There’s no such thing, so it seems, as ‘a day off’ at Astell & Kern. The South Korean digital audio savant is best known for the remarkable quality of its digital audio players - but the sheer quantity of them, and the regularity with which models are upgraded and/or replaced, is almost as noteable. The company doesn’t launch a new digital audio player every day - but sometimes it seems quite like it. This, the snappily named A&norma SR35, replaces 2022’s A&norma SR25 mkII which itself replaced the A&norma SR25 of 2020, which was a replacement for… and so on and so forth. Astell & Kern is a restless brand. Let’s leave it at that.
It’s possible to spend very nearly four grand on an Astell & Kern digital audio player - which means the A&norma SR35 is, at £799, one of the company’s more affordable models. This relatively modest price doesn’t mean there’s been any overt scrimping where specification, or the standard of build and finish are concerned, though. The A&norma SR35 is all business on the inside, and all Astell & Kern on the outside.
That’s not exactly the point, though, is it? Because when it comes down to it, the A&norma SR35 doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t. So why, exactly, would you spend this sort of money duplicating the functionality of a product you already take with you everywhere you go?
Fundamentally, you consider the A&norma SR35 because it’s built to do one thing, and to do it to a standard that your smartphone couldn’t ever hope to replicate. Can you think of a smartphone that has balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs, as well as two-way Bluetooth 5.0-derived wireless connectivity with aptX HD and LDAC codec compatibility? That has a 32bit/384kHz quad-core DAC chipset courtesy of Cirrus Logic? That offers a choice of amplification and DAC filter settings? No, neither can I and difficult to foresee one coming along in the near future.
So is the Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 the player to convince you to let your smartphone take care of telephony, internet access and photography while leaving the crucial business of music playback to an expert?
It’s important to listen to the A&norma SR35 in a number of ways in order to get a feel for it. And so I listen using £1.5K hard-wired in-ear monitors connected via the balanced 4.4mm socket, and using true wireless in-ears costing £199. I listen to 256kbps MP3 files, 24bit/96kHz FLAC files and DSD64 files. I listen to dual-DAC and quad-DAC configurations, I investigate the DAC file options and the two settings for the in-house New Generation AMP. And try as I might, I am unable to hit upon a scenario in which the Astell & Kern sounds anything less than thoroughly entertaining and entirely absorbing.
Tonally, it’s on the fractionally warm side of neutral - so a moment’s care with headphone-matching is in order. As long as you avoid ‘phones that have similar inclinations where richness of presentation is concerned, all will be well. Frequency response, from the deep and substantial low frequencies to the bright, shining top end, is smooth and even. And where the vexed subject of ‘musicality’ is concerned, the A&norma SR35 is a natural. It sounds effortless.
The Astell & Kern manages to combine authority with verve, clarity with dynamism, and control with insight in a way that’s entirely beyond even the most capable smartphone. The low frequencies it generates are full-bodied, alive with detail both broad and fine, and punchy as hell - but they’re controlled with complete assurance, and are straight-edged at the moment of attack. So despite the significant amount of outright punch that’s available, there’s no blurring - and so rhythmic expression is convincing and momentum is always high.
At the opposite end the A&norma has the substance to prevent the bite and crunch of its treble response sounding in any way hard or edgy - even if you like to play loud (and rest assured, the Astell & Kern is prepared to play very loud indeed). The player attacks the top end boldly - but, again, it has obvious and unarguable authority, and so its naturalistic stance is always maintained.
It communicates through the midrange in the explicit manner. There isn’t a vocalist yet recorded that can’t have all of their character, all of their attitude and emotional state, or all of their basic competence (or otherwise) revealed in full. The amount of detail the Astell & Kern reveals, the articulacy of its presentation, is deeply impressive and equally as enjoyable.
Everything that happens, happens on a big and well-ordered soundstage. Dynamic headroom is considerable, and the A&norma SR35 is able to communicate huge shifts in intensity without breaking sweat. It’s able to identify and contextualise information so minor or so transient that in less capable hands it might just as well not have occurred at all. And it does all of the above while creating an impression of singularity and commonality, while unifying even the most complex and/or dense recordings into a harmonious, seamless whole.
At 108 x 64 x 16mm (HxWxD) and 184g, the A&norma SR35 is one of the more discreet and portable players in the Astell & Kern line-up (which is a good thing), but it doesn’t give a lot of scope for piling on the perceived value (which is not). Still, the usual angular Astell & Kern aesthetic and trademark knurled volume control is to the fore - the asymmetry of the aluminium chassis is such that the 3.6in, 720 x 1280 hi-res screen on the front panel is tilted. The titchy dimensions don’t make it especially easy to operate the touch-screen, though.
Almost every function is handled by the touch-screen - apart from the volume control, there are ‘power on/off’, ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forwards’ and ‘skip backwards’ buttons on the left edge of the chassis, and that’s your lot as far as physical controls are concerned. At the bottom of the frame there’s a USB-C input for charging the 3150mAH lithium ion battery and a micro-SD card slot - use this to boost the player’s 64GB of internal memory by as much as 1TB. The USB-C socket is also handy if you want to use the A&norma SR35 as a DAC to put a rocket up the miserable sound of your laptop or what-have-you.
Battery life, by the way, is quoted at 20 hours from a single charge - and it’s achievable, too. Provided you listen to moderately sized audio files at moderate volume levels, and in dual-DAC configuration. Listen to big files at big volumes, running in full-on quad-DAC style, and you’ll take that down to less than half. In any event, from ‘flat’ to ‘full’ takes around two-and-a-half hours.
On the top edge there are three analogue outputs. The usual unbalanced 3.5mm socket is there, of course, and it’s joined by balanced 2.5mm (four-pole only) and balanced 4.4mm (five-pole only) alternatives. Never let it be said Astell & Kern doesn’t give you scope where your choice of wired headphones is concerned.
There’s plenty of scope where your choice of listening is concerned, too. The new crimson-and-black on-screen interface allows you to choose between content loaded onto the player’s memory or those music streaming services you’ve downloaded from the menu. The A&norma SR35 is Roon Ready, too, which can only be a good thing. And Astell & Kern is to be congratulated for not going the whole Android hog here, too - too many digital audio players try to replicate the full smartphone experience, and for what? You’ve bought a digital audio player in order to play digital audio, not to duplicate the functionality of that smartphone you’ve already decided doesn’t cut the sonic mustard.
Astell & Kern seems happy to leave the true ‘entry level’ where products like this are concerned to other brands. It’s confident that pitching its own personal ‘entry level’ at this point will reap its own rewards - and if the A&norma SR35 is anything to go by, it would appear to be onto something. A product as small as this is always going to struggle to look like it costs a lot of money, but this particular product sounds it all day long.
Alice Coltrane Stopover Bombay
In the wrong hands, the approximate nature of the rhythm and tempo here can sound unnervingly like it’s about to shake to pieces. These, though, are not the wrong hands - and so the recording coalesces into a unified and coherent whole
David Sylvian Let the Happiness In
The A&norma SR35’s mastery of tone and texture are the essentials here, along with its powers of detail retrieval. And, of course, its ability to resolve the midrange into something positive and direct, yet subtle and nuanced at the same time, get to shine too
The Who Baba O’Riley
So it’s attack and dynamism you want, is it? The Astell & Kern offers them in spades, at the same time as arranging a big, well-defined soundstage on which each element of the recording can attempt to outmuscle all the others
You buy the Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 because you know portable listening is too serious a business to be left to your already overworked smartphone. And because you like the idea of a digital audio player as a decorative accessory in the manner of nice pair of shoes or a fancy wristwatch.