This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

iPod slayer? To end on the high note the AK100 deserves, let's wrap up the bad and indifferent first as it relates to our opening gambit of taking on the iPod. Remember also that iTunes and the iPod weren't built overnight. Those got a headstart by a decade. Now we must consider both hardware and software. Here Astell&Kern ace build quality and finish whilst their industrial design is arguably slightly old-fashioned. The AK100 is more compact yet thicker than the current iPod Classic which some will appreciate. Display size is equivalent but if the newest iPod Touch is any indication, the trend is for significantly bigger by occupying the entire front panel. Where Apple still outmuscles iriver is their present touch-screen responsiveness but in fairness the Classic never had one. iriver retaliate very powerfully with flash memory and user-replaceable memory cards to sink the iPod's strange reliance on spinning discs. On the sound-producing hardware bits one assumes iriver's are superior because their results are. On the battery end of things the newcomer is strong. On hardware I'd thus call our duel a decisive victory for the AK100. On software Astell&Kern still badly lag behind. Considering a first effort, the potential for catching up or at least removing present limitations and annoyances—display freezes, delayed responses, showing the wrong cover and meta data for what's playing, longish gaps between tracks, no gapless, dropping album art—seems more than fair. As a slick perfectly dialed user experience, the iPod's rule remains unchallenged. From an audiophile perspective chasing top sound with often surprising tolerance for interface issues and lack of conveniences, Astell&Kern have already vanquished the iPod.

Sonics. As an audiophile player, the AK100 has applications well beyond portable. It goes wherever a high-resolution mini source is desired that's not a universal player or computer. To demonstrate stationary seriousness of purpose, I leashed its analog 3.5mm output (volume fully up to 75) to my current desktop system of Wyred4Sound mPRE, mAMPs, Gallo Strada 2 and matching TR-3D subwoofer via mini-to-stereo-RCA Zu Pivot. My 160GB iPod Classic was dethroned from its customary Cambridge Audio digital dock and connected to the mPRE's second analog input via 30-pin-to-stereo ALO Audio cable. A second audition compared digital outputs, coaxial S/PDIF for the iPod dock, optical for the AK100.

AK100 standing on end backed by my ALO Audio International amp (an awesome portable combo!)

The writerly equivalent of a 50-year old man chasing half-aged girls and buying that midlife crisis Stingray Corvette is to revisit gonzo adolescence. Trashed. Demolished. Mopped the floor with. Spit out for dead. Here was my one chance to indulge. Standard well-recorded Redbook showed a profound performance delta. The iPod was pale, washed out, thin, distanced, flat, compressed, tired and small. The AK100 was robust, colorful, very 3D, grippy, big and vigorous. Its soundstage extended clearly beyond the speakers. The iPod's didn't extend past my monitor screen's edges. The iriver had dynamic movement, microdynamic expression, jumpy attacks. The iPod didn't. The Classic wasn't even in the same game. Disqualified at the trials. To do my gonzo bit, the apple was rotten to the core. It was the glass marble you drop without volition whilst reaching for that genuine Australian fire opal because the difference is crystal. The same happened for headphones including stage width. In conjunction with Ken Ball's International headphone amp and my bigger cans, results were high-end to the max. Mega as hairy biker chef Sy King likes to say.

The digital duel played out on a completely different page. On raw coin the iPod won with $249 + $299 = $548 for the dock combo vs. $699 for the one-box solution (quality digital cable extra for each). On convenience and seamless 'big-rig' integration the iPod murdered the AK100 with constant charging, an elegant mount, the option to leave on the display permanently without battery drain plus remote control. On sound it was very close*. Due to very minor glassiness and an associated measure of occasional transient spittiness—due perhaps to the Toslink interface which is traditionally viewed as inferior to S/PDIF—I'd give the nod to the docked iPod. All things considered, going digital the iPod knocked out the AK100 flat. That said, I was surprised by just how close Astell&Kern came on raw performance using optical and managing without a docking interface to do the same with less.

* While Astell&Kern make a big fuss about MQS aka mastering quality sound aka higher than 16/44.1 resolution, I focused on Redbook material for two reasons. 1/ it's 95% or more of what people actually listen to. 2/ a well-recorded CD file ripped or downloaded sounds better than an inferior 'hi-rez' version. Really! iriver had included plenty of MQS files to be sure.

with ALO Audio $599 International amp/DAC

Headphones. Because the AK100's analog output is flatly superior to the iPod's, Astell&Kern owned this match. You might say they bought the game. Because it's clearly intended as a portable device, this will be the deck's lion share of usage. On my excellent Ortofon eQ7 IEMs, the logarithmically displayed volume bar often sat at 66 for plenty of headroom. My big sealed Beyerdynamic T-5p (counter to apparent majority opinion I prefer them to my open T1) could hit equivalent output at 71. Beck's "Already Dead" meanwhile got plenty loud at 61. On material properly SPL'd by the AK100 solo, offboarding with my International amp got a bit warmer by lowering the center of tonal gravity. Things also were more relaxed and removed a bit of energetic forwardness and crispness. But the iriver really surprised with its wall-to-wall... oops, ear-to-ear fullness and spatial illumination. This was true even on loads an average AK100 user wouldn't have. To truly leave the reservation, my giant Audez'e LCD-2 then maxed out what the little guy could pump out.

Hopping aboard John Coltrane's "Blue Train" with my international ticket delivered sound that—now remember the geezers with their teenage girlfriends and silly cars—many really will be hard-pressed to duplicate on their big shiny rigs. As a portable source the AK100 is seriously impressive and of course uncorrupted by AC. It's hard to say how many buyers will pursue the Astell&Kern as simply a better-sounding iPod for IEMs of varying pedigree versus how many hardcore headfiers will want to strap it to their fave portable with monster statement cans. Easy to say is that either customer hits true gold. And regardless of sonic superiority or not, there's the very real issue of high-resolution tracks one doesn't own in any iPod-digestable format. For folks with a goodly inventory of those, compliance of a portable device is key. Again, everything I said about speaker use applied to headfi. The most profound iPod difference should be the more dimensional staging. Think occipital airline pillow wrapping around your neck from behind. With the AK100 that pillow became wider, deeper, plusher and altogether more opulent. The latter is also an increase of material robustness and deeper colors.

On balance. Like Fang Bian's even costlier $999 HifiMan HM-901 will have to, Astell&Kern's first attempt at dethroning the iPod must be judged not merely on sound but the user experience per se. For an audiophile-centered competitor the sonic win was relatively easy because the iPod Classic hasn't benefited from real upgrades in years and on its own never was an audiophile product to begin with. Here the AK100 stomps the Classic. Where iriver still has a lot of ground to cover is with their comparatively old-feeling OS. That's where audiophile companies are handicapped against IT firms. Given Astell&Kern's iriver/Samsung connection, one hopes for the necessary code-writing resources to refine and slick up the present interface. If they can do that, they truly will have an iPod slayer on all fronts. Except for price. On that count nobody presently in the game can outfox Foxconn's giant Apple operation. Let's also restate that outperforming a less expensive digitally tapped iPod still wasn't within the purview of at least today's contender. I'll stick to my three iPods and docks, thank you very much. As a portable meanwhile, I'd go after the AK100 as soon as the AIFF issue is licked. I simply refuse to convert my 1000s of already archived CDs to ALAC each time I want to refresh my portable's contents. And I'd want Vinnie Rossi's mod as the stock 22Ω output impedance doesn't make sense to me.
In the final balance and despite what only in this sector is considered high cost (on raw sound audiophiles spend lots more), the Astell&Kern debut mines aural gold. If these folks really got game as they advertise, remaining operational quirks ought to
be exorcized decisively and quickly with just a few future firmware rewrites. So yes, this truly is the Golden Age for hifi. Who could earnestly doubt it?

What's changed in this second decade of the 21st century is that superior hifi no longer is only for the traditional sweet-spot listener. Now it's also for the ambitious on-the-go consumer of music who grooves to upscale sound wherever she is and whenever the mood strikes. To our new boutique brand with the posh name, welcome to the jungle. Live long, improve & prosper!
Astell&Kern website