A geometrically ambitious structure and an eye-catching name may draw attention to the Astell & Kem A&norma SR15, but given the company’s track record of five-star rekviews and Awards over the years, this midrange portable music player was always going to pique our interest.
The SR15 features dual-DACs, 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm headphone jacks, 64GB built-in storage (expandable via microSD card), and built-in Bluetooth, wi-fi and Tidal. Those specs are almost exactly the same as those on A&K’s AK70 MKII – the predecessor to the A&norma and a 2017 What Hi-Fi? Award winner.
The A&norma shares many of its features too, but improvements have been made here to evolve A&K’s ‘standard’ music player line. As well as implementing two more advanced DACs (the Cirrus Logic Master HIFI class DAC CS43198) in a dual-DAC design for optimum performance from both left and right channels, the A&norma sports an improved interface and support for native DSD playback (to DSD64) and PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz.
Owners of higher-resolution files are also catered for. A 32-bit file with a 384kHz or 352.8kHz sampling rate is simply downsampled to 24-bit/192kHz or 24-bit/176kHz respectively for playback, while DSD128 is also playable through conversion to PCM 24-bit/176.4kHz.
The A&norma can also be used solely as a digital source when its USB type-B output (also a charging port) is connected to an external DAC or amplifier with a USB input. The player’s USB type-B connection doesn’t work as an input, as it does on the AK70 MKII. so the A&norma can’t work as a DAC between your headphones and laptop.
However, the A&norma also features the more sophisticated user interface of the A&ultima, which means this portable music player inches closer to a slick smartphone experience. The home screen has a more contemporary feel and displays more options, too. As well as albums, artists, genres, playlist and folders, there are also favourites, settings and direct access to DSD and MQS (Master Quality Sound – 24-bit/192kHz) files.
On the playback screen, album art gets more space without sacrificing the display of file information, such as file type and size, the name of the song, artist and album.
The A&norma more or less matches the AK70 MKII for size, with its slightly thinner frame evened out by a few extra millimetres of height. It keeps the A&K hallmark design: a notch in its aluminium chassis for a protruding volume wheel, and while it’s more recessed here, it’s still exposed enough to allow for good thumb grip.
But A&K has chiselled a far more artistic angular design here -with the 3.3in screen slightly off-kilter against the rectangular aluminium body. It’s as close to geometric abstraction as we’ve seen in a portable music player, and the design may prove to be rather divisive.
Fortunately, the A&norma has as much sonic aspiration as design ambition, with a performance that could give the AK70 MKII. let alone smartphones, an inferiority complex. While the A&norma also features that distinctive A&K sound – shrewdly detailed and dynamic – it’s much clearer, crisper and more transparent.
We play St Vincent’s Los Angeles, and the opening synth beat is hurled forward with greater impetus. Its rhythmic prowess choreographs the synth elements around it. while the accompanying vocal is not only clearer, but also has more sassiness.
Switching to Manu Delago’s Parasol Peak album (16-bit/44.1kHz, Tidal), a sparse production recorded by a seven-man ensemble on a mountaineering expedition in the Alps, the A&norma’s affinity for subtlety is exposed. Everything is full and lush, from the bellowing brass and pattering percussion to Delago’s handpan handiwork. The A&norma picks out the intricate natural sounds of running streams, and keeps them at the forefront of the composition while the rest of the track builds around them.
2.5mm balanced output
DSD Native 24-bit/ 192kHz and DSD64 support
Astell & Kern Kann 5/5
Striking design with an impressive sound
Battery life is good too. We get around nine hours playing at reasonably high volumes, switching between B&W’s PX wired headphones and a Bluetooth connection to the Naim Mu-so Qb speaker.
Making strides with performance, usability and file support, the A&norma keeps A&K’s standard line progressing in the right direction. It offers more refinement, rather than a full-scale revolution over its predecessor, which is reaching the end of its natural shelf life.
With the product’s strange geometry in mind, it seems fitting to note that the What Hi-Fi? Awards are just around the corner. They probably can’t come soon enough for the A&K A&norma SR15.
Astell & Kern yet again advances its most affordable portable music player line with another appealing all-rounder
- Class-leading clarity; duties; intuitive interface
- Design may not appeal to all