Astell&Kern AK500N Music Server Review
Astell&Kern, the South Korean consumer electronics company currently enjoying immense success with their portable audio player offerings, could be set to turn the HiFi and HeadFi markets upside down with their latest product release.
With a bunch of awards under their belt following the release of each new product from A&K over the last couple of years, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas for 2015 was no exception. Perhaps their most ambitious undertaking yet, the AK500N was unveiled for the first time as social media, forums and blogs lit up in response. Self-described as the “ultimate MQS (Mastering Quality Sound) network audio player”, the AK500N is the ultimate source unit for the HiFi listener. And just maybe, Astell&Kern have the Midas touch.
The AK500N is a CD Ripper, DAC, and network audio player in a one-box solution. Let’s delve further into each feature.
While pitched predominantly as a ‘desktop audio’ device, there’s no doubt this premium product is just at home in a high-end HiFi system as it is on a desktop.
The bold styling cues from the previous ‘AK’ portable players have been carried through to the AK500N, with sharp angles and a cube design measuring 214(W) x 243(H) x 238(D)mm. Machined from solid aluminium, the AK500N certainly has visual impact. Two colour options are available. We were sent the AK500N in black by Australian distributors, BusiSoft, however it is also available in silver.
Unboxing presents a multitude of power cables for various countries. Also supplied is the Wi-Fi antenna and an Astell&Kern branded Type-B USB cable.
Proudly crowning the AK500N is a 7” LCD 1280x800 touchscreen.
As I look through the advertised features and specifications of the AK500N, it’s clear that the design brief went something along the lines of, “build the best cost-no-object media streamer, with every input and output possible, and play every format available”. This has been achieved, and while a premium product attracts a premium price tag, you get what you pay for.
Let’s start with the all-important power supply, and its evil twin brother, noise. Astell&Kern have devised a clever way to overcome noise, stated by A&K at having less than 1% presence. The AK500N utilises a 10,400Ah Li-Ion battery. During playback, the battery powers the device. When play stops, or the battery is at less than 4% charge, the battery is recharged from mains voltage. A&K state battery life at around 7 hours of playback. You'll never be without sound however, as from the touchscreen you can toggle whether the unit is permitted to charge while playing.
Ripped CDs are stored locally on a 1TB SSD. There are four available SSD bays and capacity is expandable to 4TB. Ripping couldn’t be simpler. Insert the CD, the interface opens and accesses the Gracenote database, and the ripping process begins. Options include normal or fast ripping speed, and WAV or FLAC as the preferred file format. Album art and music data are automatically imported from Gracenote’s database. Jitter and error correction is also employed during the rip process.
File support includes high-resolution audio files up to 24-bit/192-kHz, including single- and double-rate DSD files, Apple lossless and virtually all other digital audio formats. High-resolution 32-bit/384- kHz WAV PCM and 24-bit/352-kHz FLAC PCM data is up-sampled to DSD in real time.
The AK500N is a dual-DAC configuration featuring two Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips running completely independent to each other, resulting in a true dual mono audio stream. These are the same chips used in the AK240, which according to A&K “re-shape the binary signal of digital files into analog sound that nears perfection”. There’s also a dedicated DSD chipset which converts PCM date to DSD through Astell&Kern’s proprietary audio engine.
There’s a plethora of input and outputs on the rear of the unit including coaxial, optical, BNC and USB. Fixed and variable outputs are also available. Selection of inputs and outputs is made through a nifty touchscreen page.
Setup couldn’t be easier. In our case we made the network connection via Ethernet, and opted for fixed output unbalanced RCA connected to a Triode TRV-88SER Integrated Amplifier. Plug connections were made and we were up and running.
The AK500N runs on the Android OS and upon entering the Settings menu to set up the Ethernet connection, the interface is snappy and intuitive.
Aside from the convenience of ripping and storing your entire CD collection to the AK500N, local streaming from DLNA/UPnP and NAS, as well as internet and cloud streaming, the AK500N also announces itself as a media server on a local network. This makes your now redundant CD collection available throughout your home and other compatible players.
A quick browse through the available settings and options to get familiar with the unit, and we were off and racing. Being a demonstration unit from the distributor a small selection of material was already stored locally including 16/44 kHz rips, and some high-res 24/192 kHz and DSD tracks.
As the AK500N breathed into life with some unfamiliar material, I was drawn in to what I was hearing. Was this just a track that resonates (in a good way) with me, or is what I am hearing really that good? We shall find out.
As it turns out Astell&Kern are developing their own app (iOS and Android) for the AK500N. A quick call to BusiSoft confirmed this is not yet available, and that A&K recommend the BubbleUPnP app, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t get this to talk to our Synology DS412+ NAS Storage. It could however control music locally stored on the AK500N. The workaround was to use the Synology Audio Station web interface and select the AK500N-DMR Player as the output device. This allowed me to stream my music collection to the AK500N.
Update: Astell&Kern have advised that beta testing of the apps will begin at the end of March, with the final release expected late April.
Armed with my usual selection and familiar reference and demo tracks it was time to get down to business.
As this is my story, my journey if you will, let’s back up a little to give some perspective. Some years back I headed down the digital streaming solution. I jumped on the Squeezebox Touch bandwagon like so many others initially, with mods and tweaks to the configuration becoming a daily task. I progressed through this with custom ROMs, eventually settling on a quad core Wandboard Arch Linux solution and Logitech Media Server running from the NAS drive. At this point for me, high-resolution tracks had surpassed the sound quality and resolution of a CD player and I sold my much-loved Consonance Droplet. High fidelity sound, the convenience of digital streaming, it seemed I had made a breakthrough. But there was something missing. I found myself critical of all the material I played. It sounded good, no doubt, but by default my listening habits had become more about analysing the sound, and less about listening to and enjoying the music.
I put this down to what enthusiasts readily refer to as the music sounding “digital”. To explore this further I jumped head first into the analog and vinyl world and I really didn’t look back. Countless tables, cartridges and phono pre-amps and I’d put together a small collection of records I considered my go-to albums. The difference for me was that the music was once again engaging, emotional, easily summed up as ‘musical’. I was enjoying the music once more, instead of merely ‘listening’ to it.
Despite hearing hundreds of HiFi systems from simple streaming solutions like mine, right through to ultimately the best that money can buy, they all had a varying degree of that digital sound, and still lacked that emotional connection and engagement to the music.
A glimmer of hope appeared when I received the Hugo DAC/Headphone Amplifier from Chord Electronics as reviewed here. Robert Watts, Chord’s Digital Designer himself said at the time that in over seven years in development his focus had been not on ‘sound quality’, but on ‘musicality’. And today enthusiasts around the world would agree that he certainly achieved that.
Alas, the Hugo sample was returned and I went back to vinyl for enjoyment, and digital as background music. Until now …
Armed with my ‘demo’ playlist, a wide selection of genres including K.D Lang’s emotionally charged version of “Hallelujah”, Dadawa “Sister Drum”, Pearl Jam “Future Days”, along with Alison Krauss, Vienna Teng, Daft Punk, Yello, plus many others, I started second guessing myself if what I was hearing was truly as remarkable as I thought. Here I was clicking tracks on the web interface, yet a sound so full, detailed and transparent, controlled yet alive, and it wasn’t vinyl!
It took only a few tracks to realise the signal processing of the AK500N and the result from the downstream DAC is obviously something truly special. I knew the AK240 Portable Player which shares the same Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips sounded great, but I’d not heard that in a Hi-Fi system. Maybe it’s the innovative battery power system that the AK500N employs? I’m no software or hardware engineer so ultimately I don’t need to understand the ‘why’, but I can certainly appreciate, and celebrate the performance of this media server and player.
Digital purists are likely preparing their flames for my constant comparison between analog and digital, but for this reviewer’s audio fidelity journey the AK500N has delivered the convenience of mass storage in the digital realm, but with heartfelt and articulate delivery that truly connects with the listener, allowing the music to shine.
I now have a new reference and benchmark for digital audio, and the AK500N delivers in every regard from build quality, aesthetics, versatility, and of course sound quality. I look forward to the Astell&Kern MQS app becoming available, as the inability in my situation to control NAS content and playback via a smartphone or tablet is the only negative I can come up with.
It needs to be discussed; the elephant in the room. I recall a conversation I had with George Poutakidis from BusiSoft, Aussie distributors of Astell&Kern, in the days leading up to the delivery of the AK500N. With a local RRP of $16,999 the Astell&Kern AK500N is by no means affordable, by definition. I’d said to George that it needed to be something special to justify the price. It is. Really.
Unfortunately we’re now starting to see the effects of the weak Aussie dollar, but while the same unit sells in the U.S. for $12K plus tax, the local price is just $1500 over the direct currency conversion. We may be used to paying a premium price for living on a wonderful but remote island, but ultimately the local RPP is at ‘price parity’ when you factor in GST, duty and customs fees. Hats off to BusiSoft.
So while I’m in the business, I’d still have a hard time justifying a media player that is several times the cost of my first car. However in perspective, this is not an entry level product. This is truly a world class product that potentially replaces the CD player and DAC in a serious enthusiast’s HiFi system. In my experience the combined cost of those two products alone could easily match the asking price of the AK500N.
So as I bid farewell to the AK500N, it moves straight to the top of my wish list. Good times and many “wow” moments were had in its presence. A matching amplifier, external power supply and stand in the same form factor are due for release next month, and I can’t help but think this South Korean manufacturer just really might have the Midas touch.
As Aussie music legend Molly Meldrum would say, “do yourself a favour” and experience an audition of the Astell&Kern AK500N at your earliest opportunity.
Astell&Kern is distributed in Australia by BusiSoft.
- Source: Astell&Kern AK500N
- Amplifier: Triode TRV-88SER Integrated Amplifier
- Speakers: PureAudioProject Trio15TB
- Speaker Cables: ETI Lenehan Audio Ribbontek
- Interconnects: Audiocadabra Optimus
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3
- Power Distribution: PS Audio Dectet
- Storage: Synology DS412+