I have to admit I expected the AK players, and especially the AK240 for its price, to have a tiny nuclear power plant inside making it able to power every single headphone on the market. Of course I was wrong. Sure you can use the Hifiman HE-500 and the Audeze LCD-2 with it and sure they’ll sound OK but they will not sound as good as when using an external amplifier. Same goes for the Sennheiser HD600 @300Ohm. You get sound but switch to a dedicated desktop amp and you’ll immediately hear what you’ve been missing. Sure it works very well with the easier to drive headphones but I expected it to do better with big guns. Plug in the LCD2 or HD650 and the minimum listening level goes all the way up to 50 (out of 75). Not only that but the sound just isn’t there with these kind of headphones. The brand new and supposedly easier to drive Hifiman HE-560? Nope, same story unfortunately. The Audeze LCD-XC still is in the mail and I haven’t had the possibility to try this easy to drive planar with the AKs yet but I will add them into the review once they finally arrive. So there still is hope.
Plug in something like the NAD VISO HP50 or Philips L2 and you get a whole other story. Just like when you’re using IEMs. I can see most of the AK owners using high end earphones like the Shure SE846 and custom inears like the Fitear and Cosmic Ears products and I fully support that. I have gotten the most enjoyment out of the AK players when using my custom Inear Monitors. When using any of my CIEMs my listening volume was between 20 and 25.
Astell& Kern have created gorgeous looking and sounding Digital Audio Players. Have I become a fan? Guilty as charged. Based on looks, build quality, UI, features and sound it would be very hard not to be a fan. But then there is the power issue and the impressive price.
There is no gain switch on these players and so I’m a bit disappointed as I expected them to do better with the hard to drive headphones. To get the normal/best results with the more difficult to drive headphones you will need to carry around an external amplifier like the Cypherlabs Duet (great match). Sure a lot of people will label you as being crazy for having to add another expensive piece of gear to an already expensive DAP, but sound before everything, right? On the other hand I can very well understand their point of view as well. Or you could just use In Ear Monitors and get the absolute best result.
Are the AK players a wonder of technology? Absolutely. Are they well-built and do they look great? Again: absolutely. Do they work like a charm and have a great, if not the best, UI on the market. Oh definitely yes, no denying there. Do they offer enough storage space? Definitely. Do they sound great? Best DAPs I have heard so far, a true High End sound. Can they drive any headphone? I’m afraid not and that sucks. Can I go balanced? Yes, but you’ll need all new cables. Are they expensive? Way too much for my purse I’m afraid but that’s something you have to decide for yourself.
Can I recommend the AK players? Without any doubt. If you can afford it and want great quality sound, go for it. When using the right headphones they could even replace your home setup as they can do it all. The AK120II for sure has the best price/quality ratio and unless you are not on a budget at all and just want that bit extra that the AK240 has to offer, this is the player to go for. You get almost everything the AK240 gives for a whole lot less.
It do is strange. It’s obvious I don’t like everything about the AKs but in the end I really love how they sound. Plug in your headphone, push play, close your eyes and dream away. Yes, they sound that good.
The Astell&Kern prices seem to be a bit different from country to country. For those who didn’t understand yet: these players are very expensive, that’s for sure. Are they worth it? That’s for you to decide. All we can say is that these are luxury products that deliver everything they promise (like audio streaming, DSD and OTA updates). The AK120II will cost you $1699 and the AK240 even sets you back a stunning $2499. Probably even more in Europe. I have to admit that, because of its price tag, I’m not all that comfortable using the unit outdoors. What if I drop it? What if I hit it against something? What if I forget it on the train or what if I get robbed? Ah well, maybe that’s just me.
For all the info on availability and dealers do check out the A&K website here. But I warn you, once you’ve seen, touched and listened to them, you’ll be hooked, so watch your wallet.
Nathan’s point of view on the AK240 and pictures of both units are on the next page