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Astell&Kern KANN Alpha DAP Music Player Review

KANN Alpha with Focal Utopia

The Wrath of KANN - Pt. III


4.4. They’ve finally included a 4.4mm balanced headphone jack in a DAP. FINALLY.

The KANN Alpha is the third music player in the KANN series of DAPs by Astell&Kern. The goal of the KANN line has always been to provide ultra-high-power output to drive any headphones or IEM. Like the previous KANN Cube, the Alpha maintains the title of powerhouse, offering similar specs as the Cube with some notable differences. Let’s see how the Alpha stacks up.


Materials, Quality, & Comfort

The KANN Alpha packs a lot of power, and that power comes at the cost of weight. This is a heavy music player. I like it though, because I typically equate heft with quality and durability. The first thing you’ll notice is that the Alpha is much smaller than the KANN Cube, resembling their SP line of DAP sizes. This is especially impressive considering the fact that the Alpha has the same power output as the KANN Cube.

Astell&Kern products are often compared with art sculptures in that they feature very distinctive design elements that feature sharp angles and a stoic, modern aesthetic. They accomplish this through the use of extremely precise metal manufacturing technology that has been perfected by Astell&Kern over many years. The first generation KANN used an extrusion method to form the aluminum body where the KANN Alpha uses precise metal manufacturing to create its distinctive and detailed design.

KANN Alpha with Focal Utopia and Black Dragon

Astell&Kern creates a high-gloss ceramic top cover that uses more than seven different processes including low-speed machining to prevent cracking. The screen on the Alpha feels great. It’s responsive and snappy, and given the 720p resolutions, images are sharp and clear. The 4.1-inch screen hits the sweet spot for me in terms of size. The larger 5-inch screen on the KANN Cube was reasonable considering its overall size, but the Alpha still feels manageable in the hand and easy to palm.

I’m always a big fan of the aluminum construction on Astell&Kern music players. They’re certainly a statement piece in public and the sleek, modern aesthetic will continue to make it look futuristic ten years from now. This was actually the first time I found the “naked” body of the DAP somewhat uncomfortable at times while holding. The weight of the device combined with the palm-able size exacerbated the sharpness of the edges in my hand. This will be the first time I advocate for the use of a leather case apart from the primary use of protecting your investment.

Astell&Kern retains the iconic large-format volume knob on the right side of the device. This is one of the shallowest knobs on an AK DAP, but it still has the satisfying tactile click when rotating.

Overall, the KANN Alpha is built like a tank, albeit a quality tank, but one that is far more convenient to take with you in your pocket. The KANN is once again truly portable compared to the previous iteration, the KANN Cube.




Features

The stars of the show regarding the Alpha music player are the power output and the new 4.4mm balanced headphone jack. The KANN Alpha supports 12Vrms output – the same as the existing KANN Cube. The only change is that The KANN Alpha has been optimized so that it’s more compact. More than 60 parts were minaturized throughout the development process and AK also rearranged various components through circuit optimization. It’s quite impressive when you see the size difference from the Cube to the Alpha. This is just one more benefit of the advancement of technology.

The inclusion of a 4.4mm balanced output port is a welcome addition to a DAP. The KANN Alpha has physically separated the 2.5mm and 4.4mm outputs using micro relays. When 2.5mm and 4.4mm structures are connected only to the mute circuit they do not prevent noise interference that may occur because each signal is not properly blocked. Astell&Kern has created an independent structure that blocks interference from outputs that are not being used and therefore switch off, preventing outside noise from occurring. It’s surprising really that not more products do this in the interest of preserving and maximizing the overall sound quality of the device. It's a great design and I appreciate the added detail to quality here.

In a sense, the KANN Alpha is a mini-KANN Cube, providing the same amount of power but with longer battery life.

Another nice update is that the Alpha supports Bluetooth 5.0. Finally. BT 5 has been out for some time now, and It’s nice to see that it’s being implemented in the latest music players by Astell&Kern. The latest Bluetooth version provides great sound quality, faster transmission speeds, and greater range compared to Bluetooth 4.2. LDAC and aptX HD codecs are also supported for high-resolution audio.

One popular feature that was copied over from the great SE200 DAP is the LED volume wheel. The KANN Alpha also features a volume wheel LED that displays a variety of music playback information including volume range, bit-rate of track currently playing and the current DAC that is being used for playback of music. A simple yet elegant design, it allows you to easily see more information about your music.

KANN Alpha LED Volume Wheel



Sound Quality

I feel like Astell&Kern is really introducing more options in their DAPs of late to allow users to tailor their music according to their listening preferences. Everyone likes having options, right? The KANN Alpha utilizes dual ES9068AS DACs, the same that are used in the SE200 music player. But don’t be mistaken that they sound the same because they do not.

The KANN Alpha is configured with a new independent right and left channel circuit design which minimizes channel crosstalk. The DAP has superb measurements in this regard, with great separation between channels and superb deeper and wider sense of space. Sonically, this translates to the exact performance I was wanting out of the DAC chips in the SE200. Let me explain.

The dual DAC design of the ES9068AS chips in the SE200 DAP sounded great, don’t get me wrong. They were the analytical side of a two-sided DAP coin. Classical sounded expansive and detailed and jazz simply shined. However, if you were a fan of more musical or warmer sound signatures then you were still in luck, because the DAP also had a phenomenal AKM DAC chip that provided just that. This is where the Alpha improves this a bit. The new circuit and amp design of the KANN Alpha provides the ESS chips with the warmth and depth it was lacking in the SE200.




The first song I pulled up was “With a Little Help from My Friends” from Sgt. Pepper. I don’t think I need to introduce the band to you. Right out of the gate, Paul’s Rickenbacker bass stands out as plunky but impactful - really driving the song. It’s interesting to note that on top of being out of tune in some places, the tonal quality of the bass sounds a lot like his Hofner violin bass. There’s an acoustic element to it that helps the intonation of Paul’s playing really come to life. The extra power of the KANN Alpha circuitry really brings in the warmth and balance of the entire ensemble on this tune especially. The high-power output of the Alpha will really make your planar magnetic headphones sound great too. Typically, the more power you put behind planar magnetic drivers, the better they are going to sound, and this is especially true with the KANN Alpha. I used the Audeze LCD-1, HiFiMan Ananda, Meze Empyrean, and the Focal Utopia when testing the DAP. The KANN Alpha handled all these headphones with ease.

KANN Alpha with Focal Utopia and Black Dragon Cable

Another song I like to use for testing the soundstage and dynamics is “The Battle” from the movie Gladiator – score by the great Hans Zimmer. It’s a longer piece (10-ish minutes) that has some great dynamic highs and lows. The brass section in the orchestra gets an especially good work-out with the number of fanfares and action-sections that line up with the movie scene. The battle section starts out with a classical guitar setting the cadence – soft and delicate strumming of the strings combined with staccato violins – adding the more steady cello and basses later really builds the suspense and increase the anticipation of the war ahead. Things escalate quickly in this number and they don’t slow down. The dynamics are so volatile at parts that it quickly becomes a distorted mess if you don’t adequately adjust the volume in time on poor headphones or have a rather compressed recording. It’s always a pleasure listening to it on a nice system in high-resolution, and testing this with the KANN Alpha has been one of the most impactful listening experiences of this recording for me. The added headroom of the amp section really helps the music be as expressive as it can, without having to worry about adjusting anything. It allows you to listen to your music the way it was meant to be heard.

KANN Alpha DAC Filters


Another carryover from the popular SE200 music player from Astell&Kern is the inclusion of DAC filters. DAC filters allow you to fine tune your sound profile. These settings are going to be more subtle enhancements or reductions on attack, and phase and transient adjustments. You can see more info on the various profiles here. <<<

In our SE200 DAP review, we described the ESS and AKM DACs as offering the best of both worlds – according to your personal sound preferences. However, if you wanted the best of both worlds in a single DAC, then the KANN Alpha is the product for you. A neutral enough sound leaning on the warm side, the KANN Alpha is one of the best sounding music players by Astell&Kern, giving you all the power you need and more for anything you throw at it.


KANN Alpha
KANN Alpha
KANN Alpha
KANN Alpha
KANN Alpha
KANN Alpha
KANN Alpha


Dragon Cables

When testing out the KANN Alpha, one of my favorite combinations was the Focal Utopia with a Black Dragon headphone cable. The Black Dragon also has its own sound signature that can adjust the overall sound of your music. Depending on the genre of music you listen to, one of our Dragon Cables can dramatically improve the quality of your headphones or audio gear.

In light of this review for the KANN Alpha, the Black Dragon makes the Utopia more musical, making your music more expressive. Being a open-back headphone, the soundstage is going to be more expansive and the Black Dragon cable opens up the "in-your-head" sound - giving you the "front row at your favorite band's concert" sound. You can check out the sound signatures of each of our Dragon Cables to see which one is right for you.


Dragon Cables can be a great addition to your portable setup, allowing you even more sonic combinations to get lost in. With the KANN Alpha and a Dragon Cable, you have the ultimate portable audiophile setup that will be hard to beat.




Comparisons

*Images not indicative of actual size*

Ank KANN DAP

Original KANN

KANN Cube DAP

KANN Cube

KANN Alpha DAP

KANN Alpha

In comparing the KANN lineup, a few notable differences stand out. We'll focus on the main KANN devices on the market today: the KANN Cube and the KANN Alpha. The first difference is the output options. The KANN Alpha is the first DAP to include a 4.4mm balanced headphone jack, whereas the Cube includes a 5-pin mini XLR connection. This makes the KANN Cube more compatible with home systems and console devices. The size of the KANN Cube might also be polarizing when considering what is a "portable music player." It's a hefty boy. The technological advancements made to the design make the KANN Alpha a much more appealing device, especially considering it packs the same punch under the hood as the KANN Cube - and it can fit in your pocket.

The KANN Alpha doesn't make the Cube obsolete, it simply gives the consumer the option for which ergonomic scenario is best fitted for their purposes. If you are looking for a more portable unit then the KANN Alpha is going to be the more appealing option. If you love the addition of a 4.4mm connection, again, another plus.

The KANN lineup is for "power users" in the true sense. If you have power hungry headphones then the KANN series is without a doubt the DAP you should be looking for. The added benefit of the KANN Alpha over the Cube is the extended battery life. A true portable unit, you can stay away from a power outlet longer with the Alpha, getting around an estimated 14-15 hours of battery life on a single charge.

We'll include a chart below listing all the spec differences between models.

Specs KANN KANN Cube KANN Alpha

COLOR

Astro Silver, Eos Blue

Wolf Gray

Onyx Black

MATERIAL

Aluminum

Aluminum

Aluminum

DIMENSIONS

2.80" (71.23mm) [W] x 4.56" (115.8mm) [H] x 1.01" (25.6mm) [D]

3.45” (87.75mm)[W] x 5.51” (140mm) [H] x 1.24” (31.5mm) [D]

2.69"(68.3mm) [W] x 4.61" (117mm) [H] x 0.98" (25mm) [D]

WEIGHT

9.83oz (278.7g)

17.8ox (502g)

11.14oz (315g)

DISPLAY

4inch (480x800) touch screen display

5inch (720x1280) HD touch screen display

4.1inch (720x1280) HD touch screen display

SUPPORT AUDIO

WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF

WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA

WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA

SAMPLE RATE

PCM: 8kHz ~ 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample); DSD Native: DSD64 (1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128 (1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256 (1bit 11.2 MHz), Stereo

PCM: 8kHz ~ 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample); DSD Native: DSD64 (1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128 (1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256 (1bit 11.2MHz) Stereo

PCM : 8kHz ~ 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample) / DSD Native: DSD64(1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128(1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256(1bit 11.2MHz), Stereo

OUTPUT LEVEL

Phone Out: Normal - UNBAL 2Vms / BAL Vrms (Condition No Load), High - UNBAL 4Vrms / BAL 7Vrms (Condition No Load)

High (BAL 12Vrms | UNBAL 6Vrms), Mid (BAL 8Vrms |UNBAL 4Vrms), Low (BAL 4Vrms | UNBAL 2Vrms) | 5pin XLR (4Vrms)

High: Unbalanced 6Vrms / Balanced 12Vrms (Condition No Load
Mid: Unbalanced 4Vrms / Balanced 8Vrms (Condition No Load)
Low: Unbalanced 2Vrms / Balanced 4Vrms (Condition No Load)Text

CPU

Dual-Core

Quad-Core

Quad-Core

DAC

AKM AK4490 x 1 (Single DAC)

ESS9039PRO SABRE 8channel DAC x2 (Dual DAC)

ESS ES9068AS x2 (Dual DAC)

DECODING

Support up to 32bit / 384kHz Bit to Bit Decoding

Support up to 32bit / 384kHz Bit to Bit playback

Support up to 32bit / 384kHz Bit-to-Bit Playback

OUTPUT

Phone Out / Line Out: PHONES(3.5mm) / BAL Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported) / USB Audio: micro USB Connection / PCM: Up to 32bit 284kHz / DSD 2.8 / 5.6MHz

PHONES (3.5mm) / Optical Out (3.5mm) / Balanced Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported) / mini 5pin XLR

Unbalanced Out (3.5mm) / Optical Out(3.5mm)
Balanced Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported 4.4m, only 5-pole supported)

WIFI

802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)

802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)

802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)

BLUETOOTH

V4.0 (A2DP,AVRCP) / aptX HD

V4.1 (A2DP, AVRCP, aptXTM HD)

V5.0 (A2DP, AVRCP, Qualcomm® aptX™ HD, LDAC)

PLAYTIME

15 hours (approx.)

8-10 hours (approx.)

14.5 hours (approx.)

MEMORY

64GB[NAND], microSD x1 (Max. 400GB) / SD x1 (Max. 512GB)

128GB[NAND], microSD x1 [max 512GB] (up to 2TB supported)

64GB[NAND], microSD x1 (Max 1TB)

BATTERY

6,200mAh 3.7V Li-Polymer Battery

7,800mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer Battery

5,600mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer Battery




Verdict

There is a lot to like about the new KANN Alpha music player from Astell&Kern. It is not a replacement for the KANN Cube, but it does a lot of what makes the KANN Cube great, better. The 4.4mm balanced headphone jack is long overdue and certainly the highlight of the product. With extended battery life, a smaller size, added DAC filters, and a great sounding DAC, the KANN Alpha might be the new DAP to beat in terms of the combination of sheer power and number of features. Astell&Kern keeps improving on an already stellar and innovative product design, and they implement a whole slew of new features into an incredibly packed and petite powerhouse of a DAP. We're for the 4.4!




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What's in the Box

The Astell&Kern unboxing experience is always one of my favorites. The packaging is neat and I appreciate the modern aesthetic. Like I've said in other Astell&Kern unboxings, it's like Apple, only better.

Under the slip cover you'll find a dual "door" opening which reveals the DAP inside. It's simple, elegant and effective. The box materials are sturdy and dense, adequately protecting the investment inside. Under the DAP you'll find the paperwork and USB-C charging cable packaged neatly in separate compartments.

You can watch our unboxing video at the link below:


Specifications

KANN Alpha Features Icons
Technical Features

Supported Audio Formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA
Sample rate: PCM : 8kHz ~ 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample) / DSD Native: DSD64(1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128(1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256(1bit 11.2MHz), Stereo
Output Level: High: Unbalanced 6Vrms / Balanced 12Vrms (Condition No Load); Mid: Unbalanced 4Vrms / Balanced 8Vrms (Condition No Load); Low: Unbalanced 2Vrms / Balanced 4Vrms (Condition No Load)
DAC: ESS ES9068AS x2 (Dual DAC)
CPU: Quad-Core
Decoding: Support up to 32bit / 384kHz Bit-to-Bit Playback

 

Input: USB Type-C input (for charging PC & MAC)
Outputs: Unbalanced Out (3.5mm) / Optical Out(3.5mm); Balanced Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported 4.4m, only 5-pole supported)
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)
Bluetooth: V5.0 (A2DP, AVRCP, Qualcomm® aptX™ HD, LDAC)
Feature Enhancements: Firmware upgrades supported (OTA)
Body Color: Onyx Black
Display: 4.1inch HD 720 x 1280 Touch Display
Weight: 11.14oz

Supported OS: Windows 7,8,10 (32/64bit), MAC OS X 10.7 and up

Audio Performance

Frequency Response: ±0.021dB (Condition: 20Hz~20kHz) Unbalanced / ±0.024dB (Condition: 20Hz~20kHz) Balanced;
±0.21dB (Condition: 20Hz~70kHz) Unbalanced / ±0.155dB (Condition: 20Hz~70kHz) Balanced
Signal to Noise Ratio: 116dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 117dB @ 1kHz, Balanced

 

Crosstalk: -128dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / -136dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
THD+N: 0.0003% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 0.0005% @ 1kHz, Balanced
IMD SMPTE: 0.0003% 800Hz 10kHz(4:1) Unbalanced / 0.0003% 800Hz 10kHz(4:1) Balanced
Output Impedance: Unbalanced Out 3.5mm (0.8ohm) / Balanced out 2.5mm (2.0ohm), 4.4mm(1.8ohm)

Batter and Memory

Capacity: 5,600mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer Battery
Playback Time: About 14.5 hours (Standard : FLAC, 16bit, 44.1kHz, Vol.80, LCD Off, Low Gain)
Charge Time: About 3.5 hours (9V/1.67A Fast Charging) / 5hours (5V/2A General Charging)

 

Built-in Memory: 64GB [NAND]
External Memory: microSD (Max. 1TB) x1


KANN Comparisons

KANN Cube - A Comparison with the Original

How does the KANN Cube stack up to the already popular KANN from Astell&Kern's lineup? Some major upgrades make the Cube a must-have.



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