It seems strange to describe the new AK240 as a digital music player. In truth, that's what it is. But giving it such a title makes it sound an awful lot like a competitor to the iPod. And the AK240, debuting at this year's CES, does so much more—or at least, given the estimated US sale price of $2400, it sure as heck should.
The South Korean company Astell & Kern already made some waves on the market last year by releasing the AK100 and AK120. Both of those models were renowned for their high quality playback—most notably, they use Astell & Kern's Mastering Quality Sound (MQS) technology, which allows for full playback of studio quality tracks at 24 bit, 192kHz sound. The AK240 proudly carries on the same tradition, and adds even more upgrades to the already high-end mix.
Specifically, those with the bravery and the bank account to purchase the AK240 receive everything from wireless and Bluetooth technology for streaming and downloading, to an OLED touch screen, to a carbon fiber casing. And yes, that full-range 24-bit playback sound is still alive and well. There's also a new Android-based operating system, 256GB of built-in memory (plus a microSD card for additional storage), and Cirrus Logic 4398 digital audio converters (one for each stereo channel). In short, this is about as upscale as digital players can get.
If you're really into digital music, this list probably tells you quite a lot about what to expect from the AK240. For those who are more interested in end results, though, how does the AK240 actually perform?
It was with the goal of answering that question that I paid a visit to the Astell & Kern suite at CES 2014. The AK240 was on display, and the company reps were on hand to let me test it out and hear what all the fuss was about.
For starters, the unit itself really is attractive. The 30 second load-up time is fairly lengthy, but when you consider everything that's actually being loaded up, that doesn't seem too egregious. The unit is lightweight, but not so lightweight that it feels fragile, and it fits smoothly into the palm of the hand. The screen is nicely-sized and responds well to touches.
All of which is well and good, but the sound is what counts. The representatives on hand obligingly queued me up with a sample track, and the quality truly was impressive. However, the reps noticed that the track they'd given me was, in fact, sourced from a CD. In other words, it didn't even contain the highest level of quality that the AK240 is capable of playing back.
This raises the question: how many people out there could really make proper use of the of the AK240? Clearly the main target market here is limited to those with the quality of audio tracks (and headphones) to take full advantage of what the AK240 can do. As the rep explained to me, "Not even the AK240 can play back quality that isn't there." Unless I imagined the hint of regret in his voice, I'm willing to bet that solving this problem may be next on the list for Astell & Kern.
If your first reaction to the AK240 is that, for that amount of money, it should clean your bathroom and do a song and dance, too, chances are good it's not the player for you. Speaking as someone whose most recent audio upgrade was replacing the cassette deck in her 92 Volvo with a CD player, I'm right there with you. But for those consumers with the equipment—and the bank account—to fully appreciate the AK240, it's ready and waiting for you.