Review : Astell & Kern AK500N

Posted on 12 October 2015

Astell & Kern AK500N MQS Network Audio Player reviewed in The Absolute Sound by Vade Forrester

Read the full review here :

Predictably, when I told visiting audio buddies how much the AK500N cost, their reactions ranged from shocked shakes of the head to crude expletives. And they’re right; it is quite expensive for a music player. But you get a lot for your money. Its styling is unmatched, and I think that’s important; if you spend a lot on audio gear, you should expect to take pride in its appearance, and I can’t think of any other player that looks as good. It also offers a huge array of features—the ability to play computer audio files from an internal source, from an attached USB drive, from a microSD card, or from a NAS drive—that pretty well covers all possibilities except Bluetooth. And its ability to rip CDs directly onto its internal drive is a very convenient feature. It has a wide assortment of digital inputs, and digital and analog outputs. Included in the analog outputs are several headphone jacks, which, while they won’t drive some of the more power-hungry ’phones, do sound excellent with more normally sensitive ones. I doubt that anyone would buy an AK500N just to use as a headphone amplifier, but it’s very convenient to be able to listen to music that way without having to turn on your whole system.

Unlike several other combination servers and DACs I’ve tried, the AK500N doesn’t skimp on its DAC; so you won’t soon need to spend money on an external unit and connecting cable. And you don’t need an extra shelf on your equipment rack for an external DAC. You may need a top shelf, or at least one that’s very tall, however, to use the touchscreen in its full upright position.

Of course, all those features would be moot if the AK500N sounded mediocre, or even merely very good. But in fact, it sounds spectacular; in many ways, the best player I’ve heard. In particular, the bass, from all digital inputs, is positively earth-shaking, with lots of detail and impact. Treble was smooth and harmonically rich, with realistic detail. Dynamics—micro and macro—were right up there with the best I’ve heard. Soundstaging is at least as good as anything I’ve heard in my system.

I’m sorry I won’t get to see the Astell&Kern remote-control app, but Mconnect was really quite flexible, allowing me to use the full feature set of the player, something that many dedicated remote apps can’t manage to pull off. As you might expect for something as complex as the AK500N, there’s a bit of a learning curve, but everything worked very positively and securely. With some players, some of the controls are too sensitive, or seem to work only sporadically—not so with the AK500N. And although it’s a somewhat personal issue, I found the control buttons on the app to be logically designed, so that part of the learning curve was pretty shallow.

In summary, the Astell&Kern looks strikingly beautiful, sounds rich and powerful, and is easy and straightforward to use. Does that make it worth $12,000? The answer to that is necessarily a personal issue, but I can’t identify a network audio player, or combination of a server, DAC, and cable that matches it at its price level.

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