Media players are largely passe these days, but if you have a desire for uninterrupted audio, the Astell & Kern SR25 could deliver just that. You’ll just want to make sure you can afford it.
What is it?
Built more for audiophiles and newcomers to the category, the Astell & Kern A&Norma SR25 is a different type of media player for the company. Essentially, it’s an “affordable” take on the company’s media players, providing a FLAC and lossless media player with Android, allowing you to load files in and listen to tunes.
Think of it as an upmarket iPod Touch, because that’s largely what most people will treat it as.
Unlike the iPod which can be used for apps, games, emails, and surfing the web, the SR25 is more or less only focused on media, and mostly music at that. You can grab lossless files from the handful of high-res sites available to Australians, or you can grab your MP3s and load them on.
If you have the spare cash, you can even buy an Astell & Kern CD player and rip directly to the SR25, though that seems like an approach few will embrace given the cost. And you can even load Android apps on the SR25 through a slightly complex process, allowing you to jump onto Spotify or other services, downloading the music to take with you.
What does it do?
Regardless of how you get music to the player, the SR25 can play music to both wired and wireless headphones loudly, and with about as much clarity as you would want.
Technically, the Norma SR25 can also take care of video services, with YouTube offered in a third party client, but we found video in Tidal and found you could watch performances that way, as well.
However make no mistake: the SR25 is focused on music almost entirely. You can’t rotate the screen of the SR25, and will only ever view in portrait, hampering video experiences.
In fact, the screen itself is one of the more interesting points of the SR25’s design. Simply put, you’ll either love it or hate it, because it’s on its side.
Essentially, Astell & Kern have made the screen a unique selling point, because it’s the only media player we’ve ever seen that looks like the designer was inspired by the Leaning Tower of Pisa, shifting the screen on its axis slightly. We found the SR25’s screen charming and eccentric, but there are definitely people it will annoy, particularly those with OCD, because if you hold the media player upright, the screen will always look slanted and odd.
It’s definitely a media player for people who like something a little bit different, which the design of the SR25 already caters for. It’s thick compared to most phones, measuring 16.1mm, and a little bit of a chunker, too. The 3.6 inch screen has a pretty noticeable bezel at the bottom, and the whole thing weighs 178 grams, making it heavy for its size.
But it’s also built like a tank, with an aluminium body, a fantastic little volume wheel (itself a trademark of Astell & Kern design), and enough hardware on the inside to account for people who love high-res media, which is really what this thing is for.
Does it do the job?
Whether you’re a newbie to the audiophile world and just getting your feet wet with Tidal HiFi or you’ve already amassed a collection of the world’s finest recordings, the SR25 impresses with its playback support, offering the regulars — MP3, AAC, WAV, OGG, and even WMA (yikes!) — as well as FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, DSD, and MQA.
That’s more than decent for downloads, and there’s plenty of volume on offer, with up to 150 volume points. Think of that as the Spinal Tap of volume control: this thing doesn’t just go up to 11, it goes up to 150! Great, especially if you have particularly detailed headphones to work with.
In fact, testing with a variety of headphones from Sony, Blue, Fostex, and back from when Oppo still made them and not just phones, we found the SR25 worked a treat, even supporting the high-resolution LDAC technology used on the Sony WH-1000XM3. Sufficed to say, whether you’re still wired or making the jump to high-res wireless, you’ll be happy with what the A&K Norma SR25 can do.
There’s even a little bit of support for Android’s apps, though that is where things can get a little complicated.
What does it need?
We say “a little complicated”, because it’s not too hard of an ask, though it’s definitely one.
You see the SR25 runs Android, but short of dragging the power controls from the top and turning on WiFi or Bluetooth, you’d never realise it.
This is like no version of Android you’ve ever really used, and offers a menu screen for checking artists, albums, and songs, and even for checking in with the pre-installed services, but there’s no connection to the Google Play Store whatsoever.
In fact, if you want other apps or services — if you even want Spotify, for instance — you’ll need to go to APK Pure, download the app in its Android installer, and move it to the SR25 using your computer. Then you can install the app, and only then can you use it.
It’s a small hitch to get over, but it’s one that may throw people at first, especially since the world’s most used music services aren’t included by default, and even the ones that are feel hamstrung for the device.
Included with the Astell & Kern SR25 are slightly different versions of Deezer and Tidal, plus a YouTube viewer called “V-Link”, but these don’t appear the real deal as far as the app is concerned. Even the Tidal app isn’t quite what Tidal normally looks like, with no way to check out those Tidal Master Quality files and no way of caching.
To get Tidal’s MQA files, you need to download the Tidal app from APK Pure, install, and login using that app. It’s actually possible to have two versions of Tidal on the one device, with both MQA and downloads possible (plus video) on the external Android app.
This makes using the SR25 a little more complex than say using a phone, and it feels like Astell & Kern could easily fix this by somehow getting its media player version to come with official versions of the apps that can be upgraded through Astell & Kern directly. We don’t question that this media player isn’t a phone, but making things easier to download apps to the SR25 would certainly be helpful, particularly if you want to take advantage of services you already subscribe to using what is an otherwise capable player.
Is it worth your money?
The cost in Australia also slightly hampers things, with the $699 USD price translating to $1199 locally, which at current conversion is about a $200 Australia tax, something locals are likely used to.
It needs to be said that Astell & Kern isn’t the only player in this category, though high-res specific media players aren’t exactly catered for in large numbers. Locally, you can find them from Sony, FiiO, and Astell & Kern. Sony’s own devices typically come with their own operating system, but both FiiO and A&K offer Android, so the SR25 isn’t exactly without competition, taking on FiiO’s M11 which has Android in a similar way.
Astell & Kern was born out of Iriver, which has been around since 1999, while FiiO has been around since 2007, both from different parts of the world: A&K from South Korean, and FiiO from China.
In terms of A&K players, the SR25 is technically “affordable” as far as A&K media players go, particularly those with Android on them, but A&K has previously offered a more budget offering without Android, the A&K Jr which arrived with support for the files, yet not the services.
Depending on how much you wanted to spend to jump in, aspects of the A&K SR25 definitely make sense, because you’re getting the luxury of high-res with streaming support thrown in, provided you can be bothered to install the apps. It doesn’t take long if you do, and the SR25 gives you so much more value if you do.
But it’s still an expensive item to be sure, and really only going to be ideal for folks who really want to get the most out of their music, and are happy to spend not just on headphones, but the media player, as well.
Yay or nay?
Surprisingly, the A&K SR25 is one of those devices that lovers of music may find themselves falling for a little faster than they may expect.
It’s worth noting that high-end phones can do some of what the SR25 can do, provided you have a decent pair of headphones accompanying it. If you opt for Tidal HiFi and use either an iPhone or a capable high-end Android, you should get impressive sound even without a high-end digital audio player.
But there’s also something lovely about an audio player on the side of the media player, because there’s not only an attention solely on the performance of the music overall, but also without interruptions. Thanks to the lack of Google Play Services, there’s no email or calendar coming through here, and you’re free to enjoy the music without interruption.
And really, that’s what’s being offered here: great sound without interruption. It’s great sound without interruption that will cost you a little more to enjoy, sure, but the result is nothing short of fantastic, which is what audiophiles will surely love.