KANN Alpha is the latest in Astell&Kern’s series of powerhouse digital audio players which provide a higher level of power output than the average DAP. The Alpha succeeds KANN Cube with a smaller footprint and a lower price, but can it deliver on the same level?
The Build and Design
My first impression of the KANN Alpha was that it’s smaller than expected. While it’s quite thick, the overall dimensions don’t seem that much above average – especially if you’ve held an iBasso DX220 Max or KANN Cube any time recently. While it’s still too big to be truly pocketable, unlike some of its larger brethren, it’s not too heavy to easily hold and operate with one hand. The body is made primarily of aluminum with a matte black finish that should prove resistant to incidental damage.
The screen is a good size, and the touchscreen is responsive. There are hardware playback controls for previous, play/pause, and next, and the volume wheel has a tactile, “clicky” feel, which I really like. One of the highlights of the design is that the KANN Alpha includes both 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced ports built into the DAP, along with the 3.5mm unbalanced. This marks the first time that Astell & Kern has used a 4.4mm port on one of their DAPs, and it’s great news, specifically for anyone with an IEM collection that features mixed terminations. Astell & Kern spent quite a bit of effort engineering and implementing the 4.4mm connection to be fully independent from the 2.5mm connection to ensure the maximum possible integrity of the signal, and eliminate any potential sources of noise from the signal chain.
The software interface is the same that we’ve come to expect from Astell&Kern. The main function of the unit is to play high resolution audio files that you’ve downloaded, copied from a computer, or have stored on an SD card. You can also install apps through the Open App Service feature which allows you to use TIDAL, Qobuz, and a selection of other apps by downloading the app onto a computer and copying it onto the player.
Astell & Kern also provides a number of settings you can configure regarding connectivity and playback, including things like changing the DAC Filter, setting EQ, or just configuring basic device settings like the screen brightness. KANN Alpha is also the first Astell&Kern player to use Bluetooth 5.0, and it supports every Bluetooth codec that you can throw at it (LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC, SBC), which means you can have near lossless quality streaming to Bluetooth headphones or other devices.
The KANN Alpha has a very detailed, neutral output, which falls slightly on the “laid-back” end of the spectrum. The soundstage is also excellent. In my testing, I used a selection of headphones and IEMs including the Noble Sultan, Empire Ears Hero, Audeze LCD-X, and Meze Empyrean. I used the Mid and Low Gain setting for IEMs and the High Gain setting for headphones.
The KANN Alpha was a perfect pairing with any of the IEMs I tested it with. There was no noise or hiss (more sensitive IEMs need the Low Gain Amp setting), and there was a good amount of energy and dynamics. The neutrality meant that I felt like I was learning more about the characteristics of the IEM than the characteristics of the Alpha.
Some of the easier to drive dynamic headphones I had available, like the Meze 99 Classics, performed similarly to the IEMs: the Alpha felt like a completely transparent canvas on which I could listen to the headphones, without the DAP adding its own color and tone. With the heavier hitters, the Alpha had to work a little bit harder, but it still managed to drive both the Empyrean and LCD-X to a satisfying level using the unbalanced output. I was particularly impressed at the level of physical response the Alpha elicited at about 50% volume on the unbalanced, and how well it could drive moderately powerful planar magnetic headphones. Using the balanced output it drove the Meze Empyrean essentially to perfection, with the sort of impact and response I would have expected out of a desktop amp.
Comparison: Astell&Kern SE200
The Astell&Kern SE200 has become one of my favorite DAPs for listening to IEMs. The general sound signature is similar to the KANN Alpha, but while the Alpha is neutral and more relaxed, the SE200 has a touch more brightness and a more forward, energetic presentation. In terms of features, the SE200 has a larger screen, and two separate DAC channels which gives it some added versatility. The SE200 also has a bit more flexibility in your tonal options by providing a larger total number of DAC filters. The SE200 also has the advantage of being pocketable, while the Alpha is portable, but would need to be stored in a bag or backpack or jacket.
Functionally speaking, the edge that the Alpha has are its Low/Mid/High Gain selector, and its higher maximum power output. It has the ability to drive headphones at a level the SE200 can’t quite match. In our review of the SE200, we were impressed at its ability to drive more difficult planar magnetic headphones, but the Alpha takes it to the next level. While the SE200 definitely generated a good response and some impact from the Empyrean, the balanced channel on the Alpha provides desktop level power for driving over ear headphones.
For IEMs, and for overall sonic versatility, the SE200 still has the edge, but if you need a DAP to drive over-ear headphones, the KANN Alpha does the best job of driving headphones of any DAP currently on the market that we’ve tested.
The Bottom Line
KANN Alpha is, without a doubt, a worthy successor to the KANN Cube. Its neutral response helps bring out the best in your headphones, and its well tuned power output ensures that it works with a range of gear from sensitive IEMs to power hungry headphones. And priced at only $1099, the KANN Alpha just may be the best overall value in Astell&Kern’s lineup.