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.
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