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Astell&Kern KANN Max DAP Music Player Review

Kann Max DAP - front and back

The KANN Returns with Max Power

UPDATE 7/20/2022: The KANN Max is now officially Roon Ready! Please update the firmware to make the appropriate changes.

Sometimes I feel Like Astell&Kern is this mad scientist in a dark lab somewhere trying to Frankenstein a music player and pack it with as much power as they possibly can. Well, they did. The KANN Max is their most powerful music player to date and surprisingly it's smaller than the KANN Alpha. I mean, we're talking millimeters here, but still. If you need power for your headphones then the KANN lineup from Astell&Kern should be your first stop. Can you handle the power? Let's find out...

KANN Max back

Riff

Notes

Riff Notes  

Pros

  • Great depth and soundstage
  • Excellent AK design and build quality
  • Amazing power output

Cons

  • UI is starting to show its age
  • Chunky size

Materials & Quality

Kann Max and Kann Alpha back of DAP

It's actually a little surprising how powerful the KANN Max is when you look at the size of the DAP. Aesthetically, it’s exactly what you would expect from Astell&Kern – sharp edges, futuristic looking, and sleek design. The chassis is made from Aluminum, so it’s not terribly heavy, but it has some nice weight to it from the internal components. You’ll def want to get a case for it, as the edges and corners are sharp from the precision milling process. On the top of the music player you’ll find your power button, 3.5mm unbalanced, 4.4mm balanced output, and 2.5mm balanced headphone jacks. On the left side of the device is the play/pause, track back, and forward buttons. Note that the play/pause button in the middle is a pressure-sensitive button, requiring very little pressure to activate. At first, I thought this was a defect of the unit, as the track skip buttons have travel to them before they click and activate – just like all three buttons did on the KANN Alpha; so please pay attention to that. The bottom is where you’ll find the microSD card slot and the USB-C charging port. On the right is the staple large volume knob as on all Astell&Kern players. Tactile and clicky, and the LED ring around the knob indicates track information as well. These design features have become standard for Astell&Kern music players thankfully - and I appreciate the consistency across their lineup of DAPs which makes for an easy transition if you ever trade or upgrade your AK player.

The KANN Max is equipped with a 4.1-inch 720x1280 touch display. I find this the sweet spot for a portable player in general, let alone one with this much power. It’s snappy and responsive and is crisp enough at this size to look great. Sure they are larger and better-looking screens out there, but for an Astell&Kern player, you’re gonna be listening to the music, not watching youtube or playing games. Astell&Kern haven’t changed up their navigation system or software, which is fine – there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, I just think it’s starting to look a little dated.

There's no doubt that Astell&Kern make premium devices. The quality is readily apparent at first glance, and you either love or hate the design aesthetic. I will say that I welcome the smaller device size than the KANN Cube. The Cube was a behemoth of a music player and I continue to be amazed at the progression of technology on a daily basis. The fact that the KANN Max outputs so much more power than the Cube is a testament to the fact that Astell&Kern never stops innovating, and I appreciate that in a company.

Although looks aren't everything, in this hobby you need to stand out from the crowd to get noticed, and Astell&Kern doesn't need to work hard at that. Materials and Quality get the usual 10 out of 10 from AK.

Sound Quality

The KANN Max is equipped with four ES9038Q2M DAC chips and supports up to 32-bit 768. You’ll be familiar with the output levels if you know of or have the KANN Alpha or the ACRO CA1000. You can set the output level on these devices according to your power needs. The low output does 2Vrms unbalanced and 4 on balanced. Mid output level does 4Vrms on unbalanced and 8 on balanced. The high output level does 6Vrms on unbalanced and 12 on balanced. And distinctive to the ACRO and now the KANN Max is the super high gain level, giving you a whopping 8Vrms in unbalanced and 15Vrms in balanced mode. It can’t be overstated how impressive it is that a device of this size can output that much power. It’s still not going to power a Susvara, but it can pretty much do everything else out there.

For my testing session, I paired the KANN Max with the Meze Audio Empyreans and the Focal Utopia headphones, HiFiMan HE1000 V2 headphones, and a Silver Dragon Premium cable for each.

So there are a couple of other products that use the quad-9038Q2M setup, namely the Element i2 from Matrix Audio, and the Sem3 DAC module from Astell&Kern. Yes, it has the 9038 flagship number on the chip, but there are some notable differences between the PRO and Q2M chips. PRO chips are 8 channels whereas the Q2M chips are only 2, but they are much more power efficient than their PRO counterparts.

Kann Max with Focal Utopia headphones

In my listening sessions, there are a number of things that stand out about the sound. Although the 9038Q2M leans on the analytical side of things, there is an impressive amount of depth to the sound, with sharp attacks, and a tight low end. The Kann Max really shines in its versatility of handing any type of headphone and IEM sensitivity with the various gain stages. This power goes a long way in providing some amazing imaging and soundstage – pretty much just giving any headphone more room to work with sonically. So whereas the DAC itself might be more analytical in nature, the rest of the digital audio player helps to bring out everything else in a natural way, making the Max the best-sounding KANN of the bunch in my opinion.

The Man Comes Around is a poignant song when you listen to it, but what stands out to me when listening to it through the KANN Max is the depth. The power of the DAP through some planar magnetic drivers shows off the tonal variety of the acoustic guitars, from the rhythmic strumming during the verses to the second guitar coming in for the tags. The lower notes on the piano have wonderful layering during the chorus, when the bass notes ring on each octave, you can make out the detuning on each note pretty clearly. The mid-range on the acoustic strumming fills out the mix nicely without overpowering the vocals and the organ. It's a great tune to show off the superb imaging and layering of the quad-DAC setup on the KANN Max.

Choral pieces have a special place in my heart, being a director of music at a parish in a previous life. Bruckner's Latin Motets are incredibly powerful works and a great demonstration of the dynamic capability of a device. You can tell pretty quickly if a music player, DAC, etc is up to the task based on how it handles the varying levels of a choral work like this, with dynamics changing rapidly in mere seconds. Christus factus est (Latin for "Christ became obedient") has very powerful female vocal crescendos that the KANN Max handles with ease, never distorting but allowing the expiration of the phrase to trail off naturally. The real impressive aspect here is when the dynamics drop completely and you hear pure black silence with the extreme pianissimo sections that follow. The KANN Max has some great S/N measurements and this ultimately sounds stunning given the power output this DAP can manage.

October Road album
Carry Me On My Way by James Tayor (October Road)
American IV album
The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash (American IV)
Jonsi Go album
Boy Lilikoi by Jonsi (Go)
Latvian Radio Choir album
Christus factus est, WAB 11 by the Latvian Radio Choir (Bruckner: Latin Motets)

Features

All the features from the last KANN carry over to the new KANN Max. Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD and LDACcodec support, BT Sink, AK File Drop, ReplayGain, LED wheel around the volume knob for track information, MQA, DAC filters, and more.

BT Sink and AK File Drop are some great Astell&Kern exclusive features. BT Sink allows you to connect to a music source and stream the music through your DAP for expanded library access while getting all the sonic benefits of the DAP itself. AK File Drop allows you to configure your music player as a network drive and lets you add or remove music wirelessly without having to manually hook up to your computer. We have tutorials on both of these features which we’ll link to in the description below.

Like all of the latest Astell&Kern music players, you can download your favorite hi-fi streaming services to the DAP, including Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, and more.

Kann Max with Meze Empyrean and silver dragon cable

Comparisons

The obvious question here is how does the KANN Max compare to the KANN Alpha? I think I already answered the question of sound, as the Max sounds much better and more resolute all around than the KANN Alpha, but that’s not the only thing that the Max does better. Styled similarly, the Max is a touch lighter than the Alpha, and pretty much the same size, give or take a millimeter here or there. The biggest difference is that the Kann Max takes the power level a step further than the Alpha, giving it a SUPER output level with a whopping 8Vrms in unbalanced and 15Vrms in balanced mode. This actually puts the KANN Max in the same tier as the ACRO – which is Astell&Kern’s portable and desktop hybrid headphone amp. It’s pretty impressive they can pack this much power into a device of this size, making the KANN Max the superior product in every way. The ACRO is a good option for those wanting to use the music player as a desktop headphone amp with the stereo RCA ins and outs for even more connectivity options. Unfortunately, the form factor makes it an awkward duck to use portably – but nonetheless, it can be done.

The Alpha is still a great DAP in its own right, and if you don’t need the extra power of the KANN Max, it’s still one of the more powerful and capable higher-end DAPs on the market. But we can’t overstate enough the fact that the extra power goes a long way in overall performance, especially with power-hungry drivers like planar magnetics, etc. The more power you throw at them the better they sound.

The other thing to mention is that the Max gets about 13 hours of battery life tops on low gain. The Alpha gets about 14 to 14 and a half. Pretty good considering the power capacity increase of the Kann Max. The ACRO even gets about 10 hours with a larger battery, so again, big points here for the Kann Max.

Astell&Kern KANN Alpha

Still lots of power compared to other brands, features still hold up today

Astell&Kern KANN Max

More powerful than the alpha, similar battery life, better specs

Astell&Kern KANN Max vs. iBasso DX320 Music Player

So another DAP we should probably mention is the new DX320 music player from iBasso. As established by now, the KANN Max is Astell&Kern's powerhouse of a DAP, offering an astounding 15Vrms of output in balanced mode on the max gain setting. That's the real draw with this music player: the power. The DX320 is nothing to sneeze at, offering 7.1Vrms, but the KANN Max is the most powerful music player on the market, being perfect for those with hard-to-drive headphones.

The DX320 is more of an open-source OS, with Android 11, whereas the Max uses AK's overlaid UI. Both are great, but the DX320 is going to offer more customization options. However, it's worth noting that in terms of music streaming services and applications, both devices are the same.

The DX320 also has the option of switching out amplifier cards, much like Astell&Kern's SE180 music player, but the KANN series lacks this feature. Sound-wise, I personally prefer the more natural signature of the DX320's ROHM DAC, offering more lower extension than the KANN Max's quad-ES9038Q2M DAC chips. However, in the interest of the fact that everyone hears differently, the ES9038Q2M chips are incredibly dynamic and resolute, offering great layering, imaging, and soundstage. Both DAPs sound great, but I would divvy them up for the following genres if I had to pick between the two (of course there is some natural crossover):

Astell&Kern KANN Max

Great for Classical, Rock, R&B, EDM, Synthwave, and Classic Rock

iBasso DX320

Great for Jazz, Cassical, Folk, Country, Rock, Alternative, and Blues

Dragon Cables

Generally, stock audio cables are manufactured with subpar materials, metals with impurities, poor geometries, and an overabundance of layers to make them look and feel like a fire hose. Inconsistency and lack of quality control in stock cables can lead to poor sound quality and a veiled sound vs what the musician intended for you to hear and feel from the music. Dragon cables are handcrafted with the highest standards and made to order according to your specific needs. At Moon Audio, we create a custom cable for you using the highest quality UP-OCC silver or copper conductors that can be manufactured. UP-OCC metals are void of impurities and are optimized for signal transfer and sound quality. We have one of the largest collections of audio and headphone connection options available online and we create limitless audio cable options depending on your specific gear and needs.

Silver Dragon Sound Signature: The Silver Dragon is the original cable. Silver strands clarify instrument separation, increase the soundstage, and find previously lost high and mid-frequency sounds. Transients appear more cohesive and the bass tighter for a more controlled sound. The detail and clarity of the Silver Dragon make it a perfect match for classical music and other genres with many nuanced instruments.

Black Dragon Sound Signature: The Black Dragon is warm and smooth with a musical presentation. Copper strands enhance the body, shape, and immediacy of the music. The detail and expansiveness of the Black Dragon make it a flexible fit where a broad range of musical genres are played. It can also improve bass frequencies on bass-light headphones. The smooth, musical quality makes it a perfect fit for headphones that tend to sound a bit edgy or bright. Despite its warmth, the Black Dragon does not have a laid-back, lush sound. It is much closer to neutral, making it a very natural-sounding cable. For more information on finding your signature sound, visit our Sound Signature Guide.

The Verdict

Kann max on table with headphones

The KANN Max is about as beastly as you can get for a portable music player. The size, sound, power, and a number of high-end flagship-level features make it really hard NOT to recommend this music player for those who like using their full-size headphones on the go. I’d say it’s worth the upgrade for existing Alpha users ONLY if you have headphones with high power needs, as they will certainly benefit from the extra Super gain setting in the KANN Max. The 9038Q2M DACs sound dynamic and resolute. It’s easily the best-sounding KANN music player. The price point also hits the sweet spot between great sound and great price – hitting well below the flagship price range, but retaining the excellent sound and a wide range of features only found on a premium brand like Astell&Kern. If you’re looking for the most powerful Astell&Kern DAP, erm, I mean the most powerful portable hi-resDAP in the entire market, then look no further. Audiophiles rejoice.

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What's in the Box

  • KANN Max DAP
  • Protective Film
  • MicroSD Card Slot Cover
  • USB Type A to USB Type C Cable
  • Quick Start Guide and Warranty Card

Videos


Astell&Kern KANN MAX Music Player DAP Review & Comparison

The KANN is back with even more power. MAX power.


Specifications

GENERAL SPECIFICATIONS

Model KANN MAX

Body Color Anthracite Gray

Body Material Aluminum

Display 4.1-inch, 720 x 1,280 touchscreen

Supported Audio Formats WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DIFF, DSF, MQA

Sample Rate PCM: 8kHz ~ 768kHz (8/16/24/32-bits per Sample)

DSD Native: DSD64 (1-bit, 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128 (1-bit, 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256 (1-bit, 11.2MHz), Stereo / DSD512 (1-bit, 22.4MHz), Stereo

Output Level [Low] Unbalanced 2Vrms / Balanced 4Vrms (Condition No Load)

[Mid] Unbalanced 4Vrms / Balanced 8Vrms (Condition No Load)

[High] Unbalanced 6Vrms / Balanced 12Vrms (Condition No Load)

[Super] Unbalanced 8Vrms / Balanced 15Vrms (Condition No Load)

CPU Quad-Core

DAC ESS ES9038Q2M x 4 (Quad-DAC)

Decoding Support up to 32-Bit/768kHz 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 | 4.4mm, only 4-pole supported)

Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)

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

Dimensions 2.68" (68.3mm) [W] x 4.6" (117mm) [H] x 0.92" (23.6mm) [D]

Weight About 10.76oz (305g)

Feature Enhancements Firmware upgrade supported (OTA)

Operating Temperature 0℃ ~ + 40℃ (32℉~ 104℉)

AUDIO SPECIFICATIONS

Frequency Response ±0.023dB (Condition: 20Hz~20kHz) Unbalanced │ ±0.026dB (Condition: 20Hz~20kHz) Balanced

±0.035dB (Condition: 20Hz~70kHz) Unbalanced │ ±0.072dB (Condition: 20Hz~70kHz) Balanced

S/N 114dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 115dB @ 1kHz, Balanced

Crosstalk -124dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ -135dB @ 1kHz, Balanced

THD+N 0.0003% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 0.0004% @ 1kHz, Balanced

IMD SMPTE 0.0007% 800Hz 10kHz (4:1) Unbalanced │ 0.0007% 800Hz 10kHz (4:1) Balanced

Output Impedance Unbalanced Out 3.5mm (1ohm) │ Balanced Out 2.5mm (1.6ohm), 4.4mm (1.6ohm)

CLOCK SOURCE

Clock Jitter 25ps (Typ)

Reference Clock Jitter 70ps

STORAGE CAPACITY

Built-In Memory 64GB [NAND]

External Memory microSD x 1 (Max. 1TB)

BATTERY

Capacity 5,600mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer

Charge Time About 3.5 hours (9V 1.67A Fast Charging) | 5.5 hours (5V 2A General Charging)

Playback Time About 13 hours (Standard: FLAC, 16-bit, 44.1kHz, Unbalanced, Vol. 40, LCD Off, LED On, Low Gain)

Supported OS

Windows 7, 8, 10 (32/64bit); MAC OS X 10.7


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