Back in January 2014, Astell & Kern of iRiver announced their AK240 which seemed to be the ultimate portable HiFi audio player at that time. It took the audio world by storm. Boasting impressive hardware and firmware capabilities, and native DSD format playback. Not to mention the stellar sound quality that it adorns that gave any competition a heart attack. Many people complained about the hefty price tag, but still, it sold very well simply by the fact that if you want the best, you have to be willing to pay the price to have the best. It was simply a stellar player and unbeatable for everything it was capable of. Fast forward to the middle of 2015, iRiver’s Astell & Kern, their ultimate portable system branch, has unveiled and had released their evolution of their masterpiece, the AK380. Their focus on the AK380 is the evolution of their ultimate portable player into the best pro-audio capability they can push it to. So let’s discuss about the AK380 below.
Evolution: The AK380 evolves from the AK240 in so many ways imaginable. The most basic things you will notice is the bigger chassis and screen, with an addition of the better resolution screen that can rival smartphones. Going deep into the innards of the AK380, it is now equipped with dual AKM AK4490 DAC chips that gives it 32bit 384kHz Bit to Bit Playback and Native DSD (up to 5.6 MHz) Playback. The AK380 also now is equipped with a Parametric EQ with 20-band 0.1dB, and 200 Femto Second VCXO Reference Clock. These enabling the AK380 to be as accurate as possible. The Parametric EQ helps in enabling the user and the AK380 in delivering detailed adjustments of the original sound and with the aid of a Digital Signal Processor. This enables a very accurate adjustment during EQ and much less instance of deterioration or distortion of the sound as it is accurately adjusting the original sound on the 20 band EQ by 0.1db. With the Femto Clock, it is usually used with high-end audio systems to create a more accurate frequency value and make fine jitter corrections, and with this on the AK380, it is capable of reproducing analog sound as closer to the original as possible. The AK380 also has the AK Connect App that allows the AK380 to connect with different devices to play as a media source, a media controller, network server, and network player via DLNA.
One thing I did not like in the new changes with the AK380 however is the new pressure sensitive touch button at the metal below the screen. It is a bit less responsive than the AK240’s touch sensitive button just below the screen. Now, the location is quite awkward and less fast to navigate as it is on the metal body below the entire screen compared to the AK240’s which was on the screen frame but below the display itself. The pressure sensitive button is less responsive as you need to simulate a minimal pressure for it to respond compared to the old one which is touch sensitive, any touch triggers it right away. This is my personal opinion though, as I believe they could have implemented the same type of home button layout without making the display smaller. there’s still some space below the screen of the AK380 for the touch button. Internal stays the same at 256gb and is expandable via a micro SD slot. I believe the AK380 can accommodate the largest micro SD available now which is a 200gb micro SD card. Personally, I am using a 128gb micro SD card which only has around 20+ gb left empty, and it works flawless.
Build: Build is even better than ever! It may be the same Duralumin metal body with same outputs (3.5mm and 2.5mm TRRS balanced), but it feels much more sturdy than the AK240. The texture and weight feels much more premium and durable. There is also a 4 point connection at the lower left near the USB plug, this one is reserved for accessories such as the AK380 amp, and probably also for the AK CD Ripper and AK380 dock. The AMOLED touchscreen is definitely an upgrade in resolution over the AK240, album arts pop-out more and are attractive with the bigger and better screen. Going back to the body before I forget, I love the new Meteoric Titan body color! Way more better looking than the AK240’s Gun Metal body color. Another thing to notice are the headphone out and balanced out, the jacks have a slight protrusion from the body, I like it as it can protect the metal body from scratches from plugs.
Sound Quality: I have always loved the marriage of my Vision-Ears VE6 Xcontrol CIEM (custom in-ear monitors) with the DHC Symbiote Fusion V2 balanced upgrade cable combined with the AK240. I have always believed in it being the ultimate portable audiophile set-up for my ears, having not heard anything yet that can beat it or can replace anything in the chain for further improvements. Cable rolling, other CIEMs, other DAPs trying to battle with the AK240, nothing, truly nothing at that time that can replace any part of that chain. Well, only until Astell & Kern has outdone themselves once again. Yes, the AK380 trumps the AK240 on virtually everything. A much much more natural sound, expansive soundstage, midrange that boasts both body and natural reproduction, separation that rivals desktop set-ups, imaging that alters your reality. It is really THAT good!
The AK380 is on the warmer side in general, but don’t see this as anything negative. It sounds warm as I believe it comes much much close to natural sound as possible, rather than analytical. Not to say that it is not detailed, it is very detailed to the point that as the bass is hitting hard, the punch and extension itself has its own imaging and spacing, and very advanced texture reproduction. Bass has proper wall and flooring when needed, guitars have proper grunge when commanded, vocals linger and extend great when called for, and the funny thing is, all of this while everything is fantastically spaced and in great imaging. Not overlapping each other nor bleeding in between. Coherence is kept even though the separation is very very good. You can easily pick out an instrument and pinpoint exact locations, but even though they are spaced really well and detailed, they retain this naturalism that keeps everything in-check with each other. Melody and harmony are flowing together even with that very nit picking detail. Extensions are great, decay and impact are reproduced as how the track is intended. Bass hits really well and extends very good, mids truly show off body and accuracy, treble extensions are airy and crisp without ever getting sibilant or peaky. Everything is extremely detailed but silky smooth with rawness that tickles your spine! The AK240 was the former king of DAPs (digital audio players), but now the AK380 just really blows it away by a mile!
Overall: The AK380 is not cheap, at $3500, it is very very expensive. Even a full $1000 more expensive than the AK240. But when you think about it, and when you’ve heard it, wanting the best really will make you be willing to pay for the best. Sure, there are other top of the line or high-end DAPs out there in the market like the iBasso, FiiO, Sony, Plenue, Lotoo, etc DAPs that are also amazing and much much cheaper and are at the same or near the level of the AK240. But if you want the best, the one that blows everyone out of the water? Nothing as of the moment can set foot to what the AK380 can deliver, not even the former king the AK240, NONE.