds like a winning combination to me!