Long-time readers will know that I disapprove of iRiver's handling of the AK series. The AK100, which has been on the market for just over a year and a half, feels old. In Japan, pristine models are selling used for anywhere from 23.000¥ to 35.000¥, which is 40% - 55% off MSRP. (By contrast, a used iPod of the same vintage sells used 75-85% of its new price.)
UPDATE: Mezzo HiFi contacted me with the following corrections:
The units I have are prototypes. As I use a Mac, neither unit outputs audio when used as a USB DAC. Further, only the MS-AK120 output audio from its optical port. The MS-AK100 wasn't able to sync at any sampling rate or word length.
iRiver are not a hi-end manufacturer. They neither romance the market nor massage their customer. Their hands are firmly on their own cocks, and their products are, as often as possible, squirted into the socks between their knees. There is no precedence among long-standing, respected luxury companies.
Market ejaculation belongs to the smartphone and a dumb-phone, and a let's-make-it-pink-and-call-it-a-new-product Japanese car market.
That said, I bought a first-generation AK100. Yes, the one with a boner of a headphone output impedance that made it a playback device ill-suited to the playback of quality earphones. The AK100 does a few things right. First, its touch-based navigation system is far more logical than is the next audiophile player's. Touch targets are large enough for the thumb, and well placed. The interface can be sluggish, and nearly once every two days, it needs to be reset in order to clear some wad in its tubes, but it is more responsive than that of many of its competitors.
Next to other audiophile players, it is compact, and well-finished. The metal and glass found in its tits and ass eclipse the sometimes shoddy work of other audiophile players. There is no nasty glue residue anywhere.
And the headphone output, though woefully poor, is blessedly free of noise- that is, compared to many audiophile players.
So why did I purchase an AK100? As a reviewer, and gadget-lover, I felt it was my duty. But, as I don't like carrying amps whilst out and about, a stock AK100 was right out for portable use. At home, I listen through speakers, or through something like the LinnenberG Vivace and Graham Slee Solo. In short, I wasted my money.
Please read the update, above
Enter Mezzo HiFi. Its MS-AK100 modification directly interfaces the Wolfson WM8741SW. Sundry elements are replaced/modified. Optical in/out are removed. The AK100 no longer can be used as a USB DAC (though it still shows up in your OSX preference pane as a USB DAC). As the amp section has been bypassed, and the volume pot interfaces DAC line levels, there no way to turn the volume completely off; rather, a setting of 0 on the pot will output comfortable bedside listening levels into a pair of sensitive earphones.
In their lieu are near line-level out, as well as balanced TRRS headphone output. Otherwise, the functionality of the player is the same.
Mezzo's modifications have numerous benefits:
- nearly zero output noise
- strong current into low Ω loads
- balanced output
- undiluted Wolfson sound (depending on your take, this could be positive or negative)
I will be doing a full review at Headfonia and won't into the nitty gritty here. I will, however, say this: if you want performance that, at an output level, matches or beats the best portable amps/DACs on the planet at any price, the MS-AK100 is your best choice for your most earphones. To that end, it sacrifices very little.
At 500$ for the AK100 mod, and 700$ for the AK120 mod, Mezzo Hifi's work comes at a hefty price. I can't say if it is worthwhile to you. It fixes none of iRiver's programming ineptitude.
But it combines the AK100's several strengths: compactness, comparative build superiority, and ease-of-use, with good performance- and, I will argue, better sound.
NOTE: click the images below to advance to the next frame.