Astell & Kern might be best known for its hi-res portable audio players, but it hasn’t been shy in casting its net wider into the digital domain. Its players are complemented by earbuds, wireless speakers and an amplifier — and most recently a portable USB DAC. The new HC3 follows the very decent HC1, which was discontinued some time ago, and is billed as a hi-fi-grade USB-C DAC with microphone connectivity, so in addition to music listening it can also be used for shouting at opponents while gaming online, or for video calls (hopefully with less shouting).
Inside is the ESS ES9219MQ DAC, which has a reputation for high-quality audio performance and e¦cient power consumption.
It works with any 3- or 4-pole 3.5mm plug headphones and headsets, and is compatible with the in-line controller and microphone functions of 4-pole headphones and headsets. Thanks to the USB-C port, it will connect to any modern computer or mobile device (there’s a USB-C to Lightning adapter in the box for iOS devices). It doesn’t need an external sound card, AMP or DAC, or a power supply — it derives power from the source device so won’t run out of battery unless they do, either. That will, however, prove a drain on your source device’s battery.
A&K says its output design minimises noise for less distortion, due to the digital signal being processed after it has travelled through the dual noise-shielded cable.
The Astell & Kern HC3 is available now for $299 and, if you ask me, looks to be a pretty reasonable route to better-sounding desktop and/or mobile sound quality on a budget.