“It’s déjà vu all over again,” one of the famous malapropisms by late Yankees legend Yogi Berra, feels like a fitting reaction to unboxing the Astell & Kern A&norma SR35. We get the overwhelming sense that we have been here before. And again before that. It’s understandable really, as the new SR35 is the fourth iteration of this portable music player we have reviewed in as many years, and the model’s appearance has varied little more than Mickey Mouse’s over their careers.
Either the South Korean portable audio specialist is needlessly determined to compete with the annual smartphone launch cycle, or it keeps finding ways to improve upon its entry-level player and cannot resist sharing it with the world. Let’s go with the latter.
Compared to its predecessor, the A&norma SR25 MKII, the SR35 has indeed evolved both the features offering and performance, though it should be said that it hasn’t done so without hoisting up the launch price by £100 / $50 / AU$200.
The SR35 might test the definition of ‘entry level’, and is a rung or two up the ladder from the budget Sony Walkman and most affordable Cowon and FiiO hi-res players, but it is still considerably more affordable than Astell & Kern’s next-model-up Kann Max (£1199 / $1300 / AU$1899).
The new SR35 is the first model in the A&norma line to feature the company’s in-house-designed New Generation AMP technology and a quad-DAC arrangement which allows the owner to engage all four of its Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chips for a more engaging sound. (Alternatively, Dual mode can be selected for times when power consumption might be more of a priority than outright sound quality.)
Found on its more premium players too, these technologies are part of Astell & Kern’s “ultimate sound” Teraton Alpha platform to reduce noise and maximise performance.
Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 tech specs
Music files 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
MicroSD slot? Yes
Battery life 20 hours
Dimensions (hwd) 10.8 x 6.4 x 1.6cm
Furthermore, Dual Band Wi-Fi (2.4/5GHz) is now supported to deliver bolstered network stability when the player is making use of its brand-new Roon Ready support or streaming from Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music, Apple Music or any of the other services downloadable from the player’s menu. Two-way Bluetooth now supports the 5.0 standard, alongside the aptX HD and LDAC codecs, and a new user interface has been implemented.
Aside from these functionality upgrades and promised performance enhancement, the SR35 boasts many of the features that made its five-star, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning predecessor so successful – including three headphone outputs (3.5mm, 4.4mm and 2.5mm), native playback of MQA, DSD256 and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz files, 64GB of built-in storage (expandable by up to 1TB via a microSD card), and the neat ability to use the player as a performance-enhancing DAC device between your wired headphones and, say, laptop.
The 20-hour battery life remains, though that claim is supposedly based on the continuous playback of CD-quality music at middling volume in Dual DAC mode, so expect a more modest endurance if you’re going bananas playing a hi-res library loudly in Quad DAC mode.
All in all, the SR35 is a very well-specced player – and not too well-specced either. We have seen portable music players frequently adopt a full Android operating system and all the apps and phone-like density that goes with it, and most of the time it feels overwhelming and unnecessary for such an audio device. We like the SR35’s stripped-back functionality, which begins at the necessary device settings and ends with integrated streaming service support. It should be noted, however, that the interfaces and features of the integrated streaming services can differ from their Android and iOS versions – for example, the Tidal app doesn’t have offline playback
To labour the point, reviewing Astell & Kern’s entry-level portable music players over the best part of a decade has been somewhat akin to showing up to every Wes Anderson movie at the cinema in that same period – visually, we’ve known what we’re going to get. Much like Anderson movies, though, that’s no bad thing. We have always liked the player’s geometrically quirky aluminium casework and sleek, shiny finish, not to mention that nicely tactile volume dial which has found our favour with each generation. We are big believers in the ‘if it ain’t broke’ mantra.
Its compact dimensions (108 x 64 x 16mm) make it perfectly pocketable and easy to hold and operate in one hand – much more so than, say, the FiiO M11S – though what with the player’s increased asking price, it doesn’t do anything for its perceived value. Does the SR35 look like a £799 / $799 / AU$1299 device? In our minds, no it does not.
Another consequence to that physicality is a relatively small screen (3.6 inches) and, with it, relatively small areas on which to point your thumb or finger at the touchscreen keys. This is generally fine for playback operation and menu navigation, though precision is required when the keyboard pops up to type in our Tidal login credentials.
While there would be little to ring in a spot-the-difference of the SR35 and outgoing SR25 MKII’s casework, the new model does introduce a crimson red and black music player interface that is, we think, nicer to look at than the previous grey. Astell & Kern says the colour combo “lowers visual fatigue” too.
Sonic fatigue won’t be an issue either, unless your listening session includes playing the whole of The Cure’s Disintegration album at the volume level it deserves (and demands in the liner notes!) That’s because the SR35 has the punch and rhythmic drive to keep you tapping along to upbeat tracks, and the insight to draw you into the details of those calmer ones. This is the kind of musical machine we have come to expect from Astell & Kern, and while the company has done well to differentiate its models of varying prices with regard to resolution and overall transparency, it has remained consistently loyal to a full-bodied, entertaining character across them.
It’s a very likeable presentation, with a tonal balance slightly on the rich side and a combination of power and finesse that feels very mature for a source at this level and that most headphones will get along just fine with. Thankfully, that same sonic signature also shines through our favoured Grado RS1x headphones when the SR35 handily steps in as a budget-level DAC between them and a Macbook Pro. Think somewhere between AudioQuest DragonFly Red and Cobalt DAC levels.
The SR35 effortlessly flows with all music it is handed, conveying a very decent amount of dynamic expression and ultimately more detail than we’ve been previously presented by a player at this price point. Playing Peter Broderick’s Eyes Closed And Travelling, the player captures the undulating dynamic subtleties of his spirited piano-playing to a level that’s unique until you reach further up Astell & Kern’s lineup. Over to The Tallest Man On Earth’s I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream and the SR35 offers a pleasantly wide window into not only the acoustic textures of his guitar and raw vocal but also the space he’s recording in.
There’s plenty in the way of verve when we chuck it Elvis Costello’s Lipstick Vogue and Drake’s What Next, but also the organisation and control to ensure nothing feels rushed or messy. The SR35’s soundstage isn’t as wide-open or big-sounding as the admittedly cheaper FiiO M11S’s, but nor does it feel small or congested – and the player reveals its superiority (and justifies its premium price) over the FiiO through greater clarity, subtlety and rhythmic cohesion anyway. As the SR35’s price demands, this is a more sophisticated, next-level performance than the few budget players still around are capable of.
There are noticeable losses when you gear down to Dual DAC operation – most notably in clarity, dynamism and subtlety – so we would only select that mode when battery life forces your hand. For the record, we prefer the player’s performance in Quad DAC and Normal AMP modes, with the ‘Low Latency Fast’ DAC filter activated – though the differences between the four available are small and only apply to 24-bit/192kHz PCM files or less. The balanced connection is also a route worth going down if you own a decent set of balanced headphones. As we found plugging the Sony MDR-Z1R into the SR35’s 4.4mm jack, the delivery is that bit clearer, bolder and more precisely drawn compared to through the 3.5mm output.
It’s a pity Astell & Kern no longer appeases the budget (sub-£500 / $500 / AU$1000) music player market. Maybe there isn’t much of one, perhaps the company’s ambitions are just too high. But at this mid-range music player level, where you would be looking to build a serious four-figure personal listening set-up (that perhaps your hi-fi system might also benefit from), the company certainly comes to your aid. The A&norma SR35 may not exactly be dressed for its not-insignificant price, but there’s no uncertainty over whether it performs to it.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Build 5
Read our review of the FiiO M11S
Also consider the Astell & Kern Alpha Max
Best portable MP3 players: budget to hi-res music players