South Korea’s Astell&Kern are perhaps best known for their handheld digital audio players, especially the top-of-the-line AK240, which has seen those who can afford one go gaga for its unusual form, luxury feel and proper righteous sound quality. At US$2495, the AK240 swims at the deep-pocket end of the DAP pool.
Astell&Kern’s Californian-headquartered team have also been teasing similarly luxurious loudspeakers and amplification at audio shows for at least two years but at this year’s CES they finally formally launched their AK500N ‘network audio player’.
Las Vegas showtime was insufficient to get a proper handle on all that the AK500N is capable of so I journeyed to Astell&Kern’s Australian distributor in Melbourne for some proper hands-on playtime.
US$12000? For a music server? Sounds like a lot of money. And it is. But the Astell&Kern AK500N ‘network audio player’ is a good deal more than digital audio host and playback device.
Let’s delve a little deeper (than the press release).
Observe the understated, futuristic form factor. The AK500N is a cube with a flip-up 7” touchscreen whose interface feels every bit like an Android tablet. That’s no coincidence – as per Astell&Kern’s second generation DAPs, the AK500N runs a heavily customised version of the Google OS on its own dedicated SSD. There’s no access to the Google Play Store (as per the Sony ZX-1/2) but a Tidal lossless streaming app is apparently “in the works”.
If you don’t wanna shift from your listening position, you’ll be pleased to learn that dedicated AK500N remote control apps will soon exist for both Android and iOS.
A 1TB internal solid-state drive (user upgradeable to 4TB) accommodates music library storage onto which music can be dragged/dropped over the network – via WiFi (b/g/n) or Ethernet – or ripped using the front-loading optical drive.
Music stored on external media can be direct connected via one of two USB sockets or the microSD slot. Streaming over the LAN from a NAS or other DLNA-compatible server is also possible.
Those wanting to supply their own DAC are greeted by digital outputs that include optical, BNC, coaxial and AES/EBU. The rear-facing Type B USB port is for “connecting to a computer” but no word on whether this lets the AK500N play as USB DAC.
However, an identical compliment of digital inputs points to our first surprise: the AK500N houses internal D/A conversion. A pair of Cirrus Logic CS4398 chips – as found in the AK240 – handles up to PCM 24bit/192kHz and DSD64/128 (natively!), outputting via a balanced circuit to XLR socketry. Single-ended output comes via a single pair of RCAs.
Complicating the picture at first glance, there are two sets of XLR and RCAs: one for fixed output (to a pre-amplifier) or variable output (to a power amplifier) for which the large, side-mounted volume wheel provides attenuation in the digital domain.
Because of the Cirrus Logic CS4398’s ability to natively handle DSD, the Astell&Kern engineers have coded switchable PCM-to-DSD conversion into the software engine. Real-time PCM up-sampling to 32bit/384kHz can also be activated from within the settings panel.
Headphone listeners aren’t excluded either. Single-ended 3.5mm and 6.3mm as well as balanced 2.5mm outputs can be found on the side of the unit, immediately adjacent to (one of) the aforementioned USB sockets and the microSD card slot.
Lastly comes the real kicker: fancy power cables need not apply. Not only is there no IEC socket found on the rear of the unit, an internal battery ensures power line detritus is kept out of the picture. Upon the press of play, the AK500N disconnects from the mains and sources its go juice from the battery for up to seven hours’ runtime in a single hit. Recharge comes from the wall via a small, light 12V SMPS.
During a brief listening session, I gave airtime to Talk Talk’s “Happiness Is Easy” and found the sound through Luxman integrated powering Dynaudio C1 loudspeakers most agreeable. I could tell you it sounds awesome but so what? Without comparison to a similar product – or combination of products – this single data point drifts on an ocean of zero context. Especiallly with its battery power supply, the Astell&Kern AK500N is one of a kind.
Rolling your own isn’t easy. A Chord Hugo TT (£2995/US$4700) will get serious D/A conversion and (superior?) headphone amplification off the grid. Alternatively, we might look to Vinnie Rossi’s LIO. However, with a high-end music server like the Antipodes Audio DV (AU$5000, 1TB), battery power isn’t (yet) possible. A half-decent power cord (like the LessLoss DFPC) will run you a few hundred bucks. Maybe a third-party battery back – like the now discontinued Red Wine Audio Black Lightning (US$?) – appended to an AURALiC Aries streamer (US$1599) could strike a happy compromise?
Whichever way you or I skin the self-compiled system conundrum, we’re likely to find ourselves closing in on the AK500N’s US$12000 asking price but without the benefits of one box to rule ‘em all.