There is no doubt the
modern portable media player (PMP) market is now past the initial 'ooh and ahh'
phase. With the ability for many PMP units to handle FLAC and DSD
lossless music, the choices and price range have never been better! In fact
Apple will soon be offering high-res lossless music files, yet word has it these files
will be in Apple's own watermarked ALAC and not the industry standard FLAC (or
wav). While Apple's mobile devices have been decreasing the sound quality over
the years, as each new model seems to have lower sound quality than the original
units released many years ago, the great news is that many other companies have
given the market what it truly desires. We now have many high quality devices
with many features to suit virtually every need. One of the industry's most
prominent companies is of course Astell&Kern with their AK100 II, the AK120
AK120 review here) and their recently released AK240.
Instead of retyping much of the company's
background that was already covered within the
AK120 review, let us move forward to the advantages of the AK240 and how
Astell&Kern have developed their world-class portable media players. Before
we go any further, the AK120 is $1300 and the new AK240 is $2500, so these are
not your typical low-end Apple or the like items you'll find at Wal*Mart or
Target. When you want true high
fidelity sound quality you'll need to head to Amazon or other online dealers to
find superior music players.
New to the AK240 versus the original AK120 is
network support and usable Bluetooth too! The benefits of network support means
you can enjoy the many terabytes of music on your NAS without using the memory
storage within the AK240. Word from Astell&Kern is that they are working on
making the network section more usable so that it seamlessly works with NAS
drives without the need to move files over as is currently the norm for this
unit. My criticisms of the AK120's Bluetooth in my previous review have been
resolved in the AK240 and are happy to report everything works wonderfully
together. As a side note, the new AK100 II and AK120 II also have Wi-FI and
Bluetooth support, so these advantages have trickled down to the other models as
this new generation of players reach the market.
The AK240's shape is unique, yet once you hold in
within your hand it will make perfect sense. Easy to hold meets easy to use and
there are, thankfully, hardware buttons on the side to forward a track, go back
and pause the selected music. These Astell&Kern folks have thought of
GUI And Operation
Top Shelf Decoding
Specs And Features Are Great!
Will get the proverbial elephant out of the room
right now and say the HD600 sounded good as did the LCD-3, yet these small
portable units simply do not have quite enough power/grunt to drive them to
higher output levels. You'll probably want to use an external headphone
amplifier like those offered from ifi Audio and the like if you own such
hard-to-drive 'phones. Thus I mainly used the UE18 Pro for their excellent
sound quality and the AK240 could easily produce extremely high output levels to
nearly make one's ears bleed. At lower sound levels, the HD600 sounded
impressive and the LCD-3 sounded truly
outstanding yet the Ak240 lacked enough oomph in the amplification
department to make it truly dance and sing at Club Life levels. This is expected
with such demanding headphones and anyone who owns them already knows they are
not easy to drive; thus the need for an external amplifier is a given.
With the UE18 Pro, the AK240 delivered the best
sound I have heard from a PMP. Channel separation, which enables you to hear a
more 360 degree soundfield, was outstanding! Albums like Amused
To Death by Roger Waters and various Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons
offerings enveloped you in a truly filling real-world soundscape. HDtracks'
binaural offerings gave a lifelike, proper surround sound presentation with the
HD600 and LCD-3, yet with the UE18 Pro these binaural offerings fell flat to my
ears and thus did not meet up to my expectations in the soundscape department.
On normal music from classical to acoustic jazz all the way to rock,
progressive, punk and electronic dance music (EDM) came through with flying
colors! The music enveloped and caressed my ears with everything from subtle
positioning cues to in-your-face hard channel panning.
The built-in amplification had more than enough oomph to make the bass jump right out of the UE18 Pros and the lower performance JH Audio JH13 Pro. I tend to use the JH13's when washing, waxing, and overall detailing of the car as things get very aggressive and if the JH's break I haven't ruined my fave UE18 Pros. It is not just the quality of bass from the UE18 Pro, it is the overall quality of sound. The Astell&Kern AK240 produces tight, tuneful and agile bass that is the core of most modern dance music. Excellence in timing of the aforementioned bass is also key, and perhaps why so many vinyl enthusiasts talk about PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing). The AK240 has great bass timing, which is so very important to not just dance music, but also deep funk, experimental jazz, prog rock, and reggae. Here the AK240 delivers the aural excitement in spades!
Of course the critical midrange is where most of the sounds we hear reside. On classic and acoustic jazz the midrange was awe-inspiring. From the legendary saxophone colossus to Miles Davis and Stravinsky, my ears were greeted with fully fleshed out sound with excellent resolving power (details). Ultra-small aural cues lost on most systems are properly discernable. At first I typed “easily discernable" for the previous sentence, yet some of the ultra-low-level microdynamics within music should not be “easily discernable'. They should in fact be “properly discernable". Writing reviews can be a challenging sport, like track driving a proper racecar where you eventually find yourself struggling to reduce your best lap time by 0.2 seconds. While 'everything counts in large amounts, once you get to this level or performance it because nearly exponentially as challenging to achieve the ultimate goal. And here is where I'd say the AK240 shines brightly over the AK120. Whilst the $1300 AK120 is a great unit, for nearly twice the price you do indeed get those last very bits of improvement with the AK240. Am truly curious what the new AK120 II delivers and, thus, if the improvements in the AK240 are now also available for the lower priced AK120 II. As of this writing no one has a review sample of the AK120 II and will know more during the upcoming T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2014 event.
Not sure what I can really say about the
uppermost frequencies other than extended, airy, and perhaps the best I have
heard when using headphones/IEMs. Acoustic music has this magical air extension
that makes the gestalt of being at the actual event sound real. Properly
recorded and engineered music never became harsh or irritating. Fans of EDM and
music that employs synthesizers may hear things they never knew existed within
the music. Lower quality DACs and amplification tend to aurally smear things
above 14kHz to some degree imho. Chick Corea's Elektric Band The
Elektric Band on the GRP label may be only 16-bit/44.1kHz, yet there
is quite a bit of this uppermost highs during his performance. Wish someone
would re-release these in 24-bit/192kHz as it seems to me you can head the
format struggling to deal with so much upper register information. Then again so
does the more modern Pink Floyd Division
Bells in CD format and many other tunes I enjoy. As a side note, one
of the reasons for a set of Crotales here is that it helps 'tune' my ears to
sounds that perhaps humans are said to be able to hear, yet to my ears they are
an important part of the overall spectrum of the instrument's sound. Take away
the sound above 20kHz and Crotales, cymbals, etc seem to sound less real.
Ok, so we covered soundscape, PRat, bass,
midrange, treble... So what else can I say? Hmmm, oh yeah the build quality. In
a word, solid! As I said before, the shape may look weird until you
hold it within your hand. The placement of buttons on the side can be used with
ease when 'naked', and with the included high quality leather case too. Have
never dropped this unit, yet would guess due to no moving parts that it should
survive a clumsy-handed fall easily. With this solid build quality comes weight,
and here is where you'll immediately know the difference between the AK240 and
typical plastic music player Big Box Store offerings. Not that 6.5 ounces is 'heavy' mind you, yet you can feel the heft and solidity of the unit knowing
that for your hard-earned money went to good use.
Added: Astell&Kern's new firmware allows for it to read files on your NAS drive too!
The End Result
Of course normal consumers may want to have lossy music streaming from the likes of Pandora, Spotify, Beats, etc yet at the recent Munich High End event Astell&Kern was showing beta software playing Qobuz. For those unfamiliar, Qobuz is a lossless music streaming site in France. Still not abatable here in the United States yet am sure our side of the pond will have some form of lossless streaming music service in the future. For $2500 Astell&Kern may want to add online music service apps to further extend the use of their remarkable AK240.
For those seeking to improve the sound of their
music files within their laptop or home computer plus have portability, there is
currently no one doing it better than the AK240. With the AK120 II making an
appearance at T.H.E. Show 12014 next week I do wonder just how much better the
AK240 sounds over the new AK120 II. Like virtually everything based on computer
technology, over time you can expect to achieve higher performance for less
money. Just how far the AK120 II reaches the high status of the AK240 will be
known in the coming months as production units reach the eager hand of music
lovers worldwide. Until then, the AK240 is undoubtedly the King of
Astell&Kern's offerings and relatively reasonably priced for all the
features it packs in such a small package.