Like the Star Trek villain whose name is strikingly similar, the KANN Portable Music Player, from the folks at Astell&Kern, is engineered from the ground up to be better—an improvement on what we've come to expect (in this less nefarious case) from a digital music player. As we've replaced our MP3/digital audio players with our increasingly powerful smartphones, many of us have accepted music playback as just another app in what is a Swiss-Army device of technological awesomeness. However, our music deserves its own considerations, and the KANN is an example there's a growing market for just that.
Astell&Kern have given the KANN the tag line “One Player to Rule Them All” (which makes me feel not calling it The Gandalf was a missed opportunity—it’s even gray!), and looking at its feature set, it is clear someone was trying to create just that. It’s based on a single 32-bit AKM AK4490 DAC chip, which handles all digital-to-analog conversion duties for the device. It’ll handle all the usual digital audio file formats you’d expect, from the lowly MP3 to DSD. With PCM files, it can handle playback of up to a whopping 32-bit/384 kHz file resolutions, without down-converting to 24-bit. That's a higher resolution than that at which most professional convertors record. It handles DSD natively, meaning it converts the DSD files to analog without first converting them to PCM files, and supports files up to 11.2 MHz.
Since much of audiophilia can be a game of specs, let’s get a few more of those out of the way before we get down to the business of how the KANN performs. Astell&Kern want you to know it is portable, but that it is also can be at home as the hub of your high-fidelity life, and has connectivity to prove it. A 3.5mm unbalanced output takes care of your standard headphones, while a 2.5mm balanced output caters to truly balanced headphones such as the AK T1p. An unbalanced 3.5mm line out accompanies a balanced 2.5mm line out to give you options for connecting to home speakers, car stereos, and more. It has a USB C connector for charging and connecting to a device as a DAC, and a micro USB digital out.
An internal 64GB of storage can get you started, but the KANN also has SD and micro SD slots for up to 512GB of hi-fi digital goodness. Do you have a NAS server networked wirelessly you want to play nice with? The KANN can, as it supports DLNA through the AK Connect app. The KANN also manages to boost battery life, giving you up to 15 hours on a full charge.
Astell&Kern was kind enough to send me a KANN with a great selection of music already on the device, much of it in DSD format, so I could listen right away. I would use three pairs of headphones over the course of the review, each pair a preferred choice of mine, for different reasons. The Focal Spirit Pros, Sennheiser Momentum 2 Over-Ears, and the Audio-Technica ATH-40x were used to put the KANN through its paces, and that is just what they did.
The physical design of the KANN is... interesting. With a high-quality extruded aluminum body, the entire device is crimped or beveled, as opposed to flatly smooth, making it unique in that regard, and certainly easier to hold (I'd cringe at the thought of dropping this). Sitting in your right hand, the volume wheel is perfectly accessible by your thumb, which is a wonderful ergonomic feature in your hand, but a nightmare in your pocket if you forget to lock the device first (you will butt-adjust your volume otherwise).
Where many players fall short is in the headphone amplifier section, which has led some of the more committed audiophiles to walk around with a second device in their pocket; a portable headphone amp that will drive their cans more optimally. The KANN addresses this off the bat with an amplifier design geared toward driving high-impedance headphones, with two gain settings you can select from before the volume gain stage. The power output is closer to the range you can get from their AK380, but only with the AMP accessory. I found the higher setting to be better suited for the Focal and Audio-Technica headphones, and while the Sennheisers sounded just fine at the lower setting, they too were improved with a little more power. Having this flexibility on hand is great, however, and helps the KANN cater to a broader selection of headphones.
Let's break down what this thing can do sonically and, ultimately, if you need the spec-driven power underneath the hood by comparing it to what my iPhone 6s and Spotify can produce. Michael Jackson's Thriller was preloaded on the KANN, and for the sake of this review, will be the test case. The 2.8 MHz DSD files of what, in my opinion, remains one of the most flawlessly recorded albums of all time really show what this digital format and the KANN can do. Taken from an analog transfer, the KANN displayed the dimensions—not just the stereo spread, but the sense of air and space captured in this album—beautifully. You could appreciate the sound of the room on the drums, and the percussive nature of Jackson’s vocal performance as if you were listening to a pristine vinyl of the album. It allowed each pair of headphones to display its character as I know them, but delivering a similar performance with each.
Switching to Spotify at its highest quality on my iPhone, Thriller sounded comparatively small, somewhat lifeless, and did not have the “pop” that the KANN and DSD file provided. While the difference was not quite night and day, the KANN provides a noticeably better listening experience, and ultimately, I enjoyed listening to the same album more on the KANN, which is the end goal of listening to music, after all. It should be noted that in comparison to the lossy Spotify, the KANN supports the streaming service Tidal, which delivers lossless files.
There are a few cons to the KANN, which for full disclosure, left me wanting. The operating system, based on Android, could occasionally lag, and sometimes the device felt like it was underpowered when it came to loading albums and song files promptly. The volume click wheel, which is a wonderful feature when the device is in hand, as I said above, can bite you in the ears if you put it in your pocket and forget to lock the device; it's very sensitive and I found myself having to yank my headphones off due to an unexpected volume jump. Though it is no doubt portable, the KANN is not the high-end device you'd take to the gym with you. For that I'd suggest the AK70, which has fewer features than the KANN, but is much smaller, for the tradeoff.
Ultimately, the KANN is an impressive device that packs a lot of flexibility and power into your hand, all the while managing to not be limited to portable applications. Those in the market for a future-ready audiophile experience they can integrate into their home system and take to the office would be hard pressed to do better. Astell&Kern has established itself as one of the big names in digital Hi-Fi, and the KANN is evidence as to why.