REVIEW: Astell & Kern AK240
audio360.org> > daps > > REVIEW: Astell & Kern AK240
Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
by Warren Chi & Michael Liang
Editor's Note: If you haven't read (or don't remember) our Astell & Kern AK120 Roundtable Discussion from last year, please take a moment to review it now. We came to some conclusions in that discussion, conclusions that shaped our views moving into this review.
When it comes to Astell & Kern, we have a running joke here at Audio360... if you get one of their players, you're gonna get screwed.
But before you get the wrong idea, you should know that this actually has very little to do with Astell & Kern, and everything to do with our friend and fellow 360er, Michael Mercer. You see, Mercer has this wicked habit of laying down a substantial grip of cash on a new Astell & Kern player – right before they release a newer (and better) model.
This is what happened with the AK100. Shortly after he decided to buy his evaluation unit, Astell & Kern released the AK120. We gave him a bit of a hard time about that, as we cruised around with our own AK120s. And of course, we never missed an opportunity to let him know – in no uncertain terms – what a great time we were having. Because of this, he finally broke down and requested an AK120 evaluation unit to see what all the fuss was about.
It didn't take him long to realize it was a significantly better player. And soon after we published our Astell & Kern AK120 Roundtable Discussion, he decided to purchase his AK120 evaluation unit as well. We were happy for him... for all of three weeks... because that's when we learned about the new Astell & Kern AK240.
One month later, the AK240 made it's debut at CES 2014. Mercer was among the first of us to check it out, and he wasn't exactly happy about it. See that grin on his face? Despite what it looks like, we can tell you that is not the expression of joy that you think it is. And if history repeats itself, we're headed for some trouble here.
You see, although his sense of timing is a riot for us, it wasn't that funny for him when it happened with the AK100 - a $699 player. It'll be even less amusing if it happens with an AK120 – a $1,299 player. This is why we decided to spare him some angst and keep him out of this review. If he found out that the AK240 is even half as good as he thinks it might be, he'd burst a vessel.
After spending quite a bit of time with the AK240 recently, and having discovered what a magnificent piece of kit it is, we know with every fiber of our beings that we did the right thing in keeping it from him. Mercer, bro, you don't even know... but we just totally saved your life!
Supported Audio Formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE (Normal, High, Fast), AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF and DSF
Design & Appearance
One of the most polarizing aspects of the AK240 is its design: some love it, others hate it. We're not surprised - its appearance is a far departure from anything we've seen by Astell & Kern, or any other portable music player on the market for that matter.
We'll readily admit, when we first laid eyes on the AK240, we weren't wild about its design. This was due - in part - to some unflattering pre-release photos that didn't accurately convey scale or proportion, emphasizing forced perspective, and obscuring the planform alignment that is a hallmark of the AK240's design.
Since then, we've come to deeply appreciate the AK240's faceted design.
Regardless of how you may feel about the design from a purely visual standpoint, there are a few things worth noting about its form factor:
But if you're still bothered by the AK240's aesthetics, you should know that they are largely insignificant.
We don't mean to sound apathetic about its form, and we certainly don't mean to offend the industrial designer behind the AK240, but we just didn't spend any appreciable amount of time actually looking at the thing. During its stay with us, the AK240 resided primarily in our pockets, messenger bags, and hands (where we tended to focus on the screen and not the casing).
So if you've been eying the the AK240, but aren't too thrilled about its styling, just know that it's all about mind over matter: (a) you won't see the design very often; (b) when it's out of sight, it's out of mind; and (c) if you don't mind, then it don't matter.
The Astell & Kern AK240 is exceptionally well-built using premium materials, as befitting a top-of-the-line luxury product.
Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. Each AK240 is meticulously constructed to exacting standards from portmanteaus (e.g. Duralumin) and carbon fiber - through a process employing diamonds and lasers.
This results in a unit that is impeccably solid in-the-hand. Matter of fact, we can't remember the last time we came across a handheld electronic device that is so unyielding, so adamantine in structure. And in case you're wondering how this affects durability, we can tell you that it is absolutely essential.
We're happy to confirm that the AK240 is built-to-last. It stands up well to both daily use as well as the klutz factor - as solid as it is in-the-hand, it's even more resilent when it falls out-of-hand. We learned this very early on, shortly after picking up our evaluation unit: the first drop (and accompanying "oops") came just minutes after having been cautioned about how few and rare AK240 evaluation units were. Shhh, don't tell Astell & Kern.
While we didn't keep track of how many subsequent (and inadvertent) drop tests were "performed" - well let's just say that we are pleasantly surprised at how the AK240 managed to remain immaculate and pristine. There are no dents, scratches or marks to be found anywhere, including the screen. And of course, the electronics remain in perfect working order.
So solid is the AK240, that we'd want it at our sides should an audiophile gang war ever erupt. If we ever had to throw down, having AK240s in our fists would be devastating. What? It could happen... after all, we already have our own gang sign.
Features & Functionality
Astell & Kern announced the AK240 with a bevy of new features intended to satisfy discriminating personal audiophiles:
MQS Streaming via Wi-Fi
One of the AK240's most exciting new features is the ability to stream music - wirelessly - from any PC or Mac that's connected to the same network as your AK240. This gives you easy access to a virtually unlimited amount of music: as much music as your PC/Mac can hold within its internal and external drives.
To make this work, you'll need to install Astell & Kern's MQS Streaming Server software on every PC/Mac that you want to share music from. It's nothing terribly demanding or CPU intensive, just a basic media server coded to shake hands with an AK240 (and presumably future Astell & Kern DAPs as well).
Once installed, simply add the folders that your music is stored in, and your PC/Mac is now configured to share music. Back on the AK240, you'll want to connect to the same network that your PC/Mac is on (via Wi-Fi) and select "MQS Streaming" mode on your AK240. It will automatically see all of your music shares. That's it!
Of course, this feature does leave one thing to be desired... because it requires the MQS Streaming Server software in order to work, you won't be able to pull music directly from your NAS drives. As a workaround, we presume - though we have not verified - that you could probably just map your NAS drives on a computer that does have the MQS Streaming Server installed, and stream them from there. Still, it'd be nice to avoid turning on a computer at all. Astell & Kern agrees, and they are now looking into the possibility of streaming music directly from NAS drives.
We hope they find a way to add that feature soon, and present it as a gift in the form of a free update. Speaking of updates...
OTA Updating over Wi-Fi
Major new features like MQS Streaming are all well and good. But sometimes, it's the little things that make us all wet. Enter the AK240's "OTA Updating over Wi-Fi" feature - which is really just a fancy way of saying wireless firmware updates.
Seriously though, wireless firmware updates? How cool is that?! No more patch downloads, tenuous USB connections, or bated breaths. Now we get a shiny new system in return for a few taps. That's a fair exchange, we can live with that.
To test this out, we performed a firmware update as soon as the AK240 alerted us (via the notifications tab) that there was such an update. You can also perform an update manually by going into the Settings > Update > System Update if you want. Either way, the process is a no-brainer:
Our firmware update took us from version 1.05 to version 1.07. Other than making the AK240 quicker overall, we have no idea what it actually updated. Does it matter? There was an update, so we updated, and you will too. Now that the hassle and chore of performing updates has been eliminated, it doesn't really require a second thought. Again, very cool... very this millennium.
Okay fine, sliced bread it is not. But on the other hand, if it's not a that big a deal, then why don't other audiophile DAPs do it?
Native DSD playback
Fourteen years after Sony released the first SACD player (SCD-1), we are now at a point where we are starting to see DSD downloads getting some traction.
But getting those files to play requires some jumping of the through-hoops variety. On the computer, a third-party application like Korg's Audiogate or PureMusic is required to play the files. You'll also need a DAC that can process 1-bit DSD. Even with those two things, the playback isn't exactly enjoyable.
If you plan to make the move to DSD, the AK240 is your new BFF. Unlike the AK100/AK120, the AK240 now supports native DSD playback, without converting it to PCM first. And while the AK240 is not the first DAC/amp to support DSD natively, it is the first and only audiophile DAP to do so - at least until the Calyx M is released.
The AK240 will handle both DFF and DSF files in either 1-bit 2.8 MHz single-DSD or 1-bit 5.6 MHz double-DSD. No other hardware is required. Select your favorite album and hit play. The AK240 handles everything internally.
Now that's a winning recipe to DSD playback.
Our evaluation unit came preloaded with some sample music in DSD, so we decided to give it a listen. Sure, it sounds impressive... most impressive. But the supplied music didn't exactly float our boat, so we moved on.
We don't use equalization. But those who do will be happy to know that Astell & Kern has increased the number of gradations in their graphical EQ, allowing for a finer and more granular control in sound shaping.
Where the AK100 and AK120 each offered a 5-band user EQ, the AK240 offers a 10-band user EQ, with each of those bands being adjustable in 0.5 dB increments through a range of ±5 dBs. And finally, it is now possible to create and save multiple EQ curves to better suit changing moods, genres, etc.
Since the AK240 was intended for home use as well as portable use, Astell & Kern began thinking out-of-the-box when they designed the AK240. What would people want as part of a home listening rig? What would need to be included in a portable DAP, that isn't typically found in a portable DAP?
The answer they came up with was balanced output. It's not nearly as crazy as it sounds. There is a multitude of headphone amps - both desktop and portable - that features balanced outputs.
There's just one minor hitch. The AK240 uses a non-standard 2.5mm TRRS jack for balanced output. And, as you would imagine, we have exactly the same number of 2.5-TRRS-to-XLR adapters as you do: none, zero, nada, zilch, Ř. So while we'd love to give you some detailed impressions of how the AK240 sounds in balanced operation, that ain't gonna happen today.
That said, we did have a chance to hear an HD 800 in balanced mode (via an adaptor) the last time we visited with Astell & Kern. It was a brief listen, but it was bloody fantastic.
We'll bring you an update in the weeks ahead, as soon as we source some adapters. They'll probably come from Moon Audio. Drew Baird over at Moon has the uncanny ability to make just about any kind of interconnect one could ever want. We'd be surprised if he hasn't already received a few requests for these adapters.
In our Astell & Kern AK120 Roundtable Discussion last year, we came to a consensus that the AK120 was the best sounding DAP we had ever heard. We also came to the conclusion that it left something to be desired in terms of usability, even if it was far easier-to-use than any competing audiophile DAP at the time.
With the AK240, that caveat about usability no longer exists. Taking AK100 and AK120 user feedback to heart, Astell & Kern went back to the drawing board and developed an Android-based custom UI that isn't just good for an audiophile DAP, it's just good period. Actually, it's better than good. The AK240's user interface is superb and nearly flawless.
We found the AK240 incredibly responsive and lively, reacting to every gesture with the kind of immediacy and alacrity one would expect from an iDevice (or high-end Android device). Taps were easily registered, and scrolling was consistent, without stalls or jitters.
Feedback animations were silky smooth, with no perceptible stutter to speak of, and take no more than a fraction of a second to complete. The one exception to this was the notifications pulldown, which was blazingly fast and nearly instant, exactly as it should be.
In fact, the only semblance of a lag came when the AK240 was scanning for new media, during which we had to wait a few milliseconds more for the obedience that we so richly deserve.
Navigating through the music library was both intuitive and effortless, much like it was with the AK100 and AK120. From the home screen, one can browse through the library by songs, albums, artists, genres and folders, as well as access playlists, all via a logical drill-down schema.
In addition, Astell & Kern spent a great deal of time and effort in streamlining the number of gestures required to perform tasks. As a result, commonly accessed actions and settings are always close at hand. For example, when playing a song, the following actions can be performed fairly quickly:
And thanks to a new dedicated, hardware-based home button, getting back to the home screen is only one tap away, no matter where you are or what you're doing.
New UI Features
In addition to the improvements above, the AK240 is also equipped with several new features that greatly enhance the user experience. Some of the following are part and parcel to Android itself, but we are still glad to see them put to good use.
Adaptive Scrolling with alphabetical indexes. Scrolling through long lists of songs, artists and albums just got easier. In addition to faster response times allowing for smoother scrolls, there is now an alphabetical index bar that appears on the right. It lets you quick-jump to blocks of song titles, artist names, and album names by selecting the first letter in that name.
Search function, with instant search results. Know exactly what you're looking for? You can now search directly for the exact song you want. To help you save even more time, search results appear instantly with each letter you type, broken down by artists, albums and songs, beginning with the very first letter in your query.
Android alphanumeric keyboard. Of course, in order to enter in search terms, you'll need to type in characters. For this, the AK240 includes the standard Android keyboard, which features alphanumeric characters as well as a decent selection of symbols. This keyboard is also used to name and rename playlists on-the-fly. What more could we want? Well actually, we wouldn't mind the ability to edit metadata directly in the player, but now we're just nitpicking.
Customized Android notification tab. Astell & Kern's implementation of Android's notification tab puts a wealth of options right at your fingertips. Simply swiping down the tab give you access to search, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, file transfer methods, EQ, gapless playback, shuffle modes, repeat modes and brightness settings. And of course, it also alerts you to various system and network events. As a matter of fact, a new notification just popped up letting us know that there is a firmware update is available: "New firmware file is exist at server." What you say!! Somebody set up us the firmware? Yippee!
While these features aren't particularly innovative or groundbreaking, they are tremendously helpful in the preservation of both time and sanity in daily usage.
But the single most important (and most readily noticeable) UI improvement is the AK240's new 3.31-inch AMOLED screen.
While we found the AK120's screen quite acceptable, having a full-sized touchscreen at our fingertips proved to be a lifesaver. With 82% more area, it just made everything that much easier.
The WVGA (480 x 800) display is crisp and sharp, with enough resolution to render microfonts smoothly and legibly. The colors are vivid but not overly saturated. And there are 12 brightness levels to work with - the brightest of which is easily viewable even in direct sunlight. It's simply brilliant, both literally and figuratively.
Less is More
And finally, we'd like to applaud Astell & Kern for something they didn't do: package in any bloatware. There are no apps, games or web browsers hogging up memory or chewing up CPU cycles. The AK240 is a high-fidelity music system - no more, no less. It's not trying to be a second phone or tablet, and we appreciate that.
All of the above work together synergistically to produce a user experience that gets out of the way, as any good user interface should.
Avid personal audio enthusiasts know that hearing a wide variety of gear can breed apathy, making us jaded, blasé and hard-to-please. As such, it is indeed a rare occasion when a new piece of gear resonates with us immediately, right from the very first listen. Unfortunately for Astell & Kern, we went into this review having heard a lot of good gear lately.
Fortunately for Astell & Kern, their new AK240 sounds utterly and totally !@#%&$ amazeballs!
The AK240 features an unexpectedly neutral signature that is remarkably free of coloration. This stands in marked contrast to much of the gear we've auditioned lately - where certain portions of the spectrum are emphasized at the expense of others, as if to feign an intended signature in a thinly-veiled act of self-compromising defeatism. The AK240 makes no such excuses, it doesn't need to. Its rendering of frequencies is balanced, with few flaws advanced or merits withheld. It simply doesn't have an agenda.
This neutrality and balance helps ensure that the AK240 presents us with an accurate and faithful representation of the music we feed it - with the exception of lower bit rate compressed music, which the AK240 neither forgives nor abides. But with anything 16/44.1 or above, the AK240 is uncannily spot on - especially in tonality, where the AK240 renders piano accurately and consistently.
Despite having a flatter signature, which can often leave an impression of smoothness and refinement, detail retrieval is one of the AK240's strong suits. Its even-keeled signature is devoid of significant spikes or peaks that would exaggerate macro-detail. As such, there are very few macro-detail distractions that would - left unchecked - mask or drown-out micro-detail.
And finally, the AK240's soundstage and imaging is beyond reproach for a DAP. It is neither preternaturally expansive nor suffocatingly intimate. Instead, we are given all the air and dimensionality needed to present the music with multi-layered depth, as demonstrated by the AK240's deft handling of orchestral and symphonic music.
These are the sonic qualities that stood out for us in audition after audition, through a multitude of personal reference headphones and IEMs, with files ranging from lossy MP3 to 2.8 MHz DSD. Time and time again, we were rewarded with a level of fidelity that we honestly did not expect from a DAP.
With regards to battery life, we were able to get 8~9 hours of play time from a single charge when we ran standard lossless (16/44.1) files. This dropped to approximately 5~6 hours of play time from a single charge when we ran high-res lossless (24/96) files. We didn't play nearly enough DSD to get a sense of how long the battery would have lasted then, though we feel comfortable in making the assumption that it would not have lasted any longer than it did with high-res (24/96) files.
The only other audiophile DAP that even comes close to the Astell & Kern AK240 in terms of marrying performance, sound quality, design, build quality and usability is the Astell & Kern AK120, along with its steroidally-enhanced sibling, the AK120 Titan.
Unfortunately for Astell & Kern, the gulf between the AK120 and the AK240 is so wide as to render this comparison a landslide. As such, we offer an apology to Astell & Kern in advance. We generally prefer to compare units that are similar to each other, as opposed to having a successor beat up on a predecessor. But since they went ahead and created a new device without equal, toppling the crown from one of their very own, they've left us with little choice in the matter.
The Astell & Kern AK240 is superior by every perceivable measure.
That wasn't much of a contest was it? And once you factor in the AK240's exclusive features (i.e. streaming, balanced output, native DSD playback,etc.), the scales tip in favor of the AK240 even more. Simply put, there's no shame in getting the AK120, but get the AK240 if you can.
Astell & Kern's new AK240 is set to retail for $2,499.00 USD.
That makes it audiophilia's most expensive portable player - even more expensive than the stupefyingly-costly Tera player by a fair margin. However, unlike the Tera player, the AK240 is actually worth the investment... and here's why:For many personal audio enthusiasts, the Astell & Kern AK240 - when paired with synergistic headphones or IEMs - is all they'll ever need to achieve audio bliss, both at home and on the go. It's a complete high-fidelity signal chain all unto itself.
With up to 384GB of storage, the AK240 is capable of holding an abundance of music for portable use. For home use, the AK240 offers users two options: it can be used as a traditional USB DAC; or it can serve as a wireless DAC/amp, streaming files from a virtually unlimited repository of music (from PCs and Macs on your network). In all of the above cases, the AK240's dual-DAC implementation features the ability to decode any number of audio formats (including native DSD), making it a superb source (or a component thereof) for all of your high-fidelity digital music.
The AK240 also features an improved headphone amp over those of its predecessors and competitors, capable of driving a wide variety of low-to-medium impedance headphones. It's reasonably low output impedance also handles IEMs and CIEMs without much issue. Of course, if you find yourself needing or wanting more voltage or headroom for your high-impedance headphones, you can elect to add a supplemental headphone amplifier. However, it's worth noting that the AK240's built-in amp is quite robust. It was able to drive a Sennheiser HD 800 in balanced mode surprisingly well.
All of this means that the Astell & Kern AK240, owing to its rich and versatile feature set, can easily replace many a home or desktop rig. And simply removing it from its dock will turn it into a stellar-sounding portable rig.
Think about how much you've spent on the various components of your home and portable rigs in DACs, desktop amps, DAPs, portable amps, interconnects, etc. Now imagine replacing all of that with a single well-built and luxurious device... $2,400 doesn't seem that extravagant now, does it?
In fact, this realization got us thinking: how spartan of a rig could we build with an AK240 and still remain satisfied and content? It wasn't long before we both reached a rough consensus.
Looking at the AK240 from this perspective, its value as a personal audiophile convergence device becomes clear. It's nothing less than a Head-Fier's equivalent of a Devialet system. And like a Devialet, the AK240 is a luxury commodity that will never be considered easily-affordable in price. But it does deliver what it promises to deliver in terms of features and performance. And it has the potential to replace a lot of other gear. This makes it a respectable value in our minds, as long as one has the scratch for it.
Editor's Note: In the days, weeks and months ahead, we expect to encounter a fair amount of doubt, skepticism and incredulity regarding our evaluation the AK240's performance-to-price ratio. However, we invite everyone to use and audition the AK240 for themselves before passing any judgment. After all, had someone told us it was this impressive before we experienced it ourselves, we'd have been unsettled by that news as well.
Concerns & Suggestions
While the Astell & Kern AK240 does a lot, and does it very well, it is not without shortcomings.
First of all, we would like to see a 2.5mm balanced cable adapter included in the box. This would allow us to immediately take full advantage of the AK240's balanced out, without having to source one separately.
Secondly, the AK240 is packed with high-end audio components inside a small metal case. As such, it gets warmer than most DAPs we've tried - with the HiFiMAN HM-901 being a notable exception. There was never any danger of sterilization mind you, nor did the unit exhibit any issues during operation, but it does tend to get warm.
And finally, we have a few personal requests to share from our soapbox...
We've been trying to reach for subtlety in wrapping up our impressions, only to be met with futility each time. Since the truth will out soon, especially as more users get their hands on it, we might as well be blunt and reveal our verdict without reservation: the Astell & Kern AK240 is an absolutely phenomenal device that has managed to charm its way past our skepticism and scrutiny.
As an audiophile DAP, the AK240 is superb on every level. Exclusive features like network streaming and instant high-resolution music downloads set it apart from any competing device. It plays every format we're likely to use, while sounding as good or better than any other audiophile-quality DAP we've yet encountered. Its built-in balanced output helps satisfy even the most demanding personal audiophile. It's so easy-to-use that even old geezers can figure it out without much gnashing-of-teeth. And its dual-core processor and customized Android-OS delivers world-class performance and responsiveness while minimizing frustration.
For our fellow enthusiasts out there, each chasing their respective dragons and exploring new horizons in personal audiophilia, we recommend capturing an AK240 as soon as possible. It's the next step along this journey. For newcomers making their initial forays into personal high-fidelity, we suggest starting here with an AK240. Its a complete and competent signal chain unto itself - whether at home or on the road - and it complements a wide variety of headphones and IEMs.
The AK240 is more than Astell & Kern's latest and greatest, and much more than another flavor-of-the-month. It's nothing less than a seminal point in personal high-fidelity. In the years to come, when people look back - searching for that pivotal moment in time where features, fidelity and usability finally came together in a single user experience - they won't be talking about an iPod, or a Walkman, or even a Pono player. It's the AK240 that will be remembered most.
Yes, it's that fucking good.
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