Once upon a time there was a company called iRiver, which was a very early business in the MP3 player space (it even predated the iPod). The iPod, along with the later iTunes store, proved to contain that unknowable magic sauce that turns a consumer product into a phenomenon. But iRiver kept going, and with a change of ownership rebranded itself into one of the leading purveyors of ultra high fidelity portable music players.
Which brings us to the Astell & Kern AK70. Astell & Kern is the classy sounding rebranding. The AK70 is the lighter weight, lower cost version of its high end portable music players. Now $999 might seem a lot, but do remember that the brand’s current flagship model retails for over $5000.
So why would one want a music player other than an iPod? Features, high fidelity and music format support. And build.
The Astell & Kern AK70 is built using a machined aluminium chassis and case. Finished in an unusual cool mint colour, it is a sometimes dangerous object with sharp corners and edges. Happily it comes with the company’s leather case which softens those corners.
The squarish sharp design make it look bigger and heavier than it actually is. It’s no iPod Nano, but at 132 grams and 61mm by 97mm by 13mm it is scarcely noticeable in a jacket pocket. The front carries an 84mm 480 by 800 pixel touch screen, through which you’ll do most of your interaction with the unit. Underneath the display, while still within the glass area, is an invisible touch sensitive ‘Home’ key that brings the screen back to its base display. It also has on the left side fast forward/skip, reverse/skip back, and play/pause keys. And on the right side, a large, smoothly operating volume knob which is unlikely to be accidentally manipulated due to it being inset into the casing.
The unit plays pretty much any digital audio format. The listed formats are WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF and DSF. Those which support high resolution audio – up to 24 bits and 192kHz – are happily played by the Astell & Kern AK70, as are Direct Stream Digital music files (that’s the format of the Super Audio CD) in both regular and double speed forms.
High resolution audio consumes a lot of storage space, even when losslessly compressed like FLAC and ALAC. It has 64GB of storage built in, and has a microSD card slot to allow the addition of up to 128GB more.
Still not enough? Here’s where things get wild: it will play music from your home network using DLNA standards (that is, the Digital Living Network Alliance standards used by non-Apple players for network audio). You can dial up the music available on your network that you might use for other devices, such as multiroom systems, and play it back on the AK70. Only so long as you’re home, since you need to be connected to the network via the built in WiFi (802.11 b/g/n, 2.4GHz only). And you can also play the music on the unit to any speaker or system in your home that is DLNA compatible.
In fact, you can use the Astell & Kern AK70 as a controller: have it play music from your network to a speaker on your network! It’s extremely flexible. You can also play back using Bluetooth. The higher quality aptX codec is included.
Finally, you can plug it into a USB socket on a computer and use the AK70 as a high quality Digital to Analogue converter.
The unit has two headphone outputs. A standard one and one for high quality (and expensive) ‘balanced’ headphones. The standard output can be switched to line level mode for when you’re plugging it into a stereo.
What it misses out on is the iPhone ecosystem, including things like automatic podcast management. If you are a podcast fan, you’re going to have to manage things yourself, and given many podcasts don’t contain sensible ID3 tags, that can be a real pain.
As seems to happen with so many devices these days, a firmware upgrade was available for the unit as soon as I started using it. How did I know? As soon as the WiFi connected it informed me. The download was 158MB. This was the firmware – version 1.10 –installed for the duration of the review.