A (literally) sharp and refined hi-res player
FOR Natural balance; talented DAC; striking design AGAINST Rather sharp edges and corners
You don’t need a keen eye to notice that the AK70 music player is an Astell & Kern creation. A familiar rectangular aluminium block with straight edges, sharp corners and a prominent volume dial, it’s A&K all over.
What you might question, however, is its colour. The AK70 ditches the traditional safe silver finish for a cool shade of blue (or is it green?) the company calls ‘misty mint’. What hasn’t changed, though, is the brand’s habit of turning out great products.
Becoming the middleman
You could say it comes as little surprise. After all, it does replace a 2015 Product of the Year, the soon-to-be-deceased AK Jr, as the brand’s entry-level player. This new model costs £100 more than its predecessor, but that’s still relatively affordable when you compare it with the brand’s flagship £3000 model.
A&K is confident this is the ‘most sophisticated hi-res music player you can buy under £500’ (the AK70 is £499), and as it turns out it’s not blowing smoke. Before you even start listening, you know you’re getting a lot for your money here.
The AK70 still supports PCM files up to 24-bit/192khz (32-bit ¢les are downsampled) and DSD 64/128 by way of converting files to 24-bit/176khz PCM; it features a built-in microsd card slot, which lets you increase the 64GB of onboard storage by up to 200GB; and it has Bluetooth for streaming to headphones and wireless speakers.
And, in a first for an A&K player, it can also double as a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), becoming a middleman between your computer and headphones/ speakers for better sound quality. There’s wi-fi too, to accommodate software updates and allow music to be streamed to and from the player. And along with the standard 3.5mm jack there’s a 2.5mm TRRS socket to cater for balanced headphones.
There’s also a new 3.3in AMOLED touchscreen, which is bright enough for the crispness and saturation of the album art on ELO’S Out Of The Blue to leap off the screen. The high contrast does the same for the whites in David Bowie’s Blackstar.
It’s a clear step up in maturity over the Jr when it comes to the interface too, to the point it’s almost phone-like. We say ‘phone-like’ because, like Sony’s Walkmans, the AK70 adopts the familiar Android operating system.
And ‘almost’ because, unlike Walkmans, it omits the Google apps and Play Store you’d find on an Android-running smartphone or tablet, which means more pertinent menus and less unwanted bloatware for music player purists.
Another fine mess
It’s still very obviously Android – and we mean thatfavourably. It’s sophisticated, responsive and lends itself to the player’s functionality. From the usual pull-down menu you can open settings and search for songs. It’s also where you’ll find repeat and shuffle functions, which eased our initial concerns after not finding them on the playback screen.
That makes it less cluttered, allowing album art to fill over half the screen without overshadowing track information (including file type and size). Another nice addition is the discreet dot in the bottom quarter – a shortcut back to home so you don’t have to use the back button to escape folders.
Placed next to each another, the Jr and AK70 look rather like Laurel and Hardy, the former tall and slim, the latter short and stout. The dimensional discrepancies boil down to just a few centimetres, but it means the AK70 should easily fit into a jeans pocket.
The size is practical and though the sharp corners and edges could do with a little tapering (you might want to consider the dedicated leather case), it’s elegant – particularly the back panel’s smooth, shimmery patterned detail, on which the greeny-blue finish looks especially lovely.
This time the trademark volume dial sits more prominently in a sloped panel on the front right-hand side. The eagle-eyed will notice the slight curve, which has been designed so your thumb rolls over it from the front rather than from the side, as was the case with the Jr.
The volume goes just as ear-shatteringly high as the AK Jr – the AK70 certainly didn’t need to trump its successor in that department. Similarities between the two
“In a first for A&K, the AK70 also doubles up as a DAC, for a better sound quality”
continue into tonal character: it’s just as pleasingly energetic, open and dynamic, although gains in clarity, space and expression don’t go unnoticed in a 24-bit/192khz version of Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ This Year’s Girl.
Syncopated drumming is not only fuller, there’s more texture around each strike as the AK70 kicks at all the right accents. There’s more space between them, and the shakers, electric guitar and vocal too (without losing the rhythmic cohesion that makes A&KS such effortlessly musical creatures) and things are not in any way upset by the keyboard’s late entrance.
The midrange opens up that bit more, so the cool vocals aren’t swallowed up by the densely fluid instrumentation, instead savoured with that much more nuance.
It’s that subtlety, wed with a natural sense of balance and precision, which makes Max Richter’s Richter: Patterns
(cypher) sound so absorbing. Each piano note drips through the pensively heavyhanded sequence with purpose and dynamic resolve, while the bass bubbles underneath with a suitably ominous depth and presence.
In its DAC disguise, where its appetite is sated at 24-bit/96khz, it’s just as useful, more than matching the punch, clarity and detail levels of the Audioquest Dragonfly Black USB DAC (£90). Even a Spotify stream of Poliça’s Lately highlights the benefits of its presence: it picks out flurries of synths that open the track with far greater assuredness than a Macbook’s headphone output. To boot, bass has more body and clout, and the processed vocal more prowess.
The sonic improvements made by the AK70 over the Jr are more evolutionary than revolutionary but, combined with additional features and a more mature interface, that is easily enough to lock down another five stars for Astell & Kern. And who knows, it may be in line for another
What Hi-fi? Award too.
“A&K is confident this is the most sophisticated hi-res music player you can buy under £500”
Even Mr Mcgregor of Beatrix Potter fame had to start his garden somewhere. Long before he regularly chased Peter Rabbit and friends away with his rake, he presumably built it from scratch. Maybe starting with a couple of pot plants. For Mr Mcgregor’s garden, read Tangent Ampster X4: a kind of grow-your-own hi-, consisting of a bitesized stereo amp and pair of standmounters.
Despite its diminutive stature the amp is well equipped, with Bluetooth 4.0, optical and line inputs; all you need is a smartphone to stream your music, but it leaves scope for adding a CD player or turntable, or even amplifying your TV.
The speakers in this package are Tangent’s Spectrum X4, available in black or white with a slim wooden base. We sit them on a couple of Atacama speaker stands, but Tangent is happy for you to place them on a bookshelf, or chip in a bit extra for wall or ceiling mounts. At 27.5cm tall, they won't take up heaps of room.
Assault on your ears
Even in that compact shell you’re treated to a 25mm tweeter, 10cm bass/midrange driver and rear-firing reflex port, so don’t anticipate timidity. The only thing really
The slight curve on the volume dial is designed for your thumb to roll over from the front of the unit
A 3.3in AMOLED touchscreen is bright enough for the album art to leap off the screen
A&K’S traditional silver finish has been ditched for a cool shade of blue (or green?) called ‘misty mint’
The Ampster X4 is an entry-level system, comprising Tangent's Spectrum X4 speakers and a bite-sized amp