Review: Astell & Kern AK380 – Momentary


In contrast to drier-sounding players, the AK380’s signature mates nearly perfectly to every earphone in my arsenal. When driving headphones single-ended, it plays to all the strengths of my Grado GR10, my DT880, and certainly to my FitEar DW335.

Severe problems arise where high current mixes with low impedance when spitting from the balanced out. Put simply, the AK380 isn’t able to sustain enough current to maintain any colour of stability. My warm DW335 gets treble-spiky, goes wonk in the bass, and gets this ER4s tweaky thing going on. It fairs far better in single ended mode, where it sounds wonderfully true to form.

The opposite is true of the Ultrasone IQ. While nothing can fix a sucked-out midrange, balanced from the AK380, the IQ changes tones enough that the IQ goes almost IQ Pro. It is my subjective opinion that this change is positive. Essentially, the IQ loses a lot of sound pressure in the high frequencies, while holding onto a decent, if slightly deflated low end. Of course, it is far more cost effective to just purchase an IQ Pro.

Apart from that, and as long as you dig its liquid signature, pairing the AK380 with any headphone is second nature. Minus the faults outlined above, its unassuming, but detailed sound is a great starting ground for just about any phone you can plug into it.

And it packs a lot of power. A setting of 150 in low gain is another 15dB louder than the loudest setting of my iPhone 4s. High gain is even louder. Assuming your headphone isn’t too current hungry, high volumes will scale wonderfully with detail, and remain stable.

VS your favourite high-end DAP

While many times its price, the AK380 is almost at an impasse re: levels of hiss VS many of the latest phones, DAPs, and audiophile players. The Calyx M doesn’t hiss more. The DX90 barely hisses more. Some of Fiio’s X players just as dead silent. Each perfectly tracks volume between channels. A&K DAPs’s balanced output is a major selling point. And A&K’s interfaces are far and away cleverer than your iBasso’s, less dizzying than your Fiio’s, and less clunky than your HiFiman’s. And while the AK380’s angles defy human evolution, they belong to a long line of ridiculous hardware/software portable audiophile interfaces whereby creative and silly engineers think it better to redesign the wheel. And until Apple, or another similarly customer-focused company enters the fray, they will remain par for the course.

From what I see, the only mainstream audiophile player that can hold a candle to an unloaded AK380 is the Plenue 1. If its balanced output was up to snuff, the AK380 would nearly be unstoppable. But part of what your 3500$ pays for is that useless piece of circuitry.

Do Astell & Kern understand luxury?

If luxury was defined by the internet: ostentatious, exorbitantly expensive, and frivolous, the AK380 would pass, but just. Egad, its carbon fibre back and Nuremberg angles are ostentatious. And it is exorbitantly expensive. But its price comes with a lot of functionality for which you could argue utility exists. Finally, A&K paid a lot of attention to detail, and are building around the AK380 an incredible, and rapidly expanding modular brand.

Thank god luxury isn’t defined by idiots on the internet. The ODE says this of it:

a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.

And it’s’ against this definition where the AK380 fails. It isn’t comfortable to use. It isn’t elegant; it was designed to be angular and momentary. And its many functions go beyond the simple, and the luxurious; functionality like over-the-air firmware updates, WiFi streaming, an integrated hi-res audio store, etc., trip heavily into geek territory.

The answer is no: Astell & Kern do not understand luxury. They understand geek. Fortunately, the geek to whom their products generally appeal has an expanding stable of modules and products to choose from, each more ostentatious than the last, and each one eating up audiophile mindshare.


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.

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