AK380 Digital Audio Player Review
Portable music player does it all while delivering audiophile separate component performance.
THE HIGH NOTES
- Super Hi-Res Portable Playback
- Optical Out
- DLNA Connect App
Company & Product Overview
Astell&Kern is a division of iRiver, a South Korean company formed in 1999 by seven Samsung senior executives who left to pursue the portable music marketplace. While smartphones have replaced most of that market, Astell&Kern plays at the top end of the portable scale, offering world class performance with a build quality surpassing it's competition.
The AK380 is offered in two versions, a standard and copper chassis model. Today’s review is on the standard model. While the AK380 is without question the best portable player on the market, it can be far more than a portable player. It’s capable of playing most digital files, including up to 32/384 high-resolution audio files and native DSD. With the addition of the cradle, the AK380 easily connects to a high performance audio system to instantly become your best digital source. Add the upcoming recording kit and you’ll have a true high-end recording studio in the palm of your hand. If it’s built-in balanced headphone amp is not enough to drive your headphones, there is the option to add the amp module. Finally, if you have a large CD collection you desire to rip, there is even a separate ripper component available for extreme high-resolution CD ripping.
Design & Build Quality
If you appreciate outstanding design with unsurpassed build quality, you’ll love the AK380. The overall design in both black and Meteoric Titan colors play with angles and shadows in a unique way we’ve yet to see elsewhere. The entire body is made of aircraft grade duralumin, an aluminum alloy, and the rear of the unit is carbon fiber, with an almost holographic presentation that changes as it moves. We appreciate the simplistic nature of the control layout as it solely contains a volume knob, power button, skip, back, and pause buttons.
Included is a tight fitting leather case for travel. This case, by the way, was our only (mild) issue with the AK380. Perhaps we should have allowed the leather additional break-in time but once placed in the case, we found the player somewhat difficult to remove. Note that if used only for travel this is no big deal, but if used with the cradle we had to remove by pushing it out from the bottom with a dull object. Again, perhaps leather break-in would remedy to create a non-issue.
The AK380 offers versatility in connection options, as well. It comes with a 3.5mm unbalanced and a 2.5mm balanced output. There is also a micro USB connection located on the bottom of the player for yet another option. Astell&Kern provides the option to change one of the headphone outs to be an optical digital output. Finally, the AK380 has a solid set of balanced audio output connectors for your audio system.
Another feature we enjoy is the pressure sensitive button on the bottom of the front. At the press of this button, rest assured that the unit always returns to the home page. The internal storage is 256GB, in addition to an optional microSD card slot adding another 128GB. The AK380 supports both wifi and Bluetooth, and software updates are conveniently done via wifi after receiving alerts when they are available.
Located in the middle of the player is a touchscreen. A menu appears by holding a finger gently on top of the screen. Access the entire menu structure for setup and fine tuning from there by slowing sliding down a finger (it may take a couple brief attempts to master this). We quickly discovered another impressive aspect of the touchscreen. Slightly rotate the volume knob while music is playing and the entire screen becomes a sphere of lines, which allow you to fine-tune the volume.
One of our favorite features is a built-in parametric 20 band equalizer. Parametric EQs allow you to zero in on an exact frequency and adjust it up or down. While we would not normally recommend playing with the artist’s intended sound that was carefully mixed in the studio, this feature could be utilized if you opted for the upcoming recording add-on. For example, you record a show at a live performance while sitting in the middle of a large bass peak due to the nature of the room. You can easily adjust this out using the built-in EQ feature.
Menu structure follows basic player guidelines with a folder structure for artist, album, genre, song, playlist, etc. There is also a small display at the top showing time of day, wifi strength, and battery life. To get music into your AK380 you can simply connect it up to your computer via the included USB cable and just drag over folders. The AK380 will organize them all with the meta data that comes over.
The internal build quality follows the same high standard as the exterior. The D/A convertors found in the AK380 are a special dual mono design from Astell&Kern. One aspect that always makes live music sound exceptional is the sense of timing. This is hard to achieve in the digital world and, thankfully, it’s where the AK380 excels. To reclock the music they developed their own clock containing some of the lowest jitter of any digital device regardless of price.
The optional cradle is an interesting piece to add. It permanently connects to power, so when you insert the AK380, it begins to recharge. The cradle only adds to the AK380’s already pleasing aesthetic appeal. Note that the cradle needs a substantial USB power supply in order to operate, and will not work with tiny USB AC adaptors compatible with most phones.
As if this all were not enough, Astell&Kern players can be controlled with an app called AK Connect. Not only can you control the music residing on your AK380 player, it also acts as a DLNA server. What this means is through the app, you can find any music on your network and pull it through all the electronics in the AK380. When you couple the AK380 with the cradle, you now have a super high performance streaming network player. The AK Connect app is user-friendly and capable of streaming via Bluetooth to the AK380.
The AK380 is one of the most versatile audio players on the market. Take it on the go for the best portable sound possible, use it with the cradle in your system, turn it into a recording studio, or use it as a streaming audio player. With such versatility and so many options, how does it sound? In one word: incredible.
We first tried dragging over some high-resolution audio files and ripping a few CDs onto the player. With a high performance set of headphones (we used the HiFiMan Edition X and Sennheiser HD800 for testing) it is, without question, the best sound you have ever heard from a portable player. Experience sounds you never knew existed even with the best headphones. The AK380 gives music a sense of timing that makes you want to dance on rhythmic tracks. Plus, you can listen for hours as there is not one trace of edge that most inexpensive players have due to lower quality internal electronics.
We thought it would be fun to put the AK380 to a real test with an incredibly high performance audio system. One of our owners has a high-end, two-channel system using a Datasat RS20i preamp, Ayre VX5e power amp, Vandersteen Model 5 speakers and all Transparent cables. For comparison, the cradle only has balanced audio outs and needs adaptors if your system does not have balanced inputs. For our test, we used one of our favorite music streamers, the Naim ND5 XS, a $4800 streaming music player. We streamed high resolution 24/192 audio files through both the Naim and the AK380 (using the AK Connect app) to compare. To be honest, we expected the Naim to mop the floor with the AK380 but it was a far closer race than anticipated. Ultimately we decided there was a tiny bit more resolution in the Naim, but considering everything the AK380 is capable of, it is a real winner. We can’t take the Naim on a plane with us and certainly can’t take it to a Dave Matthews concert and record in high resolution. We look forward to testing the microphone set once they arrive in stock.
Overall, the AK380 offers the best possible sound for travel. Additionally, you’ll enjoy the superior ergonomic design that makes even holding the player in your hand a pleasant experience. If you do not have a digital audio streamer in your system at home, add the cradle and become the instant owner of one of the best digital players you can buy, bested only by some of the finest separate components on the market. Finally, if you want to record concerts or even your kids’ performances, the upcoming recording microphone option is an outstanding add-on.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Super Hi Res Portable Playback
32 bit 384kHz with no down resolution and double layer DSD
With the addition of optical out, you can easily connect it to your home audio system
DLNA Connect App
Turns the AK380 into a music streamer adding yet another use with your home audio system