Audio Archaeology: iriver, Astell&Kern and the Rise of the High-End DAP
The following is an edited transcript of the P/P TV's Audio Archaeology video on the 1979 SONY Walkman. Watch our video below for the full auduiovisual experience!
Evolve or face obsoletion, in a world going increasingly digital, this was a choice faced by brands like Kodak, Xerox and Nokia. a choice they didn’t exactly make it safely out of. But that’s just the harsh reality in a modernising world
Today though, we’re setting our eyes on something a bit more optimistic. We’re looking at a Korean brand who did make it out when faced with this conundrum. A Korean brand known as Iriver.
This would probably ring some bells. If you were a big music fan in the age of the flash drive/ hard drive mp3 player. Or maybe you might just be more familiar with their daughter brand, Astell and Kern.
This is Ash and you’re watching PPTVs Audio archaeology. The AK edition
today, we’re moving a little bit away from the mainstream and jumping into a whole other, river, which river? IRiver -finger guns-
So with that very painful segue, let’s move on.
iRiver started out in 1999, when 2 close friends, Yang uk-Jun and Lee Rae-Hwan, along with five other colleagues, left Samsung Electronics.
Deciding to capitalise on the growing MP3 player market, started by Sony, with their CD Walkman) they released the iMP-100 MP3 CD player in November 2000.
It could best be described as a silver ufo-shaped disc with all the trappings of that era, rounded, tactile buttons and a delightfully cliched silver finish.
The bulky plastic on the iMP-100 soon gave way to a thin metal shell as iRiver put out more players for what came to be known as the SlimX lineup. Billed as the thinnest mp3 CD players in the world.
These were luxury players for the time, costing approximately $150 apiece.
These stylish players arrived on the market in the age of the mp3 CD, that time in the past where our computers would be riddled with viruses because of dodgy torrents, where we would burn something like a hundred songs from different artists on a single CD.
This perfect combination of circumstances meant that iRiver quickly rose to the top spot in the global market.
This triumph however was short-lived, the SlimX line was quickly displaced just October the following year, 2001, after a middling hardware company known as Apple put out a digital mp3 player called the iPod.
For the rest of the 2000s, iRiver would be positioned in comfortable but moderate success, creating multiple hard drive-based and flash memory players which led to them actually being acknowledged as a competitor of the iPod. They did their fair share of trailblazing during the time too, being the first to release 512mB and 1GB flash memory players
Eventually as Apple’s iPod continued to dominate and smartphones began to rise in the late 2000s. The need for digital audio players was dwindling steadily and quickly.
iRiver’s business was being challenged and the company was panned for what some thought to be ridiculous offerings.
Like the 2GB iriver B20, an mp3 player with a digital radio that required the listener to extend a rather unwieldy antenna to operate
This new, lower-case iriver began venturing into other products like e-book readers and other electronic lifestyle products.
However these didn’t net them nearly as much profit as their music players did. In fact, in the completely anecdotal words of one person in the scene that time “no one cared.
iriver had to find a solution, and find a solution it did.
Turnabout in 2013: The rise of Astell&Kern
With the rise of the ipod, smartphone music players and the fall of the portable standalone mp3 player, a certain crowd began to crave more, the portable audiophiles.
Stuck in an era where there were literally no one-stop gadgets that suited their needs, they soon turned to the ipod modifications and external amps.
It was then that iriver decided to make a return to the audio player market, specifically to target these new audio power players. This time, they came back under a new brand with a now much more familiar name, Astell&Kern.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Astell&Kern defined high-end DAPs as they are seen today.
Astell&Kern made its debut with the AK100 in 2013 at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2013, it had a compact body, clean industrial design and premium components and an inconceivably high price of $799.
Most people, honestly didn’t see the point, smartphone music players were on the up and up, audiophiles already had their favourite stacks. Placing Astell&Kern in a supremely awkward position.
This made the Ak100’s existence a polarising one, most people could agree that it was premium-looking and sounded better than most market-ready players, but they still struggled with the thought of doling out $800 in cash for something their stacks and phones could handle perfectly well.
Soon though, people began realising that the existence of Astell&Kern’s premium players meant that their stacks could be condensed into a smaller profile. This slowly warmed them up to the idea that thee players might actually have a place in their setups. And the AK100 took off.
Trailblazing and trendsetting.
The success of the product prompted Astell&Kern to release the upgraded dual-DAC, the AK120.
While that’s a pretty common concept now, having dedicated processing for each channel was novel in 2013.
This was also essentially the moment dual DACs became a trendy addition in high-end DAPs
Astell&Kern continued with their trendsetting at the 2014 consumer electronics show releasing the AK240, the first DAP with a balanced headphone output, with the 2.5mm TRRS connector to differentiate it from the standard 3.5mm headphone jack.
The 2.5mm headphone jack was by no means anything new, first released by Nokia and quickly pushed out of the market by SONY’s more ubiquitous 3.5mm plug.
The success of AK240 was huge. And it remains one of Astell&Kern’s bestselling products till today.
It ticked off a number of firsts.
It was the first Astell&Kern DAP to adopt an Android operating system, the first DAP that supported native DSD (direct stream digital) playback, and the first DAP to challenge the eyewatering US$2,000 pricetag.
So when you look at an exorbitantly priced high-end DAP now, you know who to blame.
I mean, to credit
Astell&Kern also moved into home audio with the introduction of the AK500 series, a network audio system and the T1, a futuristic, angular construct that also functioned as an all-in-one sound system that looked totally at home in a luxury living room.
That was awhile ago in 2015, but it seems a little bit on the nose now considering that our home systems are suddenly the centre of our musical existence again
Astell&Kern: Today and beyond
Astell&Kern has established themselves as the giant in high end personal audio, even ekeing out a piece of the high-end home audiophile pie for themselves.
Despite having a tumultuous start, they used their knowledge from the time when they were still iRiver and used the same philosophy to continue to innovate and push the boundaries in terms of design and sound quality of their products.
Native DSD playback, true balanced headphone output, beautiful UX design has allowed Astell&Kern to set new standards in the audio industry, with other manufacturers taking notes and coming up with their own similar solutions.
Even as competition heats up, Astell&Kern continues to innovate. In 2021, despite the tough situation behind COVID-19, they released the SP2000T, which is the physical manifestation of all their design and technology experiences from the past two decades. With the price tag to match.
It’s all too easy to look at Astell&Kern’s sometimes overly polished, eye-wateringly expensive DAPs and assume corporate greed or that that’s the way they’ve always been.
I hope that today’s audio archaeology has managed to shed a little bit more light on how they’ve gotten here and why they probably deserve to rest on their laurels for a little while more.
Let me know if you have any other topic suggestions, plug them into the comments and like and subscribe for more videos like this! In the meantime, bye bye!