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: 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 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)
- 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 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 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?
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