Odd as it may seem, even before mobile phones took over our lives, listening to music while being on the move has been a big deal for eons.
First, we had terrible sounding portable transistor radios. Then, in 1979, came the revolution; Sony launched its Walkman, a clunky device that allowed you to listen to cassette tapes through horrid headphones while mooching around. But it worked and Sony had sold around 200 million by the time the Walkman was laid to rest in 2010.
Fast forward (never a plus point of the Walkman) to 2013 when Astell & Kern elbowed its way past iPod Nanos and Touches, and a plethora of other inferior sounding MP3 players, with its first high-resolution portable media player.
Others quickly hopped aboard the hi-res express, notably Pioneer with the XDP 100R, and Neil Young’s PonoPlayer, only to fall off the train – with mobile phone convenience blamed for being the culprit.
One of Astell & Kern’s great strengths is resilience. For nearly a decade, the South Korean company has stayed true to its love of high-resolution music and portable players, consistently producing models with a distinctive pocket-sized minimalist design and a musical output that is second to none.
The KANN MAX is the latest player in A&K’s Kann range, boasting more compact dimensions and a more powerful output than its predecessor, the Alpha. It’s a chunky little item, weighing in at just over 300g, so about twice that of a mobile phone, and for some, that may be an issue. After all, this is a portable player and if you are out and about with normal day-to-day paraphernalia, adding an extra 300g to your load may not be to everyone’s liking. Get over that, though, and the reassuringly robust build says you have something that is built to last.
Any comparison with a mobile phone, however smart, is pretty pointless because the MAX is playing an altogether different role in a very singled-minded way. Audio ability is summed up in one word – outstanding. And while other travellers on the train, or walking along the street, are grooving happily to their AirPods, you can afford to look a somewhat smug in a, “you really haven’t a clue what you are missing out on” sort of way.
Much of what the A&K does goes against the grain of the common trends of wireless headphones and so-so mobile phone convenience. Yes, you can connect wireless earbuds via Bluetooth but it would be a bit of a waste, given the superior quality you can expect from a pair of old school wired headphones.
From out of the box, you know you’re handling a piece of kit in which design matters. The sharp features may be an acquired taste but we really like the unfussy, stripped back, engineered design cred. And the feeling of solidity derived from the thick aluminium casing helps make the £1100 price tag a little less terrifying.
So to the workings…
Tucked into the top right edge is a volume wheel, totally unnecessary since everything can be done from the large, logically laid out touch screen, but the tactile benefits are reassuringly great.
The KANN MAX plays files up to 32-bit and native DSD512. If you aren’t sure what quality you are listening too, there is a slightly recessed LED around the volume knob that changes colour to indicate the bitrate of the track being played; purple - DSD, blue - 32bit, green - 24bit and red - 16bit. It’s a clever touch, and far from garish or intrusive.
In keeping with the minimalist design, there are just three small buttons on the left for pausing, skipping forwards and backwards to tracks. On the top plate are three 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm sockets for accommodating a wide variety of headphones and in-ear monitors (IEM).
To minimise contact noise from the output jacks, the headphone socket is coated with a gold PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition, it’s a bit like plating). And it works, with wired headphones, there’s none of that annoying 'clunk' you so often get when the wire touches something.
If you prefer wireless, Bluetooth 5.0 is on offer for headphone connection with support for 24-bit aptX HD and LDAC codecs. Within the comprehensive Settings menu, four levels of gain are provided, so most headphones can be driven at peak performance.
What is a tad surprising is the modest 64GB storage space but a micro SD boosts this up to a maximum of 1Tb. It’s an easy process to transfer tracks either while the card is inserted into the Max or you can take it out and do it on a computer.
Gentle pressure on the slightly raised on/off button on the top plate sets the AK logo on the screen spinning and signals that you are in for treat.
The KANN MAX provides an almost bewildering number of methods for accessing your music. Besides the internal storage and SD card, you can stream from a copious number of services such as Qobuz and Tidal, connect via Bluetooth to a phone or a computer, or access files on a NAS drive of your home network. You can also do the reverse and connect by Bluetooth to your home amp or in-car entertainment, for example, and use tracks stored on the MAX as a music source.
We preferred to concentrate on the portable side of things, loading up the SD disc by drag and drop from the computer with a great wodge of 24- and 32-bit tracks and hitting the road.
Although We’re not testing earphones here, it is interesting to see just what a difference the type (and the care of fitting them into your lugholes) makes to the performance of the Max.
We tried two types of wired in-ear monitors (IEMs): Astell and Kern Pathfinders and Campfire Audio Supermoon, and the highly regarded Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds. These will appear as Sound Advice reviews in the near future when we expand our headphones and earphone review section.
Used with the KANN MAX, wired IEMs deliver quality, subtlety, musicality, separation… you name it, in spades – particularly when they are snugly fitted into the ear canal. If you take a more casual approach and vaguely sort of plonk the IEMs into your ears, crispness, clarity and the quality of bass extension drops dramatically; In essence, you are missing out on just what the MAX can deliver. So, the lesson is don’t rush. Choose buds that fit properly and spend some time getting the IEMs fitting snugly. And while we have high regard for the Sennheiser Momentum TW3 earbuds, in these circumstances, the performance was not in the same league as with the wired options.
The performance of the KANN MAX is exceptionally analytical, so nothing gets past it in terms of poor recordings. If they are bad, they sound bad. Hence why it is worth spending time choosing sniffing out good quality 24-bit, or higher, tracks – there’s plenty of choice.
But what you get from a good recording is a wholly encapsulating experience. One where you feel in the presence of the performance rather than being a casual observer. The bass extension is truly remarkable, but also totally controlled and never unpleasant, well, unless you to turn the MAX up to a ridiculous ear-blowing level.
We loved the total togetherness of all the elements of the track, irrespective of the style of music or the number of players. On Mahler’s fifth symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra sounded welcoming, putting each one of the orchestra sections in just the right place with a warm, opulent sound. At the other end of the scale, Portuguese Julio Resende and his Fado Jazz Ensemble sound so atmospherically ‘live’, you can almost taste the bacalhau being served in the bar. These are experiences that would be great to share, but that’s just not the nature of headphones!
It doesn't take long to join the ranks of those who know that listening to hi-res tracks wherever you are, is pretty addictive. There is definitely a no going back feeling.
This is certainly helped by the ease of operation of the MAX. Added to this, there is easy access to hi res streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz so you are not reliant on your own music library.
A&K quotes 13 hours playback on a single charge, which may be a little optimistic. But it certainly keeps playing for a healthy time. In day-to-day use, charge time was not an issue, although that is accompanied by an if…
What the MAX doesn’t do is turn itself off when you remove the headphones from your ears. If you are listening to an album or playlist it’s going to keep going until you press stop or the power runs out. It’s bit of housekeeping that you soon learn to do. The auto-off can be set to a range of times between 10 minutes and 24 hours but that doesn’t operate if something is playing, obviously.
The on-screen menu and feature selection becomes easier to navigate every time you switch it on. You soon get to know the direction of travel to swipe to reveal the various sub-menus which all laid out logically and easy to access.
Make no mistake, the MAX is a seriously pokey little beast. Crank it up and you could inflict some serious brain melting, not to mention damage to your hearing. Thankfully, there is an easy-to-use (and entirely necessary in our view) volume level setting that helps keep excesses reined in.
There is also a Replay Gain control that lets you set a consistent volume across whatever albums and tracks you choose. Of course, it can be overridden, but why would you? The MAX has the ability to sound delicious even at modest volumes, so winding it up to the higher levels is really not being clever.
No surprise that we bring up the cost of this excellent player. It might sound extravagant but, in our minds, this is a serious investment in audio excellence. It guarantees satisfaction for those that enjoy getting the best out fine quality recordings when they are travelling around and don’t mind carrying the extra weight.
It has serious build and design qualities that many competitors could take lessons from, it looks the part and operates simply and efficiently without undue quirkiness.
And finally, don’t fill the limited storage with crappy Mp3 quality material. Dig out, or pay for, some 24-bit recordings or access a good streaming service such as Tidal or Qobuz. Then, be prepared to spend at least the same on getting some headphones or in-ear monitors that do justice to what the KANN MAX is delivering, otherwise you are likely to feel short-changed and disappointed
Ryan Adams Blank space
Real intimate studio feel, musical and carefully paced with exquisite guitar definition while the rest of the instrumentation adds depth and atmosphere to Ryan’s relaxed vocal reworking of Taylor Swift’s classic from the 1989 album
Julio Resende Fado Jazz
Relaxing, beautifully put together album with real live feel and strange, almost accidental, distant percussion sounds in the background. Cymbals never sounded so good! The Portuguese guitar blends seamlessly with piano, double bass and drums.
Bertrand Chamayou Piano concerto No 2, Camille Saint Saens
The combination of the delicacy of the fingers of French pianist Bertrand Chamayou and the full-blown onslaught from the Orchestre National de France has an immediacy of presence, almost as though you are sitting next to the maestro during the performance. Particularly impressive at capturing of the change of pace and wonderful definition of the individual sections of the orchestra.
Ifyou like to listen to your hi-res music where or whenever you fancy, the Kann Maxis a first-class ticket. Robust, easy to use, with the right quality earphones(go A&K Pathfinder!) this quality media player is a superb travellingcompanion, who will keep entertained and on the right side of sanity, no matterhow long your wait for the next flight.