Astell and Kern are known for making some of the finest digital audio players on the market today. They’ve offered a lot over the past few years, spanning from the Futura series to the Ultima series. Now I’m happy to bring you the latest DAP from their acclaimed Kann line, the Kann Alpha. This is Astell and Kern’s newly released offering that aims to bring you an ultra-high powered audio player, as well as an integrated headphone DAC. The Kann Alpha has been completely redesigned for its interior, so let’s see how the Alpha changes things for Astell and Kern.
What You Get
The Kann Alpha doesn’t overcomplicate its device by including a ton of accessories. Opening the box you’ll immediately be presented with the device itself with a protective film over the screen. Underneath, there is a pretty thick USB-C cable for charging the Kann Alpha and DAC use. Inside of a black envelope is your warranty card, as well as a pair of two front and back screen protectors.
Look and Feel
The Kann series is one of Astell and Kern’s bulkier lines, and the Alpha is no exception. This isn’t something I actually mind in a DAP. As long as It can fit right in my hand with no issue, I have no problem with it. The Alpha has a slightly larger body than the likes of the original Kann, but I like holding a device that feels heavy-duty. You get a sense of how well this build actually is, and it’s excellent. The solid aluminum body makes up most of this compact design, with sharp-angled edges and formed surfaces. The volume dial is just the right size and has a satisfying click whenever you move the knob. The screen is 4.1 inches with narrow bezels on the edges, but a wider one at the very bottom.
The top of the device features three headphone ports. One of the more notable new features for Astell and Kern is the addition of a 4.4mm balanced output port. A lot of other DAPs already have 4.4mm outputs, and it’s nice to see this brand finally implement one. However, the Alpha doesn’t just use it just because they can. Astell and Kern wanted to make sure they could find a reason to integrate this output differently. What they’ve done is physically separated the 2.5mm and 4.4mm ports away from each other, which is accomplished using micro-relays. This then in effect, prevents noise from interfering with the circuitry. So Astell and Kern have delivered a noise-free output with no interference. You’ll still be able to use a 3.5mm connection too.
One of the biggest new changes for the Kann is the complete circuit redesign Astell and Kern has opted to give the Alpha. It seeks to be an absolute monster of a playback machine, with a crosstalk of 141dB and a powerful 12Vrms ultra-high-output. MQA hardware rendering has also been built into the Alpha’s Dual ESS ES9068AS DACs for 8x rendering. The AK-CD ripper for MQA Redbook quality playback is also implemented here so you can enjoy the originally mastered track.
A colored LED surrounding the volume dial helps indicate what bit rate you’re currently using. For instance, red indicates 16 bits and yellow 24 bits. The Alpha can handle up to 32 bits per sample at 384kHz, along with a DSD native system.
The Alpha features a total playback time of 14.5 hours using FLAC, Redbook CD-quality listening. Charge time lasts about 3.5 hours, or 5 hours is you’re using 5V 2A charging. This is the smallest battery I’ve seen sported in the Kann series, which is a little disappointing, but it’s not a substantial downgrade.
If you’re familiar with how Astell and Kern look and operate, then the Kann Alpha won’t surprise you. I was happy that they decided to carry over the same operating system, as nothing about the original UI seemed like it needed much improvement. It’s a simple system that even a novice of touch screen interfaces can figure out. Sorting through different artists and genres couldn’t be more simple and intuitive, and accessing settings and folders are all displayed accordingly. The GUI hasn’t changed much either, but the 720×1280 screen resolution looks great on the Alpha. There are a few key features to sort through when swiping down on the top bar of the screen. From here you can enable wifi and Bluetooth, which is 5.0 and supports LDAC and aptX HD CODECs. You’ll also find an equalizer that contains a graphic and limited parametric operation. I didn’t find this EQ as effective as some on other devices, but it’s there if you really need it.
I sorted through a few IEMs before I decided that the Andromeda 2020 was the best pairing with the Kann Alpha. I know, shocker right? The Andromeda made the best use for the Kann Alpha’s wide semi-holographic stage, even if the complete image might be a little more toned down. Without the Alpha, the Andromeda 2020 has a larger, more explosive sound, but out of the Alpha, it regresses back down to a more natural response. I don’t actually think of this as a negative. I quite liked hearing the Andromeda play more friendly to more easy-going music. Dynamic range becomes more apparent with more noticeable transitions that are ideal when listening to classical or Jazz. You never lose any of the detail or clarity, and the sound signature still stays are rich as ever. You could say that listening to the Kann Alpha makes the Andromeda a more versatile IEM.
One of my favorite aspects of the new Andromeda was the wider bass response, and not only does the Alpha produce it well, but it also deepens the timbre in very subtle ways. The bass is the ability to dive well into your throat and even your upper chest. This sub-bass can be felt with large bass strings like in Miles Davis tracks, where a single note can tail off very effectively. The highs also stay very rich and detailed, and overall have this pleasant sparkle that becomes one of my favorite qualities that the Alpha accentuates. The mids don’t do anything out of the ordinary, but are still very present and well defined in the sound signature.
The Kann Alpha is a worthy new iteration of the Kann series. Astell and Kern boast a pretty powerful machine that can carry a unique sound signature when paired with the right headphone or IEM. Battery life is a little on the shorter side, but it’s mainly a minor gripe since the Alpha can still last through a significantly long trip if you’re going portable. With the Kann Alpha Astell and Kern prove once again why they’re at the top of the DAP brands. If the Kann Cube was a little too pricey for you, perhaps the $1099 alternative will suit you better.
Pros and Cons
Pros: DAC, 4.4mm no noise, heavy-duty feel, UI, CD-quality rendering
Cons: Battery life
The Astell and Kern Kann Alpha is available at Audio 46.
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