A (lit­er­ally) sharp and re­fined hi-res player

FOR Nat­u­ral bal­ance; tal­ented DAC; strik­ing de­sign AGAINST Rather sharp edges and cor­ners

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

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.

Evo­lu­tion­ary zeal

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

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