Everyone listens to their music via their smartphone these days right? Apparently not. There is a small selection of the community who put the quality of their music above all else. For these audiophiles there are dedicated music players with built in digital to audio converters (DACs) and it is these people that the Astell & Kern KANN MAX is targeted (and marketed) towards.
The Astell & Kern KANN MAX is the successor to the KANN ALPHA but is a big step up, offering four DACs instead of the two in the Alpha and a lot more power. The KANN MAX is not only an audio player that offers audiophile-quality music but also a pleasant experience navigating and using the operating system.
Read on to hear my thoughts on the Astell & Kern (A&K) KANN MAX experience.
The A&K KANN MAX is a relatively compact device but has a decent amount of thickness to it. The rear of the device is not a perfect square with the angled sides making it a comfortable fit in the hand. The front of the device houses a 4.1-inch 720 x 1280 display which does not go even close to filling the full front of the device with a soft home button located below the display – and why would it? The device is focussed on the sound it produces rather than the video/display.
The weight of the device (305 grams) is a lot more than the modern smartphone but with all the extra audio hardware included that should be expected. As mentioned above it houses four DACs – four ES9038Q2M DACs to be exact. These are a step up from the previous generation with each DAC allocated to an individual amplification channel. This apparently gives the audio more depth and provides for lower distortion – the sound is amazing so who am I to argue with that.
The hardware means that the KANN MAX is capable of 32-bit/768Hz playback and DSD up to 22.4MHz (DSD (Direct Stream Digital) is an audiophile high-resolution audio format). Other hardware under the hood includes a quad-core CPU and 64GB of storage which can be extended up to 1TB using a microSD card.
The top of the device houses four audio sockets – 3.5mm, 2.5mm and 4.4mm – each coated in gold PVD (a very thin coating) to minimise contact noise in the system. All these minute details show that A&K has taken every step to minimise noise within the system to optimise the sound quality.
The bottom of the device holds the microSD slot along with the USB-C charging port. The USB-C charging is super slow considering just how fast most USB-C devices charge these days. There doesn’t appear to be any fast-charging mechanisms included as I dare say adding that sort of hardware may well have affected the quality of the sound produced. I charged the device using my Pixel 6 Pro charger and it took more than 3 and a half hours to charge from nearly empty to 100% which is not good but there is obviously zero interest in fast charging from Astell & Kern.
The left-hand side of the device houses the physical control buttons for navigating through songs and media with the right side a large volume wheel surrounded with a LED. The colour the LED displays demonstrates various playback information, including volume level and bitrate of the track currently playing.
The battery is rated to last 13 hours and in my testing it lasted a bit more than that, with the display off most of the time. There are some great battery saving settings including turning the device off entirely if there is no music played or any interaction after a specified period of time.
Those who use (or have used) an Android device will be relatively familiar with the operating system of the KANN MAX and there is good reason for that – it runs a forked version of Android. A very slimmed down forked version of Android but the basics are still there. The quick settings and notifications are still there and the settings as well. The home page is obviously different, and the settings included are focused on audio features and the audio hardware included in the device.
The enhancements included by A&K are great and exactly what are required for you to be able to control and set the audio output to just how you like it. The notifications in the quick settings are:
You can see the settings controlled within the software below – unfortunately, there is no easy way to take a snapshot with the device:
Some of the smaller features that deserve some mention include the Replay Gain which automatically and uniformly adjusts the volume to be the same for an entire playlist, Crossfeed which changes the sound so that listening through headphones sounds like listening through speakers, gapless playback, amp mode that can be set to Low, Mid, High or Super, an automatic CD ripping function, Car Mode and various DAC filters to suit your playback preferences.
Due to the KANN MAX running Android it can also install apps to it. There is no Google Play Services installed so you do not have access to the Play Store but you can download apps using their OS. You can use Tidal or V-Link streaming services without installing the app but I found the Tidal experience this way lacking in the personalisation I have set up in it.
The OS also gives you the option to download and install various apps including the Tidal app, and Spotify. These are apparently open-sourced apps so they can be built by A&K such that they can be installed and used correctly on the KANN MAX. The connection at times buffered on Tidal, and this was on Wi-Fi, but for the most it was fine, even with it streaming the highest quality music they provide.
Just how good is the sound?
As you may have gathered, A&K has focused on providing the best possible audio experience with the KANN MAX. All the hardware is geared towards reducing noise and improving sound output – and it shows.
I tested the KANN MAX across a variety of scenarios and it came up trumps in so many ways, especially when using dedicated audiophile headphones. Not everyone has these headphones though (although I dare say if you are purchasing the KANN MAX you will have top notch headphones) so I first tested the KANN MAX out with Bose NC700 noise cancelling headphones and compared it to the same headphones on my OPPO Find X5 Pro.
Playing 16-bit FLAC music the difference was fairly substantial. The KANN MAX was louder and clearer across all sound levels – including the bass. The bass had more punch to it and was also crisper with less bleeding of the sound at those low levels.
Testing out with a streaming service – Tidal – using their highest quality Master music the difference was the same with the KANN MAX compared to the Find X5 Pro. This is a music streaming service which helped emphasise the difference between using the KANN MAX over the Find X5 Pro but if you aren’t using a high-quality music service (or ripped music) then I dare say the KANN MAX is not for you. You won’t notice the difference that much and if you are willing to spend big for the KANN MAX you would no doubt be willing (and prefer) to pay for a high-quality streaming service such as Tidal.
Next, I moved onto the KANN MAX with the Bose NC700 (Bluetooth connection) compared to the Focal Bentley headphones I was sent to get the most out of the A&K KANN MAX. The difference was night and day. Whether it was the high-quality wired connection of the Focal headphones or the lack of Bluetooth affecting the quality or just the cans were better, the difference was night and day – once again.
The sound was even crisper and just a joy to listen to – yes, I played a range of music from Enya, Christina Aguilera, and Adele (my wife did think she had broken me when hearing me listening to her music) all the way to Jimi Hendrix, Guns n Roses, AC/DC, Slipknot, Eminem and Ice Cube. The bass was punchy and pure and the vocals were crisp and just spot on – just how the artist intends them to be.
I can say without a doubt, to get the most out of your audiophile-targeted Astell & Kern KANN MAX you should use audiophile-quality headphones. The 3.5mm connection also opens more options and uses the hardware within the KANN MAX more effectively – there are some settings and hardware which will only work with a wired connection. The analogue gain mode that comes into effect with the 3.5mm connection adds a lot to the quality of the sound.
The Astell & Kern KANN MAX has a host of other features that will most likely not be used all that often. A part of its Bluetooth streaming ability it can also act as a Bluetooth receiver through its BT Sink feature. This allows you to stream music to it from your smartphone (or other device) and the DAC in the Kann Max will clean up the sound and play it through its output into a better quality.
You can also connect the KANN MAX to your PC via USB-C where it can act as an external sound card for it, improving the sound output quality.
Another feature is AK File Drop which is basically a Wi-Fi direct connection allowing you to transfer music directly to your KANN MAX from a compatible smartphone or device.
I’m an audiophile, should I buy it?
Definitely. If you are a true audiophile, you would already own some high-end headphones so to get the most out of these undoubtedly expensive headphones you need an audio player designed to produce the best sound possible. The Astell&Kern KANN MAX is one such audio player. Everything on the device is designed to decrease noise or imperfections in the audio output.
The hardware is focussed solely on that, and the software is well designed and optimised by Astell&Kern to take advantage of the high-quality hardware. If you are an audiophile then this is the perfect audio player for you. Drop your audio files onto the player and enjoy them just as they are intended to sound — with a raft of options to tailor the sound how you prefer it.
Quality sound does not come cheap but if you want the best, cutting edge, portable hardware, this is the device to get. The Astell&Kern KANN MAXX is available now from their Australian distributor, Addicted to Audio, for $1,899. If you do spend this for an audio player I suggest you purchase the leather protective case for it while you are at it.