The Player: Astell & Kern AK100

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Disclaimer: iRiver supplied the demo unit for this review. AnalogHead (a headphone store in which I’m one of the owners) is now a distributor for Astell & Kern in Indonesia. 

Everybody is talking about the new Astell & Kern from iRiver. I don’t know who came up with the branding for Astell & Kern, but in my opinion they’ve succeeded in creating a powerful brand with just one product launch. While iRiver has been in the industry long enough to be credible, the brand name doesn’t really make you think of high end, designers goods the way Astell & Kern does.

The $700 AK100 player, the first Astell & Kern branded product, is a super-sharp product in terms of styling and build. It oozes class and craftmanship of the highest degree. The bar that was raised by Ibasso with the DX100 has been set even higher with the AK100. Receiving the box still shrink-wrapped, I did the unboxing process very slowly. Not because it was a tedious packaging to unbox, but rather I tried to be taking my time, immersing myself in the experience. It was easily the best unboxing experience I’ve had. Not even the $6,000 Canon 1Dx camera or the Macbook Air I purchased last year come close to the unboxing experience of the AK100. With the AK100, it was almost like if I’ve had just purchased an expensive hand watch.

I can go on and on about the build, the quality, and the craftsmanship but let’s cut them short and just say that nothing in the market today comes close to the AK100. This is as sharp as it gets. It reminds me of those ultra slim, only sold in Japan mini-disc players during the peak of the mini-disc era. A level of perfection I never thought possible.

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Sound Impressions

After the whole unboxing experience, I went on to demo the sound of the AK100. They have sent a micro SD card along with the player, containing the usual high quality Audiophile test songs such as Spanish Harlem, and so I proceeded to listen to the Spanish Harlem on the AK100. It had a good black background and clear sound (after more time with the AK100 I feel that this player has the blackest background among all the different players I’ve tested). Gear impression with Audiophile recordings is a bit of a cheating in my opinion, because even the Ipod sounds good with a high end recording. Back then with the AK100, I knew that the Spanish Harlem recording is aiding the sonic performance in a pretty big way. And although the sound was good, it was not mind blowing. With a recording such as Spanish Harlem, a good player should be capable of so much more.

I then uploaded some songs, regular 16/44.1 WAVs and played them on the AK100. The player didn’t wow me at all. Although you won’t be comparing its technicalities with the likes of the Ipod and the Sansa Clip (the AK100 is much cleaner, the background much blacker) I really don’t think that the AK100 has what it takes to compete with the audiophile players out there. The Ibasso DX100, the Cypher Labs Solo, the Hifiman HM60x series. Very clean sound and a nice black background, but I was not impressed. Compared to my current favorite, the screen-less minimalistic DAP from Charles Altmann, it’s not even close. I can use a plain Sennheiser PX100 with my Tera Player and enjoy better music than the AK100 + JH5Pro combo that I am listening right now.

And so I went all disappointed with the AK100. I sent the sample unit to my friend Sem who personally collects DAPs. Same lukewarm comments praising only the build. I then sent the sample to the AnalogHead store for people to listen to. Store manager told me nobody liked it. Then over the weekend we had a local HiFi show where the local Jaben boss brought his AK100 for the gang to listen to. Not one favorable comment about the sound. All these different impressions were from numerous people and on different headphone and music combinations on two different AK100 units. Surely it can’t be too far off.

The sound has a nice black background to it and it presents the music in such natural clarity that doesn’t really need any treble boost to aid perceived detail. This is definitely a high quality player. I consider that high end technicalities. On the black background alone it easily betters the DX100, the Solo, the Hifiman HM60X series, the Hifiman HM801, and even the Altmann Tera by a slight margin. That’s pretty much all the high end player in the market today. And yet it has such a cold static feel to the sound. Un-analog. Lacks fluidity. Lacks warmth, among other things. Moderate dynamic range. Relatively flat sound stage with disappointing layering. Ugh. My interest in the AK100 went from peak high to almost zero.

A week past, and I was told that on a recent meet, my friend Sem had brought the AK100 and the group that he met with gave favorable comments on the AK100. My interest in the AK100 was resurrected. I hadn’t give the AK100 a thorough listening test, and if some people can come up with a set up that makes the AK100 sound favorable, then I should try to look into it. I proceeded to test the AK100 again, this time more headphones. The first impressive set up I’ve heard on the AK100 was with the LCD-2 (direct out of the headphone out). It was my first “this is pretty good!” moment with the AK100. Not only was the AK100 able to drive the LCD-2, but the pairing was pretty good. I let some people listened to the AK100 & LCD-2 set up. They were surprised and were impressed to hear that sound out of the AK100. Though not the best LCD-2 set up (it doesn’t have the fluidity, the body and the bloom of driving the LCD-2 from the ALO PanAm), but pretty darn good. Among the numerous other headphones I tried with the AK100, the Sennheiser Momentum pairing is also worth mentioning. It is the second most enjoyable set up I’ve had with the AK100. My feelings toward the AK100 was slowly moving to a more positive direction. It still had that cold tonality, and the mid range was still congested, but somehow the Momentum and the LCD-2 helped in making me forget about the deficiencies of the AK100.

Positive feelings building, I proceeded to give my friend Sem the Momentum for him to listen to his AK100. His comment was “Good, but still lacking dynamics.” I was pretty surprised, but he was right. Even with a relatively easy to drive Momentum, the sound lacked dynamics. The bass had a good impact (even with the Momentum which I complained lacked impact), but despite the good impact, the dynamics were not happening. It was just flat. “This is tougher than I thought”, I said to myself.

From that point on my interest never really improved with the AK100. Iriver released a firmware update on December 10th, which was firmware 1.20. Both Sem’s and my sample AK100 was already upgraded to 1.20. I doubted the ability of a firmware upgrade to improve sound, and it didn’t. All that 24/192 capability, the MQS file capability, the superior numbers as listed on this document, it wasn’t enough to make me have any feelings for the AK100. It’s flat, and it’s bland. Technicalities is good and so I believe the superior S/N and THD numbers. But I can’t feel the music with this player, regardless of what I play.

 

More on the next page…

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  • rich

    iRiver is a technology driven company and accomplishes many first. At the same time because of this , there are too rapid model changes and a shorter model life is worrisome to early adopters of AK 100, Ak 120. Now within a short space of time, there is suddenly the AK240 and we are fast losing the catch up pace of change. Good for new products but may irk current owners. I own the AK100 and then the AK120. What do Mike and readers think of this rapid model changes ?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      As an enthusiast, I feel you. It’s too fast and it’s tiring to keep up. But this is not just on the AKs. The whole headphone world is trying to mimic Samsung’s upgrade cycle it seems. And don’t even get me started on IEMs. New model launches every day?

  • Kanon

    Hi Mike

    How do you rank AK120, DX100, HM801 and HM901 in sound quality? After reading around on internet, my impression is that AK120 is similar to DX100, both a step below HM801 and HM901?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I absolutely don’t like the 901 so that one is out. The 80X and 60X series sound far more analog than the 901.
      The 801 is still the best out there IMO. Comparable to the Altmann. The AK120 is now my second favourite. Good sound with modern UI, unlike the 801 and altmann. DX100 is decent. I’d take the AK100 Mk2 over the DX100. In fact I prefer the DX50’s sound over the DX100, though the 100 is technically better, more resolving.
      When I travel I take the Altmann and the AK120.

      • Kanon

        How AK100 Mk, AK120, DX100, HM602 compare in technicality?

        I listen to classical music mainly, although some choral works. I am looking for big soundstage, good dynamic and details. I only use earbuds such as MX985 and so on.

        Oh, have you tried HM700 and Fiio X5 yet?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          For your music, what you need is the HM-801.

          Technicalities, I think the AK120 is best of the four there. AK100 Mk2 (soundstage width, articulation), HM602 (best soundstage, depth, three dimensionality) and DX100 (soundstage width, articulation) are comparable.

          • Kanon

            Gee, are you saying AK100 Mk2 is comparable to DX100 in Technicalities? That’s very surprising considering how small AK100 Mk2 is. What about the power? I assume that’s the only difference between the two, being that DX100 can drive full sized can, AK100 Mk2 is suited for IEMs and earbuds?

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              The AK100 can drive a headphone just fine but not like the DX100’s built in amp, obviously.
              I never considered the DX100 to be a technicalities giant.. it just had a strong initial hype, being a serious DAC from Ibasso and all.

  • George

    Hello, Mike. I’ve purchased AK 120 recently. And I’m planning to buy a new headphone. I have searched only Korean websites, especially a website community for AK users. From there, most recommended ‘portable’ headphones were Beyerdynamic T5P and Ultrasone Edition 8. So I almost made my mind to purchase one of them. And I’ve searched some non Korean reviews. And I found Headfonia!! So many good reviews for many products. Thank you for all those reviews! And I read some of your headphone reviews, and I found that you are not a big fan of Beyerdynamic. :O

    My question is 1) what made you being not a fan of Beyerdynamic

    2)I want to feel like I am in a live concert. Which one would you recommend? How do you compare their thech? (S logic vs Telsa)

    3)I don’t know if you are aware of Whiplash Audio. They are selling ‘recabled T5P with TWag v2 and TWcu 26.’ for $1,750. It’s like $350 more than regular T5P. Is this ‘recabling’ worth the cost?

    4)My budget for my new headphone is about $2,000. And I’m gonna use the headphone w/o any amplifier, and I’m gonna use it for indoor 65%, outdoor 35%, so it should be closed back one. Do you have any other recommendation for me? other than T5P and Edition 8? or are they the right choice for me? like most people from the AK usere community said so?

    Sorry for many questions. I had so many questions, but there wasn’t anyone/place to ask. :(

    • dalethorn

      (Just adding a couple comments myself – hopefully someone else will make a suggestion) — You definitely don’t wan’t a bright headphone for your music, i.e. Ed8 Ultrasone. The T5p isn’t bright but most of those Beyers I’ve had always need EQ for one thing or other – especially the pricy Beyers like T5p. The recabling will not help unless the sound is very close to what you want with the stock cable. With your budget and music preference, a planar might be a good idea.

      • George

        What is ‘a planar’? I tried to search it, but I couldn’t find specific one. Can you give me the specific name? Thank you for reply. :)

        • dalethorn

          Audeze LCD2 or 3, HiFiMan HE400, 500 etc., Oppo PM-1, Fostex TH900, 600.

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Orthodynamic Headphones aka Planar Technology

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Beyer T5p and Ultrasone Ed8 are nice headphones but they are bright if you listen to Pop, Jpop, Kpop, Rock, Techno.
      Like what dale said, look at the planar headphones. You’re going to need an amp to power the planers though.

  • Sudip Gadwal

    thanks for this wonderful and gorgeous website mike..i m a new enthusiast to the audiophile world slowly building up my set up and the latest addition to this is sennheiser hd 600..i have to say i have never enjoyed reading reviews of gears as much as in your website and oh the pictures are gorgeous and just easily the best reason to take a look ..kindly advise me a good amp dac combo for the hd 600s all i have is fiio e12,fiio x3,audinst mini and objective o2..allthough i tried different combos the o2 audinst works best and im still quite not satisfied with the level of driving power ..i feel there s something lacking and my hd 600s are not being really pushed to their limits is my feeling..under 500 dollars…thanks and you guys are doing fabulous job…keep it up..

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Crack + dacport lx. Done. And thanks

      • Sudip Gadwal

        thank you for the quick reply..what dac chip does the dac port use ..is it significantly better than my audinst which uses pcm t1792a and my fiio x3 …also please give your opinion about matrix m stage with dac 1793 chip inegrated..and does it pair well with hd 600s since they are considered clones of lehmann cube and are hd 800 budget matching solution…thanks..

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Google can help you with the dac chip. I would say it is bettee indeed

  • Sudip Gadwal

    sorry to go off topic..

  • Shuner Yao

    hello mike. what kind of source i should use? I listen to classic, and choir songs more often.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      I will need more info than this. Budhet. Actual gear. Headphones. Etc.

      • Shuner Yao

        well, i use LCD-3, i can spend like 500-700 dollars for source. I’ve already have i-Pod, but it doesn’t up to my satisfactory level. And i am plan to purchase Rx Mk3-B+ as AMP and JDS as DAC. How about that?