Pros: Unbelievable sound coming from a self-contained unit that is starting to intrude into the multi-component space in the portable audio world
Cons: Price, battery life, proprietary balanced connector standard
Before getting into the AK240, I'll need to thank Amos/Currawong for bringing this back from the SoCal 2014 show, and also a very big thanks to iRiver USA for being so generous on letting Team Tokyo have a loaner of this product. Where we can test in the comfort of our environment rather than standing in a shop with limited time for testing.
Is one needed for this DAP really? It's gained more attention before it was released than when it's available!! This is iRiver/A&K's latest addition to their line but it's also their flagship. The AK240 specs can be found below so there's no necessity to regurgitate in this review :-
Below was the AK240 launch in Japan. It shows how the design of the AK240 was conceived. Sadly I don't understand enough Japanese to understand what was said in the presentation, nor do I understand enough about design concepts.
When the AK240 was first released I thought the design looked awkward and many others thought so too. However having one in my hands right now, with it sitting side-by-side with some of the other competitor DAPs, there's something attractive and appealing about it's very space-age design looks. Even walking around in the streets and having a cup of coffee, passer bys do take a glance at it wondering what this James Bond-looking gadget is. It's not that I'm ashamed of looking geeky with my multi-stack DAC/Amp hanging off my iPad but it's also nice to have something that's modern looking that actually looks trendy to the non-audiophiles but yet produce audiophile level sound quality.
The positive side-effect of this is that then the general audio listeners will also start to take an interest in good SQ as the products not only appeal their sonic palates but to match their image lifestyles too. If there's any opportunity to raise awareness to the general public of how good music could sound to their ears, I'd be happy to support such an opportunity - even if it means designing something visually striking and easy to use around a audio component that delivers great sound quality.
Ergonomically though how well does it fit in one's hands? At least in mine, averaged size palm, it actually fits in quite well. When I first saw the AK240 on the forums, I wondered why have the smaller screen with the bigger base? One may as well make it a rectangular box design and put in a larger LCD. However when I have this in the palm of my hand (and I'm left handed), I can actually wrap my fingers and rest on the slanted bevel below the volume knob which provides me a more secure yet comfortable grip, which is a nice feeling to have when holding a $2500 item.
The AK240 also feels solidly built and robust - I feel that it's something classy in my hands. The volume dials are light with distinctive clicks signifying a 0.5 jump increments (of 0 -> 75). The power, back, pause/play, forward buttons are also distinctive and don't feel loose. The 3.5mm jack holds in quite firmly but not excessively.
Aside from the external design and ergonomics, I thought I'd put in another picture from the Japanese slide presentation I attended. This has is a little more about the internal architecture of the DAP and how it uses the 2xCS4398 DACs for each channel :-
The AK240 is loaded with features which has made it a rather versatile DAP. It supports optical out, balanced out, functions as a DAC/Amp from a PC (not from Android), has WiFi for wireless upgrades, and online streaming, Bluetooth 4.0 support, and if 256GB internal storage is not enough, a microSD card slot with up to (the current) 128GB microSD can be further added.
I won't dwell too much on the WiFi MQS Streaming (hires) nor native DSD support as that's been discussed in the forums (although I will comment on it's SQ later) but I'd like to drop in a word or two about another service which hasn't been talked about much, mainly because the service is currently quite limited. The AK240 also supports online purchasing and downloading of hires quality music via the same MQS Streaming but through the Internet with some online music stores iRiver/A&K have partnerships with. Currently this service is available in Korea and (as I've been told) Germany. It's my understanding iRiver Japan is trying to provide this service in Japan too and since they had eOnkyo talk in their AK240 press release, I can only hope that iRiver Japan has a successful negotiation with them to provide hires and DSD downloading to the AK240 too.
Another feature which seems to be in the works is using the AK240 as a DSD DAC from the PC. Currently on firmware 1.09, it hasn't been very stable for me (the Audirvana Plus on the Mac side resets if I change volume on the software player, but it seems to work if I just let it play through without trying to change anything) but hopefully future firmwares will fix this and all the format supported on the DAP will also be supported as a DAC/Amp.
When iRiver/A&K released the AK100, AK120, and AK100Mk2, they were (to me at least) revolutionary that they could make an audiophile level sound in a neat package that's aesthetically trendy and easy to use. But the SQ was still a little hit 'n miss that made me feel the makers were still experimenting a little (admittedly less so with the AK120 which was quite a solid product on its own). But the fact that they could be modified and improved internally meant to me that that the makers still hadn't nailed it. As such with the AK240, I think the makers has finally come up with something where (if we forget about the price), is something that sonically is it.
Personally I was skeptical myself of how "good" could a self-contained unit that fits in the palm of my hand could be, and my experiences with competing DAPs in the past had been minor incremental sonic improvements over each other that the reign of a DAP usually isn't very long lasting. The AK240, however was a jaw dropping easily noticeable marked improvement over it's predecessors. Not only that, but also given stiff competition to its peers.
The main primary sonic features I've noticed with the AK240 is how smooth and fluid it's musical presentation is. As I listen to quite a bit of older 50's & 60's west coast jazz, some vocal jazz with mainly few supporting acoustic instruments, the AK240 renders each instrument with precision, clarity and detail. Vocals are also very clear, involving, and smooth. However despite the precise distinction of each of these components, the AK240 pulls them all together that they all work in harmony together that it feels like I am listening to one single musical piece. Should I choose to focus on a particular instrument, I can hear it with ease with copious amount of detail but should I sit down and relax I can take it all in without any odd component standing out over the others.
I think this is helped by the large spacious setting the AK240 is able to create. The soundstage is wide as the imaging is deep. Placement of instruments and vocals on the stage are easily identified. But again, each component uses that space well. There are no pockets of 'vacuum' where the presentation sounds odd.
I find the AK240 to really start trickling into the multi stack portable DAC/Amp component space. Except for maybe the HM-901, I find comparing the AK240 to other DAPs to be an easy challenge and it has been more intriguing to compare it with the separate portable DAC/Amp products instead. Although there are some high end portable DAC/Amps that still have an edge over the AK240, the AK240 still puts up a good fight.
[Added: 7th Apr '14] The AK240 is not forgiving to poor recordings. In some older recordings and mastering, I can hear more background noise and imperfections during the recordings. Any skepticism I had with the CS4398 as a DAC from my older Marantz DV9500 SACD player are changing and I understand more that it's the implementation around the DAC that is just as relevant as the components used.
AK240 & NW-ZX1
Sadly my favourite NW-ZX1 was easily toppled by the AK240. Again we should, for the moment, forget about the price of the products. The AK240 to my ears sound smoother, greater depth, and that fluid presentation makes my NW-ZX1 sound somewhat less refined by comparison. That's not to say the NW-ZX1 is a terrible product, as I opted it over the AK120 which I subsequently sold. However the AK240 is a noticeable step up over both the NW-ZX1 & AK120.
Why would I choose the AK240: Greater storage, better SQ, greater flexibility with balanced output
Why would I choose the NW-ZX1: Great value for money, UI more dummy proof, open Android platform. Won't cry so much if I lose this since it's cheaper than the AK240.
AK240 & HM-901
This is one where it does get a little more interesting. The AK240 sounds more coherent than the HM-901 where I find the HM-901's separation to be a little too distinctively separate left & right (especially vocals). The HM-901 does have a deeper and greater sub-bass impact, with a mid-bass bloom. As such the HM-901 does sound somewhat more warm and mature, whilst the AK240 seems to focus more on the upper mids to treble space. I do find the trebles in the AK240 a little more compressed compared to the HM-901, but not offensively so. Overall FR though, the AK240 comes back though by having a greater sense of space in width and depth whilst the HM-901 sounds more intimate by comparison. When I have these two DAPs side-by-side, the HM-901 feels like the more older mature CEO of a large business, whilst the AK240 more the slick & smooth yet precise banker.
Why would I choose the AK240: Faster and more logical UI, more standard charging interfaces with its microUSB, longer battery life (just), good for HipHop, R&B
Why would I choose the HM-901: Cheaper than the AK240, more mature sound for the slow easy going, Jazz, vocals, golden oldies, 80's pop 'n rock. Can drive those harder-to-drive cans, modular amp options. A more standard(??) 3.5mm TRRS socket for balanced headphones.
AK240 & the CLAS -dB/Duet
The AK240 comes close to the Cypherlabs component stack and puts up a good fight against it. The -dB/Duet is able to match the staging width and imaging depth but also has the bass depth similar to the HM-901 in comparison to the AK240. The Duet is also has a more powerful amp section than the AK240.
Why would I choose the AK240: Compact, greater storage than any iOS or Android device with the -dB/Duet stack
Why would I choose the -dB/Duet: I'll sitting in some cafe for an extended period of time with my obnoxious large cans. It'll charge my iPhone whilst I'm listening to it. A more common socket with the Kobiconn for balanced headphones.
AK240 & the VentureCraft DD OPA627SM 12V LE/Apex Glacier
The AK240 still provides easier instrument separation and a mid-row from stage presentation, whilst the VentureCraft DD/Apex Glacier has a more front row stage presentation. (Typical of OPA627's??) There's more bass warmth to the VentureCraft DD/Apex Glacier but this stack also seems to have smeared details when compared side-by-side to the AK240.
Why would I choose the AK240: Compact, greater storage than any iOS device with the DD/Apex Glacier stack (note the DD is an iOS-only device), sonically more detailed and precise. I have a balanced headphone option if I want.
Why would I choose the DD/Apex Glacier: cheaper than the AK240, more configurable that I could switch amps.
As I mentioned earlier, before this product was in my hands and all I saw were pictures, I was a skeptic. Whilst I thought that it'll be a good product, I didn't think it'll be a great product. The price will deter most from even trying the AK240, and maybe the design may too. However if one were to put those pre-conceptions aside, and just get to touch, feel and hear the AK240, hopefully they'll see its inner beauty. Whether that is worth the asking price, that is up to each individual.
For me at least. I believe in bridging the gap between the image of geeky audiophiles with their geeky looking products with the more mainstream audio enthusiasts and where in the past these audio enthusiasts get turned off by audio products that may sound good but look horribly designed, products like the AK-series show that one could get good sound yet still not look awkward. Whilst it's true that the price of the AK240 may still make it prohibitive to the general consumer, it's closer within the reach of some of the audio enthusiasts and enlighten them a little more on what audiophiles are raving about - without looking too awkward.
Where the AK240 excels, I feel, is that as a complete self-contained package - sonics, capacity, usage, functionality, visual and feel aesthetics - the AK240 is a winner. It sits in one's pocket unobtrusively, it's basic functions are easily accessible with external buttons, it can function as a DAC/Amp with a notebook, it supports balanced headphones out, it supports line out, it has copious amount of storage, it can stream high quality music wirelessly, it even supports online download in countries where the service is available, and it doesn't sacrifice quality in doing all these things.