AK380: Really ties the music together
I've owned this played for about 8 months now. I wanted to wait to write a review until I had some serious time with it, so that I could share more than a glowing first impression. I'm sad to see that it hasn't dropped again since I got mine, but I'm not terribly surprised given how few of them sold. That's a shame because this was without a doubt the best, most life-changing drop I've joined at Massdrop (out of 40+ drops, many of them quite excellent).
I've been collecting music for over 30 years and own thousands of CDs. I have meticulously ripped audio to FLAC and a variety of other formats using a bit-perfect flow and an app called dBpoweramp. As a result, I have a large library of recordings to deal with. For the longest time I made due with an iPod Classic filled to the brim with mostly 240kbps MP3s. The lossy format was a necessary compromise because of limited storage capacity.
Eventually the battery in my iPod stopped taking a charge, and I set out to find a new DAP. Sound quality was my top priority, but I also needed as much storage capacity as possible. Given the number of albums I planned to load, the controls and UI needed to be responsive, intuitive and scalable enough to keep up with my music collection.
Searching Google for "best DAP" inevitably results in Top 10 lists packed with Astell&Kern players and a handful of other "usual suspects." By the time the AK380 dropped I was familiar with the brand as well as the lineup. A former flagship from a company nearly universally lauded as the maker of the best DAPs in the world? That certainly lined up with what I wanted.
Ugly negative comments almost turned me off from picking up the AK380, but I redoubled my efforts to research the competition. The criticisms of the AK380 all came down to price. Among the cheaper alternatives I found lesser capacity, complaints of clunky UIs, reliability issues and fewer additional capabilities and features than are offered by the AK380. The only real competition seemed to be Astell&Kerns newer flagship and Sony's top-of-the-line digital Walkman, both of which were far more expensive than the drop price for the AK380. So I took a chance and joined the drop.
Since then I've used the AK380 with a variety of headphones: Sennheiser 58x, 600, 650, 6xx, and 660S; Hifiman HE4xx; AKG 7xx; Fostex TR-X00 (Purpleheart and Ebony); Massdrop x Noble Kaiser 10 CIEMs; and Focal Elex, Elegia and Utopia.
Without exception, audio from the AK380 with every headphone I've tried has rivaled or exceeded the quality of audio from those same headphones out of my desktop DAC/Amp setups. The AK380 paired with the Focal Utopias even bested my loudspeaker setup until I replaced my receiver with McIntosh separates. And I can take that pairing on the go with me!
Integration with Tidal, though it could use some work, has enabled me to grow beyond my own aging collection and experience new music in stunning sound quality. AK Connect has allowed me to use the AK380 as a streamer, controlled remotely from my phone. I've used Bluetooth with my truck and with portable speakers on occasions when convenience is more important than quality.
Quality and reliability have been perfect. The UI leaves some small room for improvement, perhaps, but it's serviceable and intuitive and works well with both my own music collection and with Tidal. I've not had one crash or lockup.
Initially I was not a fan of the angular design, but it's not at all awkward or uncomfortable. It's actually a nice size, solidly built and has grown on me. Now I like that it is unique. The AK380 is something special and it shows it.
I got a small hard drive case to carry around my AK380 and a small collection of adapters and cables. That and my K10s go with me everywhere these days. I'll often cart along a full size pair of headphones both for less-isolated listening and to share my passion for music with others. The AK380 has so consistently impressed that it earned the nickname "Little Magic" among my audiophile friends.
After 8 months of daily use, there are really no nits to pick about this DAP. I feel bad for the haters who get hung up on the cost and seem unable to separate their priorities and budgets from mine. This was and still is a perfect DAP for me, as well as one of the best investments I've ever made in my pursuit of the most enjoyable music-listening experiences I can attain.