Since its release in 2019, the Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP2000 has been hailed as perhaps the best portable digital audio player in the world. Once you hold one in your hand, you can see that it’s not just about the sound, but the entire experience from the visual design and materials, through the interface. But, as we close in on 2021, there have been more and more DAPs biting at its heels. A year later, is the SP2000 still king of the hill?
The Build and Design
From the moment you open the box, the SP2000 looks and feels every bit of a luxury device. The level of craftsmanship and quality of materials are far above any mainstream consumer tech products – including the latest iPhone or iPad. All of the physical elements of the player, from the scroll wheel to the side buttons have a solid, satisfying feel.
The packaging itself is very well constructed. Inside the carbon box you’ll find a sturdy, nicely finished wooden box that opens to reveal the player. In the lid of the box, you’ll find a leather case for the player. The color of the case is dependent on the color of the player you selected, with Astell&Kern having selected colors that complement the player nicely. The data/charge cable and some screen protectors are stored underneath the player.
The SP2000 features 3.5mm unbalanced, and 2.5mm balanced jacks for headphone output, and the 3.5mm can also be used as a line level output for connecting to another device, like a speaker system. You can also output via USB using a USB OTG cable, or even connect the SP2000 to a computer or phone to use a USB DAC. I should note that there are some limitations to the output quality and MQA playback when the device is used as a USB DAC, so it’s not the preferred way to use the SP2000.
The SP2000 has 512GB of internal storage which you could use to store about 8,000 tracks, by Astell&Kern’s estimate. The microSD card slot supports another 512GB of expansion giving you a total of 1TB. The battery lasts about 8 hours of playback time, so if you fill this thing up to capacity with music, you’re going to need quite a few charge cycles to listen to it all.
For interacting with the player, the 5 inch, 720p display has vivid colors and is very responsive to input. Using the SP2000 feels faster and snappier than other Astell&Kern players I’ve used. The OS is the same Android based proprietary Astell&Kern software as the rest of their player lineup.
If you’re going to use the SP2000 to play your own local files, the experience of copying files via USB cable or with an SD Card is quick and easy, and you can get listening right away. You can create or import playlists, and the interface provides a number of ways to browse and organize your music. If you’re going to use streaming services, there’s a bit of a process to get everything working (we have a short guide on the subject to help you out), but once you get everything installed, it’s quite easy to use.
Once you get past the main player interface, the SP2000 is an Android device under the hood, so configuring things like Bluetooth and wireless internet or applying updates are done through the familiar configuration interface.
While the high quality materials and opulent design help support the $3499 price tag, the real star of the show is the sound. Detail? Resolution? Soundstage? The SP2000 delivers the total package. The output is crystal clear, and every note is delivered with clarity, speed, and precision. The tuning is honest and neutral to match. Combined with the right headphones, the SP2000 is like having a studio reference stack in your pocket.
The SP2000 is well balanced across the frequency spectrum. It provides low, linear subbass extension, and a tight midbass. The mids are impeccably detailed and clear, with excellent delivery of the many layers of a recording even with very complex pieces. The treble is without a doubt one of the things that sets the SP2000 apart, as it delivers quite a bit of air and brightness in the treble, but without becoming harsh or sibilant, even when paired with bright headphones.
I tested the SP2000 using a range of headphones and IEMs, from the HIFIMAN Sundara to the Meze Empyrean, and the oBravo Cupid to the Noble Sultan. With IEMs from across the board there was no background noise or hiss. With headphones, The SP2000’s 6Vrms output puts it in the “great for 80% of headphones" range, where it can comfortably power most dynamic headphones and lower impedance planar magnetics, but it’s going to have a hard time with high impedance, low sensitivity headphones.
The clear, transparent sound combined with the excellent soundstage will bring out the best in your headphones, and your music, but your overall experience is also going to be limited by how your original signal and the rest of the gear matches up with the SP2000. What do I mean by that? Basically, in order to fully enjoy the SP2000, you’re going to need high resolution files and top notch headphones or IEMs. In doing various comparisons, I found that using CD quality and below streams and an IEM like the Campfire Vega, the SP2000 was great, but it didn’t feel like a $3499 device next to a $1099 KANN Alpha. Pull out some 192kHz 24 bit files, and it starts coming together. Swap out the Vega for a 64 Audio U12t, and now you can really see how the SP2000 provides the ultimate portable audio experience.
Comparison: Astell&Kern SE200
Sharp-eyed audiophiles noticed, when the SE200 launched, that one of its two channels was essentially the same as the SP2000, with the main difference being that the DAC used was in a single configuration instead of dual. So how does it stack up by comparison? Let me start out by saying that these two devices sound incredibly similar. If you switched my headphone plug in the middle of a listening session, I might not catch it right away. The SE200’s AKM DAC channel has the same fast, clear, transparent, and neutral delivery as its big brother the SP2000.
However, it’s not 100% of the SP2000. First, the soundstage is close, but not quite there. The SP2000 is just a little bit bigger, and a little bit rounder. Second, the treble delivery on the SE200 is not as well refined as it is on the SP2000. With highly detailed IEMs with prominent treble, like the Empire Ears Odin or Campfire Audio Ara, the SE200 has more sibilance and some harsh tones. With the SP2000 all of the content of the treble is there, but the presentation is stronger and less harsh. I also often felt like the SE200 would sometimes miss the mark on presenting the right kind of details. As an example, on several recordings, where the SP2000 revealed the richness and depth of the singers voice and inflections, the SE200 delivered a stronger taste of the background reverb in the recording.
As I mentioned before, it seems like it’s partly a matter of scale. The higher the resolution of the audio file, and the more detail the headphones are able to retrieve and deliver to your ear, the more the SP2000 outshines everything else.
The Bottom Line
In terms of build and design, the SP2000 is an incredible product which looks every bit like it deserves its $3499 price tag. In terms of sound, put simply, the SP2000 is the best DAP in the world, but there are some caveats. In order to fully appreciate the SP2000, you’re going to need high resolution music, and headphones or IEMs that can effectively deliver it. The SP2000 is not the starting line – a DAP to try to get the most out of mid-fi or entry level hi-fi gear – it’s the finish line – a DAP that brings out the best performance from the best headphones and IEMs to create a truly top of the line experience.