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AXPONA 2015: Astell Kern goes Solid Steel

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By Josh Emmons

In 2006, Sprint/Nextel aired a commercial during the Super Bowl presenting their rugged phone as a “crime deterrent”. The joke was, if someone tried to steal your wallet, just throw your phone at them.

If you tried this with an Astell&Kern AK240, you would be brought up on homicide charges.

I don’t really get the AK240. It’s a truly massive player. It’s almost the size and weight of the origial 2001 iPod, its design aesthetic might best be described as Kryptonian, the 2.5mm balanced jack is wonky, and for a portable that specializes in playing large, high-resolution files, the decision to include 128Gb microSD over (up to) 512Gb standard SD cards baffles me.

But if I didn’t get the AK240, I’m downright bewildered by the AK240SS. Swapping out aluminum for stainless steel adds 50% more weight to the already heavy 240, pushing the player over the line from “massive” into “inconvenient to carry”. I asked why stainless steel was chosen, given it’s one of those metals usually used for bridges or watches and not much in between. Astell & Kern’s answer was straight-forward. “It sounds the best.”

A&K said they knew they wanted to do a special edition in a high-end metal, and they experimented with quite a few different combinations. What they found was stainless steel actually had less noise because it could use the entire frame as ground.

So, yeah. I don’t get the AK240. But I get why so many people do.

It’s exactly this top-of-the-line, fanatical devotion to any measurable increase in audio quality that has won the 240 so many fans. Its dual DAC balanced output, broad support for native DSD, and TOSLINK optical out are just a few examples of features included solely because they’re the sort of thing the best PMP in the world ought to have, so tradeoffs be damned.

And whether or not I’d want to lug one around with me, I’d never argue the AK240’s build quality is anything short of stupendous. From the detailing of the volume pot to the bizarrely delightful carbon fiber inlay of the back panel, these are some of the best put-together pieces of consumer electronics money can buy. The AK240SS continues that in this grand tradition. Fit and finish is superb and, if anything, tolerances have decreased with the move to stainless steel. Impressive work all around.

The software of the AK240SS seems largely unchanged, but that’s probably a good thing. The process of finding, playing, and rearranging music on A&K devices is a pretty well-honed affair at this point. And all indications are any updates coming down the pike will arrive on the stainless edition at the same time as its aluminum siblings. So, again, good stuff.

Still, am I ready to trade in my iPhone for an AK240SS? No. But I can understand why someone would.

Prices

  • AK240: $2,499
  • AK240SS: $2,999

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About Scot Hull (975 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.