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Astell & Kern AK100 Portable Music Player Reviewed

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HTR Product Rating

Performance
4.5 Stars
Value
4 Stars
Overall
4.5 Stars

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Astell-Kern-AK100-portable-music-player-review-front-and-back-small.jpgAlthough there are scads of portable players on the market, very few support high-resolution music files. And while even iTunes can down-sample, compress and then load what used to be a higher-resolution music file into your iPod or iPhone, listening to down-sampled and compressed MP3 files just isn't as musically satisfying as hearing the full-resolution originals. With the new Astell & Kern AK100 ($699), you can play any high-resolution file, up to 192 kHz 24-bit (except 176 kHz 24-bit from its Toslink input) anywhere and any time into nearly any headphone, DAC, or audio system.

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Beyond being a high-resolution portable player, the AK100 can serve as a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) via a Toslink input or a high-resolution music source via a Toslink output. For the audiophile who travels a lot, the AK100 can serve as both a source and a playback device for all the music in the library. This is because, unlike most players with built-in storage, the AK100 also offers removable interchangeable storage options via two micro-SD card slots that each support up to 32 GB cards and some 64 GB cards. This card storage is in addition to the AK100's built-in 32 GB capabilities.

At first glance, the AK100 is a small, simple rectangular box that measures approximately three inches tall by two-and-a-quarter inches wide by half an inch thick. Finished in a semi-gloss satin black with a large, nearly two-inch-square touch screen and a single volume control knob on its side, the AK100 has a solid feel that takes it multiple quality notches above your average digital player or smart phone. I can practically hear it screaming, "I am not a disposable portable device."

The AK100 supports a variety of digital formats and resolutions, including FLAC, WAV, WMA, MPR, OGG, APE, AIFF, ALAC, and APE. Playing time varies depending on the file resolution. For MP3s, playing time is as long as 16 hours, but when playing high-res files, battery life drops to "only" 10 hours.

The AK100 comes with iRiver's Plus 4 software for use with Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 computers. This software makes moving music between your computer and the AK100 relatively easy and more intuitive than dragging and dropping files into folders. If you plan to use a lot of 96kHz or 192 kHz music files, transferring them can still be a lengthy process.

The AK100 also supports streaming from supported Bluetooth 3.0 devices, such as an Android or iPhone, when they are within a 20 CM range. When a phone call comes through, the AK100 will automatically disconnect. While the Bluetooth connection will support higher-resolution files, the AK100 instruction books recommends files 48K or lower to insure optimal stability.

Controls on the AK100 consist of a volume knob sticking out of one side, three small buttons on the other controlling play/pause, previous/rewind and next/fast forward, and on the top edge, a small button that functions as a volume lock once it has been activated. All other functions are adjusted via the AK100's touch-screen LCD display. The display contains multiple nested menus that keep a majority of the most often-used controls on the main screen. There is one adjustment, buried four levels down, called the "Volume Lock," which most users will want to activate almost immediately, since without it, there's no way to ensure that the volume (and other controls) won't be accidentally activated while the player sits in your pocket.

Among its features, the AK100 offers five-band equalization that can be accessed from its main playback screen. It offers up to 10 dB plus or minus corrections at 62, 250, 1000, 4000, and 16,000 Hz. The EQ is meant primarily to correct for earphones that need help in some part of the frequency spectrum, but it can also be used to correct for a particular album or track's harmonic issues as well. For purists, the EQ function can be completely bypassed, which will also result in a slightly higher output level. My only criticism of the EQ is that the AK100 lacks any EQ save and store functions, so you can't keep multiple EQ settings, such as one for each headphone you use regularly. Every time you change headphones that require EQ adjustments, you must go into the EQ settings and change each of the five bands manually.

Accessories included with the AK100 include a special USB cable for docking, charging, and transferring files, plus a quick-start guide, warranty info, micro SD card containing five sample high-resolution music files, extra plastic screen and back protectors, and a black cloth bag. The packaging is slick but not overdone, featuring a matte black box that slides into an outer sleeve.

When you turn on the AK100, you'd better not be in a hurry, because from off or sleep mode, it takes twenty seconds for it to wake up and become fully functional. Once awake, the AK100's touch-screen is quite sensitive and very responsive. The screen contains information besides the usual song title, artist's name, play, pause, rewind, and song timing. You'll also see the current time, Bluetooth connection status, battery strength, and access to sub-menus for navigating through your library, options, and even lyrics if they're imbedded in the meta-data.

Read more about the Astell & Kern AK100 on Page 2.
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