Sonny Trigg – Before we get down to the impressions I really have to give some credit to Astell & Kern for starting off our trip to Munich in great style. You see we arrived at the show on Thursday with only an hour to spare but as things started to get quiet, we noticed the epic AK booth had come to life. All their product demos had been exchanged for exotic food and the JH Audio demo area was now a full fledged bar serving drinks. It turned out they were throwing a private media party! We was whisked in by Computers Unlimited Steph who handles AK in the UK (nice little rhyme) and got to meet some people of note, such as Norbert Lehmann who showed us some of the more “expensive” variations of his new headphone gallery idea and also to see Alex An (AKs marketing director) for what was the first time in almost two years. Lets first talk about the brand new AK380!
In the middle of AK’s display you had every portable model incranation they have ever done!
This was the crazy AK Bike, shaped in the companies logo.
Josh Coleby – So this is a really interesting product and obviously any product following the AK240 would need to be just that. The standalone 380 has quite a few changes and “upgrades” both cosmetic and internal. The chassis is even more angular as you can see in pictures and the screen is now a much more user friendly 4 inches. Another cool feature is the home button being removed from the screen and being placed on the metal chassis itself which allows the increase in screen size. The overall size of the unit is bigger too as I’m sure you will have noticed from the pictures it still feels nice in the hand though and the volume wheel has been brought down a touch and it really does feel in the right place. The volume steps are no longer 0.5 intervals from 0-75 either, we are 1.0 interval up to 150 which I do prefer for some unknown reason. The “outdated” Cirrus Logic CS4398 chips are replaced with two AKM AK4490 chips for the DA conversion, what do I think of these new chips? It’s all about the implementation of the chips, not just the chips themselves.
The tiny dot you can see on the bottom part of the chassis is the new home button.
On the left of the USB port is the 4 pole balanced line out.
The gold circle on the top right allows for the amp module to screw on.
Sonny Trigg – Now while the following impressions are of course limited by the usual show factors, we was lucky enough for Alex to take us to one side, have a seat and play with a unit that was not tied down as well as try the optional modules so we did get a slightly better environment to listen. We did have a fair amount of time with it as well, all with our own CIEMs and headphones.
Josh Coleby – Ok let’s talk about sound. I like many others felt the analogue section had room for improvement with a lack of bass weight (not necessarily quantity) and single ended output impedance that was too high at 2 Ohms. We also had no true line out which was less than ideal for those of us using a separate amp (not that it stopped us using one). Good news first of all and that is that I don’t think IEM users will feel they need an amp like they did with the 240. Bass did have more impact and it was without doubt a more complete sounding standalone player. It’s still got the familiar 240 sound though, great clarity, refinement, detail and more of a clinical sound than a warm luscious dynamic one. Having listened for a short amount of time what I can say is that I clearly enjoyed the 380 over the stock 240. It sounded like a really accurate and even more refined 240 with the subtle flaws brought up to the high standards you expects at what is unarguably a very high price. The single ended output still doesn’t agree with output impedance (it is once again 2 ohms) sensitive multi BA IEM’s such as the Vision Ears VE6 and UERM. The balanced output is fantastic though (1 ohms) and I suggest using it with earphones if possible. I will say that in a quick AB between my 240 to Leckerton UHA760 rig and the 380 in balanced, I wasn’t rushing to get my wallet out for a 380, there were aspects that were more detailed and more refined but I didn’t feel I could have justified the cost.
With the amp module.
The thing is though, the 380 has a few more tricks up its sleeve such as the additional amp attachment which has a true line level input from the 380 via a 4 pin balanced connection located on the bottom of the device, next to the USB port. This gives the ability to drive much more demanding cans like the ZMF Blackwoods for example. These things are a pain in the arse to drive and with the AK380s back pack like amp, the sound was stunning, and that was before you even use the balanced output of the amp. This was a much more successful combo than with the 240 without any questions asked. I love the additional amp section.Also worth noting is because it also connects via the USB, you still use the volume wheel on the AK380, its like a big power amp in a traditional HiFi. I also love the new cradle which has XLR outputs built in, of course from the line out. Brilliant. I also love the CD ripper that connects directly to the 380, what a fantastic idea.
The new modules make the 380 so much more than a DAP now which is truly a step forward in the market and I commend AK for this. The standalone product is technically very good as far as I can tell after a short listen, a very nice sounding unit but I reckon it will not be to everyone’s sound preference that’s for sure.
The cradles XLR outputs.
Sonny Trigg – As if releasing this wasn’t enough, they were also showing off the new all in one, T1, which is a stand, with 6 speakers, and then a built in touchscreen so you can control the speakers. It obviously as its own digital and analogue stages built in as well. You can stick an SD card in for instant play or it as a range of inputs such as USB, I didn’t get to hear it but it is a nice, more consumer level idea that still does all things Astell & Kern stand for such as high res audio. Naturally it can also be controlled by your existing AK devices, to the best of my knowledge.
This was also the big release for the AK Jr, an overlooked model by some due to the AK380 that even we didnt get time to try. Using Wolfson WM8740 DACs like the original AK100, this allows a much more affordable entry to teh AK lineup.
Lastly finishing off what has become a huge report you had their listening room. The rig was started off by the AK500N network player (£9000) and DAC that we have come across before at the Headroom show and then was paired with the matching amp section AK500A (which puts out 100WPC) and the AK500P for a very seductive and angular power supply. It drove the Bower and Wilkins 802s and they did seem like they may have been a tough job.
The AK500 stack keep the stylish angular look of the flagship DAPs!
I think it is fair to summarise, Astell & Kern hit Munich hard with their display and left an obvious impression from their range of gear.