I’ve honestly never been one for digital audio players; simply because they mean one more thing to carry around, but the Astell & Kern KANN Alpha is one that I actually don’t mind carrying around.
It’s the third model in the KANN lineup, following the KANN Cube, and it’s the first A&K player that has a 4.4mm balanced output AND Bluetooth 5.0, which means you can even use wireless earbuds and headphones with this. The best part? It’s one of A&K’s more “affordable” players at US$1,099.
I know that’s not really affordable, with plenty of great DAPs costing way less than that, but for something that has the A&K name on it? It’s definitely cheaper than others like the SP2000 or AK380.
Not only is it relatively more affordable, but it’s also even easier to pair more headphones and earphones with this audio player since there is a 4.4mm port and Bluetooth capabilities. There’s also Open App service, and while the KANN Alpha has V-Link, Deezer & Tidal built-in, I recommend going the extra length and downloading the APKs to install them separately because the built-in Tidal app doesn’t actually allow you to download playlists for offline listening. If you’re using XAPKs, don’t forget to download and install the XAPK installer first, or the apps won’t show up.
There’s also aptX HD, LDAC, AAC and of course, SBC. You can set your preferred codec in the settings, but if it’s not supported by the earbuds or headphones, it’ll automatically switch to one that’s supported.
These are heavy though, at 316 grams, and you definitely won’t be able to stuff these into a pocket if you’re wearing skinny jeans. It’s smaller than the KANN Cube, but it’s still quite thick at 2.5mm and I can’t imagine the angular edges would be very comfortable pressing into your skin through a pocket anyway. I found myself leaving it in a bag most of the time if I was using wireless earbuds, or just holding it in my hand while commuting.
Inside, there are dual ESS Sabre ES9068AS DACs that can render MQA files, so if you have a Tidal subscription and you can listen to Tidal Master tracks, you’ll be able to fully enjoy them with the KANN Alpha. Other big formats like ALAC and FLAC are supported too, of course, along with native DSD256.
There’s no need to remember any complicated buttons either, you get three on the left side, play/pause, track skip forward and backwards. There’s a single power button on the top right, and the iconic volume wheel on the right side that has LED lighting to show the bitrate of the file you’re listening to; red for 16-bit, green for 24-bit, blue for 32-bit and purple for DSD256 files. You could also turn the light off if you rather.
Build quality is incredible, as expected of something from Astell & Kern. The all-black aluminium frame has a matte finish while the back is brushed and there’s a mirror-finish top where the ports and power button are. The audio player just feels dense and really screams luxury.
Unfortunately, the mirror finish on the top means that it’s a fingerprint magnet, and the touchscreen also picks up fingerprints, although not as much as the top. At the bottom, you get a microSD card slot that supports up to 1TB in addition to the 64GB of built-in storage as well as a USB-C charging port that also allows you to connect the DAP to a computer to be used as an amp and DAC.
A&K estimates that the battery will last around 14.5 hours on continuous playback on 80 volume and low gain, and at around 40-50 volume with mid gain, I can say that it actually lasted slightly longer. In fact, I’ve used this for around 8 hours since the previous charge, and it’s still at 50% right now.
This audio player just has the ability to power pretty much anything you want. With 12Vrms on high gain if you’re using a balanced out, you can power headphones easily, not to mention the earphones I’m using these with. That being said though, A&K has removed the 5-pin mini XLR port that was present in the KANN Cube, so yeah.
Moving onto the sound, well, it’s excellent, and if you’ve used an A&K player before, you’ll know that their players are very, very good. It’s clean, detailed and there’s no overemphasis. Vocals sound great, staging is very wide, instrument separation is A+ and it’s just a smooth, enjoyable listening experience.
Many audiophiles don’t really like the thought of true wireless earbuds, but the truth is that they’re incredibly convenient, so the addition of Bluetooth 5.0 here really is a big deal, and even though we can’t travel right now, I can see myself possibly picking one of these up so that I can keep my phone battery up on a long haul flight instead of using it to stream music to my headphones.
The only downsides that I can find are that the player actually gets a bit warm when in use for prolonged periods, and of course, that there is only 64GB of onboard storage. If you’re looking to plonk your whole library in, you’ll most likely need to get a microSD card.
Aside from that, I think that the US$1,099 asking price is an absolute steal for an Astell & Kern player. I really recommend demoing this player at a local shop near you if possible, if only to hear how good it is. When you take everything into account, I think it’s one of the best players you can get from A&K right now for a thousand dollars. It drives everything really well, from IEMs to headphones, you can use it as a wired DAC for your computer, it’s just really versatile.
Content by Cheryl Tan