Review: Astell&Kern SR15 – Pocket Pleasure

Astell&Kern SR15

Comparisons:

So many DAPs in the world, only very little in my collection. My fancy has never really been tickled when it comes to other players as the AK’s. One other manufacturer can currently be found in my inventory – Luxury&Precision. The indirect Colorfly offspring has left quite an impression on me. Their L3 Pro and L5 Pro are the only non-AK DAPs found in my apartment.

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.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

Luxury&Precision – L3 Pro (549$)

When comparing the two products from a hardware perspective there are a few differences. The AK has 64 GB on board storage, whereas the L&P has only 32 GB. The SR15 offers a much more convenient handling of micro SD cards. There still are some filesystem limitations on the LP. The L3 Pro comes with a coaxial output, which the AK does not have. The AK however has digital USB output and accepts OTG storage too.

The most obvious difference though is the far superior user interface of the Korean DAP. The Luxury&Precision products have always been flawed by their rudimentary and especially lacking software. From a user experience standpoint, the AK wins by a good margin.

Sound-wise the two are not too different though. Both have a smooth and detailed presentation. Especially the balanced output of the L3 Pro is very competitive to the one of the SR15. To me the SR15 has higher resolution and bests the LP in terms of sound stage dimensions, imaging and separation. Both have a musical tonality and good details, but the AK to me seems more effortless.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern – A&ultima SP1000 SS (3499$)

There is no denying the SP1000 is far superior, sonically and hardware wise. Some people might still want to know how the entry level fares up against the best of the best. The SP1000 has higher resolution, a wider and deeper stage with better imaging and layering. The SR15 is smoother, but the SP is cleaner and more accurate. One thing that I love about the SP is its incredible treble section. It’s not just rich and energetic, but also smooth, silky and a pleasure to listen to. The SR is more relaxed in that regard, with a warmer base. The bass of the SP extends further into the deep regions, with better control, higher resolution and superior texture. The SR15 has smoother mids, while the SP is more transparent and open, has higher emotion levels and just is more lifelike.

The obvious advantage of the SR15 is portability. While I have been running around with the five inch SP1000 for over a year now as my daily driver, the change from the solid steel DAP to the lightweight and super compact SR15 has been more than welcome. The first days were a little strange, but now I fully enjoy having the A&norma in my left pocket. For on the go listening the sound quality and form factor are perfect.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15

Conclusion:

Since my Astell&Kern journey began almost four years ago, I have been hooked. I have made my way through numerous models of their line-up, and AK has kept getting better and better. The SP1000 is my personal choice for best DAP, but it has downsides when it comes to portability.

The SR15 is an excellent example of AK’s engineering expertise. The sound quality is top and the size and weight are just spot on for an everyday carrier. I might have found my companion for walking through the busy streets of Vienna when going to work and back. The SR15 is a very enjoyable and easy to love device that does everything right.

The only things I would like to see changed are USB C (including fast charging), pre-applied screen protectors and a case. There is a new firmware in the works that will include a few improvements, such as side loading Android APK files to the internal memory. This will give you the option to install different, AK signed off, streaming services. A lot of people have requested this, and AK has listened. In my books the A&norma ticks all the boxes: sound, build, features, design and software.

This definitely is the best performing product in AK’s range in relation to price.

Overall, the SR15 offers a very good package, despite it’s very few shortcomings, it is a solid recommendation.

Astell&Kern SR15

Astell&Kern SR15, Photo courtesy of Astell&Kern

UPDATE (Oct. 30th, 2018):

Astell&Kern sent me the latest beta firmware (version 1.10) for the SR15 to try out, which has the Open Service feature. With this you can easily load additional Android APK files on the internal memory. It works like this. You update the firmware (once publically available) and download the installation files from here: https://apkpure.com/

Then you take the downloaded file and copy it to the folder “Open Service” in the internal memory of the SR15. Once that’s on there you go to the Services section in the UI and install the files. After that you can use Spotify, Bandcamp, TIDAL and many other services. Unfortunately Roon Remote isn’t whitelisted by AK.

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…

I installed TIDAL (for offline playback), Spotify, Bandcamp and Qobuz. All worked very well and it’s a wonderful feature added. I’m really glad to see AK listening to their customers and implementing this to their players.

Here’s a short how-to install APK files from AK.

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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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