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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 .
If you want to try and vex the AK Jr with unusual file formats, you'll have to try pretty hard. It supports WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF and AIFF. Phew! If you're a purist, know that while it will play 2.8MHz DSD files, it doesn't do so natively -- it will convert them to PCM first.
The AK Jr houses 64GB of onboard memory, and users can add up to an extra 64GB via microSD.
The device can also function as an external 24-bit/96kHz DAC (sound card) when connected to a PC or Mac via USB. Unlike other players that need their own drivers, Windows and Mac will recognize it and start playing almost instantly.
If you want to play your tunes back on a Bluetooth device, the player comes with a Bluetooth 4.0 radio, but consider buying a cable for better quality.
Astell & Kern claims a battery life of 9 hours and that's right on the money: our test of a 24-bit/96kHz Bjork album at a moderate volume (50) lasted 9 hours and 6 minutes.
I mostly used a set of the balanced-sounding Sony MDR-1R headphones in conjunction with the AK Jr, but also had excellent results with others including the Sony Z7 , the HiFiMan HE400 and the Marshall Major FX . The device has plenty of headroom and didn't have a problem driving any of these 'phones, even in noisy environments.
As a comparison, I tested the AK Jr against other entry-level players such as the Sony NWZ-A17 and the PonoPlayer . While our Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg had some issues with the A&K interface, which can be confusing as it uses vague pictograms instead of words, I found it more fun to use the than the Sony. The Sony lacks a touchscreen and its back button is cramped and plasticky ,while the A&K's touchscreen aids usability quite a bit. The PonoPlayer may have the best interface of the lot, but its poor battery life, awkward shape and lack of a hold button keep it lower on my list than the AK Jr.
I started my sound quality testing with a 24-bit/96kHz version of the Metallica track "The Unforgiven." Comparing it against its cheaper Sony A17 rival, I found the AK Jr had slightly better punch to the kick drum and some of the acoustic guitars sparkled a bit more. On the A&K the wind instrument starts in the center of the soundstage and all of the progressive instruments grow out of it like a beanstalk: the "horn" becomes a snare drum roll, becomes a tubular bell -- retreating to the sides of the image. But I'm splitting hairs here as there weren't the huge differences I heard compared with the PonoPlayer in balanced mode.
Armed with a pair of Sony Z7 "balanced" headphones -- meaning able to be driven by two amplifiers -- I was interested to see how the non-balanced A&K could compete against the Pono in its balanced mode. With both players set to normal headphone out they compared quite well; King Creosote's acoustic "Pauper's Dough" sounding full and immediate. Switching to Pono's balanced mode on the Z7s brought out more detail in the midrange with better enunciated plosives and a better sense of the reverberant space around the singer. There are plenty of caveats here of course. First, you need balanced headphones, and second, while the balanced mode doesn't drain the battery any faster than normal, the PonoPlayer is still capable of only six hours playback versus the A&K's nine.
As a comparison versus a typical phone I plugged the Sony MDR-1Rs into a Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and was immediately disappointed. It lacked the drama of the dedicated player and evinced a lightweight bottom end. In addition, the snares were harder to differentiate and the acoustic guitars wanted for the AK Jr's sparkle.
The most expansive, concert-like portable player I have heard is the Cowon Plenue 1 with its superwide soundstage, which can improve the sound of even inexpensive headphones. While the A&K simply isn't capable of these kinds of vistas, it costs half as much.
Compared in USB DAC mode against the $250 desktop ifi iDAC, I found that I enjoyed the sound of the AK Jr better, especially for rock. It had a fuller bass and less "hash" in the upper registers, which was flattering to styles such as jangly guitar rock. When it came to acoustic folk though, the extra information in the upper mids actually made intimate vocals even more present on the ifi.
At $500, the AKJr is definitely a considered purchase, but worth it for people who want to improve sound quality when on the go. While the Sony A17 has similar sound, is $200 cheaper and has a battery that lasts a lotlonger, it's not as well made or easy to use. The PonoPlayer also has many faults, but if you have a set of "balanced-mode" headphones, it can sound better than the A&K Jr. However if If you're not looking to go balanced, the AK Jr is superior to the Pono in almost every other way, and is the one I'd recommend for buyers looking for a high-quality music player.