Astell&Kern AK120II & AK240: Reference DAPs

User Interface

I’ve always been a big fan of the simple iPod User interface and with most other players (like the Fiio players) I just settled for “shuffle” as their UI was often a PITA. The Astell & Kern User Interface is the second UI that I truly appreciate. It just might even be better than the original iPod interface. It’s hard to believe that other companies haven’t been able to make as logical or similarly straightforward an interface.

On the home page (touch screen remember) you can directly browse songs, albums, artists, genres, playlists, and folders. You also have a direct Setting button and a button for MQS streaming. You can even brows your songs based on audio quality: MP3 vs MQS vs DSD. There also is an invisible “Home” button at the bottom below the screen. A quick swipe down will reveal a quick settings menu that slides in from the top. This allows you to change settings such as Wi-Fi, Gapless playback, shuffle, etc.

Once you are browsing your songs or albums, an alphabetic navigation automatically appears so you can quickly jump to the letter you want to go. With hundreds of gigabytes of storage and thousands of songs at your fingertips, this can come in very handy. Graphically there are only a few minor differences between both players, namely different skins and backgrounds.

Navigation and scrolling is very quick while the AMOLED screen stays sharp and up to date at all times, it never locks up because you’re going too fast. It’s a pleasure to use this UI. On top of that you also get a quick search function where a mini keyboard pops up so you can search for that one song you were thinking of. A feature I have often used with both players. The only downside is the keyboard is really tiny and I made a lot of errors typing, but that might be me or my clumsy fingers.

So is it perfect? No. I still had the screen lock up on me or even going black for who knows what reason on a couple of occasions over the last month on both players. A quick reboot always fixed that however and I have no clue what caused this. On the other hand, most of the players I have used in the past have had this happen (except for my iPods)

Both devices also have an EQ feature where you can either opt for a predefined PRO setting or you can make your own setting by drawing the desired curve of by setting the 10 band equalizer manually. I’m one of those guys that hardly ever touches the EQ settings and so I always kept it “Off”.

So even while the UI has gone crazy on me a couple of times I still find the UI outstanding. It is going to be tough to beat the AK interface for a long time. I’m repeating myself, but yet again, this should be the reference for everyone.

Sound

Just to be clear, the differences in sound between these devices are not night and day like when you’re comparing standard iBuds to the JH Roxanne. We’re talking details here. It’s important to remember should you ever get the chance to listen to both units yourself.

The overall sound signature of the players is neutral, but in a good way, not in a boring kind of way. Delivery of the sound is smooth, just the right amount to get a musical result and not an overly smooth and warm sound (by far). Bass, mids and treble are tight, have good body and are linear.

Both players have a low floor noise and excellent detail retrieval, one of the strongest points of the AK DAPs. On top of that they have excellent layering and the amount of air in the presentation is just right to make it a very precise sounding player. At the same time they are not forgiving, if you load them up with crappy sounding MP3 files you will hear exactly that. That also means that when you put MQS or DSD files on them, you will hear all the lovely details that got lost before.

Nathan is always talking about the too high headphone output noise when compared to the DX90 but I can’t really say that has been that clear to me. The DX90 should arrive next week, maybe then it will be more obvious. Or not.

Sound stage and balance are extremely good and can easily compete with one of the better full sized desktop setups (just don’t forget the limitations depending on the headphone used, see below).

So what is the difference between both players then? Well like I said in the beginning the differences are minimal. The AK240 sounds a bit more refined and has that extra bit of sound stage and micro detail, especially when listening to DSD files (where the AK120II converts to PCM). It seems to deliver the sound in an easier, more flowing and relaxed way. The AK120II is a bit less refined and smooth in that aspect, it sounds like it wants to get the job done a bit faster. Describing it as “more cold” however would be wrong, it does not sound cold, it is just a bit less smooth and flowing.

Sound from both players is really good, these players truly deliver a quality high-end sound and I doubt anyone would dislike the way they reproduce music. A job well done. No that’s being too modest, they deserve better: it is a great achievement by Astell&Kern.

Sound wise, I was just a bit disappointed with one thing: the USB DAC. Like I said I prefer the $350 USD Resonessence Labs Herus with the ESS 9010-2M DAC chip over the double Cirrus Logic CS4398 chips when using them as DAC on my laptop. Of course, in your case, it might be the other way around. Fact is that I absolutely love the AK players total sound, amp section included.

Again, I usually go out with my iPod and Cypherlabs CLAS Solo & Duet or Theorem 720. I could say the advantage of this kind of setup is that you can use a portable amp that does have enough power for the harder to drive headphones and that you can tweek the sound like that, but you could do the same thing with the AKs. Only it would cost you hell of a lot more, and honestly, for the price they are going for, I shouldn’t need to use an external amp. But that’s just my idea. Comparing the AKs sound wise to the Cypher Labs or Centrance setups is something a lot of people are interested in but in my opinion it isn’t all that correct to do: the AKs are DAPs: All In One units. The Hifi-M8 or Theorem always requires an ipod. Both setups have their advantages and their own typical sound. Looking only at the DAC part my preference would go to the Cypherlabs and Centrance because I feel them to have even better detail retrieval. Through the CLAS, I listen for the details in my music, enjoying tightness and speed; through the AK240/120 I listen to the flow of the music. It is lush, smooth and effortless, and detail, while there is in spades, doesn’t jump out to the listener as much. On top of that, when using the CLAS, you can choose your external amp based on its sound signature, plus it will have more power than the AKs. The strong point of the AKs is that you get everything in one (gorgeous looking) unit and the result is a very good sounding DAP. It’s a tough choice to make.

It continues on page 3

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

48 Comments

  • Reply July 10, 2014

    dalethorn

    Are the 10 EQ bands/frequencies fixed or user-defined? Is there a graph on-screen that shows the result curve as you change the settings?

    • Reply July 10, 2014

      L.

      • Reply July 10, 2014

        dalethorn

        The photo doesn’t tell anything, but I read this on AK’s site:

        “A more accurate EQ setting is featured by doubling the bands from 5 to 10 and halving the dB steps from 1dB to 0.5dB. With the user EQ settings, you can make custom EQ settings to fit each music genre and change them when desired.”

        So you can make your own and possibly save it (back it up? – don’t say), but the bands must be fixed as they don’t indicate otherwise.

        • Reply July 11, 2014

          ohm image

          I wish they labelled them, but if impatient, you could just play a flat tone and boost each to measure to see exactly how much is boosted per channel and where on the frequency spectrum the movements occur.

          • Reply July 11, 2014

            dalethorn

            I’ve sort-of discovered a much better way to equalize a headphone. One example (and there are various ways to do this) is to listen to a series of test tones, say, 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 khz, about 2 seconds each played in sequence, then write down your impressions of how they compare in volume to each other. Now go into the equalizer with the result graph and move the sliders until you see a result curve that approximates the inverse of the relative volumes of those test tones. You have to remember that changing one slider affects (or should!) the settings of the adjacent sliders, so a bit of back-and-forth should get you close. The main thing is to try to even out the largest variances in the different frequencies, since those variances are big soundstage killers.

            • Reply July 11, 2014

              ohm image

              Sounds good. I will try this out. I tend to, like Lieven, not work with EQs very often.

              • Reply July 11, 2014

                dalethorn

                I would prefer to never have to myself. But if I do, the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) visual method is a big time-saver.

    • Reply July 10, 2014

      warrenpchi

      No, the bands are fixed and as follows: 30Hz, 60Hz, 120Hz, 250Hz, 500Hz, 1kHz, 2kHz, 4kHz, 8kHz, 16kHz. Yes, there is an on-screen display of the curve you are drawing that appears as you’re drawing it.

      • Reply July 10, 2014

        L.

        Thanks for posting here Warren. Hope you can agree with the review 😉
        Look forward to your review!

        • Reply September 14, 2014

          warrenpchi

          Thanks Lieven! Yeah, I think you and I are hearing the same things. My impressions haven’t changed much since T.H.E. Show, so now it’s just a matter of formalizing them in print. 🙂

      • Reply July 10, 2014

        dalethorn

        10 fixed bands are better than nothing, so that’s good. Now if the settings can be backed up and reloaded that will be so much better. There are interesting things happening in this business – the efficient K812 for example. That and a AK120 would make a nice mobile system for quiet listening locations.

        • Reply September 14, 2014

          warrenpchi

          Agreed. 🙂

      • Reply September 12, 2014

        Eric Thompson

        Way better than the old 5 band

  • Reply July 10, 2014

    George Lai

    I’ll need to give up caviar for breakfast to afford these.

  • Reply July 18, 2014

    Jeff

    I’m saving up for the AK240 to replace my pewny DX50 atm and I’m a little scared to hear about the headphone output noise. Well, I guess the solution is to get the DX90 as well? or is it? Obviously this isn’t going to out-play my desktop set-up so I haven’t got too much to worry about I reckon.

    • Reply July 20, 2014

      L.

      Getting the DX90 soon!

      • Reply July 20, 2014

        Jeff

        Cheers! I hope iBasso releases a super software that will make my DX50 outperform everything lol.

        • Reply July 20, 2014

          L.

          I doubt it 🙂

    • Reply September 25, 2014

      willy vlyminck

      On the price/quality related issue the DX-90 might be the best DAP avaiable for the moment, the only negative point is, at least for me; you can´t stream with it. Both AK topmodels can but at a price 4-6 times the DX-90, Maybe a DX-95 bring the solution? 🙂

      • Reply September 25, 2014

        Headfonia_L.

        I don’t think most DAP companies consider streaming a priority

        • Reply September 25, 2014

          willy vlyminck

          Not yet, but companies like Wimp and Qobuz offer HiFi sound, and no doubt others will follow, so it will be only a matter of time, as the streaming market is constantly growing, if however companioes like A&K ,FiiO, and iBasso are happy to operate in the marge you could be right, but I am optimistic 🙂

          • Reply September 25, 2014

            dalethorn

            Streaming on my DAP? What’s going to be next, a front-facing camera? Sorry to sound cynical, but streaming might make sense for a DAP if it has the facility to capture a bit-perfect lossless file for repeated playback.

            • Reply September 25, 2014

              willy vlyminck

              Streaming will be the future if you like it or not . Wimp and Qobuz prove that good sound is possible. I use my iPod touch strictly for music in order not to waste any memory and no, i don’t use the camera either

              • Reply September 25, 2014

                dalethorn

                When I loaded the Beats music app, it asked me to name my favorite genres, and once I did that it then asked me to pick artists from a list in all of my chosen genres, and each time it asked I found a few, then it kept asking until I filled a page of maybe 50 or so.

                When I was done, it then offered streaming based on the information it had about me, so I could pick a song and listen and decide if I liked it or not. So the long story short – the Beats app had an algorithm that found more of what I like than any other service. And most of that was not urban music, which most people associate with Beats.

                So the way I see it, most streaming I’ve tried is for casual listening while reading or surfing etc. – i.e. ‘background’ music listening, while the difference with the Beats service was research – each tune I found that I liked, I would then go to Amazon or iTunes and listen to that tune and others by that artist, then possibly download it or even buy the CD – then rip the CD to FLAC and save on my music player.

                Anyway, I don’t buy a DAP for background music, nor do I want to keep paying to stream the same composition several times so I can compare it to other things. My main focus is on my permanent high-res music collection, and streaming is just a way to help add more goodies to that collection.

                If DAP mfrs. (besides iPhones etc.) want to add streaming, then they’ll no doubt want to add the other features that the iPhone has, like Internet and camera and so on, since streaming requires the Internet connection anyway. Then the DAP is just another iPod Touch without the phone.

                • Reply September 25, 2014

                  dalethorn

                  BTW, when you pay for streaming, you pay 2 bills – one to the streaming service and one to the cellphone service provider. A few people may stream over free wifi, but most will have to use cellphone service. So I don’t see people buying upscale DAP’s so they can pay money to stream mid-fi sound, when the reason they buy the better quality DAP is to hear high-res sound. But there will be a market for streaming perhaps, for cheaper DAP’s, assuming those users don’t just buy cellphones instead.

                • Reply September 27, 2014

                  willy vlyminck

                  You can not compare Beats with WIMP, the latter have also loads of mainstream music, that is where they live from, but beside that, they are specialized in prog-avant rock like no other streaming providor and this all in true HiFi sound. Unfortunately WIMP is only to have in a few EU countries, but this might change, as they keep investing.

                  • Reply September 27, 2014

                    dalethorn

                    Different people will like different services for their own reasons, which is OK. I only point out that Beats has (or did have before Apple) the best search engine I’ve experienced since the original Napster in 2000-2001. The reason I’m a very fussy customer is because I like most genres, but I pick only about 1 track out of about 50 tracks I listen to, to keep in my collection. So I don’t really care about streaming per se – I just use it to identify new music I want to buy.

  • Reply July 20, 2014

    Ahmad Parapat

    how about the sound and ui if compared to hifiman hm 802 and 901 ?

    • Reply July 20, 2014

      L.

      Couldn’t tell, sorry

    • Reply August 25, 2014

      ohm image

      The 801 and AK240 are rather different. I can’t comment on the AK120ii. The iRiver is cleaner, sounds better extended, and, in both a good and bad way, sounds more _digital_, while the 801 sounds a bit more like a traditional HiFi, waiting for a comfy chair and whisky.

      Which you prefer depends on your listening habits and preferences.

      I prefer AK240.

  • Reply September 12, 2014

    Eric Thompson

    LOL yeah im guna buy a $700 player to listen to it via bluetooth, get outa here

  • Reply September 25, 2014

    willy vlyminck

    The prices for these Daps are ridiculous, so I stick with my Apple Touch 64GB, which allows me to stream Wimp, who offer a soundquality close to High-res recordings, I listened to both, and the High-res have the last word in detail,but at which price? Today the Touch cost only 299 Euro after Aplle did drop the price from 420 Euro, and for what you get, the price/quality is unsurpassed. I know it is a mainstream product from an anti-social company but for people on a budget who wants to stream and enjoy good quality sound, there is no alternative yet.

    • Reply September 25, 2014

      Headfonia_L.

      I can only agree. And there’s always Cypherlabs!

      • Reply September 25, 2014

        willy vlyminck

        I use the Beyerdynamic A200p,good on the train, but not practical in pocket of shirt, due to the fact it can´t form a unit with your iPod/ iPhone, but with the IE80 or Grado GR10 the results are more than good enough for the daily bus trip and or walk.But soon we will have headphones with build in Dacs from Philips and Sony, this could be the way to go,looking forward to your reviews of these 🙂

  • Reply November 30, 2014

    Dietmar Gsell

    Read M.Mercer’s article about his A&K,ALO International and LCD2 combo and sold all my desktop gear as I don’t want to be tied up in front to the chair in front of my desktop system.
    Right now I have FiiioX5,ALO International and LCD2F and think about upgrading to the new A&K100 but unsure about the sound improvement.I would use it balanced as well.Do you think it is a path worth pursuing?

    • Reply November 30, 2014

      Headfonia_L.

      I do think there will be an improvement over the X5, yes

      • Reply April 26, 2015

        Dimitry Kolbaskin

        absolutely, X5 sounds BAD.

  • Reply May 5, 2015

    Rain

    what the difference in sound between ak100mk2 vs ak100ii or even AK Junior?
    and how about AK120 vs AK120ii?

  • Reply June 14, 2015

    Synyster Jasnizam Paget

    I also interest on Ak120II beside chord hugo cuz this is DAP+amp+Dac..really what i dream off..
    so does this ak120II/AK240 good to drive both beyerdynamic t1 and also audeze LCD XC?thanks again..

    • Reply June 14, 2015

      Headfonia_L.

      Only when using an external amp. I tend to use the AK120ii + Hugo

      • Reply June 2, 2016

        digitldlnkwnt

        I just picked up the AK240 and i plan on using it with my Violectric v100 and my ZMF’s at the office. Using it now with just the Lyra and no amp and listening to the Cassy side of Cacoon Heros (newer techno/tech house) and the sound is so immersive I can barely type this without drifting away.

  • Reply September 6, 2017

    devilnevacry

    Will I need and amp with the AK120 II if it is used with ATH-MSR7, HE400i and Shure SE535?

    • Reply September 7, 2017

      Lieven

      I wouldn’t say you need one, but you’ll get even better sound from the 400i i example 🙂

  • Reply September 30, 2017

    peter

    So AK240 and AK120 II, which sounds better?

  • Reply November 28, 2017

    Steven Zore

    Let me take a poll: What do people hear think the best player is in terms of price/quality sweet spot?

    If the AK’s are sooo expensive, but sound great, what players sound great and have reasonable price?

    I’ve been researching and the more I research the more confused i get.

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