By Michael Mercer
The DAP (digital audio player) segment has exploded in the past two years. Innovation is driving rapid product progression. What you bought two years ago will not be obsolete, exactly, but it will be a far cry from state-of-the-art, and while odds-are that the new products will only have a few more features than their predecessors, those few new features could change the whole product in many ways!
Take Astell&Kern, for example. Their “classic” AK100 & AK120 DAPs hit the scene like a wild fire two years ago. It’s an odd thing, referring to two year-old products as “classic”, but the company has already updated and expanded the entire product line in this time. Whoops.
I’m a big fan of the classic players. I own both, and paid for both. And now, here come the sexy new replacement players: the AK100II ($899, up from $699 for the older model) and AK120II ($1699, up from $1,299). They’ve also introduced their class-defining AK240 player, topping out at a whopping $2,499. And yes, having lived with the AK240, I can tell you it’s worth it.
Bottom-line? The price for entry into Astell&Kern DAPs has gone up. This is what happens when innovation is accelerating. However, as much as I love the AK240 (and believe me, I love the AK240), the replacement players for the AK100 and AK120 only impress me when it comes to their sharp looks and feature set; I still prefer the sound of the original AK120 to the new replacement players. That being said … if I could improve the sonic performance of my classic AK120, I might not even need an AK240!
Enter Glove Audio, a new product and line from CEntrance, and the new A1 DAC/Amp for Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 players.
I’ve been fortunate enough to live with this component for a couple of months now, and it’s never leaving my possession, or detaching from my AK120! The additional SD memory cards are purchased and installed. It’s all mine.
Backing up a step: the Astell&Kern AK240 arrived weeks before the Glove Audio A1 showed up, and I was already starting to conspire: “what components can I part with in order to purchase the AK240?” Alexandra, my poor wife, was already hearing excuses about why I needed to have this new DAP, how it sounded the best, how it’s positively the edge of the audio arts in DAPS. Of course, it would be my third A&K player … yeah, it’s a little gluttonous. Sometimes I get caught up in the gear end of things, more so in personal audio simply because the components are smaller – I can squeeze more units into my desk in the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab!
I still want an Astell&Kern AK240 – there’s no doubt about that. But, after living with the Glove Audio A1, I’m no longer in a rush to own one. I still feel the AK240 is the King of DAPs for many reasons, but based on musical/sonic playback, I’m just as excited about the Glove. Let’s do the math: the AK240 is $2,499, I already own an AK100 and an AK120, and the Glove Audio A1’s price is $599. Hmmm.
Now, usually I don’t compare products in my component reviews, unless the comparison is part of the story. Because so many products in the same category (such as DAPs) differ in design philosophy and execution, I feel it’s necessary to focus on the product I’m reviewing and judge it on its own merits. However, given the difference in price between the AK240 and the Glove Audio A1 (plus the cost of an original Astell&Kern player), I feel it’s necessary to spotlight a few things comparatively, especially because of the A1s’ exceptional sound performance.
The AK240 out-sexes the Glove Audio A1 in design and feature-set. With the AK240, you get the MQS streaming feature, which allows you to stream your entire digital music collection to the player via Wi-Fi, an exceptionally cool option that you don’t get with the Glove Audio A1.
The AK240 also has a smaller physical footprint that the Glove, when combined with the required AK100 or 120 player connected. However, the difference in size isn’t as great as you might think looking at the photos.
The battery-life of the Glove also out-shines the AK240 by hours; I believe the battery-life of the A1 is around ten hours and the 240 is around half that.
But in the end, I the fact that I get performance that’s on-par with Astell&Kern’s statement DAP in a product that’s $599 is a real testament to the Glove’s designer. It’s a wonderful thing when you can play with the big boys at a fraction of their cost, and you don’t have to sacrifice quality to get there. Rare. But wonderful.
Aside from their wonderful HiFi-M8 DAC/Amp – this is CEntrance’s lead designer Michael Goodman’s greatest sonic achievement and I felt that way the moment I fired-up the Glove unit for the very first time at T.H.E Headphonium during T.H.E Show Newport earlier this year.
Warren Chi, my friend and managing partner at Audio360.org, and I got a sneak-peek at the Glove before T.H.E. Show at Newport kicked off, and I was hooked after that brief audition. I bugged Michael for a review unit for the rest of the weekend, actually. He was a good sport about it, as always, but I bet I annoyed him a little bit. I couldn’t help it! That’s a mark of a great product. After I experienced it, I wanted more. I wanted to own one instantly!
Putting on your Glove
The Glove Audio does pretty much exactly what the name suggests. You take your AK100 or AK120, slot it into the enveloping glove of the Glove, and the Glove takes over the digital-to-analog conversion processes, arguably the most important stage in digital audio electronics, and the headphone amplification duties and soups em’ up if you will – it tricks em’ out. It’s like hot-rodding your car or your computer.
On the surface (literally), I’ve got my older player, the AK120. That’s the main interface. The player combo basically doubles in size. Now this sounds bigger than it actually is. Warren said, in reference to the relative sizes of the AK240 vs. the Glove Audio A1, “the idea is to get away from holding a brick” and he’s not wrong. But when you see the size of the Glove Audio A1 “DAP solution” it’s actually not much bigger than the Astell&Kern AK240! It’s deeper/taller, but its width and depth are very close. It feels stout, like a hand-held brick shithouse.
The look is stylish and modern with clean edges and no ninety-degree angles. The finish on this Glove unit is a cool matte black. It feels like an old school die-cast metal Walkman or Discman – it fits in my hands nicely. It feels like things used to be built. It feels like quality.
With the A1, you also get buttons. I know, you or your tween might say “ooooh, it’s got buttons?”, but I absolutely love them. There is a two-way volume button for up and down, and it clicks with each step. The gain steps are not far apart, which I like. This is pretty un-common these days for some reason: many products I have tried, the steps in the gain are far too big. I like to make minor gain adjustments during my listening sessions, especially when out and dealing with the world. Now, all it needs is a “mute” button.
At the ripe old age of 39, holding this thing in my hand and clicking the buttons is nostalgic for me. It takes me back to a time when I carried my bright-yellow “water-proof” Panasonic Discman everywhere I went. Nostalgic. That’s how I feel about the Glove Audio A1. Can it get any better than that?
- Audeze LCD-2, X, and XC w/ Fazor
- Audio-Technica ATH-50x
- BeatsByDre Solo2
- JH Audio Roxannes custom IEMs
- Double Helix Molecule Elite 3.5mm stereo cables for Audeze
- Double Helix Molecule Elite 2.5mm 4-Pole balanced cables for Audeze
- Double Helix Molecule Elite for Audio-Technica M50x (made for Sennheiser)
- Moon Audio Black Dragon 3.5mm & 2.5mm 4-pole balanced cables for Audeze LCD-X & LCD-XC
Pardon me, but the A1’s got some balls. That’s as straight as I can put it. The power (SE: 150mw into 32Ω; balanced: 320mW into 32Ω) is more than I need, and I listen to a ton of experimental electronic music, which tends to suck up power. Don’t care what anybody thinks: electronic music can have the soul of acoustic music to me, if it hits me in the gut and the brain. Of course I love acoustic music too – especially singer/songwriter stuff, so my listening habits actually thrive on success at opposing ends of the frequency spectrum. The Glove handled it all with precision and grace.
In comparison to Astell&Kerns’ amazing AK240 DAP, via their balanced outputs, I found that the Glove had more power in its reserve than the 240. When playing something like Fhloston Paradigms’ Race to the Moon, a dynamic electronic roller coaster ride; the A1 kicked some serious ass with all the Audeze headphones I tried it with! Especially when running it balanced, the Glove just seemed like it had a more impressive gestalt in its overall stereo presentation. When I’m sitting at my desk working, listening to the A1, which I admittedly don’t do often here even if I’m doing it right now, as I type this, it sounds like a desktop amplifier; it has a sonic presence and detail much larger than its physical size and appearance might lead the listened to believe.
Of course, the AK240 also delivered a fantastic performance with all the same Audeze cans. My feeling is that it out-finessed the Glove Audio in the micro and macro-dynamic detail department, that the AK240 felt like it had greater detail retrieval throughout my listening sessions, if not by much.
The Glove’s got the muscle. The AK240 has the sharpened tools. After using both (yeah, sure, it’s been rough-going over here) for a while, I realized I could live happily with either one.
Highlights in use
Some sonic highlights using the Glove Audio A1 + AK120:
Audeze LCD-XC & Double Helix Molecule Elite 2.5mm balanced cables
Royksopp & Robin, “Monument”, from Do It Again (44.1kHz/16-bit FLAC): The breezy synths and pounding kick that encircled Robins’ sensual vocals was vast in soundstage width and depth, allowing her voice to soar out of this throbbing rhythm. It was sublimely executed. The effect of the ethereal sweeps and guitar strings, supporting the low-end thump after thump framing Robin’s strong, sexy voice was a wave of energy. This really showed off what the A1 can do in terms of stage depth and reproducing intricate, interwoven synth pads and keys. It’s a wash of warm-up music for the club…
Audeze LCD-X and Moon Audio Black Dragon 2.5mm balanced cables
Beacon, “Bring You Back”, from The Ways We Separate (44.1kHz/16-bit FLAC): One of my favorite tunes of 2014. Its rolling low-end is like calm thundering strikes off the ocean, rolling with a wavy rhythm.
The four-on-the-floor pulse driving that incredible bass just propels the motion forward, givin’ me a serious case of the head-nods. The airy vocals hover above the boom, and trail away into the soundstage. This sound is infectious.
Audeze LCD-XC & Double Helix Molecule Elite 2.5mm balanced cables
Shackleton, “I Am Animal”, from I Am Animal (44.1kHz/16-bit FLAC): Firstly: This is off one of a few Shackleton EPs I discovered recently. Most of them are collaborations. This one is from Shackleton and Appleblim. The sound is dark and tribal, minimal in composition, but huge in low-end thumps. This track slams, and this wavy, heavy, pounding bass line ebbs and flows as these percussive elements snap, and pop, hitting hard and echoing like the drums are being struck at the opening of a cave. The bass echo rings out like there’s all this dark space surrounding the track. This one’s also infectious, with a powerful draw to it. If I had this wax, I’d drop it in a DJ set at five A.M., as it’s the kinda track that’s mellow enough to play at sunrise, but it also slams, grabbing the attention. This is the sorta’ track that gets em’ outta their seats (and during this time – off the lounge chairs and couches in the club) and onto their feet – giving them rhythms that force people to move no matter how tired they are, or at least bobb their heads and shake their hips. This is the kind of track that, if I heard it in the club in the early-morning hours as I’m describing – I’d look over at my good friend Jim Welch (Judith Hill’s Manager – from 20 Feet From Stardom, the Grammy-Award winning documentary) and say “this is strong” with a grin as wide as I am capable!
Audio-Technica ATH-50x & Double Helix Cables Molecule Elite 3.5mm
Boards of Canada, “June 9th”, (44.1kHz/24-bit FLAC) from Skam: This track oozes electronic dance music. It kicks off with this dark, springy bass line that bounces while these acid stabs whip across the soundstage. Then these laser-like effects drop in and there’s an audible collage of electronic music elements – weaving in and out of each other, creating a soundspace that’s packed with different pings and pops and crackles – all happening in a space that feels like a planetarium, lit up for a star show. The atmosphere this track creates is cosmic and mystical. I love this one. It’s pure ear candy.
JH Audio Roxannes CIEMs (custom in-ear-monitors)
Cat Power “Free” (44.1kHz/24-bit FLAC) off You Are Free: This is a drivy, minimal acoustic song. Cat Power’s coarse guitar strikes and toe-tapping energy are wonderfully engaging and moving. The chorus, with Cat Power singing “everybody, come together – free” in a cadence that’s like a call to action, is the kind of hooky acoustic singer/songwriter pop that you wanna scream in the shower. I love this song. The A1 and JH Audio combination capture the essence of this little number. Cat Power is the voice of our generation and strikes me right in the gut. I can picture her at political rallies, gatherings for a cause. She’d have me standing and pumping my fist! The A1 did a splendid job of translating her power (no pun intended) and every-time I hear this record on a resolute system I think about all my dear friends and family, and the good times we’ve had. It’s the kinda song you play on a sunny afternoon after you got all your work done and you can reflect a bit.
Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” (44.1kHz/24-bit FLAC) off The Eraser: This is Yorke’s solo effort, and an LP that never leaves my DJ bag (the vinyl). It’s also on every DAP I own. It’s one of my all-time favorite acid-test tracks. The kick-drum slams and its fast-moving while the other percussive elements click, snap and float around the soundstage with this velocity that makes em’ feel like they’re drifting toward me and falling back away again. It’s sonically seductive –- the sway of the track –- with Yorke’s vocals hovering dead-center, while other synth-driven sounds fill in the soundstage. This is ear candy for the discriminating. It’s dark and velvety and I can’t get enough. I probably hit repeat every other time I played it on the A1 using my BeatsByDre Solo2, the only Beats headphones I can recommend –- thanks to Tyll Herstens and HiFiguy528 for opening my eyes to this particular pair.
The A1 has continued to impress me during the past few weeks. It reproduces stereo sound in an engaging and additive way; with the right cables and cans, I find myself reflecting on how far we’ve come in portable fidelity in the last two years alone. I never used to consider sound-staging when it came to headphone listening –- but thanks to the technology, material science and some insanely innovative companies, there have been huge strides in sound-staging and imaging capabilities in the last two years. Good times.
From the Mission district in San Francisco to the beach in Bethany Dunes on the Delaware shore, to back home in beautiful Sonoma County, California, the A1 sounded saucy no matter what I threw at it. I’ve cranked this thing in the morning when I’m half-conscious, shaving (yeah, its not the best idea) it sounds great then too, and I’m no morning person.
So, I’m keeping the damn thing. Whenever a product grabs me like this I always say the fact that I’m keeping it and making it a permanent fixture in the Sonic Satori personal audio arsenal. I think this is a better indication of satisfaction than flowery prose can ever achieve! In a world where we can have a bunch of high resolution digital audio on our portable devices, the Glove Audio (by CEntrance) A1 DAC/Amp for Astell&Kern’s now “vintage” AK100 & AK120 can get you to the very edge of the portable audio arts for $599 bucks on top of that prior investment.
The Glove Audio A1 is one of my favorite products of 2014. I listen to it every-day. How’s that for a glowing recommendation?
About the Author
Michael Mercer is an Audio Evangelist, and a reviewer of music and audio components. He got his start at The Absolute Sound in 1994. After his tenure there, he joined Atlantic Records where, under the tutelage of legendary Grammy award-winning producer Arif Mardin, he worked with multi-platinum selling artists Jewel, Sugar Ray, The Corrs, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler and others.
In his career as a music writer and audio reviewer, Michael has contributed to industry bibles such as The Absolute Sound and HiFi+. He is currently a managing partner at Audio360.org and writes for Part-Time Audiophile, Positive Feedback, The Daily Swarm, The High Fidelity Report, Big Black Disc, Headphone.Guru and Enjoy the Music where his “Sonic Satori” column is featured.
Financial Interests: Michael is a long-time industry veteran with many past engagements with audio companies, including VFX, CEntrance, HRT, Elite AV, Soundscape and some work in the music industry. He does social media engineering for headphone-related showcases at various regional audio shows and Head-Fi meets, including the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, CanJam @ RMAF, T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach, and more on the way. He is also a brand-building and social media consultant for leading media outlets Positive Feedback and The Daily Swarm. Past engagements have promoted various Hi-Fi brands, including Audioengine and Nordost.