• Astell & Kern AK100 Portable High Resolution Music Player Review

    I heard about the Astell & Kern AK100 portable music player from iriver a few months ago and was impressed by its appearance online. The player looks really nice compared to almost every other player available including many mobile phones. Shortly after perusing the Astell & Kern website I moved on to other items of the day and completely forgot about the player. Fortunately iRiver contacted me a couple weeks ago offering the Astell & Kern player for review. I happily accepted. Since its arrival I've been like a little kid who received the latest game console for the holidays. I can't stop listening to my favorite music through the Astell & Kern AK100. The sound is so much better than my iPhone 5 that I really can't go back to such an unresolving and muddy sounding device. I'm rarely this excited about a new audio component. My excitement reminds me of the times when I've purchased a new component or pair of speakers and I couldn't stop listening to all of my favorite tracks just to hear them in a new way. I'm absolutely hooked on the Astell & Kern AK100 and I couldn't be more thrilled.


















    What Is The Astell & Kern AK100

    The Astell & Kern AK100 is a portable music player made by iriver. This player is so much more than its name implies and most importantly it sounds so much better than typical portable music players. The AK100 is made of nicely brushed aluminum that feels really good in the hand. The unit has a substantial feel to it although its 2.33" x 3.11" x 0.57" frame isn't heavy. When I unboxed the AK100 I was surprised by the unit's small palm sized housing. All the photos online make it look a bit larger than real life. Speaking of unboxing, the Astell & Kern is packaged like a true high end audio product. Opening the unit is like opening a finely wrapped present. Apple is no longer the sole portable audio manufacturer who has mastered the art of packaging. The AK100 features a 2.4" IPS touchscreen for all but the most basic navigation and playback control. The screen is nice but nothing to write home about. It enables the user to control the unit and get on with listening to music.

    Internally the Astell & Kern AK100 contains a Wolfson WM8740 24bit, 192kHz DAC. The DAC supports all relevant PCM sample rates including 44.1, 48, 88.2, 176.4, and 192 kHz at both 16 and 24 bits. File formats supported include audiophile favorites AIFF, WAV, FLAC, and ALAC. The AK100 features built-in 32GB NAND memory that can be supplemented by two 32GB micro SD cards for a total storage capacity of 96GB. Considering the stellar sound quality of the AK100 I'm willing to give up my 160GB iPod Classic for the 96GB of sonic bliss. I realize this review is beginning to read like a commercial for the Astell & Kern but I have to be honest about how impressed I am with this little device.

    The Astell & Kern is much more about sound quality and using the product than it is specs and features. Sure the ability to input or output optical digital audio and its signal-to-noise ratio, crosstalk, etc… are nice, but this device is about moving great sounding music from one's listening room to any location in the house or on the planet. I can't remember the last time I sat in my living room listening to such quality sound reproduction while looking out the front window. I'm usually stuck downstairs in my listening room with small rays of sunlight seeping through the bushes and small windows. It is really enjoyable to have great tunes and great sound anywhere.

    As a music aficionado who can't get enough I listen to music through headphones every night while falling asleep. This is usually done with an iPhone 5 and Ultimate Ears ue11 Pro in ear monitors. The combination is less than perfect but the small iPhone and IEM earphones are hard to beat for convenience and staying on good terms with my wife. I also use this combination while traveling quite a bit. Thus the reason why I compared the Astell & Kern to the iPhone 5. Both are portable music players that can be outperformed by a number of large desktop headphone amps, but that's not the point. Portable high end sound is what the AK100 is all about. In my small headphone collection is a Ray Samuels SR-71A that I used to connect to my iPhone 4's analog output. Based on memory I believe the AK100 outperform the iPhone 4 / SR-71A combination in sound quality and easily inconvenience. The two piece iPhone 4 / SR-71A package was always a hassle. In fact I stopped bringing it with em on the road because I hated the two piece cluster with an extra cable.

    Back to listening a night with the ue11 Pro and the Astell & Kern. One unexpected advantage of the AK100 is its inability to conduct business such as emails, phone calls, and text messages. I never realized how nice this would be until I laid down with the unit and pressed play. I was in my own uninterruptible world safe from the next flame war taking place in the CA forum or the next meaningless text message from a friend spending too much time at the local Regal Beagle. Most of my listening through the Astell & Kern was done with CD quality 16/44.1 music. This allowed me to compare apples to apples as my iPhone 5 only accepts 16/44.1. From the very first track it was no contest. Keb' Mo's Every Morning was crystal clear with excellent separation between each guitar string. The same track played through the iPhone 5 and ue11 Pro combo was very muddy with the guitar often sounding like a one-stringed instrument. Listening to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue through the AK100 was much closer to the sound of my main system than it was to the iPhone 5 or even the iPhone 4 / SR-71A combo. Switching to high resolution material was equally as enjoyable. Passacaglia from the Kansas City Symphony is a go-to track I both like and use as a test of audio components. Recorded by Keith Johnson at Reference Recordings this track has serious dynamic range and displays both delicacy and power of an audio system. The Astell & Kern reproduced this track very well. I don't think I've ever heard it this good on a portable system. Ottmar Liebert's One Guitar at 24/96 sounded excellent as well. Many of the attributes heard in the Keb' Mo' track were present with this complete album. Each pluck of the guitar string was clear as day and the overall sound put the iPhone 5 to shame. Switching back and forth between the AK100 and the iPhone 5 during this review I frequently lost interest in all the music played through the iPhone. Once one hears something better it's impossible to go back to subpar performance. Sure the music was good but both the music and the sound was good through the Astell & Kern.


    Conclusion

    The Astell & Kern AK100 is the best portable music player I've yet heard. The fact that it handles high resolution audio up through 24 bit / 192 kHz is just a bonus. Both my high resolution and CD quality 16 bit / 44.1 kHz music sounded superb through the AK100 and Ultimate Ears ue11 Pro earphones. The build quality of the AK100 is terrific with the exception of the volume knob that's a little cheap feeling to the touch. The all aluminum housing is a delight to handle. The AK100's expandable storage from 32GB (built-in) to 96GB (via Micro SD card) is a great plus considering how much music one will want to hear through this high end component. I'd love to make the Ak100 the heart of my portable audio solution. I highly recommend the Astell & Kern Ak100 for all computer audiophiles and music aficionados. It's simply that good.
















    Product Information:










    Comments 116 Comments
    1. shigzeo's Avatar
      shigzeo -
      I spent only a little time with the AK100 and via the FitEar ToGo! 334 and it seemed to be a well thought-out device, especially the digital volume pot. Because it increments slowly, there is very little chance you will break your eardrums from an inadvertent swipe. The short listen I had wouldn't allow me to reason out if the resolution is any good or not with low Ω balanced armature earphones which always break poor amps and players.
    1. wgscott's Avatar
      wgscott -
      I just read the manual and the description on the web page. Both say this:

      Supported Audio Formats WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE
      There is no mention of ALAC or AIFF. Have you tried it with those?
    1. wappinghigh's Avatar
      wappinghigh -
      Whoever designed this clearly doesn't have a large enough collection of hi-rez music..

      If they did, they would have realised a max 96GB is not enough

      As you said, it's only just over half the capacity of the ipod touch..yet the ipod doesn't play large files..

      Why stuff around with 2 micro SD's? Why not put in 1x SDXD card slot which will eventually go to 2TB?...

      Pretty big oversight right there if you ask me ....
    1. One and a half's Avatar
      One and a half -
      Had a look on paper of this model and the manual confused me about the formats of FLAC files.

      The description:
      (MUSIC : FLAC, 16bit, 44KHz, volume 37, EQ Off, LCD Off)
      Supported file formats: FLAC, WAV, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE
      FLAC, WAV[8~192kHz(8/16/24bit), MP3(8~320kbps), WMA
      (8~320kbps), APE(supported compression level: Normal,
      Fast, High)

      I would have thought FLAC to 192/24, but the way this reads (to me) is WAV only to 192/24 and FLAC is Redbook. Perhaps if the manual stated FLAC & WAV...from Chris' description it can play all...? Still lost with people who don't write manuals clearly.

      Interfacing to an external DAC is a good idea, however the implementation of the optical is at 192/24, but not 176.4. Hard pushed to find an optical input on a DAC higher than 96/24 these days? I thought there was a limit on the type of opto that couldn't go any higher..?

      It is good to listen to music, without being interrupted with iOS or Android getting in the way. I find the high cost Music players from Sony to sound better than the iphone, so the A&K sounds in this league, maybe. It's high end for now, but Wap's right, an SD card would have been better and the USB port for DAC to emulate a computer.
    1. shigzeo's Avatar
      shigzeo -
      From what I understand, the AK100 doesn't have an ideal headphone output for low Ω earphones, thus you will get a deviation from the original recording. It seems a nice player, but perhaps not quite up to snuff regarding its target market: portable headphone AND earphone users. Goldenears.net rate the AK100 at 22Ω, which means that any earphone up to and maybe higher than 80Ω will probably lose at least bass response and possibly quite more.
    1. MikeJazz's Avatar
      MikeJazz -
      This is a great addition to our choices of portable players.
      I am a casual user of a iPod 5, and I find it's quality quite reasonable, not High-End of course, but enjoyable.
      I wonder what gap would I feel with this one...

      Chris, do you have any information about the battery performance?

      Thanks.
    1. Musicophile's Avatar
      Musicophile -
      It would have been interesting to see some information on how to get Music onto the device. One of the advantages of my Iphone is that I can use Itunes smart playlists to select what I want to hear. How does it work for the AK100?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by Musicophile View Post
      It would have been interesting to see some information on how to get Music onto the device. One of the advantages of my Iphone is that I can use Itunes smart playlists to select what I want to hear. How does it work for the AK100?
      Hi Musicophile - The AK100 acts like a USB stick. You drag and drop files or folders right to the device.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by wappinghigh View Post
      Whoever designed this clearly doesn't have a large enough collection of hi-rez music..

      If they did, they would have realised a max 96GB is not enough

      As you said, it's only just over half the capacity of the ipod touch..yet the ipod doesn't play large files..

      Why stuff around with 2 micro SD's? Why not put in 1x SDXD card slot which will eventually go to 2TB?...

      Pretty big oversight right there if you ask me ....
      Hi wap - I doubt this is an oversight rather a design decision.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by shigzeo View Post
      From what I understand, the AK100 doesn't have an ideal headphone output for low Ω earphones, thus you will get a deviation from the original recording. It seems a nice player, but perhaps not quite up to snuff regarding its target market: portable headphone AND earphone users. Goldenears.net rate the AK100 at 22Ω, which means that any earphone up to and maybe higher than 80Ω will probably lose at least bass response and possibly quite more.
      Hi Shigzeo - The Ultimate Ears ue11 Pro earphones are about as low as it gets for ohms. I used them most of the review and loved the sound.

      I suggest people give products a listen rather than making judgements and decisions based on specs.
    1. Priaptor's Avatar
      Priaptor -
      Firmware 1.3 supports ALAC and AIFF

      From a reviewer on Amazon he is getting 16+ hours per charge

      The reviewer also said he was able to get two 64 gig microSD cards to work for a total of 160 gigs
    1. gschuck's Avatar
      gschuck -
      [QUOTE=Interfacing to an external DAC is a good idea, however the implementation of the optical is at 192/24, but not 176.4. Hard pushed to find an optical input on a DAC higher than 96/24 these days? I thought there was a limit on the type of opto that couldn't go any higher..?
      .[/QUOTE]

      It looks like the optical link is an input so the device can be used as a DAC.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by gschuck View Post
      It looks like the optical link is an input so the device can be used as a DAC.
      Page 3 of the manual states -> "Earphone / OPTICAL OUT Port: Plug in the earphone and output sound through the earphone jack.Use an optical cable to play music stored in the product on an external device with a SPDIF-IN (Optical Audio) port. Power: Short Press - Power the LCD screen on and off. Long Press - Power the device on and off. OPTICAL IN Port: Use an optical cable to play music stored in an external device with a SPDIF-OUT (Optical Audio) port on the device."
    1. Priaptor's Avatar
      Priaptor -
      Quote Originally Posted by gschuck View Post
      It looks like the optical link is an input so the device can be used as a DAC.
      According to the manual, it looks that way.

      It would be nice if Apple introduced some innovation like this to their iPhone product as well as a NFC, instead of just refreshes to their now becoming stale iPhones.
    1. BattleScarze's Avatar
      BattleScarze -
      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for taking the time to review this product...I have been checking out the AK100 online for some time via HDtracks adverts.

      The design choice for the memory size is puzzling, especially with the target market. Priaptor suggests that a reviewer can get 160GB with 2 microSD cards so that's a bonus but really its still a bad design choice but that's built in obsolescence IMO...AK200 perhaps...why not mention any negative comments in your review? Pros etc, etc and Cons etc, etc...

      This spring I might dive in as I love the thought of having my hi-rez portable.

      Lastly, have you had a chance to try this in your car via USB or AUX? ...not the best place for dynamic range but curious.

      Cheers.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by BattleScarze View Post
      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for taking the time to review this product...I have been checking out the AK100 online for some time via HDtracks adverts.

      The design choice for the memory size is puzzling, especially with the target market. Priaptor suggests that a reviewer can get 160GB with 2 microSD cards so that's a bonus but really its still a bad design choice but that's built in obsolescence IMO...AK200 perhaps...why not mention any negative comments in your review? Pros etc, etc and Cons etc, etc...

      This spring I might dive in as I love the thought of having my hi-rez portable.

      Lastly, have you had a chance to try this in your car via USB or AUX? ...not the best place for dynamic range but curious.

      Cheers.
      Hi BattleScarze - I really don't have anything negative to say about the AK100. I did mention the volume knob feels a little cheap, but other than that I love the product. I don't consider the storage size a showstopper. This is a portable unit not meant to contain one's entire library. There will never be a device with enough storage to please everyone. I've just learned to pair down my portable library. The ability to house two 128GB SDXC cards would be great, but would still be insufficient. The dream of 2TB SDXC cards is just that, a dream.
    1. Priaptor's Avatar
      Priaptor -
      Chris,

      I think with the ability to add microSD cards, as the memory capabilities of these cards increase or the ability to carry a few with you with additional music on them and just switch one or two out for others, memory has been pretty appropriately dealt with, both current and future. I think a larger fixed drive would utilize more battery power and limit increasing storage in the future.
    1. BattleScarze's Avatar
      BattleScarze -
      64GB jump drives can be picked up for $20 on sale...$700 for a portable music player that's meant for hi-rez audio has 32GB of memory on board.

      You have to spend more money on microSD cards at $700 entry price...sure seems like a negative to me, albeit not a showstopper certainly a bad design choice IMO.

      True you can never have enough memory, but its cheap...memory that is
    1. aidan's Avatar
      aidan -
      Quote Originally Posted by wgscott View Post
      I just read the manual and the description on the web page. Both say this:



      There is no mention of ALAC or AIFF. Have you tried it with those?


      When I bought this, it did not support any Apple formats. But with v 1.3 update, it fully supports AAC, ALAC and AIFF.
    1. aidan's Avatar
      aidan -
      As long as you format the microSD into FAT32 using your Mac, you can use two 64 GB. Hence 64+64+32=160 GB. This is how I am using it and works just fine. I am using class 10 SanDisks.


      Quote Originally Posted by wappinghigh View Post
      Whoever designed this clearly doesn't have a large enough collection of hi-rez music..

      If they did, they would have realised a max 96GB is not enough

      As you said, it's only just over half the capacity of the ipod touch..yet the ipod doesn't play large files..

      Why stuff around with 2 micro SD's? Why not put in 1x SDXD card slot which will eventually go to 2TB?...

      Pretty big oversight right there if you ask me ....