CES 2014 Showstopper: Astell&Kern AK-240 Portable Hi-Rez Music Player

Here's the story in a nutshell: dual Cirrus Logic 4398 DACs; native DSD64 and 128; up to 24/192 PCM; supports WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE(Normal, High, Fast), AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF; 256GB internal memory, and up to 64GB on a microSD card in the expansion slot; 3.31" AMOLED touchscreen with 800x480 resolution; balanced and unbalanced outputs; body of "Duralumin" aircraft grade aluminum alloy; carbon fiber rear panel; 3,250mAh 3.7V Li-Polymer Battery; USB digital input; optical digital output; wi-fi enabled with the ability to download files directly from hi-rez on-line music suppliers (HD Tracks coming soon); 1 Ohm headphone output impedance; Bluetooth functionality (details not available yet); Android OS with iRiver proprietary GUI.

Basically, your all-singing, all-dancing, uber-high-end portable player.

Price? No announced price yet, but rumored to be around $2500...and thats where everyone starts jumping up and down with arms waving and hair afire. Take a breath, let's talk about this for a minute.

Recently there's been a lot of chatter about whether or not the headphone/personal audio world is going to save the high-end. I've got a lot to say on the subject—and will do so over the coming month—but for the moment will just say I think it's the wrong way to pose the question. I think high-end audio just means high-performance (and expensive) audio products. There are cheap turn-tables that aren't part of the high-end, and expensive ones that are; there are cheap speakers that aren't part of the high-end, and expensive ones that are; there are cheap pre-amps that aren't part of the high-end, and expensive ones that are; and so on for DACs, receivers, cables, racks, recordings, etc ad nausium. I'd argue the same is true, and getting truer, for things like headphones, headphone amps, streaming speakers, media servers, and all manner of 21st century product types that basically were none existant when the meaning of "High-End Audio" was established. What we're seeing now is simply new product types being added to kit that was traditionally considered "Audiophile Approved", and with the Astell&Kern players (and Calyx, HiFiMAN, and upcoming Sony players) you're simply seeing a new product type appearing in the High-End world.

How many audiophiles have and use an iPod or similar device? Lots...the majority I'd wager. Are they high-end devices? For the most part, no. Would audiophiles want a high-end portable player? Well, if the success of the AK100 and AK120 are any indication (Astell&Kern are very surprised at how well they sold), you betcha. And so, with the introduction of the AK240 we're just seeing the first $2000+ product in the space—I guarantee you, there will be more. Five years from now, I bet we'll have a $5000 portable player, and just like what happened with headphones I bet we'll see high-end brands like Meridian, NAD, Levinson, Krell, and AR (wonder if it'll have tubes) playing in the category. We might also see folks like Apple, Archos, Philips, and Sonos with flagship portable player offerings.

In principle, I have no problem believing that a portable player can deliver the kind of performance—and demand the high price—that would warrant the label "High-End." Chips are small and very good, battery power is a great for high-end electrons, and techniques exist to shield analog circuits from digital crud. I also see plenty of reasons such devices would be expensive—good chips aren't cheap, fancy styling can be costly (plenty of money in traditional high-end gear goes to casework), and programing time for embedded systems and user interface can be a money pit. Whether or not the Astell&Kern AK240 deserves the high-end label is yet to be seen, but so far it sure looks like it might, so let's not get too riled up about the price just yet.

Rant over, I'll let Jimmy Moon tell you about the AK240 in the video.

Find the AK240 from the Astell&Kern home page.

blueingreen48's picture

I'm trying to imagine walking around town with a $2400 portable player that, no matter how good it sounds, I can't afford to have stolen (can't afford to ever drop it either); then walking around with one that costs twice as much, that I really can't afford to have stolen. I'm also trying to imagine a portable player that could offer enough of a performance premium/feature set over the AK240 to justify costing double its price.

While I assume it could do double duty in a home system, whose going to be able to afford it who doesn't already have a good home system. How could a portable chassis contain the value a larger home system chassis could at the same price with repect to its rigidity, power supply, amp/preamp section, heat dissipation etc.? Finally, a $5K portable player isn't going to cost much less than a 6-Core Mac Pro with a display and 1TB of flash storage. It ends up being a lot less computing power for about the same money. Maybe someone will do it's but it's hard to see why. What's more likely is that someone will (if they haven't already) produce a player that matches the performance of the AK240 for significantly less money. There would seem to be more profit in that approach.  

ultrabike's picture

I don't expect that this little player will be superior to the likes of a Mac -> dbx-Eq/Modded-Berhinger/DEQX -> Gungir/PWD/Smyth-Realizer -> Blue-Hawaii/Liquid-Lighting/Electra -> Stax. But I can understand what Tyll is talking about.

I don't envision many serious audio enthusiast taking their mega/solid/heat-sinked home burdens everywhere they go, along with the car battery. I think Tyll's point is that, where mobility is a most, portable high end solutions might come into play. Of course, these type of players, like Rolex watches, are proly not for everyone. People like me might be happy w a humble Clip/Zip and call it a day. But not everyone is looking for value.

On the other hand, I think these types of players require impecable costumer support, solid FW, bullet proof HW specs, and upgradablity path to further justify their price tag. This is not easy IMO. It maybe that some of these things could be subsidised through "the monthly plan", sheer volume, your "friendly" iTunes like solution, or similar cell-phone cash cow concepts. Maybe different levels of support and HW specs might command a different price. Obviously, there is the risk of things not working out, but who knows.

Jazz Casual's picture

Not taken with the design aesthetic. I prefer its predecessor, the AK120 and the Sony NW-ZX1 - along with their price points.

The Headphone Viking's picture

Its everything I could want from a portable player, but not for that kind of money, its just too much. There are no two ways around it. But lets see what Astell&Kern have to say for themselves upon release, if anything...

paul's picture

I don't know ... Is there sufficient electrical current to drive the systems to a level that is equal to the parts used?

Ron's picture

The sound from my  AK120 is the best ever. But the U.I. is pants for such a premium priced device. You would think iRiver have been in the portable player market long enough to have come up with something better (Intelligent) . Don't think I would consider a 240 till they sort this out. I suppose we have all been spoilt by iPod.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

The 240 UI is much better than the 120...MUCH. They're getting there.

Ron's picture

I hope at least some of the UI improvements migrate to 120 in firmware updates probably a big ask !

Tyll Hertsens's picture

The 240 is an Android OS, the 120 prolly not, so I don't think they'll be backward compatible. We'll have to see.

I do think however that we're likely to see the 240 with ongoing support and the UI and software trickle down to less expensive product. An Android platform should be pretty solid. 

Shike's picture

I'd just be happy with another affordable high capacity player on the market.  I don't see Apple keeping the Classic around for all eternity.  With the move to flash and the feature list I'd expect a price closer to $500-700.  $2.5k for a portable that is likely to get swiped or dropped in its lifetime is far too much for the majority of the people IMO.


Can we just have a basic H100 player with the H300 color screen and a huge battery and call it a day?  And actually price it reasonably aye?

sszorin's picture

If this gizmo has DACs then how come it does not have the digital line in ? That is a gross, gross, oversight from its makers. 

Jeff Y's picture

went to a headphone show and had 6 rows of these lovely things. They had HD650, HD800, LCD3, LCD XC, and more with them. Loved how it sounded with the LCD3 and Aerosmith's Walk This Way. Feels like and looks like something 2 grand too. Only problem is that I like my desktop setup more anyway. 

PS I saw Jerry Harvey.