A geometrically ambitious structure and an eye-catching title may draw attention to the Astell & Kern A&norma SR15, but given the company’s track record of five-star reviews and Awards through the years, this midrange portable music player was going to pique our interest. The Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 includes dual-DACs, 3.5mm and balanced 2.5millimeter headset, 64GB built-in storage (expandable via microSD card), and built in Bluetooth, wi-fi and Tidal. These specs are almost exactly the same as those on A&K’s AK70 MKII (#600) – the predecessor to the A&norma and a 2017 What Hi-Fi? Award winner. The A&norma shares many of its attributes also, but improvements have been made here in order to evolve A&K’s’standard’ music player lineup. In addition to implementing two more innovative DACs (the Cirrus Logic MasterHIFI class DAC CS43198) at a dual-DAC layout for optimal performance from both left and right channels, the A&norma sports an improved interface and support for native DSD playback (to DSD64) and PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz. Owners of higher-resolution files are also catered for. A 32-bit file with a 384kHz or 352.8kHz sampling rate is only downsampled to 24-bit/192kHz or 24-bit/176kHz respectively for playback, while DSD128 can also be playable through conversion to PCM 24-bit/176.4kHz.
The A&norma may also be used only as a digital source when its USB type-B output (also a charging port) is connected to an external DAC or amplifier with a USB input. The player’s USB type-B connection does not work as an input, as it does on the AK70 MKII, so the A&norma can not work as a DAC between your headphones and laptop. However, the A&norma also offers the sophisticated user interface of the A&ultima, which means that this portable music player inches closer to a slick smartphone experience. The home screen has a more modern feel and displays more choices, too. In Addition to albums, artists, genres, playlist and folders, there are also favourites, settings and direct access to DSD and MQS (Master Quality Sound -24-bit/192kHz) files. On the playback display, album artwork gets more space without sacrificing the display of file data, such as file type and size, the title of the song, artist and album. The A&norma more or less matches the AK70 MKII for dimension, with its slightly thinner framework evened out with a few added millimeters of height. It retains the A&K hallmark layout: a top notch in its aluminum chassis to get a protruding volume wheel, and while it’s more shining, it’s still vulnerable enough to allow for great thumb grip. But A&K has chiselled a much more artistic angular design here -with the 3.3in display slightly off-kilter against the rectangular aluminium body. It’s as close to geometric abstraction as we have seen in a portable music player, and the layout may prove to be somewhat divisive.
Fortunately, the A&norma has as much sonic aspiration as designing ambition, with a functionality that could provide the AK70 MKII, let alone smartphones, an inferiority complex. While the A&norma also features that identifying A&K sound – shrewdly comprehensive and lively – it’s much clearer, crisper and more transparent. We play with St Vincent’s Los Angeles, and the opening synth beat is hurled forward with increased impetus. Its rhythmic prowess choreographs the synth elements around it, while the accompanying vocal isn’t only clearer, but also has more sassiness. Switching to Manu Delago’s Parasol Peak album (16-bit/44.1kHz, Tidal), a lean production recorded with a seven-man outfit on a mountaineering expedition in the Alps, the A&norma’s affinity for subtlety is exposed. Everything is full and lush, from the bellowing brass and pattering percussion into Delago’s handpan handiwork. The A&norma picks from the complex organic sounds of running streams, and keeps them in the forefront of this composition while the remainder of the track builds around them. Battery life is great too. We get around nine hours playing at reasonably high volumes, switching between B&W’s PX wired headphones and a Bluetooth connection to the Naim Mu-so Qb speaker. Making strides with functionality, usability and document service, the A&norma retains A&K’s standard line progressing in the right direction. It provides more refinement, as opposed to a full-scale revolution within its predecessor, which is reaching the end of its normal shelf life. With the product’s odd geometry in mind, it seems fitting to note that the What Hi-Fi? Awards are just around the corner. They probably can not come soon enough for the A&K A&norma SR15.
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