Astell & Kern is one of the great names in British hifi. Frank Astell had a radio shop in Henley-upon-Thames and one day in the 1930s, a German-Jewish émigré engineer, Gustav Kern, walked into the store. The pair got talking and, 80 years later, the company they founded has produced this, the world’s finest portable music player.
The Astell & Kern AK240 is a tiny (107mm x 66mm x 17.5mm, 185g) box of delights that, when matched with a stupendous pair of headphones (the £800 Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS, in my case) and suitably high-definition audio files, will produce true, distinctly superior hifi from a still-pocketable ensemble.
Now I ought to mention that while the AK240’s audio credentials are impeccable – and it would be any music lover’s dream Christmas gift – I invented the story above. Astell & Kern is the name of a company that is actually as Korean as kimchi. But the name taps into a culture of British heritage and quality. Indeed, if Meridian or Naim made a portable music player, this would be it. The carbon fibre-backed object itself is sumptuous: the design is striking, the touchscreen operating system perfect, and the big, manual volume control sensible and satisfying. It even comes with an amazing-quality leather case by Badalassi Carlo of Tuscany – just smelling it is sybaritic.
The AK240 comes with 256Gb of memory, a lot more than the now discontinued iPod Classic, but as high-res music tracks are so big (carrying six or more times the data of an MP3), it won’t hold more than a few thousand tracks, against the 40,000 the Classic could store. You can even expand the AK240’s memory with Micro SD cards of up to 128Gb. The machine will play, at up to 24-bit/192kHz (which is as good as recorded music gets), almost any of the burgeoning HD formats offered by websites such as HDTracks, Linn Audio and many others. The AK240 also has wifi for downloading directly to the device, and what’s known as a “balanced output”, so it can play straight into an external amplifier and be the heart of a home hifi system too. Battery life is around eight to 10 hours.