Astell&Kern is a popular brand for audiophile-grade music players and headphones. The products might be a bit out-of-reach for many, and while they also sell affordable models, we know that it’s the higher-tier products that bring out better audio quality. Not anymore, now that Astell&Kern has launched the AK USB-C Dual DAC Amplifier Cable (PEE51), which retails at S$189 in Singapore.
The quality of a DAC lies literally with the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The Astell&Kern USB-C Dual DAC cable is powered by Cirrus Logic CS43198 MasterHIFI tier chipsets and supports up to native DSD256 and PCM 32bit/384kHz . This is the same dual DAC used in the A&norma SR25 which costs close to S$1000. The dual DACs are paired with an independent analog amplifier with sufficient power to drive high-impedance headphones with a 2Vrms output level. The bespoke designed capacitors, that are also used in Astell&Kern’s high-performance DAPs, optimise the audio circuit to suppress power fluctuations and provide stable operation.
This DAC cable feels exceedingly solid compared to other DAC cables that I have reviewed. It features the iconic angled surface design in metal zinc alloy body which also helps to dissipate heat. Be warned: the DAC gets quite hot during operations! For those who are particular about cable quality, the DAC cable uses custom-made 4-core cable with Technora aramid fibre at its core to block external noise, thick silver-plated copper wrapped around this centre strand, with a further layer of copper added in a spiral arrangement which helps to deliver a clear and rich spatial sound, while separate shielding treatment is applied to the cable to block distortion and digital and analogue signal noise from the playback device.
There are no buttons on the DAC, just a small white LED to indicate the power status. Astell&Kern placed a clear warning that no audio should be played when the DAC cable is plugged into the device. This is because the DAC will be turned on at the maximum amplification volume, which might damage your headphones. I also find that the volume level can go really high. On my LG gram 13 laptop, I had to reduce to below 20% level on the sound mixer (with VLC volume at 100%) when listening with the Sennheiser IE 300 and Shure AONIC 5. For the Sennheiser HD 800S, the volume indicator goes to about 60%. When playing with the built-in 3.5mm, the IE 300 volume level is at 60%.
I find that the Astell&Kern USB-C Dual DAC cable really improves the audio quality of your current smartphone or laptop easily. This improvement may not be apparent when listening to casual content like YouTube, since these audio content does not demand critical listening. But when I start playing audiophile tracks, the sound is more dynamic, less compressed and peaky, better instrumental layer and sound staging. I compared with the Creative SXFI Amp which sounds a little more pushy at the treble, giving the impression of better details, but when playing very challenging tracks like Hiromi’s jazz numbers, the Astell&Kern’s cable is more musical, more depth, less harsh.
One thing to note is that the DAC adaptor does not support in-line controls and microphone, but you can still plug in the 4-pole jack to listen to audio. It also does not support iOS devices due to their power controls. The manual also mentioned firmware updates may be available from the official website.
As most smartphones and ultra-thin laptops have removed the 3.5mm jack, audio purists can get a DAC cable like the Astell&Kern PEE51 USB-C Dual DAC Cable to enjoy audiophile-grade sound quality. It offers high amplification to drive demanding headphones, though care must be taken to reduce volume level before plugging in low-impedance earphones, as the amplification drive is extremely powerful. The cable is on pre-order now and will go on sale in Singapore on May 2021. Visit the AV One product website for more details.
- Audiophile-grade sound quality
- Smooth treble delivers clarity without sounding harsh
- Gets hot during operation
- Does not support microphone
- Amplification is too high for low impedance earphones
- Body material: Zinc Alloy
- Body colour: Titan
- DAC: Cirrus Logic CS43198 x 2
- Input: USB Type-C Input (for Windows 10, Android Smartphone & Tablet PC, macOS)
- Output: 3.5mm headphone
- Dimensions: USB Plug: 12mm[W] x 20mm[H] x 8.2mm[D] ; 3.5mm Headphone: 17mm[W] x 50mm[H] x 10.3mm[D]
- Weight: Approx. 25g
- Frequency response: ± 0.030 (Condition: 20 Hz~20 kHz)
- Sample Rate: PCM: Support up to 32bit/384kHz | DSD Native: DSD64(1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128(1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256(1bit 11.2MHz), Stereo
- Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 118dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced
- THD+N: 0.0004% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced
- IMD SMPTE: 0.0003% 800Hz 10kHz (4:1) Unbalanced
- Output impedance: 2ohm
- Output power or voltage: 2Vrms (condition no load)