Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: one-minute review
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and one man's trash is another's treasure. Anyone invested in portable hi-res audio, for instance, will surely view the Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII as a thing of beauty both sonically and visually; the very sight of an A&K player emerging from its owner's pocket signifies their ascension to a very select group of music lovers.
To others, the off-kilter screen may seem a hindrance, the name long-winded, the edges a little sharp, the unmarked buttons somewhat unhelpful and the pricing prohibitive – even though for Astell & Kern, this is budget territory.
Whatever your opinion on the above, the level of features, connectivity, file support and sound quality incorporated here is, as the dynamic '80s cartoon heroin Jem once said, truly truly truly outrageous.
What you need to know is that the music you've been playing from your phone or laptop is going to sound constricted, muddied, compressed and altogether beige after you've heard music on this. And even if the original (and very talented) SR25 is well-known to you, this model sounds that little bit better – and as such, it just became one of the best MP3 players on the market.
The A&K A&norma SR25 MKII digital audio player takes and celebrates virtually any digital audio file size or type, and it will now happily accept balanced headphones with 4.4 or 2.5mm headphone jacks as well as 'regular' 3.5mm unbalanced models.
Elsewhere, the touch-screen is bright and responsive and the battery life, at 20 hours, walks all over the company's A&ultima SP2000T at only 9 hours. And did we mention how expressive, detailed, regimented and faithfully neutral it sounds?
The A&norma SR25 MKII is a gifted digital audio player and it will reignite your love of music. And unlike many of the company's more pricey players, this one is small enough to put in a pocket and will keep you streaming, pinging or downloading once-treasured songs to it, just to see what it makes of them.
If the current financial climate still facilitates your consideration of such a purchase, you won't be disappointed with this talented little player.
Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: price and release date
- Released in November 2021
- $749 / £699 / AU$1,099
The Astell & Kern A&norma SR 25 MKII is available now with asking price that may have some moving swiftly on given the current cost of living challenges. Others may still pause to hear more though – because unlike the majority of Astell & Kern's ouevre, it doesn't actually cost thousands.
In the United Kingdom it sells for a pound short of £700. American customers hoping to snag one will need to put seven hundred-dollar bills and one fifty aside, while in Australia you’re looking at over a grand.
Can such a product make a case for itself outside of the niche audiophile world when good-quality music streaming and downloading capabilities are so readily available on contract smartphones? If you ask us, yes.
Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: features
- Supports both 24-bit Bluetooth wireless codecs LDAC and aptXHD
- Comprehensive wired hi-res chops to DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM
- Replay Gain automatically adjusts volume playback from sound sources up to 24-bit/192kHz
The features we need to get through here give even the best MP3 players a run for their money, so strap in.
Astell & Kern states that every aspect its customers admired in the original SR25 is retained here, but that this new model improves on the audio performance even further. How? With its latest audio architecture, that's how, which promises more detail, clearly defined upper and lower ranges, and a deeper, more rounded sound. (More on this later.)
What is not new is the implementation of two Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs, because it is the same dual DAC chip setup as the previous SR15, which is a few years old now. Then again, that player was excellent sonically and if it ain't broke, etc…
As well as a new 4.4mm headphone jack, the MKII unit also boasts a new Replay Gain function to uniformly adjust volume playback from sound sources up to 24-bit/192 kHz. You're also getting AK File Drop (first introduced in the pricier A&futura SE180 player) for easier wireless file transfers; BT Sink function for simpler connection of the SR25 MKII to an external Bluetooth device (essentially, music from an external device such as a smartphone can be played back in high-quality on the SR25 MKII using it) and extra internal silver-plated shielding to protect from electromagnetic interference, first seen in the thrice-the-price A&ultima SP2000T.
Although it hasn't been shouted about, upon going through the settings of the SR25 MKII, four new, interesting and quite different-sounding DAC filters also present themselves, which will work if listening in 24-bit/192kHz or less PCM (although they won't work in MQA and DSD formats) and they certainly add value and scope for customization at the level.
As with the first-generation model, the SR25 MKII easily handles a huge array of high-resolution music formats and sample rates, including support for native playback of DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM high-resolution audio.
And should you want to listen to your favourite hi-res music over a wireless connection (and why shouldn't you, given the excellent wireless headphones available in this day and age?), the SR25 MKII features the high-quality LDAC and aptX HD Bluetooth wireless codecs too, plus wi-fi for access to streaming services including Tidal, which is happily waiting to be discovered in the 'services' tab.
I tried the SR25 MKII using several true wireless price-compatible earbuds, including the NuraTrue and Cambridge Audio's Melomania 1+ (both of which support aptX) and found the Bluetooth connection rock-solid.
In terms of wired connections, the power output here is standard rather than exceptional, although the SR25 MKII drove my hefty Austrian Audio Hi-X55 over-ears over a (regular 3.5mm) unbalanced connection admirably.
- Features score: 5/5
Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: design
- Bright and responsive touch-screen
- Angular but nicely pocketable
- Glorious trademark A&K rotary volume dial
Astell & Kern is known for its trademark brutalist aesthetic and it’s not about to switch tack any time soon. So the A&norma SR 25 MKII is all angles and pointy bits – some of them glassy. Look at it and you know it's made by A&K.
The slanted screen may be slightly jarring for some (yes, if the display simply fit the measurements, it could've been bigger) but it does allow for the inclusion of a lovely clicking rotary volume dial in the top right corner, for which all Astell & Kern players are now known. This one is bigger than that sported by its predecessor and it looks even more like a blown up Swiss chronograph watch dial – but we mean that in the best possible way.
There are four unmarked pill-shaped buttons along the top left edge of the player as you look at the screen, which handle (from top to bottom) power, track skips backwards, play/pausing and forwarding to the next track. While unmarked, they are intuitive and once you know, you know – again, if you don't like it, A&K does not care.
In terms of dimensions it's a fair bit deeper than your smartphone but thinner and shorter and, at 178g it actually weighs 26g less than the iPhone 13 Pro (and 62g less than the iPhone 13 Pro Max).
The touch-screen may be a tad fiddly for those with larger fingers – it may take a few goes to key in your Tidal password, for example – but it's more than worth persisting because the trade off is a nippy, happy and talented little player that you can actually put in your pocket without feeling like you're listing to one side.
The slightly moodier new 'Mercury Dark Silver' colorway is another improvement on the older model, which is lighter in terms of finish. Our only slight gripe with the build is the glass panel on the back of the unit; even though it's supposed to resist fingerprints, we find it collects ours.
- Design score: 4.5/5
Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: audio performance
- Open, spacious soundstage
- Assured timing and oodles of detail
- Zealous, fun presentation
Give the A&K your music, sit back and relax. It takes only a cursory listen to Radiohead's OK Computer (in 24-bit FLAC) to understand that this is a gifted little belter of a DAP. Throughout Airbag, the SR25 MKII seems to separate and celebrate each sonic article and inflection, but never to the detriment of the track as a whole. Bass passages other players cannot reach are offered like musical treats on a shelf to be enjoyed in passing, while synths and jingles soar through the upper registers.
Switching to Tidal, Coheed and Cambria's Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness brims with detail thanks to an incredibly open and three-dimensional soundstage, from the initial strings coming in all around us to the child playing quietly over by our right earlobe as the guitar joins centrally.
Lower frequencies are deep, snappy and held resolutely in a cohesive and controlled mix. Mids come alive as we listen to Melissa Etheridge's No Souvenirs, realizing as we do so that rarely has her textured, emotive, belted vocal sounded so expressive and present.
Timing and dynamic build here are both poised and secure; the SR25 MKII takes every recording you give it, relays it faithfully, dutifully and with an extra ounce of detail both rhythmically and across the frequencies but – and this part is where other such players often fall down – it manages to keep the overall sonic experience zealous, energetic and fun rather than analytical to a fault.
Any negatives? Really, no – although if you scale up to A&K's A&futura line you'll see a step up in terms of power and detail yet again. But for this money, the A&norma SR25 MKII cannot be beaten sonically.
- Audio performance score: 5/5
Astell & Kern SR25 MKII: value
- A&K's entry-level player – if $749/£699 is 'entry-level' to you
- Tech from models thrice the price
- For a premium player, this is the least you'll pay
This is a tricky one, because you can pick up a portable audio player made by Sony for a tenth of the price of this hi-res player. That said, this is upper echelon territory; Astell & Kern's top-tier Ultima model sells for $2,399 / £1,999 / AU$3,599.
Astell & Kern actually calls the SR 25 MKII a "true mass premium product", which just about sums it up. To clarify, for this money you're still getting A&K's core (and frankly, 'cor!) values: exceptional audio performance for a diverse range of musical tastes and that trademark brutalist build, plus tech such as AK File Drop, access to streaming platforms, DAC filters and the BT Sink function trickled down from the company's flagship players, but without the four-figure price tag.
Will most of us still need to pass on "mass premium" players given the cost of living crisis? Perhaps. But that is a shame, since this one really does represent value for money – if you have it, and expressly want to spend it on a dedicated, talented, hi-res digital audio player.
- Value: 4.5/5
Astell & Kern SR25 MKII: should I buy it?
|Features||Probably the most fully-featured DAP available at this level||5/5|
|Sound quality||Unrivalled, unless you're prepared to spend double and even triple this money||5/5|
|Design||It won't suit all tastes but to us, it's beautiful||4.5/5|
|Value||Whether or not you consider the pricing strategy affordable, you can't buy anything else as good for this money||4.5/5|
Buy it if...
You want premium portable audio for mid-level money
Honestly, the SR25 MKII is about to walk all over the sound your smartphone or tablet can deliver
You have a Tidal HiFi subscription
Other platforms can be accessed using A&K's Open APP Service, but Tidal feels the most integrated and enjoyable – and its MQA format is truly celebrated here
You want something truly portable
Unlike certain DAPs (many of them also made by Astell & Kern) this player will slip neatly into the pocket of your jeans and barely affect your silhouette
Don't buy it if...
You think £700 is too much for a dedicated portable player
It's a small-ish product and, while angular and intrinsically pleasing, it isn't gold or particularly bling-y. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
You have particularly large fingers
The 3.6-inch HD (720x1280) touchscreen here is lovely and bright, but it's size and situation might be an issue