The KANN MAX is the fourth digital audio player by Astell&Kern in the KANN series, which focuses on high output to drive the most demanding headphones. Compared to previous KANN models, the KANN Max is smaller, lighter, and more powerful. It is also cheaper, at S$1999, distributed by AV One.
Keeping the player small while delivering more powerful output is a challenge, which is why Astell&Kern re-designed the internal components so that there is no compromise to sound quality. The KANN MAX provides four selectable output gain levels with the maximum output increased from 12Vrms (on the KANN Alpha) to 15Vrms. This means the KANN MAX can drive a wider variety of headphones, even the ones with high impedance which was previously only possible with a home amplifier. The power supply for DAC, volume, and amplifier, are divided so that the power supply is more stable and at the same time eliminates noise.
To ensure the audio is faithful to the source, the KANN MAX implements four ES9038Q2M DAC, with one DAC allocated to one audio channel. It also supports bit-to-bit playback up to 32-bit, 768kHz and native DSD512 support. It also employs Bluetooth 5.0 and supports both wireless 24-bit LDAC and aptX HD. The player also supports Wi-Fi and can install popular music streaming apps like TIDAL, Spotify, Apple Music, KKBox. The UI performance remains its Achilles heel: while the overall interface remains largely similar to previous models, navigating on the APK music apps is laggy and sometimes unresponsive. UI experience is not smooth compared to Sony’s recent Walkman models like WM1ZM2, which uses stock Android OS.
Astell&Kern fans would appreciate the prismatic design style which characterises their portable players. Any owner would be sure to buy a casing to protect both the player and the owner’s hands, for handling the KANN MAX bare would be sure to incite discomfort on the palm. One should also handle them with utmost care, and dropping them on the floor is sure to damage both the floor surface and create a minor dent on those sharp edges on the hardy player. A good thing is the screen protectors are included in the retail package.
The volume wheel has an LED ring light around it to indicate the bit-rate of the audio track being played, similar to what Chord Mojo has done. I felt that other than aesthetics, I do not see any purpose with this especially when the light is so hidden that it is not obvious to users.
To bring out the full potential of the KANN MAX, I connected my Sennheiser HD 800S with 4.4mm balanced cables. I selected the “Super Gain” amp mode and the volume level only reached about 85/150. Without a doubt the KANN MAX drives the HD800S comfortably and delivering all the fine details. The upper frequencies are very well-controlled and do not sound at all harsh or shouty or shrill, midrange is clean and detailed, no hint of fog. The tracks sound more subtly spatial, instruments enjoy greater separation and clarity. With quieter audiophile tracks, I dialed the volume knob higher and appreciated the massive headroom, something that I could only indulge with home amplifiers.
Switching to other less demanding IEMs like Sennheiser IE300, I am pleased that the treble is similarly controlled. Given the tuning of the IE300, the treble remains in great control and does not sound too thin or overly bright. The KANN MAX has shown to deliver a neutral-balanced sound with subtly more discernible detail, space and separation. It makes my Sony ZX300 sound less capable: less detailed, cluttered.
Indeed, the powerful amplifier ensures every single digital information is transformed into musical nuances in great finesse. When you start getting goosebumps listening to the reference tracks, you know there is something exceptional with the KANN MAX. Certainly such massive power consumption will cause the device to get heated during operations especially when decoding higher-resolution tracks.
Audiophiles and enthusiasts will know that achieving great sounds requires end-to-end good components. The Astell&Kern KANN MAX is an extremely capable portable DAP that further improves my listening pleasure over my premium headphones. I’m not a fan of the UI and the edgy design, but the audio performance makes up for the less desirable traits.