I was an owner of a first-generation iPod. Apple in time managed to shrink its Pods down to matchbook size, but that primordial player was as bulky as a pack of cigs. Not that it phased me at the time — my ’Pod held plenty of music and kept me distracted on my long commute.
Now, like everyone else, I listen to tunes with my smartphone, though I still harbor nostalgia for the iPods of old. No video, no camera, no Twitter, no Flappy Bird app — just music. That’s why I was curious to get my hands on the new AK240 player from Astell&Kern, perhaps the best-known of a new wave of companies making portable players dedicated to nothing by music. But A&K doesn’t make ordinary portables; the AK240 and other models the company offers are finely crafted devices packing plenty of high-end audio know-how into a player the size of a, um, first-gen iPod.
Before we go further, let’s get this out of the way: the AK240 sells for $2,500 — ouch! So what do you get for that $2,500? Certainly more stuff than you’d find in your average iOS or Android device. The AK240’s DAC handles up to 192kHz/24-bit playback and can natively play DSD files. Along with FLAC, it supports WAV, WMA, MP3, ALAC, and AIFF formats. It has 3.5mm standard and balanced headphone outputs, and there’s an optical output option to hook up to an outboard system. The AK240’s Micro USB port, which is used for file transfers and charging, also lets it function as an outboard 192kHz/24-bit DAC for playing files directly from a PC/Mac.
The AK240 has 256GB of onboard memory and a microcard slot that lets you boost capacity another 128GB. There’s Wi-Fi to stream music wirelessly from a computer running the A&K’s MQS music server software. Bluetooth is onboard too, for situations where convenience trumps quality.
The AK240 is really something to behold — and to hold in your hands. Its aluminum-alloy case is all angles, with just a few physical buttons to control playback. A prominently placed volume control brings portable-player tactile pleasure to new heights: It’s large enough to thumb with a minimum of attention, but provides a high level of granular control, letting you adjust volume in 0.5-dB increments.
A big part of the AK240’s appeal is its 3.31-inch (800×480 pixel) OLED touchscreen. It makes album art looks gorgeous, with text that comes across crisp and bright. Browsing your music collection is ultra-fast — the touchscreen provides lightning-quick response, letting you scan from Aerosmith to ZZ Top in no seconds flat. You can browse tracks by album, artist, genre, or song title. And you can easily create playlists by typing in a name, hitting add and then checking off tracks from an alphabetical list.
I used the AK240 two ways: as a standalone portable, and as an outboard DAC connected to my Mac. All listening was done using Sennheiser HD 598 headphones. The first song I cued up to test out the AK240 was the title track of one of my all-time fave albums, Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die — a recent addition to the HDtracks library. After years of tolerating a bad-sounding CD of this classic rock masterpiece, hearing the 192/24 HDtracks version was a revelation. A pleasing reverb sheen on Steve Winwood’s vocals let them blend easily with the crisp acoustic guitar and Chris Woods’ insistent flute. As with other hi-res recordings I’ve listened to, the wind instruments came across particularly well — effortless and airy with a real sense of presence.
Craving more of the same magic, I next listened to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, an album that would sound good on cassette, but in this case I was listening to an HDtracks 192/24 download. Playing “Blue in Green,” Davis’ trumpet had a crisp, sumptuous texture, and the brushes scraping the snare spread wide across the headphone soundstage. Even listening with ’phones, the sound had no boundaries, extending well beyond the confines of my cans.
A&K sent the AK240 pre-loaded with hi-res music, and though I’m tempted to go on about how good Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin II sounded, the album I found provided the most arresting example of hi-res goodness was a 176.4/24 Mercury Living Presence collection of Bach solo cello suites played by Janos Starker. Listening to No. 1 in G, BWV 1007 Prelude, the instrument had an awesome sense of physicality: the low bow scrapes and vibrato floated in space; the timbre was woody and warm. Come to think of it, the overall experience was kind of like listening inside a cello.
Ok, so the Astell&Kern AK240 is a portable music player that costs $2,500. For some people, that fact alone will be tough to get past. But when you think of all the cool things A&K’s über-iPod can do— natively play DSD and high-res files up to 192/24, serve as a high-end DAC for computer playback, digitally connect to an outboard audio system, stream music via Wi-Fi — its price tag seems a tad more acceptable. Sticker shock or no, if you’re a well-heeled audiophile on the move, the AK240 is sure to bring you countless hours of pleasure.
For more information about the AK240, go here: Astell&Kern