Disclaimer: the Astell & Kern AK Jr reviewed here is on loan from AK. Jr retails for 499$ USD. You can find out all about it here: AK Jr.
Update: I have added a DX90 VS AK Jr section above the conclusion.
DAC: WM8740 (single)
Storage: 64GB internal + up to 64GB expandable memory (micro SD)
Supported formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE(Normal, High, Fast), AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF : 8kHz ~ 192kHz (8/16/24bits per Sample)
/ DSD : DSD64 (1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo (DSD to PCM)
How Astell&Kern arrived at the name, Jr, I’ll never guess. AK’s Jr is a strapping, gangly lad. He is longer than every of his progenitors: AK100, the AK120, the AK240, and the AK380, but tamed by adolescent proportions.
Today, I’d like to blow up about what A&K nailed. I really would not like to talk how Astell&Kern’s advertising copy blows hard. I really don’t. But, god, Jr: The Starting Point of Music? God, not only does it lack any sauce, it’s completely derivative.
A&K: if you must go with a random slogan generator based on advertising tropes, at least make the English bite a bit:
AK Jr: Music Starts here.
There. Still derivative, still horrible. But a league above what’s currently on your web page. I’ll invoice you later.
Why go off on A&K’s marketing?
While A&K’s advertising copy has always been bad, their products generally are pretty interesting. And Jr, from a number of subjective and objective angles, is awesome. It’s got its rough edges (literally), but it deserves better.
If you love the meaty, warm sound of the Wolfson WM8740 DAC, Jr is about as good a DAP as you’ll find. While it doesn’t supply the same perfectly stable current (AK Jr RMAA results) as the RWAK100, or even the iPod nano 7G, it hisses way less than Vinnie’s mod, has a nicer button layout, more memory, beautiful branding and machining that neither the original AK100 or the AK120 can touch with a ten-foot pole.
And it’s 499$ USD. That’s less than the AK100 was at introduction.
Before I get into why Jr is A&K’s most perfect DAP, I have a number of complaints to get off my chest:
Design and hardware interface
To the idiot, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Objective goals such as form following function, and ergonomic (built for human interaction) design do not matter. So when I say that Jr’s design is bad, I am not suggesting that Nathan doesn’t like how Jr looks. In fact, I’ll even praise its severe angles. And A&K’s advertising photography is decent.
On paper, Jr is the cleanest, least frilly design that A&K have released since the original AK100. No functional part of it was designed just for ostentation.
Take for instance the volume wheel:
It is hidden in a shallow niche on the back, rather than flaunted and built up by ridiculous shoulders and chins. It doesn’t click quite as solidly as the thimble and aspirin volume pots of the AK240 and AK380, but it is more natural, and far easier to twiddle than either. It doesn’t sit perfectly flush with the case, so when you place Jr ass-down on a desk, or your iMac base, one, or more, corners will float. I predict metal wear.
Jr’s naked Micro SD port is beautifully, smoothly bevelled. Jr’s metal body is finely blasted. And while A&K didn’t bother to align any of their buttons, or ports, or bolts along a common axis (we’ve seen this before), its beveled edges around its bolts are really pretty. And Jr’s glass back even does a Louis Vuitton thing with the A&K logo. Pretentious, but cool.
Still, Jr isn’t ergonomic.
Its sharp corners bite into the hand, and when Jr is in the pocket, it digs into your hip’s tickle pit. It’s so long. Cargo trouser pockets alone are long enough to ensure that Jr’s headphone jack or your headphone cable plug aren’t damaged from lateral stress when climbing the stairs, sitting down, or squatting to squint through a shop window. Only time will tell if Jr will make you bleed.
Simply: Jr isn’t pocket-friendly. If you’re an audiophile in the city, you can purse it. If you’re not into pursing your stuff, or just want to enjoy a stroll around your neighborhood without extra baggage, you’ll have to keep constant attention paid to how Jr and your pocket get along. 499$ is hardly chump change.
Of smaller concern is the ON/OFF logo machined into the power/wake switch. It draws too much attention, and belies the Jr.’s otherwise simple aesthetic. Besides, we’ve had buttons just like it for a decade on everything from iPods to phones; no one needs to be reminded of its use. And the machined logo complicates an otherwise simple, and pretty design.
Since the AK100, A&K DAPs have been built around a sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-kludgy touchscreen/button cooperative UI. Jr’s GUI is less cluttered and more logically divided than the one seen on the AK240. Larger touch targets are more finger-friendly than on the original AK DAPs. Still, the interface is decidedly mouse-inspired.
Getting to things like repeat, shuffle, play list creation, and song information is as simple as ever. That part of the AK GUI design is bullet proof. The following are my concerns:
Lag – Jr. screen updates are as laggy, or just a bit laggier than the original AK100.
Whither swipe? – modern touch interfaces work around swipe gestures that make it easy to move between artist/album/song. Jr relies on anachronistic mouse-derived button presses.
Ordered list display choppiness – hitting the crown or tail of an ordered list causes the screen stutter.
Redundant volume control – featuring both hardware and software volume controls is great. But as with all AK DAPs, the hardware control hijacks the touchscreen, turning the entire screen into a volume slider. Accidentally bumping it whilst moving your fingers around can cause the volume to jump way up, or down. This is a dangerous and foolish design.
poor icons – gapless, play mode, and repeat functions differ in off and on functions only by the shade of the inner iconography, and are always encircled in grey. At a glance, there isn’t enough visual indication whether or not a function is engaged or not.
Unnecessary error codes – even hitting the track back button from the beginning of an album will return an unnecessary and jarring error code. While I won’t catalogue all navigation issues, it would be much kinder on the user to disable lyrics if they don’t exist, rather than returning an error screen, or leaving the option open. I assume that firmware updates can, and will fix such issues.
iOS 8’s music interface, while uncooperative in displaying details such as bit rate, file type, etc., is far more straightforward and smooth. And, it works blazingly fast even on older hardware such as the iPhone 4s. It would be great if the premium paid for A&K DAPs didn’t merely ensure an interface superior to iBasso and Hifiman, but ensured a user experience on par with what has become standard practice in the phone world, particularly as Astell&Kern take special pain to describe Jr thusly: [The AK Jr] simplifies complex features of Hi-Fi audio to a smartphone-like experience.
Jr starts up faster than either the AK240 or the AK380. GUI lag is similar across each device. What isn’t is screen quality. And while the AK240’s UI is less logically set up than either the Jr’s or the AK380’s, the difference in screen quality is night and day. Next to either flagship, or A&K’s revamped AK100 and 120, Jr’s screen is sallow, its resolution is low, and by comparison, its viewing angles are poor. If it weren’t a device whose operation (and indeed, its marketing) depended so much on a screen, or on the good will of smartphone owners, screen quality wouldn’t be that important. But it is.
I’m a lazy OSX user. I organize everything through iTunes. And thank god, Jr loads up immediately through the classic A&K USB interface. No messing about with Android File Transfer. Simple drag and drop. Thank god.
Unfortunately, its software isn’t as capable in deciphering ID3 tags as is the older AK100, which normally nails albums, artists, etc., without fuss. Jr nailed about half of the music I haphazardly dumped onto it. The other half is a jumble. Note: both my Mezzo HiFi MSAK100 and my Red Wine RWAK100 handled the same files almost perfectly.
In other words, create folders and carefully file your songs into them.
Finally, gone is the overly optimistic blanket gapless option. Now, only FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC and AAC files retain the option. And… it mostly works. The resulting gap is so minuscule that you may not notice it. But sometimes, despite enabling gapless, and using the right file types, there is a two second pause between tracks.
The good news is that a high-quality firmware update could solve most of these issues.
Continued after the jump or the click here: