Review: Astell&Kern SR15 – Pocket Pleasure

Astell&Kern SR15

Package:

When you buy an SR15 you will of course get the DAP delivered in a small cardboard box, which also contains a short manual, two micro SD slot covers and screen protectors. I am a bit disappointed not to see one of the screen protectors pre-applied to the front or back. I hate scratches on the screen, but I also hate applying the protectors as that can be a real pain in the ass. Also supplied with the SR15 comes a micro USB cable and a warranty card.

AK does not provide any protective case for the SR15. Which is a bummer. Sure, you can buy one from AK, but at this price I feel a case should be supplied. I always found AK’s packaging and accessories to be spot on, but with the SR15 I feel they are missing out.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

Build Quality:

The SR15 is made of a single piece of Aluminium and held in a dark grey colour. I really like the finish of the norma, as the corners are smooth and rounded off. I have been a fan of the design language AK uses. Some people don’t like the angles and corners, I think that is exactly what makes their DAPs so gorgeous.

Astell&Kern has given the SR15 a rather unusual design though. One thing is more than apparent, the tilted screen looks a bit weird at first glance, but when you hold the device in your hand you’ll see the reason for it. When you put the SR15 in your right hand, the screen will automatically align and gone is the strange angle.

The design of the SR15 is outstanding in my opinion and I really enjoy the attention to detail AK’s industrial designers show. For example, when you look at the back plate you will see three dimensional cubes. Look a little closer and you’ll see that the cubes all consist of separate lines, and aren’t just areas. The most noticeable detail of course is the beautiful volume wheel. I love its design and wave-lines. It is also perfectly implemented and has excellent tactile feedback.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

On the left side of the unit you have three hardware buttons. Fast forward/next track, play/pause and rewind/previous track. These are very useful when you want to zap through tracks, but don’t want to take the SR15 out of your pocket. On top of the unit you have the headphone outputs. These slightly stand out from the body. The reason for that is, that you won’t have the risk of shorting the DAP with your jacks. Also, you won’t scratch the surface of the SR15 then. Next to the 2.5 mm output there is the on/off button. This also de-/activates the screen when the device is on.

On the bottom, you have the micro-USB B input for charging and file transfer. I hoped for AK to adopt the USB C port, as it offers multiple benefits. The screen is perfectly flushed into the body and the whole build quality is top, just as you’d expect it from a high-end manufacturer like Astell&Kern.

Control:

Astell&Kern is using an Android based Operating System. It does not run full Android, so installing Apps via the Play Store won’t happen. Their customized interface however is one of the best out there. Some manufacturers have weird bugs, but AK always seemed to be improving their UI without any issues.

Their interface is well thought out and fast. There are no real hiccups in my opinion, but there also are some limitations. These however are on purpose. AK does not want their customers to mess with their intended sound, therefore things like digital filters are not available. The Parametric EQ seems like a damn mighty thing on paper, but AK limits the effects on +/- 5dB, so changes are minimal. Also, the EQ seems to be better working with smaller sample rates and bit depth. I almost never use the EQ as I am not the biggest fan of EQing, when I do, it is to adjust frequencies on the headphone or earphone I’m using.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

Let’s go through the control real fast here. AK has a swiping based UI. That means depending from which corner you’ll slide your finger through, you will get a different page. The quick settings menu is found when you drag it down from the top. A swipe from left to right will bring you to the database, sorted by Artist, Album, Song, Genre, Store (TIDAL, Groovers+) and others. From here on you can browse through your files. I usually go the Artist route and select albums from there.

The main page is the Now Playing screen. Which is the centre of the UI and can be accessed by placing your finger on the little dot on the bottom of the screen. Swiping from the right corner to the left brings you the current playlist. The most recent played tracks are found when going from bottom to top.

In the Now Playing screen you also have access to the playback behaviour. You can set shuffle and repeat when tapping on the album cover. Then you see a few infos about the track as well. Gapless playback, LR balance and other settings can be accessed via the settings menu, which is found on the left page.

On the top end, there is also system information which lets you know the current settings for volume, shuffle, repeat, WiFi, battery status and time. For a quick look this gives you plenty of info’s. Of course, you also have the option for deeper settings and change the UI a bit.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

One thing I am always critical about when having a new DAP is the way it handles playlists. I like creating my own on the fly, adding tracks to the current playing songs. The AK staff has managed to get that done right, the only thing I’m waiting for them to implement there is the option to add a song to play as next, with shuffle playing activated. Then it works similar to the Rockbox way, which still is the best in my opinion.

The firmware can be updated via WiFi (OTA), for that you have to be connected to the network and if there is an update available a notification will pop up on the screen. This procedure takes a few minutes and does not erase any stored data on the device.

Future firmware’s will bring the following improvements from what I’ve been told: MQA and side loading APK files for additional streaming services. I’m not sure if the SR15 will also become Roon Ready like other AK DAPs, it would be great though. I hope AK will also allow us to install the Roon Remote App on their DAPs. That would be even cooler.

When using the SR15 the unit will get a little warm, but that’s completely normal. When you use and charge the SR15 at the same time, it will run pretty warm, I don’t recommend doing that. As the additional stress for the battery might not be the best for it.

Sound on the next page.

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A daytime code monkey with a passion for audio and his kids, Linus tends to look at gear with a technical approach, trying to understand why certain things sound the way they do. When there is no music around, Linus goes the extra mile and annoys the hell out of his colleagues with low level beatboxing.

    40 Comments

    • Reply October 30, 2018

      Booker

      Great review. It’s interesting that AK decided to downsample DSD to PCM, as the DAC chip is capable of DSD. I always wondered if it depends on the processor too – needing more computing power to feed a DSD track into the DAC chip?

      A few questions/comments:
      * Does gapless work well?
      * I’d love to know if there’s any delay on the USB DAC function, but I note you hadn’t tried it out
      * I know Nathan did the ZX300 review, but are you able to do any comparisons of SR15 vs ZX300

      • Reply October 30, 2018

        Linus

        Hi Booker,

        thanks for your comment.
        I think it is a limitation of the CPU to downsample.
        Gapless works well here, I mostly played FLAC files of multiple resolutions.
        Yes, Nathan did the ZX300, and he loves it. I too would like to know how they compare, but sadly I have no access to a ZX300, if I get the chance to compare them, I will, but they rarely pop up in the classifieds…

        I’ll try the USB DAC function and let you know. I still have it for about a week or so, that should be enough time to try it out with a YouTube video.

        Cheers!

        • Reply November 1, 2018

          Booker

          Thank you! I read in the AK70 review here that gapless didn’t work to well, so glad there’s improvements on the newer model.

      • Reply October 30, 2018

        Eykxas

        Only DSD128 and DSD256 are downsampled, DSD64 is play natively.

        • Reply October 30, 2018

          Linus

          Hi Eykxas,

          thanks for the info, indeed you’re right. DSD64 is handled natively while DSD128 is downsampled to PCM according to their spec sheet. Must have missed that one.

          Cheers

        • Reply November 1, 2018

          Booker

          Right you are. I see on the Cirrus Logic website that the DAC chip does support up to DSD256: https://www.cirrus.com/products/cs43198/

    • Reply October 30, 2018

      Daniel

      Thanks Linus. Nice review as always. And the photo showing the back of the player is simply gorgeous!

      I would love to see some comparisons with Sony ZX300, but only to find out that the Sony player belongs to Nathan..

      • Reply October 30, 2018

        Linus

        Hi Daniel,

        thanks for your comment.
        That was a lucky shot, but it turned out very well.

        I’d love to know how the SR15 compares to the ZX300, but the Sony seems out of reach for me. If one turns up on the classifieds for a good price I might snag it. 🙂

        Cheers!

    • Reply October 30, 2018

      Carl Marchione

      Hi ,I just purchased the AK70 MKII and want to know how it comapares to it …. Thanks

      • Reply October 30, 2018

        Linus

        Hello Carl,

        it’s in the review, page 4 😉

        “It has been a little while since I had the AK70 MK2, and I usually am not a fan of making comparisons based on memory, but I think many people are interested in learning the differences between them. Please take the following with a grain of salt. The SR15 has higher clarity in its sound, throws a wider and deeper sound stage and generally improved in terms of resolution and instrumental separation.”

      • Reply October 30, 2018

        Linus

        Oh, and you will not get the Open APK feature with the AK70ii as far as I know. So that’s a bonus for the SR15 right there.

    • Reply October 30, 2018

      Raghava

      How does this compare with X7 Mark 2?

      • Reply October 30, 2018

        Linus

        Hi Raghava,

        can’t say, I have never heard the X7ii.
        Sorry.

        • Reply October 30, 2018

          Lieven

          That one has even better clarity and a more neutral tuning

        • Reply April 25, 2019

          Luis André Ferreira

          Great review!
          I currently have ak70 (1st generation) paired with Custom Art Fibae2.
          I love my monitors signature and would love to upgrade my portable source.
          I like an engaging, full bodied musical source but not on the expense of resolution.
          I like ak70 signature but sometimes I miss some more refinement and instrument separation.
          Any advise between sr15 or se100?
          Thank you so much!!

    • Reply November 2, 2018

      Martin

      The last photo on page 4 is not showing the SR15. That should be the SE100.

      • Reply November 2, 2018

        Linus

        I know, that’s why I wrote this: “The above photo shows the A&futura SE100, I tried taking a few shots of the SR15 running TIDAL and Bandcamp, but my phone doesn’t seem suitable for nice photos. Or it’s me. It’s probably me…”

        😉

    • Reply December 23, 2018

      Steven

      Hope I am not too late to the party here.
      I have been an original A&K100 MK1 owner for many years and very pleased with it – would this be much of an upgrade sonically?
      And do A&K do proper shuffle these days as they certainly didn’t with the 100 MK1?

    • Reply January 25, 2019

      Matt

      “Astell&Kern is a branch of Korea’s iRiver, which actually is the first company to ever build a portable audio player. ” – how can this be true if the iriver was founded in 1999 and there were daps commercialy available in 1998 like MPMan, Audible player and Diamond Rio? The first ever built but not commercialy available was called IXI built by Rober Kramer in 1979.

      • Reply January 27, 2019

        Linus

        Hi Matt,
        thanks for your comment.
        I, obviously, always was under the impression of iRiver being first. Guess you’ll never stop learning new things. Thanks for the info!
        Have a great Sunday.

    • Reply January 27, 2019

      chema gonzalvo

      Great review Linus!
      I would like to know if you remember that the streaming apps (qobuz for instance) could storage music in the sr15 in order to listen to it when the device is offline. Thanks.

      • Reply January 27, 2019

        Linus

        Thanks for your comment.
        I don’t have the SR15 anymore to check, but all my other AK players can store Tidal offline tracks to play without network, so I’d be surprised if the SR15 would do it differently.

    • Reply February 1, 2019

      Shane

      How does this compare to the HiBy r6?

    • Reply February 27, 2019

      bibi

      Hi, thx for the review.

      I’m currently using Cayin n5ii DAP. I really appreciate how it sounds but I dislike UI, screen and responsiveness.

      Not sure that I want to spend money for the SR15 to just fix ergonomic details, but how does it compare to the Cayin n5ii on sound ?

      Regards,

      • Reply March 2, 2019

        Linus

        Hi Bibi,
        thanks for your comment.
        Wish I could help you there, but I have never heard the N5ii. Sorry.

    • Reply March 25, 2019

      Eli Segal

      Can you tell how does it stand against the ak120ii?
      If I’ll replace my 120ii with the sr15 , will I loose something?

      thanks!

      • Reply March 27, 2019

        Linus

        Hi Eli,
        thanks for your comment.

        Ah, the AK120ii, one of my all time loves. I regret selling it a lot actually.
        I’d still put the AK120ii over the SR15 sound wise, it’s more refined and open with a closer to neutral signature. It’s also super compact and I adore the simple design of it.
        One thing you’d gain with the SR15 is support for third party apps. You can’t install Spotify for example on the 120ii. The UI of the SR15 is also nicer in my opinion, though the 120ii also has the well thought out AK software… so you’re not really losing here with it. Just side stepping. 🙂

        Hope that helps.

        • Reply March 30, 2019

          Eli Segal

          Actually that helps a lot as I also adore the sound of the ak120ii
          But, I do miss a proper streaming software in it.
          What are your thoughts about going the r6pro route? is it better than the sr15 sound wise?

          thanks!
          Eli

          • Reply March 30, 2019

            Linus

            Hi Eli,
            if that’s your concern, then you might want to consider the SR15. You can side-load APK files to it and install Spotify for example.
            The R6 Pro is supposed to be very nice, but I haven’t heard it. I know Lieven is quite impressed by it.
            Hope that helps.
            Cheers

          • Reply September 2, 2019

            Eric Degis

            Have both. I think the r6pro may sound slightly more holographic via balanced but honestly I use the sr15 mostly now as the sound is excellent and the portability is amazing. Love the r6pro but it is a brick!

    • Reply April 25, 2019

      Luis André Ferreira

      Great review!
      I currently have ak70 (1st generation) paired with Custom Art Fibae2.
      I love my monitors signature and would love to upgrade my portable source.
      I like an engaging, full bodied musical source but not on the expense of resolution.
      I like ak70 signature but sometimes I miss some more refinement and instrument separation.
      Any advise between sr15 or se100?
      Thank you so much!

      • Reply May 3, 2019

        Linus

        Hi Luis,
        thanks for your comment, much appreciated.
        Sorry for the late response.
        I personally would take the SR15, I’m not the biggest fan of the SE100. Yes it’s better on technical levels, but it just doesn’t convince me enough to justify the pricegap between the SR15 and it. The SR on the other hand is excellent, and on the go it is my top recommendation at that price.
        Hope that helps.

    • Reply May 11, 2019

      Alex

      I found the gapless to be terrible with high resolution flacs. It’s fine with 16-bit stuff though, but yeah, I’m a tad disappointed with my SR15. I find it lacking in basic stuff, like shuffle play and continuous playback. It doesn’t play the next album it just stalls all the time.

    • Reply May 14, 2019

      MC

      Will Xelento be a good match to SR15?

    • Reply June 17, 2019

      Alessandro Sabatino

      The thing I would like to say is just the fact that in addition to inserting an equalizer, they could include in a future update a simple adjustment of bass and treble, without other various frequencies that do not need much

      • Reply February 6, 2020

        Rish

        Hey,
        how does it compare to R6 Pro and other modern DAPs, such as M11 Pro and others? And if you have tried it pairing with Andromeda or Solaris.

        Thanks!

        • Reply February 10, 2020

          Linus

          Hi Rish,
          sorry, I don’t have access to the R6 Pro or M11 Pro. Also I don’t have the Andromeda (sold it a long time ago) or the Solaris.

    • Reply July 30, 2019

      Alessandro Sabatino

      Ultima domanda, dal mio AK SR15 al Cowon PL farò un salto di qualità? Ho visto però che però il COwon ha un’uscita bilanciata da 4.4 mentre io ho tutti i cavi bilanciati da 2.2, è un problema. Mi da un suo consiglio? Vale la pena spendere 1700? Mi da un suo consiglio? Grazie

    • Reply September 6, 2019

      Jesus

      Great review my fiend, i have questions who’s best??? This A&Norma or Cowon Plenue R ??? And this combination is good A&Norma and EarSonics Es5 or Noble Dulce bass or ACOUSTUNE HS670cu????

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