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.