2016 Buyer's Guide: Portable Music Players

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Astell & Kern AK Jr,
Astell & Kern AK100 II,
Astell & Kern AK120 II,
Astell & Kern AK240,
Sony NW-ZX2
2016 Buyer's Guide: Portable Music Players

Astell&Kern AK Jr
The AK Jr is only 4.5" by 2" and 3/8". It will slip easily into almost any pocket you choose, except for the change pocket of your jeans. Unlike many portable players that include a balanced headphone output and claim to be able to drive every transducer that anyone has ever placed on his head, the Astell&Kern AK Jr is designed to power reasonably efficient headphones. Configured around a single Wolfson WM8740 DAC, it supports up to 192/24 PCM as well as DSD64 via conversion to PCM. The beauty of the AK Jr is that it can work with a wide variety of headphones without needing additional gear. Couple it with one of the many headphone options available in the $300 to $500 range, and for under $1000 you, too, can have a wonderful portable rig that delivers superb fidelity and simply slides in your pocket without any unsightly bulges. Indeed, the only things that are really junior about the AK Jr are is its size and its price. astellnkern.com

Astell&Kern AK100 II and AK120 II
$699, $1299 
These portable players are best thought of as iPods on steroids. With their finely-brushed black aluminum cases and intuitive controls, they give up nothing to Apple in industrial engineering. But iPods max out at a tepid 48/16 resolution, whereas the AKs go to 192/24. The AK120 will even play DSD files! Sonically, these players simply stomp modern-day iPods and iPhones, which sound dull and dreary by comparison. Even on moderate-resolution material, the AKs deliver high-end qualities like timbral richness, airiness, detail, and pace. And once you have held hi-res in your hands, you will never settle for less. The AK120 boasts dual Wolfson DACs and twice the memory capacity (a precious resource when storing hi-res material) of the AK100. The flagship also has marginally more air, a smidge less grain, and stronger bass. Both players constitute wild successes, bringing true high-end sensibility and performance to portable music. astellnkern.com

Sony NW-ZX2 Music Player
Sony, which created the first “Walkman” portable player, has been involved with portable audio since its inception, but lately has not been the dominant player it was in the early days. This could change with the NW-ZX2. This Android-based player can reproduce any commercially available music file including 128x DSD; plus, it also plays videos from YouTube, Hulu, and Facebook. It also comes with WiFi and Bluetooth support. The NW-ZX2 reestablishes Sony as one of the preeminent manufacturers of portable audio playback devices. And, yes, Sony has succeeded masterfully in achieving its design goals—the NW-ZX2 delivers excellent sound and looks, and it feels and responds like a high-performance product should. If you had any doubts about Sony’s commitment to high-quality audio, the NW-ZX2 will put them to rest. sony.com

Astell&Kern AK240
Hard to believe, but the Astell&Kern AK240 improves upon the already brilliant performance of its highly regarded predecessors. Like them, it brings true high-end performance to portable music. Finally, audiophiles can enjoy music at the sonic level they’re used to at home—without being anywhere near a reference system. Unlike iPods or iPhones, the AK240 can play high-res and even native DSD files, which can either be local or streamed across a network. That’s a distinct sonic advantage. Even with lower-res material the AK240 delivers resolution, timbral nuance, dynamic inflection, ease, and authority unheard of in other portable players. Compared to the AK100 and AK120, the AK240 boasts a significantly quieter background, greater purity, and even greater resolution. astellnkern.com

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