Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 hands-on review

Quirky, off-kilter, and lovely, Astell & Kern’s A&norma SR15 is another hi-fi hit

The A&K A&norma SR15’s quirky design hides strong audio tech for a sparking listening experience
The A&K A&norma SR15’s quirky design hides strong audio tech for a sparking listening experience
The A&K A&norma SR15’s quirky design hides strong audio tech for a sparking listening experience

Highs

  • Improved software experience
  • Updated Dual DAC
  • Quirky, fun design
  • Incredible sound

Lows

  • Still expensive

Astell & Kern knows how to do quirky design, and not in an irritating manner that makes us want to cringe. The new SR15 music player is the perfect example. The firm’s designs have always been highly recognizable, as everything seems to be hewn from a single block of metal by someone only familiar with sharp angles and straight lines. The SR15 isn’t different in that aspect, but this time it has also gone crazy with the screen, and an odd new name as well.

While it’s all bit mad on the outside, inside it’s better than ever before, and we think serious listeners are going to be very pleased about it. We had a short time to handle and listen to the SR15, and here are our early impressions.

Quirky in a good way

Take a good look at the front of the SR15. The crazy folk at A&K have inlaid the screen at a funny angle. First, the why. It’s supposed to be more logical for the way we hold a mobile device, which is usually at a slight angle, so if the screen is also angled then it will appear straight when handling it like a phone. Sure, this is what the marketing team says; but we tend to think it’s more about A&K’s engineers and designers having fun. Yes, the screen is slightly more “straight” in your hand but it’s hardly an ergonomic triumph, despite being suitable for both left and right handed people. We think it’s more about looking cool, and perfectly fits with the A&K’s protractor-and-ruler design style.

Despite all the angles and sharp lines, the SR15 is comfortable to hold, though it’s quite thick and heavy. At 154 grams, it’s weightier than most average size smartphones, and at least twice as thick. Flip the player over and you’re greeted by the signature glass rear panel and a 3D-style isometric pattern. There’s also a new name: A&norma. We asked the A&K representative about this and its meaning, to which the reply was, “It’s A&K being A&K.” See what we mean about quirky?

It’s all a bit mad on the outside.

The SR15 is the first model in a newly updated standard line of music players from Astell & Kern. The company’s other new players also have new names; although the Norma sounds like it has been inspired by a British housewife in the 1950s, it makes better sense alongside the SE100 A&Futura, and the fabulous SP1000 A&Ultima. Viewed like this, the Norma name likely refers to “normal,” compared to the more technically impressive A&Futura and A&Ultima models.

Listening pleasure

The SR15 replaces the AK70 MKII player from last year, with new internals, new software, and the same $700 “entry-level” price. Inside is a Cirrus Logic CS43198 MasterHiFi class Dual DAC, powered by a quad-core processor. The device supports PCM music files up to 24-bit/192kHz, and native DSD at 64MHz. Higher resolution files are down-sampled. For connectivity there is a 3.5mm headphone jack, a 2.5mm balanced output, and Bluetooth with AptX HD support. The USB connection lets the player function as a pre-amp when plugged into a computer with the correct cable.

Astell & Kern A&Norma SR15 review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

We listened to a few tracks using Tidal on the SR15, including personal test favorites Inner Peace by Clozee, and Jidenna’s Long Live the Chief; but it’s worth mentioning we were given the $1,000 Audeze LCD2C headphones to audition the SR15, and they’re very special on their own.

We wanted to listen more, and that’s a big plus point for a music player.

What surprised at first is how effortlessly the SR15 seemed to drive these massive cans — and the sheer presence it allowed them to deliver really impressed. Inner Peace sparkled, emphasizing the track’s strong stereo separation, and squelchy, dramatic riffs. The bassline in Long Live the Chief wasn’t as strong as we’d have liked, but this was likely to be the headphones influence rather than the player. This didn’t make it any less enjoyable to listen to, however — we wanted more, and that’s a big plus point for a music player.

Software improvements

The AK70 MKII, for all its sonic prowess, wasn’t the most pleasurable device to use because the software always seemed a little slow, especially compared to any decent smartphone. Android, the operating system underneath A&K’s own user interface, has been updated on the SR15, plus the interface from the SP1000 A&Ultima has been added to it. The difference is night and day. Scrolling through menus, opening apps, and general music playback control is smooth, effortless, and enjoyable. The AK70 MK II tended to push us back towards a great sounding smartphone when out and about, just due to speed; but that doesn’t look like it’ll happen with the SR15.

Astell & Kern A&Norma SR15 review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

That’s a great set of improvements all round, and for Astell & Kern to keep the price the same as the outgoing AK70 MK II is excellent news. No, it’s not cheap; but you are getting a very high-quality product with super build, a unique design, and genuine audio ability. We haven’t spent enough time with the device to judge battery life or performance with headphones that don’t cost $1,000; but initial impressions are very good.

The A&norma SR15 from Astell & Kern costs $700 through the company’s own website in the U.S., or 600 British pounds in the U.K. The player was released on July 23.

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