A&norma SR25 Digital Audio Player Review

Typically I try to avoid reviewing particularly similar products so close together, however in this case I’m making an exception because I think the opportunity for a comparison of sorts is too good to pass up. Astell&Kern just today announced the release of their A&norma SR25 unit, which I’ve had the opportunity to play with for a few weeks now. As you may recall, I recently reviewed the SP2000 from A&K’s A&ultima line. My conclusion was that although the unit is nice, it ultimately wasn’t for me, though high-end DAP users looking for a cost-no-object player would find a very capable unit.

In contrast to the SP2000 which is large, heavy and rather the opposite of what I think of when the word ‘portable’ is mentioned, the SR25 is light, small and fits easily into my fairly slim hands. It brought me back for a moment to the days when I could reach across smartphone screens with just one hand - those really were the good ‘old days. In fact, the SR25 isn’t just manageably small, it’s actually what I would call small.

Build and Form Factor
In use I love the form factor, though when using the search functions, the onscreen keyboard was very tiny. I’d consider myself pretty far above average when it comes to fine motor skills and dexterity, and I found the keyboard just barely navigable, so if you have large fingers or touchscreen-averse paws this might present a bit of a challenge. A&K I think has realized this and the OS seems to integrate more adjustable buttons and tap-only functionality into the device navigation, a floating ‘back’ button for example. In general I think these touches work quite well and it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay for having the unit be so darn small and cute. This is the first audiophile DAP I’ve used that will fit into a half-sized pocket with ease.

Build-wise it’s quite similar to A&K’s modern lineup. The SP2000 has a more obviously metallic casing made from a heavy steel, whereas the SR25 has more of a matte, smoother feel to it. Although the SP2000 looks a bit more luxurious, I prefer the lower-key look and feel of the SR25. It also seems to have fewer gaps and overall looks a bit sleeker upon very close inspection, though both units are built to a high standard.

The screen slant on the SR25 which looks striking but quite unusual in pictures gave me pause for a moment, but once I got my hands on the unit my previous doubts were dispelled. Like most conventional units the SP2000 is a simple rectangle with the screen and body aligned, however the hand, or at least my hands, aren’t perfectly square. When held in front of your face, it’s most comfortable to have the elbow slightly bent to the side rather than parallel to the body. When you pick up the SP2000, or even say a typical smartphone, holding it completely straight requires a bit of contortion of the wrist. With the SR25, because the screen is tilted, you don’t need to contort your wrist to get the screen to appear straight.

I’m ambidextrous, so I always test gear with both hands, and usually ‘cleverly’ designed gear like this is right-hand friendly only, however I actually found that this design suits both hands, because the right hand naturally rests the thumb on the volume control, which tends to ‘pull’ the unit in towards you and to the right, thus aligning the screen. My left hand pointer finger naturally rested on the volume control when held however, which tended to ‘push’ the slanted screen away a bit and thus also align it. Both of these were accomplished without the need for wrist or elbow contortion, and the addition of the previously mentioned floating back button and other usability tweaks, as well as the easy motion of the volume knob meant I was about equally happy using the SR25 with either hand. Huge thumbs up to A&K’s design team on this one!

Moving on to other usability factors, things are pretty much what you’ll find on other A&K players, pause/play, forward and back buttons on the left side, a lock/open button on top, volume wheel on the right side, USB-C port and MicroSD card slot on the bottom for expanded storage. Obviously it doesn’t have the mighty 512GB internal storage of the SP2000 but for me, streaming makes up most of my on-the-go-listening and 64GB plus an expansion card is more than enough to download plenty of CD-quality music. I don’t much see the need for 24-bit, but I tend to avoid listening to music while walking around or on trains, so the most hyper-mobile purists who simply must have 24-bit hard-copy files may wish to invest in a sizable SD card.

One final word on usability, the SR25 touts having a significantly longer battery life, listing a battery life of 21 hours, more than twice that of most of A&K’s lineup of players which average around 10 hours of specified playback time. In my review time I had to charge the SP2000 constantly, probably a dozen or more times, as I found the battery life fell even a bit short of the listed time when you add in screen-tapping and messing with the settings. Not so with the SP25, which came through the review period needing only a handful of charges. Another big plus in my mind for something truly portable. But enough about usability, let’s move on to the exciting bit - the sound!

Sound Impressions
The SR25 sounds to my ears a bit brighter than the SP2000, though certainly not what I’d call bright. It’s got a generally balanced signature with tight bass, clear sweet mids with just a touch of darkness and a generally clear treble. The SP2000 has better technical prowess and certainly a lot more power and lower noise, however there’s a slight darkness to the treble and generally just a super smooth presentation that I actually find a bit less exciting. For me, a great portable can stray from a balanced presentation if it aids in perceptual sound quality, usually a little extra upper-midrange and bass for an equal-loudness-curve type presentation can help in situations where there is a lot of background noise. While the dynamic slam and noise aren’t at the same level of the SP2000, I feel that the sound signature of the SR25 suits this kind of listening, as it’s still smooth but has a little extra treble and upper-midrange level that helps it cut through both background noise and the perennially popular dark sound signature that many IEMs seem to lean towards.

It did not have quite enough juice to really excellently drive some of the hungrier planar magnetics in my collection to the same heights as the SP2000, and bass even post-eq was a bit lackluster on some especially hungry headphones. However, the treble and midrange remained articulate and highly detailed even when faced with punishingly low impedance loads or low efficiency ratings. Headphones like the Mr. Speakers Aeon Closed, HiFiMan or T50rp modded headphones all seemed as if they could use just a little more ‘go juice’ than the SR25 had on tap. For most IEMs or efficient headphones however there was plenty on tap.

Conclusions
My final thoughts are very positive on the SR25. While the SP2000 is a wonderful unit, I simply am not looking for a flagship, no-holds-barred DAP, though if you are it’s well worth checking out. The SR25 by contrast is about at the limits of what I’d consider spending on a really nice DAP, and it ticks all the boxes I look for in a great portable design - it’s a single box, has great battery life, comes in a reasonable form factor with easy to use controls and it has stellar battery life. This is definitely my favorite DAP or portable period, simply because it feels premium and delivers where it counts on portability. Definitely worth a listen if you’re in the market for a high-end DAP without an unobtanium pricetag.

Price: $699 USD

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