With their second digital audio player release of 2021, Astell&Kern continues to innovate with new features and design. Earlier this year we got the SE180 with swappable All-in-One cards that let you completely replace the DAC and amp, and now we have the SP2000T. What does the SP2000T bring to the table? There’s the hybrid solid state and tube amplification design of course, but, on top of that, SP2000T represents a genuine leap forward in usability for Astell&Kern devices.
Build & Design
Representing flagship level performance in the Astell&Kern lineup means you get flagship level packaging. Open the outer box, and you’ll see that SP2000T comes in the same classy wood box that the SP2000 is packaged with. Inside of that you get the standard package of accessories, like screen protectors and a charge cable, along with a premium leather case.
The player itself sticks to Astell&Kern’s standard design handbook, with aluminum construction featuring tight, angular lines, and a world class premium feel. One new design element is the glass window in the back which shows the tube and playback status light. The internal tubes are Korg Nutubes, so don’t expect the bright glow of a 12AX7 coming out of the back, but the window does a good job of evoking the feel of large tube products.
For external controls, you get one of the best feeling volume knobs in the game, play/pause, forward, and backwards buttons. The power button and all three outputs are on top of the unit, with 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced pushing 6Vrms, along with 3.5mm single-ended that does 3Vrms. Of course, you also have a microSD card slot with a max 1TB capacity.
Listen, the SP2000T sounds amazing (more on that in a minute), but possibly the most important part of the device in the evolution of Astell&Kern players are two key ways that the device interacts with apps. First of all, it’s now possible to directly download and install selected apps through the devices Services menu. That means no more hunting through APK download websites to find your favorite streaming service and sideload them onto the device; supported and tested APKs are right at your fingertips. You can still install apps the old way if you want to, but the new interface solves a longstanding problem with Astell&Kern devices.
The second change is better integration of those apps into Astell&Kern’s custom version of Android. Previously, any app functions were completely contained within the app itself. If you went into Settings and wanted to pause the song, you’d need to navigate back into the app through the Services menu, wait for it to reload and then you could pause. Now playback from apps can be controlled from anywhere on the device by pulling down from the top of the screen as you would on most smartphones to reveal the current song information and playback controls.
There are some other cool new features on the device. ReplayGain helps normalize the volume across your collection as you’re playing it back so that you don’t get hit with large variations in volume. And not content to simply offer a tube amplification option on the device – and not even content with a simple hybrid option – Astell&Kern developed a tool that allows you to select from 7 total options, with 5 degrees of hybrid solid state/tube operation in between fully op-amp and fully tube operation.
The key factor in Astell&Kern’s top end DAPs has always been balance. They deliver the detail, definition, and accuracy along with providing an engaging listening experience. These DAPs strive to provide sound quality at a level that makes you think you’re live in the studio listening to the music as it happens, but without the dry analytical sound that an engineer needs as they’re piecing the parts together. With SP2000T, Astell&Kern succeeds in delivering studio quality sound with an immensely high level of sonic engagement. Not only that, but the hybrid and tube options let you tune that to provide the balance of smooth and crisp that you want in your sound experience.
The general sound signature feels just a little south of neutral, with a very slight emphasis in – and good extension through – the bass, as well as a subtle taming of the highs. The mids are strong and full, and the presentation of the full 3D image is transcendent. In the op-amp mode, there’s just the slightest bit of edge on the transients, and SP2000T is carefully toeing the line between maintaining a smooth non-fatiguing sound and providing strong definition and resolution. As you shift more of the amplification duty to the tubes through the hybrid mode and into the full tube mode, the transients are smoothed out, and there’s just a hint of warmth that picks up in the midbass into the lower mids.
Your preference might largely depend on your selection of gear. I found that the Meze Empyrean benefited from the slightly stronger definition of the full op-amp mode, while the HIFIMAN Arya hit just right for me at 80% tubes. Likewise the 64 Audio Duo did well somewhere in the 20% tube range, while I preferred the U18s with a little more color on it. Full tube mode really brought out the low end in my Campfire Audio Solstice customs.
SP2000T sounds great with a variety of headphones and through a variety of genres. It has an incredibly low noise floor with IEMs, and solid performance – especially balanced – with a variety of headphones. SP2000T preserves the integrity of the original signal and the character of your headphones, but it also adds just a touch of its own character. One aspect of SP2000T’s character that stands out from previous models is that it’s not as relaxed sounding as some previous models. There’s still a balance there, but SP2000T nudges it in the direction of a more aggressive sound, particularly in the op-amp mode.
Comparison: Astell&Kern SE180, SE200
I’ve been on record saying that for the money, SE200 is Astell&Kern’s best DAP. The AKM DAC in the first channel gives you something that’s quite close to the SP2000 at a price nearly 50% less, and the the ESS DAC in the second channel provides a sublime combination of definition, separation, and air. With the SEM1, the SE180 doesn’t quite match the musical qualities of the SE200, but it provides top-end detail with a slightly more clinical bend than most of Astell&Kern offerings.
SP2000T takes the best aspects of each of those, and combines them in one incredible package. The core sound is closest to the SE200’s AKM DAC, but it provides stronger midrange and a level of detail that’s more on the level with the SP2000. At the same time, particularly with the fully solid state mode, SP2000T can provide the sort of definition and air that makes SE200’s ESS DAC a standout.
Compared with the SE180’s stock SEM1 DAC (the only module I had available at the time of review) the SP2000T provides a more engaging sound with a stronger overall balance. SE180 doesn’t have the same musicality as the SE200, but it provides a more crisp sound and more detailed midrange performance. The SP2000T matches the SE200 pound for pound in terms of detail and can provide both that same level of crispness, but it adds in a stronger sense of musicality that puts it in a class above.
All three offer similar output levels and provide similar performance with headphones and IEMs. Astell&Kern does a good job balancing a nearly bottomless noise floor with sensitive IEMs, and enough juice in balanced mode to drive a good range of over-ear headphones. It might be the tubes, but I felt like SP2000T had just a little more oomph and slam with planar magnetic headphones like Arya and Meze Elite.
The Bottom Line
While the last few products from Astell&Kern have been strong improvements over previous models, each with its own innovation, SP2000T takes it to the next level. With a beautiful visual design, world class sound, and a genuine leap forward in both sound customization and usability, SP2000T is Astell&Kern's best player yet.