Astell & Kern’s entry-level portable music player model isn’t quite as convincingly ‘entry-level’ as it once was. Its asking price has slowly crept up over the past few years and generations, in line with the general price hikes we are seeing across the hi-fi industry today – and without making way for a more affordable model to surface beneath it. This absence is somewhat surprising considering the recent demise of the iPod Touch and seemingly scatty availability of budget Sony Walkmans, though perhaps this suggests the smartphone has squashed that part of the market.
Thankfully, the performance, feature set and design quality of the new entry-level Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKIl have all also followed that upward trajectory, so while £699 / $749 / AU$1099 might be a significant amount to pay to own your own slice of Astell & Kern digital prestige, owners can be safe in the knowledge that they are getting their money’s worth.
The A&norma SR25 MKII is, as its name suggests, the sequel to the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning SR25, which in itself is the successor to the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning SR15. So the SR25 MKII comes from a solid pedigree – one that the South Korean company has evolved with every generation to stay at the top of its class.
Considering that class is ever-shrinking, it probably needn’t try so hard, but if we can assume anything about Astell & Kern’s engineers, it’s that they are tinkerers by nature. If they find an opportunity to squeeze more out of a player, they will. And have.
It wasn’t surprising to open the SR25 MKII’s box and be met with familiarity. This is a player whose physical form and aesthetic is once again defined by rock-solid build, geometrical ingenuity and a classy metallic finish, which is now a gun-metal – or, beg your pardon, a ‘Mercury Dark Silver’ – colour.
The aluminium chassis is positively lovely to look at and a great size and shape to hold, even if we are all too soon reminded of the familiar sharpness felt in our palm as the overly pointed bottom corners dig into them. Your saviour here could be one of the three protective cases Astell & Kern offers for an extra $59 / £60 / AU$99, though we wish A&K just tapered the corners.
The touchscreen, meanwhile, is as responsive and colourful as ever, just as you’d hope a portable, interactive product like this would be.
Those skilled in spot-the-difference will soon note that the SR25 MKII has a more textured volume wheel compared to its predecessor, complete with a satisfying rotational click as it turns. To satisfy what must currently be a niche crowd, a balanced Pentaconn 4.4mm headphone jack now joins the existing, more traditional 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm outputs. And to accommodate the extra hole, the power button has moved to the left-hand side panel to sit above the three playback (skip forward, skip back, play/pause) buttons.
Much less obvious to the eye is the addition of an internal silver-plated shielding to protect the player from electromagnetic interference in the name of improved performance – first seen in the company’s thrice-the-price SP2000T. The MKII unit also boasts a new optional Replay Gain setting, designed to maintain uniform volume playback across files up to 24-bit/192kHz.
There are a couple of new Astell & Kern features that have since rolled out to other models, too: AK File Drop makes it easier to transfer files to/from the player wirelessly, while the BT Sink function allows music from, say, a phone to play through the SR25 MKII. The only other development from MKI to MKII? Why, improved sound quality of course! But more on that later.
Music files 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
MicroSD slot Yes
Battery life 20 hours
Dimensions (hwd) 10.8 x 6.3 x 1.6cm
Indeed, Astell & Kern’s latest entry-level player retains all the features that made its predecessor such a pleasing music companion, such as 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256 file compatibility, two-way Bluetooth with LDAC and aptX HD support, the ability to use the player strictly as a DAC, and built-in access to streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and Qobuz. Subscribers to Tidal’s Hi-Fi tier will be especially pleased to read that the player has a full MQA decoder built in so is able to play hi-res Tidal Masters (and other MQA files) in the highest quality.
The built-in 64GB storage will accommodate roughly 200 CD-quality FLAC albums or about one fifth as many in 24-bit/192kHz quality, so avid collectors of hi-res albums will unfortunately probably need to fork out for a microSD card (the SR25 MKII can take one up to 1TB) to expand on that integrated memory. We really think a minimum of 128GB built-in storage should be offered at this level.
As well as a decent library of music, you’ll want decent performing headphones to plug into the Astell & Kern to justify your purchase. This is a revealing little music player, so we would partner it with something at least as good as the Beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro X, though honestly, wired headphones thrice that price wouldn’t be overkill.
While we have more than once described entry-level dedicated music players as natural upgrades for the audio quality you get from a phone, the A&norma SR25 MKII is not so much the next rung up the ladder as one of the top branches of Jack’s Beanstalk. This isn’t portable audio; this is portable hi-fi. And it can just as well be home hi-fi too if your system requires a digital music source.
Astell & Kern had a solid base from which to develop the MKII model’s performance, and it now has an even more solid one from which to develop a future successor. As sonic characters go, the SR25 MKII’s is an instantly likeably one – warm and full-bodied so that notes across the spectrum sound fleshed out and textured, and at the same time lively and rhythmic so that musicality is given just as much precedence as analysis.
That’s the balance you want a piece of kit to strike if your music tastes are genre-spanning, as it proves just as enthusiastic about driving Elvis Costello’s hell-for-leather Lipstick Vogue along as it is getting under the dynamically oscillating ebb and flow of Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm’s Four. Detail, dynamic insight, precision and punctual timing – it’s all there.
Flying another flag for versatility, the Astell & Kern is transparent enough to lay bare the value of investing in hi-res downloads or streaming, while having the spaciousness and fullness to be mostly forgiving of low-quality recordings too.
Despite the A&norma SR25 MKII moving sound quality onwards and upwards, owners of the original probably shouldn’t feel compelled to upgrade considering the cost that would be involved. The argument for anyone with an older-generation model to do so is much greater, though. We dusted off our (two generations old) A&norma SR15 to see how the two matched up out of curiosity, and the differences between their sonic capabilities were gaping.
First-timers into the portable music player market should know that Astell & Kern’s line-up reliably offers steps up in performance alongside price. Sony and FiiO have their own fodder higher up the chain that might be worth considering too. At this level though, the handsome, well equipped and gorgeous sounding A&norma SR25 MKII is as good as they get and as safe a recommendation as we can make.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Build 5
See all the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022 winners
Have a higher budget? Try the Astell & Kern A&futura SE180