Astell&Kern KANN Portable Media Player Page 2

AstellKern_KANN_Photo_Glory

Sound Quality
Tyll called the AK240 "Tonally neutral with a slight bias towards bright" when he reviewed it several years back. I'd say that description applies, to varying degrees, for just about every other AK device I've experienced. It's a clean presentation, not bad by any means, but at times a bit lifeless. Treble clarity also sometimes rubs me the wrong way, with an artificial emphasis which lacks true resolution when compared to competitors like the Questyle QP1R. In general, I like—but don't love—the sound of AK devices, irrespective of their value compared to other choices.

KANN seems to go in a somewhat different direction, which in my view is a good thing. Treble sounds more refined while at the same time a bit less "in your face". The mild treble glare I heard in the AK240 and AK120 II seems all but eliminated—and without resorting to a slightly darker, more forgiving signature like the AK100 II. While I quite liked that model considering the price, I also found it lacked the immediacy of its more expensive siblings. The KANN seems to combine the best of both worlds into one device.

The other major difference I hear is low end solidity. In this regard the KANN is up there with the expensive AK380 in terms of extension, impact, and texture. I think the AK120 II and AK240 did just fine in this area, but after hearing KANN I can confidently say it does a better job than either. To be clear—it's not an actual bass emphasis, as the overall level remains neutral.

A musical example: Accurately capturing the sound of Tiger Okoshi on trumpet can be a tough thing for a system to handle. It really has to nail various sonic attributes—microdetail, dynamics, bite—or else it just doesn't come off as lifelike. To my ears, KANN seems to do better at this than other Astell&Kern devices (again with the possible exception of the very expensive AK380). While prior models initially wow with their increased treble energy, I tend to find them fatiguing over time. KANN has excellent articulation without that glare, which makes trumpets and other brass sound more convincing. It's the same story with piano, trombone, and many other instruments. KANN may initially sound a bit tame upon direct comparison to its predecessors, but give it some time and you'll hear how dynamic and resolving it can be.

When it comes to headphone synergy, KANN is the most versatile Atell&Kern product I've encountered. The superior treble performance plus lower output impedance and beefed up amp section make it suitable for a wide variety of headphones and in-ear monitors. In this sense it is very much like using one of the AK3xx models along with their external $599 dedicated add-on amp—KANN's output figures are nearly identical to that device, both for single ended and balanced operation.

This means KANN is comfortable driving almost any load. I would expect a DAP to handle IEMs as well as relatively easy loads from Grado, Sony, or Focal. In those cases I don't bother using the balanced output. But when driving something a bit more difficult—a planar magnetic design, or a high impedance Sennheiser—I prefer balanced mode. It seems to deliver a richer, more full-bodied sound when listening at higher volumes, and maintains its composure a bit better with complex arrangements. It's definitely a worthwhile option to have, even if your current headphone collection doesn't require it.

While I personally dislike the 2.5mm TRRS balanced jack, I admit it's become something of a standard. Astell&Kern uses it, Cayin uses it, Fiio uses it... and I imagine we'll only see more of it going forward. While I would personally prefer to see the 3.5mm TRRS style (as seen in the HiFiMAN HM-901 models) become the standard, I really don't see that happening—the ship has probably sailed by now. My solution is to tap Moon Audio for a 2.5mm TRRS to 4-pin XLR adapter. I run balanced at home (my cans are mostly 4-pin XLR anyway) while sticking with single-ended output for IEMs on the go. If you do use headphones with 2.5mm balanced termination while out and about, just be careful—it's a fairly delicate system and I've heard a few examples of failure during relatively casual use.

AstellKern_KANN_Photo_Rear

Conclusion
Astell&Kern took a gamble by tapping a different design team on their KANN player. The resulting product looks fairly unique compared to prior AK designs, and handles very differently thanks to those front panel controls. Obviously that massive battery is the headlining feature, but we also get increased power and connectivity thanks to the expanded real estate. The $999 price tag is certainly not cheap, though for an Astell&Kern product it is actually on the low side.

What to make of all this? Well, for starters, KANN has very little competition when it comes to potent output plus extended battery life. Other brands have models which are either powerful (Fiio X7 with AM5 amp module) or long lasting (Sony WM1A/Z), but nothing pulls off both aspects quite like KANN. This combination, plus its superb sound quality, makes KANN a rather compelling option...yet I can't quite universally recommend it.

Potential owners really need to do some reflection about their needs. Are they ever going to actually drive a difficult full-size headphone with a portable player? Will they regularly listen for 12+ hours per day without access to a charger? Are they fine with only using Tidal via WiFi? And, most importantly, can they stomach the bulk and weight of this player? If the answer to those questions is universally "yes", KANN is absolutely recommended. If not, it might be worthwhile to look elsewhere.

That said, I think the Astell&Kern KANN deserves a spot on the Wall of Fame—there's really nothing else quite like it on the market. It won't work for everyone, but I don't think that's necessarily a requirement.

Since our current Wall of Fame selections are a bit outdated, it's time to do some housecleaning. Cowon's Plenue 1 and both of the Sony players are discontinued—time to retire them from the Wall. Questyle's excellent QP1R stays. I've got a few other strong contenders in-house for evaluation and we may see further shake-ups in the next few months. Due to its unique approach, I don't anticipate anything taking KANN's place, but we'll see how it plays out.

For more of John Grandberg's writings on Digital Audio Players, check out his DAP Roundup Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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COMMENTS
purk's picture

In addition to the Kann, please check out the ZX300 & 1Z/A. I discover that the 1Z's output to be loud and satisfy enough in term of sound quality for even my Senn HD-800. The ZX300 is 80-85% sound wise compared to my 1Z, but it does a good enough job driving the HD800 as well while offering a near perfect package for portable use as well as price. The ZX300 can also be used for digital transport outputting hi-rez PCMs as well as DSD digital out to capable DACs. I am super impressed by the ZX300's ability to nearly do it all.

John Grandberg's picture
I really have been quite impressed with the recent players from Sony. Unfortunately, as a massive corporation that makes a wide variety of gear, they can be hard to deal with for obtaining review loaners. Companies like Sennheiser, HiFiMAN, Audeze, PS Audio etc are much, MUCH better in this regard. But I'll keep at it and see what I can come up with. I've been curious about the ZX300 in particular so I appreciate your feedback on that.
purk's picture

Hi John,

Thanks for your reply. You will really like the ZX300 I believe. Sony has recently beefed up their S-Master amplifier module starting from the 1A/1Z following by the ZX300 so it has enough power to drive harder to drive phones using its balanced output. The HD800 does sound good out of it and I do enjoy that combination quite it be. Of course, just don't expect highend desktop performance.

barun432's picture

Good stuff John. Kann has been out for a while now, so keeping it up there with QP1R seems fair. I was wondering if you were going to do a QP2R review, as QP1R user, we would like to know about the differences and whether we are missing something more than the UI and the balanced jack.

Cheers

John Grandberg's picture
QP2R is on my "to do" list. Right now I'm working with the Fiio X5 3rd gen, and the Cayin N5ii. Then Questyle is next on my list if all goes well.
Martin.'s picture

As if the price wasn't enough of a deterrent, it looks like a brick. I guess it doubles up as a self-defence weapon.

Marcello's picture

I will have a chance to test the player and compare with the Sony ZX300. Long battery life is very important to me, I really hate to interrupt a music listening session just because I run out or juice.
Also, bonus points for listening to Pinback!

Karlengel's picture

John. Have you given a listen to the Sony WM1A? There is a scarcity of reviews on this dap which I find outstanding.

John Grandberg's picture
As I mentioned in a comment above, Sony is one of those giant faceless corporations that can be tough to deal with for review loaners. You tend to get bounced around or just flat out ignored. Unlike, say, Astell&Kern, who uses a very responsive PR firm. But I'll try again with Sony and see how it shakes out.
DaveinSM's picture

I got the Astell&Kern AK Jr after it got discounted to $250, and after years of using only iPods, I can say that it’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

User interface is laggy and a bit cumbersome in terms of menu and submenu access. Transferring Apple lossless music files from a MacBook Pro is easy enough to do without any special software, but available album graphics don’t automatically populate like they did with the iPods synced with iTunes. I understand the reason why, as the UI on these is more geared towards the Android/PC world. I would assume this to be the same with the KANN, and since this one seems more like a personal sound system for using around the house rather than on-the-go, it would be a shame not to be able to view the album artwork to show on that larger screen. In fact, it’s almost a deal breaker. I’d need to re-rip all of my hundreds of CDs to a format that supports album artwork on the KANN. What a PAIN. but these Astell&Kerns look and sound great. They don’t work nearly as seamlessly as an iPod with iTunes, but then again nothing else does either.

John Grandberg's picture
I agree, the Astell&Kern gear is far less appealing for Mac users. I own a MacBook Air that I use once in a while but I'm mainly a PC guy, so I approach the AK products from my own experience. But if I only used the MacBook, I'd look elsewhere for a DAP.
DaveinSM's picture

Yeah, I agree. Funny how apple and iTunes used to be the de facto music platform for daps till they totally abandoned the iPod. Now it’s all android, especially if you want to deal with high Rez, non lossy formats.

Regardless, nice and balanced review. I really appreciate how you consider how this product would be used in real world settings.

vkalia's picture

So if i dont need the ability to drive some full-sized headphones, what should i get - any suggestions?

I am looking to get a new DAP soon. I have a Sony ZX100, but wanted one with a bigger screen.

John Grandberg's picture
The Sony ZX2 is fantastic, easily one of my favorites despite being "old" by now. I also still hold the original Cowon Plenue 1 in very high regard, and it can be had for a song these days. Amazon typically sells if for $400-500 brand new.
purk's picture

I would go with the ZX300 for considerably better sound and much better driving power. I have the ZX100 and the ZX300 is an ideal upgrade for you. If you don't need the driving power (CIEM users only), the ZX2 is still a good choice.

donunus's picture

The zx300 is one I would really like to see reviewed here as well as the AK70 mkII

dynamo's picture

Today,March 12, KANN's farmware(v1.11) update was announced. Anyone who is going to check KANN should try the new line-out volume control using line-out output connector. Its sound is more transparent and revealing than normal output. And KANN owners should try the farmware update, I think. It costs no money, and the sound improves. https://www.astellnkern.com/eng/content/support/notice/view.asp?search=&...

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