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reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
financial interests: click here
27" iMac with 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 16GB 1.333MHz RAM, 2TB hard disc, 256GB SSD drive, ADM Radeon HD 6970M with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, OSX 10.8.2, PureMusic 1.89b & Audirvana 1.4.6, AIFF files, 160GB iPod Classic
portable headphone amp: ALO Audio Continental V3
headphones: ALO Audio-rewired AKG K-702, Audez'e LCD-2, Beyerdynamic T5p & T1, Sennheiser HD800; HifiMan HE-500 & HE-6; Focal Spirit One; Ortofon eQ7
desktop system: AIFF-loaded 160GB iPod Classic, Cambridge Audio iD100 dock, Aura Vita & Vivid, Gallo Acoustics Strada 2 on Mapleshade stands, Gallo Acoustics TR-3D subwoofer, Zu Audio Event cabling
review component retail: $699

iPod slayer? Though Apple hasn't attended CES in years, the number of vendors hawking Apple accessories continues to mushroom to have a huge display area reserved just for them. It's far easier and more lucrative to serve thy king than depose of him. Vendors on the iPod's coat tails add to, not replace it. For stationary use we have many digital-direct iPod docks which started with Wadia, then popped up at Onkyo, Pure, Cambridge and elsewhere. Integrating the same functionality into full-size DACs or integrated amplifiers began with Peachtree's iDecco. For complete digital-direct iPod systems, B&W's Zeppelin, B&O's Beoplay A8 and NAD's Viso 1 today duke it out for the crown (my vote goes to the NAD). On the mobile front the battery-power Cypherlabs Algorhythm Solo was first to stream digital iPod signal via USB and spit it out S/PDIF or 3.5mm stereo analog. Fostex incorporated that feature into a portable headphone amp. Centrance is about to release theirs. Pod people unite.

In all these cases the main audiophile hurdle was and continues to be ignorance. Because iTunes' default sync setting is 128kbps and Apple's giant iTunes store disseminates homogenized pasteurised and consequently musically dead AAC files, audiophiles have dissed and dismissed the iPod from the start. They disregard how easily one can instead import proper lossless compressed ALAC or uncompressed AIFF files at full 16/44.1kHz resolution, not one bit lost. Just change the iTunes import setting! This is the single most important free 5-second fix you can make on the entire subject. Just like friends don't let other friends drive drunk, don't let friends use this infernal default setting.

These products all tap into Apple's infrastructure to take full advantage of the giant iTunes backbone. Anyone fomenting rebellion to slay the iDevice king reinvents the wheel. Its rim is the hardware assembled in China's controversial Foxconn compound. Its central hub and out-radiating spokes are the iTunes operating system. When a small player like HifiMan proposes rebellion, better sounding hardware is the easiest part. Delivering it in as compact and sleek a form factor as the iPod gets much harder. Here outcomes are more likely to suit a Dr. Who movie than 007 set. Likewise for coming close to a retina display. Arguably harder still is outdoing Apple's GUI, seamless access, multi-layered sorting system and cross-platform integration of large music libraries. Accomplishing it all for a competitive price is flatly impossible. Unless you're HP, ASUS or Samsung.

When Jimmy Moon from Irvine/California solicited me for a review of their Astell&Kern AK100—thankfully no relation to the assault gun—all the above coursed through my head like one rapid whirlpool promising quick sucky death.

The first giveaway that this device might stand a fair chance was Jimmy's signature with the iriver logo. iriver is a large South Korean company started in 1997 by seven former Samsung executives. They quickly got entrenched in portable flash-memory players. With Astell&Kern having the ring of a high-street solicitor's firm, this was clearly an attempt at upmarket rebranding. The ampersand inclusion conjures up visions of Dolce & Gabbana shoppers raiding an upscale mall in downtown Geneva.

$24.98 for a 1958 mono recording in claimed 24/192 resolution? You bet. Click on the image for details.

As you'd expect from any iPod challenger, the first attack must be on 24/192 high-resolution compliance which the iPod inexplicably lacks to this very day. The AK100 naturally plays that trump card by calling itself a mastering quality sound player. Fair enough. As Jimmy Moon put it, "our high-resolution music player is one of the finest and able to process 24-bit tracks up to 192kHz to play music as it was meant to be heard." Not that (cough!) much true 24/192 music exists as yet. Improving sound quality of uncompressed 16/44.1 playback is still far more relevant.

The second attack any iPod challenger should execute is solid-state memory. With 256GB SSD drives available now and small enough to fit even inside an older iPod, there's no excuse to continue using a spinning disc inside a high-impact mobile device. Even smarter and cheaper than large built-in SSD are user-swappable memory cards where capacities grow every six months. Being removable not only makes for easy rotation of tunes and wireless sharing, it doesn't require surgery should a card fail. The AK100 thus sports built-in 32G flash memory and two external card slots.

"The AK100 supports FLAC, OGG, WAV, APE, MPA and WMA, AAC, ALAC and AIFF with our 1.30 firmware update. Music can be imported directly from any Mac via simple drag'n'drop to the card/s or internal flash memory. Our iriver Plus4 music manager program is Windows only but not necessary to transfer files." As an iTunes user, the Apple-format assurance is what had me opt into the proposed assignment.