It’s been more than three years since the SP2000 was released, and for its successor, Astell&Kern wasn’t content with an incremental update. They built a new OS, redesigned the UI, upgraded the performance, and introduced the brand new flagship AK4499EX DAC chip, with the goal of building the best DAP in the world. With SP3000, can Astell&Kern create something that both improves on the sound, and overcomes the limitations of their previous models to deliver the performance users crave?
Build and Design
In terms of visual design, Astell&Kern is known for creating DAPs that are as much a work of art as they are an audio player. SP3000 continues this tradition, with a tastefully angular design and a smooth, mirrored finish. It doesn’t just look great, everything from the finish to the buttons and knobs feels premium, and the device has a substantial heft in your hand. SP3000 features 3.5mm, 2.5mm, and 4.4mm outputs, and can also use Bluetooth and USB for audio output.
The dimensions are larger than previous flagship Astell&Kern DAPs, and it’s fairly heavy as well, meaning that the SP3000 might not be your first pick as a highly pocketable player to take on a walk. We received a demo unit without the full retail package, but you can expect a Astell&Kern A&ultima level unboxing experience, and a generous accessory package including premium Alran leather case, made by one of the oldest leather shops in France.
SP3000 isn’t just a pretty face, it has a major under-the-hood upgrade over previous models. The interface is improved with a new, smoother, more intuitive design, but the real star here are the speed and performance improvements coming from the Snapdragon 665 processor. SP3000 is the fastest, most responsive DAP that Astell&Kern has ever made, and provides some of the best performance on the market right now, rivaling iBasso DX320 in terms of the speed of loading apps and the responsiveness of in app operations. The 5.46” 1080p screen is also an upgrade, combining with the rest of the upgrades to provide a huge leap forward in Astell&Kern’s first new flagship DAP of the decade.
For apps, Astell&Kern is sticking with the walled garden approach, which means that you can install a selection of streaming and music apps directly onto the device, or manually install approved apps via side-loading, but there’s no traditional app store. Between the performance improvements and the new UI, it seems like Astell&Kern has become more welcoming to users who are primarily using streaming services and not a large pre-existing music collection, but the changes to collection management and playback are well thought out, and offer some clear enhancements to the user experience for users using their existing music collections as well.
Not content to simply update the looks and the UI, SP3000 features an all new 4X AKM AK4499EX DAC architecture tuned to make listening to music with SP3000 an immersive experience. The sound evokes classic Astell&Kern DAPs with incredible levels of detail being delivered in a subtly euphonic presentation.
Outside of their signature tunings, which tow the line between reference and romantic, one of the key aspects of Astell&Kern’s DAPs has been their incredibly low noise floor. SP3000 follows suit with a pitch black background and dead silent operation. Of the most sensitive IEMs we could conjure up – including the A&K + Campfire Audio Pathfinder at 6 ohm impedance – none managed to generate any hiss.
In terms of the general tuning characteristics, there’s some enhancement of the midbass, and a bit of warmth in the midrange, along with highs that somehow provide incredible extension, air, and definition, while dancing around any potentially fatiguing frequencies. All of this is very subtle, where the SP3000 presents as neutral when you listen to it in isolation, but then in comparison with other reference sources, it leaves you saying “the bass feels more alive” or “the vocal timbre is richer.”
Where SP3000 goes beyond expectations and represents a leap forward is the imaging. SP3000 provides a huge, but natural sounding, three dimensional soundstage, and no matter which headphones I used with it, the soundstage felt enhanced without feeling artificial or exaggerated. The imaging is vivid and lifelike, and resulted in some of the most immersive listening experiences I’ve ever had with headphones. It’s hard to quantify the excellence of SP3000’s imaging, as listening doesn’t make you think about positioning, weight, or separation, it makes you feel like you are in the room with the performers.
I listened to a number of different IEMs and headphones with SP3000, and wanted to highlight a few that stood out. Probably the best synergy I heard was with the aforementioned Pathfinder. The presentation of the stereo image, and the sense of realism to instruments and voices was second to none. Pathfinder and SP3000 working together gives you front row seats to a private concert. The IEM that felt the most impressive in technical performance was the Noble Viking Ragnar. It didn’t have the same intense, immersive feeling as Pathfinder, but demonstrated an extremely wide stage and strong separation, along with excellent, but non-fatiguing high-end extension.
With the new Focal Utopia you got an incredible combo for a balance of incredible accuracy and sheer listening enjoyment. Acoustic instruments have a natural timbre, vocals are intimate and personal. The soundstage is immense, and the imaging precise, with a lifelike three dimensionality. The bass is accurate, with natural feeling impact, depth, and texture. Meze Elite provided incredible warm, personal vocals. There’s also a subtle bass emphasis that’s deep and hard hitting while also being tight and detailed.
With a maximum power output of 6.3Vrms from the balanced outputs, SP3000 is not going to be your first pick for hard to drive headphones, but as you may have surmised from the previous paragraphs it does play well with a good number of moderately sensitive over-ear headphones. While some will do well from single-ended output (I found Utopia to be quite good at around 105-120 volume from SP3000’s 3.5mm jack), you’ll do best to use balanced output whenever possible.
SP3000 features a crossfeed feature which, if you’re not familiar with crossfeed, feeds some of the left channel into the right and some of the right channel into the left. I found that the feature added a more “speaker-like” dimension to the soundstage, but eliminated some of the holographic feeling in the imaging. SP3000 also adds a completely new feature with Digital Audio Remastering (DAR). DAR is a sort of upscaling that provides a general enhancement in the sound across the board. The effect felt very subtle with high res tracks, but added a more notable feeling of stronger resolution in tracks that were CD quality and below.
Comparison: iBasso DX320, Astell&Kern SP2000T
Before we even get to the comparison, I’m going to offer a spoiler: SP3000 is the best DAP I’ve ever heard. Everything about it is an upgrade over previous Astell&Kern models and demonstrates some level of advantage over the competition. That said, there are still smaller details and preferential aspects to work out. Maybe you don’t like the slightly euphonic aspects of the SP3000’s tuning, or maybe, to you, the soundstage sounds artificially exaggerated. So it’s worth it to see if there’s some other DAP that fits your needs better.
DX320 seems to be an example of a different tuning target, and SP3000 is noticeably warm in comparison to the iBasso DX320. SP3000’s stage feels wider and more three dimensional, and while DX320 has excellent imaging, it didn’t have the same level of vivid immersion. There’s a bit of edge to the treble in DX320 and a bit more clarity – particularly when I listened with the Noble Viking Ragnar – making it feel more incisive, but also a stronger tendency for the DX320 to create fatigue from the treble. DX320’s bass didn’t feel as full or strong, but with some more bass heavy IEMs, I heard a little bit of bass extra texture over the SP3000.
SP2000T captures similar extended but non-fatiguing highs as SP3000, and has similar very strong separation. What’s odd is that SP2000T – all at once – feels more clinical than SP3000 – even with the tube mode – but also less detailed. Basically SP3000 feels like an upgrade in the overall sound quality, while also exhibiting a slightly smoother, more relaxed sound.
Basically SP2000T hits in the sonic space between SP3000 and DX320 with something that ends up sounding like AK’s take on a more reference sound. DX320 has some of the softer, smoother delivery of SP3000 in some places, but is still more incisive in others. DX320 offers the most neutral overall sound signature of the three, with the least noticeable enhancement to the bass, and the most straightforward treble.
This selection of DAPs also helps demonstrate how big of a step up SP3000’s UI and performance is for Astell&Kern. In the comparison between the UI performance of DX320 and SP2000T, SP2000T performance feels literally years behind the lightning fast DX320. SP3000 comes out of the gate, just as fast and smooth as DX320, with an updated player UI as well. While DX320 still has the advantage in the openness of the OS, SP3000 closes the gap and makes a strong case for Astell&Kern’s approach to digital audio player usability.
The Bottom Line
Even as aspects of its UI and performance aged, three years after its release, the Astell&Kern SP2000 remained among the very best sounding DAPs in the world. SP3000 exceeds SP2000’s performance in every way, offering an upgrade in the device performance, UI, features, and the overall sound quality. If you’ve been hesitant to buy a new flagship DAP until you see one that demonstrates a clear leap forward in technology and performance, the SP3000 is the leap forward that you’ve been waiting for.