Astell&Kern’s KANN series of digital audio players are focused on delivering the most powerful player possible without compromising the core Astell&Kern experience. KANN Max is the latest in that series, and it strives to be an improvement in power, sound, design, and usability over the previous model, the KANN Alpha. Can KANN Max put together all the pieces to deliver a player that truly takes it to the max?
KANN Max is a bit bigger and thicker than your average DAP, but is actually a bit slimmer than previous entries in the KANN lineup. The construction itself is excellent, with a brushed aluminum shell and the typical great feel of the buttons and knobs. The contours on the back of KANN Max help it fit comfortably into your hand, but it’s quite heavy, weighing about 11 ounces.
While the KANN Max itself could be called somewhat maximalist, the package is more minimalist. The player itself is nestled in a soft foam cradle, while the only included accessory is the USB-A to USB-C cable for use when charging the device or transferring files from a computer.
For for headphone outputs you get 3.5mm single ended, 2.5mm balanced, and 4.4mm balanced. The USB-C charging port on the bottom can also be used for digital input when the device is placed in USB DAC mode, or USB output to a DAC. You can use Bluetooth to output to speakers or headphones wirelessly, and the Bluetooth range and experience was pretty solid in my testing. KANN Max also features a microSD card slot with a 1TB maximum capacity.
KANN Max uses the same Astell&Kern customized version of Android that we’ve seen for quite some time, but with the latest set of improvements. The screen feels slightly small for the size of the device, but the touchscreen operation is pretty smooth. The operation of the main player app is very fast and responsive, but it’s a little slower in apps like Qobuz or TIDAL.
The current version of the A&K UI includes improvements for using streaming apps, and better integration both in the installation process and in the normal flow of using the device with streaming apps. A&K utilizes a “whitelist” for apps and also provides direct downloads for about a dozen, while there are an additional 20 apps that you can install, but would need to download onto a computer to “side load” onto the player.
A&K does have a number of interesting features that you can access to either adjust your sound or to aid in the management of your collection or devices:
- AK Connect helps streamline connection to other devices for playback through DLNA
- AK File Drop allows for wireless transfer of music files from a computer to the device
- ReplayGain helps normalize the volume between all of the tracks in your music collection
These features are all largely targeted towards users who are maintaining a collection of music rather than relying on streaming services, and that still speaks to Astell&Kern’s design philosophy. While they’ve made great improvements in integrating streaming apps onto their players, the design favors users who have their own collection of high-res music files.
You can always count on Astell&Kern to deliver a DAP that has a gorgeous exterior design and sounds superb. Now, with the shortage of their preferred AKM chips, A&K has had to work harder to deliver their classic blend of smooth musicality and reference detail, but the Quad ESS DAC based KANN Max delivers the best sounding KANN DAP yet.
KANN Max’s bass is articulate and well rounded with deep extension, and a really solid linear feeling presentation. KANN Max is able to deliver solid slam with a very wide range of headphones, from IEMs to planar magnetic headphones. KANN Max gives you a surprising amount of texture and even a good sense of “pluck” in the bass.
The midrange is layered and detailed with a strong presentation of vocals, textured presentation of stringer and woodwinds, and delicate delivery of pianos and acoustic guitars. The treble is well crafted with good definition and air, but a slightly smooth character that limits any tendency toward fatigue.
One of the highlights of using KANN Max is the way it manages to sound great with everything from the most sensitive IEMs to any number of moderately hard to drive headphones. In low gain you’re using a Campfire Andromeda with a pitch black background and bottomless noise floor, while in Super mode, you’re giving the HE1000v2 what it needs, and really pushing out some slam and dynamics on the DCA AEON 2 Noire.
KANN Max’s biggest strength is probably its versatility – from its tuning that does as good of a job of letting you feel the bowing of a violin as it does delivering the impact of heavy metal double bass drumming, to its amp which gives you a pitch black background with IEMs and tons of power and grunt for headphones. KANN Max’s sound and power really check a lot boxes for a lot of different types of audiophiles.
Comparison: iBasso DX320
KANN Max launches hot on the heels of another fantastic DAP: the iBasso DX320. There are some clear differences in the design and philosophy behind the two, but when it comes down to the actual sound, there are a lot of similarities. Both offer a reference-like sound with a bit of added musicality, and both can drive a wide range of headphones, so what would make the most sense for your listening experience?
While Astell&Kern has an interface and experience geared towards listening to a collection of high-res music files, iBasso has a more open design that is often favored by those using streaming services for their music. As such, the DX320 gives you an open, standard Android, with the ability to install any app. KANN Alpha is more of a “walled garden,” as we talked about earlier. DX320 also has perhaps the fastest, smoothest UI of any DAP currently available, while KANN Max is more in the middle of the pack.
The sound is a different story. I listened to both devices with the Vision Ears EXT, Empire Ears Odin, Meze Elite, HIFIMAN Arya, and Meze Liric to do my best to evaluate the differences in sound and performance, and KANN Max edged out DX320 in terms of the overall sound and performance.
The tuning is very close between the two, with both providing good texture and depth in the bass; strong detail, separation, and layering in the mids; and well-extended yet non-fatiguing treble. The most notable of the basic tuning differences I heard were that DX320 had a little more punch in the mid-bass, while KANN Max had stronger sub-bass extension, and DX320’s timbre was slightly warmer with acoustic instruments.
Where KANN Max pulls away was in the imaging and soundstage, particularly with the over-ear headphones. With both DAPs on high gain, KANN Max had more headroom and a wider soundstage, which helped the imaging really come alive. While the tonality of the Arya or Elite felt strong with DX320, KANN Max opened the sound up more to present a larger space, with stronger separation between the instruments.
If you’re trying to decide between the DX320 and the KANN Max, it really comes down to whether DX320’s fantastic screen, open OS, and UI performance are more important, or KANN Max’s stronger performance with over-ear headphones and incredible build quality – along with the lower price – have the edge. Either way, it’s clear that both Astell&Kern and iBasso are committed to delivering top-notch devices that get better and better with every cycle.
The Bottom Line
KANN Max is a clear step forward in the evolution of Astel&Kern’s KANN series, and one of the best, most versatile DAPs in its price range. The build and sound quality alone could be worth the price of admission, but its class leading versatility, with the ability to drive just about anything from sensitive IEMs to planar magnetic headphones, sets KANN Max apart.