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Circuit Breaker

Astell & Kern put a charmingly crooked screen on its latest music player

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2018 is a year full of display innovations

Astell & Kern A&norma SR15
Astell & Kern A&norma SR15.
Photo: Astell & Kern

For far too long, we’ve been shackled to the normalcy of having gadgets with rectangular displays fitting linearly inside rectangular boxes. Now, in the age of the notch, screens are being reconsidered in all sorts of ways, and my favorite reinterpretation of this year has to be the one on Astell & Kern’s new A&norma SR15. This $699 portable media player forms the beginning of A&K’s new A&norma “standard” line of devices, which trickle down stuff from the company’s even more expensive offerings. You get a dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC, a quad-core processor, native DSD and PCM playback up to 24-bit/192kHz, Bluetooth 4.1 with AptX HD, a solid aluminum alloy body, and a 3.3-inch WVGA (800 x 480) TFT LCD.

Oh yes, the screen is very likely terrible, but I want to dwell on the quirky design choice by A&K. A portable device like this SR15 player is meant to be held in the hand, and so, unlike, say, a desktop monitor, its display really doesn’t have to adhere to any sort of flat line or horizon. We tilt our mobile devices in all sorts of ways, and so the apparent tilt here isn’t going to be as jarring in use as it is to just look at it in a still photo. I like that the tilt helps the SR15 accommodate a big and chunky volume knob, but more than anything, I love that it has an immediate character and difference to it. The sheer absurdity of it is charming.

Astell & Kern A&norma SR15.
Photo: Astell & Kern

Alongside the A&norma SR15, which goes on sale in June, Astell & Kern has also just announced the A&futura SE100, which fleshes out the premium portion of its range with a $1,699 offering. The SE100 is built around an eight-channel ESS Sabre ES9038Pro DAC, an octa-core processor, and decoding capabilities up to 32-bit/384kHz. It also has a 5-inch 720p display, a battery rated to last for 10 hours, 128GB of internal storage (versus 64GB on the SR15), and a USB-C input with fast-charging support. This PMP will be available later this month.

Don’t ask me to justify the pricing of either model here: if you yourself don’t feel the need for multichannel signal processing, powerful built-in amplifiers, and support for every conceivable music format ever invented, my words won’t convince you to see the value in A&K’s products. What I can say from my experience with this company’s prior products, highlighted by the excellent Kann and A&ultima SP1000, is that they’re supremely well built and produce sound worthy of their premium stature (if not pricing).

Most of us can live on quite happily without ever dropping four figures on a portable media player, but I know that I myself feel that little bit better about the world knowing that the delightfully off-kilter A&norma model simply exists.

Astell & Kern A&futura SE100.
Photo: Astell & Kern