Ac­tivo CT10 high- res dig­i­tal au­dio player re­view

Sweet sound, com­pact size, su­perb in­ter­face, rich fea­ture set, and a $299 price tag ren­der this player a steal.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY THEO NICOLAKIS

If you’ve longed to bring out the best in your mu­sic, but balked at the as­tro­nom­i­cal cost of high-res mu­sic play­ers, then take a se­ri­ous look at the Ac­tivo CT10 (go.mac­world.com/ct10). At $299, this bud­get-priced player is any­thing but en­try-level.

The Ac­tivo CT10 is a high-res­o­lu­tion dig­i­tal au­dio player from Groovers Ja­pan, a high-res down­load and stream­ing mu­sic provider based in Ja­pan. The CT10 was de­vel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Astell&kern and iriver (Astell&kern’s par­ent com­pany). Astell&kern makes some

of our most fa­vor­ably-re­viewed high-res dig­i­tal au­dio play­ers, though they can cost up to sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars. Can the Ac­tivo give you a taste of that high-end sound at a frac­tion of the price? Ab­so­lutely.

ASTELL&KERN TECH UN­DER THE HOOD

The Ac­tivo CT10 fea­tures Astell&kern’s Ter­a­ton TM200, a cir­cuit board that com­bines a Cir­rus Logic CS4398 dig­i­talto-ana­log con­verter (DAC), an ana­log am­pli­fier, an in­de­pen­dent power unit, and a jit­ter-pre­vent­ing clock. These fea­tures en­sure your dig­i­tal files will be re­pro­duced with the ut­most fi­delity and ac­cu­racy. Lis­ten­ing to well-recorded mu­sic on high-qual­ity head­phones, you’ll no­tice se­ri­ous sonic re­fine­ment com­pared to your smart­phone.

HD AU­DIO OVER BLUE­TOOTH

The CT10 checks off all the boxes you’d want in a high-res dig­i­tal au­dio player. Promis­ing “bet­ter than Cd-qual­ity” sound, the Ac­tivo will play ev­ery ma­jor lossy and high-res file for­mat, in­clud­ing FLAC, ALAC, DSD, and WAV up to 24-bit/192khz. There’s even a menu op­tion called Hi-res, so you can browse only the high-res mu­sic files on the player.

The Ac­tivo will also play lossy for­mats, such as MP3, AAC, and WMA. Lossy file for­mats dis­card some data to make smaller files, but you’ll never get that data back. Most peo­ple can eas­ily hear the dif­fer­ence be­tween lossy and loss­less en­cod­ing of the same mu­sic.

You can browse the in­ter­nal drive’s or mi­crosd card drive’s fold­ers and con­tents eas­ily.

High-res­o­lu­tion loss­less files can take up a lot of storage space, and the CT10 comes with a mod­est 16GB of on­board storage. If you’re think­ing that’s too lit­tle storage for lots of high-res files, you’d be right. Thank­fully, the CT10 comes with a mi­crosd slot ca­pa­ble of sup­port­ing up to 400GB mi­crosd cards, giv­ing this player max­i­mum storage ca­pac­ity of 416GB. That’s not too shabby, although

prices of 400GB mi­crosd cards start at about $160 on Ama­zon ( go.mac­world.com/ s400). Things get even bet­ter with the Ac­tivo’s strong net­work sup­port, which I’ll talk about more be­low.

MQA AND APTX HD SUP­PORT

Up­ping the high-res ante, the CT10 is among the few bud­get play­ers to sup­port aptx HD and MQA. Aptx HD al­lows play­back of LPCM data with up to 24-bit res­o­lu­tion and sam­pling rates as high as 48khz over Blue­tooth, pro­vided you pair it with wire­less head­phones that also sup­port aptx HD. That’s a fancy way of say­ing it’s ca­pa­ble of stream­ing high-res mu­sic wire­lessly. The aptx HD codec is back­ward-com­pat­i­ble with head­phones sup­port­ing the reg­u­lar aptx codec, which de­liv­ers near-cd-qual­ity au­dio.

MQA, short for Mas­ter Qual­ity Au­then­ti­cated, is an au­dio codec that ap­plies a dig­i­tal fin­ger­print to a file to guar­an­tee it was sourced from the orig­i­nal mas­ter record­ing. Tidal is now serving up high-res MQA streams, typ­i­cally at 24-bit/96khz. You’ll need a Tidal Hifi mem­ber­ship ( go.mac­world. com/tdhf), $19.99 per month, to ac­cess the thou­sands of MQAen­coded al­bums avail­able with that ser­vice.

LOTS OF HID­DEN FEA­TURES

There are lots and lots of hid­den fea­tures up the CT10’S sleeve, mak­ing it an out­stand­ing value propo­si­tion. I’ll need to gloss over some of those fea­tures in the name of brevity.

Let’s start with the Mi­cro-usb port on the Ac­tivo’s bot­tom, which serves three pur­poses: First, it al­lows you to charge the in­ter­nal bat­tery, which is rated to de­liver about 10 hours of play­ing time. Sec­ond, you can mount the CT10 like a thumb drive and copy mu­sic files to the player. If you’re a Mac user, like me, you’ll need to in­stall the free An­driod File Trans­fer Util­ity ( go.mac­world.com/adft) to copy mu­sic files onto the player. Third, you can switch the Ac­tivo into DAC mode and use the player’s su­pe­rior in­ter­nal au­dio cir­cuitry to

play mu­sic stored on your com­puter. That’s an­other way you can go be­yond the player’s in­ter­nal storage lim­i­ta­tions. But there’s an­other fea­ture, too.

On­board Wi-fi isn’t just for con­nect­ing to Tidal and Groovers, or for down­load­ing firmware up­dates—it opens a whole world of net­work mu­sic con­nec­tiv­ity. The Ac­tivo can play mu­sic from any DLNA server on your net­work.

Have a com­puter but not a DLNA server? No prob­lem, the CT10’S in­ter­nal disk comes with an in­staller for Astell&kern’s free MQS stream­ing server soft­ware, for Mac and Win­dows PCS. Just mount the player like a USB thumb drive to ac­cess the in­staller.

It’s easy to use, too: In­stall the soft­ware, fol­low the prompts, and for­get about it. Once I’d done that with the CT10, I had wire­less ac­cess to more than 21,000 mu­sic tracks on my com­puter.

The Ac­tivo does omit some fea­tures found on higher-end play­ers. For ex­am­ple, there’s no 2.5mm bal­anced out­put, nor is there an S/PDIF dig­i­tal or line-level ana­log out­put. Then again, these are fea­tures the av­er­age con­sumer will never miss.

A SMOOTH USER EX­PE­RI­ENCE

Whether you’re a novice or a pro, you’ll find the Ac­tivo to be a joy to use. It adopts the out­stand­ing user in­ter­face found in Astell&kern’s ex­pen­sive high-res dig­i­tal au­dio play­ers, with some nu­anced, graph­i­cal re­fine­ments. Swip­ing from the left side of the screen brings out the Ac­tivo’s main menu. Swip­ing down from the top pro­vides quick ac­cess to oft-used sys­tem-spe­cific set­tings, such as wire­less, bright­ness, and USB set­tings. Swip­ing from the right is con­tex­tual. It will bring you back to the cur­rently play­ing song if you are brows­ing or, when a song is play­ing, show the other tracks on the al­bum. Swip­ing up from the bot­tom shows a song’s de­tails.

The CT10’S in­ter­face was al­ways smooth and re­spon­sive, thanks to its quad­core pro­ces­sor, which han­dles the heavy

lift­ing. The Ac­tivo’s snappy re­sponse was in sharp con­trast to the now dis­con­tin­ued AK Jr ( go.mac­world.com/akjr). I never no­ticed any lag or mu­sic drops dur­ing my time with the CT10.

INVIT­ING DE­SIGN

The Ac­tivo CT10 is also down­right cute. It would be the high-res player of choice for EVE, from the Dis­ney film WALL-E. The CT10’S sleek, shiny, white, poly­car­bon­ate case en­velops the rounded glass edges of the all-black, touch­screen dis­play. Dur­ing my use, the front glass seemed to be more oleo­pho­bic than the white poly­car­bon­ate case, which was eas­ily prone to fin­ger­print marks. I can’t com­ment how scratch-prone the case might be over time.

Match­ing white but­tons for power, play/pause, and fast­for­ward/rewind slightly pro­trude from the case’s hori­zon, while slightly curv­ing to match the

CT10’S body. The most no­table phys­i­cal fea­ture is the shiny, do­decago­nal vol­ume knob on the player’s right-hand side. The me­tal knob is mint green, re­sem­bling the one on Astell&kern’s AK70 high-res dig­i­tal au­dio player ( go. mac­world.com/70hr).

The Ac­tivo sat nat­u­rally in the palm of my hand; the player was per­fectly suited to am­bidex­trous use. While hold­ing it in my right hand, my thumb fell nat­u­rally on the vol­ume dial, with my in­dex fin­ger on the con­trol but­tons. When I shifted it to my left hand, my in­dex fin­ger took over vol­ume con­trol du­ties while my thumb had in­stant ac­cess to the con­trols. Af­ter us­ing the Ac­tivo in dif­fer­ent con­texts, I wish that the dial had a knurled tex­ture. If my right thumb was slightly sweaty, I didn’t have the same fric­tion to move the dial eas­ily. The same

wasn’t the case when mov­ing the dial with my left in­dex fin­ger.

My big­gest com­plaint about the Ac­tivo CT10 is its tiny 3.4-inch color screen. Only the left 4/5 of the glass area lights up, leav­ing an odd black space down the right-hand side. This in­dus­trial de­sign de­ci­sion is a bit of a head-scratcher.

The screen pri­mar­ily be­came a nui­sance when I wanted to use the key­board for search­ing or en­ter­ing cre­den­tials. The key­board is far too small for av­er­age-sized fin­gers. I had to re­type my Tidal pass­word more than a few times be­cause my fin­gers would hit the wrong key. Should you have dif­fi­culty with small font sizes, you might have some trou­ble with the CT10’S small type.

SWEET SOUND

I tested the Ac­tivo with a pair of Astell& Kern Bil­lie Jean in-ear mon­i­tors (its own re­view is forth­com­ing), as well as a pair of Fo­cal’s Clear over-the-ear head­phones ( go.mac­world.com/fcal). I used high-res

mu­sic files from my col­lec­tion and streamed mu­sic via Tidal. Need­less to say, my praise of this player’s de­sign ex­tends to its re­fined sound.

The CT10 dis­plays ex­cel­lent bal­ance. Bass lines are weighty and au­thor­i­ta­tive, with a sweet midrange. This player won’t ro­man­ti­cize your mu­sic, and you’ll never mis­take it as overly warm or lush. The Ac­tivo showed mas­tery of any mu­si­cal genre: R&B, jazz, rock, and clas­si­cal came across ef­fort­lessly.

Dynamics are among the player’s strengths. The Ac­tivo dis­played ex­cel­lent mid­bass re­sponse whether play­ing

Steely Dan’s “Gau­cho,” Cold Play’s “Ad­ven­ture of a Life­time,” Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell,” or Michael Jack­son’s “Smooth Crim­i­nal.”

The Ac­tivo didn’t miss a beat on such grand works as the LSO’S 24-bit/96khz record­ing of Verdi’s Re­quiem, con­ducted by Gian­drea Noseda. The player could just as eas­ily melt you with the ten­der­ness of Ni­daros­domens Jen­tekor’s Mag­ni­fi­cat.

A DAR­LING HIGH-RES DIG­I­TAL AU­DIO PLAYER

The Ac­tivo CT10’S sleek de­sign, com­pact size, su­perb in­ter­face, snappy re­sponse, rich fea­ture set, and $299 price tag ren­der this high-res dig­i­tal au­dio player a ver­i­ta­ble steal. It’s an out­stand­ing per­former, mu­si­cally speak­ing.

Be sure to pair the CT10 with a re­fined pair of head­phones; and please don’t dampen its per­for­mance with MP3 files.

If you don’t need the hard­ware fea­tures found on more ex­pen­sive play­ers, or you’re just look­ing to get the most out of well-recorded mu­sic, I can’t think of a bet­ter buy. ■

It’s easy to browse the on­board storage as well as the con­tents of a mounted mi­crosd card slot.

In DAC mode, you can use the Ac­tivo’s su­pe­rior au­dio cir­cuitry and DAC to play au­dio stored on your com­puter.

The Ac­tivo CT10 comes with a free, easy-to-use DLNA­com­pli­ant stream­ing server for Mac and Win­dows com­put­ers.

Swip­ing from the left side of the screen brings out the Ac­tivo’s main menu.

The player has a white poly­car­bon­ate back and mint-green–col­ored vol­ume dial.

The Ac­tivo’s ac­tive screen doesn’t fill the player’s en­tire face, leav­ing a black space down the right-hand side.

The Ac­tivo CT10’S on-screen key­board is ex­tremely small.

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