Astell&Kern KANN Alpha Review
Jay Garrett takes to the streets with a potent mobile music machine…
KANN Alpha Digital Audio Player
Portable digital audio players (DAPs) have been with us for over twenty years now, arguably the most famous being Apple's iPod. Yours truly rocked a Creative Zen Jukebox back in the day, which toted more MP3 storage capability than most. However, smartphones soon started to offer music playback and once again, convenience trumped quality. The fact that DAPs were getting ever better – bringing superior sound, wider codec support and more storage – didn't seem to matter, as carrying two devices was then thought a retrograde step.
How times change! We're now seeing ever more dedicated DAC/amplifiers from the likes of iFi, EarMen and Chord Electronics that promise to up the output quality of mobile devices. Furthermore, music fans have a wider choice of quality all-in-one portables with Astell&Kern being one of the best-known manufacturers of premium players. Although relatively young at a mere nine years old, the South Korean company produces some of the most highly regarded portables around. So much so, that at the top end of this sector, people don't mind carrying a dedicated DAP alongside their smartphone…
The KANN Alpha was announced at the end of 2020 and is the third player in the series, the choice for people looking for players with clarity of presentation matched with powerful amplifiers wrapped up in a portable design. It will drive high impedance headphones without an additional amplifier, and even produce high-quality sound through low impedance speakers, states the brand. This is instantly recognisable as being both smaller and lighter than its near-brutalist KANN Cube sibling, and measures 68.3x117x25mm (WxHxD) and tips the scales at 316g. So, while it might be shorter, thinner and lighter than the Cube, it remains a substantial unit.
Under the hood, you'll find a Quad-Core CPU and dual ESS Sabre ES9066AS digital to analogue converters capable of unfolding MQA (including MQA CD playback via A&K's CD-Ripper) as well as supporting up to 32-bit, 384kHz Bit-to-Bit playback of all the popular codecs such as FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and native DSD256. This is the first KANN of the series to sport Bluetooth 5.0, and its wireless support is equally impressive, with LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs all given the thumbs-up.
Build quality is bombproof as far as the unit's black aluminium casing is concerned. The rear sports a brushed finish, the bevelled top gets a ceramic black mirror finish, and the sides have the matte black treatment. There's a splash of gold around the three headphone ports adding a hint of luxury; these offer a choice of 2.5mm balanced, 3.5mm unbalanced/ optical and – new to the KANN series – a balanced 4.4mm output. The internal amplifier has Low, Medium and High gain settings, making headphone pairing straightforward. Additionally, set this to High and the Alpha matches the Cube's powerful 12V rms output via the balanced connection.
The sizeable rotary volume dial is a familiar feature on A&K's portable players and the one used on the KANN Alpha is slick and feels purposeful as it clicks around. Volume is displayed graphically on the 4.1-inch, 720x1280p LCD touchscreen, while the light around the dial indicates the type of file you're playing. Red signifies 16-bit PCM, green means 24-bit, blue 32-bit and purple shows DSD files. Naturally, you can turn this light show off, should you so wish. Frequency response is quoted at 20Hz-20kHz and crosstalk is measured at -128dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced, -136dB @ 1kHz, balanced. Impressive stuff, for a portable device.
The KANN Alpha's left side is home to a trio of unmarked buttons. Intuitively, these are the playback controls with the top button handling rewind (long press) or go back a track (short press). The centre button works play/ pause, with the lower button mirroring the top one with fast forward and track skipping via long and short presses, respectively.
Navigating the touchscreen controls will be familiar to anyone who has used an Android device. The KANN Alpha's display didn't seem as sensitive as that on my phone but was generally up to the task at hand. Dragging down shows the connectivity and modes – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, EQ, USB Mode, Car Mode, AK Connect, etc., while swiping right reveals the main menu. Here is where you'll find your songs, albums, playlists and services where you access the likes of TIDAL, Qobuz, and Deezer – more of which later. Finally, a left swipe will show you Now Playing and your listening history. The screen is clear, and album art looks great on the display.
Neighbouring the USB-C charging and data port on the bottom edge is a microSD card slot that lets you boost the 64GB onboard storage by up to 1TB. Furthermore, you can use the Astell&Kern device as a rather excellent headphone amp and DAC when playing music from your computer. Simply connect the unit to your PC or Mac using the bundled USB-C cable, tap the USB Mode button in the top navigation bar and away you go.
Rounding things up is the impressive 14.5 hours of battery life, besting the Cube's by nine whole hours. It takes around 3.5 hours for the Alpha's 5,600 mAh battery to go from empty to fully charged.
My overall impression is of substantial quality. There are lighter and thinner players available from A&K – as well as others like FiiO – but the KANN Alpha is a beautifully made bit of kit.
In addition to playing tracks from its internal memory and microSD card, or via your computer, the KANN Alpha boasts support for no less than thirty-three streaming services when hooked up to Wi-Fi. The review unit came preloaded with V-Link that hands you access to YouTube Music or YouTube Video with 720p playback, along with Tidal and Deezer apps. As mentioned earlier, Tidal's Master tracks receive MQA unfolding, and the three apps appear to work well. However, I wanted more, leading me to discover that adding another app wasn't quite as easy as heading to an app store and clicking Install…
To add Qobuz to my streaming options, first I had to head to an Open App store on my computer – I used APK Pure. Here, I searched for Qobuz and downloaded the APK – ignoring pop-up ads masquerading as download buttons. Once downloaded, I connected the unit to my PC and dragged the APK file to the Alpha's Open Service folder. Once Qobuz appeared in the Services menu on the player, a quick tap installed the app and then it was a matter of signing in.
This process is too faffy for a consumer music player in 2021, but it does work, I suppose. We are now at the point where we have a generation brought up with smart devices with easy access to app stores, who expect something more elegant.
An alternative way is to use the AK Connect app, which turns the Alpha into a UPnP streamer. Download the iOS or Android app to your phone and once connected with the KANN Alpha, you can select the player as Speaker whilst using the apps on your phone as the source. Alternatively, you can choose your phone as the Library on the unit whilst keeping it set as Speaker. AK Connect also spotted my Plex server straight off, which meant I could stream music from there too. Personally, if I am carrying a DAP I want and expect everything to be controlled locally rather than hopping between device, so I'd still opt to go down the Open App route.
Once the required services had been added, I found that the KANN Alpha produces excellent sound quality. During the review period, wireless listening was provided by the DALI iO4 using aptX HD, and my review sample's connection suffered no dropouts during the test. However, I didn't get the opportunity to visit my usual rush hour testing grounds of Liverpool Street and St Pancras stations. The wireless sound quality was also impressive.
Unsurprisingly though, wired listening ekes out the very best from the player. Here the Alpha spent time attached to Ultrasone's Edition 15 Veritas closed-back cans, Oppo's PM-1 open-backed planar magnetics, as well as some Noble Savannah IEMs connected via ORB balanced cabling. I also took the player for a spin using the entertaining Empire Ears Hero IEMs while they were here on loan.
Listening to Abbey Road by The Beatles via Tidal Masters, I was relieved to hear that all the warmth of this classic late nineteen sixties recording had been retained, as this premium-priced DAP presented the tracks in a way that kept each of the Fab Four in the spotlight. The unmistakable bassline of Come Together was round and full-bodied, as were Ringo's tom rolls. Here Comes The Sun was an absolute joy. Compared with Chord's Mojo/Poly team, I enjoyed better separation and an altogether more expansive experience from the music – closer to what the Hugo 2/ 2go offers. That's really saying something.
The KANN Alpha really has a knack for pulling out every thread of intricately woven tracks made evident with Depeche Mode's Violator album. The Basildon trio's brand of electronica was treated with a degree of expression sometimes lost on lesser machines. Dave Gahan's vocals came through richly textured, while drum machine samples had depth, rather than the dry, two-dimensional presence they are sometimes relegated to. In particular, the phased samples in Enjoy The Silence highlighted the sense of scale and openness that the DAP could present even from relatively intimate pieces.
Scale and space were well demonstrated when I hit play on The Eagles' classic album Live From The Forum MMXVIII (Qobuz). Not only did I get a sense of the huge crowd enjoying the proceedings at The Forum in Inglewood, California, but the amount of space around the individual instruments and harmonised vocals really imparted the arena vibe. Guitars were defined with the acoustics wonderfully smooth and with plenty of harmonic presence; this contrasted with the twangy electrics and pedal steel. Tracks such as The Boys of Summer demonstrated the woody vocal characteristics of fretless bass against a backdrop of sequencers and synths. The rendition of Hotel California induced a tingles-down-the-spine moment with its solo trumpet intro, something I have yet to experience from any other such portable DAC and/or amplifier.
In my mind, the KANN Alpha's trump card is the visceral realism of how it presents acoustic instruments. Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli's Blue Drag album streamed from my NAS was a case in point. Although this DAP leaves nowhere for imperfect recordings to hide, it simultaneously transmits every nuance captured. Grappelli's bow can be heard dragging across the violin strings, and Reinhardt's occasionally just-fretted chords are laid bare, clear for all to hear. However, rather than experiencing these as mistakes that would no doubt be corrected in modern recordings, the listener instead gets to time travel and feel part of this event being played out by two of the most influential players of their time.
The KANN Alpha admirably handled complex passages such as Invincible from Tool's Fear Inoculum. As well as illuminating the various individual parts with deft musicality, it showcased an ability to reproduce dynamics and timing skilfully, while retaining the sense of a group of musicians locked in with one another. Again, vocals were displayed with realism and expression that grips the listener and draws them in. Meanwhile, the Alpha's talent for instrumental separation and spacious soundstaging resulted in a soundscape that encouraged me to delve deeper and explore. This made the experience more vital and immersive than simply being sat passively on the sidelines, as the music happened in front of me.
At this price point, any portable digital audio player has to really deliver the goods, or it will find itself dead in the water. Thankfully then, this new premium Astell & Kern product confidently ticks all the required boxes and delivers a magnificently musical and incisive performance.
Granted, the process of adding streaming services could be streamlined better and more elegantly implemented. Yet – as it's only a one-time niggle – I am willing to look beyond this and focus on the KANN Alpha's excellent sonic capabilities, superb build quality and fine battery life.
So if you're in the market for a top-notch musical travelling partner – one that will drive any headphones or IEMs you possess – then this is it. It's an object of beauty to some eyes, whilst fulfilling its clearly defined role expertly and faultlessly. What is more, it leaves your smartphone free to handle other duties that it's much better suited to – like taking selfies.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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