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Article Index
Astell&Kern AK100 portable player
Using The Player
Sound Quality
Conclusion
Measured Performance
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SOUND QUALITY
Initially, before measuring or spending time with the AK100, I grabbed a pair of lightweight Jays V-Jays ‘phones used when travelling, to sort out this player’s menu structure and foibles. With a slew of songs externally dumped onto a 16GB (faster than 32GB) Kingston memory card, casual listening in a quiet room made obvious the AK100 has a darkness to its silences and a sense of silky smoothness, almost a warmth. I found myself winding volume right up, the sound was so clean, then winding it rapidly back down as crescendos loomed! In this sense it is like a very clean hi-fi system that encourages the volume to be wound up – and you only realise how loud it is when someone tries to speak. This happens because the ear judges volume by distortion; lower distortion and 'loud' does not seem it.

   I found out later, during measurement, that the AK100 really does go hugely loud, arguably too loud for headbangers glued to headphones. It’s output is way above that of volume-limited portables and it is easy to turn right up. But boy is it enjoyable! (hearing damage results from continuous listening at high levels).
    I switched to a pair of Sennheiser HD650s and it all got much better, greater dynamic scale, firmer bass and more extended treble becoming obvious in particular. However, swapping between various headphones and then moving onto a Marantz SR8002 receiver in an AV system with Martin Logan Electromotion electrostatic loudspeakers up front made clear that headphones don’t fully reveal the AK100’s potential, unless you use Stax electrostatic ‘phones perhaps, – not too easy on the move. But the message is the AK100 is way above a normal portable in quality terms, in another league in fact. You can detect its ability even through budget travelling ‘phones of decent quality.
    I use my Marantz receiver as a test mule, because its internal 24/192 DACs and amps are clean and revealing, and its connectivity broad in conjunction with a Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 network player with BT100 Bluetooth receiver.
    Running Bluetooth first, the player paired immediately and was playing within ten seconds or so. Again its smooth, almost silky quality was obvious, characteristic of ‘digital done properly’, meaning not CD. Violins hung in space and were clear and stable, and also clearly separated from each other when playing Trondheim Soloists Divertimenti (24/192) through the Electomotions.
    Swapping over to a direct optical connection brought out greater low level filigree detailing and a stronger sense of depth and space to the sound stage, putting the many players into more easily identified positions.
    The same was true of Rock, kick drum sounding firm, brushed cymbals shimmering with fine detail in Misery, from Dave’s True Story. A set of Eagles rips from Long Journey Out of Eden sounded as gently smooth and transparent as they do through the best DACs. Even when working from internal battery power, that tends to compromise bass push, bass was firm.
    Running digitally from the optical output of the player uses the receiver’s DACs, the AK100 becoming a portable digital source. Connecting the headphone output to the receiver’s analogue inputs (using Pure Direct mode to bypass the DSPs and snuff the displays), to assess its own 24/192 DAC produced very similar results, the player’s on-board DAC sounding creamy smooth and utterly svelte.
    I later used the AK100 as a top quality digital ‘CD player’ like this to drive our Icon Audio MB845 MkIIm valve power amplifiers direct, connecting through a 3.5mm-to-phono socket headphone output adaptor and, ultimately, driving Quad ESL-2812 electrostatic loudspeakers. This demonstrated just how smooth and well separated the strings of the Trondheim Soloists were in glorious 24/192, and Rebecca Pigeon had a breathy presence between the loudspeakers singing Spanish Harlem. There was silky dark silence behind Amber Rubarth singing ‘Storms are On the Ocean’ and a lovely stable, solid feeling to her image between the loudspeakers. The AK100’s internal Wolfson DAC offers glorious results, perhaps helped by being battery driven and free from earth currents, hum and noise.
    This is a top quality, high definition music player, one that can be connected up to a hi-fi through its headphone output. The AK100 is no ordinary portable, that’s for sure.

 



 

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