Not a name particularly known outside of the serious Hi-Fi and audiophile industries, Astell&Kern is about to start to make inroads into the UK with its incredibly high-end digital music player, the AK120.
You will have heard of the parent company, Korean brand iRiver, which was very big in the MP3 market back in the day. But this specific slice of technology is on another level to the wares often associated with the brand. And it should be at £1,100 a pop.
Pocket-lint had a good listen of the Astell&Kern AK120 during the CU Exposed event in London - an event set up to showcase a number of different brands, some known, some less so - and we have to say that forgetting the price for a minute, this is one seriously tasty bit of kit.
It is designed to be very much a portable hi-fi system in your pocket. For a start, it houses two Wolfson WM8740 24-bit stereo DACs (Digital to Analogue Converters). These ensure that the uncompressed audio stored on the built-in 64GB hard drive is delivered to analogue headphones as cleanly as possible, with no added artefacts.
There is a cheaper option with a single DAC, the AK100 for around £500, but if you want the best dual DACs is where it's at.
The player supports up to 24-bit, 192kHz bit to bit decoding, and the list of formats it can play is mighty. These even include DSD (Direct Stream Digital), the format embedded on SACDs. Normally you can play Super Audio CDs only on compatible kit - dedicated players, higher-end Hi-Fi systems and Blu-ray players and the like. But the AK120 allows you to enjoy the audiophile-friendly experience on a portable device.
Additionally, it can play MQS (Mastering Quality Sound) albums, lossless files bought already ripped to microSD cards that are currently very popular in Korea. The player comes with two microSD card slots, which can also be used to expand the storage up to a total of 192GB.
You can play conventional file types too, such as MP2 and WMA, but that seems somewhat dirty to us.
The build quality of the AK120 is suitably excellent, with a solid brushed-aluminium finish and 2.4-inch 320 x 240 IPS touchscreen. It is pretty, clean and fuss-free.
Battery life is quoted at up to 14 hours of playback for a lossless FLAC file (16-bit, 44kHz and with the volume at setting 37).
For someone who really takes their music listening seriously and already owns a pair of top-quality headphones, the Astell&Kern AK120 is an intriguing proposition. We can't see the company selling them in bundles, but there's definitely a market for this kind of quality product, regardless of the price.