Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Media Player

August 2014

Astell&Kern AK240Astell&Kern has made quite a rumble with its earlier models of portable media players, the AK100 and AK120. With the AK240 they’ve created a model that seems to know no bounds. It’s a high-quality piece that you won’t be ashamed to plug into your main audio system, yet you can carry it with you almost anywhere. And it costs a bundle -- $2499 USD.

Description

Inside a classy black slipcase of construction paper is a box of black wood, and nestled inside that is the Astell&Kern AK240. Printed on the back of the slipcase, in lieu of the usual ad copy, are, in several languages, a brief description of the AK240 and its specifications. Lifting the player out of the box reveals two compartments. In one is a leather case; in the other are a USB-to-USB Micro charging cord a little over 3’ long, a quick-start guide, and warranty information, the latter in very small type that I found hard to read without a magnifying glass. There’s no printed instruction manual -- you have to go online and download it. One year (90 days for accessories) seems an awfully short warranty period for such an expensive portable media device.

The case is made of Minerva leather, tanned in Italy, and carries an official seal and certificate number to guarantee its authenticity. As it ages, it reveals unique veins and wrinkles, and feels soft yet durable in the hand. What impressed me most was that, even after I’d removed and reinserted the AK240 in its case a dozen times, it still fit the AK240 like a glove; it hadn’t stretched.

The AK240 itself is gun-metal gray, with a body of aircraft-grade duralumin measuring 2.59”W x 4.21”H x 0.68”D. It weighs just 6.5 ounces, or 7.5 ounces with leather case. It’s faceted on two sides, and its most prominent features are its 3.31” WVGA (800x400) touchscreen, and a volume knob with a range of 0 to 75 in increments of 0.5dB.

Along the AK240’s top edge are the On/Off button and two outputs: a 3.5mm jack that can be used for either headphones/amp or optical output, and a nonstandard 2.5mm jack for four-pole-supported balanced output. On the bottom edge is an input for the USB charging cable. Along the AK240’s left edge are three small buttons, for play/pause and track skip forward/back (these functions are also available via the touchscreen). At the bottom on the left edge is a microSD card slot. The right edge has no controls other than the volume knob, and the leather case grants access to everything except the card slot.

Astell&Kern AK240

The AK240 can play WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE (Normal, High, Fast), AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, DSD64, and DSD128 files; word lengths of 8, 16, or 24 bits; and sample rates up to 192kHz -- in short, just about everything. Its claimed frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz, +/-0.02dB, or 10Hz-70kHz, +/-3dB. It supports Bluetooth v.4.0 and 802.11b/g/n (2.4GHz) Wi-Fi. The specified signal/noise ratio is 116dB at 1kHz (balanced, 117dB), and the crosstalk is 130dB at 1kHz (balanced, 135dB). The AK240’s spec of total harmonic distortion plus noise is an impressive 0.0007% (balanced, 0.0005%).

Discoveries

Not only can the AK240’s active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) touchscreen deliver gorgeous images, it’s the most responsive touchscreen I’ve ever used. It’s impressively resolving, so you’ll want to capture album-cover art that’s at least 500x500 pixels. Some of my recordings are obscure -- I can’t always find an album cover of that high a resolution, and when I can’t, it shows. Once you see a higher-rez cover, you’ll want to search harder, knowing that the AK240’s display will reward your efforts -- the colors are rich and vibrant. Its only fault is that, as with so many other players, although the display can be read in bright light, it’s unreadable in direct sunlight.

Overall, the AK240 feels solid and well built, and its beveled shape gives me a place to rest my thumb when I hold it in my right hand. It won’t stand up vertically; but if you don’t want to lay it down on its back, you can easily stand it on its plainer side.

Setup

The first thing you’ll want to do is charge the AK240’s battery. However, the USB cord doesn’t come with any AC adapter, which I think is a serious omission in a $2499 portable player. The AK240 can be charged from any computer or device with a USB port. My review sample charged more quickly than I expected. When I played hi-rez files, a charge would last only 4.5 to 5 hours. When you near the end of a charge, a warning screen is displayed.

To load music into the AK240, you pull up music files on your computer, then drag and drop them into the image of the AK240 on the computer’s screen. Removing a track is also easy: You just tap on the AK240, and hold the track until four choices (in circles) come up on screen. One of those choices is to delete the track, so drag it to that circle. You’ll be asked to confirm that you want to delete it; tap “OK” and you’re done.

The AK240’s storage capacity is mind-blowing: 256GB of internal memory, expandable to 384GB with insertion of a 128GB microSD card. That’s a lot of music, even in high-resolution formats. I loaded the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, 14 operas, all the popular piano concertos and tone poems, a bunch of Mozart and Haydn, most of Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook collections, all the Mel Tormé in my collection, all of Christopher Herrick’s Organ Fireworks recordings, the complete recordings of the Beatles and 10cc, 18 Broadway shows, and the entire Charles Gerhardt series of classic film scores, most at ALAC 16-bit/44.1kHz, but many at AIFF 24/96 -- and still the AK240 wasn’t half full.

The AK240’s user interface is logical and well laid out. The main screen gives you a choice of search modes: by album, song, artist, playlist, or genre. Tap one of those choices to scroll through the corresponding list. If your list is long, an alphabetical column pops up on the right-hand side of the screen -- tap the letter you need. If you’re searching by album, tap its title to see a track list. Tap the track you want and it will start playing. If you want to play the whole album, tap the first track.

When you tap on a track title to play it, the screen shows the album cover overlaid at the top. You’ll find virtual play/pause and track skip buttons, as well as indicators of time elapsed and time remaining. Tap the album cover once to get something called “Lyrics,” which never revealed any lyrics -- just a message that the file was empty. Tap a second time and you can see the cover without any text. Tap and drag at the top of the screen while the overlay is there visible and these items become adjustable: repeat, Wi-Fi on/off, and much more.

Going back to the screen that lists the search choices, you’ll see two other possibilities: MQS Streaming and Settings. (I’ll get to Streaming later.) In Settings you can turn the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and equalizer on or off, choose gapless playback, and change the display brightness and the overall video theme. Four themes are available, but I found them all pretty much the same. The ten-band equalizer is no doubt effective, but I found its flat settings to be right on the money.

Use

Most will think of the Astell&Kern AK240 as just another high-class, iPod-like device to use with headphones, and yes, it was most impressive when used like that. You can give your headphones quite a workout with standard or hi-rez tracks, perhaps hearing a clarity and balance you’d missed before.

You can also use the AK240 with Bluetooth headphones. I did this several times, during walks around my neighborhood. I got good sound, but found out that the AK240’s Bluetooth connectivity was only average; it worked best when I kept it in my hand rather than in a pocket. And while the AK240 might be fine for bicycling, it was too heavy and cumbersome to make a good gym or exercise companion -- and, anyway, it’s too expensive to risk damaging during such activities.

Still, as you might expect, the AK240 could be the ultimate player for headphones because its sound is so clean and clear. But it’s so much more. I used the 3.5mm output to plug the player into my main audio system. Because the AK240 can store and play files of CD quality and higher, I got splendid sound that way -- basically, the same that I’d hear from a fine CD or Blu-ray player. I found it an excellent overall source component.

It was also a great driving companion. My car has a pretty good head-unit and speakers, but playing only SiriusXM Radio wasn’t giving them a chance to shine. Using the 3.5mm jack of the AK240 to feed its output to my head-unit’s 3.5mm auxiliary jack, I was able to listen in my car to anything stored on the AK240, including native DSD files.

Using the AK240’s built-in Wi-Fi, I could stream to my main audio system the music files stored on my computer. To do this I had to download and install Astell&Kern’s MQS Streaming software, but that was a snap. However, MQS found only a small part of my library. After working with A&K’s tech support (actually, Jimmy Moon, A&K’s American rep and an affable and knowledgeable guy), a solution was found, and I was able to stream all of my files through my main electronics and MartinLogan speakers, just as I usually do with my Logitech Squeezebox Touch. Because my listening room is pretty far away from my office, where my computer is, I have to connect the Squeezebox with an Ethernet cable. The AK240 has no Ethernet jack, and I did experience some dropouts with Wi-Fi. Moving 10’ closer to the router solved the problem. If you want to use the AK240 to stream music, you’ll need to be relatively close to your network. It will really depend on the quality and range of that network.

I think Astell&Kern should have included cables for connecting the AK240 to a hi-fi or car system. For a portable player costing $2499, one shouldn’t have to go racing around town picking up odds and ends. Besides, including those cables (as well as an adapter for the odd-size balanced audio jack) will entice a buyer to try those things out and see how versatile the AK240 actually is.

The microSD card fit seamlessly in its slot. The limit is 128GB. I chose one with a capacity of only 4GB -- they get rather expensive as the capacity rises. You can just install a card and get more storage space, or you can do as I did and be selective about using the AK240’s internal storage. I put holiday titles on my card, thinking that I could remove and store it for ten months of the year, and insert it only for November and December listening. Since everything on it is coded “Holiday,” I can easily find it with a genre search. I see no reason why you couldn’t have several microSD cards containing different information.

Astell&Kern AK240

With all the things the AK240 can do, there were a few I didn’t get to try. If you plug the AK240 into your computer with the USB cord, you can use it as a DAC (while also charging its battery), and that balanced output is supposed to give even better sound. I didn’t have headphones that would work with this. In sum, the AK240 is the most flexible piece of equipment I’ve ever used.

And thanks to Wi-Fi, it can be updated with ease. In fact, while I had it here, Astell&Kern released a major update that solidified the use of ALAC and AIFF files for MQS Streaming, put album-cover art on the index scroll, and much more. An update notification popped up on the display, and less than five minutes later, everything had been installed. I know that more updates will be coming, but A&K hasn’t said exactly what -- except that they will probably include the ability to purchase files directly through the Internet and download them to the AK240.

Astell&Kern makes a big deal, as well they should, of the AK240’s having two Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips. I compared the AK240 with my Yamaha receiver (used as a preamp), which has a Burr-Brown chip, and my Squeezebox Touch, which is fitted with an AKM chip. All of these have received praise.

I did a lot of listening when I first got the Squeezebox Touch, which has since become my system’s music workhorse. At the time, I concluded that I liked it slightly better than the Yamaha, which sounded a trifle thinner. I played excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s 1962 recording of his own Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with the London Symphony (CD, Decca 417 509). I found that I still preferred the Squeezebox to the Yamaha, and slightly preferred the A&K to both. The AK240 had slightly better detail, though at the loss of a tiny bit of warmth that I like in the Squeezebox. Overall, were I to keep the AK240, I’d play all of my digital files through it; but if not, I wouldn’t feel that what I’ve been using was in any way deficient.

The AK240’s sound impressed me in being faithful to all types of music. Whether it was the roaring synthesizer that opens Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (16/44.1 ALAC, Island) or the dulcet tones of guitarist Narcisco Yepes playing Bach’s lute music (16/44.1 AIFF, Archiv), the music seemed pure and true. There was absolutely no genre of music that the AK240 didn’t handle with ease.

In sum

The Astell&Kern AK240 makes it possible to listen to high-resolution music practically anywhere. It’s pricey, but look at what it can do and what components it can replace, and see if that doesn’t lessen the sticker shock. After using it for a month, I concluded that it was probably worth close to its asking price of $2499. There are a few useful accessories A&K should have included, but the AK240 itself is nothing but excellent; most of my criticisms crumble in the face of its actual performance.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- MartinLogan: Ascent (main), Theater (center), Aerius (surround), Depth (subwoofer)
  • A/V receiver -- Yamaha RX-V661 (used as preamplifier)
  • Power amplifier -- Outlaw 750
  • Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 universal BD player, Sony BDP-S5100 BD player, Oppo DV-980H DVD player, Samsung BD-UP5000 BD/HD DVD player, Logitech Squeezebox Touch digital player, Psyclone HDMI switching box
  • Computer -- Hewlett-Packard Pavilion
  • Car system -- Pioneer head-unit, Alpine 4.1 speakers
  • Headphones -- Outdoor Technology Privates Bluetooth, Audio-Technica AX515 Sonic Fuel

Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Media Player
Price: $2499 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited; 90 days, accessories; 30 days, refund or exchange.

iriver Inc.
39 Peters Canyon Road
Irvine, CA 92606
Phone: (949) 336-4540/4541
Fax: (949) 336-4536

E-mail: support.inc@iriver.com
Website: www.iriverinc.com

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