Astell&Kern arrived fully formed. The South Korea-based audio specialists have been making weighty, faceted pocket players since 2012. Just as the rest of the world ditched the standalone MP3 players in favour of their smartphones, Astell&Kern doubled down on audio quality and material solidity, setting out its stall as a company that does things differently. For a start, A&K players eschew the lossy MP3 format in favour of hi-res audio files, accompanying this with ultra-solid build quality players to emphasise the importance of a pure amplification chain and the authenticity of lossless music.
The company offers a wide and slightly confusing range of digital audio players, from the five models in the A&ultima series, the four different players in the A&futura collection, the faceted surfaces of the three A&norma players and the hefty KANN series, a collection of tank-like devices that’ll play any format you throw at it.
There are also a plethora of headphones and earphones, as well as some sturdy home audio devices, including the massive AK500 Network Player. This latter beast can be specified with up to 4 terabytes of SSD storage, with integral CD ripping, its own high-grade power supply, and a price tag of $16,550.
We’re venturing deep into audiophile territory here, so if the thought of paying big money for what you might think are imperceptible gains in sonic purity doesn’t appeal, then A&K probably isn’t for you. The company’s basic Aux cable retails at around $99, which is at the upper limit of what such things should cost, even if you’re paying for the very best materials.
The company’s name is an elaborate and curious construction – ‘Astell’ from the Greek word astéri, meaning ‘star’, and ‘Kern’ from the German word for ‘core’. What the company means by ‘starcore’ remains something of a mystery.
As well as these high-end components, connections, and cables, each product has a rock-like appearance that looks like it has been hewn from a solid mass. A&K tends to favour metals like stainless steel, aluminium, and copper, with contrasting textures and surfaces adding to the otherworldly, sci-fi feel of its products. The tech can also be eccentric. The SP2000T, for example, is a digital audio player incorporating a vacuum tube amp, promising the ultimate in vintage warmth, while the tilted screens and angled cases might not be to everyone’s taste.
Astell&Kern’s latest accessory is the ACRO CA1000, a desktop player that’s compact enough to be portable, with an 8,400mAh battery for up to ten hours of playback. The player’s 4.1” touchscreen folds up for easy viewing, and there are multiple outputs as well as. support for Bluetooth and wireless, as well as proprietary tech like ReplayGain which automatically matches track volume.
The ACRO is designed to pair with high-end wired headphones, although it can also pipe sound wirelessly – to A&K’s ACRO BE100 Bluetooth speaker, for example. While the company ambitiously describes the design as having been ‘inspired by a powerful rover truck [that] breaks through the harsh and dangerous Mars environment,’ we might not go that far. However, it’s a chunky, appealing machine, with a prominent aluminium volume dial and a sturdy industrial housing. Compact and powerful, the CA1000 would make a fine heart of a minimalist system.
The Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000 is available for £1,999
Find out more at www.astellkern.co.uk (opens in new tab).
This article is part of The T3 Edit, a collaboration between T3 and Wallpaper* which explores the very best blends of design, craft, and technology. Wallpaper* magazine is the world’s leading authority on contemporary design and The T3 Edit is your essential guide to what’s new and what’s next.