AXPONA 2014: Astell&Kern sets the bar


I think the winner of “Most Coveted Audio Product for 2014” will probably go to Astell&Kern for their spectacular AK240 portable audio player. A dual-differntial DAC and head-amp, the $2,495 AK240 is everything to portable audio that the iPhone isn’t. It’s smaller, more interesting to hold and fondle, more robust, and about as sonically advanced as a Star Destroyer is over the Space Shuttle. Yeah, dude it’s not even remotely close.

They were showing their flagship player, paired here with a pair of Sennheiser HD800 headphones, and I was just thrilled with the pairing. Extremely revealing as these Senns are, I thought the pairing here to be spectacularly lit up and the big Senns had plenty of air and detail to work with. 

The AK240 supports just about every file format I have, up to and including DXD and double-DSD. There are two Cirrus Logic DAC chips, one per channel, in this design and the player supports 256G of memory, augmentable by a single 128G microSD card. If that’s not enough space, don’t sweat it — the AK240 also supports wireless streaming from your NAS (that’s also how you can update the firmware). There are two output jacks, one “regular” 3.5mm single-ended mini-jack and one 2.5mm balanced TRRS jack. That latter is particularly interesting, but will require an adapter at the very least. Given that it’s fully balanced, this is clearly the way to go to get the most power into your headphones (it has a marginally higher output via that jack) and that output also has the lowest output impedance (1Ω vs 2Ω on the mini jack). I think this little unit is crazy-expensive and crazy-good. In fact, it’s good enough that it could successfully displace most desktop-based headphone systems. Whoops. Did I just say that out loud? My bad. Anyway, if you want more, check out the Audio360 review.

Also on the table were the rest of the AK lineup, including the $799 AK100 Mk 2, now with a 3Ω output. I wasn’t as taken with the original “Mk 1” version, but I’ve been assured that the new Mk 2 revision is significantly more compatible with a wider range of headphones. The $1,299 dual-DAC enabled AK120 was here, as was it’s alter-ego, the Ak120 Titan. The original AK120 I explored over at Audio360, and while I found this player to be a significant upgrade over the AK100, it wasn’t until I kicked the Pro EQ feature on that the sound quality hit me in the feels. Solid offering. The Titan adds a more durable finish/case, double the memory, and a $200 surcharge. Both versions of the AK120 feature two microSD card slots, each supporting 64G of additional storage.

A&K are clearly the brand to beat in this rather crowded market segment. With the iPhone 6 coming out this year, rumored to be compatible with high-resolution playback that the iTunes store is also rumored to be ramping to support, the value that A&K brings is solidly on sound quality. Given Apple’s track record of not giving a damn, I think A&K will be just fine with Apple’s plans. More interesting in this space is the news around Pono, a high-resolution portable digital player that is aimed squarely at the same target that A&K currently dominates. Whether Pono will be able to steal even a fraction of the market will likely depend on many things, but I’m not sure sound quality will be one of them. Whatever. Interesting times, and all that. All I know is that by the time Pono finally ships, A&K will have enjoyed a considerable first-mover advantage. Be fun to see how that shakes out.

In the meantime, this is portable audio’s state of the art. Great to see them here.