Astell & Kern AK Jr. Digital Audio Player
SRP: $500.00

A high end but relatively low cost DAP.

Specs: Body Material: Aluminum
Display: 3.1″ WQVGA (240 x 400) Touchscreen
Storage 64 GB storage built in, up to 200 GB in aux slot with mini SD cards
Output Level: 1.95Vrms
Supported Audio Formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE (Normal, High, Fast), AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
Sample rate: FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF: 8kHz – 192kHz (8/16/24bits per Sample)/ DSD: DSD64 (1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo (DSD to PCM)

It was almost exactly a year ago that I reviewed my choice for an iPod replacement, the FiiO X1. Cheaper than the iPod Classic (now discontinued by Apple) the FiiO had the advantage of playing high resolution music files. I just recently put the FiiO in my car to replace my aging iPod, and I’m quite pleased. On my car screen I get album art just as I did with the iPod, and I get the benefit of playback of higher quality files.

With the FiiO in the car, I started looking for another digital audio player for home listening on my headsets. I looked at some of the higher priced FiiO gear, but was attracted when I read that the well thought of Astell & Kern company had an ‘entry level’ player. I say entry level because this new player lists for $500 while the top of the Astell & Kern line tops out at more than $3000 (!).

The new unit is called the AK Jr., and I noticed at times Amazon was discounting them down to $400.00. (Prices are all over the place, and these sales come and go, so be warned.)  I’d checked a few reviews, and they were all positive, so I took the leap.

Physically, the AK Jr. looks great. It’s built very solidly. There is a large round physical volume control and instead of the usual up down buttons some other players use. You can find it when you aren’t looking at the player, like when it is in your pocket. The screen displays track information, album art, and your playlists, along with settings to help you customize aspects of how the player works.

The AK Jr. has 64 GB internal storage and the specs say you can add another 64GB on a mini SD card. Actually, you can use larger sizes, so i formatted a 128 GB card and it worked fine. The Astell & Kern tech people confirm that larger cards will work fine. So that gave me total internal storage of 192 GB.

The player charges from a mini-USB port, and while it includes the cable you are on your own for a power source. I charge it from my Mac or a tabletop USB charger I have. Other external buttons change tracks or pause the unit. It also contains Bluetooth, which easily paired with my car and some bookshelf speakers I have in the bedroom. There is a standard mini-headphone port, a power switch. Battery life is about 10-12 hours.

My headphones of choice are the HiFiMan HE560 with planer drivers. My old FiiO could drive them, but not very loudly, so I had to pair an amplifier with it. Not so the AK Jr. It pairs nicely with my headphones, driving them to a level that works for me.

The AK Jr. also plays DSD files (converting them to PCM on the fly). The sound is terrific. Even my MP3 and Apple Lossless rips sound better than they did on the FiiO X1, and that player  sounded awfully good.

The AK Jr. is very thin, just a little thicker than my iPhone 6. You can create playlists on the device, and delete tracks and playlists you no longer want, something that you could not do on an iPod.

Even the most demanding music sounds very good, with no sign of distortion. Headphones don’t give a realistic frontal image of a musical performance, but the sound is really excellent, with every nuance apparent. Classical, jazz and rock all sounded terrific.

There are a few negatives. First, the OS is Android, and compared to my iPod it’s a little slow. There can be lag after you activate a button or use the touchscreen.

The AK Jr. does not come with a case, and I think it should. If you buy a case designed for it, they are about $50.00, which is a bit pricy. Getting your music on the AK Jr. is pretty simple, but primitive. When plugged into your computer the storage drives mount on your desktop, and you can drag over whatever you like.

Some third parties have written some apps that can play nice with iTunes and copy over your iTunes files and playlists, but the one I tried, Dapper for the Mac, was pretty fiddly and not always reliable.

I really love the sound of the AK Jr. The newer Apple iPods can’t match it for storage, and can’t play high resolution files. The old iPod with 160 GB storage is no longer available. The AK Jr. is a superior portable player. It’s worth a look and a listen.

—Mel Martin