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The Astell & Kern AK300 is one of a new generation of personal music players. I have written in the past about using an IPHONE with a DAC/ headphone amplifier, such as the Chord Mojo, reviewed last year. The personal music player is a standalone solution. All of your music is stored on the player, and all you need to do is to plug in a pair of headphones and off you go.

The problem with iPhones is that storage is very expensive (android phones tend to be cheaper in this respect) and if you are not connected to the internet to stream, for example on a plane or train, you are stuck.

In these days of ripping a CD collection to a server or hard disk, it is simple to copy these files to a portable music player, and have your music collection on tap – in a pocket or handbag. However, the Astell & Kern AK300 offers a far superior solution. Priced at around £675 it lies in the mid-range of the Astell & Kern offering, but its facilities and sound quality make it a sonic treat. (There is also an entry-level AK Junior priced at £350, which is something of a bargain.)

The internal hard drive of the AK300 can store 64GB of music, and has an additional memory slot that can add 128GB of storage. So that’s 192GB in total, which equates to around 275 CDs at full resolution. The unit, roughly the size of a deck of cards, is angular and has an elegant case to protect it.

The AK300 also has wifi, so not only can it also update itself automatically, it can also stream music to another server in the house or play music from another server in the house. It has an advanced Bluetooth connection (APTX) which is possibly a simpler way to connect to a modern all-in-one unit, such as the Naim Unitiqute reviewed by me in the October issue of Opera Now.

More simply, you can connect the AK300 to a high-end DAC using a Toslink optical cable, or via a mini headphone jack into an amplifier, as a portable music library. As you can see, the unit is highly flexible and has many possibilities of integration into an existing Hi-Fi system of any era.

Enough of its connectivity, how does it sound? With a pair of high-quality headphones, the AK300 really impresses. Using a voltage-controlled Femto Clock, ‘jitter’ or, in layman’s terms, timing errors of the clock are reduced to very small amounts. This typically yields a more solid soundstage, and a smoother sound. (High jitter in early CD players was largely responsible for the bright, edgy sound for which early digital was famed.)

Using my current favourite headphone, the HI-Fi Man HE-400i (planar magnetic), I listened to Emma Bell singing Handel: Operatic Arias (with Richard Egarr and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, recorded in hi-res on the Linn label). There is a wonderfully open, generous soundstage, and a gloriously smooth delicacy to the orchestral accompaniment. Emma Bell’s voice has body to it and there is a clarity to the ensemble, with each texture beautifully preserved.

Most personal audio players would make this sound reasonably pleasant, but it would be like putting a variety of subtly flavoured foods through a food processor! The beauty of the AK300 is that the textures of the instruments and voices are separated, maintaining their individual characteristics within the whole.

Listening to the opening of Verdi’s opera Macbeth (with Zampieri, Bruson and Shicoff at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper), the extraordinary drama brilliantly conducted by Sinopoli explodes from the headphones. There is a huge dynamic range, delivered with microscopic accuracy and power. The transients are rapid, the sudden orchestral chords start from nothing, and disappear without trace, doing it the way that really classy audio should.

The Astell & Kern AK300 is a luxury audiophile item, which will be a godsend to someone who wants really high-quality audio on-the-go, without compromising on sound. It is bursting with features, with excellent connectivity and versatility, and as an object of beauty and I highly recommend it.

Rafael Todes Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing