Astell & Kern Junior Portable Audio Player Review
It might be called Junior but it's no plaything
What is the Astell & Kern Junior?The Junior is the entry level player from Astell & Kern- the high end wing of iRiver. It is designed with a view to providing a more compact, discrete and affordable portable player for people dipping a toe in the DAP market. At the same time, the Junior intends to deliver on the virtues of the Astell & Kern brand in offering very high quality decoding, powerful headphone amplification and high quality casework.
The Junior comes at an opportune moment for Astell & Kern as having had this category almost to themselves for a period of time, things are hotting up (although there's still not a huge amount of data on exactly how many dedicated portable audio players are finding homes). The Junior is the same price as the recently launched Pioneer XDP-101R and a little more expensive than the Lotoo PAW5000 and it sits almost equidistant between the two in terms of specification. Exactly the same amount of money will buy you the Chord Mojo which we have already established is capable of turning almost any smartphone into a mighty DAP.
As such, the Junior has a fair bit to prove. Have Astell & Kern built a product that gives you some of the benefits of the brand at an affordable price or is this a player trading off the name of the miniature masterpieces that the company builds at higher price points? Let's transfer some tunes, select some earphones and find out.
SpecificationsThe Junior is built around a single Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip. This is an unusual device to find in a portable player- although far from uncommon in full size digital devices and still a very highly regarded chip. The reason for this is that rival systems such as the Sabre range of devices from ESS require less in the way of additional components to perform various types of decoding and in the specific case of the Sabre, ESS also makes a dedicated headphone amp section to partner it. The Wolfson is not so equipped meaning that Astell & Kern will have had to do more legwork in terms of getting it to do what they want.
The decoding of the Astell & Kern supports the usual collection of formats and resolutions and this includes the format de jour of DSD even though it still has very little worth listening to on it. The Junior 'only' supports DSD 64 so has to give ground to a few rivals that also manage DSD 128 but in reality this is largely meaningless. DSD is converted to PCM for processing and decoding- you have to spend quite a bit more before Astell & Kern's USP of native DSD decoding is made available to you. Sample rates up to 192kHz are supported and the Junior can handle them natively.
As with almost all devices of this nature, the only format that the Junior doesn't handle is WMA Lossless. Given that this has been eschewed by pretty much every manufacturer now, if you are still using it, it's probably time to stop. As a potentially useful addition to decoding material stored on the device, the Junior can also be used as a USB DAC. Connect the Astell & Kern via USB to a computer and it will bring this up as an option along with charge the unit and access the storage to change and edit files.
This decoding is partnered with a headphone amp that features a 1.95v RMS output that is stable down to two ohms. This is a fair amount of power for a compact portable player and gives the Junior the notional ability to handle any earphone you can think of and a very wide selection of headphones too. This is controlled by a 150 step volume control that goes in half increments from 0 to 75. This should ensure that there is enough fine adjustment to get the level you want.
The Junior has 64gb of internal storage as supplied which is- as you might expect- solid stage. The player then has the ability to support an additional 64gb of storage via a port on the side of the player. This maximum of 128gb puts the Junior at a disadvantage compared to the identically priced Pioneer which supports a notional maximum of 432gb (although out of the box it only has 32gb of storage which is less than Astell & Kern gives you). The limiter on the card size is a little annoying as this form of storage is increasingly cost effective and Lotoo has proved that SDXC support is possible at this price.
The Junior uses a bespoke interface partnered with a 3.1 inch touchscreen with 240x400 resolution. The Junior doesn't play video and I can't imagine it would be terribly satisfying to use in this fashion anyway. The Junior is also not equipped to make use of music streaming services which places it at slight disadvantage compared to the Pioneer at the same price. The Astell & Kern effectively requires you to own (or at least procured files of) your music. One convenience feature that has been fitted however is Bluetooth which is listed as 4.0 although no mention is made of Apt-X
DesignThe Junior uses a slimline all metal casework that is significantly different to other Astell & Kern models. It is one of the random instances where no attempt to take pictures of it has really satisfactorily captured the quality of the fit and finish. The Junior might look a bit like an older iPod Nano that's been beefed up but in the hand, it really feels excellent. Astell & Kern also supplies a blanking plug for the SD card slot which is a nice touch. The build is the easy equal of any player or DAC at the same price. The Junior also benefits from a conventional micro USB connection at the base rather than some random bespoke fitting. This being said, the tolerance of the metal around the plug is incredibly tight and at least one cable I have doesn't fit.
The interface and screen of the Junior is good if not truly great. Compared to the slightly involved button based system of the Lotoo PAW or the older Android based display of the Sony NW-ZX1, the Junior is entirely competitive in terms of accessing and listening to albums but compared to the Pioneer XDP-101 with its larger screen and newer operating system, the Astell & Kern feels a little old. The main issue is that the screen isn't always perfect at discerning between an attempt to scroll and an attempt to select and this can leave it feeling a little unresponsive. Living with the Astell & Kern day to day if you haven't used the Pioneer (or a modern smartphone with a Mojo attached) won't be an issue but the comparison doesn't favour the Junior.
The scrolling volume wheel on the rear leading edge of the Junior is also a slightly acquired taste. The control itself looks and feels excellent and it is better than a button volume but it does often snag on clothing, thereby adjusting the level and the actual volume ramp itself is quite slow. As a solution to keeping the casework slim though, there is a lot to like.
The build is the easy equal of any player or DAC at the same price
How was it tested?The Junior arrived having done some running so was pressed straight into action with a selection of material transferred from the central NAS drive. This was shared across the internal drive and a Samsung 64gb SD card and locations of specific albums noted for comparison. The Junior has been tested with Etymotic HF3, Grado GR8e and Noble 6 Earphones and Beyerdynamic T70 and Oppo PM-3 headphones. Material used has been lossless and high res FLAC, AIFF and DSD. The Junior has also been briefly tested as a USB DAC from a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running jRiver and Tidal into the same headphones and earphones.
Sound Quality - MusicIn 2016 (and indeed for at least the last decade), the performance of all but the nastiest decoding hardware is such that unless you do something drastic- introduce valves, run it filterless- or indeed with an unusual filter- there isn't the sort of night and day difference in the performance of devices that there is with more mechanical devices like speakers or turntables. As a result of this, even though the Junior uses a different DAC to many rivals, it doesn't sound radically different to the competition. There are some subtle variations though and these make the Junior an interesting player.
Beyond the decoding, there is one obvious and immediately apparent difference between the Junior and most rivals that is firmly in the Astell & Kern's favour. The Junior makes pretty much everything except the Chord Mojo look wimpishly underpowered. The headphone amp on the Junior is the perfect antidote to the hobbled output that has been foisted upon many other portable audio players. With sensitive IEMs, the Junior is entirely listenable at less than half volume and fearsomely loud by the time you are asking for 65%-70%. Even with more challenging loads like the Oppo PM-3, the Astell & Kern has enough headroom to make them work as they should.
This is coupled to a presentation that is a little different from products built around the ubiquitous ESS Sabre. At first listen the Astell & Kern almost seems softer but the more you listen, the more it becomes clear that it is instead simply smoother and less determined to grab your attention than some other designs. Behind this greater refinement is a punch and sense of fun that is quite infectious. With the Propellerheads On her Majesty's Secret Service the Junior simply grooves. The big funky 90s bassline is fast and wonderfully textured. The Junior knows how to have fun- it's just a little less overt about it.
This top end refinement also means that the Astell & Kern is a fine partner for slightly classier music tastes. Salford Sunday from Richard Thompson's 'Electric' album is reproduced with a richness and realism that is really exceptional. If you've got a library of well mastered music, the Junior is able to extract a level of performance that keeps even Chord's mighty Mojo honest. Thanks to the way that the tonal balance is setup, the Astell & Kern is still fairly forgiving of brighter and more forward recordings. This is not a device to pack with thousands of compressed MP3s but it will ensure you can listen to Utah Saints without wincing- on the understanding you don't normally wince when listening to them.
Matters aren't completely perfect however. The Junior is basically capable of gapless playback but where the Pioneer and Lotoo do so without a moment's thought, there is the very faintest hesitation with the Astell & Kern. It only ever makes itself felt in continuous mixes and is much more likely to be an issue playing off the SD card than the internal memory but the Junior isn't as seamless as it could be. by the same token, the performance with high resolution material is genuinely excellent and the Astell & Kern makes a better argument for the existence of such files than most other devices at £400.
Sound Quality as a USB DACThe ability to plug the Junior into your PC and have it perform the decoding is a handy one as it closes off an advantage of the Chord Mojo. The Junior works as a driverless device and this presumably precludes use over 24/96kHz The basic presentation of the Junior doesn't alter and this means that you have a useful performance boost over any laptop headphone output I've used in the last few years. This is not the sort of feature that will have you rushing to buy the Junior but if you already like the look of it as a portable player, the ability to run it as a computer accessory (and charge it at the same time) won't hurt it one bit.
The Junior makes pretty much everything except the Chord Mojo look wimpishly underpowered
- Refined but punchy presentation
- Excellent build
- Works well as a DAC
- Limited expandable memory
- No aps
- Slightly unresponsive screen
Astell & Kern Junior Portable Audio Player ReviewAs noted at the beginning of this review, we still don't really know if the dedicated portable players have a position in the market that justifies the extra players showing up in the category. As such everything has to be judged on its own merits and the Astell & Kern Junior has plenty of them. Compared to the Pioneer XDP-100R, the Astell & Kern is simpler and less flexible but if you are using your own music on it, the powerful headphone amp and refined but entertaining presentation really does deliver on the promise of the brand. The Junior might be a more focussed machine than some of the rivals on the market but what it does, it does exceptionally well and it certainly earns a recommendation based on this performance.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £400.00
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