The Astell & Kern AK HC3 is an energetic, lively plug and play DAC that’s simple to use, but it’s not the most subtle or insightful performer for the asking price.
- Energetic, firm presentation
- Stylish looks
- Can be used with headsets
- Packaged with USB-C Lightning Adapter
- Premium cost
- Not the most natural or insightful sound
- Hi-Res AudioSupports MQA, PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz) and DSD128
- Dual-DAC designTwo ES9219MQ DACs known for its high quality performance and low power consumption
- AK HC appAndroid app that offers finer control over volume
Korean audio brand Astell & Kern has its fingers in many audio pies from wireless speakers to headphones, network players, amplifiers, and DACs, such as the AK HC3.
The Astell & Kern AK HC3 follows on from the HC1 in its aim to bring high-quality audio to mobile devices, its support for MQA as well as its integrated microphone input means it’s not just music it seeks to improve but entertainment and video conferencing calls too.
It does so at a price for a portable USB DAC of £199/$190, which puts it in the premium area for plug and plug DACs, but is that a price worth paying for the AK HC3? Here are my thoughts.
- Flexible dual-shielded cable
- Packaged with USB-C Lightning cable
- Stylish looks
It doesn’t come with a USB-A adapter, so this is strictly for USB-C compliant devices. That can mean Windows PC, Mac, Android, and iOS; and given its plug and play nature all you need to do is to connect to get going. With iPhones pre-iPhone 15 that have a Lightning port, you’ll need the USB-C to Lightning Adapter; and Astell & Kern helpfully includes it in the box.
The aesthetics of the AK HC3 mirror Astell & Kern’s other products with its contoured shape that incorporates the brand’s “light and shadow” concept, its angles casting shadows and reflecting light to give it more of a 3D impression.
Made from aluminium and weighing only 20g, it’s a DAC that’s lightweight and dinky in size. The flexible cable allows it to reach tight spots or bend and contort when in use with headphones. For its size it’s a good-looking piece of kit.
There’s an LED indicator – a small one but bright enough to view during operation. It glows white in standby, red when a PCM file is played, blue for DSD and magenta for MQA.
- Hi-Res audio support
- Low noise distortion
- A&K HC app for Android
File support includes MQA with the Astell & Kern AK HC3 acting as renderer to complete the final unfold when partnered with a decoder (the Tidal app, for example); as well as PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD files up to DSD128. To listen to high-res files on desktop, you’ll need to download a USB DAC driver file from the Astell & Kern support section to enable playback.
Total Harmonic Noise + Distortion (THD+N) is rated at 0.0005%, which is another way of saying that signal noise during playback is very, very low. It’s a dual-DAC design powered by two ES9219MQ DACs, which is known for its high-quality performance and low power draw. The DAC is positioned in the rear housing to minimise noise.
It’s Roon Tested (as opposed to Roon Ready), so it’ll work with other Roon devices, but features are limited compared to certified ‘Roon Ready’ devices.
Output impedance is 2 ohms, and it has microphone connectivity, so the AK HC3 could be used with headphones that support video conferencing to improve intelligibility.
There’s an app for Android devices, but it’s a simple one that offers finer volume control than the Android UI can offer. Curiously, the highest volume it can reach is 63, which I’m sure there’s a reason for, but it’s an odd number to end at.
- Firm, steely sound
- Warmer than expected
- Other DACs sound more natural and nuanced
The Astell & Kern AK HC3 sounds warmer than I expected, which is not a slight against it, just an observation. A listen to Detach from Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar and the bass is well-rounded, hitting with depth and extension that conveys more vibrancy than a very cheap portable DAC such as the Creative Sound Blaster X1.
It presents a similar character to the THX Onyx at times: brash and energetic, capable of rich bass and a painting a big, broad soundstage, though the Onyx presents low frequencies with more clarity than the AK HC3.
The way the AK HC3 illustrates the soundstage is with plenty of power and energy; it’s immersive and quite full on at times. Sara Bareilles’ vocals in If I Dare occupies a lot of space up close to the listener, the midrange is crisply conveyed with a little sibilance noted. The AK HC3 plays its hand a little too powerfully.
John Powell’s To The Roof from The Bourne Supremacy soundtrack finds the AK HC3 rendering the string instruments in crisp detail, high frequencies have a sharpened edge, the overall performance is lean, brisk, and energetic. With Dan Davis’ Exit Mr Hat from The Matrix soundtrack, the brass instruments sound dynamic, although the horn glissando with the quick, repeated expressions doesn’t quite have that texture I hear with the Earmen Sparrow.
I wouldn’t describe the AK HC3 as the most transparent-sounding DAC. There’s a hardness to the performance of John Legend’s Use To Love U where there’s not the same level of emotion to his voice as the Earmen Sparrow can provide, with low frequencies punchy but not as clear. Switching to Norah Jones’ I Don’t Know Why, and the treble notes hit harder and sharper than on the Sparrow, her voice again strays towards sibilance; there’s a firmness about the AK HC3 that lacks a deftness of touch.
What the AK HC3 lacks is a degree of subtlety and naturalism to its performance. I can hear the processing the Astell & Kern applies to music, and while it affords music plenty of power, energy, and impact, a DAC like the Earmen Sparrow offers a clearer sense of expression, more insight; a lightness that by comparison offers more nuance.
The Astell & Kern AK HC3 displays a firmness allied with a warmth that engages but I don’t think it quite gets out of the way and lets you hear the music. Ultimately, what you hear is Astell & Kern’s interpretation, and in that regard, there are more transparent plug and play DACs available.
Should you buy it?
If you like your music loud and with energy
There’s plenty to enjoy from the big, broad soundstage the AK HC3 vividly realises.
If you want more nuance and naturalism
There is the sense of Astell & Kern’s processing having a heavy hand on what’s heard. It doesn’t always result in the most insightful performance.
The Astell & Kern AK HC3 is a vivid, energetic, and full-on listen but there are other plug and play DACs that offer more detail, insight, and naturalism.
The rich bass, firm presentation, and liveliness of the AK HC3 is to be enjoyed, however, you can get the (now discontinued) Earmen Sparrow for less if you look around or even the still available Earmen Eagle that’s nearly half the price of the Astell & Kern.
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Tested over several weeks
Tested with real world use
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The AK HC2 featured a 4.4mm Balanced output, which is not as commonly supported as the AK HC3’s 3.5mm output.