WHILE the iPod and iTunes dominate portable players, some users consider the music’s sound quality to be less than stellar. This has opened up a niche for rivals to offer higher-fidelity recordings on higher-end devices. This week, a look at one such player, also a PC appendage and an app audio upgrade.
1. Astell&Kern AK100 player — three stars
You may remember iRiver, the South Korean maker of MP3 players whose brief global domination of the category was swiftly ended by the introduction of the iPod in 2001. You have probably never heard of Astell&Kern though — the maker of a new and expensive player that handles audio in a "lossless" format that takes nothing away from the original master recording.
The two brands are the same company. Aware of its association with low-priced MP3 players, iRiver came up with the Astell&Kern name (think Bang & Olufsen) to boost the appeal of its first high-end device for audiophiles.
The AK100 is a small, black slab of a media player that can stand upright unaided and delights and frustrates in equal measure in terms of its design and features.
There is a quality, solid-metal feel to its brushed aluminium front and sides, but the shiny glass back panel smudges easily. It fitted snugly in the palm of my hand and the volume control wheel was a nice analogue touch, yet felt flimsy compared to the rest of the device.
The display is a high-resolution, 2.4-inch colour touchscreen, but its interface is slow to load, limited in functions and clumsy to navigate.
It has two microSD slots for memory cards to supplement the 32Gb internal memory, three small buttons on the side for play/pause, fast-forward and rewind, and two ports for optical and headphone connections.
Inside, the AK100 is the first portable device to feature the Wolfson WM8740 DAC — a high-performance digital-to-analogue converter chip that can handle the huge data files needed to play music just as it was mastered in the studio.
Listening to a Beck song on high-quality headphones (not included), I could appreciate the depth, clarity and separation in the recording compared to a compressed MP3 version. Using my finger I could raise and lower the bars of an onscreen graphic equaliser to bring dramatic shifts to the soundscape.
The song’s file format took up more than 100Mb of space, meaning only 300 could fit on the internal storage. Sites such as hdtracks.com offer downloads, costing at least 50% more than an iTunes version. The software for moving files from your computer to the AK100 is also very basic compared to iTunes.
While audiophiles will appreciate the incredible sound quality offered by this player, mere MP3-loving mortals will find its $699 price, limited service and software all too discordant.
2. AudioQuest DragonFly — two stars
The AK100 can also function as an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC). You plug your computer or CD player into its "Optical In" port and connect your speakers or headphones into the "Line Out" to add a richer sound to your music with this additional in-between processing.
AudioQuest’s DragonFly achieves something similar. It’s a DAC on a USB stick, which comes in a leather pouch and plugs into your computer.
I tried it on my MacBook Air, watching the DragonFly logo light up and turn green, and then plugging my headphones into the USB stick.
While the music I played sounded great, it was not that much better than when I removed the Dragonfly and plugged directly into the headphone socket. Other people who tried it for me also noticed little difference.
Hi-Fi reviewers have rated this highly and it may produce better results on poorer PCs, but for me, the incremental audio improvements hardly justify the DragonFly’s $249 price tag.
Planet of the Apps
What it is: Rondo (iPhone and iPod Touch, free)
Why you should try it: Rondo recreates the depth of sound you get from speakers for headphones. It really does give an added presence — try turning the effect on and off to hear the difference. You can narrow and widen the circumference of sound by touching concentric circles on your screen and make the sound appear to come from different locations by turning the device round to guide sound with its motion sensors.
© 2013 The Financial Times Limited