The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha is the latest addition from the South Korean manufacturer to its catalog which already comprises some of the best music players on the market. It features a more ergonomic design and up to date audio technologies. Its circuits benefit from a symmetrical structure with dual Sabre ES9068AS DAC compatible with 32-bit / 384kHz, DSD 11.2 MHz and MQA audio formats. One of the major characteristics of the KANN range is a colossal amplification power, which reaches 12Vrms via the symmetrical outputs (2.5mm jack and 4.4mm jack) and 6Vrms via the unbalanced output (3.5mm jack) for the Kann Alpha. In addition, this DAP runs on an optimized version of Android, allowing access to many streaming applications once connected to WiFi. Marketed at €1,199, will the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha be able to compete with the best FiiO and iBasso audio players of the moment?
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: the brand
Astell & Kern is a young company founded in 2013 by iRiver Inc, a South Korean electronics and entertainment group founded in 1999 by seven former Samsung executives. In its first year, Astell & Kern presented one of the first portable models to be able to decode HD music, the Astell&Kern AK100 digital audio player, at the Las Vega CES. It was equipped with a Wolfson WM8740 DAC compatible with 24-bit / 192 kHz files and could even be used as an external DAC thanks to its S/PDIF input and output connections. In August of the same year, the brand launched the Astell&Kern AK120, the successor of the AK100. Although it brought minor design improvements, it benefitted from a dual Wolfson WM8740 DAC for superior conversion accuracy.
The Korean company came back with a bang at CES 2014 with the Astell&Kern AK240, which added WiFi connectivity and an Android-based operating system in place of the previous Linux OS. Following Cirrus Logic’s acquisition of Wolfson, Astell&Kern replaced the AK120’s dual Wolfson DAC with a Cirrus Logic CS4398 chip, which is 24-bit/192kHz and 5.6MHz DSD compatible. A year later, the Astell&Kern AKT5P headphones, co-produced with Beyerdynamic, were released. The latter is a version of the Beyerdynamic T5P headphones modified by the German brand in order to offer a tonal balance adapted to Astell&Kern DAPs. This partnership was renewed on countless occasions, notably with the Beyerdynamic AK T8ie and the Astell&Kern AKT1p headphones.
In 2017, Astell&Kern launched the Astell&Kern KANN, which inaugurated the manufacturer’s most popular range to date. This first model was equipped with an Asahi Kasei AK4490 DAC that is 32-bit / 384kHz PCM and DSD compatible up to 11.2 MHz. With its great dynamics, powerful amplification stage and undeniable musicality, it quickly ranked among the best portable players on the market, despite its imposing size. It was replaced in 2019 by the Astell&Kern KANN Cube, itself recently replaced by the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha which we are reviewing today. In addition to better and more modern components, this latest iteration has a more ergonomic format, which is something that is frequently requested by users of previous models in the KANN range. Has the brand honored its promises with the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha?
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: packaging & accessories
The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha comes in a cardboard box with a black sleeve on which the name KANN Alpha is printed. The box containing the player opens elegantly with two pivoting flaps to reveal the KANN Alpha, wedged in a plastic cutout. Underneath it is the quick start guide, as well as a USB-C to USB-A cable for charging the player, transferring files and using it as a USB DAC. Astell&Kern does not specify the design of this cable, but it seems to be quite well made and has a thick and relatively rigid sheath, usually a sign of effective shielding to limit interference.
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: presentation
With the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha, the South Korean manufacturer has revisited the design of previous models to optimize the ergonomics. It features a luxurious aluminum chassis whose angles and cutouts are machined with great precision. The upper part including the various headphone outputs and the player’s power control is independently designed using high gloss ceramic. Astell&Kern performs more than seven different processes to achieve a scratch and crack resistant ceramic. The resulting design is immediately appealing. However, fingerprints quickly accumulate on the glossy surface, which can tarnish the charm of this finish…
The two side panels and the back panel of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha are machined in a monobloc structure. Two angles are designed between these side panels and the back panel to optimize the grip and support of the player. Astell&Kern has done an excellent job optimizing the design, with quick access to the four controls of the player: one on the upper side to turn on/off and put in standby, three on the left side to start playback, pause it and change the track (previous/next). Finally, a volume wheel is located on the right side. It is surrounded by an LED light whose intensity varies according to the volume and color of the file being played: red for 16-bit, green for 24-bit, blue for 32-bit and purple for DSD files.
For the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha, the Korean manufacturer has reduced the dimensions of the chassis, with a length of 68.3mm, a height of 117mm and a depth of 25mm compared to 87.75 x 140 x 31.5mm for the Kann Cube. This makes it possible to reduce its weight by almost 177 grams, which is far from being negligible. Despite this, the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha is still relatively large and cannot be placed discreetly in a pocket, unless you want to look like you are carrying a small gold bar. The best solution is therefore to carry it in a jacket pocket, which still limits the conditions in which you can enjoy music outdoors.
Dual ES9068AS DAC
The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha player adopts a symmetrical architecture designed around a dual Sabre ES9068AS DAC, a reference chip from the manufacturer ESS Technology. The use of two DACs allows for an independent conversion of the left and right channels to limit interference, optimize the signal-to-noise ratio which is thus established at 117dB and reduce the distortion rate to only 0.0003% for the unbalanced output and 0.0005% for the balanced output. Thanks to this dual DAC, the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha supports most audio formats up to 32-bit / 384kHz for PCM streams. Native decoding of DSD files is also possible up to 11.2 MHz DSD. In addition, it can also play MQA files, making it compatible with Tidal Hi-Res playback.
Balanced and unbalanced outputs
The amplifier section also features a symmetrical design and adopts a high-performance module for each channel. They are combined with ultra-low noise components whose arrangement is optimized to provide the lowest possible crosstalk. Crosstalk is the amount of signal that leaks between the left and right channels. In practical terms, the lower the crosstalk, the better the separation between the channels and the deeper and wider the sense of space that can be experienced. With an unprecedented crosstalk of -141 dB when the gain set to “high”, the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha promises great sound performance.
The amplifier section of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha features three headphone outputs: a 3.5mm unbalanced mini-jack output, a 2.5mm balanced output and a 4.4mm balanced output. The different outputs are isolated to limit interference. Like the other players in the KANN range from the Korean manufacturer, the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha is distinguished by its high power amplification of 6Vrms for the unbalanced output and 12Vrms for the balanced outputs. The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha audiophile DAP can thus easily power most headphones and in-ear monitors on the market. In addition, the 3.5mm mini-jack output of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha can also be used as a line output and as a Toslink optical output to connect an external DAC or amplifier.
Android and WiFi
The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha audiophile player runs on a modified version of the Android 9.0 operating system (Android Pie). It has been customized and optimized by Astell&Kern for music listening, so that audio streams are sent directly to the DAC without any digital intervention from the operating system. The OS interface is also different from the Android version for mobile. On the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha, it is entirely dedicated to music. Instead of a home page with the device’s applications, we can enjoy our music library, where we can explore music by albums, songs, artists, genres, playlists and folders.
By swiping up and down, as one would do on a smartphone, you can quickly activate certain settings including WiFi, Bluetooth, equalizer, USB DAC mode, screen brightness and output level. A swipe from left to right gives access to more precise settings of the player, such as balance, gain, car mode to enjoy a display adapted to driving or one of the three available filters: Linear Phase Fast Roll-Off, Minimum Phase Slow Roll-Off and Hybrid Fast Roll-Off.
The integration of this Android system and WiFi allow the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha HD player to access many online streaming services. However, the player does not have the official Google Play Store and does not offer an alternative store for downloading applications, as FiiO does for its Android players. In order to enjoy streaming services, it is therefore necessary to download from your computer the APK files of your streaming service from a store like apkpure.com.
Once the file is downloaded, you need to connect the player to a Mac or PC computer and drag the APK file into the Open Service folder. The application is then automatically installed and can be found in the “service” folder in the player’s settings. This procedure is not complex, but it is still less intuitive and more time-consuming than using a store installed directly on the player.
In addition, Astell&Kern ensures optimal compatibility of its players with the following applications: 7digital Music / Amazon Music / Apple Music / Audible / Awa / Bandcamp / BBC iPlayer Radio / 7digital Music / Amazon Music / Apple Music / Bugs / Deezer / Dsaudio / FLO / foobar2000 / Genie / IDAGIO / Joox / Kkbox / Last.fm / Melon / Moov / myTuner Radio / nugs.net / Onkyo HF Player / Pandora / FM Player / Qobuz / QQmusic / Sirius / Soundcloud / Spotify / Tidal / Tunein / xiami music / Yandex Music.
Screen and interface
The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha has a 4.1″ diagonal (10.4 cm) touch screen with a resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels. We thus benefit from a 720p HD screen, with rich and well contrasted colors. The level of brightness is good indoors, but can be insufficient outdoors, especially since the screen is very prone to reflections. In full sunlight, it can turn into a real mirror. The reading of information is therefore not optimal in a bright environment. Apart from that, navigation is always smooth and the interface is responsive thanks to the use of a 4-core processor. With some third-party applications such as Qobuz, however, there is a slight loading time during searches.
The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha is fitted with a rechargeable battery offering up to 14h30 of battery life. It is however announced for the listening of 16-bit files and with the gain setting on the lowest level. It is thus necessary to expect a shorter battery life with Hi-Res files or with more demanding headphones.
The battery is charged using the USB-C port on the underside of the player. A complete charge is done in 5 hours when the player is connected to the USB port of a computer (5V, 2A). On the other hand, Astell&Kern indicates that the duration of the charge can be reduced to 3h30 by using a 9V / 1.67 A adapter. This adapter is however not included with the DAP. Finally, the USB-C port of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha can also be used to use the player as a USB DAC with a MAC or a PC. When the KANN Alpha is in DAC mode, it works asynchronously, that is to say that its internal clock times the addressing of the data packets to reduce jitter in order to optimize the precision and the smoothness of the restitution.
- Aluminum chassis
- 4.1″ touch screen (720 x 1280 pixels)
- Dual ESS Sabre ES9068AS DAC
- High precision clock
- 64Gb internal memory
- microSD drive: compatible up to 1TB
- Android 9.0 operating system
- WiFi and Bluetooth compatible
Supported audio formats
- PCM up to 32-bit / 384kHz, DSD 11.2MHz
- Supported formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA, DSD
Balanced output measurements
- Output level (high gain): 12Vrms
- Output level (mid gain): 8Vrms
- Output level (low gain): 4Vrms
- Signal to noise ratio: 117dB
- Distortion rate: 0.0005% at 1kHz
- Crosstalk: – 136dB
Unbalanced output measurements
- Output level (high gain): 6Vrms
- Output level (mid gain): 4Vrms
- Output level (low gain): 2Vrms
- Signal to noise ratio: 116dB at 1kHz
- Distortion rate: 0.0003%
- Crosstalk: – 128dB
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Codecs supported: SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD and LDAC
Lithium Ion battery
Autonomy: up to 14h30 (FLAC 16-bit / low gain)Charging time (9V / 1.67 A): 3h30
Charging time (5V / 2A) : 5h
- 1x unbalanced headphone output mini-jack 3.5 mm and Toslink
- 1x 2.5mm balanced headphone output
- 1x 4.4mm balanced headphone output
- 1x USB type C port (charging, file transfer and USB DAC mode)
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 68.3 x 117 x 25mm
- Weight: 316g
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: testing conditions
For the test of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha audiophile DAP, we paired it with the Sennheiser HD380 PRO headphones, a reference model selected for its great neutrality. It has an impedance of 54 ohms and a frequency response of 8Hz to 27kHz, which makes it ideal for taking advantage of the harmonic richness offered by the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha. We also tested the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha as a source by using its line output with a NAD C375 BEE Hi-Fi amplifier. Finally, we took advantage of its Bluetooth connection to broadcast music wirelessly on the KEF LS50 Wireless II speakers.
We listened to Hi-Res FLAC and DSD audio files stored on the 64GB internal memory of the player. We also installed the Qobuz application to enjoy the 24-bit / 192kHz tracks available on the streaming platform and listened to Spotify (MP3 at 320Kbps), to test the musical capabilities of the player with lower resolution files. Finally, we tested the USB DAC mode on a MacBook Pro with the USB cable provided. Unlike a PC, we did not need to install a driver. The DAC is directly operational after selecting it as an audio output device in the MAC settings.
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: listening impressions
From the very first track we listened to with the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha, we enjoyed the sound signature that has made the brand successful, with an extremely transparent and smooth restitution. The soundstage benefited from a remarkable amplitude and aeration, offering a lot of space and clarity to the different registers. The overall sound benefitted from a great linearity and an imperturbable balance, with very well controlled lows, a rich and textured midrange, as well as high frequencies which run high with fluidity and without harshness.
On the interpretation of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack by Hans Zimmer during his live performance in Prague, the transparency and the width of the soundstage admirably reproduced the acoustics of the room. The various instruments were well placed and correctly lined out. The harmonic richness of the piece was sublimated by the impressive dynamic amplitude of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha which reacted instantly to the slightest solicitation of the orchestra. The attacks of the notes were incisive, with very crisp highs while retaining lightness and softness. This remained true when the sound message became more complex and as the volume increased, which we are constantly tempted to do because the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha is so pleasant to listen to.
With more low-key music, such as the track Smooth Operator by Sade, the singer’s voice was nuanced and tangible. It unfolded with naturalness and ease, while standing out very well from the rest of the stage. The lows were tight, dynamic and always in place. The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha knows how to hit hard when the song requires it, but without ever putting the other registers in the background. The midrange was very soft, as emphasized by the saxophone which was crisp and very well articulated. The percussion that accompanies the whole piece was finely detailed and delicately framed the scene.
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: compared to…
Fiio M15: Marketed at €1,399, the FiiO M15 is the flagship model of the Chinese manufacturer. It adopts a dual AK4499EQ DAC compatible with PCM 32-bit / 768 kHz and DSD512 audio files. The FiiO M15 can deliver up to 490mW into 32 ohms via the unbalanced output and up to 800mW via the balanced outputs. The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha shows superior transparency and smoother highs. The FiiO M15, on the other hand, has a bit more substance in the lows, with more pronounced bass. Apart from that, both players benefit from Bluetooth and WiFi and run on Android. However, installing streaming applications on the FiiO M15 is more intuitive thanks to the alternative app store installed on the player.
Sony NW-WM1A: Marketed at €1,099, Sony’s DAP has many convincing qualities, notably the fact that it is more compact and lighter than the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha, which makes it more pleasant to use and to carry around. In addition, the Sony NW-WM1A is equipped with a Cirrus Logic CS4398 converter that is 32-bit / 384kHz and DSD 256 compatible. Its amplification stage provides an unbalanced 3.5mm mini-jack output and a balanced 4.4mm jack output, but the output level is limited and thus lower than that of the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha. The Sony NW-WM1A also benefits from a Bluetooth LDAC transmitter, but is not WiFi compatible and therefore does not allow you to play music from streaming apps. Soundwise, the Sony NW-WM1A is on par with the KANN Alpha in terms of linearity and naturalness. Airiness, spatialization and spectral balance are also great with Sony’s DAP, which manages to deliver even deeper bass. However, the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha remains unbeatable thanks to its extreme transparency and smoothness.
Astell&Kern KANN Alpha: conclusion
Without surprise, the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha is a great success that confirms the expertise of the South Korean manufacturer in the design of high-end digital audio players with undeniable musicality. It delivers an ample and delectable sound. The listening experience is full of details and each register is remarkably well layered. On the other hand, we still regret its relatively imposing size and heavy format, despite the beautiful optimization of the design. This is obviously the inevitable trade-off to enjoy high-end components and a design that prioritizes musical performance above all.
What we liked:
- The transparency and the extent of the sound stage
- The softness and the fluidity of the highs
- The great dynamics
- The powerful amplification
- The harmonic richness
- The unique and flattering design
We would have liked:
- A more compact format
- A natively available application store
- A screen less prone to reflections