Once the iPod towered over the Earth, Lord of all it surveyed, the undisputed king of digital music. Then came the smartphone. It was everywhere and could store and play music, as well as dozens of other functions. And the iPod faded away. But the smartphone is a Swiss Army Knife of a tool. It can do absolutely everything, but not all equally well. What if you are a music fan of the old school? You don’t want everything; you want the best. Here’s a short list of the professional chef’s knives of the music players.
Astell & Kern Kann
If the smartphone is the Swiss Army Knife of digital tools, the Kann is one for digital music. With 64 GB of internal memory, and support for both SD and microSD it can store a terabyte of music. It supports TIDAL streaming using Bluetooth and is highly portable. Multiple inputs and outputs, approximately 15 hours of battery life (and USB-C and Micro USB for fast charging), and a great sounding DAC, it will please even the most demanding audiophile.
A highly configurable player with the ability to change out the internal amp module depending on the situation. Users can change the hardware to find the best fit for the current setup. Volume control using a high-end step attenuator gives high precision, and an external low-gain/high-gain switch makes changing from in-ear to full-sized headphones a snap. Some aesthetic drawbacks, faux leather, and plastic components give the impression of less than robust construction, and it also lacks a touchscreen. Using a proprietary port for file transfers instead of the standard USB requires keeping track of the factory cable, another point against it.
Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX2
While measured on a strictly audio quality standard, this doesn’t meet the other devices listed here; it does have some valuable features. The operating system is a version of Android Jelly Bean, so the look and feel are familiar to smartphone users. Support for wi-fi allows it to run third-party music apps such as Tidal for more access to high-quality audio tracks. Internal storage of 128GB and optional microSD for 64GB more gives it impressive space for a library, which can play for over 30 hours on its lithium-ion battery. Sony also packs in support for many hi-res audio formats using the S-Master HX digital AMP. One drawback is it has some problems with high power usage headphones.
Astell & Kern AK240
The second entry from A&K, this represents the high end of their high-end devices. 256GB internal storage, with 128GB microSD additional, and support for both Wifi and Bluetooth give it both ample space and wireless connectivity. A wireless streaming player achieves with the same quality of digital files stored, on the device itself. The form factor is unique, with angled corners and slanted edges in duralumin. Extreme high-fidelity makes it stand out for faithful music reproduction and careful removal of distortion and noise.
While not a strictly portable solution, you need to see the fantastic feature set for this digital music player. Not just a large 4TB internal drive, but a 120GB solid-state drive for playback caching, and additional expansion available through a connection to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device using its Gigabit Ethernet port. Aurender Conductor App installed for managing vast collections of high-resolution music with high speed browsing and searching capabilities using your iPad. TIDAL and Qobuz services supported for lossless streaming. Volume control using the app, an IR remote, or a manual front panel knob.
Exquisite audio quality is provided by dual 768KHz/32bit Next Generation Flagship AK4490 DAC Chips. Discrete Linear Power Regulators support entirely separate Dual-Mono DAC Blocks. Dedicated USB Audio output uses Ultra-Low-Noise Power Circuitry, and four individual toroidal power transformers provide for the Server/Digital/Dual DAC blocks. If not the absolute top of the line, it is sure to please the proper audiophile, perhaps causing a bit of drool.
While the casual listener will be satisfied with software driven playback through their phone, along with a limited library size after the other apps eat up the phone’s storage space, audiophiles yearn for something more. This pursuit of perfection can be costly, none of these devices could be considered cheap, but as with any specialized tool, for the connoisseur, they are worth the price. And as the real music lover knows, the player is only one component.
High-quality audio requires attention to detail and high-quality components at every step. Start with high-end digital recordings, get a sturdy player sending through professional grade cables to a well-designed pair of headphones and you too can hear music as it was meant to be heard. With the full depth and majesty, the artists intended. That is the goal of the audiophile.
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