Disclaimer: iRiver supplied the demo unit for this review. AnalogHead (a headphone store in which I’m one of the owners) is now a distributor for Astell & Kern in Indonesia.
Everybody is talking about the new Astell & Kern from iRiver. I don’t know who came up with the branding for Astell & Kern, but in my opinion they’ve succeeded in creating a powerful brand with just one product launch. While iRiver has been in the industry long enough to be credible, the brand name doesn’t really make you think of high end, designers goods the way Astell & Kern does.
The $700 AK100 player, the first Astell & Kern branded product, is a super-sharp product in terms of styling and build. It oozes class and craftmanship of the highest degree. The bar that was raised by Ibasso with the DX100 has been set even higher with the AK100. Receiving the box still shrink-wrapped, I did the unboxing process very slowly. Not because it was a tedious packaging to unbox, but rather I tried to be taking my time, immersing myself in the experience. It was easily the best unboxing experience I’ve had. Not even the $6,000 Canon 1Dx camera or the Macbook Air I purchased last year come close to the unboxing experience of the AK100. With the AK100, it was almost like if I’ve had just purchased an expensive hand watch.
I can go on and on about the build, the quality, and the craftsmanship but let’s cut them short and just say that nothing in the market today comes close to the AK100. This is as sharp as it gets. It reminds me of those ultra slim, only sold in Japan mini-disc players during the peak of the mini-disc era. A level of perfection I never thought possible.
After the whole unboxing experience, I went on to demo the sound of the AK100. They have sent a micro SD card along with the player, containing the usual high quality Audiophile test songs such as Spanish Harlem, and so I proceeded to listen to the Spanish Harlem on the AK100. It had a good black background and clear sound (after more time with the AK100 I feel that this player has the blackest background among all the different players I’ve tested). Gear impression with Audiophile recordings is a bit of a cheating in my opinion, because even the Ipod sounds good with a high end recording. Back then with the AK100, I knew that the Spanish Harlem recording is aiding the sonic performance in a pretty big way. And although the sound was good, it was not mind blowing. With a recording such as Spanish Harlem, a good player should be capable of so much more.
I then uploaded some songs, regular 16/44.1 WAVs and played them on the AK100. The player didn’t wow me at all. Although you won’t be comparing its technicalities with the likes of the Ipod and the Sansa Clip (the AK100 is much cleaner, the background much blacker) I really don’t think that the AK100 has what it takes to compete with the audiophile players out there. The Ibasso DX100, the Cypher Labs Solo, the Hifiman HM60x series. Very clean sound and a nice black background, but I was not impressed. Compared to my current favorite, the screen-less minimalistic DAP from Charles Altmann, it’s not even close. I can use a plain Sennheiser PX100 with my Tera Player and enjoy better music than the AK100 + JH5Pro combo that I am listening right now.
And so I went all disappointed with the AK100. I sent the sample unit to my friend Sem who personally collects DAPs. Same lukewarm comments praising only the build. I then sent the sample to the AnalogHead store for people to listen to. Store manager told me nobody liked it. Then over the weekend we had a local HiFi show where the local Jaben boss brought his AK100 for the gang to listen to. Not one favorable comment about the sound. All these different impressions were from numerous people and on different headphone and music combinations on two different AK100 units. Surely it can’t be too far off.
The sound has a nice black background to it and it presents the music in such natural clarity that doesn’t really need any treble boost to aid perceived detail. This is definitely a high quality player. I consider that high end technicalities. On the black background alone it easily betters the DX100, the Solo, the Hifiman HM60X series, the Hifiman HM801, and even the Altmann Tera by a slight margin. That’s pretty much all the high end player in the market today. And yet it has such a cold static feel to the sound. Un-analog. Lacks fluidity. Lacks warmth, among other things. Moderate dynamic range. Relatively flat sound stage with disappointing layering. Ugh. My interest in the AK100 went from peak high to almost zero.
A week past, and I was told that on a recent meet, my friend Sem had brought the AK100 and the group that he met with gave favorable comments on the AK100. My interest in the AK100 was resurrected. I hadn’t give the AK100 a thorough listening test, and if some people can come up with a set up that makes the AK100 sound favorable, then I should try to look into it. I proceeded to test the AK100 again, this time more headphones. The first impressive set up I’ve heard on the AK100 was with the LCD-2 (direct out of the headphone out). It was my first “this is pretty good!” moment with the AK100. Not only was the AK100 able to drive the LCD-2, but the pairing was pretty good. I let some people listened to the AK100 & LCD-2 set up. They were surprised and were impressed to hear that sound out of the AK100. Though not the best LCD-2 set up (it doesn’t have the fluidity, the body and the bloom of driving the LCD-2 from the ALO PanAm), but pretty darn good. Among the numerous other headphones I tried with the AK100, the Sennheiser Momentum pairing is also worth mentioning. It is the second most enjoyable set up I’ve had with the AK100. My feelings toward the AK100 was slowly moving to a more positive direction. It still had that cold tonality, and the mid range was still congested, but somehow the Momentum and the LCD-2 helped in making me forget about the deficiencies of the AK100.
Positive feelings building, I proceeded to give my friend Sem the Momentum for him to listen to his AK100. His comment was “Good, but still lacking dynamics.” I was pretty surprised, but he was right. Even with a relatively easy to drive Momentum, the sound lacked dynamics. The bass had a good impact (even with the Momentum which I complained lacked impact), but despite the good impact, the dynamics were not happening. It was just flat. “This is tougher than I thought”, I said to myself.
From that point on my interest never really improved with the AK100. Iriver released a firmware update on December 10th, which was firmware 1.20. Both Sem’s and my sample AK100 was already upgraded to 1.20. I doubted the ability of a firmware upgrade to improve sound, and it didn’t. All that 24/192 capability, the MQS file capability, the superior numbers as listed on this document, it wasn’t enough to make me have any feelings for the AK100. It’s flat, and it’s bland. Technicalities is good and so I believe the superior S/N and THD numbers. But I can’t feel the music with this player, regardless of what I play.
More on the next page…