But let’s back up a second. Yes, this is a digital audio player. Don’t we already have a digital audio player? Well, chances are — you do. And — again — chances are, it’s an iPhone.
Now, if pressed, I’d have to confess that the iPhone, as an all-in-one portable device, isn’t perfect. Though, whenever I think that, it causes me no little pain (most likely emanating from my Apple-implated iChip at the base of my hypothalamus). But it’s true. The camera is downright anemic, especially given the absurdity that Nokia is just announced. And no, no one “needs” 41 megapixels — the very notion is nonsensical. But if I can have 41 megapixels, well, that’s another kettle of fish entirely. But note what I just said — I started talking about a portable audio player and immediately segued into talking about a camera. That should be odd — but it’s not. Why it’s not has to do with the total and complete dominance Apple has on this market segment (or, at least, did have). They essentially stepped in to a gap no one saw, cornered the market on cool, raised the price on portable audio and converted an entire generation into iTunes crack whores. That’s genius, folks. That shit does not happen every day.
But here we are, in a post iPod/iPhone world. We have these all-in-one devices, and they do most things pretty well. It does have a camera, I can get my email and my calendar –and a half-decent web browser — and all that is included in the base price. Oh, and yes, I get to take with me several thousand tunes. And maybe a movie or three.
That, my friends, is amazing.
I say all this because this market segment, portable audio? It’s pretty much done. At least, from a macro perspective. You can ask anyone (anyone not a headphone enthusiast anyway), and they’ll tell you the same. Game over.
And yet ….
Take audio playback. Here, the iPhone is decidedly dated. The digital audio converter chipset is “fine”, if nothing special. Call it “meh”. Pair that with a weak headphone output and you have a perfectly acceptable if pretty mediocre portable experience. The lack of ability to play anything other than CD quality (well, DVD quality, technically) audio means that all that fancy high-resolution music on Acoustic Sounds or HDTracks is pretty much a non-starter. In point of fact, for actually listening to music — where the iPhone got it’s start — the iPhone is pretty blah.
Adding support for high-res formats isn’t going to revolutionize the iPod, but that rather trivial task is one that Apple has, to date, assiduously avoided. If I had to guess, it was this particular and pointless oversight that led to a rather remarkable niche market sprouting in that gap, including an upcoming offering from Neil Young called Pono, and did you know that Sony is bringing back the Walkman? For the life of me, I can’t understand why Apple is allowing this to happen, but sadly, they still aren’t asking me for input on these matters.
One of the recent entries into this “digital audio player” (DAP) space is the Astell&Kern AK100 from iRiver. Never heard of A&K or iRiver? Me neither. My loss? Anyway, for those of you totally out of the Head-Fi loop, the AK100 is, in essence, an audio-only iPod. That is, all of you ADD folks will need to look elsewhere for your all-in-one device. The size of the AK100 is somewhere between the iPod Nano and the “full” iPod, and it comes with a touchscreen, a “full” DAC implementation with support for all the high-resolution audio files you feel like exploring. It also includes outputs for your own, external, digital converter (via TOSLINK) and, of course, a mini-jack for your headphones.
I feel compelled to note that there are other players in this space: iBasso, FiiO, HiFiMAN and Colorfly, to name just a few. If none of those brands, or their offerings in the digital audio player space, register with you it’s not because you’re a tool. I mean, you may be anyway, but here you have an excuse. To date, none of those brands have really broken out much past the boundaries of Head-Fi enthusiasts and have made little or no splash on the audiophile, much less, general scene. Why that might be probably has more to do with those comments about Apple cornering the market and changing the game, but I’m just spitballing.
I’ve been using the Astell&Kern AK100, cherry-picked somewhat at random from the pool of available iPod alternatives, for a couple of months now, and I can safely say … that it’s not going to replace my iPhone. There’s too much going on with the iPhone for a special/single-purpose device to dislodge it. But the question is whether or not I’m a two-device kind of traveler. Given the space required (not much), it’s also kind of a trivial question. But whether or not I’d actually use a second device ….
Well, I did. In Atlanta, in Memphis, in Boca, in NYC, in Boston, in Chicago ….
I’m not a fan of the external knob. It catches on my pocket and whatever it is I’m sticking it in or pulling it out of. It’s a lint magnet, a thread catcher, and I’m pretty much positive that I’m going to rip it off. I haven’t yet, but that feels like a matter of time, not a matter of care.
The back plate is acrylic, not aluminum. Yes, it scratches. Pretty much instantly. Just by looking at it.
Start up takes a while. You hold the “On” button for several seconds to bring the unit from standby, a process that takes up to 20-40 seconds. Pretty much on par with starting up my iPhone. Which I never have to do (even on a plane). The AK100 will happily go into a power-saving shutdown unless you tell it not to, and there’s a timer in there that you need to tweak to taste. Likewise, the “backlight” option, which not only backlights the screen but actually seems to control the screen being on at all. By default, it turns off after a minute … which means you’re gonna be jamming the button a lot. Since all this ins configurable, it’s not really a complaint, just an observation.
The touchscreen is not terribly responsive. This is a complaint. There’s maybe a one-second lag between me touching it and it doing something — it’s enough that I had to re-learn swiping gestures and find patience to see if my efforts actually did something before I had to repeat them. I’m guessing that implies a design decision in favor of battery life over processing power and it’s probably why the screen keeps turning off, too. The newest firmware (v2.2 at this point) has improved overall responsiveness, and provided a bucket of icons for the most-used playback manipulation functions — all extremely welcome — but now, finding the “system controls” or not-common tools is a bit of hide-and-seek.
An iPhone it’s not.
Speaking of which, it really is not all that Mac-friendly. The bulk file transfer, playlist management, and album art management is reserved for the app, which is available only to the Windows-only crowd. For us Mac users, it’s drag and drop to get files onto the unit. Works, but no art or playlists, and you still have to hunt around on the device to “discover” your transferred files. Playlist creation is available on-box, but it’s a PITA and I stopped bothering.
The problem is pretty clear; it’s the iPod. Look, like it or lump it, the iPod has been out for over a decade. It is the de facto standard for portable audio and I so totally don’t care what you think about Apple, the iPod, or the price of donuts. The standard in portable technology — and not just portable audio — is the iPod. And this is not an iPod. Not quite end of story, but hopefully, this sketches out the hill that both iRiver — and iRiver’s customers — will need to tramp over to get to wide adoption and happily satisfied adopters. With the new firmware, things are getting better, but we’re not really there yet. Taken in abstraction, the interface is quite usable and really functional. It’s just that this was SOTA about 6 years ago.
What the AK100 did, however, was highlight exactly how much help the iPhone needs in order to be a better-than-borderline satisfactory digital playback device — the AK100, by itself, addresses most of my audio issues with the iPhone. The sound quality is certainly more evolved than what I’m getting from my iPhone, but the question of whether or not those improvements alone offset the irritations and justify the $699 price … well, I totally understand if you’re hesitating.
But let’s chat about sound for a second.
This is why the AK100 is interesting. It sounds … well … really good.
Generally, I used the AK100 with my traveling pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones; paired with the AK100, the sound was smooth and rich. Frequency extensions were good, if not in the same class as the best that I’ve heard. Not surprising as this was a device almost exactly half the size of a deck of cards, and that best-in-class system filled a heavily-reinforced table-top. All in all, I found the presentation — run directly out of the included headphone jack — to be “good”. Give it a 6 out of 10. By way of contrast, I’d give the iPhone 4 a solid step down — call it a 5: not good, not bad, but rather a ho-hum “meh”. Don’t get too hung up about the numbers — all I’m trying to say is that the AK100 was preferable to the iPhone and clearly so, and that I’ve also heard better in the headphone market. Getting specific, with the AK100, the sound out of the Momentums was more detailed, with more flesh on the bones, more grunt and texture, especially compared to what I was getting out of my iPhone.
Adding the ALO International, (again, by the way of comparison), takes the combo up to a 7 with some solid, across-the-board improvements — see Michael Mercer’s comments on the combo from back in April. As Mike mentioned, the International is a reasonable fit in form-factor, so the two can be banded together for a portable-ish head-fi brick. I say “ish”, because the screen on the AK100 is going to get covered and obscured by one of the bands, at least a little, and this was annoying enough for me that I didn’t bother. Anyway, despite the ergonomic challenge, the sound of this pairing is in a different league from the “naked” iPhone — and from the base AK100. Of course, we’re now at $1,300 and still need some custom cables. But the bass was tighter, the midrange more engaging, and there was this sweetly detailed top end. By contrast, AK100 alone felt more removed, the presentation a bit more distant, and the iPhone alone blunted pretty much everything. Not a ton. Enough. Enough to make me put it down and pick up the AK100 again.
As a player, I think the AK100 is an interesting box. Interesting and almost there. Given the current trends in the market, though, I do tend to look for DSD support, and it’s not there. While I suppose it could be added, that support would need some kind of DSD-to-PCM conversion — a lossy, destructive procedure that should be avoided if at all possible, and avoiding it would require an entirely different DAC chip. Oh well.
At $699, there really isn’t much else on the market vying for this space, and my experience with those other devices is only from audio shows (HiFiMAN, primarily). The announcement on the Pono, and the recent decision from Sony to reinvest in high-resolution audio, means that this snug segment is going to get even more crowded and quick. And with both Sony, a mainstream techno heavy-weight, and a very high-profile celebrity endorsing alternative products to one of Apple’s bread-and-butter offerings, you know that it’s only a matter of time before the Cupertino giant starts looking keenly at these features, too.
Of course, none of that is here-and-now. Who know WTF Apple is going to do or not do. And as for Sony, well, let’s just say they’ve been of two minds about just about everything (anybody remember the Betamax? SACD?). Pono is almost a year out, and who knows, Pono may turn out to be another Beats by Dre [insert shudder of horror, here]: while it will probably sell a bazillion units, everyone who cares about sound quality will still need somewhere else to go, right? Time will tell. In the meantime, the AK100 is a big fish in the pond, and may stay that way for quite a while.
If you want to check it out, ALO Audio has the AK100 available for ordering online.
Again, in case you missed it, don’t forget to check out Michael Mercer’s take on the AK100 — he paired it with ALO and some Audeze LCD-3 headphones and flippin’ loved that combo.
Since the “first edition” of this article hit, I’ve been told that I’m an idiot, and that I really need to check out the iBasso DX-100 ($829) and the FiiO X-3 ($200), in order to get “necessary context” for any conversation about the AK100. All I can say is: I’m happy to do it. Also on the list is the AK120, the $1,299 dual-mono version of the AK100, and the HiFiMAN HM-901 ($1,199). All of these Chinese-made audio players are said to be far better than what your crappy phone has to offer, so consider that the gauntlet hitting the ground. I will admit that I do have a concern with the stated lack of support for my preferred audio format (AIFF), and the fact that 24 bit versions of that format tend to be conspicuously absent from spec sheets, but I’ve been told this is an evolving segment (the AK100 didn’t support 24 bit AIFF either, until I upgraded the firmware). Whatever. More will be forthcoming — and that’s the view behind the kimono.
As it stands right now, the AK100 is a fine little widget and yes, it is better than your phone — especially for that on-the-road audio experience. Given that I’m never going to be able to take my reference rig on the road with me (“Excuse me, sir, but you’re going to have to shove that SET amplifier under the seat in front of you and bring your seat back into the full and upright position, okay, thanks”), other solutions are mandated. My first foray into the world of unApple was emboldening, so consider me motivated.
I wonder what else I’ll find.