Astell&Kern KANN thumbnail

ASTELL&KERN

KANN Portable Audio Player Review

Portable music player does it all while delivering audiophile separate component performance.

PRICE


$999 

THE HIGH NOTES


  • High-Performance Audio Center
  • No Amp Needed
  • Beautiful Design

Company & Product Overview

In 1999, seven executives left Samsung to start up iRiver. Their goal was to make a wide range of products for the exploding portable music player market. Since their introduction, they have earned critical acclaim all over the world. Their top brand, Astell&Kern, offers the best sound and build quality in their company. Their products are designed to far surpass the audio quality you get in a smartphone, offering ultra high-resolution playback, the ability to play just about any audio file (including DSD), and far more storage capacity than you would have in a phone.

Their latest creation, the Astell&Kern KANN, combines features and technology we have not previously seen at this price point. Astell&Kern wanted to make the KANN a true all-in-one player. As you will see, it has a feature set that takes it far beyond most portable players, making it not only a great unit to carry around on-the-go, but also a wonderful source or DAC for your home audio system.

Design & Build Quality

When you first pick up the KANN, you will immediately notice this guy has some heft to it! It’s one inch thick — much thicker than an average smartphone today. The reason for this is that the KANN comes with a built-in amplifier, allowing them to drive high-performance headphones. When you consider the price point of the KANN, it’s incredible to think that it can deliver almost the same output levels as their $699 separate amplifier, all in a relatively compact form factor.

Two Astell&Kern KANN players
Astell&Kern KANN side view

The Astell&Kern KANN is available in two colors — Astro Silver and Eos Blue. The tapered case of the KANN fits well in the palm of your hand. Previous A&K models used a small wheel to adjust the volume. The KANN takes a different approach, with a roller built into the side of the case. We like this much better than the old way and found it positioned perfectly for easy adjustments.

The top of the case is laid out with most of your possible outputs across the top and a small press and hold the power button on the right side. The outputs include a standard 3.5mm unbalanced headphone, 2.5 balanced headphone, 3.5mm unbalanced audio, and a 2.5mm balanced audio out. Across the bottom you’ll find 2 SD card slots, one micro and one standard, a USB-C data/charging input, and a micro USB Audio digital output.

The face of the KANN reveals a 4” touchscreen with some hard buttons below for prev/rew, play/pause, next/ffw, and home.

In terms of build quality, the KANN feels super solid. The outer shell appears to be a one-piece construction with all parts slid into it during assembly. You will love the way this almost 10 oz player feels in your hand.

 

Features & Technology

Let’s dive into all the great features of the KANN. You’ll have plenty of room for your favorite high-resolution files with the 2 SD card slots. Each will accept up to a 256GB card, and when you combine that with the onboard storage, you get 576GB of total storage! The USB-C fast charging connection will give you six hours of use with just one hour of charging. It only takes a maximum of 4 hours to fully charge the KANN, giving you up to 15 hours of playback time, which is plenty of time for a cross country day of travel.

The USB digital out, which can support up to 384kHz in PCM, allows you to connect it to an even better DAC if you would like. We also love that you can connect the KANN to your computer for use as a USB.

As we briefly mentioned earlier, you will never lack headphone power with the KANN’s built-in amp. It can provide 7Vrms when you are in balanced and high power mode, which is plenty of juice to drive even the most difficult high-impedance headphones. If you wish to tune your music, you can set up custom EQ curves using the built-in 20-band parametric EQ. While we do not really see the need for this with a pair of headphones, if you were using the KANN to drive an audio system, this would allow you to tune out some room peaks and make your listening space sound better. You can really zero in on the frequency, the amount of boost, or cut and slope of the curve (Q).

To access the EQ or any of the other settings, gently hold a finger at the top of the touchscreen and a menu will appear. We found the new KANN to be more responsive and easier to getting this menu to open than the past A&K units we have tested.

Once the music starts playing, the KANN will blank out the screen pretty quickly to save power. We liked that the rotating volume knob works in this mode, but nothing on the screen will activate unless you tap the power button. This is designed to both save power and keep you from changing settings while the KANN is in your pocket. We also love the screen based volume mode. Simply click the volume knob, then move your finger up or down on the screen to adjust the level. The KANN also adds an easy way to jump back to the home page of the display with a small little button that easily takes you back.

If you want to use Bluetooth headphones, the KANN can support them, and with WiFi on board using the AK Connect app, you can pull in music from your home network. This is pretty neat for home use because there is no need to drag music into the unit, you can simply use its DNLA server to pull it in off your network.

Since the KANN has WiFi, Astell&Kern included a section called “store” where you will find three streaming services: Groovers+, Moov, and Tidal. As of now, Tidal is the only streaming service available in the US. We do love the fact that the KANN can do Tidal, although it does not support MQA at this point.

The menu structure for your music follows basic player guidelines with a folder system for artist, album, genre, song, playlist, etc. There is also a small display at the top that shows time of day, Bluetooth, WiFi strength, battery life, playback and repeat mode, and finally if EQ is engaged. To get music into your KANN, simply connect it up to your computer via the included USB cable and drag over folders.

Astell&Kern uses a single DAC in the KANN, which is capable of bit-to-bit playback up to 32bit/384kHz with native DSD playback up to 11.2MHz.

Astell&Kern KANN woman holding

Performance

We used various headphones when testing the KANN and found that the built-in analog amp makes a big difference in the audio performance. We were trying out the Focal Elear, which is not super easy to drive, and we found the high power mode really opened them up.

The big question everyone will ask…is the KANN as good as the much more expensive Astell&Kern models? The answer is no, and you would not expect it to be so. The high-end series, for example, the AK380, uses dual DACs that are at a higher performance level and a super sophisticated clocking system. However, the KANN does sound simply amazing for the money. We used a number of HD Tracks in 24/192 for our testing and the KANN sounded fantastic on all of them. In comparing it to our AK380 at almost 4x the price, the AK380 does have a better sense of timing, more of a sense of space, air, and delicacy on the top end, all while reaching deeper on the bottom. But don’t get us wrong, the KANN is astounding for under $1,000, and with the advantage of having a built-in high power amp!

There is just something about listening to a combination of the KANN and a great set of headphones that is a ton of fun. If you play a Hi-Res track you have listened to on your speakers a hundred times and  hear it for the very first time on this type of combo, there is no question you will probably hear some little subtle nuances that you never heard on your speaker system. We think this is one thing that has made high performance headphone systems so popular in the last few years. You can get astounding sound for far far less than a high-end audio system. No, you do not get that visceral presentation a great speaker system can give you, but you can hear deep into each and every track of the recording. If you are in an environment where it is not practical to have a large-scale audio system, something like the KANN with an awesome pair of headphones is sure to get your feet tapping to some great music!

 

Overall Recommendation

If you care about hearing everything your favorite artists are presenting, the Astell&Kern KANN needs to be on your list. Combine it with Hi-Res downloads, a good pair of headphones and you will be amazed. It is especially good for the person who might have a hard-to-drive set of headphones with it’s built in amp. While it is not inexpensive at just under $1,000, it offers more than anything we have heard for this price point. Plus it can serve as a key part of your home music system to boot!

HIGH NOTES UNPACKED

Astell&Kern KANN front

High-Performance Audio Center

With its world-class audio path, you can use the KANN on-the-go or at home to give you great sound. Add in the fact it has Tidal, can stream in from your network, and be used as a USB DAC, and you have a virtual swiss army knife component.

Astell&Kern KANN on face

No Amp Needed

With its built-in high power amplifier, you will never have to worry about your high-impedance headphones running out of juice.

Astell&Kern KANN side

Beautiful Design

The KANN is a beauty to behold, but it goes deeper than that. Astell&Kern have incorporated many things they have learned over the years into the KANN, making it simple to use.

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