Astell&Kern AK120 High Resolution Audiophile HiFi Portable Digital Player

Do you remember ‘iRiver’? The company went head to head with Apple’s iPod as portable music player of choice at the beginning of the mobile revolution. The Korean company has gone upmarket and targeted flush audiophiles with products from their brand, ‘Astell&Kern’. The subject of this review is their top of the line AK120, a mighty little box that is built exquisitely, beyond Apple standards, and contains digital magic that will play the highest resolution files. It’s very expensive at US$1,200, but the sounds contained within just may be enough for audiophiles and music lovers to part with the cash.

My mobile requirements are simple. Can the AK120 outperform my iPhone’s music player with quality headphones in the three spaces I require a mobile solution?

1. Working out.

2. Writing and reviewing in coffeeshops (ambient noise)

3. Sharing a room with a loved one while they watch TV or listen to another source (lots of ambient noise)

Also, did it play nice with Apple? The 120 comes with an associated program for Windows called Plus 4. Apple fanboys like me were going to have to play ‘plug and hope’ with USB, then drag and drop.

My two headphones, both B&Ws (the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones and the Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-ear Headphones), tend to let the noise in a little, so I was hoping the clarity and depth of sound of the AK120 would overcome a little background sound.

I reviewed the unit with its EQ at default and as a mobile unit only. I’ll have fun with a followup using the 120 as an outboard DAC.

I can report that the AK120 worked a treat in all three areas. The small casing (and very tight, leather carrying case) made workouts easy, and the ambient noise never became a problem at home or at Starbucks as the sounds produced ranged from excellent to incredible, depending on source material.

My 120 came with some hi res file programming already downloaded. The AK supports just about any file you can throw at it, including FLAC, WAV, APE, CUE, AIFF and 64X DSD. Playing lower res files improves battery life somewhat — up to 14 hours for bog standard MP3s — but the high res files use significantly more battery life.

After a few minutes getting used to the elegant interface, the Apple fanboy in me sighed some relief as the drag and drop via USB and my MacBook Air was simple. Transferring your iTunes files takes no time, high res files take much longer. Windows users will be able to use the built in Plus 4 software for file transfer.

One of the major benefits of mobile on the iPhone is the elegant fade in/out phone call interrupt. The A&K 120 will disconnect via Bluetooth when in a very short range (more 30 cms rather than 30 feet). With both devices sitting on the same desk, this was a nice feature. The 2.4 inch LCD touchscreen display is sensitive and jumping back and forth through the uncomplicated menus makes living with the AK120 an easy lifestyle choice.

A bottom slot holds two memory cards for greedy Hi-Res and DSD files. There's space for a pair of 64Gb microSD cards, giving you a total storage capacity (with internal storage) of 192Gb.

The Bauhaus symmetry of the black box is broken by a large, solid volume control. It’s tactile and looks great, protected by a ribbed, aluminum ramp. Steve Jobs would have been proud. Other, much smaller bumps control play/pause, previous/rewind and next/fast forward. The bottom includes micro USB charging port and the extra storage slots. The top includes Line Out (headphones, car, speaker) and Optical Out for use as an external DAC. You’ve got two, extraordinary Wolfson WM8740 chips, so, why not?

Gorgeous fit and finish and a superb screen

Gorgeous fit and finish and a superb screen

The magic inside the box is delivered by those two superb Wolfson DACs, one per channel. This accounts for the higher price and the ease in which digital sound is delivered. I’ve not heard instrumental timbres so refined on a mobile digital device. The soul of voices is something to behold, too. Singers as diverse as Bryn Terfel, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Shelby Lynne shone in their respective acoustics.

The higher res files sounded spectacular. The Bach from cello genius Slava Rostropovich was especially fine. Cellos are notoriously difficult to replicate digitally. Something about the heart of the lower tessitura being robbed, especially on the mobile kit I’ve listened to. I think a full blown ALO headphone amp/Audeze setup would change my mind. But, listening through $185 B&W in ear headphones was quite a surprise. As was the bass at the beginning of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ album. The bass is very deep and defined on the AK120 and will be a very nice surprise for folks stepping up from the music players on their phones.

I’ve read of some disappointment with the sound of standard resolution files on the AK120. If the information is there, the two DACs filtering to a top set of headphones is going to capture it all. The files may sound a little ‘flatter’ with more constricted dimensions, but if you have a full iTunes library ready to transfer, do not let that deter you. I tried the Shelby Lynne album straight off iTunes and it still sounded bloody spectacular. That said, the richness of the entire orchestra (Budapest Festival Orchestra) in Ivan Fischer’s cheap as chips Channel Classics Mahler 6 was one of the greatest sounding hi res files I’ve yet heard. The entire symphony is captivating on the A&K — it transports you from coffee shop to concert hall. If you have a large library in standard resolution, the pre loaded hi res files are the catnip. You won’t be going back to iTunes any time soon.

One of the problems with headphones, computers, mobile solutions, desktops, etc is the trickery needed to produce musical results. Yes, I know two channel home systems do their own fair share of aural trickery, too, but it seems much, much harder to do in a small box on the go. There is some pretty mystifying stuff going on in the AK120, but it’s honest and musical. You’ll still have to believe the acoustic, bounce, attack and delay is outside your head, but Astell&Kern has accomplished it so elegantly. With such musical refinement and true instrumental separation, your mind will soon forget home and imagine the good, musical times your having on the road. The AK120 is a remarkable digital music player that warrants any audiophile or music lover’s serious attention. Very highly recommended.

Further information: Astell & Kern