Astell & Kern SR15 and SE100 preview

Astell & Kern is one of those companies that I was instantly intrigued by the moment I saw their first industrial-designed audiophile product years ago — the AK100 — before I’d even heard a note of music through one of their DAPs.

The original, the AK100.

A relatively new player on the high-fidelity block, A&K is a company that launched at the beginning of what was the audiophile-centric, computer-audio boom and has ridden that wave to critical acclaim with unique, standout products like the aforementioned AK100 portable digital-audio player, which made its debut at CES in 2013.

Despite a burgeoning portable-player market, in January 2014 Astell & Kern followed up on the popularity of the AK100 and AK120 with the AK240 and a year later with what I consider their breakthrough, genre-defining audiophile model: the Dual-DAC equipped AK380.

The dual-DAC AK380.

Despite continuing successes, A&K do not seem content to rest on their technological or industrial-design laurels. They continue to push the boundaries of their research and development, the results of which were recently unveiled at a press launch in California of their latest models – the Cirrus Logic CS43198 dual-DAC equipped A&norma SR15 ($699USD) and the ESS SABRE ES9038PRO eight-channel enabled A&futura SE100 ($1,699 USD) – which InnerFidelity covered in June

After conferring with the company’s rep, Jason Henriques, I received review samples of the SR15 and SE100 and decided I would start out by using the SR15 (along with a Naim DAC-V1) to break-in several pairs of new Audeze headphones.

The diminutive SR15 is as gorgeous to look at as it is to hold. It is smooth as a polished river stone, with muscular, angular lines of metal and glass drawing the eye and fingers in immediately to touch and hold. It has an almost perfectly-balanced heft in the hand, and is quick, easy and intuitive to set-up and use.

I had it streaming Tidal Hi-Fi over my wireless network in two minutes and straight out of the box the sound was gutsy, transparent and articulate with a wide, deep soundstage, excellent presence-region weight to both instruments and vocals, deep authoritative bass and airy treble that was not sacrificing clarity for smoothness.

After a quick install of Android File Transfer onto my audio-dedicated MacBook Air 11-inch and loading the SR15 up with a mix of 24/192 PCM files along with several DSD128 albums, I was able to bring the music that much closer to the recorded event over what Tidal Hi-fi had been serving up.

I’ve been doing the bulk of my listening through the new Audeze LCD-4z ($3,995 USD) which are spec'd at 98 dB/1mW and a 15-Ohm impedance. The 4z being driven by the SR15 sounds effortless with a real sense of headroom and grip on powerful dynamic swings. When the 4z is burning-in on the DAC-V1, I use a pair of LCD2 Classics.

With the about 60 hours on the SR15 so far and about 150 hours on the LCD-4z SQ is really opening up.

Taking this combo out on daily walks to photograph the area around my girlfriend’s family cabin, or our home in the city is one of my current favourite pastimes, as the SR15’s size makes it unnoticeable in jeans or shorts pockets.

Next up for a preview will be the A&K SE100, so stay tuned for this update very shortly.

COMPANY INFO
IRIVER Inc. / Astell&Kern US
19600 Fairchild Road, Suite 125, Irvine, CA 92612
support.inc@iriver.com
949-336-4540 or 949-336-4541

COMMENTS
mithrandir39's picture

I just bought one and that looks like laser-etching on the back, rather than carbon fiber.

Rafe Arnott's picture
This is from Jason Henriques with A&K regarding the SR15 back: "It is just glass. The only players with Carbon Fibre are the flagship models – SP1000, AK380, AK240. All other players have a glass backing."

Thanks for sending the note, now we know definitively.

I've amended the line in the preview!

Stevelgbch's picture

Sure would like to know if AK will ever make Tidal available offline. I have an AK Jr. and I sure would buy a new player if they did. I have WiFi in my car but it would be prohibitively expensive to run regular full stream 4G with the current app.

Izzy321's picture

I won't buy A&K again. My AK70 Mark II does not play mono mp3 encoded files through Bluetooth. Through a wired connection, yes, but not through Bluetooth, and I've tried it with a variety of Bluetooth playback devices, from expensive speakers through cheap earphones. Seems like some funky implementation of Bluetooth protocols, I don't know, but it should not be my problem.

It does me no good to be able to play 192 encoded music if I can't play rare 1960's mono recordings that can't be found in stereo.

A&K does not respond to numerous requests for support, so thumbs down to them.

AstellnKern's picture

Thank you very much for the feedback and we are sorry to hear about your experience. Based on your description, AK Customer Support had the opportunity to conduct a preliminary review with the Technical Development Team. As you had stated, the format of the "mono" mp3 file type is rare and since the playback can be established successfully via wire connections, we do not believe the issue is within the DAP hardware or related with firmware versions. We currently do not have a method to improve the limitation posts by Bluetooth technology. However, we truly appreciate the opportunity to support you on this matter, as we look forward to learning further about this unique music format with our team.

AudioFanLondon's picture

I purchased the SR15 last week and it sounds stunning when playing from my SD card, or when streaming HIFI quality music from TIDAL. However, the main reason I bought it was its capability to stream MQA from TIDAL online through its own inbuilt TIDAL software. However, sadly wenever I play an MQA track from TIDAL, the SR15 is inundated with pops and clicks in the track. I have turned the player on and off, updated the software, and tried everything I could think of. My home Wifi is exceptionally fast and when I play MQA tracks on my LG V30, which is also enabled for full MQA playback there are no pops or clicks at all. I have the latest software update installed on the SR15 (1.12 released Dec 12th 2018). I'm not using a side-loaded version of TIDAL, only the one pre-installed within the A&K UI. The SR15 will play HIFI quality tracks on TIDAL flawlessly, it's only when I select Master/MQA tracks that it pops and clicks. I'm really disappointed as that's what drew me to this product. Will have to return it unless it gets fixed in a software update within my 30 days returns period. Anyone else had clicks and pops with TIDAL MQA on these new A&K devices?

Rafe Arnott's picture
AudioFanLondon's picture

Please go easy on me as I'm new here - I realised I left out one crucial detail in my comment above: This is about listening via Bluetooth. (Many of you might despair that I'm even bothering to listen to MQA via Bluetooth!) The issue I've had since buying the SR15 Norma is this: using bluetooth headphones with the AptX codec (Bowers & Wilkins P7 wireless) the SR15 pops and clicks when it plays MQA Tidal tracks in the embedded app. Playing regular HIFI tracks is fine, but each time I play MQA tracks the pops and clicks return. (Listening to all file types including MQA with wired headphones is flawless, so no problems there - my only issues are with Bluetooth). I borrowed the most advanced pair of bluetooth headphones I could get my hands on - the Bowers & Wilkins PX - as I knew they have the APTXHD codec and interestingly, the TIDAL MQA tracks will play flawlessly when I pair the SR15 with the Bowers PX. But as soon as I go back to any bluetooth headphone without AptXHD (e.g. my P7's or my Senn Momentum Wireless which both use AptX not HD) the pops and clicks return. It seems like perhaps it requires APTXHD in order for such large MQA files to stream successfully from a DAP to a headphone? I've reached out to Astell & Kern to ask if it's a fixable problem or not. I'm hoping I can use the SR15 with my Bowers P7's and Momentum Wireless and not have to splash out on AptXHD headphones in order for the TIDAL MQA tracks to play properly.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Go easy on you? My friend, you're welcome here to ask any questions you like, I will always do my best to answer what I can, and if I can't or one of my contributors is unable to chime in with an answer, then I usually reach out directly to the manufacturer, but since you've done that already, please let us know what you hear back.

I've not paired the SR15 with Bluetooth headphones yet so I'm afraid I can't comment personally on what you're experiencing.

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