Astell & Kern AK380 Music Player Review Page 2

It was with Apple Lossless files ripped from CDs that the Sennheiser really took off. Distinctive voices like Linda Thompson’s edgy soprano (“Never the Bride”) and Marianne Faithfull’s leathery alto (“Strange Weather”) were tightly and realistically imaged, with correct timbre and no additives. Even a hushed low-level vocal like Matthias Goerne’s performance of “Litanei,” from Schubert’s Wanderers Nachtlied, was beautifully focused and convincingly imaged. The closemiking of acoustic guitar in Jan Akkerman’s “Passion” placed me in front of the guitar, not inside it, a subtle distinction that few headphone/DAC combinations properly observe. In the final movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the harpsichord wasn’t lost amid the strings—as I said, no “veil” here.

High-resolution audio raised the ante. Madeleine Peyroux’s vocal in her cover of “Gentle on My Mind” (44.1-kHz/24-bit) was holographically imaged. In Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days” (96/24), the snarling multitracked guitars didn’t obscure the softer cymbal hits. The high-frequency sounds of chiming percussion in “Ben’s Farm in Vermont” (192/24), from David Chesky’s The Zephyrtine: A Ballet Story, were more open and fully resolved with the Sennheiser than with the Oppo, which softened them, or the Sony, which etched them. While the Sennheiser couldn’t provide full bass extension for the opening pedal in the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (176.4/24), the A&K had enough low-end control to firm up Aston Barrett’s line in Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Satisfy My Soul” (96/24) and enough midbass definition to capture Roger Glover’s distinctive growl in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” (96/24).

Of the three headphones used, the Sennheiser had the lowest sensitivity, but the AK380 ran it with plenty of headroom and no audible sign of strain, whatever the dynamic challenge.

The Oppo Effect
The Oppo PM-2 headphone was more colorful than the Sennheiser in some selections but somewhat more opaque in others. In the MP3 lossy material, it smoothed over the grit in the Ramones and endowed both the Dvořák symphony and Deodato’s cover of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with a pleasing warmth. Oppo’s best MP3 moment was in the squirming, smirking multitracked guitars of John Cale’s cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso.” They were a complex metal treat. I’d never heard this track sounding so un-MP3.

In CD-quality lossless territory, the Oppo gauzed the vocals in both the Linda Thompson track and her ex-husband Richard Thompson’s Acoustic Classics version of “When the Spell Is Broken.” While not unpleasant, the coloration in the Oppo was obvious compared with the Sennheiser, and the ever-truthful AK380 did nothing to counteract it. On the other hand, the Oppo/AK380 combo held together the disparate elements of Teddy Thompson’s “Over and Over,” something that has eluded many combinations of headphones and headphone amps.

In the high-resolution tracks, the AK380’s feeding of the Oppo produced inspired results. Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” (96/24) was utterly natural and lifelike, the acoustic guitar full of tone color, the voice not too breathy. Peyroux sounded more open and detailed than with any speakers I’ve heard. Donald Fagen’s “Maxine” (48/24) was the ultimate in opulence, with perfect timbre, distinct layering, and a satin sheen. In Joni Mitchell’s performance of “You’re My Thrill” (96/24), from her orchestral album Both Sides Now, the Oppo wrapped the smoky voice in Technicolor strings. Nataly Dawn’s “How I Knew Her” (88.2/24) was dynamically powerful, but also texturally nuanced, from the first entrance of the delicate vocal and gently dissonant acoustic guitar to the rave-up of orchestra and electric guitar. In the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” (176.4/24), the A&K’s bass response was firm enough to keep the often-submerged string bass audible, and the kick drum in the drum solo really swung, with excellent weight and rhythmically related decay. So often I’ve heard headphones and amps render Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (192/24), as recorded by William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as a gray, dry, lifeless sketch. But this time, it was colorful, vibrant, and full of life.

The Sony Acid Test
The Sony MDR-V6 headphone has a strong and somewhat exaggerated treble that casts a merciless spotlight on the top end of whatever feeds it. The AK380 made no attempt to tone down the Sony but did make it fairly refined when content made refinement possible. Let’s lump the MP3 tracks together and just say they were less than comfortable listening experiences. In the CD-quality lossless tracks, the Sony/AK380 combo brought out the breathing in the Schubert song, the ambience of the church in which Faithfull was recorded, Akkerman’s guitar-fretting squeaks, and Richard Thompson’s pick-on-string crackle. The exaggeration of these effects was, if not what the artists intended, at least interesting.

In high-resolution territory, the Sony excelled whenever the recordings did. Drake’s voice and guitar emerged lighter-textured but just as refined as with the other headphones. The same was true with the complex layering of the Fagen track. Peyroux’s voice was just as limpid, though the strings dried out. “An American in Paris”—so extraordinarily colorful with the Oppo—was more schematic but still lively. The Mitchell and Brubeck selections actually sounded a lot as they did with the other headphones.

Is the AK380 a superb-sounding and remarkably versatile music player? Absolutely. Does the average consumer—even the high-end consumer—need to pay $3,499 for a 32-bit music player? If you want a one-word answer, it’s no. The AK380 is just heavier artillery than anyone but a studio pro would need (and I’d rather let the pros speak for themselves). If you want the cool network features and native DSD, the AK240—though still expensive—is a better buy at a thousand bucks less. And if you can do without most of those features, the sweet spot in Astell & Kern’s line remains the now increasingly venerable AK100, at well under a thousand bucks. But once you’ve heard any player in the A&K stable, you’ll probably want to own one. The only question is which one.

Astell & Kern/iriver
(949) 336-4540

Warrior24_7's picture

"Can you download music in a 32-bit format? No"

"Swiping down from the top of the screen reveals various controls, including a volume slider, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, your choice of parametric or graphic EQ, DAC, and other control icons. Tap the nut icon to access the full settings menu. While a learning curve is to be expected with a product this complex, the settings menu should have been accessible from the home screen."

Pretty standard stuff there, just written in a way to make it sound special. But you know what they say about a fool and his money...