By now I expect the vast majority of the audio world are at the very least aware of Astell & Kern’s presence in the portable audio world. You have to hand it to AK for their ability to develop such a prolific brand name in what has been a relatively short space of time and it certainly seemed like a smart move in reinventing them selves from iRiver.
Many would consider them a brand that no longer needs an introduction.
This gives the opportunity to get stuck in right away. Let’s tackle this £3000 portable music player head on shall we?!?!
Specification seems like a good place to kick off with the 380, keeping everything nice and grounded and objective…
I will first mention the four golden pins on the bottom of the unit which is a true line out for use with the AK380 optional amp module (and other future modules such as the docking station). Yes finally we get a true line out! The amp and 380 fit together beautifully connecting with the USB port and the screw which is on the rear of the 380. I don’t have this unit so I won’t go into any more detail but as it is there I thought I better tell you what it is!
Supported audio Formats are well; ‘extensive’ with PCM decoding capable up to 32 bit/384kHz whilst Native DSD Playback is also available. You can play WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE (Normal, High, Fast), AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, just like the 240. Now while AK have maintained the dual DAC they have swapped out the now considered ‘old’ CS4398 chips for the more up to date AKM AK4490’s. That is the third change of DAC brands for these guys so they are certainly testing the entire market.
The display is a 4” WVGA (480 x 800) Touch Screen; I will talk more about this later on, but I think for everybody’s benefit we should skip through the rest of the specs nice and quickly.
Output Level is 2.2Vrms unbalanced and 2.3Vrms balanced (Condition No Load). Inputs are USB Micro-B input which is for charging, data transfer and to use this as a USB DAC/amp. Outputs are 3.5mm single ended/optical out whilst there is also the 2.5mm balanced out that we have come to expect form AK devices now. WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 complete the wireless connectivity options, Wi-Fi updates and streaming are both possible.
Dimensions of the latest AK flagship are larger than on any of the previous AK DAP’s but smaller than the Shanling M3 we reviewed recently. The measurements are 3.14” (79.8 mm) x 4.42” (112.4 mm) x 0.68” (17.5 mm) WxHxD and it weighs in at 218g. It’s a really nice weight in the hand to be honest, it feels solid, and of course the weight is mainly due to the chassis which is made from Aircraft Grade Duralumin just like the 240 although they look very different; I will talk about this later too.
In terms of audio specifications the frequency response is 20 Hz-20 kHz +/- 0.053dB which is really linear but I would expect nothing less at this price. Signal to Noise Ratio unbalanced is 116dB at 1 kHz and 117dB @ 1 kHz balanced while crosstalk measures at 130dB at 1 kHz while unbalanced and 135dB at 1 kHz when balanced. Output impedance is still better when running balanced; it comes in at 1 Ohm as opposed to 2 Ohm when single ended.
Memory is the same as the 240 too as we have 256GB on board and a stated support of up to 128gb micro SD however, the good man Alex An himself has confirmed the support of the latest 200GB micro SD making the available memory approximately 456 GB, not shabby at all! The battery is a 3,400mAh 3.7V Li-Polymer Battery, slightly bigger than the one equipped in the AK240.
Done. Let’s move to the more interesting stuff shall we?
The Whole Package
When you spend this much money on anything in the portable/desktop audio domain you expect it to be special, a luxurious experience from packaging to product and then through to aftercare service.
Do you get that with the AK380? Well I have absolutely no idea what the packaging is like, so apologise as unfortunately I can’t tell you whether it lives up to the high standards A&K have inevitably set for themselves, or if it really is a special experience. Shall I tell you what the leather case is like? I can’t do that either. All I received was a small white cardboard box just big enough for the un-cased AK380 and a charging lead.
So there we go, sorry about that one folks!
Aesthetics, Ergonomics and Build
This is an area they absolutely had to succeed, for anybody charging £3000 for a DAP poor ergonomics are inexcusable. I will kick off with the aesthetics though! Whilst this is a very ‘personal preference’ area, I think it looks great. The design is truly a work of art, I mean look! Its overall form isn’t even rectangular as the left side is at a very slightly obtuse angle from the base as opposed to the normal 90 degrees. The even more angular design of the 380 over the 240 will appeal to some but not all. I’m in favour though, I think the designers have been let loose and they have delivered. The fact they have retained the carbon fibre rear inset is also up my street, I am a bit of a sucker for a nice bit of woven carbon, as long as it’s done properly that is, not like the carbon box from the JH Roxanne!
My only two criticisms of the design visually are 1, the colour and 2, the black strip on the back. I hugely prefer the lighter gun metal colour of the 240 and I think the 380 in the same colour would look truly outstanding. Maybe they will do some special additions in different colours/materials?! Oh, of course they will this is Astell & Kern after all! The carbon inset doesn’t completely cover the back of the product, there is an ugly black strip at the top which I can’t help but think is just laziness really, I can’t understand why the screw couldn’t be incorporated into a full carbon back?!
Other than this though, it is undoubtedly a very special looking DAP.
The build quality is second to none as you would expect, every single edge is perfectly machined and chamfered beautifully with a great high quality feel to the whole metal chassis. No part of this product can give me an excuse to moan about the build and that’s impressive. I commend you AK for the build!
On to ergonomics then and the more angular nature on a larger handset has the potential to be a little problematic… I find the bottom right corner to dig into my hand a little; it’s become a little annoying actually! This doesn’t happen on the 240 purely because it is smaller and sits in my hand better, I think it will for most people too. I would imagine a way around this discomfort would be to have the case on the 380, however I obviously can’t confirm this as I don’t have one. Other than this, I can’t find fault with the ergonomics, the volume wheel is positioned well, as are the operating buttons on the left side.
The home button that was on the glass on the 240 is now a very effective pressure sensitive dot on the chassis itself, a far better place for it, it just makes a world of difference to how much of the screen is usable as well as making the product look much better in my opinion, a large black strip at the bottom of the screen never looks good…
UI and Screen
Most people are pretty familiar with the AK loosely android based OS, it is brilliant really. It’s fast, responsive, very intuitive and just plain enjoyable to use. The EQ is very cool, 0.1dB increments mean that it is very specific and very adaptable to get to your ideal sound. I have never and probably will never be an ‘EQer’ but I understand there are people that swear by them, and I think they will find this a very useful tool especially with the graphics and clarity of processes to back it up. The only thing I’m unsure of about the EQ is the orientation of it. Everybody looks at frequency graphs horizontally don’t they? Well I thought so, but A&K has gone with the vertical orientation which is more difficult to get your head round in my opinion. The best way they could do it in my book would be to have it horizontally orientated, and when you selected a frequency it zoomed in on that frequency for small adjustments and then zoomed out again to give you the whole shape of your EQ curve, I think that would be great. Check the pictures to see what they have done.
The screen is bigger and better, simple as that. It’s not perfect though, but I will get to that in a minute. First of all, the size means everything is easier to read and allows you to really appreciate the album art on the screen. It offers great detail and colours are easier on the eye, more natural than they are on the 240. Side by side the colour palate of the 380 looks colder, less vibrant than the 240 but realistically this is because the contrast is too high on the 240. The screen on the 380 is miles ahead of the 240, it almost warrants comparison to a top quality smartphone screen rather than other DAP’s! That’s saying something. BUT, I have an issue with it on start-up and shut down. The black behind the ‘A’ is more of a grey than black, and there is a very odd white light under the bottom of the screen giving a halo type white light onto the bottom of the black screen, this shouldn’t happen really! The only problem with an otherwise outstanding screen.
A Natrual Reproduction
Upon hearing about the 380 I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Was it going to be a tweaked, improved 240 type sound signature? Would A&K change the sound signature completely with the dual AKM chips and better amp section? I really wasn’t sure, but I did have one concern… ‘Lots’ of people didn’t like the 240; they thought it was too thin and analytical with not enough bass or decay. I am one of the crowd that love the 240, I really like the signature and it is currently my reference DAP. I am well aware it has flaws though with the amp section being one of them. When I want to listen to music with one of my CIEM’s I always use it amped by my Leckerton UHA760 unless I’m on the go. I am also aware of why people didn’t like it and I understand that, which brings me on to what I was concerned about with the SQ of the 380. I didn’t want A&K to produce a really warm DAP that lost all of the technical capabilities that made me love the 240.
I’m pleased to report that they haven’t done this, although it is a step away from the 240 in terms of signature.
The 380 is a player that I think will appeal to a wider audience because it is more ‘natural’ sounding than the 240. What I mean by this is that it is slightly warmer and softer overall, more musical and a little more engaging sound too. A very important contributor to this is decay, it is slower than the super quick decay of the 240, especially in the bass and this will be attractive to a lot of listeners. While this does make the bass sound more natural, it’s less punchy than on the 240. Another thing I must stress is that there are one or two ways of listening to the 380 which really don’t show it favourably. The first of which is listening at lower volume levels, it just sounds dull and a little disconnected I honestly don’t enjoy the 380 at low listening levels normal to high though is much better. The second is that the 2.5mm balanced TRRS output of the 380 isn’t quite the same as the 3.5mm TRS in most pairings I have tried, SE seems more neutral and more exciting. When A/Bing I find balanced to sound a touch less engaging and I find it to sound a little unexciting in comparison to the 3.5mm with IEM’s. I initially thought this would be very dependent on IEM choice as some will be affected more by the differences in output impedance, however the differences, while small, are consistent through the Vision Ears VE6, Jomo 6, UERM and Lime Ears LE3 amongst some others, all of these have varied impedance plots. It is small, but I consistently find myself leaving IEM’s in SE configuration. The balanced does have its trump card though! It is quieter with uber-sensitive phones like the VE6.
with the Jomo6
Let me get to the points where the 380 is a clear step ahead of the 240. Soundstage is the most noticeably difference to my ears with such huge space being occupied by sound. Width, height, depth you name it, the 380 has more than the 240 but still with fantastic precision and accuracy. It’s very impressive that it remains sounding like a naturally large stage and not an artificially expanded one. Another area the 380 is ahead is timbre and tone. The sound is just so natural, nothing is forced or cut short, it just makes instruments sound real, more real than I have ever heard from a DAP actually.
I know I have spoken a touch about bass already but just to reiterate, the 380 bass is warmer and with slower decay than 240 which enhances the foundations of the music. The 380 also appears to reproduce sub bass more accurately too, again with a slower decay but great control, texture and detail. Rhythmically the 380 performs well, flowing through passages with ease and conviction however I find the speed of the 240 makes it sound the more agile of the two, a little more dynamic as well!
Smooth and sweet. Vocals benefit from the aforementioned naturalness, silky smoothness and a touch of warmth. Detail remains top dollar, as you would expect, but lacking a touch of airiness and clarity I crave from the 240, many will prefer the 380 for the very same reasons! Its full bodied and really well rounded vocals combined with the technical capabilities and sweetness that will make people fall head-over-heels for the 380.
I personally prefer a touch more treble presence however the 380 is never harsh of its own accord and it is again a very natural state of affairs. Extension is good, if a little soft for my liking but I think generally people will really enjoy the top end of the 380, there are bags of detail and it’s a really comfortable listen with all the information present but no fatigue or sense of disconnection from the rest of the spectrum. It’s really coherent. Yes, I am up front in saying my preference would be a little more air and sparkle but I completely appreciate what the 380 offers.
You may have noticed I have only mentioned IEM’s over the course of this review and that’s because that is what you should use the 380 for, well this and very efficient headphones. It isn’t the DAP that means you do away with portable amps, this is still very much an IEM driving portable performer. I actually think the amp section is still the weakest part of the 380, the area with the most room for improvement might be a better way of putting it. I think the shortfalls are predominantly down to the amp itself. So yes, this wont be doing justice with your planar’s or high impedance cans like the HD800. It also will still benefit marginally in dynamics when adding a portable amp such as the Vorzuge Pure or ALO RX.
The Bad Bits
OK so we have to point out the areas that we think aren’t quite up to scratch. First of all, while the player is very natural sounding in timbre and overall presentation, it’s simply not dynamic enough to excite me I prefer a more dynamic, aggressive performance. Another thing is that while the soundstage is huge, I don’t think it conveys space as well as the 240. The slower decay is also not something I prefer; I’m fonder of a quicker more dynamic sound.
Sonic Preference is Huge…
It’s an odd one, I absolutely appreciate the qualities of the AK380, I really do, but it’s £3000 and as it isn’t exactly my perfect signature I can’t justify that price tag, especially when if you want the whole 380 package you have to buy the cradle, CD ripper and AMP section separately. At this price the amp section if so badly needed to should perhaps be included, meaning that you put the backpack on, make it a little bigger and potentially (can’t confirm as haven’t tested) drive your full range of headphones.
The 380 does a lot of things preferably to the 240 and vice versa while talking sonically and while we are solely talking sonically, the 380 is not worth nearing on £1000 more than the 240 for me. They are different and for that reason will appeal to different people. Some will prefer the sonic qualities of each of them.
I think the main benefit of the 380 which makes it stand out from any DAP that has gone before is simply the quality of the unit as a whole. The size, the screen quality the memory, design and the sound obviously are an unmatched package at the moment. Let me put my point a different way, in the current states I would take the 380 over the 240 in a heartbeat BUT if the 240 sound was in the 380 package I would find the decision much more difficult as they both have sonic qualities I love.
Concluding the AK380
There is no getting round the fact the AK380 is £3000 plus the extra components should you want them but there will always be expensive things in this industry, that’s just how it goes. It’s a very natural sounding player, that’s what I will emphasise about the 380. Great timbre, tone and a really luxurious tinge sonically. If you are after a fast analytical sound this isn’t for you though, it’s not that player. I would love a little more dynamism just to liven up the sound a bit that is my only real complaint.
I have to be critical; nothing is going to be perfect for everyone. The AK380 is a great sounding player in a different direction to its predecessor and I respect A&K for this. The unit looks beautiful, awesome UI, the screen is great, as is the size, and lots of the things people were commenting as improvements from the 240 have been improved or rectified.
Is it the ultimate? Not quite for me, but this sound is great and for lots of people this will be a gorgeous sounding unit giving them everything they want. But the price tag… well take that as you will.