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8/10 Sound. Love / Hate Relationship. Frustrating User Experience.

A Review On: Astell & Kern AK120

Astell & Kern AK120

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Price paid: $1,300.00
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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 :(


Thanks so much for creating a helpful review! So often all the reviews one sees in the audio rags are filled with glowing superlatives. It's every bit as helpful to know what is wrong with a piece of gear as what is right. I had read before that there were "some interface weaknesses" with this model, but you tell it like it is. Saves me from the expense.
 Thank you for your thorough reveiw. Yes, whether it's an audio-rag or Head-Fi, superlative reviews sell products and keep food on the table for those involved. Your review was thoughtful and, I'm sure, very accurate. Never buy version 1.0 of anything. What surprises me here is that the Astell & Kern AK120 is version 2.0. There are too many issues that need fixing. So frustrating. I thought that we finally had a true iPod replacement. 
I agree the sound is stunning but the user interface is very sluggish.  I attribute this the processor used.  I have a large music collection on mine and switching between menus can take a long while of "Hang TIme" - I also have a Fiio X5 and the X5 is much faster
bought it early on---very user un-friendly--would not buy it again nor anything else A&K--have the new Sony Walkman II--much better
the 120 is one step above junk and expensive
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