When Steve Jobs pulled 1000 songs from his pocket in October 2001, it opened up vast realms of possibilities in terms of the portability of your music collection. Of course, Apple’s first iPod housed MP3 files, and its early adopters later discovered that their smartphones could house similar lossy, but highly convenient, music files. But the push back against heavy audio compression has gained ground, and for those who want the best of both worlds – portability and high-resolution music – Astell & Kern is one of the best-known providers of premium portable music players.
The firm’s Kann Alpha is the third player in the Kann series, yet the first Astell & Kern player to implement Bluetooth 5.0. It boasts a more powerful built-in headphone amplifier than the previous Kann series players it succeeds, too. And thanks to the rearrangement of various components and the use of smaller resistors and capacitors, it promises added power in a smaller and more portable chassis. So, what can the Kann Alpha do? And, ultimately, does it deliver the goods?
The new Kann Alpha is smaller than the older Kann Cube – a bulky £1500 ($1199) model that we said was “unlikely to find its way into many pockets” – but not by much. The Kann Alpha is just over 2cm shorter and thinner, and 5mm shallower. At 316g, it’s also significantly lighter.
It's still a substantial beast, then, but it will fit into an anorak, coat or hoodie pocket – just perhaps not your skinny jeans. The player’s angular metallic edges pressed against your skin would probably prove painful anyway.
A trademark feature of Astell & Kern’s players is the rotary volume knob in the top-right corner, and the one on the Kann Alpha is a joy to use. A subtle light shines out from around the dial, glowing different colours to denote the type of file you’re playing – red to indicate a 16-bit PCM file, green for 24-bit, blue for 32-bit and purple for DSD files. If you’re worried that the LED display might create electrical noise that degrades the audio performance, you can turn it off in the settings menu.
Resolution Full HD 720 x 1280
Bluetooth version 5.0 aptX
Frequency response 20Hz to 20kHz
Built-in memory 64GB
Battery life 14.5 hours
Dimensions (hwd) 11.7 x 6.8 x 2.5cm
The Alpha screams high-end when it comes to build quality. Its all-aluminium black casing sports a slightly different finish for every side. The back surface features a cool, brushed finish, while along the top edge is a ceramic black mirror finish, with little gold accents around the three headphone outputs – a 2.5mm and new balanced 4.4mm, plus a 3.5mm unbalanced headphone jack/optical out. The Alpha’s top edge, in particular, has a quality reminiscent of Sony’s more premium minidisc players produced in the mid-1990s.
One minor complaint is that although a special coating has been applied to this mirror finish, the Kann Alpha’s surfaces and screen quite happily collect finger and thumb marks as we fondle the player. It’s a small issue, but this is a premium player and we notice it enough to run a microfibre cloth over the Kann Alpha several times during the course of our listening.
On the underside of the unit is a microSD card slot for those who wish to boost the Alpha’s relatively humble 64GB onboard storage to as much as 1TB, as well as a USB-C port that now handles both charging and digital connectivity. Simply connect the Kann Alpha to your computer or laptop with the supplied USB-C cable and you can use it as an all-in-one headphone amp and DAC. Neat.
The Kann Alpha utilises dual ESS Sabre ES9066AS DACs capable of rendering MQA music. It supports the most popular file formats, too, including FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and native DSD256, and decodes every music file we throw at it during our testing. It’s a similar story with wireless codec support. The Alpha supports LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and, naturally, SBC Bluetooth codecs. The Alpha also supports MQA-CD playback, by way of Astell & Kern’s CD-Ripper. In the Alpha’s settings menu, you can select a preferred codec for all your wireless listening, but if that isn’t supported by your headphones or Bluetooth receiver, the Alpha will switch to one that’s mutually supported.
On the top left side of the unit are three art-deco inspired, unmarked buttons. The central one handles play and pause, the uppermost can be long-pressed to rewind or short pressed to go back a track, and the lowest button is to skip tracks or fast-forward. A responsive LCD touchscreen completes a typically high-end Astell & Kern design and build. Add to this an increased battery life of 14.5 hours – up from 9 hours in the Kann Cube – with 3.5 hours to charge from empty to full, and things are looking resoundingly positive.
The Alpha’s internal amplifier has low, medium and high gain settings too, so you can match its output to your headphones’ sensitivity. This means that by setting the amplifier to high in the settings menu and using the balanced output, you can enjoy 12Vrms – the same power as the much bulkier Kann Cube. Our Alpha even warns us when it thinks we’re listening at too high a volume. Using the high amplification setting drains the battery at a slightly quicker rate, but throughout our listening period we only need to charge it three times.
The Kann Alpha’s 64GB onboard storage is roughly sufficient for 2700 CD-quality FLAC files (16-bit/44.1kHz) or 199 tracks if you’re solely listening to 24-bit/192kHz WAV files, but here Astell & Kern has another trick up its sleeve. Our Alpha comes pre-loaded with V-Link (for YouTube Music or 720p video playback on YouTube over wi-fi), Tidal and Deezer apps – or, to give them their proper name, Open APPs. The Kann Alpha boasts support for 33 music streaming services over wi-fi.
Making them appear on the Alpha is by no means a one-click task, though, and Astell & Kern only just gets away with its decision to go down the Open APP route. You need to connect the player to your laptop (Mac users will need to download Android File Transfer), head to an Open APP store, download your preferred music streaming app’s APK, drag and drop this from your computer’s downloads into the Alpha’s Open Service tab on-screen, and then, when it appears under the Services tab on the Alpha, download it to the device.
So far, so good (if a little longwinded), but the pre-loaded Deezer app does not recognise our premium account. We download Apple Music, which lags and crashes before we can type in our details. And while Tidal looks good and is the most reliable of the lot, it does stop working at times during our testing.
While the Open APP service provides access to hi-res streaming for those with the relevant music service subscriptions – a good addition to any player – it is a clunky installation process and, in our testing, the results are hit and miss. The latter point is not an issue we’ve run into with other Astell & Kern players, so we’re left scratching our heads as to why we’re having issues with this player. We hope it’s down to a software glitch that's easily rectified.
A way around the Open APP service is to use the AK Connect app, which essentially turns the Alpha into a UPnP streamer. We download the app, click on the icon in the Alpha’s notification bar and can now set Tidal, or indeed our smartphone itself, as our ‘Library’ and the Kann Alpha as our ‘speaker’.
Anything your phone (or chosen library) is able to access can now be played on the Alpha. The similarly priced FiiO M15 adds local music more intuitively – a simple toggle on this device means all music in our local network is accessed and added within seconds – but essentially both machines offer the same functionality in this regard.
Streaming trickery aside, at its core the Alpha is a very talented hi-res music player. The home screen interface is perhaps a little busy across the top, but swiping right to access the main menu, down for the notification bar (for wi-fi, EQ, USB mode, car mode, AK Connect and other functions), left to go to the Now Playing menu and up to see your listening history soon becomes second nature. Album graphics from downloaded files are beautifully displayed, too.
We pair the affordable and wireless Earfun Air earbuds and AKG Y400 on-ears via Bluetooth and find the connection solid and sound quality admirable. But for the bulk of this review we focus on premium wired headphone such as the Beyerdynamic T1 and Grado RS1 – and to get the significant sonic goods, we suggest you do the same.
Listening to downloaded hi-res music on the Kann Alpha is truly a joy. Although we prefer the FiiO M15’s slightly larger screen and more intuitive interface, when it comes to sound, the Astell & Kern player is a clear winner.
Throughout Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms (a DSD64 file) we’re struck by the Alpha’s expansive presentation and impressive low-end capabilities. The intro of Money For Nothing builds to a crescendo and, as Mark Knopfler’s electric guitar comes in, we note just how much energy and jubilance the Kann Alpha can deliver.
The Alpha is as meticulous and honest as it is zealous, though. Daft Punk’s Lose Yourself To Dance (a 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC file) celebrates Pharrell’s textured vocal through a sparkling and accurate treble, but never to the detriment of the track’s heavily processed “come on” backing vocal, which comes through with unusual clarity, musicality and accuracy. It’s joined by other vocal samples, some of which are lost in lesser players, to deliver a layered and highly competent performance.
Instruments in Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue (24-bit/192kHz FLAC) are three-dimensional and textured. Occasional cracks in the trumpet alongside the sprightly saxophone in our left ear during So What are dutifully laid bare. The FiiO M15 cannot handle these difficult and detailed musical passages with the same masterful hand. To listen to downloaded hi-res music on the Kann Alpha is to tap your feet and enjoy the rhythm.
We listen to a live recording of Eagles’ Hotel California (a 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file) and the clarity and space around the strings, even with an excitable crowd in the background, is adept to the point that we can almost physically place ourselves at the gig. It’s not the subtlest-sounding Astell & Kern player we’ve tested – it will expose flaws in lossier recordings – but in times such as these, music lovers might easily part with the Alpha’s significant asking fee for such a feeling.
Fundamentally, players such as the Astell & Kern Kann Alpha must deliver hi-res music in a portable design – and it delivers this in spades. It is a powerful and talented machine. Despite stumbling slightly over the integration of music streaming services, we cannot fault its sonic chops. The battery will outlast a road-trip, the power handling is glorious, and the stylish, rock-solid build is (just about) small enough to take with you on your travels – when we’re allowed to do that properly once more.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Build 5
Read our guide to the best portable music players
Read our Astell & Kern Kann Cube review
Read our FiiO M15 review