Astell&Kern KANN Portable Media Player

Astell&Kern KANN ($999)
It's been roughly a year since my last DAP roundup, and—as predicted—the category continues to grow. The life cycle on these things tends to be more like what you'd experience in the smartphone space as opposed to traditional audiophile gear. That means new and/or refreshed designs on a consistent basis, with existing models being phased out more quickly.

While there's certainly nothing wrong with using your existing player for as long as possible (Tyll still loves his AK240 after nearly 4 years), the Wall of Fame needs to reflect current choices. To that end, I've been sampling DAPs off and on for a while now, with an eye towards WoF worthiness—I no longer bother writing about "also-ran" models unless I find some aspect particularly compelling.

And I'd say "compelling" is indeed the right word for Astell&Kern's unique KANN player ($999). It launched last year at roughly the same time as their top-of-the-line SP1000 ($3,499). I have yet to experience the SP1000, but since I found myself underwhelmed by the similarly-priced former-flagship AK380, I figured the KANN was a better place to start.

Word on the street is that iRiver, parent company of the Astell&Kern brand, tapped a whole different design team to work on the KANN. I haven't been able to confirm this, but it certainly fits with the device being so different from prior AK designs. Is that a good thing? Let's find out.

External Design
Right off the bat, it's obvious KANN deviates from Astell&Kern tradition. Where former models were sleek and relatively thin, KANN boldly embraces its chunky stature. The premise? Users are willing to sacrifice a svelte design in exchange for improved battery life and more features. It's an interesting gamble which I feel pays off, though it might very well be too unwieldy for some users.

KANN sports a 4" 800x480 touchscreen display of reasonable quality. As a TFT panel, it doesn't look quite as rich as the AMOLED screen found on the older (and similarly priced) AK100 II, but it gets the job done just fine. I'm accustomed to my Samsung Galaxy S8 with its vastly superior display, and I still find KANN perfectly acceptable in this regard. After all, this is an audio-oriented device, and I won't be using it for watching movies.

The volume wheel—a source of unique design flourish on most higher-end DAPs these days—is a bit different than past AK models. It integrates into the device body at just the right position for my right-hand thumb. Pictures are worth a thousand words in this case, so I'll just say I find this solution very natural to use.

While other AK devices feature transport controls on the side panel, KANN does things a bit differently by moving them to the lower front panel, just below the display. I get the feeling users will either love or hate this choice. For me, it works out just fine, though I do feel the plastic buttons stand out against the aluminum used everywhere else in the design. Still, it's an intuitive layout which, in conjunction with the touchscreen and volume wheel, makes the whole thing very approachable—even for first time users.

Internal Design
KANN is based around an AKM AK4490 32-bit DAC chip. This is a relatively new DAC (released in mid 2014) which Astell&Kern has utilized in several prior designs. Remember, the chip itself is only one small factor among many in determining overall sound, so don't read too much into this aspect.

As is their tradition, Astell&Kern doesn't give all that many details about the design of their amplifier section. While competitors like Fiio and Cayin routinely map out full block diagrams complete with specific opamp choices, Astell&Kern prefers keeping those details under wraps. What we do know is that KANN features separate output stages for single-ended and balanced headphone jacks. It's got the lowest output impedance of any AK player (1.3 ohms for balanced out, half that for SE) and can swing up to 7Vrms in balanced mode. It also sports true line-out capability via dedicated jacks—something prior AK designs lacked. I'll discuss the relevance of this feature in the "connectivity" section shortly.

KANN plays PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, and native DSD up to DSD256. Many of the prior AK models converted DSD to PCM prior to playback, which was a sticking point for some users. Personally I think the sonic impact was overstated in those cases, but nonetheless I'm happy to have native support whenever I can get it.

User Interface
If you've ever used an Astell&Kern player, you'll feel right at home with the KANN. It's their usual highly-customized Android experience which doesn't really feel all that much like Android. At times that's a good thing; AK players feel unique and are quite easy to use. Other times the experience suffers as a result of this choice; you won't find an App store here, and customization is far more limited than it otherwise would be.

It's worth noting that AK has continually improved their UI over the years. Take playlist creation/management as one example. The original AK120 was pretty terrible in this regard. Then, despite significant improvements, I still found playlisting rather obnoxious back when the AK240 first launched. It became more usable (if still slightly limiting) thanks to an update when the AK120 II was here for review. At some point between then and now it became quite good overall—I now find it superior to a lot of other players on the market, and have very little to complain about. Astell&Kern definitely listens to user feedback and does what they can to elevate the user experience.

One area which has improved but still isn't where I'd like it to be is streaming integration. Back in 2015 when I covered the AK100 II and AK120 II, the only available on-board streaming services did not work in the USA. Now we get Tidal, which does work here, though it's a somewhat limited version. Users can only stream music via active WiFi connection—there's no option to download music for offline listening. Seeing as how this is a portable device intended to be used on the go, this very much limits the utility of offering Tidal in the first place.

I know Tidal seems to bother some people (I blame Jay-Z). But until we get a lossless alternative from Spotify, or more support for Deezer's lossless tier, Tidal gets the job done. I use it on a regular basis, as does Tyll, as do many other folks I know. So it's frustrating to see it implemented in such a limited manner.

AstellKern_KANN_Photo_TopPanel

Connectivity
Due to its large size, the KANN is able to offer more in this area than any previous AK DAP. As mentioned prior, we not only get the standard 3.5mm plus balanced 2.5mm headphone outs, but also a corresponding pair of line-out jacks. The line-level outputs can be set to a variety of voltages starting at .7V and topping out at a full 2V. This means maximum compatibility with a variety of devices, from portable gear to tradition full-sized components.

AstellKern_KANN_Photo_BottomPanel

The large size also allows for use of a full-size SD card in addition to a separate slot for microSD. Combined with the 64GB internal memory, KANN has potential for quite a bit of storage. Regular SD cards tend to get larger capacities than their micro counterparts, and pricing is usually lower for the same amount of storage, so this is a useful feature indeed.

Another interesting offering is the dual micro-USB ports. A type-C is used for charging and data transfer, while a separate micro-USB of the more traditional type-B variety is used for audio. This port can be used for sending digital audio out to an external DAC, and also for transforming KANN into a dedicated USB DAC. Worth noting: An optical output, available on many prior AK DAPs through the 3.5mm "combo" jack, is no longer offered this time around.

What is still here from other models is WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. WiFi is the typical 802.11 b/g/n at 2.4GHz—none of the Astell&Kern devices use the faster AC standard, and that's not really a problem as far as I can tell. If Tidal allowed offline downloads, it would be a bottleneck when loading up hundreds of albums, but as it stands I don't see much impact.

The company offers an app called AK Connect for Android and iOS devices. This app is nice if you intend to use the KANN as a sort of music server via UPnP—browse your music from the couch, including files stored on a NAS, without having to ever touch the DAP itself. It's reasonably well done but clearly not on the same level as software from dedicated server-makers like Aurender or Auralic. I see some poor reviews for both versions on their respective app stores, but I had no trouble during my testing, and I think this is a useful way to expand functionality of the device.

The KANN gets aptX HD Bluetooth connectivity, which streams at higher bitrates (576 kbps) than the original aptX (352 kbps). Lacking a properly equipped wireless headphone, I was unable to test this newer codec, but aptX and even "basic" Bluetooth worked just fine. For me, Bluetooth is not something I really care about in this sort of device. It's still nice to know AK went with the latest and theoretically greatest for those who might use it.

KANN doesn't have dedicated accessories like many prior AK models did. The only real add-on available is the CD Ripper, which connects via USB and allows one to archive their CD collection. Users can choose WAV or FLAC format, and KANN will automatically tag ripped albums using the Gracenote database. The idea is to make the experience simple for folks who aren't all that computer savvy. Sounds great in theory, but I haven't tried it myself.

Battery
6,200mAh. Let that sink in for a moment. Most Astell&Kern devices (and models from competitors too) use batteries with roughly half that capacity. This is the primary reason KANN has such bulk, so it had better be worth it.

The company states "max capacity" is 15 hours of CD quality FLAC playback at 50% volume, screen off, doing what they call "normal playback". I assume that means no EQ or other sonic tweaks, and no Bluetooth headphones. I can't say I've ever managed quite that much play time—12 to 13 hours is generally the result I've seen using their suggested method. For reference, the AK120 II that I covered a while back achieved roughly 7 or 8 hours under these same circumstances.

I find myself a bit conflicted about these results. On the one hand, doubling battery capacity doesn't quite double the available playback time. I would have loved to see a true 15 or 16 hours here considering the sacrifice of size and weight. Then again, with most other devices unable to crack double digits, KANN still has a significant lead on nearly every competing DAP. This gives the freedom to use Bluetooth or WiFi, use the balanced output, and play hi-res PCM or even DSD while still maintaining a reasonable amount of play time. The AK120 II would go down to 5 or 6 hours under that type of load, which was kind of a hassle. It's conceivable that using sensitive IEMs at very low volume settings, or switching to 320k mp3 files, might extend battery life up to or even beyond the 15 hour mark.

KANN has quick-charge capabilities which can give as much as 6 hours of playback time from a 1 hour charge. The downside is you'll have to provide your own charger—AK only gives a USB type-C cable in their bundle, but no charger (quick or otherwise). Most of us already own (several?) chargers for our phones so I actually see this as a smart move.

The fly in the ointment is Sony's brilliant ZX2 player which achieves more than double what KANN can muster, despite its thinner frame. No, the Sony doesn't have the same amplification horsepower as KANN, but it's hard to argue with 30+ hours of battery life. Unfortunately Sony discontinued the ZX2 and I haven't had time to try out their latest players (which also promise superb battery performance).

Let's have a listen....

COMPANY INFO
iRiver Inc.
39 Peters Canyon Rd
Irvine, CA 92606
support.inc@iriver.com
+1-949-336-4540/41
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COMMENTS
purk's picture

In addition to the Kann, please check out the ZX300 & 1Z/A. I discover that the 1Z's output to be loud and satisfy enough in term of sound quality for even my Senn HD-800. The ZX300 is 80-85% sound wise compared to my 1Z, but it does a good enough job driving the HD800 as well while offering a near perfect package for portable use as well as price. The ZX300 can also be used for digital transport outputting hi-rez PCMs as well as DSD digital out to capable DACs. I am super impressed by the ZX300's ability to nearly do it all.

John Grandberg's picture
I really have been quite impressed with the recent players from Sony. Unfortunately, as a massive corporation that makes a wide variety of gear, they can be hard to deal with for obtaining review loaners. Companies like Sennheiser, HiFiMAN, Audeze, PS Audio etc are much, MUCH better in this regard. But I'll keep at it and see what I can come up with. I've been curious about the ZX300 in particular so I appreciate your feedback on that.
purk's picture

Hi John,

Thanks for your reply. You will really like the ZX300 I believe. Sony has recently beefed up their S-Master amplifier module starting from the 1A/1Z following by the ZX300 so it has enough power to drive harder to drive phones using its balanced output. The HD800 does sound good out of it and I do enjoy that combination quite it be. Of course, just don't expect highend desktop performance.

barun432's picture

Good stuff John. Kann has been out for a while now, so keeping it up there with QP1R seems fair. I was wondering if you were going to do a QP2R review, as QP1R user, we would like to know about the differences and whether we are missing something more than the UI and the balanced jack.

Cheers

John Grandberg's picture
QP2R is on my "to do" list. Right now I'm working with the Fiio X5 3rd gen, and the Cayin N5ii. Then Questyle is next on my list if all goes well.
Martin.'s picture

As if the price wasn't enough of a deterrent, it looks like a brick. I guess it doubles up as a self-defence weapon.

Marcello's picture

I will have a chance to test the player and compare with the Sony ZX300. Long battery life is very important to me, I really hate to interrupt a music listening session just because I run out or juice.
Also, bonus points for listening to Pinback!

Karlengel's picture

John. Have you given a listen to the Sony WM1A? There is a scarcity of reviews on this dap which I find outstanding.

John Grandberg's picture
As I mentioned in a comment above, Sony is one of those giant faceless corporations that can be tough to deal with for review loaners. You tend to get bounced around or just flat out ignored. Unlike, say, Astell&Kern, who uses a very responsive PR firm. But I'll try again with Sony and see how it shakes out.
DaveinSM's picture

I got the Astell&Kern AK Jr after it got discounted to $250, and after years of using only iPods, I can say that it’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

User interface is laggy and a bit cumbersome in terms of menu and submenu access. Transferring Apple lossless music files from a MacBook Pro is easy enough to do without any special software, but available album graphics don’t automatically populate like they did with the iPods synced with iTunes. I understand the reason why, as the UI on these is more geared towards the Android/PC world. I would assume this to be the same with the KANN, and since this one seems more like a personal sound system for using around the house rather than on-the-go, it would be a shame not to be able to view the album artwork to show on that larger screen. In fact, it’s almost a deal breaker. I’d need to re-rip all of my hundreds of CDs to a format that supports album artwork on the KANN. What a PAIN. but these Astell&Kerns look and sound great. They don’t work nearly as seamlessly as an iPod with iTunes, but then again nothing else does either.

John Grandberg's picture
I agree, the Astell&Kern gear is far less appealing for Mac users. I own a MacBook Air that I use once in a while but I'm mainly a PC guy, so I approach the AK products from my own experience. But if I only used the MacBook, I'd look elsewhere for a DAP.
DaveinSM's picture

Yeah, I agree. Funny how apple and iTunes used to be the de facto music platform for daps till they totally abandoned the iPod. Now it’s all android, especially if you want to deal with high Rez, non lossy formats.

Regardless, nice and balanced review. I really appreciate how you consider how this product would be used in real world settings.

vkalia's picture

So if i dont need the ability to drive some full-sized headphones, what should i get - any suggestions?

I am looking to get a new DAP soon. I have a Sony ZX100, but wanted one with a bigger screen.

John Grandberg's picture
The Sony ZX2 is fantastic, easily one of my favorites despite being "old" by now. I also still hold the original Cowon Plenue 1 in very high regard, and it can be had for a song these days. Amazon typically sells if for $400-500 brand new.
purk's picture

I would go with the ZX300 for considerably better sound and much better driving power. I have the ZX100 and the ZX300 is an ideal upgrade for you. If you don't need the driving power (CIEM users only), the ZX2 is still a good choice.

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