It may be designed as an entry-level addition to the acclaimed digital music player range, but this £399 machine is has serious intentions – and it’s now available in red, too!
UPDATE: The sleek little Astell & Kern AK Jr. digital audio player is now available as a limited edition in red. Selling for the same price as the standard aluminium finish version – £399 – the limited edition comes in bright red with gold accents, and will be available exclusively through Amazon UK while stocks last. It certainly makes the entry-level Astell & Kern even more striking – and just in time for Christmas!
Posted 17.06.15: It says almost all you need to know that, while I was ogling Astell & Kern’s full AK500 system of player, power supply and amplifier at the Munich High End show, my wife – the estimable Hi-Fi Widow – was rather more taken with the brand-new AK Jr pocket digital music player, the latest addition to the company’s line-up.
It’s not just that ‘junior’ is compact, with its aluminium casework less than 1cm thick and tapering down to just 6.9mm, and affordable – at least in A&K terms – £399; what really grabs the attention is that, although this is the lowest-priced model in a range going all the way up to the wrong side of £2000, it’s both beautifully finished and feels coolly wonderful in the hand.
Despite weighing less than 100g, it feels substantial and precisely engineered
A delight to use
And having now had one in my hands for some days now – the first, I’m told, to escape the captivity of UK distributor Computers Unlimited – I can also report that the baby A&K is both a delight to use and sounds really rather amazing.
It arrives in a slimline package complete with USB cable and a couple of protective films to use over the display, and anyone who’s ever used any kind of digital music player will find little unfamiliar here: the Jr connects to a computer via that micro-USB lead supplied (with a particularly solid fit into the player’s socket), and comes as standard with 64GB of internal memory, expandable to double that with the use of a microSD card.
Operation is made simple by a large, clear 3.1in display with crisp graphics – I especially like the sliding cursor bar design to adjust screen brightness and the like – while the main physical controls are limited to power on/off on the top edge, track-skip and pause on the left, and a machined volume wheel set into the rear panel and just protruding to the right, like a vestigial version of the rather more prominent controls found further up the range.
As well as the cable connectivity, which can also be used to charge the player or use it with a computer as a portable USB DAC, the Jr also supports Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless connection to suitable speakers and the like. What’s more, a healthy output of just under 2V RMS when at its line-out setting, which fixes the volume from the headphone socket at its maximum, means it can be used straight into an amplifier or active speakers using a suitable 3.5mm stereo to RCA phonos cable.
All the way to DSD
Using a Wolfson WM8740 DAC, it will play just about any format you can throw at it, all the way up to 24-bit/192kHz, as well as DSD64 (using DSD to PCM conversion), so I’ve been trying it with a wide range of my usual ‘torture tracks’ and a lot of favourite music, from hard-hitting rock and electronica through to jazz and even an extended Wagnerfest the other morning, and I have to say I’ve come away very impressed.
That hefty output power – at least by portable standards – means this little player has no problem driving even demanding headphones, so those of us accustomed to carting around a pocket headphone amplifier can probably lighten the load a bit by leaving it at home, while the sound quality on offer will probably render that go-everywhere DAC/amp just as redundant.
What’s more – and this is going to rile those who’ll have you believe that the iPhone into a pair of good headphones sounds so good you don’t need to bother with hi-fi any more – the AK Jr leaves Cupertino’s finest for dead when it comes to bass weight and conviction, midrange fluidity and openness, and treble sparkle and ambience.
Simple version? It just so sounds so much more real than your phone is ever going to – and that includes the particularly impressive Sony Xperia phones I’ve tried, which themselves put the iThings in the shade as a means of driving favourite in-ears or ear-muffs.
Good on the go
Battery life, even when used hard, is impressive: a 4hr charge gave me enough juice for a whole day’s listening at highish levels driving the kind of headphones you’d only use with a device like this if you’re either a) a head-fi fanatic or b) a fashion victim, and there was still power left showing on the display when I plugged it in ready for the next day’s use.
So unless you’re going to headbang all the way, the A&K Jr should be a pretty effective travelling companion, even for long-haul.
This is a remarkably well-sorted little player, requiring no allowances to be made for its compact size and (again, by A&K standards) affordable price. It looks and feels the business, being both stylish and seemingly built to last, is slim enough to fit in any pocket, and yet will drive big cans – or very high-quality in-ears – to a remarkable standard.
Junior by name, but very grown-up by nature, the precocious child of the Astell & Kern family is perhaps its most impressive offering to date. And now, I think, someone else is nagging to spend some time listening to it!
Written by Andrew Everard