Astell&Kern, a global leader in portable high-resolution audio products, debuts three new products, including two new portable players, and a dedicated amplifier in Singapore on 26 June 2019. The new range of audio portables feature new and improved performance, perfect for audiophiles and headphone enthusiasts. The A&ultima SP2000 Portable Player is available in Stainless Steel and Copper at S$5,299. KANN CUBE is available in Wolf Gray at S$2,349. Astell&Kern SP1000 AMP is available in Stainless Steel, Copper and Black at S$1,249. All prices include GST and will be available from July 2019.
I met up with a publication intern who has more experience in food than tech products. She was clearly out-of-place, but so are many others present during the media launch. Most of them are just there to take hands-on photos of the products, while a handful audiophiles were focused on assessing the audio quality. After chatting with the intern, I come to realise that she is not alone in understanding what is the fuss with these audiophile products. So let me try to break it down simply for your reading pleasure.
Audiophile DAPs Explained for Muggles
The latest products launched by Astell&Kern are digital audio players (DAP), or “MP3 Players” for the rest of us. But because the players don’t just play “MP3”, which is just a compressed audio format. DAP can play a lot of other audio formats, like WAV, DSD, FLAC, etc. In the past, portable devices have low computing power and small storage, so people like to carry small audio files. A 3-min MP3 file is about 3MB in size, while an uncompressed 16-bit WAV file is over 30MB. Today, a high-resolution audio file like DSD can hold 300MB. Why are the files so big? I’ll discuss later.
Digital Audio Players: Converting Digital to Analog
In order to play a digital audio file, a special component called digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is needed to convert binary information into analog signals. All smartphones have this component, but what makes premium players like A&K KANN CUBE special is the power of this chip. A typical audio chip just needs to convert 2 channels – left and right. The KANN CUBE has two 8-channel ESS Sabre ES9039PRO DACs in a dual-mono configuration. It means the audio chip assigns to 16 discrete channels to analyse the information and translates into audio signals.
The A&Ultima SP2000 uses two AKM AK4499EQ DAC, which supports an extremely high resolution 768kHz 32-bit formats. Audio resolution and sample is no different from image resolution and pixels: a higher number means there is more granularity in the difference of “sound colour”. The more details, the larger the file size.
Not all DAPs are built the same. This idea is no different from buying different computer monitors, as each are tuned with a different colour profile.
Powering Up the Sound: Amplifier
Now that the audio is converted to analog signal, you need to deliver the sound to an output device, like headphones or speakers. Amplifying the signal is just as important: a poor amp will generate unwanted noise that will pollute the original sound, or it might not be powerful enough for the headphones to pick up the signal. A premium DAP with powerful amp can “drive” demanding headphones with high impedance.
The ES9038PRO, which is used in high end studio and home pro audio equipment, delivers the ultimate in spaciousness and massive sound scale. The new 5-pin Mini XLR also makes it easy to connect to a home Hi-Fi audio amplifier.
For the A&ultima SP2000, the newly designed audio circuit provides independent audio channels between unbalanced and balanced outputs, which means the circuits are separately designed to deliver better performance tuned for both types of outputs.
Headphones: The Last Mile
After all the hard work, the audio signal must be transmitted through the audio cables to the headphones or earphones and generate sound waves to be heard. A good pair of headphones will be able to interpret the audio signal from the quality DAP and reproduce faithfully. It would be a shame if you have the best DAP but a mediocre headphones.
Most normal audio players and headphones transmit “unbalanced” audio, which in simple terms mean the left and right channels might introduce impurities that cannot be corrected. A “balanced” audio has an additional cable path to detect any transmission defects and reverses it so that the final sound on the headphones is “perfect”. On top of improving audio integrity, DAPs with balanced audio tend to have better signal handling to start with. The result is that you instantly hear improved clarity, instrumental separation, and wider dynamics.
And after all is explained, there is one last question to ask:
Can You Hear The Difference?
Don’t feel ashamed if you are simply happy with a cheap S$50 earphones. Each individual has their own tastes: some love bright transparent treble, others dig heavy bass. Music is nothing but colourful sound waves, and not everyone needs to be satisfied with the little details. It’s just like food appreciation, some people are happy with S$3 mixed rice, while others need S$100 Wagyu beef. Think of it has a “curse” if you have golden ears, that you need premium audio gear to satisfy the sound quality you demand.
The A&ultima SP2000 delivers a sound that is detailed but not too metallic nor too warm. It has good balance in clarity and depth, and I find it pairs better with neutral headphones. The KANN CUBE turns out to be somewhat aggressive and driven, and probably requires more professional grade headphones to match its prowess. I find the higher frequency is not as precise as SP2000 (could be due to my personal earphones inefficiencies) but the midrange is better delivered.
The latest Astell&Kern A&ultima SP2000 and KANN CUBE are designed for the audiophiles who knows what they are looking for. They will be available from July 2019 at the following authorised retailers: AV One, AV One Lazada, Challenger Musica Boutique, Connect-IT, E1 Personal Audio Singapore, Jaben, Music Sanctuary, Stereo Electronics, and Treoo.com.