Astell & Kern launch two new players

Stephen F. Murdoch penned this article for InnerFidelity from Los Angeles this weekend, I'd like to welcome him onboard and offer thanks for this piece.

*Just a note that I am in discussions with A&K to secure demo units of the new DAPs discussed here.

The bleeding edge of DAP technology has fresh cuts.

The 900-pound gorilla of high-end digital players that is Astell & Kern, recently held a private invite-only press event in Los Angeles to talk about the three latest additions to their ever-expanding line of portable high-resolution products.

The focus of this particular meet-and-greet was to highlight the A&futura SE100 ($1,699 USD) and the A&norma SR15 ($699 USD), but the Seoul-based company really took the opportunity to give the press in attendance a high-resolution overlook into the organization of the entire DAP roster and the accompanying brand refresh. 

Historically A&K has navigated through its collection of offerings over time with a relatively quick refresh rate of upgrades that started with the $799 USD AK100 more than six years ago.

Relinquishing the standalone AK### nomenclature, new products will fall into three tiers, each with a simple theme. 

Ultima will offer the flagship players and Norma the budget – easy enough. But where things get interesting is the mid-tier Futura, which A&K’s president, Owen Kwon, says represents the more experimental side of things for the lineup.

The launch product for this middle tier is the SE100, which is set to replace the AK120 MK 2. What’s the big experiment this go ‘round? A first-time implementation of the popular ESS SABRE silicon that has been surprisingly absent from any A&K player up to this point.

Introduced just last month, the new SE100 utilizes the same five-inch screen as the flagship Ultima, but converts its ones and zeros via the 9038 PRO chipset (which is the more expensive model vs ES9028/ES9026 or the previous generation ES9018).

The SR15 replaces the AK70 MK2 and A&K is currently taking preorders with shipping due to start at the end of July.

Talking points include a new chipset (Cirrus Logic CS43198), native DSD playback (a feature not offered on the AK70) and a slanted screen design. A&K has never shied away from more abstract design inspiration or unique angles when it comes to their casework. The off-kilter element here may draw ire from some, but when you hold it in your hand the idea is much less obtrusive for the given situation.

If nothing else, I could see it definitely drawing stares from the uninformed (or diehard alike) and could act as a conversation starter on any bus or subway.

Also on display were the latest JH Audio/Astell & Kern universal fit IEMs dubbed Billie Jean, after the growing list of musical muses that make up the Siren Series partnership with long-time ear maker Jerry Harvey.

Ms. Jean was originally announced at the 2018 Fujiya AVIC Spring Headphone Festival in April and is the least expensive earphone option from A&K to date at $349 USD. That spend level will get you a taste of Harvey’s branded IEM-making techniques such as freqphase® waveguides and ACS bore design but in a two-way, two-balanced armature driver setup.

For those not familiar with the partnership, Astell & Kern handles all universal-fit distribution for Harvey, while JH Audio offers the same earphones but in a custom-fit operation. Both options carry their own pros and cons, resale value is usually higher with universal fit IEMs (and you can share them with your friends) but customs usually come with a better seal and have the potential to be more comfortable if you really nail the fit.

At the event all three players were tethered firmly in a balanced connection to A&K’s Beyerdynamic collaboration for the classic T1 with a model called AKT1P. Press were allowed to play the same song (with the same settings) for each tier to get a taste of the progression through the models. Although time wasn’t unlimited, a high-resolution version of Norah Jones “Don’t Know Why” did provide some magnification on the sound quality in the somewhat noisy room.

Posturing differences in a DAP is fairly different from evaluating headphones, in this scenario many of the physical hurdles and pesky variables have been removed. Right off the bat it wasn’t hard to tell that the frequency response is pretty much even from unit to unit. What you get as you creep up the line is more meat on the bone, so-to-speak.

Less papery textures and more life. Heightened detail retrieval over any Apple phone is standard (for even the least expensive models) and the delta of this “meaty smoothness” appeared less from the SR15 to the SE100 than it did from the SE100 to the flagship Ultima SP1000 featured at the event. Take those observations with a grain of salt of course, as there is little substitute for critical listening in one’s own domain with gear you are uniquely familiar with.

Whether you balk at the price tags associated with high end DAPs or feel the price/performance ratio isn’t just quite there yet for this category, those who have the disposable income and want the very best are offered serious options within the fold of A&K’s rank and file. Just palming the weight of the $3.5k USD A&Ultima SP1000 in your hand feels like serious business. There is intent delicately held within the confines of that slanted 387g of stainless steel infrastructure – intent to be the best.

Perhaps that is why the team at iRiver (A&Ks parent company) are constantly on the move with their updates. It doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon, however. Kwon told me that each of the lines should expand beyond the single item launch products, with new DAPs scheduled to hit the market every other year. 

IRIVER Inc. / Astell&Kern US
19600 Fairchild Road, Suite 125, Irvine, CA 92612