Design and hardware interface
Despite being 4mm taller, the AK Jr (reviewed here) could fit three times into a single AK380. Yep, Astell & Kern’s newest, expensivest bad boy is big. It’s got wider shoulders than ever, and it leans heavily forward, and on its left leg, reminding me of a flattened metal bow tie.
In the centre of that bow tie is the now-familiar clicky volume pot. It is both squatter, and more solid than the one attached to the AK240. It is also more surely clicky. AK380 thickens as it goes up, measuring 18,3mm at its brow, and 14,9mm at its ankles. Because of its inexplicable forward cant (it’s not a desktop computer for god’s sake), it has trouble standing stably without aid. Getting it to stay up long enough to snap advertising images was probably the opus magnum half of AK’s febrile engineering team.
And like the Jr and the AK240 before it, the AK380 is all hard angles. Under studio light, those angles reflect light like the facets of a diamond…
… which in the hand, or in the pocket, or on your nice pine table, make no sense at all. AK380’s most painful angles have keenly been chamfered and buffed, but every single one is arbitrary, is designed expressly to look good in photos and nothing else. Like a bicycle saddle moulded into a sudden, central spike, the AK380 is designed for shock value, not utility or ergonomics, nor is it well-suited for on-the-go listening.
Astell & Kern can hardly disagree. Comfort, form following function, and human-responsiveness, aren’t listed among their design priorities (WTF emphasise mine):
The light and the object are the main theme of the AK380 design. Any shadow of an object portraits the exact shape from the perspective of the light at that moment (WTF?). The way of reproducing the true sound (sic) of music from digital formats is quite similar (WTF?). Nothing more or nothing less (sic). The design motif of the AK380 reflects our philosophy of music and sound.
I’m not alone in wanting a portable audio unity to be comfortable to hold. I want to hold the thing, or put it down on my pine table, without worrying that I’m going to bleed, rupture my knee cap, or mulch sawdust.
Astell & Kern continue:
The AK380’s design was inspired by “light” and “shadow”.
While the design of the AK240 captured as a moment in time of light and shadow (WTF?), the AK380 is designed to express the change of time with more angles on its body. You will notice the different angles of surface design as you view the AK380.
We believe that the beauty of the design shall reflect what the AK380 can do with music. As different angles of light casts different shadows, different music will give you a variety of emotions.
The AK380’s design sure does give me a variety of emotions. I’m pretty sure that annoyance and anger weren’t what A&K were aiming for in the AK380. They were right, though, I certainly do notice the angles. Ouch!
Further, if angles really are A&K’s thing, why is it that the AK380’s micro-USB port faces down, and the Jr’s faces up? Similarly (and quite a nice touch, considering) all hardware interfaces, audio and data ports, and binding hardware, cleave to a single alignment pole. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, and probably due to the AK380’s myriad, abitrary time-changing angles, that pole doesn’t align to other poles across the entire device. Each one is aligned to whatever plane it is attached, confusing the angle motif even further.
To be fair, much of the annoyance experienced whilst handling the AK380 would spirit away if the sample unit came with its leather case (a necessary purchase, IMO), ostensibly, which transforms the AK380 from a large, and painful-to-use DAP to large and semi comfortable-to-use DAP. My sample unit came in a cardboard box, comfily snug with a black USB cable.
And while I dislike almost every arbitrary decision necessary in the design of the AK380, I can say, with enthusiasm that Astell & Kern have a quality factory behind them. Machining angles I can almost shave with so precisely isn’t easy. And that volume pot rotates so sexily. The AK380’s engraved buttons, gaudy carbon fibre ass, fastening hardware, and glass facias, are wonderfully installed and aligned. There is very little flex on any plane, and its duraluminium is tough. That said, it’s sad to see a 3500$ luxury DAP whose interface labels are summarily printed, rather than engraved, onto the body.
Portable digital audio gear has, in step with advances to electronic miniaturisation, been getting larger and larger. The AK380 is as large as I’d hope things get. Its navigation buttons are easy to reach, and located at a perpendicular angle to the mains switch, which makes accidentally cutting the screen near impossible. And while I think the Jr’s buttons are better spaced, the AK380’s buttons fall pretty much perfectly under the index finger, while the volume pot falls nicely beneath the thumb.
The touch-sensitive dimple in the lower chassis is a nice touch, which, as a bonus, declutters the area around the touchscreen. And that touch screen, especially when contrasted to the tallow, low-res one in the Jr, is beautiful. Colours are contrasty, accurate next to a calibrated computer monitor, and viewing angles are good to excellent.
Finally, despite digging new crevices into your palms, thighs, tables, and purses, the AK380 runs much cooler than AK240.
Continue to the next page for more hardware nitty-gritty: