Portable Audio Player of the Year
Astell&Kern is the high-end portable division of iRiver, and if iRiver didn’t quite invent the concept of an audiophie portable device, it was right in amongst the first of them, and has since taken the art to its extremes - currently expressed in the $4999 SP1000, which is tagged, a little oddly, ‘A&ultima’. The tag for our 10cm-high award-winner, the more affordable $999 SR15, is the still-odd but rather less inspiring ‘A&norma’. Who wants to be normal, or indeed Norma? We’d say the player is far beyond normal, given its use of dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chips in a mobile device, with which it supports up to 24-bit/192kHz high-res PCM files (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 (we suspect you may not notice). Likewise, it’ll handle DSD128, but converts this to 176.4kHz PCM for decoding.
Storage? It has 64GB of storage built in, which isn’t a vast amount in these days when a single high-res album might fill several GB, but it supports a single microSD card of up to 400GB for more.
To enjoy the fruits of its conversion you can plug headphones into the standard 3.5mm minijack stereo output, but it also offers the increasingly popular 4-pole 2.5mm output for balanced headphones. And when you’re back home, you can switch it to line-out mode and play through your hi-fi, or use its Micro-B USB port into an external DAC for even more superior conversion (if you’re lucky enough to have it). It supports the On-The-Go standard. The Micro-USB can also be used for charging the unit and transferring music.
You can also listen using wireless headphones, as the SP15 has built-in Bluetooth, with support for the aptX HD codec, should your receiving headphones also support this codec; similarly it will use the original aptX codec for headphones without the HD version. The original aptX is a mildly lossy codec delivering somewhere below CD quality; aptX HD is a mildly lossy codec squeezing in up to 24-bit/48kHz. There’s also Wi-Fi for firmware updates and music downloads.
Control is via an 84mm touch-screen at a funky angle on the front, about as sensitive and easy to use as a typical phone, while within is a locked-down, heavily customised version of Android. On the right side is a rotary volume control. At the top there’s a power button; on the left small buttons for forwards, backwards, play/pause.
Enough of the specs, how’s the sound? Unimpeachable, we thought, delivering superb detail and an impressive driving quality, the SR15’s output level easily sufficient to drive even difficult headphone loads to thrillingly high levels. Noise and distortion levels are entirely below audible levels (for full measurement info, see the review in our Oct-Nov issue of Sound+Image).
If you’ve lusted after A&K but can’t reach to the highest models, the SR15 may be what you’ve been waiting for.
More info: www.busisoftav.com.au
“So much highperformance high-res tech in a 10cm-long player! Astell&Kern may call it ‘norma’, but we call it ‘exceptiona’.”