Review: Astell & Kern AK380 – Momentary

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:


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.


  • Reply September 2, 2015

    George Lai

    Angles & Kinks 😉

  • Reply September 2, 2015


    The best (& longest, probably) review done by Nathan. Brutally honest; plus WTF-rich content. Couldn’t be better for sure!

    PS: I’m an audiophile & I listen to Armin Van Buuren, Dash Berlin, Tiesto & co. here and there. 😉

    • Reply September 2, 2015

      ohm image

      I am in good company, then. I think it is my longest review, and I hope it is as honest as possible. One thing for sure: spending a long time with a very expensive (and to its target market, nice) DAP has made me appreciate my iPhone 4S a lot more.

      And mate, what do you think of post-700 episode ASOT? Dash are always running in my studio.

      • Reply September 3, 2015


        I had to hop on Spotify – Apple Music doesn’t have the complete list of ASOT. (meh). Post 700? I somewhat prefer pre-700. Post-700 sounds less trance, more big house (some disco). Is he sucked in Guetta & Harris whirlpool? I don’t listen to ASOTs often, anyway; I mainly listen to his albums.

        Dash Berlin is good – on par with Tiesto. Sorry, but those 2 can’t match AvB for me. Have you heard Martin Garrix? He looks promising for such young age.

        I own 4S & 5S. 4S sounds larger but I prefer 5S. More dynamic & contrast. I can’t help myself yawning listening to trance with 4S.

        • Reply September 3, 2015

          ohm image

          Yeah, the 5/S is more grippy sounding, which I think sounds better for trance. When I’m in the mood for something else all together, the 4S shows its colours better.

          As to post-700: you have to give it time. Until very recently, I was pretty much 300-500, and I love the show because I get into new trance rather than hanging onto my albums. I’ve got all of his albums (thanks honey!) but am perhaps more into understanding contemporary work.

          • Reply September 3, 2015


            I’ll give it chance but no guarantee. I’m quite a stubborn conservationist in terms of music. But that means I have to jump around 2 streaming services. Competition, exclusives, blah blah..suck. Period.

            Anyway, do you think VE6 still the king of EDM CIEM?

            • Reply September 4, 2015

              ohm image

              Absolutely: the VE6 is still king of EDM/trance, mainly because of its incredibly wide stage, high contrast to bass and highs, but not too much of a V-curve. It’s perfect to get your ears to tell you you are in a chemical groove. Not too much bass to crowd out the feeling.

              • Reply September 6, 2015


                Quick update: I’m listening to ASOT 729. Really trying not to think that I’m listening to disco music brought by a radio DJ.

                Now, into psych limbo…..

  • Reply September 2, 2015


    A heads-up: external amplifier from A&K released today in Korea for around $750-800 USD.
    So, 3500 + ~800 = 4300. Wowzers eh? I would grab the upcoming X7 or something and a Hugo instead but that’s just me not preferring the “ultimate.”

    Anyways, a great 5 out of 5 stars review!

    • Reply September 2, 2015

      ohm image

      Thanks Jeff. I’m pretty stoked by the unloaded output of the AK380. And thus far, AK have yet to produce a great amp circuit. But I’ll hold my breath until I get a chance to touch the new amp.

      I tested the PURE II+ with the AK380 at the same volume levels and it suffered none of the same problems with the same earphones.

      If/when the AK380 gets an output mod from a good DIYer, it could be perfect for the person that really wants it all (including cuts in their palms).

      • Reply September 2, 2015


        Personally, I thought that the AK380 was a bit digital sounding A/Bing between it and the Hugo. I’ll demo the amp on Saturday so I’ll be able to find out if it helps the AK380 any. The balanced output’s power is pretty impressive using the amp: 8.1 Vrms I think (this is in high gain mode) (there is a high gain mode and a low gain mode for iems). I guess the amp could help in some ways (but cause more cuts in their palms).

        Either way, I think that the AK240 was a real winner for A&K at the time while the AK380’s a monster that’s too expensive, too technical with hype-words like femto-clock, too big & heavy, and becomes even harder to consider it “portable” when it’s attached an additional amp. Granted AK240 wasn’t perfect in terms of SQ, it still seems like it’s got the best ergonomics out of the A&K range to me.

        All in all though, it is the ultimate… at least for now.

  • Reply September 2, 2015


    Hows the line out pairing to the CDM that you reviewed recently? Is the DAC a solid improvement over the AK240 on line out?

    • Reply September 2, 2015

      ohm image

      Yes to the second question and to the first: great pairing.

  • Reply September 4, 2015


    You mentioned the Plenue 1. Is there a review coming up? Price and design wise it would be much more interesting to me than this.

    • Reply September 4, 2015

      ohm image

      I have no idea about the Plenue. I have tried it multiple times (during shoots) and have been impressed. And I’ve received a good number of requests. I will let you know.

  • Reply September 5, 2015


    Ouch. I guess I was expecting it though.

    • Reply September 7, 2015

      ohm image

      Like I said, performance is very good, and unloaded, nearly perfect. Its balanced output isn’t great, and loaded, its excellent performance falls a bit. Still, you can’t really top all of it, just that for 3500$, it is about 3x the price of its closest performance competitor. But it is a player that does a LOT more than the Pluenue 1.

      • Reply December 2, 2015

        Philip Kossoy

        I am looking for a way to play CD quality and Hi Res. files on my home stereo system and obtain lifelike performance. I currently have Usher BE-20 speakers with the Diamond tweeters, however I do have the Beryllium tweeters that they originally came with. I use Audience AU24 bi-wire speaker cables and am running them through a Micromega IA400 200W integrated amp. My question is do you recommend the AK380 to load and play my music files through or is a lesser DAP going to offer very similar sonic reproduction of the music on my system? Am I better off going for something like the Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD Audio Player. Help Nathan!

        • Reply December 2, 2015

          ohm image

          Well, unloaded, the AK380 is impressive. The MSAK100 is nearly as good. A Chord Mojo is measurably far superior to either. If you have a smartphone and a Mojo, you’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and will be able to supply better signal to a pre-amp. If you have a DAC you want to use, the AK380’s digital output is very good. But so is USB.

        • Reply April 13, 2016


          Nothing can beat CD quality music. If you possess a dedicated audio cd player, e.g., Marantz, nothing like that. However, the next option is to go to Headphonezone only, they have carefully picked gadgets. premium ones at affordable prices..…..reliable advices.

  • Reply September 15, 2015

    Eclectic Enthusiast

    Despite the balanced output being disappointing, is the balanced output still superior to the AK240 and AK120II?

    • Reply September 23, 2015

      ohm image

      I’ve not tested the AK120II’s balanced output. But compared to the AK240’s the AK240’s is better. That said, I haven’t tested both side-by-side loaded. Only unloaded. And for that, the AK380 is better.

  • Reply November 7, 2015

    Joshua Chew

    In a sentence/paragraph. What would you say about the 240 vs 380?

    • Reply November 19, 2015

      ohm image

      I didn’t have them at the same time. From memory (fallible) AK380 is more detailed, the AK240 more smooth. The AK380 tests better, too. But I think at normal listening volumes there is nothing between them.

  • Reply February 20, 2016

    Wave Strike

    That plastic screen is nowhere near as nice as a Samsung S6 playing Onkyo HD player out to any of the great portable DACs out there.

  • Reply March 17, 2016


    Would this be overkill for IEM’s like the SE-5 Ultimate? If it is, I might just go with the DX100 or the A&K AK120 instead.

    • Reply May 15, 2016

      ohm image

      It is a bit overkill for those earphones, and it may not drive those earphones perfectly. It will sound great with them.

  • Reply March 27, 2016


    Have you tried the latest Cowon Plenue S ?

  • Reply April 13, 2016


    Nothing can beat CD quality music. If you possess a dedicated audio cd player, e.g., Marantz, nothing like that. However, the next option is to go to Headphonezone only…..they have carefully picked gadgets, premium ones at affordable prices…..reliable advices. Tell them your capacity to spend at the particular time, your taste in the music, the size of the music gadget that will suit you etc., you are done possessing a gadget that keeps you happily listening to music.

  • Reply August 10, 2016

    Mateo Ocaña

    How is the sound signature of the k70 compared with ak jr?

  • Reply June 11, 2017


    I am on the Sony ZX2 with shure 846. You guys think there any worthwhile gain to upgrade to this AK380?

    • Reply June 12, 2017


      Maybe Berkhan can answer this for you

  • Reply August 3, 2017

    Mostafa Elshazly

    Can someone please explain what is loaded and unloaded that is mentioned for balanced output

    • Reply August 4, 2017

      ohm image

      It means the amp is driving a load (headphone or dummy) from an output socket.

  • Reply January 22, 2018

    Tired of waiting

    A&K support is super unresponsive. Insane for a high end unit – you’d think they would care about repeat business.

  • Reply August 25, 2020

    Antony Steel

    This review was so good, I got the product. Unfortunately after 2 years the battery started swelling and had to be removed to prevent any further damage.
    Contacted Astell and Kern locally – sorry the battery is discotinued and A&K will not service the product…. Emailed A&K and no reply.
    For a quality / high end product this is incredibly bad service. Sadly I will be looking elsewhere for replacement

    • Reply August 26, 2020


      I agree and at the same time I can see why they’re saying this. Tech products nowadays unfortunately have a very short lifetime.
      That being said, if you open it up and DIY, I’m sure you can replace the battery. But this shouldn’t be the way for high end products, agreed.

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