Astell&Kern KANN Alpha Portable Player Review

hcc_recommendedLooking to drive a challenging pair of headphones with a portable player? Ed Selley thinks the chunky KANN Alpha might be what you need

The dedicated portable audio player market is not a massive one, and Korean brand Astell&Kern is the biggest fish in a relatively small pond. Its KANN series of players overlaps the more conventional A&Norma and A&Futura ranges, and is designed to be able to drive even very demanding headphones from a smallscale device.

This means the KANN Alpha (£1,100) can pump out 6V from its unbalanced 3.5mm connection, and no less than 12V from its two balanced outputs – one a 2.5mm connection historically preferred by Astell&Kern, the other the newer 4.4mm type. If you don't want to use a cable at all, Bluetooth 5.0, supporting aptX and LDAC, is integrated.

The KANN Alpha's internal circuitry is fully balanced, facilitated by a pair of ESS Sabre DACs running in dual mono. PCM sampling rate is 32-bit/384kHz and format handling is extensive, extending from lossy MP3 to DSD256 and MQA. If you want to store a lot of large music files, however, you will have to spring for a microSD card as the internal memory is a rather paltry 64GB. Cards of up to 1TB are supported.

In keeping with most Astell&Kern products I've tested, the KANN Alpha is beautifully made. The casework is all metal and finished to an exceptional standard. But it is rather bulky, which makes it more of a 'manbag' style accessory than a pocket-sized one.

The onscreen interface is related to Android but adapted for better performance as an audio player. It works well but the screen is fairly small at 4.1in and, while it supports Tidal natively (and other streaming services if you can get them working via side-loaded app), text searching in the app is fiddly and unforgiving.

Taking The Strain
Key to understanding why the KANN Alpha exists is to take full-size headphones like Focal's Celestee auditioned last issue and get listening. These are not a hard set of cans to drive in relative terms but the effortlessness of their performance with the KANN Alpha in front is remarkable. Making Water from Harry Gregson Williams' score for The Martian builds from a delicate start to a soaring crescendo and never once does the KANN Alpha sound under the slightest strain. There are full-size headphone amps with less power than this.

If you have access to headphones that use a balanced connector the results are even better. The added sense of space and reduction in background noise (already limited via the normal connection but completely absent here) makes for a tremendous listening experience. People, Let's Dance, a new track from Public Service Broadcasting, is an absolute joy. Deep, detailed bass is controlled enough to sound fast and exciting, while the air around the upper registers is impressive for a near-field listening device. It's a capable line-level source too. Running via a 4.4mm to XLR converter cable, it gives little away to full-size rivals in sonic terms, although that interface remains a mess.

Whether you need unburstable power in your life will come down to use patterns. This is a tremendously potent device that can take pretty much any mainstream pair of headphones and drive them to any level you'll likely want to achieve.

Drawbacks are that the KANN Alpha is too big to be seen as genuinely portable, and the UI can be a pain. Accept these caveats, though, and it makes a great impression n

HCC Verdict

Astell&Kern KANN Alpha

Price: £1,100

We say: It's a niche device but the KANN Alpha is a staggeringly capable just-about-portable player with excellent overall performance.

Overall: 4/5


ONBOARD MEMORY: 64GB (expandable to 1TB via microSD) DISPLAY: 4.1in touchscreen, 720 x 1,280 resolution SUPPORTED AUDIO FORMATS: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF and MQA SUPPORTED VIDEO FORMATS NoneCONNECTIONS: USB-C (charge, sync and signal); unbalanced 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm outputs; microSD DIMENSIONS: 68.3(w) x 117(h) x 25(d)mm WEIGHT: 316g

FEATURES: Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX/LDAC; UPnP control; onboard EQ; 2.4GHz Wi-Fi; 14.5-hour claimed battery life in 'standard' use; Windows (7/8/10) and MAC OS X (10.7 and up) OS support; quad-core processor; ESS ES9068AS dual DAC; 32bit/384kHz decoding; DSD 64/128/256; Roon Ready