The Mighty Mouse of Music Players
Astell&Kern just released their follow up to the SR15, SR25. The A&Norma line targets the entry-level price point for music players, but you wouldn't know it based on the number of features and high-performance specs. Is it the upgrade we were looking for? Let’s find out.
The SR15 was Astell&Kern’s entry-level DAP for novice listeners. It was a small, eye-catching music player that produced some great sounding music without breaking the bank. It was a relatively affordable music player that could playback high-quality and high-resolution audio files with ease, capable of 24-bit, 192kHz Bit-to-Bit playback. It packed a lot of features in a tiny chassis and was one of their most popular DAP music players to date.
Materials, Quality, & Comfort
Astell&Kern products are often compared to art sculptures, with colorful faces and angles that are not found in other devices.
Much of the credit for the stunning designs can go to the years of perfecting their proprietary machining process for their products. “In order to produce the unique style Astell&Kern is famous for, five-axis machining is performed instead of traditional three-axis machining used in general machining. All metal must be processed at once without interruption. In additional to five-axis machining, Astell&Kern has perfected its crafting of metal through thousands of hours of trial and error. Only after mastering these techniques that Astell&Kern has developed, can the beauty of the metal shine through.”
“The vibration-free processing machines used by Astell&Kern are the same ones used by expensive Swiss luxury watch manufacturers. This is reflected in the crafting of the volume wheel which is processed precisely like the crown of a luxury watch for the best operating feel. Astell&Kern products are designed to achieve perfect integration at every angle. The aluminum body on the SR25 provides maximum sound quality while suppressing noise as much as possible. The use of laser ground extension technology gives you the best sound possible, without interference or distortion. Astell&Kern combines these small parts to make a big difference in the quality of their products that no other manufacturer can match.” In other words, the aluminum body that Astell&Kern utilize in their music players are not just for aesthetics, but also serve a function of blocking external noise and interference. Combined with gold-plated connectors, you can be assured that you're listening to your music and only your music, without outside factors contaminating your listening experience.
It’s no lie: the machining on the Astell&Kern music players is astounding. Every single one I pick up I have to admire for a short time before getting to the music. The milled aluminum is sleek and precise. The devices always have a nice weight to them, lending to the overall quality that Astell&Kern instills in their crafting process.
I’m giving extra points to the SR25 in the comfort department. The small size hearkens back to a day where you could easily navigate your phone with one hand and thumb, instead of trying to gallivant all over creation on the behemoths we call cellular devices today. It reminds me of the first iPod in size. It’s quaint, and that’s exactly how I prefer my devices, especially in a standalone music player that promotes the portability factor.
The angled screen is also a nice touch that sets the SR25 audio player apart from not just the rest of the Astell&Kern DAP lineup but other hi-res music players on the market. The contours of the device place it perfectly in your palm, and with the natural angle of the offset screen, you can easily navigate the entire real estate with a single thumb. It’s nostalgic, it’s comfortable, and it just works. If I’m going portable, I’d take this over the KANN Cube any day.
Okay, the screen is small. Not. For. Fat. Fingers.
That’s the trade-off for portability in this case. The SR25 has a 3.6-inch 720x1280 touchscreen. Personally, I didn’t have much of an issue with it. A typo here and there, but that’s just par for the course with devices nowadays. I like the small screen, but it’s going to be a love or hate thing for most people. You pick. Otherwise, I found it much more responsive and snappier than some of the older generation Astell music players. I hesitate to call it HD as they designate it, but at 3.6-inches it looks sharp at the set resolution.
The button and port layout for the DAP remains consistent with the rest of the lineup. You’ll find the back, play/pause, and forward buttons on the left side of the device, the volume knob on the right side, 3.5mm and 2.5mm jacks along with the power button on the top, and the USB-C and microSD card slot on the bottom. The engineering on the buttons and knob are the premium-quality that Astell&Kern is known for.
One of the most perplexing things (to me) about this new device is the fact that it utilizes the same dual DAC chip setup as the previous SR15. The SR15 sounded great, don’t get me wrong, but you would think they would take this opportunity to upgrade the DAC chip in a newer model with newer technologies available, right?
The SR15 and SR25 implement dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs. The biggest draw for this is not only the “MasterHIFI” designation, which is tuned specifically for high-resolution audio, but also the fact that it is a low-power chip that allows for great performance while maintaining battery life. According to Cirrus Logic, “Products with the MasterHIFI designation meet the company’s highest standard in high-fidelity audio playback. MasterHIFI products deliver the very best performance in sound clarity and pure, euphoric audio listening just like the artist intended. The devices should not unintentionally ‘color’ the audio but should maintain the ‘brightest’ sounds expected from a recorded track.”
“MasterHIFI performance standards focus on specific thresholds that indicate true high-fidelity audio. The engineers at Cirrus Logic have specifically focused on the performance of smart codecs and D/A converters. These products use a unique and patented “clock clean up” technology to negate the effects of system clock jitter on the audio path. This means the audio performance is not affected by modulations on the clock, giving the best audio experience irrespective of the system in which they are implemented.”
I always start off listening to a new device with Classical music. It helps to give me an idea of the expansiveness, clarity, and dynamic ability of the device. As I mentioned in my previous review of the SE200, I’m a fan of large brass sections. Give me a good fanfare or epic closer any day of the week. One of my go-to tests is the Finale of Mahler’s 8th. As many classical enthusiasts know, not all recordings are created equal. In my opinion, Kent Nagano’s interpretation with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is supreme. His timing is well-paced, and the quality of the recording and the mix is superb.
The final two minutes is one of the most epic closers in classical music. A bad DAC chip can make or break classical music listening. Happy to say, the SR25 passes with flying colors. The brass sections have that shimmer at high volumes – lending insight to just how powerful the performance must have been in person. The organ is perfectly mixed, the higher octaves accompanying the brass, while really feeling the lower frequencies when the pedals come in. The real teller of the quality, like with most genres, is in the cymbals. Cymbals have the power to give the music the exclamation mark at just the right moment or snap you out of the experience altogether with ear-piercing clamor. Most of the time the real culprit is the mix, which is why it can be good to compare different recordings of the same piece to determine the balance of the mix versus the device. Overall, there were no real problems with the top-end brightness. The SR25 and the dual CS43198 DACs give the clarity that classical music listeners will enjoy.
Gearing up some Blur on the DAP is also a very satisfying experience. I have a thing for the British rock sound, and the SR25 really brings out the grunginess of the guitars and recreates the warmth of the overdriven tube amps well. Combined with the Black Dragon, the bass was tight and punchy; it’s a perfect combination.
“These MasterHIFI products also use advanced high-fidelity filtering for the best impulse response and clarity of sound. They excel at canceling out the effects of the digital world, specifically “pre-ringing,” which causes some sound to be introduced before the real sound occurs. Originally created for Cirrus Logic’s highest performance audio ICs and used in many high-end pro audio systems, these filtering techniques are now a key design element in MasterHIFI devices.”
The Dragon Experience
The dual DAC design in the SR25 audio player lends an incredible amount of clarity and neutrality to your music. That being said, using the Black Dragon cable is going to add warmth and musicality to an already robust sound. Of course, your headphones are also going to play a huge factor in the overall sound signature, so that’s another factor you’ll need to consider when assessing the overall sound you are aiming for.
For my testing setup, I paired the SR25 with the Black Dragon and the Focal Stellia headphones. The MasterHIFI Class CS43198 is a neutral sounding chip that doesn’t add any coloration to your music. I wouldn’t say it’s analytical sounding, but some added warmth is a good option for any genre with this DAP. The Black Dragon is going to add that extra body and added depth in the low end. It’s something I didn’t really think I needed until I heard it. That MasterHIFI class DAC chips are great for what they do – finding that balance between accuracy, fidelity and power efficiency, but taking that extra step with the Black Dragon really helped my music have an added weight and presentation.
Astell&Kern has raised the bar on a number of features from the original SR15, including adding a new, faster quad-core CPU and newly designed circuitry for improved sound quality enhancements. They also added native playback support for DSD256 and included the LDAC codec (Bluetooth) for higher quality wireless sound. The SR25 is a better SR15, as it should be.
Astell&Kern keeps raising the bar for competing manufacturers, being the industry standard for high-end high-fidelity music players. Like the SE200 in our previous review, it would be a flagship DAP for any other manufacturer on the market with the number of premium features and quality. But not for Astell&Kern. The same can be said for the SR25. Their “budget” or entry-level device is easily a mid-tier item elsewhere.
The SR25 supports 32bit/384kHz audio for the first time in an Astell&Kern standard product. They implement a new “Performance Mode” which automatically optimizes and sets the memory mode in the system according to the data size of the source being played. As the resolution of the sound source increases, it is necessary to process a large amount of data rapidly. If this part is not optimized, sound breakup can occur. To prevent this, Performance Mode automatically optimizes the system for the nearly perfect sound quality on playback for high-resolution audio.
Portable users will be pleased to hear that the SR25’s battery lasts longer than any other Astell&Kern product on the market. Maxed at an astounding 21 hours, the SR25 will last you days* on a single charge. Astell&Kern managed to accomplish this through careful planning and design. Using some of the most power-efficient components, they focused on developing circuit optimizations to get the most out of the device’s performance. An impressive feat to be sure, doubling the battery life while maintaining the sound quality from the SR15 is a worthy upgrade that will persuade new and old fans.
*Keep in mind that battery life and performance will vary depending on the data/size of your music files, Wi-Fi usage, Bluetooth, volume, and other settings.
Like all newer Astell&Kern devices, the SR25 is compatible with the Open App Service, allowing you to download and install verified APK music streaming applications such as Tidal and Qubuz. Basing the firmware off Android 9.0 and adding MQA technology to this little music player makes it a true portable force to be reckoned with.
The best comparison to look at is the device the SR25 is replacing: the SR15. The important thing to take away is the fact that since both DAPs use the exact same dual DAC chips their sound is going to be fairly similar to one another. Apart from the new circuit design that Astell&Kern has implemented for the new SR25 which results in a lower noise floor and more power efficiency, the SR15 is still a solid DAP that will perform well with any music you throw its way.
However, the release of the SR25 almost makes the SR15 obsolete. The increased battery life, inclusion of MQA, and 32bit/384kHz playback make the decision a no-brainer when both devices are released at the same price point.
But there’s good news! The release of the SR25 means that the SR15 is now marked down, making it the absolute best deal if you’re a novice listener thinking about getting into high-fidelity or on a budget. For the size, price, and number of features, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another DAP on the market for better.
Value and performance. The SR25 is a tiny beast of a music player. For 21 hours of battery life, it’s a pocket music player that doesn’t skimp on features or audio playback. If you have big hands then the 3.6-inch touchscreen might be a bother, but we'll leave it up to you. It's really the only downside to such an elegant device.
Astell&Kern once again raises the bar on what should be “standard” for entry-level music players, putting the competition to shame. It’s interesting that they would utilize the same dual DAC setup in the SR25, but considering it was in the interest of efficiency, it is forgivable. In every other area, the SR25 is a good successor to the SR15 and given it’s consistent and excellent performance and sound quality, we recommend it as a great starting point for novice listeners or music lovers looking to up their audiophile game without breaking the bank.
- Model: SR25
- Body Color: Moon Silver
- Body Material: Aluminum
- Display: 3.6inch HD (720 x 1280) Touchscreen
- Dimensions: 2.5" W x 4.26" H x 0.63" D (63.5 x 108.3 x 16.1mm)
- Weight: 6.27 oz (178g)
- Supported Audio Formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, LDAC
- MQA Playback: Service (Tidal Masters), Local Files, External USB, MQA-CD (ripped)
- Built-in Memory: 64GB [NAND]
- External Memory: microSD (Max 1TB) x 1
- DAC: Cirrus Logic CS43198 x 2 (Dual DAC)
- CPU: Quad-Core
- Decoding: Support up to 32bit / 384kHz bit-to-bit Playback
- Input: USB-Type-C for PC and MAC
- Outputs: Unbalanced Out (3.5mm); Balanced Out (2.5mm 4-pole)
- WiFi: 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)
- Bluetooth: v4.2 (A2DP, AVRCP, aptX HD, LDAC)
- Future Enhancements: Firmware upgrades supported (OTA)
- Supported OS: Windows 7,8,10 (32/64bit); MAC OS X 10.7 and up
- Frequency Response: (Condition: 20Hx-20kHz) ±0.014dB Unbalanced / ±0.011dB Balanced; (Condition: 20Hx-70kHz) ±0.10dB Unbalanced / ±0.12dB Balanced
- Signal to Noise Ratio: 112dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced; 123dB @1kHz, Balanced
- THD+N: 0.0007% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 0.0008% @ 1kHz, Balanced
- IMD SMPTE: 0.0004% 800Hz 10kHz(4:1) Unbalanced; 0.0003% 800Hz 10kHz(4:1) Balanced
- Output Impedance:Unbalanced Out 3.5mm (1.8ohm); Balanced out 2.5mm (1.6ohm)
- Clock Jitter: 25pc(Typ)
- Reference Clock Jitter: 200 Femto Seconds
- 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 (Conditions No Load): Unbalanced 2.0 Vrms; Balanced 4.0Vrms
- Battery Capacity: 3,150mAh 3.7V Li-Polymer
- Continuous Playback: Up to 21 hours
- Charge Time: About 2.5 hours (Standard 5V/2A)
What's In The Box
I’ve always enjoyed Astell&Kern’s packaging. It’s like a little puzzle of well, put-together pieces that really appeals to my OCD of neat packaging. It’s like Apple, only better.
Opening the box, the music player is front and center. The digital audio player comes in "Moon Silver," which we're a big fan of here at Moon Audio. Lifting the tab much like Apple’s aesthetic, you’ll find the paperwork and USB-A to USB-C cable underneath. It’s minimalist and effective.
It’s interesting that Astell&Kern includes a USB-A end, but considering the cable is used for file transfer it’s understandable. Although many computers are starting to implement USB-C ports, there are more on the market that do not, especially desktops at the present time. This will change as newer hardware adopts USB-C but consider it a fail-safe decision by the manufacturer. Odds are if you have a device with USB-C then you likely have a compatible cable as well.