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Astell & Kern AK Jr review:

Class-leading high-res player under $500

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The Good The Astell & Kern AK Jr offers excellent design and great usability -- from the dedicated volume dial to the no-nonsense menu. Great-sounding sonics and able to drive many different types of headphones. Able to put dedicated USB DACs to shame.

The Bad The corners on the casing are pointed, which can make it uncomfortable to hold, and the case that fixes the problem runs an extra $50. Making playlists could be more straightforward. Relatively short battery life at only nine hours. Sound quality isn't $200 better than the Sony A17.

The Bottom Line The Astell & Kern AK Jr marries classic design with class-leading sound, making it one of the best high-res players for the money.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.7 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Value 7.0

Despite launching in only 2012, the name Astell & Kern has quickly become synonymous with high-end audio on the go. But with prices reaching into the many thousands of dollars, the company's gear has long been "aspirational" rather than "affordable" for many music fans. With the AK Jr, the brand becomes more attainable than ever before.

While $500, £399 or AU$699 is not exactly pocket change, it buys an impressive portable player. The AK Jr manages to achieve the trinity of usability, design and sound quality. It looks great, and the aluminum and glass construction feels luxurious, too.

Yes, although the new iPod Touch runs $300, £249 or AU$419 for a similar capacity and does a lot more than "just play music," it can't match the A&K's design or sound quality, and it doesn't play back high-res audio files. Meanwhile less expensive and similarly performing players, namely the Sony NWZ-A17 and the PonoPlayer , have their own flaws and don't exhibit the AK Jr's beautiful build quality. If you want something better than a phone, with excellent design and superb sound, the Astell & Kern AK Jr is arguably the best yet.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're dropping five finely milled pieces of cotton with a balding mullet-man by the name of "Franklin" painted on them, you probably expect your music device to look as sharp as it performs. While not as outlandish as some of the more expensive A&K devices, the pared-back Jr is arguably better for it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To go with its pointy edges -- which can be tamed by a $50 case -- a few luxury appointments help it stand out. The most notable is A&K's trademark rotary dial. It's an exposed volume knob mounted flush with the back, and is frankly one of the most joyful parts of the device. The back of the player itself is eye-catching, too, in nicely patterned glass.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Jr is half the size and weight of its nearest A&K colleague, making it much more pocket-friendly. It measures 4.6 by 2.2 by 0.35 inches (117 by 56 by 8.9mm) and weighs a portable 3.3 ounces (93 grams).

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the side you'll find a play/pause button in addition to forward and back. Unlike some other other players, it's pretty easy to operate these by feel, so you don't have to pull it out of your pocket every time you need to make an adjustment.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While the exterior is simple and beautiful, the insides are a little homelier. The user interface borders on "90s security system" with the large black-and-white blocks of text on its home screen. The screen is nicely large, however, and offers both full cover art and plenty of room beneath for the onscreen playback controls.

Features

Other Astell & Kern players are wireless network compatible, but the AK Jr is sadly restricted to a wired connection only. While being able to connect to the Net is moot when you're out of the house, the main advantage of wireless is the ability to load tracks onto the device without connecting it to a PC, especially if you own a NAS. But if the lack of Wi-Fi saves you $300 over the step-up Astell & Kern AK100 II, it might just be worthwhile.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the original AK100 (but not the AK100 II) the JR sports a Wolfson WM8740 DAC which is capable of 24-bit/192kHz playback. For those playing at home, this DAC chip is also featured in hi-fi component DACs such as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus .

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