The Astell&Kern SE200 is the latest digital audio player (DAP) from premier digital audio brand Astell&Kern. The second release in the A&Futura line, it uses premium materials to realize a striking futuristic design on the outside, and incorporates top of the line portable DAC and amp technology on the inside. The big new one of a kind feature is that the SE200 has a dual DAC setup with separate outputs for each of the on-board DACs. When you add all these top of the line materials and components, is the sum the next step in digital audio evolution, or just another pretty DAP?
Build and Design
As soon as you take it out of the box, you can feel the premium nature of the SE200’s sculpted aluminum body. A mixture of sharp edges and smooth curves, it looks like the audio player of the future has arrived today. It has quite a bit of weight to it, but it’s only a little bit thicker than your average smartphone with a case on. The touchscreen is a nice size: since the only purpose of the device is to listen to music, it doesn’t need a phablet sized screen, just one that’s big enough for you to easily navigate your music files and streaming apps, without fat fingering things too much.
For hardware controls, it features a nice tactile, clicky volume wheel, and hardware buttons for pause, skip forward, and skip back. There’s also an SD card expansion slot if you need more than the 256GB internal storage. The big feature comes in the form of four headphone jacks on the top. The SE200 has two 2.5mm balanced outputs, and two 3.5mm unbalanced outputs. The outputs are arranged in sets based on the DAC/Amp circuit they’re connected to, so you have one balanced and one unbalanced for the single AKM AKM4499EQ DAC (the same DAC as the Astell&Kern SP2000), and one balanced and unbalanced for the dual configuration Sabre ESS9068AS. Yes, if you’re keeping track, that’s 3 total DACs.
The standard Astell&Kern interface is going to be somewhat hit or miss depending on how you plan to use the device. Using a microSD card or connecting the SE200 to a computer to add music is straightforward, and you can quickly load up your player and get to listening. Using streaming apps like Qobuz or TIDAL (with the ability to download for offline listening) requires manually downloading the app, copying it to the player (which may require additional software depending on your platform), and then installing it from the Services menu on the player. Once you get that taken care of, the interface is simple and straightforward. Just like the rest of Astell&Kern’s players, the SE200 is 100% music player. When you turn it on, it takes you straight to the core music player. The only software you’re able to install? Other music apps.
I’ve found the screen size and responsiveness for the SE200 to be improved from the SA700 and SR25, and on par with the SP2000. As someone who understands that you don’t need a huge screen to listen to music, but has found the screen size on some smaller DAPs to be detrimental to using the player, I think the SE200 has found a good balance between having a good sized functional screen, and incredible hardware internally (without making it as oversized as something like the KANN CUBE).
The available Settings have also been improved, where the SE200 provides more options, such as USB DAC mode and various options for software vs hardware media decoding. There are also a number of filters available for both DACs which make more subtle adjustments to their sound signature. I greatly appreciate the chart that Astell&Kern provided with the marketing materials to help explain everything:
To test the device, I used a handful of IEMs and headphones including the Campfire Andromeda, Noble Tux 5, Empire Ears Legend X, Meze Empyrean, and Focal Utopia. Each of those headphones led me to a single conclusion: the SE200 is an absolute beast. In terms of detail, soundstage, and musicality, you’d have a tough time meeting the quality of the SE200 with a desktop system for under $2000, let alone a portable device.
The first thing I noticed about the SE200’s playback was that it was very transparent and detailed. While I typically find the Astell&Kern SR25 and SA700 to present a little bit on the warm side, the SE200 sounds more clear and neutral. The separate DAC channels provide some extra nuance to the sound as well. The Sabre ESS9068AS channel has an incredibly smooth and musical delivery, while the AKM AKM4499EQ side has more of a true reference quality to the tuning. Generally speaking, I thought that the over-ear headphones performed better with the AKM channel, while IEMs performed better with the Sabre ESS channel, but there were some nuances with different songs and different models where I thought things like “I really like the way the bass guitar sounds with the combination of the Sabre DAC and the Meze Empyrean.” or “the vocals sound so much more emotional with the Andromeda and the AKM channel.”
While the Tux 5 and Legend X are both on to the bassier side, neither felt dark or that the bass was overpowering with the SE200. The bass was certainly as present as ever, just very well under control. The Legend X still vibrated my brain into mush when I put on Grimes’ “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” and on Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage,” the Tux 5 delivered the groove as smoothly I’ve ever heard it. The AKM channel definitely helped support the somewhat rolled-off treble on the Tux 5, which provided some articulation on some songs which I’ve found to be missing with the Tux 5 on other sources. The Andromeda sounded perfectly paired, particularly with the Sabre ESS channel which seemed to perfectly complement the soft v-shape tuning of the Andromeda and add just the right amount of detail to its slightly recessed mids.
The Focal Utopia, was well matched and felt physical and dynamic across the full range. The Utopia felt particularly strong in the AKM channel, but I felt that it lost a little bit of force and physicality in the Sabre ESS channel. The Meze Empyrean, on the other hand, presented a bigger challenge for the SE200. With the unbalanced connection, the volume levels were solid, but I felt like I wasn’t getting the classic “planar slap” in the bass that I needed to really deliver the physical power in the low end. However, using the 2.5mm balanced connection gave it just enough extra juice to realize the potential of the Empyrean and provide that tight, physical bass it’s famous for. With both over-ear headphones, the AKM DAC channel provided a little bit more slap and pop in the bass, as well as stronger midrange presence, while the Sabre ESS channel felt smoother and more reserved.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for a 100% pure music player, the Astell&Kern A&Futura SE200 may very well be the second best DAP in the world right now – an incredible value compared to the slightly better-sounding flagship SP2000 (at nearly twice the price). With improvements over its predecessors in interface, design, features, and sound quality, the SE200 is truly Astell&Kern’s next step in the evolution of digital audio players. Our highest recommendation.