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June 2014
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Superior Audio Equipment Review
Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Media Player
Perhaps the world's best PMP for home and portable use.
Review By Steven R. Rochlin

 

Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Media Player / DAC  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 II (see 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 everything!

 

GUI And Operation
The AK240 has the best graphic user interface (GUI) of any of the current portable media players I have used or seen at shows. The 3.31" WVGA (480 x 800) AMOLED touchscreen offers an abundance of information that is clearly shown on the display. There is also a small, centrally-located sensor below the screen that by pressing it will bring you to the main homescreen. This feature is not to be minimized in its importance as you'll be using it quite often versus the laborious (press) back (press) back (press) back keys many of us are doomed to use in other devices. The interface is fast and responsive so you can easily find music selections or core preferences such as the included 10-band EQ that features 0.5dB adjustment and On/Off Bluetooth Wi-Fi, gapless. The Astell&Kern AK240 has standard 1/8" headphone out, 1/8" balanced out, channel balance adjustment, screen brightness settings, etc. Of course you can use the AK240's USB jack as a media device (MTP) to transfer files as you would an external hard drive or as a DAC input to thus use the unit as an external DAC for your computer. Since many albums flow songs from one to the next, gapless playback ensures the music never stops just because Pink Floyd, Rush and others split up their concept album into sections. The MTP function basically turns the unit into an external hard drive for drag 'n' drop file transfer. There is far more to love about the GUI that you can discover on their website. Bottom line is that the AK240 further extends the user convenience as found within their other models.

 

Top Shelf Decoding
Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Media PlayerIt all starts with cutting no corners as the AK240 has dual Cirrus Logic CS4398 with their exclusive XMOS chip that will allow for native DSD (2.8 and 5.6 MHz) support. This way it delivers true dual-mono balanced sound. How does this benefit the music you ask? What this means is that, like in top notch recording studios, they keep the signal balanced versus single ended (i.e. XLR versus RCA) and thus the result is higher measured and delivered sound quality, lower noise, and channel separation for excellent aural soundscape. The AK240 can be used as a USB soundcard to bypass the lower quality cards provided in many laptops and home computers or you can use the AK240 as a S/PDIF external DAC. With the most recent firmware, the AK240 handles DSD, 2xDSD and now 24-bit/384kHz files... plus of course mp3 and other lossy compressed file types if you insist. There is 256GB of internal flash memory and a MicroSD card slots for memory expansion (Apple, wake the f^<k up and offer a MicroSD card slot you greedy ALAC watermarked/protected money greedy company!). Of course far more technical data is provided on their website and thus let us more right along to the sound quality, which is why probably you'd want to invest $2500 in the AK240 and not ~$400 for yet another crippled Apple iDevice.

 

Specs And Features Are Great!
Yet what really matters is how well it plays music.
The key function of these devices is their sound quality. They also need to be easy to use and in their ability to have all your desired music files easily accessible too, yet we already covered that and are pleasantly surprised with the user experience and convenience of the Ak240. Upon first hearing the AK240 for yourself, you may immediately understand the $2500 price. Your ears are greeted with a dead silent background, there is an abundance of headphone amplification at a low impedance to drive virtually any properly designed headphone or in-ear monitor (IEM), and you can easily customize the output with the included 10-band equalizer. Before I get too deep into the sound quality, am sure many of you are wondering what was used during the review. For this review I used my fave Ultimate Ears 18 Pro custom IEMs, basic Sennheiser HD600 with Stefan AudioArt Equinox cable, JH Audio JH13 Pro IEMs and factory customized one-off special edition Audeze LCD-3 Steampunk planar magnetic headphones (pictured).

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.

 

Gripes
Only one gripe really, and this pertains to reading the music files within a NAS drive. For now, you need to use their computer program interface to drag 'n' drop each folder. I'd prefer the ability to forego using a computer and simply point the AK240 to my main music folder and let the unit populate all the sub-folders and files. The good news is that Astell&Kern are aware of this situation and are working to solve it. Naturally this can be solved via OTA firmware update so the possibility is there and can be easily implemented. This next point is not a gripe more than a wish, and that wish is for them to release an SDK or some such so we can develop for the unit; since it is an Android-based device. Imagine if Astell&Kern allowed developers to create their own apps and hooks into the unit, which would further expand usability and options including accessing online music services via Wi-Fi (Pandora, Spotify, etc), DLNA, etc.

Added: Astell&Kern's new firmware allows for it to read files on your NAS drive too!

 

The End Result
Astell&Kern Ak240 PMPPacked with a balanced setup that includes two DACs decoding 24-bit/384kHz plus DSD 2.8 and 5.6 MHz, the Astell&Kern AK240 is an amazing sounding portable media player! You get the ability to use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth too! All this capability is packed into a small, sturdy and stylish platform that can deliver approximately 8 hours of battery playback. The excellent and responsive touchscreen with intuitive GUI make the Astell&Kern AK240 a winner. The included Italian leather case is top quality too! My only main gripe is that via Wi-Fi the AK240 can not natively read the main music file, with sub-files, on my NAS drive yet they are working on solving this situation (amended, they have upgraded their software and can now read NAS drives too!). Packing 256GB internally and the ability to add a 128GB microSD, there is a good amount of on-board storage. Apple could learn a lot by offering appropriate internal memory storage and a microSD card slot.

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.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Portable media player
DAC: Two Cirrus Logic CS4398 chips
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 70kHz
Signal to Noise Ratio: 116dB unbalance and 117dB balanced
Crosstalk: 130dB unbalance and 135dB balanced
THD+N: 0.0007%  unbalance and 0.0005% balance
IMD SMPTE: 0.0004% 800Hz 10kHz, 0.0003% 800Hz 10kHz balanced
Output Impedance: Balanced out 2.5mm is 1 Ohm, unbalanced 1/8" is 2 Ohm
Display: 3.31" WVGA 480 x 800 AMOLED touchscreen
Supported Audio Formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE (Normal, High, Fast)
                                       AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF
Sample Rate: 8 to 384 kHz (8/16/24 bits)
                    DSD64 (1bit 2.8MHz) and DSD128 (1bit 5.6MHz) stereo
Output Level: Unbalance 2.1Vrms / Balance 2.3Vrms
Clock Jitter: 50ps (typical)
Input: USB Micro-B input (for charging & data transfer PC & MAC) 
Connection Mode :MTP (Media Device)
Output: 1/8" unbalanced headphone, balanced out 2.5mm, only 4-pole supported
Digital Outputs: Optical out
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)
Bluetooth: Version 4.0
Built-in Memory: 256GB [NAND]
External Memory Slot: One microSD (maximum 128GB)
Battery Capacity: 3250mAh 3.7V Li-Polymer, approximately 8 hours of playback
Supported OS: Windows XP, Windows 7 and 8.x (32 and 64 bit)
                       MAC OS X 10.7 and up
Body Color: Gun Metal
Body Material: Aircraft grade duralumin
Dimensions: 2.59" x 4.21" x 0.68" (WxHxD)
Weight: 6.5 ounces
Future Enhancements: Firmware upgrades supported via over the air download (OTA)
Price: $2500

 

Company Information
iriver House / Astell&Kern
902-5 Bangbae-Dong
Seocho-Gu
Seoul, Korea

Voice: +82-2-3019-1700
Fax+82-2-3019-1799
E-mail: webmaster@iriver.com
Website: www.iriver.com

 

Astell&Kern
39 Peters Canyon Rd.
Irvine, CA 92606

Voice: (949) 336-4540
Fax: (949) 336-4536
E-mail: support.inc@iriver.com
Website: www.AstellnKern.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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