Astell & Kern (A&K)’s latest USB headphone DAC/amp for mobile devices and computers represents a huge leap in design compared to the company’s previous models. The $220 AK HC4 USB DAC is the company’s first to feature dual outputs – a balanced 4.4mm jack and an unbalanced 3.5mm jack, following a rapidly growing trend throughout 2023. It will be available in December through retailers that carry A&K. product.
With support up to DSD 256 and PCM at 32-bit/384kHz, the AK HC4 will be able to play almost any digital audio you can throw at it, except MQA. It turns out that the decision to use the AK4493S DAC from AKM – another first for A&K’s headphone DACs – means largely dropping support for the Tidal-only format. If MQA is important, the HC3 (which uses the ESS DAC) may be a better choice.
The AK HC4 also has several other features that help it compare 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 the included USB-C cable and Lightning cable, you can swap between iPhones, iPads, and other devices without adding an awkward plug adapter. This also means that if the cable is damaged, you don’t have to replace the entire 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, meaning you can use it on a 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 on DAR and the algorithm will sample whatever content you’re playing.
While MQA support isn’t mandatory at $220, the AK HC4 is more affordable than the IFI Go Bar ($329) and Questyle M15 ($299) – two high-end DACs with dual outputs.