Astell & Kern is best known for its high-end portable audio players, so imagine our surprise – and delight – when it unveiled a USB DAC with a reasonable price tag. The A&K HC3 costs £199 / $190 / AU$299.95 – which looks like a bargain, considering what it can do.
But not only is it reasonably priced, it's sensibly named too, unlike Astell & Kern's unpronounceable audio players (A&norma SR25, anyone?). Astell & Kern, is everything alright?
But we digress. The HC3 is the South Korean firm's follow-up to the HC2 – it's billed as a hi-fi-grade USB DAC with microphone connectivity, so as well as music listening, it can be used for shouting at opponents while gaming online, or for video calls (though hopefully with less shouting). Inside is the ESS ES9219MQ DAC, which has a reputation for high-quality audio with low power consumption.
It works with any 3- or 4-pole 3.5-mm plug earphones and headsets, as well as the in-line controller and microphone features of 4-pole earphones and headsets. And thanks to the USB-C port, it will connect to any modern computer or mobile device (there's a USB-C to Lightning adapter for iOS devices). It doesn't need an external sound card, AMP or DAC, or a power supply – it derives power from the source device, so won't run out of battery either.
However, it will prove a drain on your source device's battery.
A&K says its rear output design minimises noise, giving you less distortion, because the digital signal is processed after it has travelled through the dual noise-shielded cable. If true, this could be a contender for our list of best digital-to-analogue converters...
These are the best portable music players
Read our Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 review
And consult our list of best DACs