Astell&Kern’s A&futura series has created some of my favorite DAPs. While they lack the refinement of flagship players like the SP2000 and SP3000, their experimental nature always yields interesting results. In the previous generation, SE200 and SE180 experimented with multiple DACs and amps in a single unit. SE200 simply had two discrete signal paths built into the unit, while SE180 used a swappable “all-in-one” card system to allow users to replace the DAC and amp on the fly. Now with their latest in the series Astell&Kern delivers their first R2R DAC along with an amp section that can operate in class A or class AB mode. Does SE300’s mix of innovation and refinement make it one of Astell&Kern’s most versatile DAPs ever?
Build and Design
The look, materials, and general feel of SE300 is every bit as good as you would expect from Astell&Kern. SE300 continues the evolution of A&K’s design language that started with the SP3000. It features the same style glossy glass back and a similar aggressively textured volume wheel. The body is also a bit thicker than the SE200 or SP2000 – even more so when you put a case on it. In general, the buttons and wheel feel great, but can easily be accidentally triggered if the device is in your pocket. Due to the size, weight and other considerations, I’d recommend carrying it in something like a messenger bag or backpack on walks, and not directly in your pocket.
SE300 has a ton of options for tweaking your sound and performance, with each of those also impacting your battery life. Astell&Kern’s estimate of 12 hour battery life seems fairly accurate – if you use the Class AB amp on Normal Gain. With Class A and High Gain I’d expect closer to 8 hours of total playback at best.
Interface and Features
Along with the updates to the physical design, SE300 uses the new user interface that A&K introduced with SP3000. Every aspect of using the player – from the visuals, to the responsiveness, to general clarity in the UI – has been massively improved over the SE200 and SE180. SE300 and SP3000 share the same 5.46” 1080p screen, which makes them the two easiest Astell&Kern players to type on, but SE300 doesn’t feel quite as effortlessly fast and snappy as SP3000. It seems like if it takes the SP3000 100ms to respond to a touch it takes SE300 1200ms, and app load times seem about 1 second behind.
SE300 has all of the proprietary features you’ve come to expect on A&K players, like ReplayGain, AK Connect, and AK File Drop. You can also use SE300 as a USB or Bluetooth DAC with another device as a player, but the USB DAC feature doesn’t seem to be compatible with iOS. In addition, you have the Amp Mode, Oversampling/Non-Oversampling, and Gain level options, which are probably more what you’re here for. The controls for these options are found in the menu when you swipe down from the top of the screen. A short press will toggle between NOS/OS or Class A/AB, and a long press the amp selection lets you switch the Amp Mode as well as the Gain level. A long press on the DAC selection gives you some cool graphics and a little more information on the NOS mode, but no additional functions.
Astell&Kern is known for incredible detail, imaging, and technical performance balanced out with a hint of romanticism. SP3000 is the perfect example of providing some of the best detail retrieval money can buy while keeping the highs liquidy smooth, and adding a hint of warmth to the sound. SE300 keeps the detail and resolution, but pushes towards more of a true reference presentation. The treble in particular feels more aggressive than Astell&Kern’s typical flagship sound.
SE300’s NOS/OS option and Amp Mode selection offer a bit of range on top of the core tuning. NOS is the default, with a slightly more “analog” feeling, while OS steps up the sense of resolution, but also feels a little sharper in the attack. Class A mode expands the soundstage and enhances the imaging, while also pushing a faster attack that lends to SE300’s more aggressive sound. Class AB softens things a bit, turning the output a step or more relaxed, but provides a less holographic imaging experience. NOS + Class AB offers a sound that’s a little closer to a typical Astell&Kern sound, but pulls back on some of the devices technical prowess, while OS + Class A provides flagship level detail, resolution, and imaging, but with a tonality that might be too bright for many A&K fans.
For more warmer tuned headphones or those with potentially overpowering bass, like the Campfire Audio Trifecta, the OS + Class A configuration fills out the sound nicely and tightens things up a bit. If your headphones have more prominent treble, like an Empire Ears Odin, switching to NOS keeps the highs from getting too sizzly. In terms of the tonal trade-off, I typically found that switching between NOS/OS provided an impact to the sound that didn’t compromise the sonic performance. Class AB is better for battery life and slightly warmer sounding, but it also narrows the soundstage and loses clarity.
SE300 is a choice for over-ear headphones, even some moderate sensitivity planars. Along with the High Gain mode, Class A operation fills out the sound, overcoming the sense of “This is loud enough, but I can still kind of tell I’m listening on a DAP.” that many portable products give you with headphones. Listening side by side with the SP3000, SE300 (high gain, class A) had more headroom and body with the selection of Meze, ZMF, and HIFIMAN headphones that I tried.
Comparison: iBasso DX320
iBasso DX320 has been one of the top recommendations for DAPs under $2000 since its release, and with SE300 stepping a similar price point, it’s worth looking at the two players side by side. Most of the standard elements of A&K vs. iBasso comparisons remain true here: A&K has a stronger material design and build, iBasso’s UI has a more responsive feeling, A&K is more intuitive for listening with a music collection on disk, iBasso’s stock Android system is easier for streaming apps, and so on. Is the sound going to be the big decider here?
One of my first thoughts in comparing the SE300 with the SP3000 was that SE300 almost sounded more like an iBasso player than an Astell&Kern player. Listening back to back with the DX320 and SE300, that largely holds true. SE300’s treble is closer to DX320’s more revealing sound, and SE300 matches DX320’s overall sense of a more “reference” style tuning in general. Considering that DX320 is a touch more smooth than some other iBasso players it makes sense that SE300 – being a bit more analytical than most A&K players – would capture some very similar sonic elements.
In comparative listening, DX320 hits a bit harder in the midbass than SE300, while SE300 demonstrated better bass texture. The mids and treble are quite similar, though DX320 held onto some transients a bit longer than SE300. SE300 gives you a wider, larger overall feeling soundstage, but DX320’s stage is more consistently three-dimensional. DX320 has more weight and body to image as well, being a bit more holographic, while SE300’s image is more diffuse.
The sonic differences are generally very subtle – a little bit subjective – and not the sort of thing you notice without a strict A/B test. Both are great players, and the difference really comes down to the basics – like the UI and physical design – rather than a clear advantage or difference in the sound.
SE300 delivers fresh tech under the hood and a sound that’s just outside of the norm for Astell&Kern. For $1899, it is competitive with other DAPs in its price range, and comes surprisingly close to SP3000’s performance considering the price difference. SE300 is a great player, and nails the mix of refinement and innovation that defines the A&futura series.