Iriver’s Astell & Kern AK100 ($699 direct) is a portable media player with the chops to surpass not just CDs in audio quality, but SACD and DVD-Audio as well—thanks to its support for 24-bit, 192kHz lossless FLAC and uncompressed WAV files. The thing is, while no one denies the incredible sound of lossless audio, the leap to 24-bits and 192kHz is much less convincing, particularly when it comes to the final, mastered result. The AK100 is also an example of what happens when a company so intensely focused on sound quality misses the forest for the trees, and fails at designing a well-rounded, contemporary media player. In a way, with its singular focus on a somewhat dubious concept, the AK100 encapsulates almost everything that’s wrong with the high-end audio industry.
Design, Storage, and Display
First, a note about what you get for $699. The package includes the AK100, a small cloth carrying pouch, a Getting Started guide, and a microUSB cable for charging the player via computer. That’s it; there are no headphones or AC adapter in the package. I tested the AK100 with a $259.99 pair of Sony MDR-7509HD headphones I use for recording and mixing music, and Iriver sent along a pair of $249.95 Sennheiser HD25 IIs for testing purposes as well. Audiophiles with existing major investments of gear may be fine with supplying their own headphones, but it’s worth noting.
A small, squared-off device made of aluminum, glass, and plastic, the AK100 measures 3.11 by 2.33 by 0.57 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.30 ounces. The top edge houses the standard-size 3.5mm headphone jack that doubles as an optical output for connecting an external digital-to-audio converter (DAC). There’s also an optical input and a Power button. The left panel holds three round buttons that control playback, track skip, and fast forward and rewind functions. The right side features an oversized volume knob that turns with a satisfying click. It turns the volume up and down in very small gradients, which is good for granular control, but it requires a lot of twisting and turning for larger adjustments.
The bottom edge contains a micro USB port for charging and syncing media. There’s also a small compartment with a door that opens to reveal a pair of microSD card slots that work with up to 32GB cards. Add two, and combine those with the 32GB of internal storage, and you get 96GB. That’s a lot, but you’ll need it, as various test files I tried took up anywhere from 86MB (Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan”) to 364MB (Green Day’s sprawling “Jesus of Suburbia”). At roughly 20 times the size of the average 256Kbps MP3 or AAC file, storage could become a problem quickly.
The 2.4-inch glass capacitive touch screen offers 320-by-240-pixel resolution. In an era of 720p and Retina displays, it’s really low, but it gets the job done. Navigating is easy enough, but with the exception of the capacitive screen, it feels a lot like an MP3 player from six or seven years ago, with its endless drab menus and sluggish response times. Viewing angles and brightness are mediocre as well.
My loaner unit was also buggy, at least when running version 1.1 firmware; sometimes it took four or five tries to register a key press, and sometimes the volume jumped around unexpectedly when adjusting the knob. Sometimes the AK100 took upwards of 15 seconds to begin playing a song. A company spokesperson said firmware version 1.2 is becoming available as I write this, and that it should help remedy these issues.
Mastering Quality Formats and Audio Testing
The AK100 plays MP3, WMA, and OGG files, but that would be missing the point. Its real purpose is to play FLAC and WAV files, the former of which features lossless data compression that’s inaudible to the human ear as a result, and the latter of which have no compression at all. As a result, for this player to make any sense, you’ll need to purchase high-definition audio tracks.
To that end, Iriver has teamed up with HDtracks, a long-standing digital store selling uncompressed audio tracks from major labels. In addition to 24-bit lossless FLAC files at 44.1kHz or 48kHz, you can also buy ones recorded at 96kHz and even 192kHz—letting you take advantage of the mixing engineer’s dream of direct-to-consumer files recorded, mixed, and mastered on Pro Tools HD or an equivalent high-resolution system.
That said, don’t expect a comprehensive catalog at HDtracks. Many classic rock acts, as well as jazz and classical labels, are well represented. But if you like newer (as in the past 30 years) music, there’s not a lot there. To cite just a few examples, there’s nothing from Radiohead, The Police, Metallica, The Cure, Depeche Mode, or Nine Inch Nails. There’s nothing from The Beatles or Pink Floyd either. There’s one Muse and one Sting album. Almost everything I looked at required full album purchases, with no option to buy individual tracks, and at $16.99 to $24.99 a pop, albums are expensive. You can sync media with the AK100 either as a USB mass storage device, or with the bundled, PC-only Iriver software.
The AK100′s Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DAC is well known in audiophile circles, as it’s the same kind used in high-end Linn stereo components. And audio quality with the right material, as you can expect, is amazing on the AK100. Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” by Jackson, Hazeltine, Reedus, and Gill sounds like they’re playing right in front of you in a small jazz club; each instrument sounds full, round, and, well, real. There’s a beautiful sense of space in this 24-bit, 88kHz recording. “Hotel California” by the Eagles sounds almost ethereal and otherworldly at 24-bit and 192kHz. The soundstage is wide and deep, with plenty of air around the various guitars and Don Henley’s voice. The acoustic guitar strings and snare drum grace notes in “Roundabout” by Yes are clearly audible at 24-bit and 96kHz.
Here’s the thing, though: These recordings also sound fantastic as 16-bit, 44.1kHz lossless files ripped from regular CDs. You’ll hear a pretty massive difference going from 256Kbps to lossless 16-bit, 44.1kHz, but much less of one going from lossless 16-bit, 44.1kHz to 24-bit, 96kHz or 192kHz. Classical and jazz recordings have the most to gain from increased resolution. But even with those, you’ll hear much more of a difference when changing headphones, speakers, concert halls, mixing engineers or mastering engineers on particular recordings, even external DACs—just about everything else matters more than whether a lossless recording is 44.1kHz or 96kHz, especially when you’re talking about the final mixdown format, and not individually recorded instrument tracks in a digital audio workstation.
That said, even regular lossless files at 16-bit and 44kHz sound great on the AK100, thanks to the quality of the Wolfson D/A converter. There’s also a five-band graphic equalizer; many audiophiles sneer at using one, but it’s useful in some situations. It’s not parametric—you can’t control the EQ points, but they’re quite musical, at 60, 170, 310, 600, and 16,000Hz. The AK100 supports stereo Bluetooth streaming, so you can listen to music wirelessly, albeit at slightly compromised sound quality. Iriver recommends sticking with 44.1kHz or 48kHz files in this case, as larger ones will strain the wireless connection.
The 2,000mAh battery lasted for a solid 10 hours, 5 minutes on a continuous playback test while driving the Sennheiser HD 25 II headphone pair. But without an AC adapter, the player takes almost six hours to charge via USB, which is disappointing.
Omissions and Conclusions
So the audio quality is excellent, if not necessarily worth $700. But with the AK100, you’re also giving up a lot of features that much less expensive players have had for years. There’s no camera (front or rear) or high-definition camcorder. It doesn’t run apps. There’s no Wi-Fi, so you can’t sync music wirelessly, access any cloud storage, or listen to streaming services. You can’t record any audio at all, which seems like a missed opportunity, given that studio-quality 24-bit, 96kHz recorders run $200 to $400 and sometimes even include built-in stereo condenser microphones at that price.
Incredibly, there’s no AAC or Apple Lossless support—an almost unbelievable omission, given the iTunes Store’s overwhelming market share, and the fact that many audiophiles committed to ripping CDs to Apple Lossless years ago. If you use iTunes, this player is more trouble than it’s worth. And while HDtracks downloads often sound incredible, they’re expensive, and the site’s archaic file downloader requires Java, freezes up often, and looks like something you’d use to log into Netzero or Juno on Windows 95. A spokesperson for the company said HDtracks is putting the final touches on a new downloader that should become available sometime in the next few weeks; I tested it during the review and found it a huge improvement.
You can argue that none of this matters to audiophiles in pursuit of ultimate sound quality. But with all of the above issues, the market for this device will be seriously limited—and this is coming from a genuine fan of high-resolution audio, and someone who advocates listening to lossless tracks whenever possible. Wealthy, hardcore audiophiles that classify $1,500 bookshelf speakers as “affordable” will probably want to snap the AK100 up immediately for its Wolfson DAC and 24-bit/192kHz support. But even if you’re in that group, just know that you’re getting an extremely barebones device for an extremely high price. For now, the rest of us would do just fine in committing the money to a beautiful pair of headphones, maybe an external headphone amp depending on the headphone model you select, an iPod touch or HTC Droid DNA, and plenty of 16-bit, 44.1kHz lossless music tracks. Pristine audio doesn’t have to be this esoteric—or expensive.
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|Dimensions||3.11 x 2.33 x 0.57 inches|
|Storage Capacity (as Tested)||32 GB|
|Music Playback Formats||FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WMA, APE|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc