Astell&kern Kann re­view

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY THEO NICOLAKIS

Astell&kern is back with an­other ref­er­ence hi-res au­dio player: the Kann. Paired with ex­cep­tional head­phones and top-notch record­ings, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more bliss­ful sonic ex­pe­ri­ence from a hi-res au­dio player at this price point.

Just be warned, Kann’s price tag is as big as its bulky size.

A BOLD DE­SIGN

Ev­ery Astell&kern player has a bold, dis­tinc­tive de­sign that breaks the mold. Kann is no dif­fer­ent. The Kann’s alu­minum mass is sculpted into a trape­zoidal work of art that is re­mark­ably nat­u­ral to hold and use. The Kann comes in a choice of As­tro

Sil­ver and Eos Blue fin­ishes. My re­view sam­ple came in the for­mer.

The Kann’s sides are ribbed. Slightly scal­loped lines tra­verse the back. I tip my hat to the in­dus­trial de­sign team; the play of light and shad­ows on the player is some­thing truly beau­ti­ful to look at.

The player’s right side is rounded. That sim­ple at­ten­tion to de­tail made it com­fort­able to hold with my right thumb nat­u­rally rest­ing on the vol­ume dial.

The Kann’s ta­pered back­side makes the large, ribbed vol­ume dial well-suited for left or right handed use. How­ever, I no­ticed a de­sign quirk in my test­ing.

To lower the vol­ume, you ro­tate the dial to­ward the Kann’s screen. On a few oc­ca­sions, while the player’s screen was ac­tive, my thumb in­ad­ver­tently hit the touch screen when low­er­ing the vol­ume. Be­cause Astell&kern’s in­ter­face makes the en­tire touch screen part of the vol­ume con­trol, hit­ting the outer edge made the vol­ume jump louder. The sud­den vol­ume in­crease jolted me. If you ro­tate the vol­ume dial with your left thumb across the front screen, the like­li­hood of ac­ci­den­tally swip­ing the screen be­comes even greater. Af­ter a few days (and jolts) I learned to be more care­ful.

The player’s alu­minum hous­ing got very warm when I used it for ex­tended pe­ri­ods. The heat out­put was ex­ac­er­bated when I put the Kann in closed quar­ters, like a pocket. The player never over­heated, but it’s some­thing to mon­i­tor.

Astell&kern has moved all phys­i­cal player con­trols to the Kann’s front, di­rectly un­der the 4-inch 800 x 480-res­o­lu­tion touch­screen. But­tons are large and easy to de­ci­pher by touch. In ad­di­tion to the stan­dard play/pause, for­ward, and re­verse, there’s a “home” but­ton with a cir­cu­lar sym­bol. Press­ing the home but­ton re­turns you to the main screen no mat­ter how deep you are in the player’s menus or fold­ers. I loved hav­ing that op­tion.

The Kann’s user in­ter­face is con­sis­tent with all other Astell&kern play­ers. The UI is in­tu­itive, easy-to-nav­i­gate, and re­spon­sive (mostly). The Kann, like all the other Astell&kern play­ers I’ve tested, ex­hibits a lag when load­ing art­work, load­ing very large in­dexes from DLNA servers, or work­ing with the com­pan­ion mo­bile app. Com­pared to the AK70 MKII, I ap­pre­ci­ated the Kann’s slightly larger screen (4.0-inches vs. 3.3-inches). I was less prone to typ­ing er­rors when per­form­ing mu­sic searches or en­ter­ing Tidal cre­den­tials via the on-screen key­board.

UN­DER THE HOOD

A sin­gle AKM AK4490 DAC lies at the heart of the Kann. Astell&kern’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of this high-end con­verter fea­tures bit-for-bit play­back up to 32-bit/384khz hi-res mu­sic files, and na­tive DSD play­back up to 11.2MHZ. Un­less you get your hands on mu­sic files ex­ceed­ing 32-bit/384khz, there is no down­sam­pling any­where along the sig­nal path. Kann also fea­tures Para­met­ric EQ and VCXO Ref­er­ence Clock (Femto Clock) for min­i­mal jit­ter.

A 6,200mah 3.7V Li-poly­mer bat­tery prom­ises a bat­tery life of up to 15 hours. What’s unique is that a sin­gle hour of charge time via the USB-C ca­ble will de­liver up to 6.5 hours of lis­ten­ing time. You can get a full charge in about two hours.

The Kann fea­tures 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHZ Wi-fi and Blue­tooth 4.0, adding even more value. I con­nected the Kann to my car’s stereo, and could stream any sup­ported con­tent—even FLAC or DSD files. Blue­tooth stream­ing is ob­vi­ously lim­ited to the qual­ity of the Blue­tooth codec that can be used.

Like other re­cent Astell&kern play­ers, the Kann comes with the aptx HD codec for hi-res mu­sic stream­ing over Blue­tooth. Aptx HD lets you wire­lessly stream hi-res au­dio up to 24-bit/48khz. You’ll need a pair of Blue­tooth head­phones with aptx HD to take full ad­van­tage. To­day, very few wire­less head­phones sup­port aptx HD. You can al­ways use Astell&kern’s own XB10 Blue­tooth am­pli­fier and DAC to en­joy wire­less hi-res au­dio with any pair of wired head­phones.

Kann does not cur­rently sup­port MQA. I asked Astell&kern about their plans and a com­pany spokesper­son told me, “We cur­rently do not of­fer MQA sup­port, but it is a fea­ture we are look­ing into. We do not have an ETA on when we may sup­port it.”

You have the op­tion for 3.5mm sin­gleended and 2.5mm bal­anced head­phone ca­bles. There are two line-level out­puts: a 2.5mm bal­anced and 3.5mm sin­gle-ended. Line out is ana­log only. There is no Toslink op­ti­cal or coax S/PDIF (though you do have USB out­put, de­scribed be­low).

Not only are dual line out ports un­usual, but Astell&kern has raised the stakes an­other notch: You can choose vari­able or fixed line out. Should you choose fixed line out, you can man­u­ally se­lect any one of four volt­age set­tings— 0.7V, 1V, 1.25V, or 2V. An Astell&kern rep­re­sen­ta­tive told me that the higher out­put is in­tended for larger home sys­tems. The lower volt­age out­put is for smaller desk­top amp set­ups, since the higher volt­age out­put could cause clip­ping with smaller-ca­pac­ity amp sys­tems.

Like all Astell&kern play­ers, the Kann will out­put dig­i­tal au­dio via USB. You’ll need a USB OTG ca­ble (not in­cluded), which

you’ll con­nect to the mi­cro-usb port to serve up mu­sic files stored on the de­vice to your am­pli­fier. The Kann will also play DSD files via DOP (DSD over PCM), in which a DSD file is sent on top of PCM data frames.

A LIT­ERAL HEAVY­WEIGHT

Un­for­tu­nately, there’s noth­ing Astell&kern can do de­sign-wise to tem­per the Kann’s weight: It’s flat-out heavy. Put it in the pocket of your blazer and its bulk will weigh that one side down. If you’re look­ing for a true pocket-sized player, you’ll be hap­pier with

Astell&kern’s AK70 MKII.

EX­PAN­SION GALORE

The Kann’s top and bot­tom house all the player’s ports. The bot­tom of the player has full-size SD and mi­crosd card reader slots. Stor­age op­tions are crazy for a portable player. The player is cer­ti­fied to sup­port 400GB mi­crosd and 512GB full-sized SD cards. Added to the player’s in­ter­nal 64GB of mem­ory, you can have up to 978GB of stor­age at any one time.

Next to the SD card slots you’ll find a 10Gbps USB-C (USB 3.0) and a mi­cro-usb port. If you think that the two ports are there for both fu­ture and back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity, you’d be only half right. Look care­fully and you’ll see that the USB-C port is la­beled “Data/charge” and the mi­cro-usb port is la­beled “au­dio.”

The two ports have com­pletely in­de­pen­dent func­tions. USB-C is used for fast charg­ing and light­ning-fast data trans­fers. If you are on a Mac, you’ll need to use the free An­droid File Util­ity to trans­fer files to and from the player.

The mi­cro-usb port han­dles USB DAC func­tion­al­ity and USB au­dio out­put. It will also con­nect to Astell&kern’s Cd-rip­per. You can­not charge the Kann via the mi­cro-usb port as with pre­vi­ous play­ers. As some­one who tested the Kann on a Mac­book Pro with USB-C ports, I would

have loved to have one ca­ble to rule them all.

POW­ER­FUL NET­WORK STREAM­ING

I said it in my Astell&kern’s AK70 Mark II re­view ( go.mac­world.com/70m2) and I’ll re­peat my­self here: If you think the Kann is sim­ply a hi-res mu­sic player, you’ve to­tally missed the memo. In fact, you’ve left some of the player’s most pow­er­ful fea­tures com­pletely un­used.

You have your choice of three stream­ing ser­vices on the Kann: Tidal, Moov, and Groovers+. Tidal tracks sounded beau­ti­ful. The Kann and Fo­cal Clear ( go.mac­world.com/fcle) one-two combo was pure bliss.

Via AK Con­nect, the Kann will con­nect to any Dlna-com­pli­ant server. It even comes with free, cross-plat­form DLNA server soft­ware if you need it. I had a flaw­less ex­pe­ri­ence stream­ing mu­sic from both the Astell&kern DLNA server and Twonky DLNA server on my Mac.

The free AK Con­nect mo­bile app (avail­able for both IOS and An­droid) bridges your IOS or An­droid smart de­vice for both con­trol­ling the Kann re­motely and play­ing con­tent from the Kann on an iphone. One fea­ture that is worth em­pha­siz­ing is that I could play both FLAC and DSD files from the Kann to my iphone. These are two for­mats that the iphone doesn’t na­tively sup­port. Just like the AK70 MKII, the Kann can act as a fullfledged, portable mu­sic server!

EX­PE­RI­ENCE THE MU­SIC

I per­formed my lis­ten­ing with Fo­cal Clear, Oppo PM2 ( go.mac­world.com/opp2), B&W P9 Sig­na­ture ( go.mac­world.com/bwsg) over-the-ear head­phones as well as Aur­vana Trio and Pe­ri­odic Au­dio Beryl­lium in-ear-mon­i­tors.

Let me cut right to the chase. This is a sweet-sound­ing, ref­er­ence hi-res au­dio player by any mea­sure. There’s some­thing oh so right about the sound and pre­sen­ta­tion. To re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the Kann, pair it with equally ex­cep­tional

head­phones. You’ll be duly re­warded.

Ev­ery time I turned on the Kann, the player’s sweet sound beck­oned me to in­dulge in al­bum af­ter al­bum, track af­ter track. I gladly obliged.

What struck me al­most im­me­di­ately was the Kann’s un­canny abil­ity to bring mu­sic to life, letting a per­for­mance’s en­ergy burst forth. The 16-bit/44.1khz CD rips of Ala­nis Moris­sette’s “Woman Down” and “Guardian” streamed via the Astell&kern DLNA server acted as her­alds of what I was in for. The Kann did an out­stand­ing job re­pro­duc­ing the sheer en­ergy and life of both songs. The sound­stage was wide and in­stru­ment place­ment spot on with Moris­sette’s vo­cals per­fectly set.

Vo­cals and mu­si­cal ar­range­ments flowed smoothly. No­rah Jones’ al­bum, Fea­tur­ing has some clas­sic duets. On “Here We Go Again,” with Ray Charles, the Kann re­pro­duced ex­cep­tional tim­bre across the band. Jones’ and Charles’ dis­tinc­tive vo­cals were near per­fect. More­over, in­stru­ments and vo­cal­ists were pre­cisely placed on a three-di­men­sional sound­stage. Ray Charles was po­si­tioned slightly left of cen­ter with No­rah Jones’ vo­cals slightly to the right on “Here We Go Again.”

The Kann re­sisted any ten­dency to ac­cen­tu­ate vo­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, keep­ing a warm, bal­anced, nat­u­ral pre­sen­ta­tion. Natalie Mer­chant’s vo­cals on “La­dy­bird” from her self-ti­tled al­bum were in­ti­mate and warm. The 24-bit/96khz ver­sion of Robert Plant and Ali­son Krauss’ Rais­ing Sand was en­thralling. On “Please Read the Let­ter” Plant’s and Krauss’ vo­cals were pitch per­fect against a vel­vety black back­ground.

The Kann was at home with rau­cous metal or the finest clas­si­cal. Do you pre­fer

Nir­vana, Me­gadeth, or Whites­nake? No prob­lem. The Kann nailed the en­ergy of the gui­tar riffs on the 24-bit/96khz re­mas­tered ver­sion of Whites­nake’s “Still of the Night.” What about Mahler and Bach? I just sat back, closed my eyes and soaked up Janos Starker’s mas­tery on the 24-bit/176.4khz record­ing of Bach’s Cello suites as though I were in­vited to ex­pe­ri­ence an in­ti­mate con­cert.

The Kann had an un­canny abil­ity to com­mand my at­ten­tion—even with songs and per­for­mances I knew well. I did a dou­ble-take ev­ery time I played the 24-bit/88.2khz ver­sion of Sarah Barielles “Brave.” Thump­ing bass notes from the song’s open­ing punched out with out­stand­ing dy­namic range, yet to­tal con­trol.

What about the bass out­put? It’s au­dio­phile grade, not “bass-en­hanced” gim­micky. If you have open-back head­phones, you’ll re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate what the Kann can do. On the Black Pan­ther sound­track, the Kann put vice-like com­mand on ev­ery bass line on tracks such as “Bloody Wa­ters” or “King’s Dead.” Bass re­sponse was dy­namic, start­ing and stop­ping on a dime. The deep bass out­put of Sarah Mclach­lan’s “I Love You” on Sur­fac­ing felt in­tense and con­trolled. And those fa­mous bass lines on Holly Cole’s “Train Song?” Out­stand­ing.

Now the log­i­cal ques­tion, is the Kann bet­ter than the AK70 MKII? The an­swer is—it depends. I felt as though the AK70 MKII de­liv­ered a cleaner, more de­tailed pre­sen­ta­tion. Con­sumers who pre­fer that will like the AK70 MKII bet­ter. The Kann, by con­trast, was a richer and smoother sonic ex­pe­ri­ence with a more ex­cit­ing and dy­namic bot­tom end. Which is bet­ter? That’s a ques­tion only your ears can an­swer.

BOT­TOM LINE

Rich, re­fined, yet end­lessly in­volv­ing and ex­cit­ing are how I’d sum­ma­rize my ex­pe­ri­ence with Astell&kern’s Kann. It’s not the last word in sonic per­fec­tion, but it is the type of au­dio gear that brings you closer to your mu­sic in so many in­tan­gi­ble ways. Not only that, it sup­ports ev­ery hi-res for­mat that mat­ters, it pro­vides mas­sive stor­age ca­pa­bil­ity, it of­fers out­stand­ing DLNA net­work stream­ing, it can func­tion as a USB DAC, and it’s portable (as bulky as it is). By any mea­sure, this Astell&kern has de­liv­ered a ref­er­ence player that makes the mu­sic its top pri­or­ity. ■

The Kann has sev­eral ways to view your mu­sic, in­clud­ing an all-graph­i­cal col­lage view

The Kann’s UI is straight­for­ward, of­fer­ing mul­ti­ple views.

Ports and ex­pan­sion slots are lo­cated on the Kann’s top and bot­tom.

The Kann can play DSD files na­tively.

The Kann can act as a hi-res DAC for your com­puter au­dio via its mi­cro-usb port.

The Kann has 3.5mm un­bal­anced and 2.5mm bal­anced head­phone jacks, as well as 3.5and 2.5mm ana­log line-level out­puts.

Be care­ful. You might ac­ci­den­tally hit the screen when low­er­ing the vol­ume, caus­ing the vol­ume to jump louder.

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