Portable HD-Audio Players

The “Holy Grail” of portable high-definition audio playback is having the ability to play uncompressed 96 kHz/24-bit (or better) soundfiles. There have been specialty companies producing audiophile “iPods” for a while but with the arrival of the new Sony Walkman, a major consumer electronics provider has stepped into the market.

If you’re in the market for a high-definition audio player that you can take “on-the-go” then you should be aware of these units. I’m not talking about the USB “add-on” DACs and headphone amplifiers that need an accompanying laptop computer to drive them (the GEEK is definitely NOT a portable HD-Audio player in spite of their confusing and misleading and very successful Kickstarter campaign). There are many external, inexpensive DACs and headphone units for audiophiles but I’m talking about a truly stand alone, handheld player that can store or stream real HD-Audio.

The Austell & Kern models are the first ones that I became aware of. I was at the New York Audio Show past April and a customer came up to my booth and showed his newly purchased. A&K Model AK 100. It similar in design and functionality to a typical iPod but thicker and sans navigation wheel (See Figure 1 below). However, this unit uses a Wolfsan WM8740 DAC capable of performing up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM decoding of WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, APE, MP3, AAC, WMA and OGG files. There is a 2.4 inch display and a small rotary knob located on the side of the unit that is used to control the functions and access the tunes. The AK 100 retails for $700.

astell_kern_ak100

Figure 1 – Astell & Kern AK 100 HD-Audio player.

Astell & Kern has a second model in their produce line, the more recent AK 120. Retailing for $1300, this unit has support for DSD playback and larger storage capacity (64 gigs vs. 32 gigs) and specs.

If you want to save some money, there is another unit available from FiiO that can be purchased for $299…although the street price is near $200. The X3 is a very capable handheld music player that can play up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM files and other uncompressed variants (FLAC, WAV, WMA, ALAC, AAC and MP3 files). I haven’t had a chance to audition the X3 but the reviews have been uniformly positive.

fiio_x3

Figure 2 – The FiiO X3 high-Definition Audio player.

The most recent dedicated music player is the Sony Digital Walkman, which was part of last week’s announcements in New York, although this particular device doesn’t factor in to their “High-Resolution Audio” web site or marketing. I find this very strange because they’ve built a very capable and medium priced high-definition player. This is the first dedicated unit from a major manufacturer.

It plays uncompressed stereo PCM files (sorry no DSD here!) up to 192 kHz/24-bits and handles WAV, AIFF, FLAC and ALAC formats. The F886 has a 4-inch (854 x 480 pixel) touch screen. The unit runs the new Android 4.1 but only comes with 32 gigs of storage. With the larger file sizes of high-resolution audio files, you’ll have to choose your playlists more carefully. But then consumers interested in better quality music don’t necessary want 10,000 lousy sounding tracks in their pocket. They want 500 great sound tracks instead.

So what have we actually got with these new “high-definition” capable players. Well, we certainly have hardware that is truly “on-the-go” or portable AND units that have the potential to eclipse the sound quality of the usual portable players (again subject to the fidelity of the source materials). And even if the public doesn’t perceive a change in the fidelity of their favorite music tracks, the collective consciousness about higher fidelity will increase.

It’s sort of like buying a new television these days. It you try to purchase a big TV without 3D capability, you’ll be hard pressed to find one…so you get the 3D capability by default. It will be like this for audio as well. The minimum standard will move to 96 kHz/24-bits (192 kHz is overkill). If the labels start to play into this new market for better quality, then we’ll all win.

Tomorrow we’ll look at HD-Audio capable Smart Phones…

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

2 thoughts on “Portable HD-Audio Players

  • September 15, 2013 at 10:31 am
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    Mark,

    I feel that in your description you omitted one very important feature about the AK100: just like the AK120 it comes with two MicroSD memory card slots, and you can use a card with up to 64 GB in each slot. So you can crank up the available memory in the AK100 to 160GB, which makes the difference to the 192GB you can get in the AK120 virtually meaningless.

    I listened to an Astell & Kern AK100 at the German “High End” audio trade fair last May and thought it sounded just wonderful! I also listened to the AK120 and if there is a difference in sound quality I was not able to detect it right away. And there was definitely not a difference that would justify for me to pay almost double the price for an AK120.

    One small surprise came when I asked the sales guy about gapless playback, fully assuming that a device in that price range naturally would support this. But the answer I got was that the AK120 could do it but not the AK100, and that there would probably be a firmware update to add this feature. The firmware update actually came and now the AK100 does support this as well. Just a small reminder that we should not just assume certain features are supported.

    After the gapless playback was made possible with the new firmware I got an AK100, and every time I listen to it with my Beyerdynamic T70p headphones (those I also selected by listening to a lot of models at said trade show) I am overwhelmed by how good this combination sounds with a good recording.

    700 bucks sounds a lot (especially when they use a 1:1 conversion ratio when they come up with the proce in Euro for the German market), but the sound quality is so much better than the DACs in smartphones or an iPad (not to speak of the comparably small memory in those devices when you try to store losslessly compressed music on them).

    It’s good to see some competition for Astell & Kern on that market. This has been a niche that was neglected all too long!

    Best regards,
    Oliver

    Reply
  • May 7, 2014 at 7:51 am
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    Both have dual sd slots.
    The 120 has dual dac.

    the new 240 has dual cirrus logic 4398 dacs

    Reply

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