This entry-level digital audio portable sets the standard for music playback support, but with a twist. Ed Selley goes walkabout. Read our Astell Kern SR15 Review.
Since the demise of the iPod Classic and the rise of the smartphone as the portable audio device of choice for the majority of users, the digital audio player market has struggled to flourish. This hasn’t stopped some specialists from carving out a niche, though, and Astell&Kern has been offering a considerable range of high-end players for some time. With an eye on keeping things in the real world, the A&norma SR15 is at A&K’s more affordable end of its extensive product range and is more than the AK70 (HFC 428) that’s more recently been updated to mkII.
The specification of the SR15 improves on the AK70 mkII and it’s fitted with 64GB of internal memory, which is supplemented by the inclusion of a microSD card slot for a card up to 400GB. Format support is almost total for sample rates up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD128, with only WMA lossless incompatible.
Internally, format decoding is handled by a pair of Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chips used in balanced configuration. One feature shared with some of the company’s more upmarket players is the ability to process DSD64 natively with no interim conversion to PCM – a fairly
PRODUCT: Astell&Kern A&norma SR15 ORIGIN South Korea
TYPE 24-bit/192kHz & DSD128-capable
Digital Audio Player
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 58 x 100 x 16mm
• Quoted battery life: 11 hours
• 64GB internal storage
• MicroSD slot (400GB max)
• Streaming service support: Tidal
• Bluetooth with aptX HD support
rare feature indeed. The balanced functionality is available via a four-pole 2.5mm headphone socket, which sits alongside a conventional 3.5mm jack socket. It is possible to connect via Bluetooth, with support for aptX HD included.
You can additionally make use of the SR15’s decoding prowess by connecting to the USB micro-A port and selecting it as the output device from a computer.
The quad-core CPU is part of what Astell&Kern calls its A&norma platform. This is designed to simplify the menu experience and ensure that the process is as slick as possible, which seems to work up to a point. With the latest software update installed, the SR15 feels fast and stable. The response time to commands is instant and feels much more on a par with a mobile phone operating system than the AK70. It still isn’t what I would call logical, though, and certain actions such as returning to the album index don’t come about in the way you might reasonably expect. While the number levels within each menu option has been reduced, the choices have increased rather than there being any real streamlining of the controls. This includes the native Tidal integration, which feels a little compact when searching for albums using the 3.3in screen and doesn’t include offline operation – so it’s nowhere near as useful at bolstering your music library while on the move as it could be.
Perhaps the most notable visual aspect is the way the screen is offset from the rest of the chassis. While the idea makes some ergonomic sense as it means that it’s level with the user’s eyeline with the player held in the hand, it’s the kind of unusual design that divides opinion. Less debatable is the standard of build as the SR15 is beautifully made with immaculate metalwork and the near holographic backplate that helps to make it look and feel like a high-quality product.
The quality feeling extends to the sonic performance and listening to the 24-bit/44.1 download of My Baby’s Mounaki – By The Bright Of The Night via Audiolab’s M-EAR 2D in-ear headphone (HFC 440), the A&norma SR15 is a very sweet sounding player. Cato van Dyck’s vocals are delivered without losing any of their presence and tonal realism, but with plenty of get up and go to the overall timing and presentation. The effortlessly funky Supernatural Aid is a satisfyingly head nodding experience, with the A&K pairing effortlessly with the Audiolab’s innate rhythmic ability.
The player’s assured timing is useful with slower and less driven music too, and the beautiful double bass work at the start of Matthew Halsall’s Patterns is effortless and extremely lifelike. This is further aided by the SR15’s bass extension, which is absolutely outstanding and beautifully integrated to the rest of the frequency response. It has a depth and sheer drive to it that works with everything I play, from bass strings on the Patterns track to the enormous low notes of Monsters Exist by Orbital.
Switching headphones to Audio- Technica’s ATH-A2000Z (HFC 412), the SR15 responds well to the more
When connected to Sennheiser’s IE 800 S the bass punch is almost seismic challenging load and the 150-step volume has plenty in reserve even when a fairly high listening level is selected to show off the headphone’s wonderful sense of space and scale. The only downside is that running the volume level much beyond 115 has a drastic effect on the battery life. Astell&Kern quotes the battery as being a 3,150mAh unit, and claims to last for up to 11 hours.
Used with more demanding headphone loads, though, I would be surprised to get much more than seven hours of playback from it.
With the Sennheiser IE 800 S (HFC 434), the SR15 sounds simply phenomenal. The 24/88.2 download
of Dead Can Dance’s Toward The Within is reproduced with a simply outstanding sense of being at the performance. The slight warmth of the player complements the revealing nature of the Sennheiser extremely well and given that both components have outstanding bass performance, it is no surprise that the punch on offer is almost seismic.
The only slight oddity is that for all the notional advantages of its native DSD decoding, playback doesn’t sound significantly better with DSD material to how it does with PCM. Depeche Mode’s Waiting For The Night sounds good here, but compared with what I expect the differences are not that marked. Tidal streaming is good and while it isn’t possible to access hi-res Masters content, the SR15 achieves good performance from the standard lossless files.
The SR15 is one of Astell&Kern’s more unusual-looking players and some of its menu controls aren’t as intuitive as I’d hoped. At the price it does feel like a significant jump up in performance over the AK70, both in terms of how it sounds and when it comes to operation – resulting in a balance of abilities that makes it one of the most talented portable players at the price. The design might initially look a bit wonky, but the performance is very much on the level
HOW IT COMPARES
The biggest challenge to the SR15 comes from the ever larger number of portable DACs. Side-by-side comparisons with iFi Audio’s xDSD DAC/ headphone amplifier (HFC 439) connected to a Sony Xperia XA2 phone are interesting. For the price of the SR15, you can get the xDSD, smartphone and a 128GB microSD card (on top of the 64GB already in the phone). It is bulkier and can’t match the SR15’s bass, but its Tidal integration is better and there’s offline support. The Astell&Kern is a superb portable player, but is coming under increasing pressure from smartphones and the ancillaries available to partner them.
Impressive portable player with plenty of storage options and excellent performance
- Excellent balance of punch and refinement
- Clunky menus
- no Tidal offline mode
- unusual looks
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- 1 Volume dial
- MicroSD card slot
- Transport controls
- 3.5mm unbalanced headphone output
- 2.5mm balanced headphone output