Astell&Kern (A&Norma) - SR15 - Digital Audio Player - Official Thread

dap
astellkern

#1

The Astell&Kern SR15, currently the sole member of the newer “A&Norma” sub-brand, is a feature-rich, compact, dual-DAC digital audio player. Like most current A&K players it has single-ended and balanced output, a single card slot, can act as a USB DAC, a USB transport, a Bluetooth source and a self-contained WiFi-capable streamer. In other words, you’re not giving up much in the way of features vs. it’s bigger siblings.

It is much more compact than the other models in the two sister lines “A&Futura” (mid-level) and “A&Ultima” (flag-ship), while having largely the same functionality overall. In fact it is very reminiscent, size-wise, of the original AK120 player. It does give up some performance in terms of native decoding capabilities, SNR, distortion and so on, versus those larger models, but the trade-off is not just a much smaller unit but one that costs far less as well.

This is the spot to discuss this diminutive DAP …


#2

My first high-end portable audio player was the original AK120.

I kept it, first as a DAP, then as a transport feeding a Chord Mojo, until the performance of the CPU couldn’t keep up with the ever expanding number of files I was subjecting to across its dual card slots.

Since then, I’ve had a tempestuous relationship with Astell&Kern … and it has taken until the reasonably sized and, for Astell&Kern, somewhat reasonably priced SP1000m to bring me back into the fold. What I found there was sufficiently impressive, both sonically but nearly as importantly on the software/usability side (the biggest weak point with almost every other DAP brand I’ve tried), that I decided to try out the most basic player in their new sub-brands.

I wanted something even smaller than the SP1000m and, in particular, something less expensive, to pair with more moderately priced IEMs, for every-day carry. There are, sadly, just some situations I’m in where I would rather not be carrying multiple-thousands of dollars in easily-liberated/damaged hardware - but have to linger to the point where having good tunes available is a sanity-preserver.

That meant the SR15.

And it was with some trepidation that I ordered one (and I did just buy it, it wasn’t on loan first etc. - though those interested will find that the “Community Preview Program” does have one of these available.

Why trepidation?

Because this unit uses a CS43198 DAC chip. And it was the predecessor to that, the CS4398 that fundamentally put me off the second generation AK units (AK100II, AK120II, AK240). In fact I’ve never come across a CS4398-based DAC/DAP etc. that I enjoyed. They’ve always been entirely competent - just lifeless to the point of being sterile and dull (for me).

It turns out that the CS43198 is a vastly more enjoyable listen.

I haven’t really delved into what has changed there, on a technical level, but this has a more organic delivery, isn’t at all sterile, yet remains technically competent. It is pleasantly moist rather than wet, in a good way, and doesn’t exhibit the sometimes excessive low-end bloom and slightly overdone “velvet sound” of raw/basic 4490 implementations (e.g. a FiiO X5iii is text-book 4490 “velvet sound” - which is neither intrinsically good nor bad - just a question of taste/preference).

Clearly, and obviously, a more enjoyable listen than the CS4398-based stuff I’ve heard; more listening will be required to see where I think it ultimately stacks up vs. other chipsets both at this end of the market and in general.


#3

Is that off-axis screen annoying, useful, or somewhere in-between?


#4

After the first couple of hours I stopped really noticing it - so I can’t say it is annoying. It’s a bit odd, visually, though I prefer it to the oddly-angled cases of the prior AK3XX series. It hasn’t impeded navigation at all, though I can’t honestly say is has necessarily made operation any easier either (I could see where it might on a larger unit).

So from a usage perspective I wouldn’t let it put you off. Aesthetically it’s going to be a 100% personal call.


#5

As I’m starting to explore choices for the every-day-carry IEMs that will be accompanying the SR15, the Etyomtic ER4-XR has already shown itself to have excellent synergy (and fantastic isolation).

It’s also an interesting reminder of just how far a single BA driver can take you …

Playing with it earlier, via the tia Fourte, it has also shown that it is worthy of much higher-end pairings. But for my specific case, I’ll reserve those for the SP1000m and Sony as a lot of the point of this particular unit for me is to get to something less expensive overall for EDC.

And even though the ER4-XR fit that bill, it is going to be a challenge not to incrementalize myself into something like a custom 64 Audio or AAW IEM …


On another note, the edges of the screen on the SR15 are not NEARLY as visible in person as they appear in these pictures - even with a proper glass screen protector installed.