I blame Astell&Kern for my “portable audio” problem. I had, wrongly, assumed that the iPhone was as good as it gets and that anything above and beyond that was pretty much just daydreaming. I mean, who would actually bother to make a superior iDevice? As Samsung has learned, rather painfully, it can’t be done. Apple rulz.
And that’s probably still true. For an all-in-one, Swiss Army knife style of mobile computing platform, the iPhone (and maybe someday, the Apple Watch as an extension) is killer.
But for audio playback … well, the iPhone is something less than killer. Enter the “digital audio player” (DAP) makers and queue the Rocky theme music.
I’ve written about the AK120 and AK240 players, and I’ve found them both to be “very good” and “excellent”, accordingly. The Ak240, at $2500, is my current reference for all-in-one audio players, and with reasonably careful headphone matching, it completely eliminates the need for “bricking” (banding together multiple battery-powered devices in a comical violation of the term ‘portability’). It is, to my ears, the best that’s currently available in the DAP segment. That was my professional judgment. Moving on!
At High End, I was forced to reassess that view — their newest offering, the AK380 (at an eyebrow-raising $3500), is better.
John Darko has some more details over at Digital Audio Review, so I’ll refer you there for the new “eco-system” of components that the AK380 will be able to leverage in its quest to conquer that bit just past your pocket: the rack. They look interesting, especially the new cradle. For folks looking to consolidate — one source, whether on the go or no, the idea of a dedicated docking station with “real” analog outputs worthy of your hi-fi is interesting. Not sure how often that would happen, however, but it’s still interesting. Anyway, check out DAR for details. FWIW — I didn’t really pay any attention to that stuff on my trip through.
I didn’t see the additional outboard amplifier, either. Wish I had. In a move very reminiscent of what CEntrance is doing with both The Glove and the HiFi Skÿn, Astell&Kern are offering a “bolt-on” amplifier for the AK380. Seriously — it clamps right on to the back and screws down, and heavily boosting the output for those cranky and clanky headphones. Look ma, no wires!
No word yet on pricing or availability for the cradle, CD-transport/ripper, or outboard amp.
So, if I were to play it safe, I’d probably end there after making some comments about the new, symmetrical but still remarkably creative styling of the casework (shiny!). But unlike John, I actually did arrange to spend some “quality time” with the new player, leveraging a pair of Astell&Kern-branded Angie IEMs and a pair of HiFiMAN headphones.
Steven Rochlin has a more in-depth dive, but my notes lead me to believe that the AK380 is a clear step up from the AK240 in terms of overall sound quality, with better drive and a more natural flow, mated to an out-of-the-head soundstage. Very impressive — and like the AK240, no external amp was required. Which is good. And bad. Because now I want one. Some more notes from the press release:
The AK380 has built-in DLNA 1.0 support, allowing users to wirelessly stream music from any DLNA compatible NAS or device on your network. With the AK Connect app for iOS and Android-based smartphones and tablets (coming soon), you can control playback on the device and stream music located on your device directly to the AK380.
Other features include a 4-inch high-resolution TFT-LCD screen, 256GB of internal memory with one microSD card slot supporting up to 128GB microSD card for a total of 384GB of storage and Bluetooth 4.0 support. The AK380 offers finer EQ settings over previous Astell&Kern models using a Parametric EQ capable of 0.1dB increments over 20 bands. Previous models offered EQ settings of 0.5dB increments over 10 bands.
Like the Astell&Kern AK240, the new AK380 features a duralumin, aircraft grade aluminum body, unbalanced and balanced analog outputs that allows the user to use virtually any headphone or earbud on the market; Wi-Fi connectivity to download music wirelessly to the player from a computer or network storage device and provides the ability to wirelessly stream music to the player without downloading music to the player first and the ability to use the AK380 as a USB DAC, allowing the owner to connect the player to their computer to bypass their internal sound card and get high-resolution sound from their PC or Mac desktop or laptop.