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Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review: hardly an entry-level DAP, but so, so worth it
6:31 pm | January 29, 2024

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Portable Media Players | Comments: Off

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35: two-minute review

If you came here looking to buy into hi-res audio for a song, you’ve come to the wrong place. This may be Astell & Kern’s most affordable digital audio player, but the A&norma SR35 nevertheless represents a significant investment – and, what’s more, an investment that strongly suggests you should spend pretty big on headphones too.

The good news, though, is that it’s completely worth it. The A&norma SR35 is easily one of the best MP3 players on the market (and in terms of file support, even to call it such a thing is to do it a disservice). From the understatedly lavish nature of its build and finish to the in-no-way-understated nature of its specification, there seems no apparent compromise where the SR35 is concerned. 

Quite obviously, Astell & Kern set out to wipe the floor with any and all price-comparable competitors when the SR35 is considered as an overall package – and that’s what it’s done.

This player is nice to hold, simple and logical to operate, and a pleasure to listen to. Sonically, it’s very accomplished indeed, with the sort of all-court game that not only makes your smartphone sound like someone playing music in the next train carriage, but puts some quite well-regarded (but inevitably less expensive) dedicated digital audio players into sharp perspective too. 

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 held in a hand with headphones, on green background

If the slanted screen doesn't bother you, there's so much to love (Image credit: Future)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35: Price and release date

  • Priced $799 / £799 / AU$1,299
  • Released May 2023 

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 is on sale now, and in the United Kingdom it will cost you £799. It’s yours for $799 in the US, while in Australia you’ll need to part with AU$1,299.

Only in Astell & Kern-land can this be considered ‘entry-level’ – being one of the company's most affordable products in a range is not the same as being authentically ‘affordable’.

For context, the company's flagship offering, the fabulous A&ultima SP3000, will set you back an eye-watering $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499. At the other end of the scale, its November 2021-issue excellent Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII is now available for a little less than the newer SR35, at around $749 / £699 / AU$1,099. The difference in ticket price is negligible, especially when you factor in the age of the SR25 MKII. 

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the SR35 had better be something pretty special to justify that price-tag…

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 held in a hand to show the headphone ports

As with the SR25 MKII, there's a 4.4 balanced headphone jack for extra connectivity (Image credit: Future)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review: Features

  • Quad Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs
  • 64GB of internal memory
  • Three headphone sockets

Like I said, it’s only possible to describe the A&norma SR35 as ‘entry level’ when you’ve digital audio players costing the thick end of four grand in your line-up. Because make no mistake, Astell & Kern has specified this player well in excess of what you might reasonably expect of the ‘entry level’. 

Amplification, for instance, is provided by a new in-house A&K design called ‘New Generation AMP’. Digital-to-analogue conversion is handled by no fewer than four Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chips – and if you’re trying to eke out battery life, or listening to less than fully hi-res content, the SR35 can run in ‘dual-DAC’ mode instead. This hardware is part of Astell & Kern’s ‘Teraton Alpha’ platform, designed to minimise noise, maximise performance and offer what the company casually calls ‘ultimate sound’. ‘Teraton Alpha’ has featured in Astell & Kern players before now, but only the much more expensive ones.

There are wired and wireless connectivity options here, of course. Wireless stuff runs to dual-band wi-fi (handily, the SR35 is ready to download and run numerous music streaming service apps like Apple Music, Qobuz and TIDAL – and it’s Roon Ready too) and two-way Bluetooth 5.0 (with aptX HD and LDAC codec compatibility). The USB-C socket on the bottom of the chassis can be used to transform the SR35 into a DAC (if you want to use it to deal with content stored on, for example, a laptop computer), as well as being the way to charge the internal battery.

Battery life is very dependent on how you’re using the player. Listen to 16bt/44.1kHz CD-standard content at moderate volume using wired headphones, and you should expect 20 hours or so of playback. Switch up to some properly high-resolution stuff, at big volumes, using wireless headphones, and that figure will reduce by over 50 percent. Charging from ‘flat’ to ‘full’ takes around two-and-a-half hours.   

Wired headphones can be plugged into one of the three headphones sockets on the player’s top edge. There’s an unbalanced 3.5mm output, of course, and there are 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced alternatives – because, as I said, this device is only nominally ‘entry level’.

Internal memory is 64GB. The operating system eats into this just a little, of course – and if you’re loading in big high-resolution files, it’s not going to be long before that’s all used up. There’s a microSD card slot next to the USB-C on the device’s base, though, and it can accept cards of up to 1TB. Which should last you a little longer.

  • Features score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review: Design

  • 108 x 64 x 16mm (HxWxD)
  • 184g
  • Angular and aluminum

No, at 108 x 64 x 16mm (HxWxD) this isn’t the smallest digital audio player you’ver ever seen, and at 184g it’s far from the lightest around. But believe you me, by Astell & Kern standards the SR35 is compact and lightweight. 

Some of this is explained by everything that’s going on inside, of course. But it also doesn’t do to understate Astell & Kern’s desire to ‘design’ all their products to within an inch of their lives. The SR35 is built mostly of aluminium, and its chassis is so complicatedly angular that the device’s 3.6in touchscreen has to sit at an angle to fit between all the pointy edges. 

It’s equally true to say that A&K doesn’t compromise when it comes to build quality either, though. The A&norma SR35 is beautifully made, impeccably finished, and has genuine credentials as a ‘luxury accessory’ almost as obvious as it does as a ‘very nice digital audio player’.

  • Design score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 on its side, to show the four buttons

An unmarked quartet of brutalist black buttons. But once you know, you know (Image credit: Future)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review: Sound quality

  • Lovely tonal balance 
  • Scale and dynamism to spare
  • Iron fist and velvet glove in equal measure

You may own some downloaded audio files you wish to load onto the SR35’s internal memory. You may be a top-tier subscriber to a properly worthwhile streaming service like Qobuz or TIDAL (or both). You may be the owner of some similarly expensive and appropriately talented headphones. If you are, then you’re good to go. 

And with everything I’ve already said about battery life (and how to maximise it) taken into consideration, it’s nevertheless safe to say you’ll end up needing to recharge the SR35 more often than you anticipate. This is one of those audio devices that will steal your time away, making even the most perfunctory ‘quick listen’ into a long and pleasurable session.

Even though the SR35 thrives on the best standard of content, it’s more agnostic than many alternative players. So while you should ideally be loading up on stuff like a 24bit/192kHz FLAC file of David Bowie’s Word on a Wing via TIDAL, the Astell & Kern is perfectly happy to tolerate a 320kbps Spotify stream of We’re in Love by Boygenius. In both cases, the sound this player makes is deft, musical and entertaining like you wouldn’t believe.

Low frequencies are authentically deep, loaded with texture and alive with variation, and so very well controlled that rhythmic expression is as natural as can be. At the opposite end, treble sounds bite and crunch with real purpose – but they carry plenty of substance along with them, so they’re never splashy or hard even if you like to listen at big volumes. In between, the soundstage the Astell & Kern generates is such that voices in the midrange have an absolute stack of space in which to stretch out and express themselves – and detail levels are such that every facet of a vocal performance, its attitude and intention, is made completely plain. 

The tonal balance is every bit as pleasant; it’s natural and convincing, and utterly smooth in its emphases from the bottom of the frequency range to the top. Detail retrieval is little short of epic, and the SR35 is able to identify and accurately contextualise even the most minor, most transient occurrence in a recording. It has the sort of barrel-chested dynamism that means the quietest moments in a recording contrast with the loudest in the same way night contrasts with day. And it’s just as attentive to the spaces and silences in a recording as it is to the sounds themselves – and it makes sure the silences are pitch-dark, too. 

‘Musical’ may seem like a redundant term when talking about a digital audio player, but not every DAP deserves the description. This one, though, is musical and then some.  

  • Audio performance score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 held in a ahnd to show off the rotary volume dial, on colorful background

The rotary volume dial: still a winner  (Image credit: Future)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review: Usability and setup

  • 3.6in 720 x 1080 hi-res touchscreen
  • Adapted Android interface
  • A few physical controls too

The A&norma SR35 sees the first appearance of Astell & Kern’s new crimson-and-black user interface – and the company is right when it says it’s easier on the eye and more straightforward to understand than the rather more sudden interface it replaces. And that’s just as well, because at 3.6in this is far from the biggest touchscreen around; users with fingers like His Royal Highness will need to be very careful indeed.

Astell & Kern is to be congratulated for not just porting over the full Android interface – after all, why take up valuable memory and processing power duplicating functions your smartphone is perfectly capable of dealing with? So this interface is familiar, but far more focused on what’s actually important.

This means that as well as the nuts-and-bolts of installing your preferred music streaming services, you can adjust the player’s audio output via a 20-band equaliser. You can rearrange the layout of playback controls. You can adjust screen brightness, set a volume limit, and toggle the USB mode between ‘media player’ or ‘DAC’. You can audition four different DAC filters and a few amp settings. And you can do plenty more besides – so if you’re the sort of end user who likes to get fully involved, the SR35 has you covered.

There are a few nicely implemented physical controls here too. The top right of the chassis features Astell & Kern’s trademark jewel-like volume control – it moves with very pleasing weight and resistance. On the top left, meanwhile, four little buttons take care of ‘power on/off’, ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forwards’ and ‘skip backwards’. A&K doesn't mark these buttons, that would upset the aesthetic. But you'll be listening so often, you'll soon get the hang of it. 

  • Usability and setup score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35: Value

  • A&K's entry-level player – but 'entry-level' is questionable at best
  • Tech from models much higher up the food chain
  • A&K's premium players cost quadruple the price, but still 

In absolute terms, the A&norma SR35 represents, at best, questionable value for money. 

That it is well-made and sounds excellent is not up for question, and it’s hard to argue with the user experience it offers too. But there’s no doubt you’re paying a premium for the industrial design that always sets Astell & Kern products apart.

  • Value score: 4.5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35: Should you buy it?

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 held in a hand, scrolling the volume up to 120

This plucky player was driving the huge, open-back FT5 headphones at the time and – doing a marvellous job (Image credit: Future)

Buy it if...

Don't buy it if...

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review: Also consider

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35: How I tested it

  • Myriad styles of music
  • Lots of different file types and sizes
  • A long listen (although not as long as I would have liked)

I plugged balanced and unbalanced headphones into the A&norma SR35, as well as wireless alternatives, and I used both in-ear and over-ear models. I listened to music from Arvo Pärt to Aretha Franklin and all points in between, and I listened to big, uncompressed FLAC files as well as indecently compressed stuff from Apple Music. 

Overall, I listened for what must have been a week or so – although it seemed much less than that when the time came to return the player to Astell & Kern… 

  • First reviewed January 2024
Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: a high-end hi-res digital audio player
6:00 pm | December 24, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Portable Media Players | Tags: | Comments: Off

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000: One-minute review

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 is the most expensive digital audio player in a product portfolio full of expensive digital audio players. It’s specified without compromise (full independent balanced and unbalanced audio circuits? Half a dozen DACs taking care of business? These are just a couple of highlights) and it’s finished to the sort of standard that wouldn’t shame any of the world’s leading couture jewellery companies.

Best of all, though, is the way it sounds. It’s remarkably agnostic about the stuff you like to listen to, the sort of standard of digital file in which it’s contained, and the headphones you use too – and when you give it the best stuff to work with, the sound it’s capable of producing is almost humbling in its fidelity. Be in no doubt, this is the best digital audio player – aka best MP3 player – when it comes to sound quality you can currently buy. Which, when you look again at how much it costs, is about the least it needs to be. 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Price and release date

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Priced at $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 (which I think we should agree to call ‘SP3000’ from here on out) is on sale now, and in the United Kingdom it costs a not-inconsiderable £3799. In the United States, it’s a barely-more-acceptable $3699, and in Australia you’ll have to part with AU$5499.

Need I say with undue emphasis that this is quite a lot of money for a digital audio player? I’ve reviewed very decent digital audio players (DAP) from the likes of Sony for TechRadar that cost about 10% of this asking price – so why on Earth would you spend ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’ money on something that doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t do? 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Features

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD and LDAC
  • Native 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 playback
  • Discrete balanced and unbalanced audio circuits

Admittedly, when Astell & Kern says the SP3000 is “the pinnacle of audio players”, that seems a rather subjective statement. When it says this is “the world’s first DAP with independent audio circuitry”, that’s simply a statement of fact.

That independent audio circuitry keeps the signal path for the balanced and unbalanced outputs entirely separated, and it also includes independent digital and analogue signal processing. Astell & Kern calls the overall arrangement ‘HEXA-Audio’ – and it includes four of the new, top-of-the-shop AKM AK4499EX DAC chipsets along with a couple of the very-nearly-top-of-the-shop AK4191EQ DACs from the same company. When you add in a single system-on-chip to take care of CPU, memory and wireless connectivity, it becomes apparent Astell & Kern has chosen not to compromise where technical specification is concerned. And that’s before we get to ‘Teraton X’... this is a bespoke A&K-designed processor that minimises noise derived from both the power supply and the numerous DACs, and provides amplification that’s as clean and efficient as any digital audio player has ever enjoyed. 

The upshot is a player that supports every worthwhile digital audio format, can handle sample rates of up to 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 natively, and has Bluetooth 5.0 wireless connectivity with SBC, AAC, aptX HD and LDAC codec compatibility. A player that features half-a-dozen DAC filters for you to investigate, and that can upsample the rate of any given digital audio file in an effort to deliver optimal sound quality. And if you want to enjoy the sound as if it originates from a pair of loudspeakers rather than headphones, the SP3000 has a ‘Crossfeed’ feature that mixes part of the signal from one channel into the other (with time-adjustment to centre the audio image) in an effort to do just that.

Features score: 5 / 5

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Sound quality

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Insightful, engaging and convincing sound
  • Not too fussy about file sizes
  • Only slightly fussy about headphones

Some digital audio players are quite picky about what goes into them and how it comes out again - but happily, the SP3000 is not among them. Obviously it performs to its fullest when given big, information-rich digital audio files to work with and is connected to appropriately talented headphones – but it’s not about to have a hissy fit if that’s not the case.

So no matter if you listen to a big 24bit/192kHz FLAC file of Old Man by Neil Young or a bog-standard 320kbps MP3 file of Cool About It by boygenius, the SP3000 is unflappable. It doesn’t matter if you connect £50-worth of Final Audio E3000 via the 3.5mm socket or a pair of £1299 Sennheiser IE900 into the 4.4mm socket, the Astell & Kern will make the best of the situation.

In each and every circumstance, the SP3000 is an uncomplicated pleasure to listen to. Its overall presentation is almost instinctively correct, positive without being pushy, and utterly convincing. 10 hours of battery life looks perfectly adequate when written down, but in practice it’s nothing like long enough. I could listen to this Astell & Kern almost indefinitely.

Detail levels are high in the same way that The Shard is tall. No element of a recording is too minor, too peripheral or too transient to elude the SP3000 - it extracts every scrap of information from a digital audio file and organises it confidently. There’s nothing uptight or fussy about the way this player puts you in the picture, though – everything is contextualised and serves only to ensure you’re fully informed. 

Control, from the top of the frequency range to the bottom, is unarguable. The attack and decay of bass sounds, in particular, is so well-managed that rhythmic expression is completely natural and momentum is maintained in all circumstances, despite the considerable weight and substance of the low end. There’s similarly well-supervised attack at the top of the frequency range, and in between the Astell & Kern communicates eloquently through the midrange.

Dynamic headroom is extensive, so big shifts in intensity and/or volume are made plain. Lower-key dynamic variations in voices or harmonics are made absolutely plain, too. Tonality is never anything but balanced and naturalistic, and the SP3000 knits the whole frequency range together smoothly. The soundstage it’s capable of generating is well-defined and expansive – even dense or complex recordings have more than enough elbow-room to let every element express itself without hindrance. And the SP3000 achieves this without losing sight of the fact that it’s presenting a performance – the unity and togetherness of its presentation is direct and unequivocal.    

You can fiddle around the edges of the way the Astell & Kern performs by investigating your DAC filter options, sure - but in broad terms, its methodology doesn’t really change. It’s precise and meticulous, but it's no dry tool of analysis. It hits very hard through the low frequencies, but it never gets bogged down under its own weight. It’s spacious and open, but it’s seamlessly unified. 

Sound quality score: 5 / 5

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Design

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • 904L stainless steel chassis 
  • 493g; 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD)
  • 1080 x 1920 touchscreen

‘Portable’, of course, is a relative term. The SP3000 is not the most portable product of its type around – it weighs very nearly half a kilo and is 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD) – but if you can slip it into a bag then I guess it must count as ‘portable’. Its pointy corners count against it too, though – and while it comes with a protective case sourced from French tanners ALRA, the fact it’s made of goatskin is not going to appeal to everyone. 

To be fair, the body of the SP3000 isn’t as aggressively angular as some A&K designs. And the fact that it’s built from 904L stainless steel goes a long way to establishing the SP3000’s credentials as a luxury ‘accessory’ (in the manner of a watch or some other jewellery) as well as a functional device. 904L stainless steel resists corrosion like nobody’s business, and it can also accept a very high polish - which is why the likes of Rolex make use of it. I’m confident you’ve never seen such a shiny digital audio player.

The front and rear faces of the SP3000 are glass - and on the front it makes up a 5.4in 1080 x 1920 touch-screen. The Snapdragon octa-core CPU that’s in charge means it’s an extremely responsive touch-screen, too.  

On the top right edge of the chassis there’s the familiar ‘crown’ control wheel - which is another design feature that ups the SP3000’s desirability. It feels as good as it looks, and the circular light that sits behind it glows in one of a number of different colours to indicate the size of the digital audio file that’s playing. The opposite edge has three small, much less exciting, control buttons that work perfectly well but have none of the control wheel’s visual drama or tactile appeal.

The top of the SP3000 is home to three headphone sockets. There’s a 3.5mm unbalanced output, and two balanced alternatives – 2.5mm (which works with four-pole connections) and 4.4mm (which supports five-pole connections). On the bottom edge, meanwhile, there’s a USB-C socket for charging the internal battery - battery life is around 10 hours in normal circumstances, and a full charge from ‘flat’ takes around three hours. There’s also a micro-SD card slot down here, which can be used to boost the player’s 256GB of memory by up to 1TB. 

Design score: 5 / 5 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Value

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)

In absolute terms, of course, $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499 for a digital audio player is nonsense. The law of diminishing returns is at work here as surely as it is anywhere else - and you can get a big serving of the SP3000’s talents by spending less than half of its asking price (mostly, but not exclusively, by spending it with Astell & Kern itself). But if you want absolutely, positively the best-sounding DAP around, and you are fortunate enough to be able to justify the cost to yourself, well, this player is currently number one in a field of one.

Should I buy the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000?

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if... 

Don't buy it if... 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Also consider

How I tested the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Tested for over a week
  • Tested indoors and out
  • Tested with wired and wireless headphones

I loaded the internal memory of the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 with quite a lot of high-resolution digital audio files, and I also installed the Tidal app – so ultimately I was able to lot of different types of music via a lot of different audio file types and sizes. 

I listened to the player in my home and while out and about (listening outdoors made me quite anxious at first, I don’t mind admitting – it’s an expensive device, after all). And I listened to it using a selection of wired and wireless headphones – generally, headphones able to do some justice to the SP3000’s unarguable quality. I mostly used the Sennheiser IE900 via the 4.4mm balanced input and the Bowers & Wilkins’ Px8 via Bluetooth. 

  • First reviewed in December 2023
Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review
7:47 pm | June 16, 2022

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Portable Media Players | Tags: | Comments: Off

Editor's Note

• Original review date: June 2022
Launch price: $749 / £699 / AU$1,099
• Target price: still $749 / £699 / AU$1,099

Update: February 2024. The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII is still the revered hi-res audio specialist's most entry-level player – and emphatically still one of the best MP3 players in existence – but it's important to note that in November 2023 it was superseded by A&K's newer (and slightly more expensive) Astell & Kern A&norma SR35. The nitty gritty of it is this: the SR35 is now billed as A&K's entry-level option and under intense review the newer player edges it (just), but you'll need to pay a $50 / £100 / AU$200 surcharge for that newness. Now, one could argue that if you're prepared to shell out $700 for a dedicated hi-res audio player, you may as well throw another $50 or so down, but I'm not so sure. Honestly, if this is where your budget maxes out, A&K's second-generation November 2021-issue SR25 remains an excellent option. Deals owing to its relative age? Unlikely, this is Astell & Kern, not Amazon. That said, it's not unheard of… 
The rest of this review remains as previously published.

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: two-minute review

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and one man's trash is another's treasure. Anyone invested in portable hi-res audio, for instance, will surely view the Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII as a thing of beauty both sonically and visually; the very sight of an A&K player emerging from its owner's pocket signifies their ascension to a very select group of music lovers. 

To others, the off-kilter screen may seem a hindrance, the name long-winded, the edges a little sharp, the unmarked buttons somewhat unhelpful and the pricing prohibitive – even though for Astell & Kern, this is budget territory. 

Whatever your opinion on the above, the level of features, connectivity, file support and sound quality incorporated here is, as the dynamic '80s cartoon heroin Jem once said, truly truly truly outrageous.

What you need to know is that the music you've been playing from your phone or laptop is going to sound constricted, muddied, compressed and altogether beige after you've heard music on this. And even if the original (and very talented) SR25 is well-known to you, this model sounds that little bit better – and as such, it just became one of the best MP3 players on the market. 

The A&K A&norma SR25 MKII digital audio player takes and celebrates virtually any digital audio file size or type, and it will now happily accept balanced headphones with 4.4 or 2.5mm headphone jacks as well as 'regular' 3.5mm unbalanced models.

Elsewhere, the touch-screen is bright and responsive and the battery life, at 20 hours, walks all over the company's A&ultima SP2000T at only 9 hours. And did we mention how expressive, detailed, regimented and faithfully neutral it sounds? 

The A&norma SR25 MKII is a gifted digital audio player and it will reignite your love of music. And unlike many of the company's more pricey players, this one is small enough to put in a pocket and will keep you streaming, pinging or downloading once-treasured songs to it, just to see what it makes of them. 

If the current financial climate still facilitates your consideration of such a purchase, you won't be disappointed with this talented little player. 

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII on black background

The A&K's rotary volume dial is a thing of beauty (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Price and release date

  • Released in November 2021
  • $749 / £699 / AU$1,099

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR 25 MKII comes with asking price that may have some moving swiftly on given the current cost of living challenges. Others may still pause to hear more though – because unlike the majority of Astell & Kern's ouevre, it doesn't actually cost thousands. 

In the United Kingdom it sells for a pound short of £700. American customers hoping to snag one will need to put seven hundred-dollar bills and one fifty aside, while in Australia you’re looking at over a grand. 

Can such a product make a case for itself outside of the niche audiophile world when good-quality music streaming and downloading capabilities are so readily available on contract smartphones? If you ask us, yes. 

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII detail of headphone ports on black background

A&K has added a 4.4 balanced headphone jack for extra connectivity (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Features

  • Supports both 24-bit Bluetooth wireless codecs LDAC and aptXHD
  • Comprehensive wired hi-res chops to DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM 
  • Replay Gain automatically adjusts volume playback from sound sources up to 24-bit/192kHz

The features we need to get through here give even the best MP3 players a run for their money, so strap in. 

Astell & Kern states that every aspect its customers admired in the original SR25 is retained here, but that this new model improves on the audio performance even further. How? With its latest audio architecture, that's how, which promises more detail, clearly defined upper and lower ranges, and a deeper, more rounded sound. (More on this later.) 

What is not new is the implementation of two Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs, because it is the same dual DAC chip setup as the previous SR15, which is a few years old now. Then again, that player was excellent sonically and if it ain't broke, etc…

As well as a new 4.4mm headphone jack, the MKII unit also boasts a new Replay Gain function to uniformly adjust volume playback from sound sources up to 24-bit/192 kHz. You're also getting AK File Drop (first introduced in the pricier A&futura SE180 player) for easier wireless file transfers; BT Sink function for simpler connection of the SR25 MKII to an external Bluetooth device (essentially, music from an external device such as a smartphone can be played back in high-quality on the SR25 MKII using it) and extra internal silver-plated shielding to protect from electromagnetic interference, first seen in the thrice-the-price A&ultima SP2000T.

Although it hasn't been shouted about, upon going through the settings of the SR25 MKII, four new, interesting and quite different-sounding DAC filters also present themselves, which will work if listening in 24-bit/192kHz or less PCM (although they won't work in MQA and DSD formats) and they certainly add value and scope for customization at the level. 

As with the first-generation model, the SR25 MKII easily handles a huge array of high-resolution music formats and sample rates, including support for native playback of DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM high-resolution audio

And should you want to listen to your favourite hi-res music over a wireless connection (and why shouldn't you, given the excellent wireless headphones available in this day and age?), the SR25 MKII features the high-quality LDAC and aptX HD Bluetooth wireless codecs too, plus wi-fi for access to streaming services including Tidal, which is happily waiting to be discovered in the 'services' tab. 

I tried the SR25 MKII using several true wireless price-compatible earbuds, including the NuraTrue and Cambridge Audio's Melomania 1+ (both of which support aptX) and found the Bluetooth connection rock-solid.

In terms of wired connections, the power output here is standard rather than exceptional, although the SR25 MKII drove my hefty Austrian Audio Hi-X55 over-ears over a (regular 3.5mm) unbalanced connection admirably. 

  • Features score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Design

  • Bright and responsive touch-screen 
  • Angular but nicely pocketable
  • Glorious trademark A&K rotary volume dial

Astell & Kern is known for its trademark brutalist aesthetic and it’s not about to switch tack any time soon. So the A&norma SR 25 MKII is all angles and pointy bits – some of them glassy. Look at it and you know it's made by A&K. 

The slanted screen may be slightly jarring for some (yes, if the display simply fit the measurements, it could've been bigger) but it does allow for the inclusion of a lovely clicking rotary volume dial in the top right corner, for which all Astell & Kern players are now known. This one is bigger than that sported by its predecessor and it looks even more like a blown up Swiss chronograph watch dial – but we mean that in the best possible way.

There are four unmarked pill-shaped buttons along the top left edge of the player as you look at the screen, which handle (from top to bottom) power, track skips backwards, play/pausing and forwarding to the next track. While unmarked, they are intuitive and once you know, you know – again, if you don't like it, A&K does not care. 

In terms of dimensions it's a fair bit deeper than your smartphone but thinner and shorter and, at 178g it actually weighs 26g less than the iPhone 13 Pro (and 62g less than the iPhone 13 Pro Max). 

The touch-screen may be a tad fiddly for those with larger fingers – it may take a few goes to key in your Tidal password, for example – but it's more than worth persisting because the trade off is a nippy, happy and talented little player that you can actually put in your pocket without feeling like you're listing to one side. 

The slightly moodier new 'Mercury Dark Silver' colorway is another improvement on the older model, which is lighter in terms of finish. Our only slight gripe with the build is the glass panel on the back of the unit; even though it's supposed to resist fingerprints, we find it collects ours. 

  • Design score: 4.5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII playback button detail

Unmarked, brutalist buttons. But once you know, you know (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Audio performance

  • Open, spacious soundstage
  • Assured timing and oodles of detail
  • Zealous, fun presentation

Give the A&K your music, sit back and relax. It takes only a cursory listen to Radiohead's OK Computer (in 24-bit FLAC) to understand that this is a gifted little belter of a DAP. Throughout Airbag, the SR25 MKII seems to separate and celebrate each sonic article and inflection, but never to the detriment of the track as a whole. Bass passages other players cannot reach are offered like musical treats on a shelf to be enjoyed in passing, while synths and jingles soar through the upper registers. 

Switching to Tidal, Coheed and Cambria's Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness brims with detail thanks to an incredibly open and three-dimensional soundstage, from the initial strings coming in all around us to the child playing quietly over by our right earlobe as the guitar joins centrally.  

Lower frequencies are deep, snappy and held resolutely in a cohesive and controlled mix. Mids come alive as we listen to Melissa Etheridge's No Souvenirs, realizing as we do so that rarely has her textured, emotive, belted vocal sounded so expressive and present.  

Timing and dynamic build here are both poised and secure; the SR25 MKII takes every recording you give it, relays it faithfully, dutifully and with an extra ounce of detail both rhythmically and across the frequencies but – and this part is where other such players often fall down – it manages to keep the overall sonic experience zealous, energetic and fun rather than analytical to a fault. 

Any negatives? Really, no – although if you scale up to A&K's A&futura line you'll see a step up in terms of power and detail yet again. But for this money, the A&norma SR25 MKII cannot be beaten sonically. 

  • Audio performance score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII with Radiohead playing, on white background

The angled screen may not suit larger fingers (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: Value

  • A&K's entry-level player – if $749/£699 is 'entry-level' to you
  • Tech from models thrice the price 
  • For a premium player, this is the least you'll pay

This is a tricky one, because you can pick up a portable audio player made by Sony for a tenth of the price of this hi-res player. That said, this is upper echelon territory; Astell & Kern's top-tier Ultima model sells for $2,399 / £1,999 / AU$3,599. 

Astell & Kern actually calls the SR 25 MKII a "true mass premium product", which just about sums it up. To clarify, for this money you're still getting A&K's core (and frankly, 'cor!) values: exceptional audio performance for a diverse range of musical tastes and that trademark brutalist build, plus tech such as AK File Drop, access to streaming platforms, DAC filters and the BT Sink function trickled down from the company's flagship players, but without the four-figure price tag. 

Will most of us still need to pass on "mass premium" players given the cost of living crisis? Perhaps. But that is a shame, since this one really does represent value for money – if you have it, and expressly want to spend it on a dedicated, talented, hi-res digital audio player. 

  • Value: 4.5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: Should you buy it?

Astell & Kern A&Norma SR25 MKII USB-C port and SD-card slot detail

It's all angles and edges, but with its SD card slot (and supplied cover) you can level up the storage, too (Image credit: TechRadar)

Buy it if...

Don't buy it if...

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: Also consider

  • First reviewed June 2022