Astell&Kern KANN Alpha

Apple’s iPod is most people’s idea of a digital audio player, but the computer company from Cupertino was actually a little late to the party. Some may remember Diamond Multimedia’s Rio as the MP3 player that started it all, just before the turn of the new millennium. A year or two later, Creative Labs wowed the world with its digital Jukebox. Only when Apple arrived with a lovely interface, did it make the market its own.

Another company still going from the early days is South Korean-based iRiver, formed in 1999 by seven former Samsung employees. It has lasted the distance in this very tough market and even launched its own high-end brand – Astell&Kern – in 2013. This was a real market disruptor, giving products that audiophiles had previously turned their noses up at something to crave.

The KANN Alpha is the company’s latest DAP and feels every penny of its weighty £1,099 price tag. Its solid aluminium body is unexpectedly large and is exquisitely smooth to the touch. At 316g it’s also a lot heavier than you might expect. The top of its case sports three different headphone sockets, including a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced type – plus the on/off switch. On the left-hand side are the transport controls, and underneath is a micro SD memory card slot; 64GB of onboard memory is built-in. The volume knob is on the right.

Inside, the KANN Alpha sports twin ESS ES9068AS DACs, and there’s also hardware MQA support and an optical digital output. An LED ring around the volume control tells you the digital word length of the track being played – red for 16-bits and yellow for 24 – but it would have been nice to have sampling frequency indication, a la Chord’s Mojo (HFC 461) for example. The unit supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256. Claimed playback time is 14.5 hours, with 3.5 hours for a charge; juicing up is done via the USB-C socket; a chunky charging cable is supplied. This DAP runs a customised version of Android 9.0, and supports Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal, Qobuz etc.

Touchscreen operation enables you to sort through artists, songs, genres, etc. very easily and access all the settings through the main menu. My only gripe is that the interface is a bit laggy. Still, the 720 x 1,280 screen is a major asset and makes it a welcoming thing to use. There’s a welter of facilities, from Bluetooth (24-bit LDAC and aptX HD) and wi-fi.

Sound quality
With its (claimed) 12V RMS headphone output stage, you’d expect this DAP to go loud, and so it proves. That’s not to say it’s raucous, though – it has a light, bright, open and detailed sound with a pleasing lack of digital hash or grit. It’s a real top-tier player that drives pretty much any headphone with gusto. As soon as you press play, you find yourself forgetting about the hardware and getting into the music – which isn’t my experience of most portables.

Cue up some hi-res Dire Straits, and Sultans Of Swing comes over in a vibrant and engaging way; there’s lots of detail, but it’s not presented in an analytical fashion. Feed it some glass-clear electro, and Kraftwerk’s Techno Pop is beautifully pure with oodles of drive in the bass and midband insight, yet it doesn’t grate or have you reaching to turn it down. Soundstaging, such as it is through headphones, is quite superb.

During my time with it, I try a range of headphones from Oppo’s PM-1 to Sennheiser’s PX-100, and the KANN Alpha drives them all valiantly. Not only that, but it sounds fresh as a daisy and bouncy as a ball; it’s a truly enjoyable portable. This is a great new product from Astell&Kern then – although expensive, it certainly makes a convincing case for itself. DP    

Product: Astell&Kern KANN Alpha
Type: Digital audio player

●  720 x 1,280 backlit colour touchscreen
●  2x ESS ES9068AS DACs; MQA
●  Optical digital output

Read the full review in  Issue 473