Review: Astell&Kern SR15 – Pocket Pleasure

Astell&Kern SR15

Sound:

Ever since I had my ears on the AK120ii some years ago, I have jumped on the AK sound. I really like how their engineers have realized this level of sonics. I heard that their main-sound-engineer spends three days or so without eating before he sets on a device’s signature. While alarming, this also shows quite some dedication to the job.

As mentioned before, Astell&Kern has two outputs. I have mostly been using the 2.5 mm balanced one, as most of my cables are terminated to that plug. I will go over the differences between balanced and unbalanced later. One thing up front though. I know people say balanced makes no difference. While I agree that there is no general rule for that, I say, it is all about the implementation. The circuit matters. I know balanced outputs that outperform the single ended one, and I also know single ended one’s that sound better than their symmetrical counterpart. It’s all about the components used and how well they act with each other.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern DAPs are known for their silent background, and the SR15 is no exception here. With my most sensitive CIEMs I can hear a slight hissing during silent parts though. Especially the Empire Ears Zeus XIV picks up hissing easily. It does that also with the TOTL A&ultima SP1000.

The SR15 has a softer, full bodied and extended bass response, that shines with quality. It is dynamic and engaging, with good speed and a natural presentation, where especially acoustic bass sounds nice. The resolution and texture are both good. There is noticeable warmth in the sound of the SR15, even if it’s just moderate.

Lower mids are a tad more forward and enjoy a good proportioned body. There is again warmth in them. Midrange overall is well resolved and has excellent texture. Instruments come across as natural, well defined and accurate. There is sufficient air in the midrange for good separation. Imaging is also top on the A&norma. What I like especially in the midrange is the wonderful richness each instrument sports.

From a technical point of view the norma is a very competent performer. The sound stage is wide and deep, there is wonderful levels of layering across all frequencies and the placement of the instruments is carefully done and imaging can be achieved easily. Of course, most of it depends on the recording of the tracks, as the general rule applies: shit in, shit out.

Highs are well extended with good energy, sparkle and air. They appear a notch on the relaxed side of things, but aren’t overly laid back. Treble is rich and crisp.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

When switching from balanced to single ended, I noticed that the sound becomes fuller and a bit bassier. You will trade in some sound stage size and also instrumental separation for that. The balanced output to me has higher levels of transparency and resolution. Bass is tighter on the 2.5 Millimetre, and seems better controlled to me. Midrange sounds more open and treble a touch more forward.

The SR’s sound to me is easy to like with good levels of musicality.

Pairings:

The SR15 is a portable product, and like most of this trade, it is intended to be used with efficient gear. The four Volts output level of the balanced out might indicate it has enough juice for demanding headphones, but since this is measured in no-load condition it pretty much says nothing. Most of my ear-time went into custom and universal in ear monitors though.

Jomo Audio – Quatre

The Jomo is a very good hybrid with tuneable bass response. For this pair-up I have used it with the standard black filter.

The combination sounds highly enjoyable and almost addictive. You will get a well formed and resolved bass, with good extension and control. A slightly warm sounding pairing with loads of emotions and very nice sounding vocals and instruments. Treble is filled with energy and of brighter sound, but not harsh or aggressive.

64 Audio – A12t

The A12t is a smooth and balanced sounding CIEM that knows how to throw a decent punch. The low end drive is spectacular and the same goes for the quality of its bass. The sound stage is very wide and deep, with all musicians placed accurately. The sound is open and airy, with excellent timbre and wonderful treble.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

JH Audio – Layla

Monitors like the JH Audio Layla sound fantastic, with wonderful body and a highly organic appearance. You get good speed, resolution and a wide sound stage. Vocals sound impressive, with awesome emotions and a sound that’s portrayed in front of you. Sometimes I overlook Layla due to the fact, that there are so many different models in my inventory, but each time I come back to her, I enjoy listening to my tracks a lot. Especially acoustic genres impress me with this combination.

Earsonics – Grace

The Earsonics Grace I consider one of the best universals this year. It has a high PRaT factor and matches very well with the SR15. The combination is organic and engaging. The bass sometimes misses out on punch and drive, but the rest of it is of high quality. Midrange is well resolved and delivers a great natural sound with heaps of emotions.

Sennheiser – HD800S

For the sake of the experiment I also tried to run the HD800S balanced, which indeed got to loud levels (at volume 100 and above), but didn’t deliver the sonic excellence I know the Senn for. Sure, volume wise it’s enough, but the HD800S is nowhere of driven well. Bass is lacking extension and the entire music just sound present, but not alive in my opinion. I wouldn’t recommend using harder to drive cans with the SR15. It’s also not the prime purpose of the norma.

I found the smooth and slightly warmer sounding SR15 to be best matched with neutralish sounding In Ears that have a bit more bass on their own, such as the Jomo Audio Quatre, JH Audio Layla or 64 Audio A12t, but also the recently released Earsonics Grace sounds fabulous with it.

My favourite out of the above would definitely be the Layla. The level of enjoyment is just outstanding with excellent PRaT factor.

The last page is about Comparisons and Conclusion.

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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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