Head-Fi.org › Head Gear › Portable Source Components › Astell & Kern AK120

Astell & Kern AK120

Posted

Pros: Looks good, feels good, sounds good.

Cons: Software an afterthought that leads to lots of wasted time (on the device and on your pc/mac) & unresponsive customer service (until they read this).

I bought this player because I wanted “the best” portable DAP money could buy. Even though I now have a portable experience that rivals or might even surpass my desktop setup, it has not left me without considerable headaches and occasional feelings of buyer’s remorse.

 

Let’s remember that this is a $1300 product and when you include Canadian duties and taxes I’m in ~$1600! I knew this would definitely warrant a review. For this, I would expect to get some customer service and online documentation that would prevent from hours of troubleshooting.

 

I bought this directly from iRiver because of a free MQS album promotion they were running during July 2013. I wish I had bought it from a retailer like TTVJ or ALO. Both of those companies were very helpful in answering any questions I had before I took the plunge.

 

So I decided to go with iRiver direct, same price, just with a free MQS compilation album (no Jason Mraz or Bon Jovi for me).

 

My Review of the Astell & Kern AK120

 

What to expect when you receive the AK120

 

1) Beautiful packaging

 

2) A very solid piece of hardware - great fit and finish

 

3) A brown leather case that looks good and fits the device very snugly.

 

4) A USB cord with no charger! $1300 and no “$1 to produce” charger, an additional USB would have added so much more to the luxury experience, too.

 

What to expect when you plug in the AK120

 

1) Be ready for your memory cards not to be recognized

 

2) Obviously, it’s gonna take some time to transfer files.

 

3) Every time after you eject, the AK120 needs to scan your library, where depending on the size can take 15+ minutes.

 

4) Oh and if your memory card isn’t recognized, you’ll have to go through all that again :/

 

What to expect when you turn on the AK120

 

1) Precise sound, pairs very well with my Grado SR80, 325is, Shure SRH940 and Audeze LCD2.

 

2) An unresponsive touch screen and clunky UI. If you’re used to using your iPhone, be prepared to step back a decade in terms of usability.

 

3) Hit and miss with album art. My iTunes library was perfectly organized, yet the AK120 never seems to grab every album cover, and often places tracks out of order.

 

4) It also does not recognize all the songs I put in there. So I am forced to navigate via the “folders” option. I’ve got to put all my artists A-M on one memory card, then N-Z on the other. It takes about a minute to scroll to the midway point in my music library. This is gonna get really fun once I begin to fill this thing to the limit.

 

5) Buy far the worst experience I’ve had with these is with VBR (variable bit rate) files (sorry, but there were days when I downloaded mp3s before I bough my first set of good cans). These files would just cut off before they were supposed to end. So you’re listening to Abbey Road and... “and in the end, the love you make, is equal to the love you _________dead silence,” done playing. So annoying!

 

I reached out to Astell and Kern through Facebook then through email. It took them 4 business days to return my email. Actually, no I’m wrong. It took them 4 business days, 6 days in total to even open and read my email (I know this because I tracked it with Yesware).

 

During this time, I self-diagnosed that the issue was indeed with VBR files. Tested this, and it was the case.

 

I’m impatient when it comes to my newly purchased electronics not working. I made a copy of my music library and transcoded all my VBR files to m4a. I estimate I wasted about 6 hours of my life doing this.

 

So yes, Astell & Kern I hope you learn to do better Quality Assurance especially for a product like this.

 

One other annoyance. When there is a firmware release the instructions for how to update were so pitifully bad, myself and others were left scratching our heads for where the root folder is on our AK120s. If you know anything about technical writing, you know that you need to explain things to people as if they were 8 years old. Doing this is not hard, it just takes time and would probably save iRiver time in the long run. And yes, I’m not taking any chances with what my hunch is is about the root folder, when I already have very little confidence in the software that powers the AK120. Again, they got back to me after 6 days, 5 days after I had converted my entire VBR library.

 

Another really annoying thing about this player is the millisecond or so fade-in when you play the start of a song or from pause. You know the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana? Go listen to it on the AK120, there's even a 24/96 version of it. Listen to it from the beginning That little fade in sounds like Kurt is putting a momentary palm-mute on the first chord. It's annoying because it's not the way the artist intended it to sound. This should be an easy software fix and I have reported it to iriver.

 
There are so many songs that start off with a percussive beat and because of this fade-in, the song feels out of step until you consciously have to tell your brain to lock back into the time signature. Ugh, this was one of the first things that put me off when I first listened to the AK120.
 

Note: iRiver has yet to update their documentation to help users easily update their devices.

 

I’m aware that a lot of head-fi’ers will read this review and think it’s useless because it doesn’t focus on performance. For me, with every audio purchase I make, I’m upgrading, so yes this is a step up from and iPod and PA2V2. That’s all I care about: “Is my next purchase going to lead to more detailed sound for certain genres.” I can’t compare this to a Cowan player or any of the others.

 

What this review is intended to do is improve the experience for people who buy high-end IRiver products in the future. The user manual is a joke, customer service is lacking and probably understaffed. I bet you it’s assigned as a secondary task for an employee. I feel like once this thing kicks the bucket I’m not going to be helped. My advice to anyone who’s considering buying this product try it out (if possible), message me because I might just sell it and to buy it from someone else other than iRiver. I guarantee you I would have got better answers.

 

In Summary


Great hardware, the software was an afterthought and has soooo much room for improvement!

 

Note: I will update this review any time iRiver makes an improvement.

 

Update! Things have gotten worse.

 

With Firmware update 1.32 now my Mac doesn't only recognizes memory cards when it wants to. Sometimes no cards show up at all including the "AK120" soldered-in card that's built into the device. Will update if this becomes fixed. For now... no new music on my AK120 :(

Posted

Pros: SQ is just about perfect, build feel solid, paired with a good amp the sound is probably unbeatable.

Cons: sealed in battery, firmware is a little flaky.

I am not going to talk about the build quality, the size, shape, etc.  Most things have been talked about to death by others.  So, all I am going to do is add my own observations which would be best read in context with what other information is available out there.

 

You can plug a good set of cans into an AK120 and get an excellent clean signal.  It sounds great.  I then tried it with an Alo Audio RX amp and it sounded significantly better.  Then I tried it with an RSA SR-71a and my jaw dropped.  It suddenly went from being an excellent reproduction of an audio signal to being real music.  Music as it should be.  I close my eyes and am sitting in the studio while the album was being recorded.

 

Every breath, every rustle of background sound, the resonance of strings, the full spectrum from drums to soft or loud voices, to double basses, acoustic and electric guitars, everything rendered as though you're there.

 

No jitter, an amazing SN ratio, sound waves as clean and analogue as imaginable.

 

Yes, I would like slightly more user friendly firmware, better compatibility with my Macs, a user changeable battery, etc.  I have most of my collection as CD quality ALACs and then a small but growing proportion of studio master quality files.  With around 6000 tracks on the 3 * 64GB storage it takes about 5 minutes for the unit to scan through the library and compile it.  It's not that long.  Some people say it takes them that long for it to scan a single album...  To be honest I don't understand that, perhaps it was on the 1.0 firmware, I purposely upgraded to 1.21 straight away without listening to 1.0 as others had said there was a change in SQ.  I would rather just go to what I would be listening with rather than feel some real or imagined sense of loss after trying 1.0.

 

The bottom line is that if you have high end cans and want to pair this unit with an amp (I strongly recommend the RSA SR-71a which also, luckily has a similar width and length and so stacks well with the AK120) then for my money this is the best portable setup I had ever hoped for.

 

All in all, with good cans, the amp, a high quality interconnect and the AK120 the setup cost me around £3,000.  For that money it is more than most people's home systems.  For that money it should sound better than most people's home systems.

 

It does.

 

For the first time in years, possibly the first time ever I am actually able to just listen to the music without feeling cheated by the smudginess of jitter, the tin sound of poor treble, the over or under emphasis of muddy midtones, the trade off between either dynamic sound or clarity of sound.  For the first time I just close my eyes and am swept away by awesome music.

 

I have been through dozens of portable units and combinations of units to try and get here.  Now, with this setup, I am there.

 

If you just want the best sound quality possible in your pocket...  BUY IT!

 

The battery life is okay lasting a good 10+ hours, probably near the published 14, but the inability to charge on the go or swap out the battery in my opinion is the largest failing for a portable unit.  Oh well.

Posted

Pros: Sound quality better, louder more dynamic than than AK100, same great build quality, better interface , better volume knob than AK100, case included

Cons: Brown leather case not my thing, bigger than AK100 - only bought the AK100 a few months ago!

The first bars of the 24bit version of Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy - I got my wallet out.  More detail, soundstage, bass, more finesse, more power and dynamics (I listen to the AK100 in isolation at around 47-50, currently listening to the AK120 at 39 - whether it's exactly the same scale, I don't know of course)  However, I don't need to strap it to the Vorzugge Pure to get the extra punch that combination offers.  The software has a grid interface which feels like progress, and it seems to be more responsive in use.  Retina doesn't apply though.

 

So, I'm delighted - again.  

 

Is it perfect?  No; the volume knob feels much more sturdy and has some protective ramps either side - but it still seems a little unnecessary and is still too tall.  I am currently having a bit of a problem with the SD cards, it's forgotten them twice now, alternatively.  I see the firmware version is 1.0.  I'm not sure if it's the same as the AK100 (currently at v1.33) the interface would suggest not? Anyway, I'll try to update it and see if that fixes the card issue. Registering tracks seems to take a long time too, but no change from the AK100 there.

 

Overall, it has to get a 5 star review as it simply sounds superb - Skrillex has just made my brain resonate in the middle of a huge soundscape.  Now that's worth the considerable amount of dosh it's cost me - anyone want to buy a barely used AK100/Vorzugge Pure rig?

 

Hmmm, I'm just wondering when the AK130 will hit the shops...

Posted

Pros: Incredible sound quality. Massive storage potential. Optical in/out. 2 micro SD card slots. Quality DAC. Build quality

Cons: Some EMI. Larger music libraries are hard to browse. Some glitches with ALAC files. Some glitches with metadata on some tracks.

I picked up a second hand AK120 off ebay and have not regretted shelling out around 15 times what I paid for my last DAP, a Sansa Clip Zip. The difference is astonishing to say the least. I really enjoyed the Sansa, a nice sound, good detail, pretty neutral sounding with the potential to beef up the sound through Rockbox, but the AK120 wipes the floor with it.

 

The best word I can use to describe the difference is texture. There is an improvement in detail, soundstage and the overall oomph of the player, but the most striking thing for me is the texture of the sounds produced. Put simply I've never experienced this with a portable player before this, or even through my laptop via a DAC. Drums sound incredible, you can almost feel the impact. Guitars sound full, rich and detailed. Strings are airy and fill the room, and vocals are taken to a whole new level. The timbre of a voice is suddenly apparent, it's intimate, you really feel like the singer is right next to you. Put simply, every sound has a texture, you can almost feel it, and it is what makes this player stand out.

 

The sound is neutral, bass has impact and depth without being overwhelming. Mids are detailed, textured and absorbing, and the high end is crisp and clear.

 

The UI is where the main drawbacks are. Turning the player on takes 20 seconds or so but the overall appearance is nice enough, but with a music library of around 4000 songs, navigating is a chore. Going from top to bottom of my albums takes a minute or so of patient scrolling. I'd like to see iRiver add an option to skip to first letters easily so you can scroll through the list much easier. I've also experienced a couple of issues with metadata. Some albums aren't recognised properly and are sorted with other albums with completely different names, despite changing the info in MusicBrainz. I'd also like to see an update library feature because at the moment, if you add 1 new song and want to see it in your database, you have to update the entire library, and rescan every song which can take 5 or more minutes. Finally, I'd like an option to turn off the auto-fade when skipping songs, especially when it fades songs in sometimes.

 

The only other issue I have is that there is some EMI. Not acceptable for a high end DAP.

 

I use the AK120 with my Unique Melody reshelled Shure SE530x4 and they pair together beautifully. It also drives my Sennheiser HD-25-1 very well. I've heard that with 300 ohm monsters like the HD600 need to be amped with the AK120, but it's more than capable of driving most cans.

 

Overall, I'm delighted with the AK120, but it isn't perfect and for the price I'd like to see iRiver address some of the UI issues I've mentioned.

Posted

Pros: Small size, total memory capacity, user interface, charging via USB, battery life

Cons: Sound quality is bested by other (larger) DAPs

The AK120 is a portable player that is truly an ideal player for a traveler or those that prefer simplicity over complexity and the small annoyances that often come with top performing portable audio devices.  Sound quality is very good with more refinement than the lower end players, but lags behind other high-end players such as the DX100 and 901, but those players do have a disadvantage in battery life, UI, and size.  

 

The AK120 may be for you if:

- Portability and usability are two of the top qualities you are looking for in a DAP.

- You have a large music collection that you want to take with you, especially if that music is in a high bitrate.

- You want to connect to any computer anywhere to use the DAC functionality or any device with an optical output.

- You want a high quality portable transport with optical out.

 

The AK120 may not be for you if:

- You want the highest possible sound quality, portability and battery life be damned.

- You have headphones that are difficult to drive.

- You like very dynamic and punchy sound.

 

My full review can be found here.  Another thing to note about the AK120 is that you can get it modified by Red Wine Audio for higher sound quality.  While I haven't heard one, this could possibly make it the ultimate portable DAP.

Posted

Pros: Excellent SOund

Cons: Only uses 64GB of the claimed 192GB of memory. Indexes songs alphabetically.

Do not buy an Astell & Kern 120.  It claims 192Gb memory, but it indexes and uses only the internal memory - 64gb. The external SD cards carry files but do not show up on the device.   Money spent on the two mini SD cards is totally wasted - the files for all intents and purposes do not exist.  The software index the tracks alphabetically so you must listen to your music in random order.  When using iRiver Plus4 the software does NOT rollover automatically from one memory unit to the next, so you have to monitor your usage constantly - takes forever to load the device with music.  Buy a 5.5G iPod which has the Wolfson DAC already in it.  Have Rapid Repair upgrade the memory to 240gb and you will have a far more useful music player at 1/3 the price.   The reviewers only transfer and listen to a few files so they have no idea how the device actually works.  There is no intention to fix the software defects.  There is no customer support.  It is a rip-off and guilty of false and misleading advertising.

Posted

Pros: Size, functionality, UI

Cons: Price, usage with CIEMs

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AK120
 
I feel like there is an epidemic looming over the heads of most Hi-Fi audio music player designers.  Most just can't seem to get it right and so few end up with a solid performer, yet something actually portable.  You know...not a distant relative to that cinder block that has been sitting outside of my house for years?  I won't bore you with specification details in the beginning of this review, so I will start off with the conclusion first.  That is just how I roll.
 
The End Credits
 
The stock AK120 by Astell and Kern did not mesh with my ears, sadly.  Not that it was bad, I just didn't enjoy the sound signature at all with the headphones I currently owned.  There was just something about the tonality that really bugged me, I really disliked it and it was purely a matter of preference and nothing to do with lack of clarity or anything like that.  It had plenty of clarity and was certainly a few steps beyond it's little brother the AK100, as well as it's zombie mutant offspring cousin the iBasso DX50.  I just could not find anything I owned that meshed with the player, so off it was sent for modifying to Red Wine Audio.  Once I got it back, I realized that within 10 minutes of usage with the new modifications, the player would be one of the very few things I would try to take with me if the world were to suddenly end.  If the zombie DX50's suddenly became sentient and started to attack the Earth, I'd build a pit and fill it with my X-girlfriends, I'd train them in the deadly arts and force them to listen to bad headphones to inspire rage so that they can defend me in the zombie outbreak of the future.  Nothing better than ninja x-girlfriends at your side ready to throw themselves into ravenous zombie hoards...am I right?  No?  Ah well. 7.jpg
For $1300US, this is a bit crazy and leaves me shaking my head as to where the world of portable players is going.  Question:  Is the price of the AK120 justified?  Yes and no would be my answer.  My wallet is screaming, my ears are singing.  So if you have the cash and want the only real PORTABLE Hi Fi Audiophile grade music player, go buy one.  Stop...wait a second, turn around.  Throw another $250 onto that and send it off to Red Wine Audio for the standard RWAK120 mod if you are primarily using custom inner ear monitors.  
 
Tone - Stock AK120
 
I did not enjoy it.  But, don't let that sway you from buying as there are a ton of people...the majority actually that really enjoyed the sound of the AK120.  I prefer a natural tone and it just so happens that I find the iBasso DX50/AK100 to produce a more dry sound signature with some hint of a coloration to it, whereas the AK120 seemed to have a more AKG house sound with a slight metallic sheen to everything, rounded edges that were not defined so well and everything just lacking overall on the CIEM's that I own.  I still found it dynamic, very clear and forgiving.  This was a problem with low impedance, the stock AK120 simply was not set up to drive very efficient and low impedance headphones well, which is why the experience with my JH16 FreqPhases sounded so lack luster.  This was the case on all the portable headphones I've played with recently, even the stunning  NAD HP50, something very easily driven and DEAD NEUTRAL in every way.  Even that sounded bland and lacking pre-Red Wine.  Directly fed into the Audeze LCD-3, the presentation is actually pretty great and highly enjoyable as a source when properly amped.  My NAD HP50 seemed to really dislike the AK120 and the entire experience was passable at best.  Not the fault of the HP50, it is an insanely incredible headphone that is very easily driven...but there lay the problem.  Most easily driven headphones tend to sound not so good with the stock AK120.  
 
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Tone - Post Red Wine Mod
 
Huge improvement over the stock sound signature in my opinion, totally transformed into a different player entirely.  Via the JH16, the tone of the headphone went from very bad to one of the best sound signatures I've ever heard for this ciem.  Jet black background, finally properly driven due to the Red Wine guys messing with the resistors and improving the output efficiency.  The stock AK120 was too powerful and ended up working poorly with every custom monitor I owned as well as most of the higher tier portables with low impedance.  Something just didn't sound right.  Thankfully, Red Wine Fixed it...and I love it.  This is how it should have sounded and I really have to take points off for requiring a third party to set things straight.  The experience is highly natural, a lot like switching from an AKG K712 to lets say an Audeze LCD2.  The house sound signature changed completely for the better and everything is so much more well defined, articulated and dynamic due to the lack of a background fuzz with the stock AK120s higher output cap for low impedance headphones.  I would never recommend you do it, but for giggles I have plugged my ciems into larger desktop amps and the result was the same general tone.  Something was very wrong, over driven and receiving too much power.  The Red Wine Mod reduces the output impedance down to 1ohm and is now hard wired direct from the output stage to the headphone jack.  Such a seemingly simple thing fixed the dreadful performance the AK120 had with most earbuds.
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Bass
 
The quantity of the bass bumped a bit after the Red Wine Mod but not much, I am not even comfortable saying it is there, but something inside me saying there was more bass than before.  If there really is, it's a small amount and I can attribute it to the clarity boost and the background of the player feeling much darker, thus allowing for more POP on the bass.  I found the stock bass highly satisfying and never boomy, artificial or boosted.  I enjoyed it very much and only that much more in post-mod.  It is rich and well textured but still a step behind the Hifiman HM901 and even the HM801 on the low end, both of which seemed more pure and solid but also less forgiving.  The AK120 bass seems softer, more gentle and not nearly as solid on my gear.  This is a great thing if you desire that type of a sound like I do.  I hate punchy bass.  I prefer that soft, lush and velvet like low end experience and I find it much more musical than most other hifi portable players.  Musicality seems lost in most of the expensive audiophile grade music devices.  I'm unwilling to allow musicality to take a hit just for the sake of accuracy, thankfully the AK120's low end is highly musical.  There are a few tracks from Jamie Foxx that and the Ministry of Sound that I really enjoy that worked out very nicely.  I'm not into the pounding bass thing, but I am into the heavily weighted feel of low end.  The softer and weightier, the more happy I become.  I pretty much got everything I've always wanted on the low end in the stock form of the AK120.  
 
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The Mids
 
Very lush, very soft and forgiving yet again on the stock version, but more sharpened and well defined on the Red Wine version.  The tone of the stock AK120 ruined the natural midrange I often desire, so I was happy to hear the RWAK120 drastically improve the definition of darn near everything.  Vocals seem more clear as they are now properly driven and as a result sound noticeably sharper in a good way, they have just a little bit of bite to them, just enough to consider it highly engaging and never painful or annoying.  It's just right.  In fact, even the stock AK120 mid range was my favorite of the really expensive players that I've messed around with.  I find them really nicely set up and perfectly spaced, I've never felt they were overly intimate, nor have I once felt they were too distant or lacking. 
 
This is a vocalist Dap in my opinion, due to the entire experience being softer and more rounded on the edges.  Male or female, doesn't really matter, most of my vocal track favorites sounded incredible when the stock AK120 was used as a source and paired with an amp.  When used with the easier to drive headphones I own, the experience wasn't as nice.  It wasn't until Red Wine modified it for me that the experience leveled out and allowed the player to finally shine.  All that hidden potential is in there, hiding and beginning to be released.  You just have to pay $250 extra to get it out.  I think it is certainly worth it.  If you like the tonality of the JH customs or any similar sounding headphone, the Red Wine RWAK120 is a must.  It really meshes well with them and as I mentioned previously, the JH16 FR and RWAK120 is just about the best portable experience I've ever had.  
 
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The Highs
 
Oddly enough, I found the stock AK120 upper region to be superior and more enjoyable than the Red Wine version.  Why?  I've not a clue and was unable to figure it out.  The stock AK120 has the most beautiful and sparkly upper areas in a portable player that I've ever heard.  The HM901 sounds bland by comparison and the Colorfly C4 doesn't even come close.  It's beautiful and shimmering, exceptionally clear and very enjoyable.  I prefer a hint of brightness to it, with that magical sparkle quality.  Just a bit of snappiness to it, just like the midrange and far from painful or annoying.  The Red Wine version seems to tone everything back down to unwanted levels to my ears and I find myself always wanting that shimmer back.  The Stock sound signature of the player worked for only the upper region in my opinion, post mod I find it lack luster.  Still very clear, maybe more so than the stock version but still very natural and lacking any special qualities on the upper regions.  I find violins, screaming guitars and vocalists shoulder shrug worthy now, but I must bring back up the fact that the Red Wine mod really helped the Bass and the Mids significantly over their stock sound.  There is always a trade off...but the post mod upper region is still extremely clear and textured.  It is just lacking that bit of sparkle that I lust for and became something more natural.  
 
Sound stage.
 
The stock sound stage was very nice on this player, but I cannot say that the player had any special qualities in this regard.  It's an all star player with soundstage.  Good width, good height, good separation and good depth...but nothing is great.  Sadly, it's still not that good post modding and I think the HM901 certainly had a more realistic and layered approach to the stereo imaging, yet was about on par in width.  I find the presentation itself very enjoyable and more than satisfactory for portable needs.  As a Dac, you might want to look elsewhere for a better deal. Expect most qualities to be pretty good, but nothing truly amazing.  
 
Build, Software and Dac
 
The player feels rock solid in my hand and has a noticeably better build quality than any of the mid-fi level music players.  Nuked the iPods and even the iBasso DX50 for sure.  It is heavier than I originally thought it would be and I enjoy the overall grip I have while holding the player on the go.  It fit my hands perfectly and to be honest I thought the protruding volume knob on the side of the Dap would annoy me, but I was very wrong.  It offers great grip and is also solidly built.  I was worried about damaging the knob with continued usage over time but it never took a scratch over all this time.  The knob itself lays perfectly in between my middle and pointer finger when I hold the unit with my left hand.  This is pretty cool, actually.  I can toggle the volume knob and hold the player with one hand.  The same cannot be said for any other player with a natural approach to gripping and actually holding the player itself.  Awesome.  It comes with a cool leather carrying case for protection and seems very rugged, but is prone to scuffing.  It's stiff hard leather and seems to take damage quite easily.  A protective screen is a must for this player, thankfully it also came with one.  Overall, I think the build quality earns top marks and shines above most others.  It is wisely designed and not huge, it is my pick for the only real portable hifi music player.  Sorry Altmann, but you guy's don't even have a pause button on yours.
 
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The Firmware and software seems solid, slick, easy and properly setup.  Everything has an easy access and hey would you look at that?  A home button, EQ, Presets, and oh my gosh is that a Playlist favorites feature on a hifi portable music player?  No...it can't be!?  Yep, it is!  Thank you Astell and Kern for being the only expensive hifi player who put a Playlist function that works perfectly into your product.  To date, this is my favorite OS on a digital music player.  I enjoy it very much and I find navigating all the menus a breeze.  The problem is that the player is capable of large storage with dual micro sd cards as well as an internal 64GB spacing.  So, if you wanted to browse your tracks via track listing, forget it.  It is going to take forever if you have a track that begins with a letter near the end of the alphabet. Thankfully, other menu search functions work nicely and as they should.  However, I want to see a "back to the beginning" function added to the scrolling experience windows, one that lets you skip from Z back to A instead of needing to scroll back up through all the alphabetized artists, tracks or albums just to get to the early entries.  Beyond that, I've no experience in general gripes, it's a great thing and stress free.
 
It isn't without bugs though, I've encountered minor freezing, slugishness and stuttering often, but nothing serious that required a reboot.  The player isn't quick on the draw and takes a long time to scan your library, 128gb of flac took about 15 minutes for me each time I ran the Library Scan.  The player also isn't fast to cycle through now playing tracks, there is certainly some hang time between each track if you are tapping track skip, too fast on that tap and you are likely going to freeze the player completely for a few seconds.  But again, it held firm and never once bricked or needed a manual override.  The player caught up and resumed playing usually within a few seconds of a freeze.  
 
**The Dac section is a big bonus for anyone looking for the entire package deal.  You can find comparable dacs for 1/3 the price in a full size, but none of them are portable in my opinion.  Some claimed a few HRT models were better, I disagree.  I found the dac section on the stock AK120 to sound very nice.  The high res track capabilities are also a huge plus.  I don't want to spend any more time on this section because this should stay a portable music player review and not a Dac experience review.  However, despite that sentiment the Dac is still good and I find no issues with it.  It sounds fantastic with my JH16s and NAD HP50.**
 
The After Credits Scene
 
All in all, Astell and Kern did a good job but need to really take a step backward and get off this ultra pricing for their portable players. Then again, so do all the other Hifi Dap makers.  iBasso reset the bar and bargain price to performance ratio and I hope everyone else tries to best them somehow.   The AK120, even modded is not 8x the clarity of the AK100 or the Ibasso DX50, despite having 8x the price tag.  You are paying a huge premium for a marginal upgrade, but still the best you can get in my opinion despite being 25% better than the AK100.  That 25% makes a big difference to me and if your wallet can manage it, I'd recommend it.   Boasting exceptional build quality, an excellent software experience, a free Dac as well as a portable music player, dual micro sd card slots and a great leather case included, I've nothing really to complain about.  It's a great player...it's the only wisely designed hifi player on the market beyond $1000.  Everything else seems oddly...not at all portable despite the claims of the product being portable.  Great job, Astell and Kern, but an even better job to Red Wine.
 
Thanks for Reading.  Please rate and comment if you enjoyed the read!
 
-24bit
 

Posted

Pros: Great SQ, Lots of storage capacity with 64GB already on board, very usable UI, Drives the HE-500!!

Cons: It is expensive

INTRODUCTION:

 

I have owned the AK120 since September and listen to it every day, several hours a day. I use a variety of headphones depending upon where I am. When I'm home, I prefer my HiFiMan HE-500 Orthodynamic cans or my JH Audio 16 Pro and when I'm out I generally use my closed back Shure SRH-940, UE 5 Pro or my custom fit ER4 MicroPro. I have used it with a variety of amplifiers though it really doesn't need external amplification to drive any of the headphones I listed to a reasonable volume level. I was in fact surprised to discover just how good it sounded with the power hungry HE-500's and with all the other headphones, it could drive them way beyond my listening threshold and I like my music loud. The HE-500 being Orthodynamic do benefit from some extra amplification however, they are quite good just with the AK120. When I'm out I leave my amps at home and carry my AK120 on my belt in a small case, the Swiss Gear - Jasper Small Camera Case-Black, is a perfect fit and adds extra protection, available at Best Buy for $4.99 (Model: GA-7876-02F00).

Battery life has been surprisingly good as I generally use it daily for at least 1-2 hours, sometimes more and only need to charge it weekly so I figure I'm getting about 12 hours of listening time and haven't run it down to zero once. The UI is really intuitive, very responsive and easy to use. Even though I have the unit almost fully loaded with FLAC files, about 150GB so far, it still responds with little lag. I have both microSD slots loaded with SanDisk Ultra 64GB micro SDXC cards with the factory exFAT file system intact and the AK120 see's all of my music files and metadata with no problems whatsoever. I loaded my music files onto my cards through Windows 7 by just copying the folders onto the SanDisk cards using a USB3.0 card reader and it worked flawlessly.

Another benefit to the AK120 is the fact that it connects to my computer's USB port (USB2.0 only so far) which allows me to use is as an external DAC to listen to all the music I have stored on my computer and it sounds incredible through my headphones. I also connect it to my home theater system directly from the AK120's headphone jack to an aux input and the sound is again - amazing, better than my DVD player and I no longer have to look through the hundreds of CD's I have to find what I want to listen to. I have to say that I was skeptical before I bought it because it costs so much and I wondered if it would indeed prove to be worth the expense. Given Amazon's great return policy and the fact that there are not many others in it's class to choose from, I decided to try it and am very pleased.

FEATURES:

The Astell&Kern AK120 measures 2.33"W x 3.50"H x 0.57"D and weighs only five ounces. It's main interface is through a sharp and responsive 2.4" QVGA IPS Touchscreen while on it's right side it has a analog volume control wheel and on the left side, three tiny control buttons for back, forward, and play/pause. All the controls function fully even when the screen is off and a brief touch to the power button brings back the display while another brief touch darkens it again. Across its top are the earphone/optical-out port, an optical-in port, both 3.5mm and the power button. On the bottom you will find a micro-USB port and a sliding door which covers the slot for the two microSD cards. It also comes with an well crafted Italian-leather carrying case that has cutouts for all the aforementioned controls except the microSD slot which remains covered. The device can be used at all times while in its protective leather case only requiring removal if you need to change or add an SD card.

The dual-DAC AK120 holds 64GB of audio files via its internal memory and can add 128GB more via two 64GB microSD cards for a total of 192GB (180GB actual). It's equipped with two Wolfson WM8740 DACs each running in mono-mode that handle virtually any  format including DSD via new firmware released in July and has a nifty, ergonomic design that's attractive and simple to use. Best of all, it sounds great with all types of music, its dual DACs providing fabulous resolution, speed, and great sense of space. The warranty is for a year and as the company has a service location right here in the United States, you won't have to ship it back to China for service and if you have any questions, you can call them at (949) 336-4540. BTW, I have no connection to the company and bought my unit from Amazon on August 31, 2013.

 

SOUND:

Now for the all important question, how does it sound? In a word - amazing, it has a wide soundstage, is unfailingly rich and resolving with clean non-sibilant highs, a gorgeous midrange and deep, well controlled Bass (when it's present in the source material). That said, the one thing you must remember is that a player can only faithfully reproduce what was contained in the original source material, so great recordings sound great and mediocre recordings can sound no better than what was recorded. A good analogy is photography, if you take a picture that is out of focus, no matter what you do to sharpen it up it will always be hampered by what was missing from it originally. The AK120 is very revealing and so you will hear tiny details that you may have never heard before.

The AK120 was great with orchestral music, jazz, rock, and anything else I could throw at it. Even better sounding in some ways than my iPod Classic 160 (playing ALAC lossless) through a CypherLabs AlgoRhythm Solo/ALO RX MKII, Cowon Z2 with ALO RX MKII and my Galaxy S4 playing FLAC files through AlgoRhythm Solo/ALO RX MKII using USB Audio Recorder Pro 1.2.7 . Now to be fair, the AlgoRhythm Solo/ALO RX MKII are an excellent combination and sound great together but carrying three components strapped together is rather cumbersome and diminished my enthusiasm. Each has its advantages but I preferred the AK to the CLAS/RX MkII combo.

Female voices like jazz singers Diana Krall, Esperanza Spalding and Norah Jones sounded superb even in 16/44 FLAC with clear, extended highs, great microdynamics and a smooth detailed midrange. There was absolutely no glassy etch or harshness, even in the high notes Esperanza hits in her song "Fall In Love" and the stand-up bass she plays through most of the album is deep, dynamic and so distinct, you can even hear her fingers sliding over the strings. Well mastered recordings just sound great and this player reveals every nuance.

Male vocals sounded great too. Among those I listened to were Jose James, Kenny Rankin and the amazing George Benson. Every essential aspect of their vocal characters came through, from Jose James smooth baritone on "Do You Feel" to Rankin's clear, pure tenor showcased in "I've Just Seen A Face" on the album, "Here in My Heart" to the amazing range and character of George Benson on "This Masquerade" whose voice and guitar sound so dynamic and lifelike he sounds as if he is right there in the room with you.

Wind instruments sounded wonderful, from the astonishing tenor sax of Eric Alexander on David Hazeltine's "The Classic Trio Meets Eric Alexander" to the agile clarinet of tenor sax titan Joe Lovano on Steve Kuhn's "Mostly Coltrane" but it was with piano music on both of those albums that the AK120 really strutted its stuff. Piano is notoriously difficult to reproduce with authentic realism and yet when playing these two well mastered 16/44 FLAC albums, the virtuosity of both David Hazeltine and Steve Kuhn stand out with the piano always crisp and crystalline in the highs, tight and without echo or rumble in the bass with natural sustained decay all of it near perfect. You can even hear the dampers being activated when the "sustain" pedal is released, you are there!

 

As far as the headphone amps I used, I tired it with the ALO RxMkII but didn't see much improvement in SQ other than a slight increase in volume and in fact, I preferred the sound directly out of the AK120. I also tried a Headstage Arrow 4G and the  JDS Objective2 Headphone Amp with similar results. The O2 was actually able to boost the volume more than the ALO Rx MkII and as it uses an alps potentiometer rather than the digital push button control that ALO uses (which raises the volume in stepped 3dB increments), it was easier to control the volume with the O2. That said, the O2 is a bit larger and therefore stays at home. For the money however, the O2 is a worthy amp to consider using with the AK and if you want to save a bit more, it is available in kit form. I initially bought the ALO amp for my JH-16 Pro and the two indeed have great synergy however, the AK120 sounds great with the JH-16's with no extra amplification needed at all and that is my out of the house set-up.

The amp I think pairs very well with both the AK120 and the HE-500 is the Lyr Headphone Amplifier which delivers a solid 4 watts per channel, enough to drive any can including the notoriously power hungry HiFiMan - HE-6 Headphones. BTW, a fantastic underrated tube for the Lyr is the Tungsram Hungary ECC85 which Schitt offers as a $50 upgrade for a matched pair instead of the GE 6BZ7 tubes. This is one of those tubes that you may enjoy so much you just won't want to switch to another to continue your tube rolling. Remember, you don't necessarily have to spend hundreds of dollars on rare, hard to find tubes to make your Lyr sound good!

I will repeat however that the AK120 sounded wonderful without any amplification when using most headphones  and depending upon the amp, may actually be  worse SQ-wise if you add one. The amp in the AK is very well designed and works well with the Wolfson DAC's, you could tell by listening to it that a lot of thought went into the design. It actually drives the HE-500 which in itself is quite a feat. 
 

Posted

Pros: Great sound quality, nice UI, battery life is ok.

Cons: Price is a bit expensive. Should be similar as the hm901. Also there are rooms for the firmware to be improved.

I have heard it couple times from my friend. It impressed me very well. In the next couple days I received my HM901 but it has too many problem and the battery was end up broken, so I send it back and ask for an exchange to the AK120.

The sound is very balance. Bass/mid/tre sounds just alright, not too much and not less. Soundstage not as wise as HM901 but still great, depends on which headphones you use. So far I feel that the 901 with minibox card sounds a little bit better than the AK120 but definitely not day and night difference and in fact the sound quality of them are very close. Really depend on the sound signature people prefer.

With low impedance IEM I have to say it drive perfectly for almost all of them except IE800 and k3003 IMO.

Now I mainly use it to drive my UM Miracle with the DHC fusion cable. It should be my end game portable DAP! : )

Posted

Pros: Sound quality, interface and battery life

Cons: Firmware 1.32 partially fixed MSD card issue

System - Windows 7 32 bit, USB 2.0
 
I think there is a serious issue with AK120's latest firmware when reading both micro sd card slots.
 
1) When i use two micro sd cards(Sandisk extreme 64GB) formatted with exFAT file system, AK120 is able to read and detect only one msd slot and not both. Wierd because when i play any song, it shows two msd card icons at top left corner but recognize only one.
 
2) Since it is trying to read both at the same time but could only scan songs from one, AK120 system hangs or slows down. when i use only single MSD card, it works fine.
 
I think firmware 1.32 partially fixed micro sd card detect issue, i have already raised this issue with Iriver...
 
Pls. advise...
 
Thanks,
Indra
Astell & Kern AK120
Description:

High-End, Dual-Mono portable system equipped with dual DACs independently dedicated to separate left/right audio channels

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