A&K’s ongoing mission to provide buyers with a range of choices reaches new heights. EdSelley gets his modules out.
Astell&Kern is the biggest fish in the relatively small pond of portable audio players; a market that was forever changed by the rise of the smartphone. Not content with competing in all the existing sub categories of portable player, its recent efforts seem to have centred on creating new ones to participate in. As well as the KANN Alpha we saw in HFC 473 that functions as a sort of portable headphone amplifier, the other area of innovation has been giving owners a choice of digital decoding. We first saw this in the SE200 (HFC 467), which has two DACs built in, and now the company has unveiled the A&futura SE180, its second model with this functionality
The SE180 goes about offering this choice in a slightly different way to the SE200. For starters, it’s less expensive and this reflects that it’s rather less complex internally as there’s only a single DAC. This is an ESS 9038PRO, which can handle PCM files up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD natively to 256. One advantage of slimming down to the one DAC is that the SE180 mimics the KANN Alpha in having three available connections; the conventional 3.5mm, a four pole 2.5mm balanced connector and a 4.4mm Pentaconn output; both of which can output to XLR as well.
ORIGIN South Korea
TYPE Digital Audio Player WEIGHT 380g
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 77x137x20mm
ESS DAC with add-on AKG Module
Quoted battery life: 10.5 hours •256GB internal storage
DISTRIBUTOR Armour Home Electronics
The flexibility comes in the form of two small catches at the top of the chassis. Depress them both and pull firmly under a tiny lip on the top of the backplate and the top part of SE180 comes away taking the ESS DAC with it. You can then – so long as you have parted with the prerequisite £ – replace it with the SEM 2 module. This contains a pair of AKM AK4497EQ DACs that have PCM handling to 768kHz and DSD512 capability available to the same three connections. Although this may sound like a more complex means of achieving what the SE200 already does, A&K explains that more DAC modules are in the works, which would make the SE180 uniquely flexible.
The AKM DAC delivers a sweeter, more emotionally involved sound
This isn’t the only new technology that has been added. The SEI80 is the first of the company’s players to use a system called Teraton Alpha, which is effectively a new processor and Bios that manages the functions of the SE180 and the amplification of the decoded signal. This is intended to offer lower noise and improved power consumption over the older system. It’s been implemented with a new control interface intended to be slicker and more intuitive than the system being used up to this point. Viewed through the first Full HD screen that Astell&Kern has fitted to any of its products, it’s brighter and easier to read than before.
This works up to a point. The SEI80 is slicker and more intuitive than the SE200, but its adapted Android interface is still less logically laid out than a modern smartphone and doing things like adding Qobuz or Spotify is rather involved. However, the rest of the SE180’s specification is more compelling. Internal capacity is 256GB, which can be bolstered by a microSD card of up to 1TB in size. Like other recent A&K players, the SE180 has Bluetooth and now includes LDAC as well as aptX and aptX HD. AK Connect functionality allows the SE180 to access UPnP content over the same network. The player will shortly have the ability to function as a Roon Endpoint too.
All this comes wrapped in metalwork that follows the basic pattern of the SE200 and this is no bad thing. The A&futura series seems to have dialled back on some of the slightly forced weirdness of the older models (as a left hander, the canted screen was a particular annoyance) and instead delivers a feeling of commensurate ‘specialness’ without being deliberately wacky. The removal of hard buttons for track skip is a minor annoyance, but the new screen and interface goes some way to alleviating it. Build quality is absolutely superb, even judged at the relatively lofty price point.
Initially using the SE180 with the supplied ESS module and partnering it with a Focal Clear MG headphone, reveals a player that has some obvious similarities to the SE200. The most immediate impression it gives is one of effortless power. It has no trouble driving the Focal to any level you could remotely want to achieve and there’s never any perceivable strain to any aspect of the performance. Instead, the vast and brooding presentation of Massive Attack’s Angel is delivered without any sense of the scale being impinged on in any way.
The ‘hard hitting’ element is something that crops up repeatedly in my notes and, across a selection of material, the SEI80 demonstrates exceptional percussive bass. It thunders its way through Telephasic Workshop by Boards Of Canada with authority; landing the flurry of low drum strikes with speed and precision. At the other end of the frequency spectrum it is assured, but perhaps a little sterile. The rough and ready Swamp Dog on Seasick Steve’s Sonic Soul Surfer is immaculately presented, but lacks some of the emotion it can possess elsewhere.
There’s a solution for this if you find the money to buy the SEM 2 module and enjoy the SEI80 with the AKM DACs doing the heavy lifting. Doing so yields a greater performance advantage than the AKM ‘side’ of the SE200 and I prefer it across pretty much every piece of music I play. Without losing any of the punch and rhythmic accuracy that the ESS module possesses, the AKM delivers a sweeter, more emotionally involved presentation that is less fatiguing and hence the most complete listening experience of any Astell&Kern player that I can recall testing.
Something that applies to both modules, though, is that the SE180 does its best work with balanced headphones. Using the Rosson Audio Design RAD-0 (p59) via the 4.4mm connector brings about a consistent and deeply impressive sense of space and soundstage that allows for even very large-scale music to be presented in a manner that goes beyond the left/right of traditional headphone listening. Given that headphones and earphones that offer this connection are becoming more common, it would make sense to prioritise the use of them with the SEI80 to achieve the best results. What’s also worth noting is that Bluetooth implementation is excellent. It may seem odd to want to use a player with such a good wired output in this manner, but it adds a welcome convenience when you want untethered audio on the move.
The strength in depth of the SEI 80, with its superior interface and screen, arguably allows it to outperform the SE200 in some key areas. It does have two issues at present that make this contest a little harder to call, however. The first is that the module possessing the higher performance is (perhaps deliberately) a cost option where the expense of adding it takes the SE180 to the same price as the SE200, which also possesses both options. Beyond the – admittedly very useful – addition of the 4.4mm connection, the advantage of the interchangeable DACs will only truly be realised as and when the additional options hit the market, giving greater flexibility to owners. In the meantime, this slick and well-executed digital audio player offers considerable promise •
A unique concept with great potential if new modules hit the market
- Excellent performance via AKM module
- New screen and interface
- Additional cost of module
- Not as slick as phone interface