October 6, 2022

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Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP: Review

8 min read

In my role as Sr. Headphone Editor, I am very lucky to play with some of the best products ever developed for portable and desktop audio. New headphones, DAPs, Dongle DACs, and amplifiers cross my desk on a weekly basis.

When you cover a category that is expected to grow to almost $27 billion by 2027 (and that’s just the wireless side), you have a responsibility to sort through the hundreds of new products released each year and select the ones that offer something truly different. The Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP is decidedly different and already a category leader from my perspective.

Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP with Meze Audio Advar IEM
Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP with Meze Audio Advar IEM

Can a $1,299 DAP be considered a category leader and bargain at the same time?

Some will bristle at my use of the word “bargain” but I’m more than prepared to back that statement up.

Over the past few weeks, I have also been fortunate to pair the KANN MAX with the Meze Audio ADVAR IEM and I will have more to say about these excellent earphones next week; the combination is one of the best I have heard in quite some time and for $2,000 — it really needs to be.

If you have followed my coverage here for the past year, you are probably aware that the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha DAP ($1,099 at Amazon) is my drug of choice. The Alpha has proven to be an excellent source device that I have taken on the road with me almost everywhere.

Astell&Kern KANN ALPHA vs KANN MAX DAPs Front Side by Side
Astell&Kern KANN ALPHA (left) vs KANN MAX (right)

It has great features, more than enough power, long battery life, and rather solid durability; with the exception of the top piece that likes to pop off. I’ve also abused my unit because it travels with me to work and when I fly. I’m certainly guilty of inflicting some bruises on it.

I also know that I am not alone in my assessment; Lynn and I kept a running tally throughout T.H.E. Show and it was the most popular DAP at the show.

Ampsandsound used them to demonstrate their excellent headphone amplifiers and more than a few show attendees sat at our table to compare headphones with the Alpha.

In a world where high-end DAPs now exceed $3,000 USD, it is somewhat encouraging that Astell&Kern are committed to offering a truly high-end DAP for $1,299 and not skimp on the engineering, features, or sound quality.

The KANN Alpha certainly isn’t cheap but it is far more affordable than the N8, WM1Z, or M17 DAP.

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I know that some will scoff at the notion that a $1,299 DAP offers value for the money — but that’s been one of the biggest draws of the Astell&Kern KANN Series so far; value and high output power.

When the KANN Alpha was designed, the goal was to create a DAP that could handle very hard to drive over-ear headphones; including power hungry planar magnetic headphones.

After two years of heavy use and a lot of miles, I’m willing to call the KANN Alpha one of the best DAPs on the market; it may not offer the detail retrieval of the M17 or WM1Z, but it is a more manageable size and it offers more power than the WM1Z for less money. It also far more rugged than either of the aforementioned DAPs and I reach for it a lot when I review.

Astell&Kern KANN Max DAP back in-hand

Meet the New Boss. Not the Same as the Old Boss

Astell&Kern reached out to me from Munich during the show and offered to send one of the first A&K KANN MAX to us so we could use it at our table at T.H.E. Show in Long Beach.

I let show attendees have the first experience with it because I knew the unit was coming home with me for a few weeks before being shipped off to Lynn for a follow-up review.

The feedback from the 100+ people who tried it was rather positive and I returned home with it excited to compare it to the Alpha, and other high-end DAPs that I own.

One of the most surprising things about the Astell&Kern KANN MAX is the price; even with supply chain issues and inflation — the price is still $1,299 USD.

I’m slightly baffled by that considering how expensive these DAPs are to manufacture but apparently Astell&Kern planned ahead.

Astell&Kern KANN ALPHA vs KANN MAX DAPs
Astell&Kern KANN ALPHA (top) vs KANN MAX (bottom)

The KANN MAX is an incremental upgrade over the Alpha and shares a lot of the same design architecture. The angular metal shell is very similar in its shape, but it is not quite as thick at 24mm; the two units still have the same height and width (4.5″ H x 2.5″ W) and weigh 11 ounces.

The most visible difference is that the top of the KANN MAX is now flat; the connectors and buttons are still in the same location, but the sloped top surface that was prone to pop off has been replaced by a flat glass plate with a metal lip to protect the edges.

That one design change makes it easy for me to differentiate the two units, but there are other changes as well; the KANN MAX has the Astell&Kern logo printed behind the ports and the new 2.5mm port has no space between the port and the gold ring around it. The rear panel of the KANN MAX has the new model designation imprinted as well.

Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP Up

Another piece of good news for Alpha owners who might be contemplating an upgrade is the news that their old cases will fit the KANN MAX; anything that saves money when spending $1,299 on a portable digital audio music player is a win.

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The new AK File Drop function in the KANN MAX makes files transfers easier and more convenient. You can use the AK File Drop, and freely transfer files wirelessly through a PC, smartphone, or FTP program located on the same network. Music file management is now possible without having to connect the DAP to other hardware with cables.

Kishkas

The KANN MAX offers some significant changes under the hood; Astell&Kern have chosen to go with 4 ESS9038Q2M chips instead of the pair of ESS9068 chips used in the Alpha. That decision is both interesting and peculiar to me because Astell & Kern decided to use 4 of the mobile 2-channel chips rather than go with a single ESS9038PRO Series DAC that would have provided the same quad DAC output in a smaller footprint.

Astell&Kern KANN Max Internal DAC Diagram

My gut feeling is that the 4 chips use less power than the single ESS9038PRO and the ability to separate the channels by using multiple chips had a significant impact on the sound quality.

Without confirmation from Astell&Kern, I can’t state with certainty that is the reason but the power consumption issue makes sense to me.

Despite the differences, my initial impression was that both DAPs produced the same levels of clarity and detail; the KANN MAX sounds slightly more analytical in my opinion and I suspect that has a lot to do with the changes made to the amplifier circuit and power supply.

The KANN MAX now supports 32-bit/768kHz PCM, native DSD512, and full support for MQA 8X; the Alpha only supported 32-bit/384kHz, native DSD256, and MQA.

The reality is that so little music exists beyond 24-bit/192kHz, that our obsession with high-res bit/sample rates is rather bizarre.

The biggest real world changes involve the output power which has been increased with an additional gain level at the top end of the spectrum. The KANN MAX offers four gain levels versus the Alpha’s three and it is a genuine upgrade of the levels.

Astell&Kern KANN MAX DAP Headphone Jacks

The “low” output setting produces 2Vrms (single ended) and 4Vrms (balanced) and that remains unchanged from the KANN Alpha.

The “mid” output setting produces 4Vrms (single ended) and 8Vrms (balanced) which is also the same level of output from the older DAP.

The “high” output setting produces 6Vrms (single ended) and 12Vrms (balanced) which allows one to drive a wide range of planar magnetic headphones.

The new “super” gain setting produces 8Vrms (single ended) and 15Vrms (balanced) and allowed me to easily drive the HiFiMAN HE560, 1st generation Beyerdynamic T1, and the Sennheiser HD800.

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I rarely travel with such demanding headphones and the vast majority of over-ear headphones that I use on the road are considerably easier to drive; I was forced to drop back to the medium gain level because the noise floor became a real issue.

When I did that, I achieved excellent sound quality with the Campfire Audio Cascade and the Dan Clark Audio Aeon Closed models; with the 8 channel volume control placed in-between the DAC and amplifier sections of the KANN MAX, the clarity

Most of the over-ears I wear while travelling are considerably easier to drive and so with all that power available, noise floor becomes a real issue.  By dropping gain back to medium, the MAX performs well with the Campfire Cascade and DCA Aeon Closed and with its 8 channel volume control placed between the DAC and amplifier sections of the MAX, clarity and distortion stays nearly the same at all gain levels.   

It certainly takes more effort to wrangle 8 independent volume controls, but by placing them on the output of the DAC and before the amplifier, the volume control is in the best position to adjust overall output without introducing additional noise.

The Bluetooth features remain largely the same as the KANN Alpha with support for LDAC, and aptX HD; the KANN MAX also supports the Bluetooth Sync feature which allows you to use the KANN MAX as a Bluetooth-enabled source device for supported loudspeakers or headphones.

Astell&Kern KANN ALPHA vs KANN MAX DAPs Bottom Side by Side
Astell&Kern KANN ALPHA (left) vs KANN MAX (right)

Conclusion

Lynn Miller is going to have a more comprehensive review in regard to the sonics in a couple of weeks but I do have some final thoughts about this very exciting DAP that I think is the best option for those who want a truly reference caliber portable digital source device below $1,299 USD.

The KANN MAX is a legitimate upgrade over the Alpha and one that I think offers the right mix of features and sound quality in a package that is very easy to take with you on the train or road.

It retains all of the best features of the Alpha; 64GB internal memory, Android-based OS, microSD support up to 1TB, support for multiple streaming platforms including TIDAL and Qobuz, and improved output power and battery life.

The Astell&Kern KANN MAX replaces one of the best performing DAPs on the market with better industrial design, more power, and all of the features that made the Alpha a genuine bargain for those who wanted a road warrior that could drive very demanding headphones.

The $1,299 USD asking price makes this a very attractive option and one that will open the floodgates on the used market for older KANN Alpha DAPs which will see a rather significant drop in price.

Where to buy: $1,299 at Crutchfield | Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca | Audio46