Review: Astell & Kern AK380 – Momentary

New EQ

On paper, the new parametric EQ is great. But thanks to lousy touch-tracking, not to mention an awkward portrait orientation, changing the height or width of frequency points is counter-intuitive. But being able to change both the frequency, and the rise/fall of that frequency is incredibly powerful. I’m hoping A&K fix this in a software update.

Volume control

Like the 240, the 380’s volume is spread over 151 stops. But because it does away with fractional steps, and is numbered from 0 to 150, rather than 0 to 75, it is immediately easier to suss. This is a good move. And with 150 steps, you don’t have to worry about sudden jumps from one setting to the next like you do with the iPhone. Bravo.

Gapless

Gapless playback works pretty well. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn close. As long as you have properly encoded files, and have turned the drop-down menu’s greyed-out G black, you can get gapless to work even when file A is lossy and file B is lossless. Outside iOS devices, I’ve not worked with a better system.

Bravo.

Performance and sound

Disclaimer: While I have compiled, edited, re-taken, and averaged hours and hours of hardware tests, I have yet to publish them at ohm-image.net. I intend to do so tomorrow morning, Tokyo time, after which, I will update this paragraph with a link to them. Until then, you will have to take my word metrics such as stereo separation, dynamic range, load effects, etc.

As I type this, the AK380 is massaging my FitEar DW335 at a volume of 70. Remember, I’m a dude that, when reading in his bed, finds a volume setting of 1 through his IEMs and iPhone 4s too loud. Naturally, I’ve set the AK380’s amp to low gain. And, I’m at a Starbucks where white-collar meetings are de rigueur. At a volume of 70, I hear nothing but silly, sexy audiophile jazz. I really want to hear trance, but I know that audiophile buggers want me to talk about jazz. I also know a number of people that would happily step the volume up to 100.

After extensively testing the AK380 via oscillator, and its performance against amateur audio metrics such as RMAA, and square waves, I am ready to lay down the following:

Depending on the load, and volume, the AK380 is either the paramount of portable audio performance, or a merely good quality source. Unloaded, it remains nearly perfectly stable up to a volume of 150, at which AK have set the line output. At 0, it is perfectly silent.

Its output is devoid of background noise and hiss and perfectly suited to sensitive devils such as the Shure SE846, Ultrasone IQ, and FitEar Private 333.

Of course, at 3500$, that should be a given. And, across the industry, hiss has, in largest part, been solved. Neither my iPod nano 7G, nor my iPhone 6 hiss much in comparison to the AK380.

Where the AK380 truly excels is its portrayal of stereo detail and space. Not only does it cast a stereo image that practically wraps around your head, every step outward is accompanied by depth, minute detail, and delicate contrast. It is believable, and reverent. What it isn’t is powerful. Of the AK Jr, I said:

The sound stage Jr throws is wide and tall wall, a wall-of-sound that maximizes surface area in lieu of ploughing deep z-axis fields.

The AK380, in contrast, ploughs deep along the z-axis whilst maintaining stereo width and detail that easily surpasses the Jr. It is buoyed up from the shoulders to about ten centimetres above your head while the third dimension ploughs forward a half metre or so. The entire edifice wraps fairly around your head. Unlike some x-only wide stereo images, the AK380’s doesn’t confuse or disorient. It is filled with enough natural detail to keep you grounded.

It is a more liquidy-sounding player than the AK240 or the Jr, and is certainly more so than the iBasso DX90. Personally, I prefer a drier, more muscly sound; which is why the Jr is my favourite AK DAP. But the word liquid gets thrown around a lot. This DAP isn’t your typical smooth-to-no-end liquid-sounding source. It is never clogged by distortion, or circumcised stereo detail. It is just uber smooth, and lined by loads of micro contrast.

Plan to use the AK380 with an excellent amp. The truth is that most amps will fail to keep up with its output, which even through my amateur setup, nets:

-117,8dB noise level
117,7 dynamic range
0,0005 THD (%)
0,0009 IMD (%)
-117,3dB stereo crosstalk

These numbers are so stunning that I assume my measuring rig, the phenomenal Lynx Studio Technology HILO rig is the bottleneck.

Loaded is a different story.

Of all my headphones, and as is typical to low-current loads, the DT880/600 presents the least load to the AK380. After that, it’s the planar magnetic Oppo PM-2. After that, things fall apart to varying degrees of severity.

Single-ended, the AK380 holds a pretty good to excellent signal even when driving the torturous Earsonics SM2 even at a volume setting of 150. Sure, distortion bumps up to nearly audible levels, and stereo crosstalk jumps to -77dB, but overall, the effect is small. The same earphone balanced is a wreck of THD and IMD distortion that exonerates poorly-designed valve amps. But that’s at the unlistenable volume setting of 150.

Even if it were up to snuff, I have serious doubts that the AK380’s balanced out could sneak one past its prodigious single-ended out. But let’s continue.

When set to typical listening levels (100 and below), the AK380 suddenly tests similarly to an iPhone 4. And that makes sense. Most of what 24-bit audio boasts above 16-bit audio depends on noise contrast and the dynamic range applicable to sustained volume levels of over 110dB at which no one listens.

Which is to say: the AK380 has the ability to perform, but you have to really coax it. It is held back by a poor balanced output the use of which I cannot with good conscience endorse outside of passing signal to outboard amps.

That is to say that when all is well and good, all is well and good. The AK380 can sound like a thousand bucks. But just as easily, it can sound like 500$.

Continue to the next page to read about headphone pairing, DAP comparisons, and more:

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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.

43 Comments

  • Reply September 2, 2015

    George Lai

    Angles & Kinks 😉

  • Reply September 2, 2015

    Andy

    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

        Andy

        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

            Andy

            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

                Andy

                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

    Jeff

    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

        Jeff

        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.
        Cheers.

  • Reply September 2, 2015

    Richard

    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

    Tronco

    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

    FullTynick

    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

          Sridhar

          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

    Jimm19492

    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

    Clarence

    Have you tried the latest Cowon Plenue S ?

  • Reply April 13, 2016

    Sridhar

    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

    Alz

    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

      Lieven

      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.

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