Astell&kern AK XB10 Blue­tooth DAC and amp re­view

You don’t need new head­phones to ben­e­fit from Qual­comm’s aptx HD codec.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY THEO NICOLAKIS

Any­one who’s in­vested in great­sound­ing wired head­phones and wants the op­por­tu­nity to add high-res stream­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties to those cans should take a se­ri­ous look at Astell&kern’s AK XB10 Blue­tooth DAC and head­phone amp.

A DE­SIGN THAT’S ALL ASTELL&KERN

The AK XB10 comes in the shape of a small puck, mea­sur­ing just shy of 2 inches in di­am­e­ter. The DAC is rated for about five hours of ac­tive use and 300 hours of standby. The five-hour run-time is a dis­ap­point­ment. In today’s day and com­pet­i­tive land­scape, users ex­pect more out from their por­ta­ble de­vices. Bat­tery life is an area I hope Astell&kern can ad­dress in a re­vised model.

The cir­cu­lar face sports vol­ume, play/ pause, and Blue­tooth but­tons di­vided by a slightly el­e­vated pyra­mi­dal pro­tru­sion. I in­ferred that the pro­tru­sion is there to help

you ori­ent your­self since you don’t have any idea what’s up or down. On the AK XB10’S perime­ter you’ll find 3.5mm un­bal­anced and 2.5mm bal­anced head­phone in­puts, a mi­crousb charg­ing port, pre­vi­ous/next but­tons, power, and a lock but­ton. When en­gaged, the lock but­ton will de­ac­ti­vate the func­tions of all con­trols, so you can slide the AK XB10 into a pocket with­out the unit go­ing hay­wire.

In prac­ti­cal use, I re­ally liked the size of the AK XB10, but I would have pre­ferred a dif­fer­ent shape that gave me a bet­ter way to ori­ent my­self with the unit; nev­er­the­less, since the lo­ca­tion of the 3.5mm in­put is at the six-o’clock ori­en­ta­tion, I used that to get my bear­ings and it worked pretty well. If you use the 2.5mm bal­anced in­put, it throws things off slightly and sits at the 7-o’clock ori­en­ta­tion. Ei­ther way, the play/ pause but­ton sits per­fectly where your thumb rests and slid­ing your fin­ger along the pyra­mi­dal sides, you quickly fig­ure out where you are on the cir­cu­lar face.

Each time you press the vol­ume-up or -down but­tons, you’ll hear a beep con­firm­ing your se­lec­tion. Per­son­ally speak­ing, I wish this sound was re­moved. I found that it got in the way of my mu­sic lis­ten­ing. If I want to ad­just the vol­ume, I don’t want my mu­sic in­ter­rupted in the process.

There’s an op­tional metal clip in­cluded so you can clip the AK XB10 to your belt or at­tach it to your cloth­ing. The clip slides into a re­cessed track on the back of the de­vice. To at­tach the clip, you press both arms to the mid­dle and slide the small, oval glid­ers into the track. I was re­ally im­pressed with the de­sign with one ob­ser­va­tion: The clip would be far more ef­fec­tive if it had a rub­ber coat­ing to pre­vent it from slip­ping off. As it stands, it’s too slip­pery for cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. If you clip it to a pocket or cloth­ing, it will slide around eas­ily, po­ten­tially fall­ing off. I also had to ex­ert some ef­fort get­ting it to fit over thick belts.

If you wear the AK XB10 on a belt, it will

ori­ent your head­phone’s 3.5mm jack down­ward to the six-o’clock po­si­tion. I can en­vi­sion some ex­treme in­stances where this might cause ex­ces­sive bend forces on your head­phone’s ca­ble or pop the AK XB10 off your belt. A word to the wise: be care­ful.

The AK XB10 holds a lit­tle sur­prise. When con­nected to a smart­phone, it dou­bles as a hands-free call­ing de­vice with noise and echo can­cel­ing. Since most au­dio­phile wired head­phones do not have a ca­ble with an in­line mi­cro­phone, this is a very smart ad­di­tion to the mix. In fact, some of the fa­vorites in my head­phone col­lec­tion don’t have ca­bles with in­line mics. If you’re lis­ten­ing to mu­sic while a call comes in, the mu­sic au­to­mat­i­cally pauses. When your call is over, the mu­sic kicks right back in.

STREAM IN HIGH-RES­O­LU­TION WITH APTX HD

The pri­mary sell­ing point of Astell&kern’s AK XB10 is its stream­ing codec sup­port. The DAC can de­code SBC, apt X, and, AAC (for IOS de­vices). But the big news is its sup­port for Qual­comm’s aptx HD. This al­lows it to play high-res mu­sic files—at res­o­lu­tions up to 24 bits and at sam­pling rates as high as 48khz—over Blue­tooth. Files be­yond 24-bit/48khz are down­sam­pled. Sources con­nected to the AK XB10 must also sup­port aptx HD to take ad­van­tage of high-res stream­ing, oth­er­wise, you’ll fall back to a lower res­o­lu­tion.

GREAT WIRE­LESS SOUND, BUT NOT THE SAME AS WIRED

I chose Bow­ers and Wilkins’ P9 Sig­na­ture head­phones ( go.mac­world.com/p9ss) for test­ing dur­ing this re­view. I paired the AK XB10 with Astell&kern’s own AK70 high-res dig­i­tal au­dio player ( go.mac­world.com/ ak70) and an iphone 7. The AK70 sup­ports both the aptx and aptx HD codecs. When I paired the AK XB10 via Blue­tooth, the AK70

im­me­di­ately con­firmed I was us­ing an aptx HD con­nec­tion. I could switch be­tween the AK70 and iphone 7 eas­ily. For ex­am­ple, I started play­ing a song on the AK70 and then started play­ing some­thing on the iphone 7. If I paused the AK70, what­ever was play­ing on the iphone 7 would kick right in.

I fired up many of my stal­wart high-res au­dio files with a spe­cial em­pha­sis on record­ings from Ch­esky Records and B&W’S So­ci­ety of Sound. I played a va­ri­ety of gen­res in­clud­ing clas­si­cal, jazz, rock, and al­ter­na­tive. For me, the proof of any wire­less adapter’s qual­ity is how much it gets out of the way and lets the head­phone’s char­ac­ter shine through. With this as the mea­sure, the AK XB10 con­sis­tently hit high marks. You’ll be hard pressed to dis­cern a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween the wired or wire­less con­nec­tion dur­ing ca­sual lis­ten­ing ses­sions. That’s not to im­ply wired and wire­less con­nec­tions sound ex­actly the same. They don’t.

On the tracks I used for test­ing the wired and wire­less con­nec­tions, I no­ticed fewer pro­nounced dif­fer­ences on the iphone and AAC codec and more with the wire­less aptx HD con­nec­tions.

With wire­less aptx HD con­nec­tions played through the AK70, I noted that bass lines were el­e­vated and looser via aptx HD than with a wired con­nec­tion. If you pre­fer more bass, then you might find

this a eu­phonic sig­na­ture; de­pend­ing on the mu­sic, you’ll no­tice it more with some songs than oth­ers. On

Re­becca Pid­geon’s, “Span­ish

Har­lem,” for ex­am­ple, there’ a sub­tle el­e­va­tion present dur­ing bass lines. On Hans

Zim­mer’s “Un­der­ground Army” from the Dark Knight Rises sound­track, how­ever, the bass was far more pro­nounced. For my part, I felt as though bass and mid­bass in the wired con­nec­tion had com­par­a­tively more re­fine­ment and con­trol and sounded more nat­u­ral.

I also noted that the sound stage sounded slightly deeper and in­stru­ments had slightly more air around them with a wired con­nec­tion. For ex­am­ple, on the 24-bit/88.2khz FLAC ver­sion of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” from the epony­mous al­bum, the sound stage was flat­ter when played through the AK XB10. Your mileage may vary de­pend­ing on what source de­vice and head­phones you use.

My ex­pe­ri­ence with the AK XB10 was flaw­less and en­joy­able save one re­pro­ducible sce­nario. When paired with Astell&kern’s AK70, if I put a my body or other mass be­tween the AK XB10 and the AK70, the mu­sic would be­gin to stut­ter as though it was drop­ping data pack­ets due to in­ter­fer­ence. Some ex­am­ples in­cluded:

> Plac­ing the AK70 in my back right pocket and the AK XB10 into my front left pocket.

> Plac­ing AK XB10 on one side of my body and lay­ing the AK70 on an ad­ja­cent re­cliner on the other side of my body.

I tested th­ese ex­act same sce­nar­ios with the iphone 7 and couldn’t re­pro­duce the anom­aly. There­fore, I’m not sure if this is an is­sue with the AK70, the AK XB10, or us­ing aptx HD specif­i­cally. I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar is­sue in a past re­view with an aptx HD de­vice paired with the AK70, so I’m not im­me­di­ately in­clined to blame the AK XB10 as the source of the prob­lem.

WIRE­LESS FREE­DOM IN HIGH-RES

If your goal is to be­stow wire­less free­dom to your fa­vorite pair of cans, Astell&kern’s AK XB10 is just the ticket. The AK XB10 lets the sonic beauty of your wired head­phones roam free. With AAC and aptx HD sup­port, this pocket-sized de­light will stream your fa­vorite tunes in su­perb fi­delity from any de­vice. The only sig­nif­i­cant downer lies with the AK XB10’S medi­ocre five-hour bat­tery life. ■

The AK XB10 makes any head­phone wire­less.

Pair­ing the AK XB10 with Astell&kern’s AK70 DAP con­firmed an aptx HD wire­less con­nec­tion.

The AK XB10 fit nicely onto my belt.

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