Review: Astell & Kern AK XB10 – You are the original

Sound

Adding to that a pretty good amp, and the XB10’s killer feature: balanced output, amounts to nothing less than a paradigm shift. Wireless audio isn’t just convenient. It is creative. Particularly on the commute, it creates a free space all my own. I no longer worry that my earphone cable is going to snag on someone’s umbrella when I shift my index thumb on my iPhone.

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Previously, I had to strap my iPhone to Ryuzoh’s Mojo-Kai with two cables to get balanced audio out of it. That’s a big, heavy load. It’s a bitch to use. Sure, it sounds better. Sure, it performs better. But not better enough for me to bother about when out and about, even whilst signalling my audiophile-virtue to Headphone Show attendees.

Considering its feature set, the XB10’s flaws are comparatively few. The biggest one is hiss. Through really sensitive earphones, it hisses a bit more than the original AK100, which as I said in my XB10 RMAA summary, stretches ‘the upper limit of acceptability for audiophile devices’. Through Astell&Kern’s amazing AKt8iE, hiss is audible all the time at safe listening volumes. Through Noble Audio’s K10C, you have to strain to hear it once the music gets going. That is because the XB10’s amp engages only when music is played; viz., no hiss when music is paused. Secondly, both THD, IMD, and attendant jitter levels, are high. High mids marginally smear, toning down the clarity of super-clear earphones. At safe listening levels, it’s the least of your worries. When pushing loud signals, however, it picks up a lot more of the nasty.

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I suppose it’s time for me to mention just how loud the XB10 can get. Loud. Its balanced output gets nearly as loud as the AK70 or AK380. Single-ended it peaks about where the iPhone 6 does, both of which are louder than I need or want through any non-planar headphone.

And both outputs hold good signals under load well. In fact, mean deviation from 0dB is among the least you’ll find in Astell&Kern’s catalogue. That means strong bass, flat-field mids, and extended highs. Now, you shouldn’t expect any Bluetooth amp/DAC to spit signals as clean as a good smartphone. And the XB10 is no exception. But, pepending on the metric (and the DAP or phone), it nabs way better crosstalk numbers.

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Depending on how you listen, you might find that it casts a wider stage than your iPhone. The gotcha is that delineated breaks between instruments gum up a bit more. Strange bedfellows. For me, it is the best of both worlds. I love wide stages, but recently started liking the feel of being in the middle of the music to sitting back from it. This latter stage presentation, the XB10 does well, whilst pushing wide.

End words

That the XB10 allows you to listen to balanced audio from a iPhone, sans wires, is brilliant. And if you’ve got the right phone, it does lossless wireless. The iPhone can’t do aptX, or aptX-HD. In practice, neither can the AK70 – unless, for the privilege, you are prepared to weather an endless stammer of blips and bloops. I’m not.

All things considered, the XB10 is impressive. Connection distances with wireless-loving devices are good. Haptics are good. Battery life is decent. Sound quality is more mixed, but overall good, sometimes great. Wireless audio will only get better. For now, XB10, in the words of Faithless, you are the original. That is, of bluetooth audiophilia.

Well done.

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

10 Comments

  • Reply October 18, 2016

    Barun C

    Nice article Nathan. I once thought about getting one bluetooth HP amp, but it was no where near the price offered by AK. I think it was $75, Audio Technica AT-PHA05BT . Currently even the Creative Sound Blaster E3 Bluetooth DAC/AMP is available for $99.

    For iPhone 7 users, this may be a short term solution, but to me AirPlay enabled headphone amps are still going to be a better performer in terms of wireless amping solution.

    • Reply October 18, 2016

      ohm image

      Good to hear from you, Barun.

      I’m interested also in trying portable airplay amps. I’ve not had the privilege.

      • Reply October 18, 2016

        Barun C

        BTW, cute storm trooper there. Seems like he/she is carrying a water tank glued to the head ????

  • Reply October 18, 2016

    Matti

    Was curious about this device, did a web search, and ended up reading your review. Nicely written. Shame about the battery life; 3 hours – that’s worse than most laptops from 15 years ago!

    • Reply October 18, 2016

      ohm image

      Matti, I imagine that in a single run the XB10 could achieve close to five hours. I didn’t get so many hours only because autistically I changed, tweaked, compared, weighed, and fiddled with it and many devices constantly. But, your mileage will vary.

  • Reply November 9, 2016

    wasaki

    To be honest this one is really a poor value , I would rather take fidue a83 or adel 6u over these .

    • Reply July 5, 2017

      Wyd4

      What?

  • Reply November 21, 2017

    Dan

    XB10 was created to play with aptX HD enabled devices. You should review the sound quality again with aptX HD enabled devices such as LG V30.

    • Reply November 21, 2017

      ohm image

      I don’t own, nor will I ever own an LG smartphone. As for amp quality, that’s that. APTX doesn’t affect that. The hiss and jitter I noticed are not going to change because of that.

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