Astell & Kern AK Jr Review

Astell&Kern AK Jr Review

Welcome to my review today of the Astell&Kern AK Junior music player. This is a high end music player that really demonstrates how well a reputable company like Astell&Kern can create a high-resolution digital audio player that combines excellent sound and build quality with beautiful aesthetics. That being said, there are some reasons you may want to choose something else, which I’ll get into as I go through the different aspects of this player.

Now currently, the AK Jr is about $400, but you can click below to check the current lowest price online.

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So I’ll start out by giving you a closer look at the included accessories and then take you through the design and features.

ACCESSORIES

AK Jr AccessoriesIncluded with this player is a micro USB cable used to charge and connect your device to a computer, there’s a few pieces of documentation and several screen covers are provided as well.

DESIGN

Regarding the design, this is one of the best aspects of this player. Even at first glance, it doesn’t look like your typical music player, instead it comes across more like a piece of carefully, handcrafted artwork.  When you pick it up, you also notice the heft and precision used to manufacture this.  Even smartphones costing up to twice as much, don’t feel as luxurious. The nearly all metal body doesn’t feel cheap in the slightest and the angled edges make the player seem even more high-tech and high-end.  

And then, apart from the basic design there are a couple of physical features that help the AK Jr. to stand out. For example, instead of featuring the typical volume up and down buttons, this player has a volume wheel on the side. And what’s cool about using this, is the way it clicks each time you adjust the volume which makes it super easy to find the exact volume level you want. So overall, this is a very well designed player that feels less like a piece of tech and almost more like a luxurious accessory.

FEATURES

Then moving onto the features, this comes equipped with 64GB of onboard storage and has a microsd slot which can handle cards with a storage capacity of up to 200GB. The device itself runs on a modified version of Android and for what it’s supposed to be it’s not bad. However, the touch screen isn’t the most responsive and it can be a bit sluggish.

For example, when scrolling through large collections of songs, there’s a scroll bar on the right side of the screen which is helpful to use, but it can be a bit jerky feeling at times. So ultimately, if you don’t mind the slight delays that can occur when jumping between folders, tracks or scrolling through music then it’s not a big deal at all. But if you’re expecting a near instant type response then you’ll probably be disappointed.

AK Jr Scroll WheelAside from that, this player is very simple to use as the interface is well laid out and fairly intuitive. It’s pretty easy to figure out all the essential things without needing to reference the manual.  

Now an important feature for any high-end player such as this is the ability to play any file format. And in this regard, the AK Jr. performs flawlessly. It’s a huge convenience as this means you don’t have to go through the hassle of converting your music files to the ones that your player supports.

Another cool feature of the AK Jr. is that it can function as a USB audio DAC.  And this is helpful because not many computers are equipped with high-quality audio components. So instead of just being able to use your AK Jr. for portable use, you can also use this to boost the audio performance when you’re using your computer as well.

So to use this feature you just need to plug your AK Jr. into one of your computer’s USB ports and use the touch screen to select this feature. As this is what allows you to bypass your computer’s circuitry and use the AK Jr’s DAC instead.  Then you just plug your headphones in or you can connect to some powered speakers and you’re good to go!

And finally, although the AK Jr. is not wifi capable, which means you’re not able to connect to streaming services such as Tidal or Spotify, this does feature Bluetooth 4.0 which is something many similar type players lack.

SOUND

Now regarding the sound quality, at this price point you’d expect the sound to be remarkable, and it really is. Overall, the sound signature is mostly neutral, with a slight emphasis in the treble.

But starting with the bass, this is handled very well. It’s not in anyway lacking in substance or quantity, yet it’s extremely tight and well controlled. In fact, the bass is so well controlled, that when you first start listening, it will feel like a veil has been lifted off of your music. For example, on a song like Doing it Right by Daft Punk, you can really hear the reverb of the sub-bass and feel the impact of the mid-bass. Also, the decay of the bass doesn’t leave the music sounding muddy, it just comes and goes as it should. So overall, the low end experience is extremely pleasing to listen to.

Then moving onto the mids, they likewise deliver a stellar performance. And this isn’t because the mids are elevated in any way, rather they’re just so well executed that you can’t help but notice them. For example, on a song with great male vocals like The A Team by Ed Sheeran, his vocals sound super smooth and clear without any hint of graininess. Likewise, female vocals also sound spectacular as well. An example of this is when listening to the song My Heart will go on by Celine Dion, where her vocals sound very transparent and unfiltered. Now, even though the mids are their own separate sound category, the amount of treble or bass present often times has an impact on the way the mids sound.

AK Jr Headphone InputAnd this hold true for the AK Junior as well, where it’s tight bass and sparkling treble, end up making the mids sound a little cool. So as a result, vocals won’t have as much organic warmth that other bassier players might have. Instead, vocals on the AK Junior will sound more clear and vibrant. But what this also means is that the higher register mid frequencies like female vocals will sound better than the heavier sounding male vocals. It isn’t a huge deal and male vocals will still sound very clear on the AK Junior, but they may not sound quite as engaging as compared to some other players.

Then regarding the treble, you’ll notice your music sounds more clear on the AK Jr, especially when compared to other MP3 players or smartphones. Now the treble is slightly elevated, so if you’re listening to a song with a lot of higher frequency sounds, or if you’re listening at louder volumes, then that can become fatiguing over an extended period of time.

However, if you’re listening at lower volumes, the presentation is very clear and pleasing to listen to. But, this extra clarity and detail does come at the expense of lower quality music files not sounding quite as good. An example of this is when listening to “how to love” by Little Wayne. The presentation on the AK Jr sounds a bit harsh and more processed sounding, so the entire song ends up sounding less enjoyable compared to say using a softer music player like the iPhone for example.

However, when you listen to a high quality music file such as a classical track like Canon in D minor, then all this harshness fades away and the slight elevation in treble actually becomes something breathtaking. Every string is individually heard and the volume of this classical piece makes you feel like you’re right there in the music.

Now the treble region can often be a turning point on a musical device such as a player, headphone, or speaker, and in this case, it’s certainly an aspect that separates the AK Junior from other players in it’s class.

Basically, what the AK Jr has achieved here, is an excellent example of quality over quantity. When this is done right, you feel less of a need to turn up the volume because you don’t feel like you’re missing anything from your music. So instead of increasing the volume to compensate for the lack of detail or engagement, you don’t have to do that with this player. And of course, as another side benefit, that’s also much better for preserving your hearing.

Now even though this player allows you to fill your music library with any file format you might have, the AK Jr. is best suited for playing DSD, WAV, ALAC, and other high-quality lossless formats. So, while you can certainly use this to play lower quality music files, keep in mind you won’t be using this to it’s full potential. But, if you use this for higher quality music, that’ve been mastered well, then the AK Jr. will absolutely blow you away.

COMPARISON

To compare the AK Junior against the Fiio M3 would be like trying to compare a BMW against a Toyota corolla. Both are good, but the less amount of price restrictions are what make the AK Junior the better player. From the design it is obvious that A&K went out of their way to design something that would catch the attention of the eye.

The nearly all metal construction and the angles edges really make the AK Junior stand out against the simpler designs of most electronic players nowadays. The larger display is also a more neat feature to have as it allows you to more easily navigate through the interface. Also being able to support any file format makes the AK Junior a more versatile player as opposed to the Fiio M3. With the M3 you are still getting good sound quality, but it’s more along the lines of a sound that you will be satisfied with as opposed to one that will wow you every time you listen to it.

To sum it up the sound of the M3 is more relaxed and is also less immediately polarizing than the AK Junior and us just easier to listen to over longer periods of time. On the downside the sound is also less engaging and won’t sound impressive on a first listen. In the end if you just want a basic player that will still sound good, but one that won’t cost you a fortune, then the M3 should be the player of your choice. If you have primarily higher quality files and like the high-tech design of the AK Junior, then that should be your player of choice.

Now comparing the Ak Jr to the iPhone, some people might turn their heads and ask why a comparison between a smartphone and a dedicated audio player is being made. It’s true that many smartphones don’t have the best audio output and hardly support any file formats, but the iPhone, especially the newer ones are different. They have very good audio output, one that puts many audio players in the sub $500 price range to shame.

What is most impressive about the output from iPhones is that it is dead silent, even with sensitive earphones. This means that even when you raise the volume all the way up, there will be no background noise. What this translates into is a much cleaner overall listening experience. It’s like removing a veil from the music, thus you only hear what was intended for you to hear. Quieter genres like classical or acoustic benefit most from this because all the quiet passages aren’t filled with background noise and instead there is a black background.

Most players, even some high-end ones can’t make the same claim. Well moving onto the AK Junior, there comes some true competition for the iPhone. In a side by side comparison, both are equally as quite. Even with more sensitive armature-base earphones, there is a lack of background noise. Because there is little to no background noise on these, this means that there is very little to interfere with the sound quality.

To put it simple, the iPhone is the more neutral of the two. With the bass and the mids, both are on even ground, but the AK Junior does posses a slightly more elevated treble and this makes the player sound cooler overall. So again, if you tend to listen to lower quality tracks then the AK Junior may not be your best option, and in this case you should gravitate more towards the iPhone which has a sound that is more agreeable with a wider variety of genres.

One of the big benefits of the AK Junior however are that it does have the ability to play any file format, while the iPhone is restricted to only playing Apple formats. Both of these devices are roughly equal when it comes to sound quality, so the deciding factors will have to come down to which design you like better and if you would prefer to have different file formats. Either way, you can’t go wrong with either one if sound quality is your main concern.

REASONS TO CONSIDER SOMETHING ELSE

Now as great as the AK Junior is, there are a few reasons this might not be the music player for you.

First, although this player is exceptional at it’s ability to handle well-recorded, high quality music files, poorly recorded or lower quality music can sound more harsh and not as enjoyable to listen to.  So if you’re primarily planning on using this for music that’s not well recorded or is just lower quality, then this wouldn’t be the ideal choice for that.

Next, if you prefer a touch screen experience that’s more instantaneous than this is something you’ll want to consider as this player can be a bit sluggish at times.

And finally, if you need a music player with wifi capability or if you want to be able to connect to a streaming music service such as Spotify or Tidal, then the AK Jr. won’t be a good choice for that.

BOTTOM LINE

But otherwise, if none of those are deal-breakers then this is a music player that won’t disappoint you. Because even though Astell&Kern is known for producing very high-end portable players, some costing a few thousand dollars, the AK Jr represents a music player that’s more accessible price wise, while still retaining the tremendous quality Astell&Kern is known for. You’re getting the build, design, and sound quality that are characteristic of their higher-end players, but in a slimmer, more affordable package.

So if you’d like a music player that can handle your high quality music files, that has excellent storage capability, that has a good balance of features such as bluetooth, and that looks as luxurious as it sounds, then you’ll be extremely happy with Astell&Kern’s AK Jr.

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