Following our coverage of Klipsch’s launch of their own earphones/IEMs Sal went to the previous week, we’ve been invited to yet another (audio related) local launch of Astell&Kern’s new line of high-end audio players.
Being a person that generally appreciates high quality audio but couldn’t afford a setup like those, this is my first foray into the really high-end audio segment; ofwhich for me is for any kind of audio product that cost >$1000. These audio players definitely fit into this category.
Are my opinions worth a salt in this situation? Probably not. But here it is anyway.
The organizers spared no punches in providing an array of headphones and IEMs for the media to test and on our table specifically, we have the pleasure of testing the devices with Audeze’s flagship earphones, the LCD-4; often touted as the best headphones you can buy with money. Think of it as a famous and iconic device you can buy much like the Dodge challenger or Ford Mustang, in car terms.
For reference, my IEM/audio player combo costs about $500 while just one of these audio players alone will easily double that.
The comparison (for me at least) will be made against my Fiio X3 MkII and ATH-IM01 using my own list of music that I have on my SD card; most of these are in 44.1kHz/16 bit FLAC but some do go up to 192kHz/24 bit sample rate.
I tested it with a variety of songs listed below:
- Fly Me To The Moon -Frank Sinatra
- Masters of the Galaxy – Gloryhammer
- Come Fly With Me – Frank Sinatra
- Enter Sandman – Metallica
- Radioactive – Imagine Dragons
- More Than Words – Extreme
- Careless Whisper – George Michael
- Thunderstruck – AC/DC
Before we get into the meat and bones, we were provided a short intro by Astell&Kern which you can see below:
Our short hands-on
As time is not on our side in both covering the event and trying out the devices, these are just my initial hands-on experience with the products.
Take note that as with any metric, input = ouput still applies here so you may get better results in terms of interpreting the sound quality difference if you were to use a higher quality master of the original audio. These players can at minimum, support up to 382kHz/32bit playback which is already quite a bit higher than what people would define as “high quality” (Around the 192kHz/24bit range).
The KANN Cube is touted as the “do-it-all” audio player that also is able to act as an amp for larger, high impedance audio devices that uses the XLR output connection. It also features the usual (for high end products) Balanced and optical outputs along with your standard 3.5mm headphone outs. I’m surprised they didn’t add a coaxial output for good measure but these are plenty already.
Unfortunately, due to the size, it would be clunky and unwieldy to use it as a “pocket player” so you best be bringing something to carry it with like a bag.
My initial impressions were very good; the DAC, powered by the ESS ES9038PRO chipset produces the most neutral sounding experience I had the pleasure to listen to.
Listening to Fly me to the moon by Frank Sinatra using the KANN Cube and ATH-IM01 combination provided a definite improvement to vocal clarity and a bass that really pops out compared to the Fiio. The highs offered a slight improvement with it being more controlled in terms of sharpness and balance of volume, most notable during the interim instrumental of this particular song.
The SP1000 AMP, as the name implies, is an amplifier extension for their original flagship, the SP1000; it also doubles as a charging add-on for the device to provide just a bit more longevity for that “full day” usage sweet-spot for audio players like these.
I didn’t get to test the device without the amplifier so I can’t really recommend or compare the value aspect of the amplifier by itself; YMMV.
The initial listening experience actually reminded me why this was a setup marked at a price segment higher than that of the KANN Cube, it provided a definite step up in terms of the sound experience and its evident even without using the high-end headphones provided.
Unlike the more neutral sounding experience of the KANN Cube, the AKM AK 4497EQ DAC chipset in this produces a brighter and more nuanced experience in the bass and the highs. Listening to Thunderstruck by AC/DC, the electric guitar solo at the start was more prominent compared to the KANN and the distinction between the vocals and predominantly base instruments was just a step clearer and I really enjoyed the sound that this can output even though I traditionally like neutral outputs more.
The SP2000 is the next-generation replacement for their SP1000 flagship and can be mostly seen as an incremental upgrade to the already feature-filled SP1000. From what I can see on the technical front, the main improvements are definitely only in the volume of amplification and slightly higher SNR ratio which is in the “ehh” category of being noticeable, even for audiophiles; being already able to drive practically all headphones fine.
The DAC has been upgraded to the latest that AKM has to offer, the AK 4499EQ chipset. Listening to the above tracks using the IM01s yielded no change in the listening experience compared to the SP1000. Using the much higher quality Audeze LCD-4, I was able to tell that the bright signatures have been pulled back a little, and now sounds like a more refined KANN Cube which is not a bad thing in my book.
Strictly speaking, since these signatures are purely subjective and have nothing to do with audio clarity, I’d say that users already on the SP1000 really have nothing to lose out if they don’t upgrade to the “latest and greatest”.
However, I’d love to spend more time with a headphone/audio player combination like these before I give my final opinion on this.
User Interface & experience
While I didn’t think to ask at that time, the user interface looks surprisingly similar to that of an Android device so I believe it is still running a custom Android ROM at its core. As far as I can tell, there is no change in the underlying software so all of them should provide the same experience.
The general experience was smooth and quick, all models were prompt in detecting my microSD card and the interface was quite easy and intuitive to use. The interface design feels more akin to a mobile app and if you’ve used any popular music apps like Spotify, you’ll feel right at home.
Music streaming integration
I was also curious about the online functionality integrated into the device to stream from music streaming services and was fortunate to be able to check out this function with a mobile data connection.
Using Tidal, I played Masters of the Galaxy by Gloryhammer and it worked just fine without a hitch; there won’t be any pauses in the streaming if your internet is fast enough.
If you have a craving for a particular track that you don’t have in your local folders, this is certainly a value-added feature to have on an audio player.
Pricing and Availability
Being really high-end audio products, do not expect these to come cheap. Below are the local prices in SGD provided to us by their media release.
These products will be available by the end of July.
“The A&Ultima SP2000 Portable Player is available in Stainless Steel and Copper at S$5,299 (including GST). KANN CUBE is available in Wolf Gray at S$2,349 (including GST). Astell&Kern SP1000 AMP is available in Stainless Steel, Copper and Black at S$1,249 (including GST).”Astell&Kern Media Release
As a more value-challenged (aka poor) person, I indeed quite like the audio players Astell&Kern has to offer. Although as with the input = output paradigm, you really need to pair it with the appropriate audio quality and headphones to bring out the fidelity you paid for with the audio player.
For me personally, if I wanted to upgrade from what I have currently, I’d be looking at spending more on headphones/IEMs before a better audio player. An audio player definitely reaches “good enough” quality sooner than the headphones it drives.
From a diminishing returns standpoint, if I had the money, the KANN Cube is definitely at the “good enough” category for me and I’d be looking at something along those lines in terms of quality; perhaps just in a smaller form factor to suit my preferences.
As with any hobby, there is no limit on how expensive things can get on the extreme high-end. But, if you have any interest in high-end audiophile products, you should at least try them out at the AVOne flagship store and make up your own opinion on whether it is worth the price tag or not.