When, in the early 1960s, I first heard stereo from a tape recorder through headphones, it came as a thrilling shock to have music playing inside my head. Fifteen years later, when I demoed the first Sony Walkman, the shock value was doubled because the player was portable and the headphones tiny – yet the sound seemed deep and immersive. So I wondered, when I switched on this new portable music player from South Korea’s Astell & Kern, how it would sound compared to that 1979 Walkman. I now know the contrast would be insane because, astonishingly, this £3,299 player, which I hooked up to Bowers & Wilkins’ £700 P9 over-ear headphones, sounds clearer, crisper and more overwhelmingly real than even Astell & Kern’s previous flagship model, the AK380 – or any other high-resolution music player I have heard.
Don’t misunderstand: with the right music files and good cans, all high-res players are several levels above mobile phone music. Even Astell & Kern’s £270 AK Jr is a magnificent device. But when you look at the comparison tech specs, the engineers of the new, ludicrously named A&ultima SP1000 have squeezed more performance out of it than the AK380. The SP1000 has an eight-core processor to the AK380’s two, and most of its components are upgrades. Some will argue that this is all a bit pointless; the SP1000 plays files of up to 32-bit/384kHz quality, and few could discern the difference between that and the 24-bit/192kHz that satisfies the most fastidious audio nuts.
But if you want to experience the ultimate, I’d splash out on the superb SP1000. The extra cash output provides the same law-of-diminishing-returns thrill as a crazily fine wine, but I promise you are missing out if you remain sensible and steer clear of it. The SP1000 will make you think, too. How much further has sound reproduction left to go? And how bizarre is it that this outrageously luxurious portable audio product is designed and built a few miles from the most deliberately deprived country in the world, North Korea?