Disclaimer: The prototype Mezzo Soprano AK100 and AK120 mods I received from Sean Chan were well beat-up. Neither did they run perfectly stably. Mezzo Hifi modded my AK100 free of charge for the purposes of this review. The MZAK120 mod I used for the same month-or-so trail period before deciding that the MZAK100 was THE ONE TO HAVE. In perfectly stable shape, both prototypes reflect the performance of production units. And that is awesome.
Here’s to sanity. Here’s to patience. Here’s to sticking with it. Here’s to the once-Ultimate. Yep, here’s to not throwing out your first-gen iRiver AK100 and 120 players. While not a fan of the original AK100, nor its stick-it-to-the-customer mkii version, I’ve managed to purchase two. I bought them late last year, right before they turned one year old. I’m a sucker like that.
But I tend to hang with the performance crowd, and since I’m not keen on high amounts of background noise, I rarely used either player. I was this close (holds up a tweezer between baby thumbs) to selling both.
Enter my personal saint, Headfi’s muscular Sean Chan.
The dude prepared a paper bag stuffed to the brim with various electronic devices while I queued for a meatball sub. The bag changed my life. I divested myself of the sub the following morning.
In the bag were two glue-stained prototypes from Mezzo Hifi. Though dubbed mezzo soprano, they were ugly, unrefined, and inelegant hardware modifications of the original AK100 and AK120. Out of their asses jutted a lit-up plastic switch. They were scratched up and sported glue traces along their flanks.
Evidently, they went for 500$ for the AK100 mod, and 700$ for the AK120 mod. If you ain’t got either of the players, you can send 1100$ for a brand-new MS-AK100 mod, or 1950 MS-AK120 mod.
Here in Japan, AK100’s go for 220-400$, and with iRiver’s penchant for obsoleting its own devices, I’d scour the web for something used. The great news is that the final hardware revisions are nearly immaculate. Gone are the glue traces, gone are the scratches. Other than the hardware switch for the soft knee, the players look and act, as good, or better than their original versions.
“Care to review ‘em?” asked the saint.
I’ve seen production models worse off; unperturbed I nodded, brushed off a metal chair, and sat down to a bright afternoon in Tennouzu square. Sean opted for white bread; I went for honeyed oats. Subway grit snowed from our finger tips. Pigeons bobbed and dodged around our feet.
After waving goodbye, I set off home, enjoying Sean’s famously eclectic music. My earphones of choice were the Ultrasone IQ. From that moment on, the MS-AK100 became my DAP of absolute awe.
What I heard is why. This is what I heard:
1. noiseless output
2. perfect left/right balance
3. incredible resolution
I ran that battery down as fast as ever I have a DAP. The official party line is that Mezzo’s mods drain batteries about 20% faster than usual. BS. I get roughly 20 hours on the original AK100, sometimes more. The Mezzo mod gets me 12 hours, give or take.
But it is the sort of twelve hours of spastic enjoyment that the original AK100 simply hasn’t a chance in hell of affecting. In fact, I will argue that the mighty AK240 shows as poorly next to it.
Stock, the AK100 it is as noisy as early iPod nanos. It also suffers as much as they do with supplying the right amount of current to low-Ω earphones. The result is stifled bass output, intense swings in frequency response, and notable signal instability at higher volumes. The AK120 suffers similar problems, albeit to a lesser degree.
Both the MS-AK100 and MS-AK120 fix all of that, though the MS-AK120 to a lesser degree. Namely, MS-AK mods boast headphone outputs with the cleanest signals I have ever heard, in any portable device, ever. That means absolutely noiseless music even paired with hyper-sensitive earphones favorites like the Noble Audio K10 and the Grado GR10. Hiss=zilch. Likewise, it supplies perfect current to every headphone I’ve thrown at it, resulting in distortion-free playback of demanding music at all volume levels.
By the numbers, its loaded output runs ahead of the AK240, supplying both wider stereo separation and lower distortion number. But numbers only tell how a device performs.
At the ear, the result is absolutely tidy. The MS-AK100’s superbly clean, superbly dynamic, superbly reference-level output opens up your music like never before. It’s trite to say that you will hear things you previously didn’t. But even very low levels of hiss can mask small details. And the MS-AK100 and MS-AK120 are absolutely free of hiss and background noise.
Recently, I’ve fallen in love with DACs and sources whose sound rifles through aggressive to semi-aggressive low-pass filters. The TENTO PortaDAC 1866 is one. The Linenberg Vivace is another. The MS-AK100, switched to either phase position, is a third. With an output so clean, so highly resolved, and accurate, it approaches, if not surpasses, the limits of the typical human ear. I would argue that a low-pass filter is important. It softens aggressive highs. It mollifies sibilance
Which, considering that my favourite full size open headphone is the DT880/600, is a blessing. Speaking of which, I’m enjoying Armin Van Buuren’s A State of Trance, Episode 467 through the DT880/600 and MS-AK100 combo now. While not optimal, the MS-AK100 supplies enough voltage to make a turn to 100% of the volume pot too much to handle for these ears. And, even at that setting, signal quality remains high, with only the barest hints of IMD- a feat at which most players would balk. The signal remains full, dynamic, and punchy.
Sure, some DAPs get louder than the MS-AK100 with voltage-hungry cans, but not a one boasts the same signal quality.
That includes the MS-AK120. Mezzo Hifi transplants the same WM8741 from the AK120 into the AK100. The AK120 gets similar treatment: 3,5mm balanced output, hard-stopped volume pot, minimum apodisizing filter, minimum phase soft knee, and the removal of background noise. But, it doesn’t offer the same audible returns.
High-current, low-Ω earphones will suffer inexplicable (although minimal) frequency dropouts and lifts, though not as bad as the stock AK120. Apart from that, performance really is exemplary, but if you’re really into the bang-for-buck experience, the MS-AK100 is your best bet.
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