The DAP (Digital Audio Player) market has been growing at a rapid pace recently, with newer companies popping up ever so often and existing companies releasing products faster than people having the chance to try them out. The two most popular brands right now making some of the best DAPs on the market, from the very basic entry level range to the extreme high end, are FiiO Electronics, from China, and Astell&Kern, a brand from South Korea, specializing in high end DAPs.
When FiiO released the X7 (their most expensive DAP) and Astell&Kern released their AK Jr. (their cheapest DAP), both priced similarly, there was a storm of posts on various headphone enthusiast forums with people wondering how good these products were and which one to buy. Thus, we thought it would be a good idea to give you a comprehensive comparison between the two products and help you decide which one to buy.
The AK Jr. comes in a sleek, matte black packaging, almost as big as a big chocolate bar and not much thicker than two bars of said confectionery. The outer sleeve has the AK logo in a matte and glossy finish with silver lining and the brand name written below in gloss black on the front. At the back you have your product details printed in 8 languages. On sliding out the sleeve you are greeted with another Astell&Kern branding on a matte black monolith with a flap. Lifting the flap reveals the AK Jr. set in the middle of some hard foam and covered in plastic and a tiny compartment below containing the charge and sync cable. On the left side, you will find your documentation and 2 sets of scratch guards, front and back.
Being a bigger device, the FiiO X7 also has the bigger box. It’s almost like a smartphone’s packaging but slightly bigger. A similar matte black external sleeve but with a glossy image of the device itself set right in the middle, FiiO branding in subtle gloss on the top left and another glossy logo on the top right mentions DSD 384/32. There's FiiO and X7 branding on either side of the sleeve and some product information behind. Slight out the sleeve and you find a matte black box, with nice thick cardboard, the kind of cardboard that instills enough confidence to hurl it around without damaging anything inside. Don’t do that though! You lift the top lid and you find the X7 again set in the hard foam we found with the AK Jr. with a box behind the actual device containing the transfer/charging cable, Coaxial adapter cable, a tiny screwdriver and a bunch of extra screws (for the user replaceable amp modules), documentation and a set of scratch guards.
And about the Design...
You lift the device and peel the plastic (oh so satisfying!), and you find yourself holding this tiny block of aluminium and you just move it around and go “Wow!”. Everything about this device is just pure beauty, from the angles to the glass back with the textured aluminium below it, to the buttons and that volume wheel with those soft clicks. Holding it up and looking at it from the top and sides almost reminds one of looking at a Lamborghini Countach for the first time, with the sharp, yet so sexy lines. The build quality and attention to detail is proper AK Luxury. It never makes you think this is AK’s cheapest device. There are exposed screws at the bottom on either side of the USB slot, but it does not feel cheap, but adds an industrial feel to it. And did I say how small this thing is? Oh it’s really small. At a thickness of only 8.9 mm it’s probably the thinnest DAP (Digital Audio Player) with a touchscreen available on the market. It’s machined out of a single piece of Aluminium with a solid feeling aluminium power button on top and play/pause, forward and backward buttons on the left. By solid I mean these are proper buttons, so good that I found myself just locking/unlocking the device repeatedly just because I enjoyed pressing the buttons so much. Same with the volume wheel, it’s clicky but it isn’t those hard clicks on a washing machine, but soft subtle clicks. All in all, this is a premium device and it feels like one.
As sexy as the AK Jr. is, the FiiO X7 is equally unsexy. By unsexy I do not mean ugly, but it has a proper industrial feel to it. It almost feels like one of those early Sony Ericsson P series phones except entirely made of metal with a glass screen. If the AK Jr. looked like a Lamborghini Countach, this looks like the original Audi Quattro that won multiple World Rally Car Championships: brute and functional. There’s a nice big screen with an aluminium chin and thin strip of plastic just below that lights up when the device is switched on. The X7 is almost twice as thick as the AK Jr. at a thickness of 16.6 mm and it’s taller and wider as well. The screen is also bigger as a result with a diagonal width of 3.97 inches which provides for a nice viewing experience. It has two sets of buttons on the either side. The power button and the volume rocker on the left side and the playback buttons on the right side. They look identical and can sometimes be confusing in the beginning but does not take long to get a hang of, almost like the light switches at a new house.
They also have a nice satisfying click and have a different texture than the body of the device unlike the AK Jr., which also has smaller buttons than the X7. At the back, you will notice that the part where your index finger rests, is recessed and has a rougher, grippier texture which makes for a comfortable holding experience. This makes you think, "not so bad after all!". This device, being as chunky as it is, does feel good to hold in the hand and has a premium feel to it in its own functional way. The USB port and headphone out are at the bottom of the Amplifier module and there is a Line/Coax Out on top of the device, which adds for a bit more functionality than the AK Jr. This device has a proper solidness about it and the size is a comfortable one for people who are used to headphone amps and other DAPs.
Getting to the User Interface
Astell&Kern have never been consistent with their UI. Since the original AK100, the UI has sometimes been elegant and sometimes just really bad. The UI on the AK Jr. is pretty simple and clean to look at. There are six main menus on the home screen: Songs, Artists, Albums, Genres, Playlists and Folders. All nice and big and easy to navigate through. The top bar indicates the battery level, memory card status and other bits of information. The space in between the menus and the top bar shows the currently playing song name and has an icon shaped like a nut which takes you to the settings menu. Normally companies use a gear to indicate settings, but A&K chose a nut, so it's not instantly recognizable as settings but doesn’t take a genius to figure it out either.
So to look at, the UI is clean and logical, but that’s where the pros end. On navigating through the menus, you realize just how laggy the interface is. With a moderately loaded memory card and nothing added to the on-board memory other than the pre-installed software, the device behaves like a year old Android phone with the storage and RAM filled to the brim. While scrolling, at times your finger will be all the way across the face of the screen, and the menu would’ve only scrolled halfway through. The UI is easy to get used to and navigate through, but ultimately it is very laggy and unresponsive. So I clearly wouldn’t recommend this device to anyone who can’t tolerate that lag.
Now, it isn’t unusual for audio gear companies to make devices with terrible UIs, but normally they don’t charge a premium for their brand, build and usability like Astell&Kern does. Their marketing for this particular product has been to make DAPs attractive for the day to day user by making complex Hi-Fi as elegant to use as a smartphone. So, when you make a claim and charge a premium for it, you are certainly expected to deliver a top notch product.
The FiiO X7 runs on *dramatic drum roll* ANDROID! You can switch it between, Pure Music Mode, which is a skin where you pretty much only do music playback and nothing else. And there’s the regular Android Mode which allows music playback via the FiiO App and streaming through any of your favorite streaming services available on the Google Play App Store or the FiiO Marketplace: be it Tidal for lossless music or SoundCloud for your favorite podcasts and indie music. You can do pretty much anything else you can do on an Android device (other than place and receive calls). But FiiO has blacklisted a bunch of apps which you may be tempted to download onto the device.
Being Android, it also makes for easy navigation via the standard Android on-screen navigation buttons at the bottom end of the screen. The OS is fairly snappy as there is good hardware backing it. No noticeable lag and highly responsive. yay! Anyone familiar with using an Android device can pretty much just pick it up, plug your headphones in and go, cause you already know how to use it and there’s no required learning curve. There is one small gripe however, when the screen is locked, sometimes the playback and the volume buttons do not respond instantly. It doesn’t seem like a hardware problem as the response is instant when the screen is unlocked. So I believe this problem can be easily solved with a Firmware Update.
Overall, FiiO has done a very good job with the UI by just using Android, as people are already familiar with it and IT WORKS! They’ve followed the simple motto, “What Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” and thus delivered on the claim that A&K couldn’t deliver on, of making a DAP that’s as easy to use as a Smartphone by actually using a Smartphone OS. So kudos to FiiO!
So how do these sound?
Now to the important bit, how does the device deliver in terms of sound? The AK Jr. is at the bottom of the food chain in terms of A&K products: it’s their entry level guy & it’s their cheapest product. But let that not deter you, it can hold its own. In terms of numbers and specs, the big boys like the AK120, 240 or 380 walk all over the little guy, but in terms of actual sound, leave out the amplification itself, and they don’t sound much different after all.
When using low powered headphones and IEMs, pretty much everything you can carry around with ease, it sounds really nice. It uses a Wolfson DAC, which performs up to the mark with authority. For use with a high impedance, power hungry headphone, people strap a gigantic amplifier to their DAPs anyway, so you’re better off strapping an amp to this little device than to another gargantuan DAP. This is because you're not likely to be using that internal amp anyway, so you might as well just save yourself some money and space and buy the AK Jr. over the AK240 if you’re going to end up strapping it to, for example, a Chord Mojo and listen to your Audeze LCD-3s.
The AK Jr. also has a warm sound signature not unlike the new generation of A&K products. Even when listening to a sibilant set of IEMs like the RHA MA750i, the music didn’t feel as harsh as it normally would. You can clearly hear the highs but it isn’t as piercing as it normally is through the RHA MA750i. Even through something slightly bassier like the SE215 from Shure, it doesn’t sound like the outside of a nightclub. The music is clear and slightly warm and rounded. You could hear a track of glass breaking and it wouldn’t sound uncomfortable. So it is fun device to listen to and not for someone looking for accuracy. Since you’re mostly going to be using this with IEMs, A&K has made sure that there isn’t much hiss that you get when plugging in highly sensitive IEMs to the device. It’s almost as quiet as an iPod Nano, but it's still more powerful. It is perfect for genres like jazz, classical, electronic, vocal and other similar genres that aren’t heavy with the highs. Not that it doesn’t sound good on other genres, but just those genres sound better as the mids and bass are just beautiful to listen to. Blues and Heavy Metal will still be highly enjoyable but the AK Jr. just makes the others sound better.
FiiO has gone for the swappable amp modules this time, just like how HiFiMAN does with its players. You can swap out the amps as per your requirements. Since, the X7 comes with the AM1 amp module as standard, included in the box, this review will only cover the performance of that particular module as the others have to be purchased separately and aren’t included in the price. Now according to FiiO themselves, the AM1 is best suited for use with sensitive IEMs and low-impedance headphones - normally ones that easily run off of your smartphone.
If you have ever had experience with prior FiiO DAPs, as soon as you press play, you instantly know that this is FiiO’s highest end product. It is much more detailed and has a farther reaching soundstage than the other FiiO DAPs. It is highly neutral but with a touch of warmth to make it enjoyable. The imaging is fantastic and the instrument separation is on point. What makes it stand out are the scrumptious mids that make you feel you are actually sitting in front of the vocalist as they sing. No sacrifice in terms of highs and lows. And just the mids are sooooo good! It’s an effortless device and highly suited for use with Custom IEMs with the AM1 module. Fortunately, the performance remains similar throughout the other amp modules with an increase only in power output.
The AK Jr. and the FiiO X7 are both brilliant little products but for different people. In terms of sound, they’re both very close. Only the X7 are slightly, tiny bit more detailed and just a little bit sharper. The AK Jr. is for someone looking to upgrade from an iPod or a smartphone, but not ready to make a nosedive into the deep dark world of Audiophilia. They probably just want good music through their regular portable devices.
The FiiO X7 is for someone looking to graduate from the lower end FiiOs or iBasso players, with more functionality and more room to play around with, thanks to the swappable amp modules. It’s for the kind of people who love their music but aren’t ready to sell an arm and a leg to get something like a higher end A&K player.
Not to forget, that you will end up paying more than the retail price of the device itself in order to buy other modules for higher impedance headphones, so eventually it does get more expensive than the AK Jr.
So the choice between the two really comes down to the type of person you are, over the actual differences between the two devices, and whichever you prefer, you will enjoy it thoroughly.
Which earphones do you prefer? Do let us know in the comments below!
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