Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you

Astell & Kern Kann brings the balance to portable big sound

High-res audio has higher needs, and while an amp can help make the most of that high-def sound, a media player that blends it all might be the best bet yet. It’ll just cost you.

Listening to music isn’t the same for everyone. While many will happily listen to their phone or tablet and a streaming service — what is arguably the standard approach for music playback today — some still will want to use files, just Iike the good old days of loading things on a media player, an iPod or Nomad or something else like it.

Those days have long gone, and most of us are probably using Spotify or Apple Music or Google or YouTube, but not for everyone. Some are still relying on the files, and probably for a good reason: quality.

While streaming media services can more or less match the 16-bit MP3s and M4As you probably used with an iPod or something like it, if you want to get every last bit of a song and hear it with a big pair of headphones made for high-res audio, you’re probably relying on a different file type altogether.

High-resolution audio is gradually crossing over to the world of streaming audio using Master Quality Authenticated or “MQA”, a streaming format that promises high-end 24-bit audio without needing to store the big files on your device, though it’s not something every service supports. Locally, MQA is only found through Tidal’s HiFi service, which itself can get pricey for getting 24-bit sound through a platform. In fact, until MQA streaming becomes a little more standardised, we mostly expect that folks who want the quality that high-res audio represents will do one of two things:

  1. Buy vinyl, and/or
  2. Buy high-resolution audio files

High-res audio is a little like vinyl in that it’s a medium that can cost a little more than a CD or streaming, yet delivers more quality. For many audiophiles, high-resolution audio represents a digital version of what vinyl is: the total music experience in its entirety without anything thrown out.

But to play it, you tend to need a special player, and that’s where things can get even more exy. It’s not even bad enough that Australians tend to have to go looking for high-res audio, since so much of it is blocked off in a geofenced way, but when we do find it, we typically need something special to play it well.

These days, phones can play high-resolution audio, with both iOS and Android devices supporting apps that run a gamut of high-res file types, such as FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and others. But if you want something to drive big headphones, you need something with a little more power designed for those big headphones, and that’s where a standard smartphone just won’t suffice.

Most of these phones that would support the high-res formats probably don’t even have the headphone jack needed to drive the headphones as it is, and they may not have the volume required for a properly big pair of headphones or powerful in-earphones, so while you can make a phone and great headphones work, another device — a headphone amplifier — is often desirable. Yet like most things in the audiophile world, that can add cost, size, and weight.

This year, though, one of the makers of these components, Astell & Kern, is bringing them together under one roof, coming in with the Astell & Kern Kann Alpha, a media player that includes a built-in headphone amp made for those big headphones.

The Kann Alpha looks like another of those Android-based Astell & Kern media players we’ve seen, running a highly customised version of Android that runs other apps provided you side load them onto the device, something we saw in our review of the Astell & Kern Norma SR25.

While that’ll be handy, as will the support for the rare 32-bit 384kHz files out in the world, the big deal for the A&K Kann Alpha is the headphone amp and included 4.4mm and 2.5mm headphone jacks, alongside the 3.5mm standard headphone jack. In particular, the 4.4mm headphone jack is a fairly recent approach for headphones, providing a larger headphone plug for more balanced audio, working with the headphone amplifter to deliver a larger sound to bigger more audiophile-centric headphones.

If wired headphones aren’t your thing, A&K’s Kann Alpha also supports wireless headphones, of which there are some pretty lovely ones out there. Like most modern phones, there’s support for Bluetooth 5.0, LDAC, and aptX HD, technologies that can deliver 24-bit audio without the cords. Both wired and wireless can have the volume controlled with one of Astell & Kern’s signature inclusions, a manual volume dial found on the right, which on the Kann Alpha, even includes an LED ring you can set the colour of. Neato.

And this all sits under a relatively hefty aluminium body weighing 316 grams and sporting a 4.1 inch touch screen. There’s also 64GB storage here, which isn’t much, but a microSD slot can expand the storage and support as much as 1TB with the right card.

Of course, like other high-res players, there is a cost to the Kann Alpha, and it’s one that might throw some off the scent, unless they’re ardent audiophiles keen to get a big sound in a small package along for the ride.

In Australia, for instance, the Astell & Kern Kann Alpha will fetch a local price of $1699, clearly more than most media players, and even higher than the $1199 SR25. For that price, there’s a more meaty headphone amp, but no screen tilted to the side, as the Kann Alpha is more of a normal screen orientation, much to the delight of people with OCD.

You’ll find it in specialist stores across Australia in the coming weeks, though finding high-res audio in Australia may still take some effort.

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