Gadgets Off The Grid - Astell&Kern AK120 Portable Hi-Rez Music Player

GadgetsOfGrid_AK120_Photo_Campfire

Paul stirs the fire as we listen to a half dozen songs on the AK120...before it glitches and fails.

Astell&Kern AK120 Hi-Rez Portable Audio Player ($1299)
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: for some things I love this little gadget. Most of my music is 16/44.1, and with the AK120s built in 64Gig drive and two micro SD card expansion slots for 64Gig cards you have 192Gig of memory for music. That's a lot of CDs! (About 280) I use it with my Jerry Harvey JH13 and Westone ES5 on airplanes and mowing the yard; I often use it for initial listening when a headphone comes in for review. The AK120 sounds just dandy as a simple player, thankyouverymuch.

It's got some serious flaws in my estimation, however.

Playlists
I once had a nice long talk with a musicologist who was working on programming computers to compose music. He said one of the interesting features of pleasing music was that it had to be both predictable and surprising. Predictable so we could have a handle on what we were listening to and to provide a foundation for surprise, and surprise to create the tantalizing interest and pleasure without which the music would be boring.

Back in the day, I used to get bored listening to albums all the way through—I'd heard then so many times that there was no surprise anymore, even if I loved the music. I found that simply setting the CD player to play in random order significantly improved my listening experience. At a minimum, I heard the latter tracks on an album that I would often miss if I popped the CD out before completing it out of boredom. When MP3 players first came out, I found I could simply play all songs on the player in random order, which tremendously improved my listening pleasure. For me, the beauty of a playlist is being able to put a good number of albums or artists on it, and then play it in random order...keeps the music nice and fresh.

The AK120 allows you to build multiple playlists, but you can only put music on to them one track at a time! All my music is in an artist/album/song folder structure. Why can't I put a whole album or artist on the playlist? With five little swipes of the finger I could put Art Pepper, Bill Evens, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, and Stan Getz on a play list, hit shuffle and play, and then listen for hours without lifting a finger. With the AK120 it would take me an hour just to build the playlist.

The AK120 will play all the music on the player in random order, but I simply don't want to listen to Billie Holiday followed by MC900 Foot Jesus. That's not surprise, that's discord. I'm sorry, but at $1200 not having a feature like this is a miserable fail.

Support
Ugh. The Astell&Kern web support is atrocious! They tell you there's a firmware upgrade, but don't tell you how to do it. When I looked for available features or how the interface worked, there was simply no info. The Astell&Kern website is simply a brochure, and provides little to no help answering all but the simplest of questions. Sure, as a reviewer I've got phone numbers I could call, but that's not what the user experiences and that's what I've got to review. Astell&Kern needs to get their shit together and deliver a complete user experience to justify the $1200 price tag.

(Can you tell I'm pissed...oh, I'm not done yet.)

Vacation Photo Interlude
GadgetsOfGrid_Intro_Photo_SkalkahoFlat

Since we're talking catastrophes here, I thought a picture of what a flat tire means in the middle of nowhere appropriate. A tiny, and I mean tiny, nail was picked up by my back tire and it slowly flatted. Had to take all the gear off and lay the bike on its side to remove the back wheel. Two hours later when I took this pic, I had only to repack the bike. Unfortunately it meant our dirt backroads route had to change to pavement to make the next cabin by nightfall. Oh well, it's an adventure.

Bluetooth
Fundimentally, I think the portable music player category is dead—a smartphone is simply too good a solution for 99% of folks. But maybe the most important part of that equation is the ability to hear your phone ring and answer it. With my Westone ES5 in my ears run off the AK120 I simply can't hear my phone ring. Many will say, "Sometimes I don't want to hear my phone ring." Fair enough, but only sometimes, and I want to listen a lot more than that. Fortunately, there's a very simple solution: put a Bluetooh receiver chip in the portable player, pair it with your phone, and then answer your phone through the player. Astell&Kern have attempted to implement this with the AK120, and it does have a Bluetooth chip in it. Unfortunately it isn't well implemented. When paired with your phone and the phone rings, the AK120 will deliver a ring tone to the earphones, but as soon as it does it disconnects the Bluetooth pairing and you have to pull out your earphones and manually answer your phone. Worse, with the Bluetooth transceiver paired to your phone, you get significant RF noise in the audio. This is a high resolution file player, and to introduce clearly audible noise just so you can hear the phone ring is an abomination to an audiophile. Fail again.

The AK120 can also be paired to a Bluetooth speaker, and this is how I intended to use it on my trip. Sure it seems silly to play hi-rez files through a portable BT speaker, but I want my $1200 gadget to do what I want it to do. And if that's playing Jazz around a campfire then it should damned well do it. The AK120 would pair with the UE Boom, and when playing music it was an excellent outdoor experience...until the BT connection glitched. Bluetooth is a very short distance protocol, and communication drop-outs are common. When pairing my Samsung Galaxy S3 with the UE Boom it would drop out from time to time, but it would reestablish its connection quickly and reliably. With the AK120, if the BT signal dropped out, it created an unrecoverable error. The AK120 would still think it was connected and would continue to play, but the UE Boom would be cycling to reestablish the link to no avail. I tried turning off gapless, turning off the equalizer, and even leaning the AK120 up against the UE Boom so that the signal strength was unimpeded. Usually the AK120 would play about 4-6 tracks before it failed, and once it failed the only solution was to power everything off and start from scratch again—a three minute process at minimum. For days I tried everything I could think of, and for days I was repeatedly frustrated by the AK120. My phone had a very limited amount of music on it, but it ended up being our primary source of music. Aaaargh!

GadgetsOfGrid_AK120_Photo_Splat

22 shell casings pounded into a campfire bench spell out my feelings for the Astell&Kern AK120.

"That Guy"
In adventure motorcycling circles there's a name for the guy that's always late to get loaded up; always needed to stop to take a piss just after having had a break somewhere; always wanting to lead, but making wrong turns. He's called "That Guy." On this trip the AK120 was That Guy. And were it not for the fact that the AK120 is absolutelty terrific on a plane, it would have been hucked of a cliff or thrown in the fire. It pissed me off at every available opportunity.

My favorite player of all time is the iRiver IHP400. The AK120 is better, but for TWELVE HUNDRED BUCKS it's not better enough. There's simply no excuse for loading that player with all the hardware to do a great job of playing hi-rez files and then not completing the task with a solid embedded software platform. Astell&Kern is selling way more of these than expected, but if they don't get it together enough to make an excellent working player, someone else is going to come along and spank them. I hope they read this article in the spirit it was written: I've loved their iRiver gear in the past, and I wanted to love this player very much. That's why it hurts so bad when it failed me miserably.

Please...oh please...take some of those revenues you're earning on this little gem in the rough and put a finish on the inside that matches the sexy aluminum finish that's on the outside.

Flip the page for the hero of the trip...

Vacation Photo Interlude
GadgetsOfGrid_Intro_Photo_BloodyDickCabin

I've surfed the web for some background info on the name but have come up empty. The history of Bloody Dick cabin will just have to remain a giggle worthy enigma.

COMMENTS
johnjen's picture

Woods cabin that is.

Like I've been there, or something…

Great write up

JJ

audiozerro's picture

Haha, I do love this sort of test! The UE Boom is really one of the good Bluetooth speakers out there according to most expert, perhaps even one of the top ones. I personally like mine a lot, and will take it with me next time I go camping to play music around the fire.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

We've seen numerous places together...from desert Oregon to the hiegths of the Sierras. 

Now dust the fesh of that bike and meet me in a pasture on Labor Day, YFF!

:wave

paul's picture

The software on the AK 120 (100) is godawful. The "playlist" function is useless (and a LOT of work!!).

I use the app, Discovr Music to put a playlist together and make a Smart Playlist in iTunes. I then make a folder on the AK120 and drag and drop the results. Playlist!

Love the form factor on the AK120 and AK100!

audiozerro's picture

Haha, I do love this sort of test! :) The UE Boom is really one of the good Bluetooth speakers out there according to most expert.. perhaps even one of the top ones. I personally like mine a lot, and will take it with me next time I go camping to play music around the fire!

doublea71's picture

Tyll,

Saw your trip route and noticed you opted out of Missoula. I used to live there and I want to mention a record store, Ear Candy Music, that is co-owned by an old friend, John Fleming. I believe it is on Higgins Ave and it seems to be going strong in its 16th year - maybe check it out the next time you make it into The Garden City. Montana truly is the last best place and I hope to return again some day. I love how you incorporate your love of the open road into your gear reviews and sort of take us along for the ride a bit. The pictures of Montana's scenery take my breath away because it is a place that still resonates with me and will until my dying day. Thanks for the good read.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I think I've been there before, I'll check it out next time I'm in Miss Oola.

And yes, Montana is an incredibly beautiful place. There aren't many places left in this country where you can ride hundreds of miles on dirt roads through the mountains without seeing another soul. Wish I had more room for all the pix I took. 

Limp's picture

You can afford thirty-odd Sansa Clips for the price of an AK120, and they even do playlists properly.

And MC 500 Ft Jesus? That's awesome!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

MC900 Foot Jesus stuff is not only great music, but it also seems to be VERY well recorded.  I use a couple of tracks as listening references.

Next time I think I'm just gonna load up my phone...no need for hi-rez on a BT speaker anyway.

veggieboy2001's picture

I picked up a cheap solar charger (that didn't work) for a vacation in Croatia last year. I knew this could be a great solution, even if the one I had was very poorly done. I'm glad that worked so well for you...even if the A&K didn't. Nothing more frustrating that having high hopes, and watching (hearing?) them be dashed to bits.

Thanks!!

ultrabike's picture

Very kool gadgets there! (Solar panel combo).

"There's simply no excuse for loading that player with all the hardware to do a great job of playing hi-rez files and then not completing the task with a solid embedded software platform."

Amen! Some few products I've seen (and bought) have the HW specs but horrible FW implementation and support. At least the price point of some of those products was low so lack of support would be sort of expected... Not at the $1300 price point.

Very nice to hear the Boom does a good job.

Have not been to Montana yet, but it looks fantastic! Great pictures! That Bottlelegger Casino Bar and Grill in Lincoln breakfast picture is pure win!   

Stephen Mejias's picture

What an awesome trip. Thanks for taking us along for the ride, Tyll!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Glad you enjoyed it!

Lemme know if you ever feel like taking a vacation up in Montana and I'll show you around. 

Dan S's picture

I just got one of these myself, and I'm very pleased.

I couldn't find any reviews from my usual go-to audiophiles like you, Steve Guttenberg, or anybody at Head-Fi, so I decided to wing it for once. I listened to all the models that I could, and the only key one that I didn't get a chance to audition was the FoxL v2 Platinum.

The UE Boom ended up winning out because it's water resistant, louder than similarly sized competition, and it sounds as good or better than any of its competitors. It obviously doesn't compare to an amp and loudspeakers setup, or a nice pair of headphones, but it sounds a lot better and goes a lot louder than I expected.

The only real negatives are intrinsic to the Bluetooth speaker category in general. All the sound comes from one place, you don't get a wide field of sound. The lower treble is a little sharp if you're close to it and play it loud, although less sharp than competitors. The bass is a little weak, but not as weak as I expected.

Overall, a great buy! I'd love to hear what you think about running two of them together -- that's an interesting feature, for sure.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I'll post up a follow-up for the second Boom in stereo...

...and EnerPlex is sending me a bigger storage battery and Surfr (a case with solar panel built in) for my S3, so I'll mention them as well.

natal's picture

My wife and I drove through Montana last summer.   It definitely is Big Sky country.  Absolutely, beautiful.  

TheAudioGuild's picture

...looks like it could be a scene out of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. cool

se

Bennyboy's picture

That AK thing is a massive ripoff. The company behind it must be laughing their heads off all the way to the bank at the gullibility of those forking out such eye watering amounts for it. 

You don't say if your Samsung S3 is the international 19300 version with the better DAC in it,  but I use one as my only music player. Rooted, with Siyah Kernel and Stweaks added,  it is simply beautiful sounding. Wouldn't want anything else. 

You are right - there's no future for standalone music players anymore, beyond the daylight robbery of these mad esoteric audiophile nonsense machines. 

 

 

 

 

 

rataplan's picture

Terrible customer service! Went through the same thing with how to apply the firmware update. They still haven't updated they're firmware page with instructions :/

http://www.iriverinc.com/download/downloadView.asp?selectPart=02&findWor...

Astell&Kern better improve their software. Hopefully the extra bucks they're making off the AK120 can pay for this.

Read my head-fi review to hear all of my gripes:

http://www.head-fi.org/products/astell-kern-ak120/reviews/9331

rich tanaka's picture

The AK120 is a very good high resolution player. It sells like hotcakes in Asia. Good and happy for AK.

But the customers service is a contradition. A good phsyical product along side customers service which don't live up to expectations.

First, sending request for assistance will received no acknowledgements. ie " Your request is received by us. We will get back to you asap." 

Next, one waits for almost a week for any reply.

Tyll said it correctly, ie their web page is more like a product sale brochre. There is no contact emails, no telephone numbers etc. So one has to go to iRiver to get their contacts addresses. 

My constructive suggestion is their management should look into the customers service area.

p.s. Language commuication problems ? The Koreans are the most literate people in the world and almost all younger generations ( after 1970 ) are required to study Englsih in schools. So the miscommunication problems are not an issue here. If this is China, we can undertsand.

rich tanaka's picture

Would there be a review on the product itself ?

jeckyll's picture

As a fellow KLR rider, I've got to recommend Eagle Mike's stand. No need to lay the bike on it's side if you get a flat. Cheap, packs small and functional. Maybe check it out before your next trip :)

Now to the audit comment: I was about to message you to ask what you're riding with these days as I'm thinking of replacing my Shure 215. But wow, those JH13's are spendy!

I'm heading out on Saturday for a week through WA/OR/ID and I think the Shure's will need to be my go-to riding IEM for another season or two.

Looks like you had a great ride, I'll search on "that adventure site" to see if you wrote up a ride report :)

Bjorn

Sean's picture

Usually I do my best to charge my phone before getting on the road, so I rarely need to charge it during my travels. I use Duracell Alkaline Batteries for anything else I need and they are a lot safer than Lipo batteries.

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