Remember when music used to sound great? Before we started crunching it down into digital formats with so much compression that sounds just started disappearing.
Recorded music was never meant to be compressed like this, and as technology advanced and left formats like vinyl, tape and even compact disks behind we all suffered for the "progress." Music just doesn't sound as good on your phone crushed into a flat MP3 with no amp or proper digital audio converter aka a DAC.
Many younger Millennials and Centennials have never even experienced music properly with nice home systems, or on vinyl or CD, it's just not convenient anymore. It's like if you grew up only on McDonald's and that's all you knew, that's what's happened with recorded music.
I too started to fall victim to convenience, and slowly but steadily my home system was gone, my vinyl only used for DJing and my CDs sold or put into boxes. Then after all that iPods got better, then iPhone and then Spotify/Apple music to replace the mp3s on my phone. All quality sound left behind in the dust.
Recently I hit a wall where I simply became overwhelmed with too much music, it was just impossible to keep up, and after rediscovering my vinyl again with the Orbit Turntable and some dope speakers by Raumfeld, something clicked. Not only was there too much music and an overwhelming abundance of mediocrity but mp3s compared to vinyl just seriously sucked.
Hearing the warm tones of vinyl, and all the details of analog started me off on a mission to find better ways to listen to music when being mobile. Here's how I became a musical minimalist and discovered the joy of HD audio players with Astell & Kern's AK Jr.
1st Step - Find a new format, Mp3s can sound ok, but unless you have a DAC + amp on your phone and some insanely good headphones, it's still just meh. So I started to research the basics and found that FLAC and Apple's Lossless format ALAC are the best bet for mobile due to their smaller file sizes and deliver CD quality sound.
You can also go with DSD for the super high-quality formats, but these files are large, and only necessary if you are a true audiophile.
So I started to dig out some old CDs and re-rip them onto my computer as ALAC files and delete the Mp3 versions. Why in the hell did I not rip them as ALAC files, to begin with? Bummer!
2nd Step - Rethink your music and how you listen to it. I'm a music journalist/marketer by trade, so this was a difficult task. I had to separate myself from that and think like a music fan again. I started looking through my records, my CDs, my Mp3s, etc. to distill the music that I loved vs. the filler that seemed to creep into every digital nook and cranny.
I started to delete things I would never listen to again, got rid of the mediocre stuff and began a long process of cleaning the musical closet which is still in progress (I have thousands of albums).
3rd Step - Start listening differently. When I pop on music via Spotify it's often just background music, I started to become a passive listener and stopped being present for the music. So this is why I started listening to vinyl again, there is a forced presence and participation that brings you into the experience, and this is a game changer. You start to hear your music in all its incredible detail again and cherish albums, not just passively sift through singles and playlists.
This process forges a more intimate experience with the music; it moves you much more deeply when you are paying attention. I know that sounds like common sense, but just try it and you will see what I mean.
4th Step - Find an HD audio player like the Astell & Kern AK Jr This device not only significantly elevates your music experience it goes right along with the steps of becoming a music minimalist. The onboard DAC, limited memory and basic controls force you to be somewhat involved in the whole process. You can only take so much music with you on this device, so it forces you to think about what's coming along.
Astell&Kern AK Jr Review
MSRP $499 | Currently $250 on A&K Website
Top line Info -
• Slim, and slightly smaller than an iPod Classic. Nice leather case available
• Wolfson DAC - High-quality sound for a reasonable cost
• Currently one of the most affordable HD players on the market
• Plays DSD, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, AIFF and MP3 files
• UI is a little bland, but it works fine
At first glance, through the Astell & Kern website you might be a bit intimidated with the prices of these players, but fret not the AK Jr. is very gettable at $250 right now.
The AK Jr weighs in at 3.2 ounces or so and easily will fit in your shirt or jeans pocket. I would highly recommend the leather carrying case to protect it and also protect you; this thing has some sharp edges. This thing is sexy and sleek with one knob on the side and a 3-inch color touch screen to help you navigate through the menus. Overall the UI takes a little getting used to, and might be a bit clunky for some, it's one of the few gripes that I've seen consistently about this player, but overall it did not bother me.
The memory is ok with 64 gigs but you can easily add a microSD card to the side slot to up the memory, I chose a 64 gig card as they are so cheap right now. Connectivity to the computer was simple, just plug it in like a small external hard drive and drag and drop your music on to the player, delete, update, etc.
The player features both Bluetooth and wired connectivity, so you have some options. I prefer going wired because I know the sound will always be better and with the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless 2's you get HD sound which is insane. If you decide to go wireless the Blue Satellite wireless headphones sound particularly impressive as well and support Bluetooth 4.1 with Enhanced Data Rate & aptX™.
Headphone Recommendations -
Another cool thing you can do with the AK Jr is to hook it up to your computer and use it as a DAC for the computer's sound, which is nice if you want to up your desktop music game at work. Just plug it in and switch on the USB DAC mode and your computer audio sounds SO much better.
I listened to Mp3s, Apple Lossless, FLAC and some DSD files to get a feel for the difference. My favorite format was the DSD, and when I hooked it up to some external speakers, you could really hear the warm and subtle details. Since I'm on a Mac, the Apple Lossless was the most convenient and offered some stellar sound quality over Mp3s, for me anyway.
The AK Jr makes your music come alive again, with its powerful amp and DAC you will open up details you either never knew existed or had forgotten about. I'm in love with this thing and no longer use my iPhone 7 much to listen to music when I'm traveling, it's like going back to McDonald's after having a filet at a high-end steak house.
This player and my new philosophy of musical minimalism have helped me rediscover music again. From listening attentively to the rich, high-quality sound from the AK Jr. to focusing on the music and formats that I actually love, music is exciting again. If you are or used to be a fanatic music fan, then try this player out or at least take some of the steps that I've taken, you'll be amazed at what happens.