ASTELL&KERN A&NORMA SR15

por­ta­ble au­dio player

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The brand that sells $5000+ play­ers de­liv­ers the SR15 for $999. But how does it per­form?

It looks like Astell&Kern is go­ing af­ford­able. Well, a lit­tle bit any­way. Rather than a por­ta­ble me­dia player priced at $5000+, this Astell&Kern SR15 is avail­able in Aus­tralia for $999. Its full name is the ‘A&norma SR15’, pre­sum­ably to con­trast it more com­pletely with the more ex­pen­sive A&fu­tura SE100.

Equip­ment

The A&norma SR15 is a small­ish (10cm long) high-res­o­lu­tion mu­sic player. It has 64GB of storage built in, and sup­ports a sin­gle SD card of up to 400GB for ad­di­tional storage. It has a 3.5mm stereo out­put for reg­u­lar head­phones, and a 4-pole 2.5mm out­put for bal­anced head­phones.

Also built-in is Blue­tooth, with sup­port for the rel­a­tively high qual­ity aptX HD codec (this is back­wards-com­pat­i­ble with head­phones which sup­port only aptX) and Wi-Fi for things like firmware up­dates, and mu­sic down­loads.

There’s an 84mm touch screen, placed on the front at a funky an­gle. This is about as sen­si­tive and easy to use as a typ­i­cal phone, apart from be­ing rather smaller than the norm. On the right hand side is a ro­tary vol­ume con­trol. At the top there’s a power but­ton. On the left are small but­tons for skip for­wards, skip back­wards and play/pause.

The SR15 uses dual Cir­rus Logic CS43198 DAC chips. It sup­ports up to 24-bit/192kHz, PCM (and vari­ants in var­i­ous loss­lessly com­pressed for­mats) and DSD64 na­tively. It will also play 352.8 and 384kHz con­tent, but scales them down to 176.4 and 192kHz. Like­wise, it’ll han­dle DSD128, but con­verts this to 176.4kHz PCM for de­cod­ing.

Don’t like that? Its

Mi­cro-B USB port — gen­er­ally used for charg­ing and trans­fer of mu­sic — also sup­ports the On-The-Go stan­dard, so you can plug in an ex­ter­nal DAC.

Run­ning things in­side is a heav­ily cus­tomised ver­sion of An­droid. It’s locked down, so it doesn’t re­ally look like An­droid; in­deed, the usual soft keys at the bot­tom of the screen aren’t there.

I mea­sured the weight of the unit at 160.5 grams with a mi­croSD card in­stalled. As seems to be com­mon with this kind of player, there are plenty of sharp cor­ners.

Lis­ten­ing

I did much of my lis­ten­ing with my pair of 20-year-old Sennheiser HD 535 open-back, over-ear head­phones. I went for quite a few years not us­ing these for a num­ber of rea­sons, not least be­cause they are quite fussy about the source. They need a source ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing a firm, pow­er­ful bass, and in­deed a fairly high level across the fre­quency spec­trum, thanks in part to their quite low sen­si­tiv­ity.

I found lis­ten­ing to mu­sic us­ing these head­phones and the SR15 a de­light. Their ten­dency to a light­weight sound was elim­i­nated by the SR15. It took mas­ter­ful con­trol over them, and showed their au­dio re­pro­duc­tion in its best light, the sound be­com­ing open, airy and clean, with a deep if slightly re­cessed bass. Even Eminem’s ‘The Slim Shady LP’ sounded bal­anced, with the driv­ing bass fully com­pelling.

Im­por­tantly, re­gard­less of what I played, the out­put level of the Astell & Kern SR15 was eas­ily suf­fi­cient to drive them to thrillingly high lev­els, with a lit­tle in re­serve in case I was tempted to go even higher. You are un­likely to find any main stream head­phones, let alone ear­phones, these days which are of lower sen­si­tiv­ity than the HD 535s.

Re­sults were less suc­cess­ful with a set of Sennheiser Mo­men­tum In-Ear ear­buds. These $170 mod­els are in­clined to­wards a very bright tre­ble, and the SR15 could do noth­ing about that. I’m not sure any­thing could.

So, onto my Oppo PM-3 pla­nar head­phones. They brought up the bass that had been re­cessed with the HD 535 head­phones, while more or less re­tain­ing bal­ance. I en­joyed the first Dire Straits al­bum, held on the SR15 in DSD for­mat. There was su­perb de­tail and an im­pres­sive driv­ing qual­ity.

I moved over to what used to be my favourite Beethoven pi­ano sonata al­bum: Vladimir Ashke­nazy, play­ing the 8th, 14th and 23rd on Decca. I re­mained dis­ap­pointed. This is a won­der­ful ren­di­tion through speak­ers, but has never been sat­is­fy­ing through head­phones. (Even Sennheiser’s re­cent very ex­pen­sive HD 820.) I tried again, fu­tilely hop­ing some­thing will make it sound good through head­gear. It didn’t.

I even switched head­phones again, this time to the Blue Lola, a set which look un­gainly but sound quite im­pres­sive for their $450-ish price. Still poor. Not poor was Roxy Mu­sic’s de­but self-ti­tled al­bum. (I know Bryan Ferry doesn’t like the mix, but I do.) There was first-class im­pact, ex­cel­lent bal­ance, and a glo­ri­ously lay­ered sense of space.

Prac­ti­cal­i­ties

Us­ing the player was easy in gen­eral. It took me a mo­ment to discover that when some­thing’s play­ing you can tap on the cover art to bring up ad­di­tional con­trols, such as re­peat and ran­dom. And this also brings up an ar­row so you can back out through the mu­sic ac­cess ‘tree’ the way that you came in.

Mean­while, a swipe from the top gives ac­cess to the An­droid-y fea­tures, a swipe from the right opens the playlist, and a swipe from the left opens the main menu.

But most im­por­tantly, the skip and play/pause con­trols and ro­tat­ing vol­ume con­trol all work when the dis­play is asleep. No need to waste power on that so long as you’ve got stuff in your playlist.

I tried the in-line play/pause con­trols on head­phone de­signed for iPhones and for An­droid phones, and neither worked. That’s a pity since they are so ubiq­ui­tous.

Fi­nally, one weak­ness of so com­pletely cus­tomis­ing and lock­ing down the An­droid sys­tem is that other mu­sic player soft­ware can’t be used. There’s noth­ing wrong with the one pro­vided, but, say, as a keen pod­cast lis­tener, I would have liked to be able to put a pod­cast app on this unit and make it my all-in-one ev­ery­thing player.

That said, Astell&Kern says that new firmware will be pro­vided with the new A&ul­tima SP1000M (one up from the A&fu­tura SE100 player) that per­mits the man­ual in­stal­la­tion of apps in the form of An­droid APKs. Maybe that fea­ture will trickle down into this model. (Maybe not.)

Con­clu­sion

The Astell&Kern SR15 is a nifty lit­tle high def­i­ni­tion por­ta­ble player. It sounds great, is highly us­able and has plenty of ca­pac­ity if you buy a suit­able card. Stephen Daw­son

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