To most users, dedicated music players are a thing of the past. Smartphones and music streaming services have replaced MP3 players. However, many casual music listeners may be surprised that music players and portable audio are still very popular in Japan.
Portable Audio Market in Japan
Japan is currently one of the largest markets for portable audio. In fact, it is one of the few countries that have dedicated earphone specialty stores. And interestingly, it is also one of the few places with anime and music artist-themed earphone accessories and music-listening devices.
At present, Astell & Kern and Sony are the two biggest music player and earphone accessory brands in Japan that have collaborated with well-known artists and anime titles. They have produced products based on popular manga and anime, such as Mobile Suit Gundam, Fate/Stay Night, Detective Conan, Naruto, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and many more.
However, while these two brands are also popular outside of Japan, nearly all of their special collaboration models were released exclusively to the Japanese market. In this article, we will check out some of the coolest-looking special collaboration model music players and accessories.
We will go through available collaboration models that can be bought from official stores and discontinued models that are hard to find outside Japan.
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Astell & Kern Collaboration Products
Astell & Kern is a popular South Korean brand that produces luxurious high-end digital audio players. Given their unique design, exceptional build quality, high performance, and premium price, they are considered the Ferrari of the portable audio world.
AK’s parent company, iRiver, was well-known for producing portable CD and MP3 players that competed with Sony’s iconic Discman and Walkman portable players and Apple’s iPod. Since 2013, iRiver has produced high-resolution portable music players under the Astell & Kern branding.
Astell & Kern music players have been very popular in Japan. In fact, nearly all AK limited edition/collaboration models are Japan-exclusive. They have worked with popular anime and Japanese music artists to create some of the most beautiful high-end audio products in the market. Below are some of the most notable AK collaboration products.
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Fripside and Ayaka Ohashi AK HC2 Dongle
Aside from music players, Astell & Kern has also produced high-end dongles/headphone adapters for Android and iOS smartphones. AK’s latest collaborations are with music duo Fripside and voice actress Ayaka Ohashi.
The Fripside and Ayaka Ohashi models are based on Astell & Kern’s HC2 dongle. AK’s HC2 dongle allows users to experience AK’s high-end sound through their smartphone. It uses the same dual CS43198 DAC chip used in the brand’s entry-level AK SR25MK2 music player, ensuring high-quality sound.
In addition, the HC2 uses a full aluminum material for its body and supports AK’s specialized smartphone application for volume control. The only thing to note with this model is that it only supports a 4.4 mm balanced output instead of the typical 3.5mm output. In other words, these Japanese audio dongles are specialized audiophile earphones.
As for the artists and their collaboration models, here is some more information. Fripside is a Japanese pop duo that has been active since 2002. They are best known for their work in various anime and Japanese video game music. The AK Fripside HC2 collaboration model features the band’s iconic orange color scheme and their official laser-engraved logo on the body.
Everything from the design of the dongle to the box art has been supervised by Fripside’s composer and leader, Satoshi Yaginuma. In addition to its unique design, the HC2 Fripside edition also comes with a special high-resolution version of their song 'Save Me Again'.
This product marks the second collaboration between Fripside and Astell & Kern. Previously, they have worked together with the Astell & Kern SE100 Fripside Edition music player.
For the other HC2 variant, Astell & Kern collaborated with popular Japanese voice actress Ayaka Ohashi. Ayaka Ohashi is best known for her roles in popular anime such as Bang Dream!, Saint Seiya, Haikyu!!, and many more. This model was released to commemorate her 10th anniversary of being a voice actress.
Ayaka Ohashi’s collaboration model features her pink signature color and her official logo. And just like the Fripside model, Ayaka Ohashi’s collaboration model comes with a high-resolution version of her new song “Connect”.
The AK HC2 collaboration models are available in earphone specialty stores such as Fujiya Avic Japan. Given their popularity, they also appear in second-hand marketplaces like Rakuma Japan, Yahoo! Auctions, or mercari.
Notable Astell & Kern Collaboration Models
Since the brand’s debut in 2013, Astell & Kern has already captured the interest of the Japanese audience. They have created limited edition models in partnership with K-On, Kana Hanazawa, and many more. Below are some of AK’s recent collaboration models.
AK SE100 Phenex Gundam Unicorn
The Astell & Kern SE100 Phenex Edition is arguably one of the best collaboration models that AK has released. It features many design elements that have not been used in any other collaboration models. The SE100 Phenex is based on the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam 03 Phenex that appears in the film Mobile Suit Gundam NT (Narrative).
The AK Unicorn Gundam 03 Phenex model is based on AK's premium SE100 music player. It features many design elements from the Phenex Gundam, such as its striking gold color scheme. The front panel features the laser-engraved text "FULL PSYCHO-FRAME PROTOTYPE MOBILE SUIT" and "RX-0 UNICORN GUNDAM 03 PHENEX."
The back panel features the Phenex Gundam's "Destroy Mode" artwork. And to fully emphasize the glowing psycho-frame part of the Phenex Gundam, AK utilized luminous paint making certain parts of the artwork glow in the dark.
Lastly, the SE100 Phenex features a special voice-recorded message from voice actress Ayumi Matsuura who plays Rita Bernal, the pilot of the Unicorn Gundam 03 Phenex. Overall, the SE100 Phenex is an incredibly gorgeous music player that is a must-have for Mobile Suit Gundam fans.
The AK SE100 saw a limited Japan-only release. However, you can still buy it in Japanese online stores such as Yahoo! Shopping and Rakuten, and is also occasionally available in second-hand marketplaces like Yahoo! Auctions and Rakuma.
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AK SA700 Luna Sea Version
The Luna Sea SA700 is made in collaboration with the popular Japanese rock band Luna Sea. This model was released to commemorate the band's 30th anniversary. This collaboration model is based on AK's SA700 mid-tier music player. Interestingly, the SA700 is also meant to be an anniversary model and is an updated version of the AK120, AK's first-ever flagship product.
Despite Luna Sea's extravagant and explosive image (especially early in their career), their AK collaboration model is surprisingly simple. The AK SA700 Luna Sea adopts a black color scheme, giving it a clean and classy look.
The band's laser-engraved 30th Anniversary Logo is located at the back of the model. The same logo also appears when booting up the device. The Luna Sea model is the first collaboration model that changes Astell & Kern's default boot-up animation.
In addition, the SA700 Luna Sea's volume wheel LED lights up in amber, evoking the image of the moonlight whenever a high-resolution file is played. In comparison, the standard SA700's volume wheel LED only lights up in green when playing high-resolution files.
The SA700 Luna Sea also comes with special Luna Sea-themed bonus accessories. It has a premium black leather case with the band's 30th-anniversary logo engraved at the back.
And lastly, the SA700 Luna Sea comes with a high-resolution version of the band's 10th full-length album, "CROSS." Overall the SA700 is a beautifully designed product that fans of Luna Sea and Astell & Kern will surely appreciate.
The SA700 Luna Sea is still available in Japanese online stores such as Yahoo! Shopping and Rakuten, and occasionally on second-hand marketplaces like Yahoo! Auctions and Rakuma.
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Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel AK70 MK2
The Fate/Stay Night AK70MK2 is one of AK’s most popular collaboration models. It was a big deal in the audiophile community when it first launched. It helped introduce anime fans to the Astell & Kern brand and the world of portable audio.
The Fate/Stay Night AK model is based on the AK70MK2, the brand’s entry-level model, back in 2017. It features a purple color scheme and several laser-engraved art and logos. At the back of the device is a laser engraved art of Sakura Matou and Saber from the film Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel.
The AK70 MK2 Fate/Stay Night also has the movie’s logo laser engraved on the front panel and an engraving of the magic circle that appears in the anime and films on the volume wheel of the device.
In addition, the AK70 MK2 Fate/Stay Night comes with an original premium leather case with the Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel logo and an original illustration card featuring Sakura Matou and Saber.
Lastly, the AK70MK2 Fate/Stay Night comes with a special recorded message from the voice actors of Sakura Matou (CV: Noriko Shimoya), Saber (CV: Ayako Kawasumi), and Rin Tohsaka (CV: Kana Ueda). Each recording features original artwork.
The Astell & Kern AK70MK2 is an older-generation product. Nevertheless, the AK70MK2 is still a great-sounding device and a must-have for portable audio fans and the Fate/Stay Night series.
The Fate/Stay Night AK70Mk2 is available in Japanese online stores such as Yahoo! Shopping and Rakuten, and second-hand marketplaces like Yahoo! Auctions and Rakuma.
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Activo CT10 Sega Saturn Edition
Activo is a sub-brand of Astell & Kern meant for releasing budget-priced products. At present, the Activo CT10 is the only product that the company has released. Compared to Astell & Kern's current entry-level products, the Activo CT10 lacks many signature AK features.
It has a plastic body, a different Android-based operating system, and no 2.5 or 4.4mm balanced outputs. On the surface, the Activo CT10 looks like a straightforward product. However, the CT10 has released multiple special edition collaboration versions in Japan.
The most popular Japanese Activo CT10 model is the Sega Saturn collaboration model. As its name implies, this version of the Activo CT10 is based on the classic Sega Saturn game console that was first released in 1994.
The Activo CT10 Sega Saturn is available in two colors, the original grey launch model and the white model introduced in 1997. In addition, both models' packaging closely mimics the original box design of the two Sega Saturn variants. The grey CT10 has a gold box, while the white CT10 has a white box.
In addition, the Activo CT10 Sega Edition comes with three preinstalled songs from various Sega titles. Both CT10 Sega models feature the original Sega Saturn startup sound. However, the other two songs are different in each model.
The grey model has "Game Start" from Virtua Fighter and "Super Sonic Racing" from Sonic R. The white model, on the other hand, features "Recital! Imperial Combat Revue" from Sakura Wars and "DREAMS DREAMS" from NiGHTS into dreams…..
Overall, despite its simple feature set, the Activo CT10 Sega Saturn Edition is perfect for fans of Sega and retro console gaming.
The Activo CT10 Sega Edition saw a limited release in Japan. However, you can still find it in online stores such as Yahoo! Shopping and Rakuten, or second-hand marketplaces like Yahoo! Auctions.
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Sony Special Edition Walkman
The Walkman is one of Sony's most iconic products. They were first released in 1978 and are best known as portable cassette players. However, many do not know that the Sony Walkman still lives on to this day in the form of a portable high-resolution music player.
And in typical Japanese fashion, Sony has collaborated with many Japanese artists and anime for special edition Sony Walkmans. In the past, Sony has collaborated with anime and video game franchises, such as Detective Conan, Naruto, Hatsune Miku, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Sword Art Online, and many more.
Sony's collaboration Walkman models are usually reserved for their entry-level models (NW-A35, NW-A45, NW-A55, and NW-A105). In the past, these models were standalone players with a dedicated operating system and did not have Wi-Fi for music streaming. However, the current Sony Walkman models (NW-A105) are Android-based and more versatile.
Like other Japanese brands such as Onkyo, Sony sells their collaboration Walkmans through their official website. At present, Sony is offering their Disney Collection based on the Sony NW-A105.
Unlike other Sony Walkman collaboration models, Sony's current collaboration allows buyers to choose from five colors: black, orange, blue, ash green, and red. You can also choose which of the three Disney characters you want to engrave on your device's back panel: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, or Chip & Dale.
Sony Walkman collaboration models aren't marketed as limited edition models. However, they can suddenly be discontinued, especially if Sony chooses to proceed with their next collaboration.
Sony Walkman devices are highly reliable and have a distinct sound. And while the art for the collaboration models is minimal, they are almost always well implemented, making these devices collector's items.
Sony collaboration Walkman models are available through Sony Japan's official website. On the other hand, older discontinued collaboration models can be bought from earphone specialty stores and in Japanese second-hand marketplaces like Yahoo! Auctions.
Some notable Sony collaboration models released in the past include the NW-A55 Kingdom Hearts III Edition, NW105 Kingdom Hearts 20th Anniversary Edition, and the NW105 Sword Art Online the Movie Collection.
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Fitear Mone and Aya Acrylic Stand
Fitear is one of Japan’s most celebrated earphone brands. Their professional earphones are currently used by most of Japan’s biggest artists (LiSA, Sawano Hiroyuki, Aimer, to name just a few.). Aside from earphones, Fitear also makes earphone-related accessories based on their original characters.
The Fitear Mone and Aya acrylic stands are based on Fitear’s two iconic mascots. They are original characters illustrated by manga artist Thillayuki. These stands are simple accessories that help users display or organize their earphones. Fitear acrylic stands are available on Fitear Lab’s website.