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Miss the iPod? Astell and Kern has the cure — for a price

In a move that has been anticipated for years, Apple finally — if somewhat awkwardly — confirmed that it will no longer make the iPod Touch, the last remaining iPod version. The reasons, according to Apple are clear: Given our ability to access music through all of our other digital devices (phones, laptops, tablets, and smart speakers), we’ve all moved beyond needing a dedicated device for listening to music on-the-go, especially one that can’t connect to streaming services like Apple Music through mobile data.

That may be true, but Apple’s devices have in any case never fully satisfied audiophiles — a group of music lovers who expect convenience to go hand-in-hand with quality, not one at the expense of the other. Astell&Kern’s (A&K) lineup of hi-res digital audio players has been filling that quality gap for a while now, and its newest products push portable listening to new heights — both in terms of performance and price. Here’s what the Korean audio brand is set to debut this month at High End Munich, a show that caters to the most discerning listeners on the planet:

A&K Kann Max, $1,299, available in June 2022

Front and back views of the Astell & Kern Kann Max portable digital audio player.

A&K’s portable players have always had an angular design, with radically chamfered edges and triangular accents, but the new $1,299 Kann Max might be its most muscular-looking model to date. Under its dark gray aluminum shell lurks a new built-in headphone amplifier, which A&K claims is its most powerful so far, with enough voltage to drive even the highest impedance headphones.

It gives you a choice of gain levels: Low, mid, high, and super gain modes for up to 15 Vrms output. And since increased power often comes with increased levels of noise, the Kann Max goes to great lengths to eradicate the introduction of noise by separately configuring the power supply circuit for each part of the audio path —  digital-to-analog converter (DAC), volume, and amplification. A&K claims that this arrangement removes the interference ripple noise caused by DC-DC power supplies.

From a file and format point of view, all of the usual suspects are covered, including native 32bit/768kHz and DSD512 playback and full unfolding support for MQA. Processing is handled by using the latest ESS flagship ES9038Q2M chips in a quad-DAC arrangement. Output options abound, with a 3.5mm unbalanced jack, plus 2.5mm and 4.5mm balanced jacks, giving you plenty of choices depending on your preferred headphones or in-ear monitors (IEMs).

Astell & Kern Kann Max portable digital audio player seen face-down with audio jacks visible.

The Max has a 4.1-inch 720×1280 HD touchscreen, 64GB of internal memory, and supports microSD cards up to 1TB. It has Bluetooth 5.0, with support for both Sony’s LDAC and Qualcomm’s aptX HD codecs, giving you up to a 24-bit source for your wireless earbuds or headphones. Cleverly, it can also be used as a Bluetooth receiver, letting you take advantage of the Max’s onboard DACs and amplification when you want to use your wired headphones. Additional features include Wi-Fi, DLNA networking, USB digital audio output, USB-C for data transfer and fast-charge support, and the ability to use the player as a USB DAC for your Mac or Windows-based PC.

A&K has also been upgrading all of its players with AK File Drop, an easier way to transfer audio to the Kann Max wirelessly from a PC, smartphone, or FTP program located on the same network.

A&K HC2 USB-C Dual DAC Cable, $249, available in June 2022

Two views of the Astell& Kern HC2 – USB-C Dual DAC Cable.

A&K has also created a new version of its excellent USB-C Dual DAC Cable, a compact and portable headphone amp/DAC designed for use with smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The HC2 costs considerably more than its predecessor ($249 vs. $149) and while there are some features that justify the price increase, A&K tells Digital Trends that the higher price is mainly due to supply chain issues and shortages of the components used.

As with the previous model — which A&K continues to sell — you get two Cirrus Logic CS43198 MasterHIFI DACs paired to an analog amplifier, which A&K claims can “sufficiently” drive high impedance headphones with a 4 Vrms output level. What’s new is support for iOS devices like iPhones. The HC2 comes with a USB-C-to-lightning adapter for use on Apple’s products, whereas the USB-C Dual DAC Cable is strictly for Android phones and PCs.

The HC2 is also notable for its headphone jack: It uses a 4.4mm balanced output, which means this amp/DAC is targeted at those with wired headphones or IEMs that use balanced connections. You can convert a 2.5mm balanced plug into a 4.4mm plug if you need to, but you can’t use an unbalanced set of cans. A&K is planning to release a dedicated Android app that will give you more fine-tuned volume control over the HC2, and it’s working with Roon Labs to get the amp/DAC Roon-certified.

AK Pathfinder IEMs, $1,899, available in July 2022

Front and side views of the Astell&Kern AK Pathfinder IEMs.

Finally, A&K is releasing a new set of IEMs — its second collaboration with Oregon-based Campfire Audio. The $1,899 AK Pathfinder IEMs are a techno marvel, with five drivers in each earpiece. There are two dynamic drivers with hybrid diaphragms for bass and midrange frequencies, two balanced armature (BA) drivers for the highs, and a new dual-chamber BA from Knowles for extra detail in the all-important midranges.

That new dual-chamber BA uses a single coil to move two drive rods and two diaphragms, each in their own housing, an arrangement that A&K claims can produce higher, more powerful output for its size than can any other BA, and is excellent at expressing a warmer and more natural midrange.

The 3D-printed internal structure is complemented with MMCX connectors that have been fabricated using Beryllium Copper, a material that is more robust and less prone to damage from repeated use than the traditional, softer brass used in these fittings.

The AK Pathfinder IEMs come with three silver-plated copper cables (terminated in 3.5mm, 2.5mm, and 4.4mm headphone jacks), five pairs of Final Audio E-type tips (XS/S/M/L/XL), three pairs of Campfire Audio marshmallow earphone tips (S/M/L), three pairs of silicone earphone tips (S/M/L), an earphone cleaning tool,  a leather zipper case, an earphone protection sleeve, and an earphone tips and cable storage pouch.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
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