2013 Munich High End Show: Astell&Kern AK120 High-Resolution Portable Audio PLayer

I've been a long time fan of iriver's iHP-140 portable media player, which was one of the only players to have an optical digital output. I still use mine regularly. Unfortunately they've been long discontinued, and subsequent models from iriver (they've changed the capitol "R" of iRiver to lower case now) did not include the digital output. Subsequently, the portable audio geek world were lured over to iOS devices with the ability to extract digital audio from the 30-pin connector, and the portable Apples became the digital audio source of choice on the go.

Now the pendulum has begun to swing and, in addition to dealing with the new iOS Lightning cable, portable DAC makers are beginning to extract digits from Android devices using USB On-The-Go. But those devices tend to top out at 24bit/96kHz at best. Disregarding the contentious question of whether or not one can hear the difference, many audiophiles have paid around $25 per album for 24bit/192kHz downloads. What if they want to listen to them portably? Tough luck. You're only option has been to spend the time to convert the files to lower resolution formats---which can be a pretty time and hard drive space consuming task.

Enter the AK120: This device is capable of playing files up to 24bit/192kHz; supports AV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC and AIFF formats (not all formats support 24/192 playback); and has a Toslink optical digital output! However, it also has dual Wolfson WM8740 DAC chips—pretty much their top-of-the-line stereo DAC—and a 3 Ohm output impedance, which should play fairly well with the wild impedance swings of multi-balanced armature in-ear monitors. So, maybe an external DAC isn't even needed. The AK120 has 64Gig of internal memory storage, which is enough for about 10 hours of 24/192 music, but two micro SD slots let you expand to 192Gig for 30 hours of ultra high resolution listening.

Having spent some time with the AK120 now, I can say I have mixed feelings. The sound quality seems very good indeed, and the unit's look and feel are pure sex. The touch screen user interface is good, but seems to lack some features I'd like---though I'm pretty sure I haven't figured it all out yet...because the manuals and support are very poor in my opinion. If you're the kind of person that can drop $1300 on an impulse buy and have a collection of hi-rez music on your computer, sure, I'll recommend it. But if you're like me and would need to do a lot of research and thinking before dropping that kind of money on a portable rig, I'd wait for the full review here at InnerFidelity and research all the available alternatives.

Astell&Kern's AK120 website.

miceblue's picture

For a portable music player? People sure have a lot of money to burn...

As for myself I'll probably wait for the FiiO X3 or X5, which will cost 10 times (the X3's price at least) less with similar features. I seriously doubt paying 10 times the price for "better sound quality" will make a difference when I use the device for mobile listening, let alone the X3's < 0.5 ohm output impedance for headphones with a < 16 ohm impedance (i.e. Shure's new SE846).

Limp's picture

$25 for an album? 1300 for a portable player? Silly silly audiophilessmiley

Caesar56's picture

cheeky1300 bangs for a player with broken output impedance, rendering BA IEMs useless. Seems legit. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...3 Ohms is fine. This player plays well with CIEMs.

Willakan's picture

It is on the high side, surely, especially when you consider the price? IEMs like the UERMs have a nominal (and widely fluctuating) impedance of around 21 ohms: a FR plot shows variations of around 0.75dbFS when you're driving them from the O2 with its 0.5 ohm output impedance. Similar (albeit less extreme) story for the Westone 4.

If you increase the output impedance by a factor of six, you don't have to look too hard for IEMs that produce FR fluctuations that you can safely conclude might be audible. It's probably not going to be a big difference, but for something this expensive it's the sort of detail you'd expect the manufacturers to have well in hand.

It's not a completely fair comparison, but the friggin' Clip+ manages a 1 ohm output impedance (and takes microSD cards for that matter)!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I think 2 Ohms is where I draw the line. So three Ohms is one toke over the line...it's a fuzzy line, and the AK120 is close, but I'd like to see it under two.

HomeMadeJazz's picture

Seriously, $1300? If I had that much money to burn, I would rather build a decent desktop rig instead. I could upgrade from my Audio Technica M50s in headphones, and buy a good DAC/amp to match.

And I thought $200-$400 for pocket-sized iDevices was already pricey enough.

paul's picture

Let's see, 64 gig storage and capable of playing 24bit/192kHz.

O.K. ...  I know where to put two of the songs, but where does the rest of the album go? wink

KLJTech's picture

Most of my 24/192 downloads from HDtracks are about 2GB in size so 64GB could hold 30 or so albums...but how many are willing to spend $1300 on a portable player? Not me, thus far I've been just fine with my Sansa Clip Zip (about $70 to make it a 40GB player) and I've broken a couple of those. The Clip Zip won't play 24/192 audio but it will drive my IEM's just fine (much better with the FiiO E11 amp) and sounds great. 

miceblue's picture

Is there an advantage for 24/192 over 24/96? I usually download 24/96 files from HD Tracks and those albums are about ~600 MB - 1.5 GB in size. I have two 24/192 albums and they're 2.6 and 1.7 GB in size.

KLJTech's picture

I must confess that even on my main system (Maggie 1.7, Parasound A21, Creek OBH-22 Passive and Paraosund Zdac) I can't "REALLY" hear the diffrence between 92 and 192 sample rates...now I only buy the 24/96 recordings. At first I thought the 24/192 files sounded better but I figured out that it was just a matter of me relaxing more when listening to them knowing that was the best I could do as for a source material on that system. That was until one time that I found that I was listening to the 24/96 version of an album rather than the 24/192 one. Your miles may vary but I wouldn't worry about the differnces between the two. 

Limp's picture

I know this is a tired old tune, but considering how incredibly easy it is to do, why not test it yourself?

miceblue's picture

test it on my own, but I guess my question didn't turn out the way I intended it to.

Why would one buy 24/192 over 24/96 in the first place?


I just did a test using a lossless 24/192 file and a downsampled 16/44 256 kbps LAME MP3. Even with my "reference gear" (Audirvana Plus on Mac -> ODAC -> O2 -> K 701), the difference was quite minimal to me, sad to say. I was expecting at least a pretty distinguishable difference but the main difference was the soundstage/sense of space in the track and some sounds sounding "harder" than the 24/192 version (i.e. drums). Yes I know the ODAC can't play 192 kHz sampled tracks, but I figured there's no difference in sound between 192 and 96, and is the reason why NwAvGuy designed the ODAC as so.

This was using Hiromi's Move album if you're wondering.


From this, having a 24/192 file on a mobile portable media player makes absolutely no sense to me if I can barely tell a difference between it and an "iTunes-quality" file at home with my own gear in a quiet environment.

Limp's picture

Quite honestly I've never really understood the reasoning behind listening to hi-rez files. I have little hearing above 18kHz, let alone at 40kHz+. And if you do a spectral analysis of these files you see that there's little else than low level noise in this region anyways.

miceblue's picture

that HD tracks by themself are a total waste of money. As demonstrated, I can barely tell the difference between HD 24/96 and "iTunes-quality" 16/44 256 kbps VBR LAME MP3.

On the other hand, HD tracks tend to be mastered differently, so that in itself is worth the price difference in my opinion, depending on the album and how much of a difference there is of course. However, I always buy HD tracks from HDTracks.com only when they have a sale because paying $18-20 for an HD album is pretty steep in my opinion. I regret purchasing some of Michael Jackson's HD tracks since I don't like the way they sound...

Audioaddict's picture

The new Fiio X3 offering many of the same features with a good amp and same DAC chip with 5 lossless files supported in 24/192 all well for only 200$ it looks like another good DAP 1300$ is mind boggling. 

Jim Tavegia's picture

I would suggest a Tascam DR-2d which is a nice 2496 recorder than can double as a player with ultra cheap SDHC cards.     All for about $150.00  US

I know it won't play all the formats, but still....

The Pianist's picture

I saw famous Korean artists promote this product with utter technical BS jargon. Being a Korean myself, it's utterly ridiculous. Anyways, why would anybody purchase 24/192 over 24/96 recordings.

Output impedance is a bit on the high side.

Even the Clip+ is pretty much audibly transparent.... I am sure the DX50 or the X3 will sound just as good if not better than this ludicrously priced player.

Mike Birman's picture

I think that the quality of the music determines the efficacy of hi-res recordings. 24/192 for a Hip-Hop recording, for example, which is already highly compressed, will provide little in the way of audible improvement. The same hi-res recording of a a Mahler symphony contains an entirely different audible test of the format. And yes, for some ears there is a difference.

shp_met's picture

Thanks for your review,ak120 is a very good player and i prefer spend 10 times more than fiio instead of FW problems and cheap quality materials.

jmerkoward's picture

Seriously, $1300? If I had that much money to burn, I would rather build a decent desktop rig instead. I could upgrade from my Audio Technica M50s in headphones, and buy a good DAC/amp to match.