Astell&Kern has earned a reputation not only for terrific industrial design but of course for having exceptional sound quality befitting the premium price-tag of their products. So, naturally, I went into this review with fairly high expectations of the little SR25 and I can happily report that it did not disappoint one iota. Astell&Kern decided to carry-over the dual Cirrus Logic DAC implementation from the SR15 rather than opting for the newer AK or Sabre chips used in some of their newer players, and it seems that they did so for a good reason – the SR25 has an entirely grown-up sound that delivers both in terms of tone and technicalities.
Plugging in the new 2020 Campfire Vega, the first thing you notice is the complete lack of any background noise or hiss. Next, after firing-up ‘Amethyst Realm’ by The Claypool Lennon Delerium, the SR25 reveals itself to have a rich, energetic tone that delivers detail in spades. Les Claypool’s bass and Sean Lennon’s shredding guitar parts integrate seamlessly, and I found myself getting into a ‘groove’ listening with the SR25 – it immerses you in a way that makes you forget that you’re listening via a pocket-sized portable device.
Up next, the slapping bass in ‘Toady Man’s Hour’ is delivered with a visceral sense of impact, yet also handled deftly and sure-footedly. Guitars and vocals are rendered with a great sense of tone and realism, and the highest octave is delivered with a sense of restraint – there isn’t the faintest sense of harshness nor digital ‘glare’, but every last drop of detail in the mix is happily extracted by the SR25 which proves itself more than capable in the technical department.
The SR25 proved itself to be a silky-smooth pairing with the Sennheiser’s flagship IEMs, the IE800s. Radiohead’s ‘Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box’ is simply delicious-sounding over the IE800s + SR25 pairing – the bass machine ‘thump’ combined with the looming synth is velvety and rich, with absolutely bang-on timing and decay. The IE800s was perhaps my favourite match-up with the SR25, mainly due to the entirely believable and surprisingly organic tone that it created.
In addition to IEMs, the SR25 proved itself to be a nice match for headphones of the over-ear variety. The SR25 was more than capable of extracting a rousing rendition of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Know Your Enemy’ from the 13-ohm / 99dB Audeze LCD-1 portable planar magnetic headphones. The smallest, most affordable headphone in the Audeze line-up needed 100 out of 150 volume increments from the SR25’s single-ended output before it woke-up, but ‘Wake Up’ it did. The LCD-1 cast a wide, and believable soundstage over the SR25, and the imaging on the slapped percussion at the 2:35 mark in ‘Know Your Enemy’ is crazy-holographic.
The 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600Sennheiser HD600 is a pretty good bench-test for just about any sort of device, and the SR25 acquitted itself reasonably well with the “600’s”. Faith No More’s ‘Everything’s Ruined’ required cracking-up the SR25’s volume wheel to ‘120’ over the single-ended output, and had reasonable dynamics and bass levels. Moving over to the balanced output meant that the volume could be dialed-back to ‘100’, with slam, speed and staging all improving correspondingly. Sure, it won’t measure up to a competent discrete desktop amplifier, but the SR25 can certainly hold its own with full-sized headphones.
Vs. Cowon Plenue R2
Cowon’s Plenue R2 also happens to hail from the SR25’s country of origin, South Korea, and makes for a similar-sized entry-mid level DAP proposition, albeit slightly cheaper at $549 USD. These two devices are quite different in terms of approach – the Plenue R2 is more of a purist, bare-bones kind of player, eschewing wifi and streaming services to focus on your own personal music collection which is stored thanks to either the R2’s slightly higher on-board capacity of 128Gb or via micro-SD. Which device you might prefer will largely come down to your philosophy, and how you like to experience music. Do you prefer to delve into your own music collection, or do you like to explore new stuff via streaming services? If it’s the former, then perhaps you might save yourself a Benjamin and opt for the more straightforward experience of the Plenue R2. However, all things being equal, they are also slightly different in terms of sound quality. Back-to-back, the SR25 proves itself to have greater levels of insight and detail in the treble department, along with better separation and space right across the frequency band. It takes pretty close inspection to notice, but the R2 sounds slightly more congested and less energetic in terms of overall signature compared to the SR25.
Vs Astell&Kern SA700
Astell&Kern’s SA700 weighs-in at almost twice the price, and almost twice the weight of the SR25 at 303 grams. I was extremely impressed with the chunky retro-inspired DAP when I reviewed it earlier in the year, and so it sets a fairly high, and fairly tough benchmark for the SR25 to live up to. They’re two very different devices, and they make for an interesting comparison. On one hand, the SR25 makes for a far more usable portable player in terms of its size, battery life, and overall ergonomics. The SA700 is a veritable ‘brick’, and feels like it could be used as a weapon if need be in a showdown in a dark alley – it really is that solid. The SA700’s claimed 8.5-hour battery life also pales in comparison to the SR25’s 21-hour life-span, so it’s more of a transportable proposition than the truly pocketable SR25. Sonically, the SA700 with its twin AK4492ECB DAC set-up makes for a noticeably more engaging, immersive, and overall classier listening experience than its smallest brother. Frank Zappa’s excellent ‘Nanook Rubs It’ simply sounds wider, deeper, and more spacious on the SA700, and its ability to resolve and render note decay makes the SR25 feel simply more ‘digital’ by comparison.
The SR25 is a stunningly-packaged little device, both in terms of its one-of-a-kind looks, and its over-achieving capabilities. There are certainly some cheaper options out there in DAP-land that will get you into audiophile-grade sound for less, but they’re not really as interesting as the SR25. I found that what the SR25 does so well is the fact that it delivers an incredible overall experience in terms of sound, sight, and feeling – it really does deliver emotional engagement in spades, and for that reason, it’s well worth it as a ticket into high-end, portable sound. Highly recommended. The SR25 replaces the SR15 on our Best DAP list.