Astell & Kern’s music player supercharges headphone sound
This portable music player that delivers a bigger bang for your tunes.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
If you crave uber clarity you've come to the right place: the Astell & Kern Kann will take your music to the next level. The company has dominated the high-quality portable music player market for years, and when you hold the Kann in your hands you'll start to understand why. Measuring a tidy 1 by 2.8 by 4.6 inches (26 by 71 by 115 mm) and weighing a not-inconsiderable 9.8 ounces (278 grams), it feels like it's crafted from a solid piece of metal.
A lot of the weight can be attributed to the Kann's 6,200mAh Lithium Polymer battery that's responsible for its above average power output. This means the player can drive headphones that make lightweight players and phones cry uncle. I liked the easy-to-read, 4-inch 480 by 800 pixel screen along with the metal control buttons. The rotary volume knob also has a great tactile feel.
As for high-resolution, the Kann's goes up to 382 KHz/32 bit PCM and DSD256. The Kann ($999, £948 and AU$1,349) comes in two finishes, Astro Silver and Eos Blue, while looking and feeling like the high-end component it is.
Arrayed across the top of the unit there are four outputs: a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a 2.5mm balanced headphone jack along with 3.5mm stereo and 2.5mm balanced stereo analog output jacks. On the Kann's bottom you'll see slots for the MicroSD and SD cards, a USB-C connector for data/charging and the Micro-USB connector for digital audio output. The player sports 64GB of internal memory, and the slots can support another 768GB of music, so there's plenty of room for high-res audio files. If you're into wireless, there's Bluetooth V4.0 and aptX HD.
Dropping serious coin on a player like this only makes sense if you already own a great set of high-end headphones, so I first pulled out my Audeze LCD3 Fazors, and man oh man, that combination really clicked with mandolinist Chris Thile, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer's brilliant "Bach Trios" album in 96 kHz/24 bit high resolution audio. The sound was palpably real and alive so the instruments sounded more like themselves, lesser music players and headphones can't begin to match that quality. The stereo imaging was set free from the confines of the headphone. Treble was extended and airy in ways that elude most portable music listening experiences.
Then I played The National's "Boxer" album with a set of Audeze LCDi4 in-ear headphones, and I have to say Matt Berninger's vocals never sounded more intact, more complete and alive. The dense mix of acoustic instruments and organ set in a deeply reverberant field totally drew me in. Recorded in part in the band's home studios, "Boxer" has always been my favorite National album, and here with the LCDi4 and the Kann, the music was more amazing than before.
My Hifiman HE 560 over-the-ears are demanding headphones, not at all friendly to most portable music players, but the Kann sailed through, no problem! The rambunctious bass drum driving Los Lobos "Kiko Live" album pushed the HE 560s to the max, and the music's slippery grooves made me smile. When the band hits it hard with "Reva's House," the Kann's power reserves came in handy.
Sticking with the HE 560 and diving deep into Lucinda Williams "Live @ The Fillmore" album, I felt like I was listening through the mixing soundboard at the back of the house. The "liveness" of the sound demonstrated exactly what high-end headphones and a music player like the Kann bring to the experience of listening to music.
The Kann's only downside is its somewhat bulky shape, though the Kann's big draws are its abundant power and high-resolution capabilities which really bloom with the very best headphones. If you have a high-end set, the Astell & Kern Kann deserves serious consideration.