Astell&Kern (A&K)’s newest USB headphone DAC/amp for mobile devices and computers represents a pretty big leap in design compared to the company’s previous models. The $220 AK HC4 USB DAC is the company’s first to offer dual outputs — a balanced 4.4mm jack and an unbalanced 3.5mm jack, following a trend that has been catching on fast during 2023. It will be available in December through retailers that carry A&K products.
With support for up to DSD 256 and PCM at 32-bit/384kHz, the AK HC4 will be able to play just about any digital audio you can throw at it, except for MQA. It turns out that the decision to use an AK4493S DAC from AKM — another first for A&K’s headphone DACs — has meant dropping support for the largely Tidal-only format. If MQA is critical, the HC3 (which uses an ESS DAC) might be a better choice.
The AK HC4 also sports several other features that help it stand out when compared to its siblings (like the HC3, HC2, and Dual-cable DAC) and its rivals. The HC4 has traded a hardwired design for a more versatile USB-C port. With an included USB-C cable and a Lightning cable, you can swap between iPhones, iPads, and other devices without adding an awkward plug adapter. It also means that if the cable is damaged, you don’t need to replace the whole unit.
An integrated volume rocker lets you control amplification without relying on your phone’s settings. The HC4 is also compatible with USB Audio Class (UAC) 1.0 and 2.0, which means you can use it on a wide variety of game consoles that still use the older UAC setting.
Astell & Kern has added its Digital Audio Remaster (DAR) technology to the AK HC4, which it claims can deliver delicate and analog-like original sound when playing digital music with lower sample rates. Toggle the dedicated switch to turn DAR on and the algorithm will upsample any content you’re playing.
As long as MQA support isn’t a must-have, at $220, the AK HC4 is more affordable than the Ifi Go Bar ($329) and the Questyle M15 ($299) — two high-end DACs with dual outputs.