Astell & Kern AK Jr – Who You Calling Junior?

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.

Some spec

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)
Decoding: 24/192kHz
Bluetooth: V4,0
Weight: 93g

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.

The Skinny

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.

GUI

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.

File handling

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:

Astell & Kern AK Jr – Who You Calling Junior?
3.8 (75.93%) 59 votes

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

31 Comments

  • Reply August 4, 2015

    Kevin

    How would you compare the AK Jr to FiiO X5II?

    • Reply August 4, 2015

      Headfonia_L.

      Nathan doesn’t have the Fiio, sorry

    • Reply August 4, 2015

      Brian

      I can answer that! I’ll stay away from aesthetics because if you want features and big size, Fiio. Less features and a slim profile with a different design? JR. As for sound, I find that the X5ii seems to be more spacious with a bit more detail on the top end (may be an impedance issue for me), while the JR has a deeper low end and while it doesn’t impress at first listen like the X5ii, I still enjoy the more I listen to it.

    • Reply August 5, 2015

      ohm image

      Don’t own the X5II. And I don’t see them as even comparable. Again, read what I said about the DX90. Fiio and iBasso are targeting the same market; AK are targeting someone else.

      You need to know what YOU want before you compare two incompatible devices.

  • Reply August 4, 2015

    vick_85

    @Nathan

    Hi
    I’m looking for a portable audio rig that betters my iPod touch by a good margin but I’m confused b/w the Jr and dx90.

    I will be using my PM3 and m100 with the DAP so the amp section of the DAP should provide more than enough power for these headphones.

    Music:mainly rock and EDM plus some mainstream music. Classic rock bands like pink floyd, the Who etc.

    Sound quality takes top priority everything else comes second.

    Or should I go for the Oppo HA2 and use that with my iThings and android phone. This will be less portable but as I said sound qaulity is top priority.

    Does the oppo ha2 have a better and more powerful amp than the perviously mentioned DAP’s?

    • Reply August 4, 2015

      Headfonia_L.

      I will let Nathan reply but I just want to point out it might not be the smartest way to go to invest in a discontinued DX90

      • Reply August 4, 2015

        vick_85

        Thanks L.

        I was just about to post the same question to you in the dx50 and dx90 article.

        Any thoughts on what would provide better audio performace, the Jr or the Oppo Ha2 combo?

        • Reply August 4, 2015

          Headfonia_L.

          Best to ask Nathan as I don’t have the Jr or Ha2 😉

        • Reply August 5, 2015

          ohm image

          I’m not a big portable amp lover. I review amps on their own merit and against other amps. But if a DAP has a decent/good enough (proper current to the right volume) output for the headphones you are using, that DAP should outperform the amp in all metrics apart from absolute volume.

          And Jr’s current is VERY good to all volume levels. And again, it doesn’t hiss. HA-2 is awesome. But I’d not put it ahead of Jr for absolutely sound quality.

          • Reply August 5, 2015

            vick_85

            Thank You.

      • Reply October 3, 2015

        digitldlnkwnt

        i will ride my DX90 till the wheels fall off. A&K Jr may have the sound to rival my DX90, but the DX90 read 128GB MSD card with no issue, and battery life is improved. especially with new software. I think the sound of each device is also a big factor is which to purchase. Discontinued it maybe but a good audio products stick around.

    • Reply August 5, 2015

      ohm image

      The HA-2 can be more powerful than the AK Jr, but it is also more powerful than is necessary for the PM3. Unless you want to damage your hearing, even the iPod touch is powerful enough. The Jr is perfect.

      That said, it comes down to how you want to hear: neutral or warm. The Jr is warmer than the DX90. But the differences aren’t night and day. It is more of a patina.

      One thing to note: the HA-2 will hiss with earphones. It won’t hiss with the PM3 and M100.

      • Reply August 5, 2015

        vick_85

        Thank You.

  • Reply August 5, 2015

    TheAff

    Loved every line of this review, Nathan. I’ve had my Jr about two weeks now and despite its flaws, they (very mostly) melt away as soon as the music starts. I just sent off my old pair of GR10s to Grado yesterday for a patch-up – I can’t wait to try them with the Jr when I get them back in a few weeks time!

    • Reply August 6, 2015

      ohm image

      When they return, do update us. I love the combo to bits.

      • Reply August 6, 2015

        TheAff

        i absolutely will. I’m liking the AK Jr + W30 right now. I was a little underwhelmed when I used my IE800 though.

        • Reply August 6, 2015

          ohm image

          The Jr drives the IE800 perfectly, so it’s not a hardware mismatch. But when personal preferences come into play, I think it could be said that the IE800 is perhaps a bit too warm for an already warm player. But that will stand for some people. Others may love the combination.

          • Reply August 6, 2015

            TheAff

            I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I did a little eq’ing to get them sounding more to my tastes when using the jr as a DAC for my MacBook Pro.

            Just as an aside – do you have any thoughts on the GR10e’s? Specifically in comparison with the GR10s?

            • Reply August 6, 2015

              ohm image

              I do not have the GR10e, I’m sorry. But the regular old GR10 pleases me so much I can’t imagine how an ‘e’ version would improve upon it.

      • Reply August 23, 2015

        TheAff

        Hey – thought I’d give you an update now I have my repaired GR10s. In fact, it looks like Grado refitted them as GR10e’s as that’s what they look like now; they have the bronze housing for the nozzle.

        Soundwise, the synergy between my new GR10s and the Jr is phenomenal. I’m remembering just how much I loved the midrange on them and they bring a certain ethereal quality to certain genres. They’re giving my K3003’s + AK Jr combo a run for their money. I still can’t believe that this sound comes from a single driver IEM.

    • Reply August 6, 2015

      ohm image

      Finally, thank you for the kind words.

      • Reply August 6, 2015

        TheAff

        No problem! I’m really enjoying reading the website and look forward to more great reviews.

  • Reply November 1, 2015

    Michael J. White

    got my ak jr a couple of weeks ago and the quirks of it ARE absolutely negated by the music quality, and that’s what’s what i was seeking. as i was unable to synch my ak jr to my deftech symphony 1 (wireless) headphones, i thought if i’m going ‘wired’, wtf, lets look at some different cans. i got the oppo pm3’s and what a combo! wow!!

  • Reply November 3, 2015

    Ant

    Great review. If you were already the owner of an ak100 and you were going to spend $500 to upgrade your dap, would you go for the msak100 upgrade or go for the ak jr. ? Based mainly on SQ.

    • Reply December 3, 2015

      ohm image

      The MSAK100 is objectively a better performer. But the difference between the two is small. Therefore, based on SQ alone, the MS-AK100 is better. It also feels better in the sound.

  • Reply August 26, 2016

    JoeMoe

    Absolutely love this player! Just one large nit pick! The gaps between tracks really takes away from the overall experience of some albums. Anybody aware of how to prevent this???

  • Reply October 10, 2016

    Tomas

    Hi guys,
    can you give me please an advice?
    which combination to buy in terms of sound quality and maybe money:
    AK Jr. (249 Euro), Ibasso DX80(340 Euro), ATH-IM03 (249 Euro)

    AK Jr. + ATH-IM03 (or maybe with ATH-IM02, so that combo will be cheaper)
    Ibasso DX80 + ATH-IM03

    Thanks.

    • Reply October 11, 2016

      ohm image

      Hello Tomas,

      I have only heard the DX80 at shows, and only briefly, but I remember it hissing like mad. If that has been fixed, then good on iBasso. If not, it is worthless for portable earphones. The Jr doesn’t hiss nearly as badly.

      On that function alone, I am hard pressed to recommend the DX80.

      • Reply October 14, 2016

        Tomas

        Hello Ohm Image,

        Thank you for you reply.

  • Reply May 3, 2017

    Matt

    I wish I knew what dry warmth was.

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