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.
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.