Astell & Kern AK Jr Music Player Review

PRICE $499

A&K’s most affordable player
Same Wolfson DAC as in classic models
Flatter form factor
DSD converted to PCM
Less than intuitive GUI

The Astell & Kern AK Jr is the least expensive music player from the company that has defined the state of the art in pocketable audio.

Visit the Apple Website and scan the banner across the top: Mac, iPad, iPhone, Watch, TV, Music, Support. Where’s the iPod? You’ll have to hit Music and scroll down a bit for the link to the iPod page. There you’ll find the surviving touch, nano, and shuffle players, but no high-capacity hard-drive-based models or even the iconic click wheel. Apple (and to be fair, Apple isn’t alone) recognizes that most people now use phones for onthe-go listening. But a few hardy souls, including Astell & Kern, still market music players that are a cut above the no-name junk that comes up when you search “music player” on Amazon. Making its debut at the bottom of the A&K line, at an affordable price unprecedented for this manufacturer, is the $499 AK Jr, positioned as an alternative to the still-surviving AK100 II—which, at $899, is a bit more expensive than the original AK100 ($699).

Chip Off the Old Block
A&K has rethought the form factor. The AK Jr is an inch and a half taller than the original AK100, but it’s roughly half as deep, so it sits flatter in an average shirt or jacket pocket. And at 3.28 ounces, it weighs about an ounce less. Unlike the boxy AK100, the AK Jr mimics the sweet shaved planes of the more deluxe AK240-and-up models, with a bigger, 3-inch color screen and a flatter version of the familiar knurled volume knob at right. The interface isn’t smartphone-slick but serves its purpose. Getting to the Settings menu, in particular, involved a somewhat unintuitive swipe across the top of the screen, which proved awkward and a bit annoying in the early going considering how often I needed to access it.

The right side also includes the microSD card slot, which has the potential to double the onboard storage of 64 gigabytes to 128 GB (close to the iPod classic’s 160 GB). Connectivity includes the analog headphone minijack at top and USB Micro-B jack at bottom. Unlike other A&K models, this one doesn’t support balanced headphone connections. Nor does it have a digital optical input or output. However, its USB input and analog output do enable it to mate with a computer as a USB DAC, a significant enhancement of functionality. Your old iPod couldn’t do that (nor can your new iPhone). Buttons include power at top and three transport keys at left.

Under the hood, the AK Jr improves on the original AK100 with 14 percent higher output voltage and with output impedance reduced from 22 ohms to 2 ohms. That should enable it to power more demanding headphones. The DAC is the same Wolfson WM8740 that was used in the AK100; the AK100 II and other current models have incorporated Cirrus Logic and AKM chips. Maximum resolution is 192/24, which accommodates nearly all current commercial downloads. 2.8 MHz DSD files are supported, but the stream is converted to PCM internally on its way to the DAC. A&K does offer pricier models that handle DSD natively. Bluetooth version 4 is supported.

Sweet Music
I tried the AK Jr with three headphones: the NAD Viso HP50, which has a gentle top end; the Sony MDR-V6, which has an aggressive top end; and the Sennheiser HD600, which falls in between. As usual, I started with lossy tracks, moved up to CD quality, and finished with hi-res.

The lossy tracks were Wings’ “Let ’Em In” (from Wings at the Speed of Sound, AAC at 256 kilobits per second), Hank Green and the Perfect Strangers’ geek-rock anthem “I F---ing Love Science” (Incongruent, MP3 at 320 kbps), and Bert Lams’ acoustic guitar performance of the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (Nascent, MP3 at 192 kbps). The CD-quality tracks, all ripped from CDs in Apple Lossless, were folkie Martin Carthy’s genius-level cover of Leon Rosselson’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper” (Right of Passage), Gentle Giant’s prog clockwork assault “So Sincere” (The Power and the Glory), and Hiromi’s jazzified reading of Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata (Voice). The hi-res selections were Peter Gabriel’s orchestral reimagining of “San Jacinto” (Half Blood, FLAC 48/24), Bernard Haitink leading the London Symphony Orchestra through the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (FLAC 48/24), and Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song” (Houses of the Holy, FLAC 96/24). It would be fair to say I enjoyed myself while I interrogated the player.

The AK Jr had a slightly warm tonal balance that suited both the trebly Sony headphone and neutral-to-my-ears Sennheiser but didn’t always suit the already thick lower midrange of the NAD. Bass was firm and solid—better than that of your average flea-amp smartphone—and it definitely juiced the Sennheiser’s small drivers. Output was plentiful and clean enough to make the ideal volume setting less than obvious, at least to me. When I’m using a mediocre signal source, I crank it up ’til it hurts, then back it off ’til I feel comfortable. With the AK Jr’s substantial, low-noise output, I could drive even the less efficient Sennheiser to high levels without immediate discomfort, though the perfect setting was the one that left some headroom at dynamic midpoints. Compressed mixes made this easy; mixes with wider dynamics required more care and forethought, though the results (with the best content) could be stellar.

Because the AK Jr wasn’t adding obvious coloration of its own, even lossy content was listenable—and even on the Sony headphone, which is always happy to place recordings under a microscope and examine them in detail. The Wings track’s novelty arrangements were nicely balanced, the buzz-saw guitars in Hank Green’s ode to science were more zingy than crunchy, and Bert Lams’ guitar tone was reasonably natural, with a little percussive emphasis on the pick. Stepping up to the Sennheiser brought out the rich texture of Lams’ acoustic guitar and warmed up the other tracks. The NAD headphone, which is designed to mimic speakers playing in a room, conjured a bigger sound than the other two but with less in-head focus.

When I stepped up to CD-quality recordings, the Sennheiser brought out the subtle beauties of the Martin Carthy track, including the faint papery rasp of the voice, the decay of the acoustic guitar, and the ambience of both. The Sony lightened the tone, but the AK Jr enabled that headphone to match the subtlety of the Sennheiser, while the NAD darkened and rounded the tone and relaxed the transients. The edgy attacks of the frenetic Gentle Giant track were tight and focused with the Sennheiser, more aggressive with the Sony (especially the sizzly wah-wah guitar solo), and more relaxed with the NAD. The Hiromi track’s left-hand piano and rhythm section were surprisingly full with the Sennheiser, while the Sony provided a drier but still engaging sound, and the NAD turned in its blandest performance (with this content and signal source).

By the time I got to the hi-res tracks, I expected the AK Jr to allow each headphone model to become the best possible version of itself while not concealing its weaknesses. But one track—Haitink’s Beethoven symphony movement—forced the AK Jr to throw a curveball. Here, the combination of player and content needed some extra zing from the headphones, which it got from the Sony but not from the Sennheiser or the NAD. Admittedly, this Beethoven is a peculiar recording, with the heavier instruments concentrated in the string section at left and the lighter ones at right—so only the Sony, with its treble emphasis, imaged the left side in focus. Peter Gabriel’s more conventionally recorded orchestra emerged in better balance on the Sennheiser, along with a colorful lead vocal, which turned thin with the Sony and muted with the NAD. Lastly, the surprise winner on the Led Zeppelin track was the NAD, which best approximated the feel of the guitars on the original vinyl without unduly emphasizing the mellotron’s place in the mix. The Sennheiser did nearly as well and was more spatially precise, while the Sony fell victim to the mellotron’s sharp edge.

If these listening results seem a little mixed, it’s because I threw three headphone models with dramatically different personalities at the AK Jr, and then made its life even tougher with odd content choices—especially, as it turned out, the Beethoven symphony. If memory serves, the AK Jr seems a bit more dispassionate, and less euphonic, than either the original AK100 or its step-up siblings that I’ve tested. But it’s more truthful than schematic, and definitely don’t file it under ruthlessly revealing. It’s another winner from a company whose reputation as a class act of the high-end music-player field is well earned.

Astell & Kern/iriver
(949) 336-4540