Hi-res audio: 4K for your ears! It’s finally taking off in a big way. Or a small way, in this case, as we’re now seeing portable listening devices dedicated to the cause.
We’ve only just recovered from gushing about Sony’s NWZ-ZX1 Walkman, and now another challenger appears: the Astell & Kern AK100 MkII.
READ MORE: Sony NWZ-ZX1 high-resolution Walkman review
Who the whatnow is Astell&Kern? It’s a brand from Korean manufacturer iriver - the guys who once made impressive rivals to early iPods. Now it's back, armed with a name that sounds worryingly like a Scadinavian funeral home. And if that sounds serious, wait until you see the device itself.
Lovely, smooth performance
Great sound is surely the point of getting a high-res audio player, and the AK100 MkII sounds amazing. In absolute terms, it utterly destroys the respectable sound from an iPod Touch. The performance is easily as strong as that from the Sony NWZ-ZX1, which automatically qualifies A&K for a spot at the top of the audio tree.
The most impressive element is the midrange reproduction, which is stunning. Here you get extraordinarily far-reaching dynamics. Combine that with a remarkable level of fluidity and you have a performance that feels smooth and organic. If you listen to vocal-based tracks a lot, you’re in for a treat.
Greater detail is the most obvious bonus of listening to high-resolution audio, and the AK100 MkII is no exception. There’s plenty in the way of texture. We spent considerable time pointing out (to nobody in particular) all the instruments we’d never noticed in our most oft-played tracks.
When it comes to precision, Sony’s NWZ-ZX1 has the edge. The A&K just can’t match it for rhythmic precision. But that’s not necessarily a disadvantage: the A&K has a more relaxed vibe that many will prefer.
As lovely as it sounds, there’s still the issue of content to consider. High-resolution files are not easy to come by, and even then they aren’t cheap. You won’t find any on iTunes or Amazon’s download store. Your best bet right now is HDTracks, a US site with some tracks downloadable in the UK, and a promise of a dedicated UK store in the near future.
No frills design, but there is a knob
It’s a block of metal that feels solid and weighty – befitting of the hefty price tag. There’s a 2.5in touch screen: cramped but good enough to navigate the rather basic folder-style menus. The left edge of the device sports a trio of playback buttons, while the top edge has outputs and a power/wake key. So far, so unremarkable.
Then you get to the right edge, which has a knob sticking out of it. This adjusts the volume in half-levels from 00.0 to 75.0. This is good if you’re the type who likes to be really specific about how loud your music is.
But this is a portable device, so it’s likely to go in and out of your pocket. And we sometimes found ourselves unwittingly turning the dial up or down a couple of notches. There is a lock option, but this means turning the screen on every time you want to change the volume. We love its slightly retro feel, but it’s also a touch awkward. And the knob rattles a little, too.
It’s a trap (door for memory cards)
Look to the bottom of the device and you’ll find a little hatch. This opens to take two microSD cards of up to 64GB each. Combined with the built-in storage of 32GB, that means you have a maximum of 160GB at a time.
We like expandable memory. We like it so much that the thought of travelling with a fistful of cards and never running out of music makes us feel warm and fuzzy. But there are costs to consider.
Average web prices have 64GB microSD cards at around £40 each. The asking price of £700 for the player is steep enough without the thought of shelling out even more for memory. Bundled cards would have been nice, or at least a built-in capacity of greater than 32GB. And you’ll definitely need lots of storage if you’re going with hi-res audio, as it takes up massive amounts of space (and is, conversely, also a little slow to load).
Astell&Kern AK100 Mk.2 verdict
We have mixed feelings about the Astell & Kern AK100 MkII. That price is a real issue, considering how little memory you get out of the box. It could also be a little slicker, both in operation and in design. And there’s still the issue of where to find high-res audio files.
But on the other hand it really does sound lovely, and the ability to hot-swap memory cards will make power-using audiophile hoarders very happy indeed.
The real problem, though, is the Sony NWZ-ZX1. They sound different, but just as good as one another, so unless you’re especially drawn to a warmer, more fluid playback style, the lower cost and added usability of the Sony is likely to push your decision away from the A&K.