At $700, iriver’s Astell & Kern AK100 is easily the most expensive music player on the market. But as you might imagine, the AK100 is not a normal music player, which is why we didn’t call it an MP3 player. Playing “mastering quality” music at a maximum sample and bit rate of 192KHz and 24bits respectively, the AK100 plays music files that are eons above not only your regular low-fi MP3s, but also way beyond even CD-quality WAV files.
As we got the unit in our hands, we were less than impressed with its user interface. Far from the smooth intuitive experience of an iPod or iPhone, the AK100 reminds us more of Microsoft’s first attempts at MP3 players. It’s square, clunky, and a bit slow. It also leaves out features that we’ve all come to take for granted, like onboard speakers, a camera, and a high-resolution screen. But none of that really matters to iriver, or presumably to its target consumer audience. As iriver explained, the company isn’t going for the 99 percent who want cheap, convenient music on their sleek device. Instead, it’s chasing that slim margin of the public that is completely fed up with the anemic, thin representation of the music they love, and want to actually have an experience – and that’s exactly what the AK100 delivers.
We were very skeptical about the AK100, not only because of the price, but also because we’ve seldom heard music that has been transferred well into the high-bit and sample rate. Also, there are questions about how to obtain the hi-fi content the device needs. For now Astell & Kern is partnered with HD Tracks, and although it offers a decent amount of content, it’s nothing compared to what’s easily available in MP3 format. Basically, we just weren’t sure the difference between WAV files and the super hi-fi FLAC files on the AK100 would be that noticeable. But we’re here to admit, we were very, very wrong.
At first we tried to listen critically, as we usually do with new audio gear, trying to hear the long sustain of cymbals, the definition of percussion hits, and the breadth of the low bass tones. All were very impressive through our AIAIA TMA-1 headphones, but nothing really extraordinary. But as the music progressed, we began to realize that listening to content at this high level is much more about an emotional experience than a regular listen. Our aural exploration of the high-rate rendering of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” can best be described as almost psychedelic. We’ve heard the song more times than we want to think about, and yet at the high rate we were soon covered in goosebumps and feeling every note of the song to our core. As we moved on to a cello concerto, we were also amazed by the ridiculous clarity that was provided, while still delivering a smooth and organic overall tone. We heard every string twitch, and even every breath the performer took as he intensely performed the complicated piece.
We’re still unsure if even the audiophile market is ready to pay $700 for portable sound, no matter how high the quality. And aside from the no-frills design of the device, for now content issues will be a problem for some listeners. But as bigger industry players like Neil Young and others begin to craft new resources for the hi-fi sound file market, the AK100 should become more and more useful as a device. We walked out of the suite and stared at the brand new iPhone 5 in a whole new light. As they say, you can’t un-listen, and we have a feeling it’s going to be a very long time before we get used to the cold, weak sound of our paltry MP3 files again. Unfortunately, for now we are the 99 percent.