A second opinion is never a bad thing; especially when it comes to a product like the Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP that is going to be used with a wide range of headphones and IEMs. Is there still market demand for digital audio players like the KANN MAX that we reviewed just recently and found to be one of the best in the category?
We can understand why consumers would not want to carry a secondary digital music player when they have already invested so much money in their existing smart phone, but products like the A&K KANN MAX deliver a very different level of sonic performance and are designed to drive a much wider variety of headphones and IEMs.
Your smart phone may be a decent streaming source but it lacks the power and sonic chops to do better headphones and IEMs justice.
One could certainly add a Dongle DAC to their phone and raise the bar on performance, but that doesn’t give you enough power for specific headphones and give you any additional storage for your music collection. DAPs provide both.
Both Will Jennings and I were very fortunate to have one of the first review samples which was sent to us directly after its premiere at the 2022 Munich Audio Show and we both spent 3 weeks with the DAP before sending it to the next lucky reviewer.
During my time with it, I used all three output jacks (3.55mm SE, 2.5mm Balanced, 4.4mm Balanced) with a myriad of headphones and IEMs. This also enabled me to experiment with all four gain settings.
Most of my digital playback involves using the Shanling M6 Pro and Cayin N6ii MK2 DAPs with the E01 motherboard. Will and I also have very different headphone collections and it would be accurate to state that his collection includes some of the most difficult models to drive; his take on how the KANN MAX dealt with those can be found in his review.
To really test the Astell&Kern KANN MAX in a way that would benefit the widest swath of readers, I decided to use my new UE Live Custom IEMs (GUCraftsman 4.4mm balanced cables), Empire Ears Legend X IEMs (Eletech Socrates 4.4mm balanced cables), the Kennerton Magni (DHC Copper 4.4mm balanced cables) and the new Edifier Stax Spirit S3 Bluetooth Headphones to judge its wireless capabilities.
Rather than repeat all of the technical specifications and features, please follow the link to our very comprehensive review that breaks it all down; Will did a fantastic job explaining every feature and it should be considered mandatory reading.
It is very hard to write a comprehensive DAP review unless you can use it to drive as many headphones as possible because the results are not always the same; we were limited to 100 hours of listening time over a period of three weeks and over that period, the OS was updated with a firmware update.
It was wishful thinking on my part that I could take the unit with me to a vacation spot with less than reliable Wi-Fi service and stream from TIDAL or Qobuz; that mistake limited me to listening to the music that I had saved on my SD card and while nobody should feel any form of sympathy, it did limit my ability to test the streaming capabilities.
When I returned home, I spent the remainder of the review period listening to Qobuz and TIDAL Masters; there was one hiccup after the firmware update where I could not get TIDAL to work. I needed to reboot the KANN MAX twice before the issue resolved itself. If you experience a similar issue — a reboot should fix the problem.
Compared to the Shanling and Cayin DAP’s, the KANN MAX is slightly smaller in size and lighter as well. With its angular back, the fit in hand is very good, and the cases designed for the A&K KANN ALPHA work rather well.
Do you need a case? When you are spending almost $1,300 on a DAP, it probably makes some sense to protect the unit as much as possible.
The industrial design is rather interesting and there is some substantial heft to the KANN MAX that makes it feel like a solidly built product. A&K charges a substantial amount of money for its products and the build quality certainly inspires confidence that it will last and prove to be durable and reliable.
The positioning of the buttons and controls were logical, and it did not take me very long to figure out how to access all of the features. The functionality of the DAP is excellent but there are some quirks in regard to the UI that I will discuss below.
Battery performance on a device like this can be spotty; especially when you are streaming large files and driving more difficult IEMs and headphones. We ran our usual tests four times to verify Astell&Kern’s claim of approximately 13 hours of playtime.
We never achieved 13 hours on any of the tests but we hit 12 hours and 15 minutes and that seemed to be the average. That level of performance is still exceptionally good between charges.
The User Interface Experience
UI development is an expensive and necessary endeavor in order to make a product like the KANN MAX work in the way a product of its caliber should. Consumers have become accustomed to slick interfaces with the past few generations of iPhone and Android wireless devices delivering rather remarkable access and control of our entire digital universe. A clunky or bad UI can completely ruin a great product.
The KANN MAX does not have the fastest UI and it is something that Astell&Kern need to work on because asking consumers to accept that level of speed and accessibility on a $1,300 digital music player feels like a bad strategy to me.
Does it work?
Should it offer Spotify, TIDAL, and Qobuz natively as widgets on the home screen versus having to manipulate the menu and find them in a sidebar?
There are some shortcuts to speed up the process, but we’re seeing home screen widgets for the streaming platforms on other DAPs and this really needs to be a priority on the next generation of the UI.
Once accessed, the menus for TIDAL and other streaming platforms function much like they would on another DAP or your smart phone. You can also swipe down from the top to access the currently played music option as well. Accessing Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other functions is fine once you learn your way around the home screen but the interface needs a refresh and fewer steps.
Adjusting the screen brightness is achieved through the home screen, and it is possible to customize the home screen and some of the menus to make the features you use most frequently easier to find. Minus access to all of the streaming apps that you want to have at your fingertips.
The different gain settings are a huge point of differentiation for the KANN MAX because it really does have the ability to drive the widest range of headphones and IEMs around.
As I mentioned earlier, Dongle DAPs can sound great with the right pair of headphones or IEMs, but there are limitations in regard to what they can drive and how hard.
The myriad of headphone jacks also makes the KANN MAX rather unique but also very useful if you have a sizable headphone and IEM collection which don’t use only 3.5mm connections; the growing popularity of balanced headphone rigs has forced manufacturers to offer these types of output jacks.
Running the UE Live from both the 3.5mm and 4.4mm jacks, I found that the medium gain setting worked best; anything higher was too much for the IEMs and the top end became quite strident and etched sounding. Running these very resolving IEMs at 40 (out of 150) was the proper level and where I was best able to judge its tonality, resolution, and detail retrieval.
Listening to Kenny Burrell’s “Everdays,” revealed just how resolving the KANN MAX can be delivering his guitar playing with a degree of crispness and resolution that I have only heard before from two-channel loudspeaker setups and some rather expensive vinyl playback systems.
Cymbals had more than enough energy and top end airiness; detail retrieval is excellent through the KANN MAX and I was increasingly impressed with how it handles all genres of music in that regard.
Switching to the Empire Ears Legend X, the same track was delivered with a wealth of detail but with greater depth and richness; the recording is rather crisp and clean sounding with very little added color so it’s clear that the KANN MAX and Legend X were the source of the added body and texture throughout.
“Everyday I Have The Blues” demonstrated that the KANN MAX is excellent at instrument separation and creating a very wide stereo image that extends well outside your headphones; the width and depth of the soundstage is also very dependent on the headphones on the other end.
Trumpets and other brass instruments were delivered with both a crispness and degree of color that really made the music come alive. It was never too brash or metallic sounding with any of the headphones or IEMs and the imaging was very precise.
The Kennerton Magni were a better test of the KANN MAX’s bass performance and it did not disappoint; bass notes were both very resolute and quick, but also quite textured. None of my IEMs were capable of delivering this kind of bass response and it was rather clear that the A&K DAP is able to drive a larger, closed back headphone like the Magni without much difficulty.
I went back and forth between the gain settings and settled on “High” with the Magni and felt that it didn’t require pushing the volume past “80” (out of 150) to really open up and hit its stride. The sound was crisp, detailed, and very transparent.
Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” has a lot of low end energy, but also a rather clean sounding presentation and it was the perfect track to run through the KANN MAX using TIDAL as the streaming platform.
It did take almost 3 seconds for the DAP and TIDAL to sync on this track which was less than ideal; other DAPs don’t seem to struggle as much with TIDAL and there is clearly something going on with the software and how the KANN MAX handles the data coming from the cloud.
The KANN MAX produced the bombastic Green Day track from American Idiot with excellent clarity, detail, and a high level of resolution. Lord Armstrong came across with more than enough color and vocals were somewhat forward of the mix.
My final experience with the KANN MAX was a test of its Bluetooth performance and the new Edifier Stax Spirit S3 Wireless Headphones. TIDAL provided a number of playlists as I moved around the house, putting some range between myself and the DAP.
My home was built in 1860 and the original horsehair sheetrock is still In good shape in most rooms. It is also quite good at blocking any Bluetooth signal so I was rather surprised that I managed to get a signal standing 20 feet away and separated from the KANN MAX by 3 interior walls.
The maximum range in any outdoor open space proved to be around 30 feet and I was able to secure a strong signal indoors as long as I was 20 feet away and in a relatively open space.
The bass response with the Edifier Stax Wireless Headphones was surprisingly strong; although not quite as strong as the KANN MAX driving the Kennerton Magni in a wired configuration.
The DAP offers a super gain setting which is primarily designed for really hard to drive On-Ear Headphones and it never struggled with anything in my arsenal. With the DAP set to the super gain setting I never had to raise the volume past 35 with the UE Live IEMs or 42 on the Legend X.
We have heard rumors that the KANN MAX can drive the HiFIMAN Susvara; with a sensitivity rating of 83dB and impedance of 60 ohms, that seems like a claim that needs to be verified before we can say that it is true — but none of that takes away from the reality that the A&K KANN MAX is a very powerful DAP that can drive a rather extensive range of high-end headphones.
The Astell&Kern KANN MAX would be the best DAP on the market if the UI was better; the interface needs to be easier to navigate and the music streaming apps must be front and center so that you don’t have to look through the menus to find them. That should not be acceptable at this price point.
After 3 weeks of listening to the Astell&Kern KANN MAX through a wide range of headphones and using it as my primary digital source with the Ampsandsound Kenzie Ovation Rev2, there is no question in my mind that it is one of the top 3 DAPs currently available regardless of price.
Operational quirks aside, there are items that need to be addressed by Astell&Kern when it comes to the UI. However, the KANN MAX is capable of driving almost anything in the headphone and IEM categories and delivering a state-of-the-art listening experience.