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

astellkern
dap
#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 …

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#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.

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#3

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

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#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.

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#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.

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#6

Another 10 hours on planes, with 5 more in airports, driving a combination of ER-4XR (triple-flange), Bose QC20i, and BVGP DMG, and this little bugger is proving to be a wonderful traveling companion.

Even on a plane, at least with the Etymotics, it is easy to discern it’s superior audio-performance over my more typical “traveling light” combination of iPhone XS and Dragonfly Red). And once at my destination, having proper access to both TIDAL and Qobuz streaming without having to involve my phone was a definite treat.

The newly-announced dawn of 1TB microSD cards is going to make this even better.

I still need to come up with a final choice on my “casual/short-term travel” IEMs, but the BGVP DMG, sound-wise, are pretty damn good and the right price. They lack a bit in terms of real isolation when in the air, at least with the tips I took along, and especially vs. the ER4-XR (let’s face it, pretty much everything lacks in that regard compared to Etymotic and triple-flange tips).

Love this little thing!

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#7

I definitely need to get one of these, especially after your comments regarding the improvements to the DAC. I know exactly what you mean about the 4490 too. I don’t mind it as much as the typical ESS stuff, which is generally a bit too harsh and aggressive for me - but the andros get a bit of bloom on the 4490 that isn’t there as much with the burr brown I’m using at the moment. I also found some hiss with andros from the X5iii, but it’s well disguised because it doesn’t show up when you pause the music.

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#8

I’ve been in the market for a new DAP again. I love the XDP-300R but it’s just a little too large to lug around with me right now. I picked up the Fiio M6 and it’s actually a great size, but the lack of RAM and slow processor (it uses a smartwatch CPU) makes using streaming apps a bit frustrating sometimes. The Norma looks like one of those ideal size, power and features DAPs I would strongly consider.

Any thoughts on it vs the Pioneer or Onkyo DAPs? Also, do you know if it does LDAC?

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#9

I’ve only compared it against the original Onkyo DPX1 and Pioneer XDP-100R.

The SR15 is smaller and more responsive than either, has about 30% better battery life, and sounds better (to me) than both as well. Of particular note is the much lower, essentially absent, noise level, even with pathologically fussy IEMs such as the Andromeda, vs. the Onkyo/Pioneer units.

The Onkyo and Pioneer units give you more app flexibility, as you can (or could) install anything you wanted. With the SR15 it is limited to some specific, approved and test, music applications - though so far all of those have worked without issue.

Currently the A&K players do NOT support LDAC, but do include aptX HD support.

They support native MQA, USB DAC mode, USB transport mode, Bluetooth Source, DoP over USB, all important formats and standards and native streaming for the major streaming players (plus app support for their normal Android clients).

They are far more polished and responsive than any of the FiiO DAPs I’ve had or played with (haven’t gotten my hands on an M11 yet …)

You’re welcome to come by and play with it in person, since I own one as my “EDC DAP”.

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#10

Thanks for the response. As far as I know, the differences between the first and second gen Onkyo/Pioneer DAPs are pretty minimal, so that’s good to hear.

The new Fiio M series is not bad. It’s a huge step in the right direction compared to their previous X-series and covers every feature. Unfortunately the M6/M9 is just slightly underpowered in terms of processing and RAM and also due to the chipset used, it doesnt support 5GHz Wifi!

The M11 should be an upgrade that addresses all these nitpicks I have with the M-series, but it’s a bit beefy (mostly like due to having 3 separate headphone jacks). It’s a good bit chunkier than the Pioneer I’m complaining about size with. Other than that, it looks pretty ideal.

I’m not a fan of the 4.4mm balanced jack, mostly because it means the players will have to be fatter to accommodate it.

The M9 or NWA40 series is really the ideal pocketable DAP size for me. I think the AK SR15 is right along the same lines of size/shape.

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#11

The SR15 has a near identical footprint to the Sony NW-A40 but is 5mm thicker. The M9 has a bigger footprint than both but is in the middle in terms of thickness. By volume the A40 is the smallest and the SR15 the largest, but they’re all quite diminutive.

I’ve generally liked the previous FiiO players I’ve had. They’ve certainly been enjoyable to listen to, and have features out the wazoo. I can really only cite two consistent issues with them. The first is that they always seem to be just a bit under-powered for what they’re supposed to do, and the second is that firmware often needs multiple revisions to get all the launch features either present or functioning … and along the way they often break stuff, often more important stuff, that worked fine before (which is what caused me to sell my X5iii and return the X7ii).

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#12

I find the FiiO players to be a pretty good, versatile bunch if not a little underpowered like @Torq said.

The thing that has always stopped me from getting one for myself though is their warranty. While the DAP has 1-year warranty, the battery is only covered under 6 months of warranty which I feel is probably the first thing to go.

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#13

That is one positive thing we do have in Europe, the warranty is a minimum of 2 years by law.

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#14

Just received Norma today (purchased) from headphones.com. Really liking the size. It’s smaller than I thought! Really a good size in the palm of my hands. The design style is extremely similar to the Pioneer and Onkyo DAPs I have/had in the past. The edges are a bit defined though, so I will probably pick one of the limited selection of cases to put on this to help soften the grip.

I was a little disappointed to see that no factory screen protector was installed, which I have become used to with other DAPs that have come out recently. The plastic protector they supplied isn’t great and isn’t cut to go edge to edge to my dismay and annoyance, since I lined up the protector at the edge only to find out it left a gap on the opposite edge. I’ll probably get the glass screen protector for this.

Besides that, the player is really nice looking, especially the back piece. It looks a lot better in person than it does in photos.

Charging seems rather slow. It’s relatively snappy. I’m still downloading offline files on Spotify, but have scanned my 200gbs of music and it still runs much faster than the Fiio M9. As of right now, the Pioneer is still faster, which is kind of incredible since it’s so old (relatively). But I’ll give it some further comments when I finish loading everything.

Other quick impressions:

  • Noise floor seems very low. Used balanced connection with Andromeda and did not hear any audible noise.

  • The volume wheel is very clicky, but feels nice. It reminds me of Onkyo DP-S1.

  • Interface is fast and nicely laid out. Still getting used to it from other players.

  • The EQ function is pretty neat. It saves profiles! Hooray! Not sure if I like the Pioneer EQ or this one more, but they both are better than most EQs I’ve seen on Android.

  • Initial sound impresions - more lively and more “musical” and warmer than the sterile cold XDP-300R

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#15

I put one of these on the screen, which was quick and easy, and am using this case (the stand is nice, and it is a snug enough fit that there’s no risk of the DAP falling out, while remaining easy to remove the thing when you want to).

If you use the OpenAPK service to install third-party players/streaming clients, then when those apps tell you they have an update I found it worked best to download the and re-install it via the OpenAPK capability rather than letting the app try and update itself. When you do this the old version will get cleanly removed (it’ll then show up as being available for install again) and then you can remove it from the device.

There is no true fast-charge capability on the SR15. Off a normal USB port or standard 5V @ 500 mA charger it’ll take ~8 hours to charge from empty (with the unit off). Off my 1A and 2A capable USB chargers it’ll finish in about 4 hours (as long as the USB cable is rated for it).

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#16

Thanks. I was looking at both of those accessories already but your input pushed me over the edge and I ordered both. Case should come tonight. Same-Day shipping is such a spoiling thing to have access to.

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