Positive Feedback ISSUE 74
july/august 2014

 

The AK240 and JH Audio Roxanne's Rock My World
by Frank Iacone

 

Astell and Kern AK240

AK240

Astell&Kern is a company that is advancing high fidelity playback and while introducing new and exciting—innovative products—for portable audio. Astell&Kern is the high-end division of Iriver. Iriver was founded in 1999 when seven former executives left Samsung with a vision. Located in Seoul, Korea, the company's first products were MP3 players that were sold worldwide. Iriver quickly built a reputation for building quality high-resolution players at reasonable prices.

The current lineup includes the AK100 II, AK120 II, and the flagship AK240. The retail price for the AK240 is $2500. The player is built to very high standards and will play all bit/samplling rates including native DSD files... including 128/double DSD. The AK240 uses twin Crystal DAC's to decode high-resolution files from 16/44 all the way to 24/384. Based on the Android platform, it also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability.

The AK240 has 256GB of internal memory (as much internal memory as most laptop computers currently sold) and adding a micro mini, SDHC, SDXC, and SDHC card can increase the storage capability significantly. The AK240 will accept cards up to 128GB and adding the 256GB internal storage creates an enormous music library portably.

The music files used for review of the AK240 included those recorded at: 24/192, 16/44, 24/88, and 24/96. Additionally, many DSD files were loaded to internal storage and some were stored on a 64GB micro mini SanDisk card. Music used in the review included everything from acoustic, progressive rock, and all current pop music. Classical selections on DSD and high resolution were also used in the review process.

JHAudio Product Image

JH Audio Roxanne's

Legendary IEM founder and superstar Jerry Harvey designed the Roxanne's as a new and very innovative user -adjustable high-resolution in- ear monitor. The Roxanne sound signature is very tunable and has Jerry's trademark sound signatures tamped all over it.

The Roxanne has 12 drivers on each side. Four drivers each are used for the midrange, treble, and bass extension. The bass and sound can be adjusted on each pair of IEM to suit each user's individual sound preference. JH Audio includes custom carbon case with every pair of Roxanne's. The individual pouch provided with the Roxanne's has a cleaning tool and a miniature screwdriver to make adjustments to the bass.

The bass is adjustable from 0-15dB. The enormous frequency range is from 10Hz to 23kHz and gives you an out of the head experience. The presentation has pinpoint instrument location and focus. The Roxanne's are custom designed IEM's that are priced at $1599.99. There is also a more expensive carbon monitor that will add another $500 to the cost of the Roxanne's. The price does not include the audiologist fee. The review pair used for my review was the standard Roxanne.

Setup

Setup for my listening session was fairly easy with both the AK240 and the Roxanne's. The AK240 came with a good variety of demo music already loaded. The 32GB mini card had a fair amount of DSD and high-resolution files. The 64GB card used had a mixture of high resolution and iTunes loss-less file. The Wi-Fi connection from my iMac gave me another 1200 albums to choose from. Transferring files from the iMac (utilizing the Android file transfer file for the AK240) added another 190G to the internal storage of the AK240 digital player.

Wi-Fi transfers require two applications to be installed on your computer. The Android file transfer application and the internal Iriver application is available free of charge on the A&K website. The transfers, once setup, were very easy to navigate with the files being easily located.

Together, the AK240 and Roxanne was a match made in heaven. The sound coming from the AK240 is really a major step up over most of all the other digital audio players I have reviewed or auditioned. The AK240 had an almost flawless operating system. Files were easy to locate and the player rarely (if ever) froze up.

DSD files were a really special listening experience utilizing the AK240. The Roxanne's were extremely dynamic and musical. The musicality was as good as I had heard using any portable in-ear monitor. The AK240 was dead quiet with IEM's. There was no evidence of any noise or hiss. The AK240 just played the tunes with musicality and had a very quiet, noise-free background.

Doug McLeod's "Bring it on Home" loss-less file from an iTunes CD quality transfer, was as good as I had heard it. Listening to the track, the harmonica and guitar work is first rate. The inner detail of the recording stood out in a clear and transparent soundstage. The stage was very focused and visualizing Doug's playing was easy. The toe tapping the floor was clear and precise. The soundstage is pinpoint with focus and air. The separation of the instruments is first rate on the AK240 and the Roxanne's. The Roxanne's let me hear very deep into the recording with musicality and detail.

The synergy between the player and Roxanne was very special. The Roxanne's immaculately clean sound made listening to the AK240 a memorable experience. The pairing made music come alive.

Listening to DSD native is another eye-opening experience. The Modern Cool Barber DSD recording is the best I have heard through the AK240 and Roxanne's. When listening to "You The Night and The Music," the bass notes were all there with full extension. Barber's piano was so alive that I could feel the emotion and intensity in her performance. The music sounded so real I felt as if I was listening to the performance live.

There was no digital sound or glare. The sound was analog-like in transparency and dynamics. The musicality of the recordings was as good as I had heard it reproduced. Native DSD is a major step up over Digital DSD over PCM.

John Coltrane was a legendary musician who brought jazz to a stratospheric level that has never be equaled. The DSD recording of Blue Train reflects his personality. Vibrant and fast, his musical ability and personality easily shines through. You can feel his intensity in this recording.

"Locomotion" the track from Blue Train is fast and has detail with some really great sax work. The bass and drum work was stellar and very detailed. Noticeable was the inner detail of the recording.

The trumpet solo was focused in the left channel and everything else centered in a defined soundstage with the Roxanne's. Coltrane's unique style and personality came through with emotion and intensity using the Roxanne's. The AK240 delivered the DSD performance with astonishing transparency and musicality.

Listening to LaPaloma, the DSD file from Linda Rosenthal's FIM recording of "Oh that Stradivarius," gave me a clear and focused window into the sound of her instrument. Her playing sounded so sweet and natural. The violin strings were flowing and I could hear the inner detail of the instrument. Musicality was so transparent. The tonality of the Stradivarius was beautifully reproduced. Her delicate and musical presentation consumed me into her performance.

The classical acoustic guitar work on the track let me hear the musician hand going up and down the strings and Linda's interaction with the musician was stellar. On "Serenade," the Roxanne and AK240 combination just let me concentrate on the music and not get distracted. The emotional involvement of the playing was stellar.

"Serenade" was so involving. Linda's instrument had a defined and focused space within the soundstage. The music just seemed to have no barriers. The piano on the left of Linda was detailed and the interaction between her and the piano player was stellar. Music on this DSD recording was exceptional.

The Buena Vista Social Club recorded and performed in Cuba with some of the world's greatest Cuban musicians, which is still one of my favorite recordings. Ry Cooder produced and played on this album. The 24/96 recording sounded excellent with the AK240 and the Roxanne monitors.

Listening to each track on this album transported me to Havana. I could get the emotional feeling and hear everything the musicians were doing on this outstanding album. If you want to experience what Havana feels like, this album will make you feel like your listening in a Cuban club; and some of the tracks will make you feel as if you're outside on a veranda, experiencing the emotion and personality of Cuban jazz. The music just kept flowing and had me involved and focused.

Listening to the 24/48 FLAC file of Clapton Unplugged sounded excellent. The room transparency was easy to hear. The boundaries and walls were removed. I could hear an open and defined soundstage. The musicians in this acoustic recording were in their own space; the soundstage was both wide and deep. The Roxanne's and the AK240 just melted away and all that was left was the performance. Clapton's performance on this live recording was astonishing.

Having seen Eric Clapton live, it was hard to distinguish between the recorded and live performances. The Roxanne's brought me to this session and the AK240 delivered it as if I was in the room. The emotional involvement of the AK240 and the Roxanne's kept my toes tapping and had me singing along to some of the tunes on one of my all time favorite live recordings. I could feel the energy of the performance. I was transported to the session. The experience was very special and engaging.

The Beatles' recording of Abbey Road may be my favorite Beatle album. It was recorded the same time that they recorded "Let It Be", and was released prior to their last album. This 24/48 recording is one of the best-recorded Beatles albums in their catalog. The performance the Beatles gave on Abbey Road never lets you know that there was turmoil with the band. The music and performance of this landmark recording was what many considered their best work ever. The performance begs for listening on the AK240. The performance is stellar.

Listening to "Carry that Weight" you could hear the incredible synergy of the band, playing as if they were one. The music just flowed on this recording. The emotional level of the recording brought me back in years when I grew up listening to Beatles tunes. It transported me back to my pre-teen and teenage years.

Abbey Road playing on the AK240 and Roxanne's brought me back to that time when life was easier. The years were filled with terrific music. Listening to George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" brought back memories when we would listen and hang out with girls in my friend's basement in Brooklyn. We would have a blast drinking and hanging with the girls listening to Beatles music. The Roxanne's and AK240 let me relive those moments. The time was revered and it was good getting that emotional feeling and transporting myself through that time capsule to not only remember those magical moments but to emotionally relive them.

Tierney Sutton's "Get your Kicks on Route 66" track from her Something Cool album has bass that growls when reproduced correctly. The bass is very extended and thunderous. The AK240 and Roxanne delivered a very satisfying performance. The bass texture and deepest notes were all very vivid. The vocal was also stunning. Tierney has one of those magical voices that just lures you in and is seductive.

This performance is not only seductive, but melts away all the barriers, and once again there were no boundaries. Left with just the music, Tierney's performance was very captivating. The AK240 let the music come alive.

The 16/44 recording from the Eagles Live Hotel California still is one of my reference discs. The grunting bass lines and stellar guitar work together, and are clear and transparent. The vocals are timeless. This recording, when reproduced on good equipment, just brings you to the hall.

The music is well focused and the synergy of one of the greatest American bands is clearly evident on this recording, but more importantly, the Roxanne and AK240 were able to reproduce it as good as I have heard the recording on any system at any price.

The music is so good you need to be careful with the volume control because I just wanted to hear it at concert hall levels. The music is so vibrant. The recording is saturated with musicality. Tonality is spot on. The drum work is incredibly transparent and air and spacing of the musicians is stellar. The combination really is very synergistic. I never felt like anything was missing in the performance. Musicality and synergy is what made it all work so well.

AK240 and other Headphones

WyWires manufactures an adapter for 4 pin single cables that will let you access the AK240 balanced 2.5MM jack. The adapter worked with all my flagship headphones in the balanced jack of the AK240.

The HD800 sounded extremely dynamic and transparent on the AK240. I could hear the extended soundstage and air on recordings that were recorded well. The Audeze LCD-X also worked very well and I could easily hear extended bass and transparency of each recording. The more difficult to drive Alpha Dog also worked very well.

The Ultimate Ears UE18 balanced was a revelation. I could easily hear all the music and extended range of the AK240. Each headphone used balanced with the AK240 had more power and dynamic range.

They all sounded very transparent and as good as if they were being used with individual headphone amps. The transparency was top flight. I could easily live with the AK240 as a desktop unit. The AK240 really showcased itself in balanced mode.

Wi-Fi

The AK240 has a Wi-Fi option, which I found interesting. Using WiFi enables the user to access the computer or music server's hard drive. This feature allowed me to use my library from the computer in any room in my house. The entire 1200 iTune albums on my iMac were easily accessed. Using this feature requires a download file that is available on the Astell&Kern's website that is easy to install.

The only drawback is that the files are available on the AK240 not in album order but are listed alphabetically. Contacting Owen Kwon VP of marketing here in the US, they are now aware of the issue and will have it corrected with a firmware solution. Otherwise all the music was easy to obtain from the iMac using the Wi-Fi feature. That's allows the user to have access to the entire music library in source.

The AK240 also is blue-tooth compatible but I did not find it necessary to use that feature.

Conclusions

Using the AK240 and the Roxanne's really opened my eyes to another world. It made me realize how far the portable industry has come. The AK240 as a portable device is one of the very best I have heard since I started reviewing portable gear in 2008. The AK240 is built like a Navy destroyer, meaning that it is built to last. Astell&Kern really came up with a player that can do amazing things portably. The sound and features is all top-shelf. The price, while not inexpensive, gives you the sound most music lovers desire. The AK240 does things no other portable player can achieve.

The interface is easy to use and trouble free. Outside of that minor quibble with the Wi-Fi, Astell&Kern nailed this design. The gorilla glass is genius and scratch-resistant. The player is very responsive, easy to navigate, and well thought out.

Firmware updates are a no brainer and with Wi-Fi you just plug it into the USB port and it will automatically load any firmware update to the player. Iriver, the parent company, has been doing this with portable players since 1999; they have a lot of software experience and the AK240 is really top shelf. The AK240 will decode any file including Native DSD for those wanting to explore the next generation of DSD files. With firmware, I see this as a future proof device.

The Roxanne's, designed by legendary designer Jerry Harvey (who practically invented portable in-ear monitors), and the AK240 sounded better than any other portable pairing I have experienced. The Roxanne's have twelve drivers per side and a complex crossover that make all the music coherent. Jerry's brilliant design allows the user to self adjust the bass to get the exact musical signature desired. Paired with a high-resolution player like the AK240, it really lets you experience what the Roxanne's can do.

The Roxanne's give me the musicality that I crave. Vocals are very clear and bass is as explosive and textured as I desire. The treble extension is as realistic as I have experienced in live performances. Paired with the AK240, the tonality and musicality is in another stratosphere.

The combination is very synergistic. Music lovers in the market for a portable system should have the AK240 and JH Audio's Roxanne on the very top of your list to audition.

After experiencing this combination, I could confidently say that this for me is close to as good as it gets. Many people will find that this may be the only system they need for listening. The AK240 with firmware will have a long shelf life and allow most users to store as much music as they desire portably.

The JH Audio Roxanne's will get the best out of what the AK240 has to offer. The Roxanne's are one of the very best IEM that are available today. The musicality and thunderous bass with terrific treble extensions make the Roxanne a musical masterpiece.

The Roxanne's and AK240 together produced a system that was musical and easily transportable. Synergy, transparency and musicality are what these two products are about. Both of these stellar products are highly recommended.

JH Audio
www.jhaudio.com

Astell&Kern
www.iriverinc.com

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