Miss an iPod? Astell & Kern has the treatment – for a price

In a move that has been expected for years, Apple has finally confirmed – albeit somewhat embarrassingly – that it will not make the iPod Touch, the last remaining version of the iPod. The reasons, according to Apple, are clear: Because we can access music through all of our other digital devices (phones, laptops, tablets, smart speakers), we’ve all outgrown the need for a dedicated device for listening to music — on the go, especially those that can’t Connect to streaming services like Apple Music with mobile data.

That may be true, but Apple’s hardware has never been entirely satisfied anyway with audiophiles – a group of audiophiles who expect convenience to go hand in hand with quality, and not one at the expense of the other. Astell & Kern’s (A&K) lineup of high-resolution digital audio players has been bridging that quality gap for a while now, and their latest product is pushing portable listening to new heights — in terms of performance and price. Here’s what the Korean audio brand is set to make its 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 June 2022

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A&K’s portable triggers have always had an angular design, with radically beveled edges and triangular accents, but the new $1,299 Kann Max might be the most muscle-looking model yet. Under its dark gray aluminum housing is a new integrated headphone amplifier, which A&K claims is its most powerful yet, with enough effort to power even the highest impedance headphones.

It gives you a choice of gain levels: low, medium, high and ultra gain modes for up to 15 Vrms of output. Since increased power often brings increased levels of noise, Kann Max goes to great lengths to eliminate noise input by configuring the power supply circuit separately for each part of the audio path – digital to analog converter (DAC), volume and amplification. A&K claims that this arrangement eliminates interference ripple noise caused by DC-DC power supplies.

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

The Astell & Kern Kann Max portable digital audio player appears face down with visible audio jacks.
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The Max has a 4.1-inch 720 x 1280 HD touch screen, 64GB of internal memory, and supports microSD cards up to 1TB. It has Bluetooth 5.0, with support for both Sony’s aptX HD codec and Qualcomm’s LDAC, giving you up to a 24-bit source for wireless earbuds or headphones. Cleverly, it can also be used as a Bluetooth receiver, allowing you to take advantage of Max’s built-in DACs and amplification when you want to use wired headphones. Additional features include Wi-Fi, DLNA, USB digital audio output, USB-C for data transfer, fast charging support, and the ability to use the player as a USB DAC for your Mac or Windows PC.

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

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

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

As with the previous model – which A&K continues to sell – you get two Cirrus Logic CS43198 MasterHIFI DAC paired with an analog amplifier, which A&K claims can “enough” drive high-impedance headphones with an output level of 4 Vrms. New is support for iOS devices such as the iPhone. The HC2 comes with a USB-C-to-lightning adapter for use in Apple products, while the USB-C Dual DAC cable is strictly for Android phones and computers.

The HC2 also features its own headphone jack: it uses a 4.4mm balanced output, which means this amp/DAC is aimed 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 plans to release a dedicated Android app that will give you more precise volume control over the HC2, and it’s working with Roon Labs for Roon amp/DAC certification.

AK Pathfinder IEMs, $1,899, Available July 2022

Front and side views of Astell & Kern AK Pathfinder IEMs.
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Finally, A&K is launching a new batch of IEMs – their second collaboration with Oregon-based Campfire Audio. The $1,899 AK Pathfinder IEMs are a technical marvel, with five drivers on each earpiece. There are two dynamic drivers with hybrid diaphragms for bass and mids, two balanced drivers (BA) for the highs, and a new dual-chamber BA from Knowles for more detail in the important mid-ranges.

The new dual-chamber BA uses a single coil to drive two drive rods and two diaphragms, each in its own housing, an arrangement that A&K claims can produce higher, stronger outputs for its size than any other BA, and is excellent at expressing a more mid-range Warm and natural.

The 3D-printed internal structure is complemented by MMCX conductors that are manufactured using beryllium copper, a material that is more robust and less prone to damage from repeated use than the softer conventional copper used in these fixtures.

AK Pathfinder IEMs come with three silver-plated copper cables (terminated with 3.5mm, 2.5mm, and 4.4mm headphone jacks), five pairs of Final Audio Type E terminals (XS/S/M/L/XL), three pairs of Campfire Audio marshmallow earphone terminals (S/M/L), three pairs of silicone earphone tips (S/M/L), earphone cleaning tool, zipper leather case, earphone protective cover, cable and earphone tips case storage.

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