Disclaimer: Vinnie of Red Wine Audio modded my AK100 free of charge for the purposes of this review.
In Japan, a used Leica M8 fetches nearly double what it fetches abroad. Ditto Mont Blanc pens. In general, luxury items keep their mojo. Sadly, the opposite is true of audio gear. If you ever try selling an old headphone, or speaker, you’ll quickly realise that Japan is a buyer’s market.
About a year ago, I picked up two nine month-old iRiver AK100 digital audio players. The total for the two was 800$. Today, single units go for as little as 250$, mint. Of course, the AK100 isn’t the most impressive-sounding device out there. But it has a relatively stable interface, it takes two micro SD cards, it spits optical out (and in); and it works as a USB DAC for your computer. Its soul is the excellent, and warm Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DAC.
Add another 250$ for an Red Wine Audio RWAK100 mod, and your AK100 becomes a formidable audio player. If you’re lucky, the entire thing can be had for 500$.
If you want to know more about the AK100, check out Mike’s review. If you dig its form factor, but not its sub-standard headphone output, and want to keep using it without an amp, you have a number of options. The two best are Red Wine Audio’s RWAK100 mod, and the Mezzo Hifi MSAK100 modification, about which I sang a fortnight ago.
What is the RWAK100?
Vinnie from Red Wine Audio performs an oft-copied operation: bypassing the inexplicably 22 Ω resistor which buggers the output. The headphone output FETs are burned directly to the headphone jack. It’s a clean process that goes a long way to correcting the AK100’s most egregious audible errors. Finally, Vinnie slaps its ass with a cute branded Red Wine Audio bumper. The modification goes for 250$, which in 2014 dollars is practically nothing. Shipping is extra.
The modification reaps benefits far beyond the MKII AK100, which inexplicably debuted months after the AK100 hit market at the end of 2012. In fact, if you have a MKII AK100, I recommend having it modded by Vinnie – that is, if you want every last drop of performance.
Turn around time is weeks, not months. And Vinnie’s work is excellent.
I’m afraid of being too short in this section. You see, Vinnie’s mod doesn’t suddenly drop the WM7840 from to software mode as does Mezzo Hifi’s mod. And it doesn’t add functionality — that is, unless you consider a much better-performing headphone output a feature.
What it does do is fix the faulty hardware interface that held back the AK100. The RWAK100 is able to drive your favorite earphones and portable headphones with a minimum of distortion and other audible artefacts.
In particular, it completely eliminates audible drops in, or spikes of, bass, high mids, and highs. As long as your headphones don’t require endless voltage, Vinnies mod eliminates the need for an external amplifier. In fact, few downstream amps will be able to match the output performance of the RWAK100. Harmonic distortion, and IMD largely are kept in check. Stereo integrity, which stock AK100 players drop by 30dB, is kept very close to unloaded levels. In short: you won’t miss a single detail.
The WM8740 is a pretty mean DAC. It carries that famous Wolfson warmth without turning signal to muck, or sacrificing detail. And the RWA mod doesn’t squeeze your music through a low pass filter. In some ways, the RWAK100 produces a more energetic, unapologetic sound than the MSAK100 mod.
No more mid-volume IMD crackle or buzz. No more audible bass suck outs, no more dives in stereo performance. If you dig the sound of the WM8740, you’ll love the RWAK100. I’m floored. Stock AK100s are unable to supply enough current to earphones with violent low-Ω impedance swings. Pre-mod, my AK100 dropped bass output by 4dB against an energetic upheaval of treble from 5kHz – 9kHz. Another one busted up around 1,5kHz.
You can get used to anything. The water in our housing development smells like rotten eggs. It’s not safe to drink. It’s one of the wonders of living in a culture whose federal government has little say in the goings on of its provinces. And just as there are no standards to which DAP manufacturers are held, it is possible to get used to the stinky output of the AK100. Eventually you’ll be on the train, banging your head to John Denver, or Joy Division; next to you, noses will turn away. Your clothes stink like Old Faithful. And, to be honest, the music you’re banging your head to is tantamount to the quality of a 2005 iPod nano.
But a good RWA mod (or maybe yet another water filter, digging another 50 meters, or a move to Quebec) replaces the bad performance of your AK100 with awesome. And your eyes will open.
This article continues after the jump: