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On the beach: Astell&Kern AK120 review

  • “I don’t like the summertime cause everyone goes to the beach, I don’t understand the beach. Lets go to the beach, Oh, I love the summertime, it’s so warm finally, lets go to the beach, oooooh… I don’t get it. It’s where dirt meets water, alright? I’ve got a bathtub and an imagination; I’m staying indoors this summer. That way I can listen to music that I like. Maybe I’m just jealous, man. Everyone at the beach is perfect, you know: tanned skin, white teeth. I’ve got white skin, tanned teeth.” – Bill Hicks

    In closing my review of the C-Ear X custom IEMs I noted how audiophiles strive to push better sound quality into as much of their daily to and fro as possible. I’m one such striver. I come down on BOTH sides of the headphones vs speakers “divide”. In fact, I don’t see a divide at all. My headphone listening (outside of the house) is an extrapolation of the satisfaction I get from my loudspeaker-centred rig (inside the house).

    The Astell&Kern AK120 and C-Ear X pairing is super portable. It travels with me each time I leave home. It has transformed my gym music listening experience and whilst I’m not the biggest fan of lazing away a day at the beach, being able to easily take killer sound quality onto the sand makes it a far more enjoyable experience.


    I’ve previously written about the Astell&Kern AK100 ($649) player as well as how its bigger, pricier brother, the AK120 (AU$1349), fares in USB DAC mode against a selection of rivals.

    Now it’s time to consider why one might choose the AK120 over the AK100. Putting aside iRiver’s ongoing narrowing of functional differences between the two models (via firmware updates), there are some compelling reasons to pony up the additional seven large for the AK120:

    Lower output impedance. 3 ohms. This is the business end of the AK120’s offensive. Bringing C-Ear X custom IEM and AK120 together brought no evidence of the closed in, airless presentation that I heard from the AK100’s 22 ohm output impedance. You don’t have to think so hard about headphone matching with the AK120.


    2x the storage (in theory). A must for anyone keen on that memory-hungry hi-res and DSD material. The AK120 enters the fray with double the internal storage of its baby bro: 64Gb. Secreted behind a sliding door on the base of the unit are slots for a pair of 64Gb microSD cards, allowing you to bring up the total storage space to a very healthy 192Gb. A fully tricked out AK100’s storage peaks at 96Gb……at least, that’s how the A&K website tells it.  Srajan Ebaen from 6Moons says, “I’ve got two 64GB cards in my AK100 so total capacity with the internal 32GB is 160GB”.

    2x the DACs. The AK120 runs with twin Wolflson 8740 DACs for dual-mono decoding. I wasn’t able to split the AK120 and AK100 on sound quality alone. Maybe a shade better separation, a smidgen more detail on the bigger model but I wouldn’t swear on it.

    ‘Better’ physicality. The volume pot on the AK120 is protected by an aluminium extrusion, advantageous for those who give their portable head-fi rig a healthy dose of rough and tumble. This isn’t present on the AK100. The AK120 also ships with an attractive ‘gentleman’s’ leather-ette carry case. However, this nicety can be added to the AK100 for $45.

    DSD support. Not enticing for everyone. The number of available titles means that DSD will remain the icing on a sponge made of PCM for some time yet. Purists should note that the AK120 only plays DSD by first converting the DSD bitstream to PCM.

    Whilst I dug listening to SACD rips of Depeche Mode, the first niggle soon arrived: DSD playback on the AK120 isn’t (yet) gapless. Moreover, the gaps between songs aren’t the minor clicks of, say, the MOG iOS playback engine; they’re more jarring, split-second slices of silence. I say “not yet” as Astell&Kern have an solid track record in improving their players’ functionality and performance via frequent firmware updates.


    Talking of which, previously an AK120-only feature, Pro-EQ has been added to the AK100. The pre-existing Custom EQ settings panel allows you to draw in your own EQ preferences – and save them. Pro-EQ is a pre-determined, fixed setting, apparently designed by an “expert”. Engaging it with the AK120 + C-Ear X combo upped the recording ambience (aka ‘air’) and dialled back some of the deeper detail wood-carve (aka ‘etch’). I preferred this softer, gentler presentation.

    Rivals. The keenest competition isn’t necessarily coming from other standalone players: iBasso DX-100, Colorfly Pocket HiFi C3/C4, Fiio X3 or HiFiMan HM901, each of which appear to be close-but-no-cigar solutions, particularly when it comes to gapless playback and/or hi-res support. No gapless, no dice.


    Your existing phone’s music software likely doesn’t suffer from gaps during playback. The iPhone’s standard ‘music’ app and the third party FLACplayer both play seamlessly. Could these devices be brought up to an audiophile standard?

    Piggy-backing units from CEntrance (HiFi-M8) and Cypher Labs (Theorem 720) are both DAC/amp units to which you strap-and-wire your Android/iOS phone or iPod. (Or Astell&Kern player).

    I’ve heard the CEntrance unit on two, all-too-brief occasions. Not enough to determine whether or not it bests a stock Astell&Kern AK120 but given Michael Goodman’s river-deep engineering smarts, it should be able to drive most headphones with ease. The HiFi-M8 offers a power advantage over iRiver’s standalone solutions but digital audio extraction from an iPhone looks hamstrung when compared to the AK120.

    This presents the question: do you integrate your iPhone/iPod with an external brick or keep your audio player away from wheelchair assistance, Astell&Kern style? Michael Mercer is rightly proud of his former employer’s achievements – his emotional rave on the HiFi-M8 says it all.


    I still have questions pertaining to portability:

    Aren’t HiFiMan HE-6 and Aude’ze LCD-2/3 primarily intended for indoor use?
    Is wearing Aude’ze or HiFiMan whilst out high street shopping a realistic proposition?

    An idealist might fire back with an indignant affirmative. Pragmatists might tumble in a different direction, acknowledging the need to counterbalance sound quality with portability. That’s me – I’m a pragmatist.

    Is the one-two bundle meant to fit in your pocket?
    If so, does it fit easily?
    What size of pocket is required?
    If not in the pocket, where does the iDevice+ampliDAC go when you’re a (wo)man about town?
    Do you have to hold it in your hand?


    I dig the simplicity of a music player in the front pocket and a phone in the backpack. Phone calls? The AK120 and iPhone can be conjoined via Bluetooth with the AK120 pausing music playback when a call comes in.

    What would happen in this scenario with the HiFi-M8 or Theorem 720, to which your phone is strapped?
    Do you fiddle with unstrapping it, take the call, and then re-strap it?
    Or do you hold the whole kit and kaboodle to your ear?
    Won’t that make you look a bit silly?
    Will you need a brainscan afterwards? (I jest).


    My headphile time currently breaks down into three setups:

    1) Lounge room armchair: AURALiC Vega + Burson HA-160 w/ AKG-K702
    2) Office/hotels: Resonessence Labs Concero HP or iPad + HRT microStreamer w/ KEF M500
    3) Gym, beach, around town: Astell&Kern AK120 w/ C-Ear X IEM

    I’d contend that the CEntrance and Cypher Labs units pitch into home/office territory. Pushing higher standards of audio quality onto the beach demands pocketable portability.


    The Astell&Kern AK120 can go where others can’t. Sonically speaking it wipes the floor with the recently discontinued iPod, runs with nearly 200Gb of solid state memory, doubles as an excellent USB DAC and plays all PCM bit/sample-rates (gaplessly) as well as DSD. It’s currently the definitive choice for anyone looking to take audiophile sound quality EVERYWHERE they go.

    One final thought: You can take your existing AK120 to the next level with modifications from Vinnie Rossi at Red Wine Audio. The RWAK120 has an output impedance of less than 1 ohm. The RWAK120-S/B swaps out the WM8740 DACs for the ‘premium’ WM8741 model but removes volume attenuation altogether; this is strictly for those looking to feed an existing headphone amplifier.

    Further Information: Astell&Kern / Addicted To Audio

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Some friends and I listened to the ak100 and ak120 back to back at addicted to audio in Melbourne – we all thought the 120 was superior sonically – personally I thought it improved over the 100 in transparency, tone and sound stage width – my listening was done with ciem’s.

    2. To answer:
      What would happen in this scenario with the HiFi-M8 or Theorem 720, to which your phone is strapped?
      Do you fiddle with unstrapping it, take the call, and then re-strap it?
      Or do you hold the whole kit and kaboodle to your ear?

      You put the phone on speaker, leave it on your desk and speak. You will hear the caller’s voice on your earphone. The music will mute as soon as the call comes in. The M8 is fantastic, needs a little time to break in. Recommend AudioForge’s Equalizer app for your iPhone music player. Enjoy.

      • “You put the phone on speaker, leave it on your desk and speak” <--- no desk out in the street. 😉 Hence my assertion that a HiFi-M8 package isn't well suited to outdoor listening.

    3. John,
      Because we need to carry both a mobile phone and iDevice, the differences between separating them or not (I assume) is a personal choice, like which sweatshirt one wears. I’d rather the package is tied together for three reasons: I have little patience with long conversations on the phone to begin with – most calls are pointless and worthless and only serves the caller’s interests; 2. my Jeep has bluetooth which switches the mobile to car speaker automatically and disconnects the call after it’s done, and 3. tied together makes a neat package which I slip into a Maxpedition pouch or coat pocket in winter.

      In either case sound quality and features make the decision for moi.

      The A&K is a very “polished” and attractive device, very thin, but arguably lacks the abilities of the M8 that can even drive Audeze cans.

      • Personal choice yes, but WHERE you’re listening is also a determining factor. Do/would you use your Aude’ze and HiFi-M8 out in the street? At the gym? Beach? If you choose the conjoined approach portability isn’t as good as an AK120. With the HiFi-M8 you trade up on power (agreed) and down on portability.

    4. Mmmm. Rule 1: When reviewing, don’t smugly trash the alternatives; you’re not a Vic Park used car salesman. An iPod or iPhone 5 make excellent portable sources of music with ALAC files and good after-market IEM’s. Plenty of other people have said so and their on-line credibility is every bit as good as yours.
      Rule 2: Don’t rubbish other peoples opinions; trashing Ken Rockwell in the AK100 review.
      Save the smirking and the knowing winks for your audiosnob buddies and leave them out of your ‘reviews’.
      Thanks. Have a nice day.

      • I’ll confess to never having heard of ‘Vic Park used car’ salesmen. However,…

        1) I’m not ‘trashing’ the iPhone, I’m saying the AK120/AK100 are both plainly better-sounding. The iPhone is indeed a good source but the Astell&Kern players are sonically superior.
        2) Ken Rockwell claims (I quote) “Audiophile DACs and other fluff usually degrades the sound more than just using the self-powered iPhone 5 directly as a source.” I called bollocks on such a sweeping generalisation by stating that a HiFi-M8-charged iPhone sounds superior to the iDevice running solo. No degradation – just enhancement.

    5. I hate to call you on it John :)))
      The M8 sounds FAR superior to an iPhone on its own – by miles – and the M8 sounds even better with an iPod Classic, the earlier models.
      The reason for that is the iPhones and iPods usually have internet access (wifi) and a radio that is transmitting and receiving ALL OF THE TIME, sending RF into the portable DAC. This is where the A&K can be superior to the others. It is where the iPod Classic is superior.
      Solid state memory however is superior to HDs, but given the alternatives, I stick with the iPod Classic.

      We should also be blunt about the state of the art…
      To many people all DACs sound alike. Close enough, one to the other, not to make a significant difference. I hear significant differences myself between DACs, but the art is moving ahead so fast that I won’t be surprised that some very cheap DACs will sound great – the GEEK for example. A far greater improvement than going from one DAC to another in the portable realm, is using your portable DAC as a desktop with Audivarna or Fidelia (especially Fidelia’s FHX headphone processor which is excellent if you don’t overdo it.)
      The limitation with portable DACs is the user’s inability to use resampling software. We are tied to iTunes and like-kind. In other words, software that is not up to par vis-a-vis the hardware.
      One cannot access the best sound – not even close – without using iZotope or equivalent software. The differences between portable and desktop DACs with the resampling is night and day — and today’s best portable DACs can do service for both uses.

      BTW, the A&K is a complete and refined product that does it all. Maybe not up to M8 standards, but close enough to make its features and looks compelling. That great leather case for example and having a display, all in one unit makes a lot of sense. I however use the M8 mostly on the desktop, so the best sound I can get is most important. Lastly, and it is important for readers to know it: One can make a shitty DAC sound as good or better than a great DAC using resampling software – this shuold not be a secret. Ditto for EIMs.

      • Call me on it? Pretty sure I’ve stated on two separate occasions that the HiFIM8 sounds markedly better than a stock iPhone! I just don’t think the likes of the Theroem/Sony/CEntrance have the go-anywhere portability of the all-in-one A&Ks.

        Good tip on resampling software.

    6. “But up against lossless 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks coming out of an iPhone 5 with the same headphones, the AK100 sounds just a *little* better.” Mmmmm…
      Jamie Lendino. PC Mag.

        • Quite, John. But it should say a ‘LOT’ better otherwise what on earth is the point?
          Don’t get me wrong, I want these devices to be as wonderful as they potentially could be (I’m waiting on feedback on the new Sony NW – ZX1) but if Honneger’s Fourth Symphony sounds just great in ALAC, straight of my Classic and through SE425’s then I will hesitate to invest in another PMP.
          Sure, the strings can be a little edgy at times but they can also sound a little edgy from the ‘pit’ whilst standing on stage as I found during the recent WA Opera production of ‘La Boheme’.
          I sooo want a player to blow my socks off!

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