Astell&Kern (A&Ultima) - SP2000 Digital Audio Player - Official Thread

Astell&Kern’s “SP2000” is their latest, and most advanced, Digital Audio Player and takes the top spot in their flagship sub-brand “A&Ultima”. Offered in Stainless Steel and Copper finishes, it packs the very latest dual-AKM4499 DAC, a new, more powerful, amplifier stage, double the storage of the prior flagship (512 GB internally, with a 1 TB compatible microSDXC slot), dual-band WiFi (2.4 & 5 GHz) and support for up 768 kHz PCM and native DSD512.

These changes build on the existing super-responsive UX running on an 8-core SoC, the ability to act as a USB DAC, a USB transport (feeding an external USB DAC), Bluetooth source, and a self-contained WiFi-capable streamer (with built-in support for DLNA, TIDAL and Deezer, and the ability to side-load various Android streaming music clients including Spotify, Qobuz etc.), among many other features.

Full specifications can be found here.

This is the place to discuss the SP2000 …

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I got to listen and play with the copper model at CanJam SoCal this year…it is a solid and very good looking DAP!

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Yes, it’s definitely solid.

I compared the size of this and my SP1000M before ordering, and this wasn’t that much bigger (a bit longer and wider, but slightly thinner).

I didn’t think to check the weight …

It’s about the same there as the Cayin N8 … and double that of the SP1000M!

I am hoping to get to listen to it at some point this evening, as right now it’s still doing the typical “MTP is slower at data-transfer than morse-coded smoke-signals. In the dark.”

And for some reason it was not happy with the card I was using in the SP1000M (makes no sense as it is supposed to use the same format, and it was working fine there before), or I’d just have been playing files off that.

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Always frustrating to me, when technology doesn’t behave as intended…I’ll spend way too much time trying to solve it when all I probably have to do is reset or power cycle lol (not that you can do those things with an SD card)

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Music loaded … finally!

Putting 450 GB of music on the internal storage took 6 hours from macOS (which requires the use either “Android File Transfer” or “Commander One PRO”, due to the A&K units only allowing file access via “MTP” - the “Media Transfer Protocol” … a blasphemous Microsoft abortion that needs to be killed with fire).

Inserting the card I was using in my SP1000M (without problems), resulted in media-scanning/indexing taking forever, destabilized the UX of the player and eventually it became sluggish to the point of being unusable. Attempting to play music at this point resulted in a sharp, bright, sour sounding mess.

Reformatting that 1 TB card IN the SP2000, and re-transferring my “travel” library to it (a further 850 GB or so), took another ~12 hours (I did it via MTP to be safe, but it’d probably be fine via a card-reader … which isn’t an option for internal storage but works fine for microSDXC cars), but now everything is working properly!

Note: While it doesn’t seem to bother the SP1000M, a particular file (“C*cks*cker.flac” from the Atomic Blonde soundtrack - YES that’s the exact filename, asterisks and all) has wildcards (asterisks) in the filename and I suspect that was the cause of the issues above, as I wound up renaming it so that it would transfer AT ALL.

So, right now, everything is all re-loaded. Media scanning took a couple of minutes (usefully faster than the SP1000M). The unit is running super-smoothly with a very fluid UX, and now I can sit down to listen to the thing properly …

The first few minutes of which are anything but sour or sharp! Normally I start off DAP listening with IEMs, but one of the things I was interested in with the SP2000 was the more capable amplifier, so I’m starting off with the Vérité … and at this point the best hint I can give you is … “see you in a few hours” …

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A few quick A/B comparisons with the SP1000M and “proper” full-size cans definitively gives the nod towards the SP2000 (might not be so clear with IEMs, we will have to see).

Whether that’s just down to the additional voltage-swing and new-amp stage, or the overall performance of the SP2000 it’s too early to say.

Very promising first hour though!

Lovely pairing with the Vérité … and it is driving them beautifully. Lots of volume range left, even at my current “enthusiastic” listening level.

A cornucopia of copper here (well, minus the whole goat’s-horn part) … which was part of why I went with the copper version of the SP2000. Another part was that, despite lots of claims to the contrary, I really never heard a difference between the SS, aluminum and copper versions of the AK380 or SP1000 (in blind tests) … and I think the copper is prettiest anyway.

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Hmmm …

The SP1000M is much lighter and usefully smaller … and the SP2000 is deceptively slimmer than the Cayin N8 (about the same weight) …

Only two will stay though …

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Atomic Blonde for the win!

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I had meant to finish up my SoC review of the Focal Arche today … instead I’ve been lazing around listening to the SP2000 (and comparing to the SP1000M), enjoying watching the rough weather in the bay, supping the odd glass of wine (there’s a line of “even” glasses on the counter … those are next) …

The extra grunt from the SP2000 definitely pays dividends with full-size headphones. It’s particularly noticeable with the Vérité and the RAD-0, both in terms of attainable volume levels and authority/grip.

Now, to be sure, the SP1000M can play louder with most headphones than is safe, without feeling like it is lacking drive or grip, but the SP2000 does it more convincingly and with more headroom. And even just using the single-ended output, it’s doing a stellar job with the ZMF, Rosson and Sennheiser cans. Within the A&K world, you’d need an SP1000 with the optional AMP - in its high-gain mode, to get better drive/power (or go with the KAAN CUBE, but that’s a whole different set of trade-offs).

Playing “Army of Mushrooms” (Infected Mushroom) at the moment, with the RAD-0, and it’s dynamic, detailed, fast, with excellent transients (good album for that), superb layering/separation (try the first minute and a quarter of “The Rat”, per the above album).

I shall have to start a SoC-review of this unit sometime this weekend.

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The combination of SP2000, Vérité, RAD-0 and tia Fourté, and long streaming sessions, have been primarily responsible for me getting very little done this weekend beyond self-indulgent listening …

Since I’ve just exhausted the battery again, I figured I’d take a few minutes to write up some more thoughts before getting to more practical matters.

General

Both with full-size, sensibly-efficient, headphones and IEMs the SP2000 sounds fantastic.

As previously mentioned, the new flagship does a convincingly better job driving more demanding headphones than the SP1000M (which was no slouch, by any means). Authority and drive are improved, the background is blacker, there’s more headroom, sense of space in acoustic recordings is more natural and palpable - even if stage doesn’t appear to be different (so far).

These are things that are noticeable just with “listening for enjoyment”. I have not gotten into focused, “critical” or “review/audition style” listening yet. Sure, I’m paying attention, but I am not making notes or analyzing anything at this point … just playing what I want to listen to and getting a feel for the “big picture”.

Streaming

As with other A&K players, you can run some approved/whitelisted Android streaming clients directly on the device and use WiFi connectivity to access their services. This is one of the primary reasons I have a DAP other than my Cayin N8 - as it cannot stream and nor can it be fed straight from an iPhone without a lot of faffing about!

After the usual OpenAPK/side-loading of the apps, streaming has been a simple and reliable affair. The extra screen real-estate and size vs. the more diminutive SP1000M is very welcome in navigating and interacting with these apps.

TIDAL and Qobuz have been straightforward to install and configure and have been well behaved in playback. I haven’t tried Spotify (I don’t use it anymore anyway). And Amazon Music HD doesn’t appear to work.

WiFi

This is a crucial feature of the A&K players for me as it is the only mechanism by which you can do on-device streaming. On the SP1000M it was reasonably reliable but had notably shorter reliable range than things like my iPhone.

With the SP2000, which now supports dual-band WiFi with a multi-antenna design, WiFi connectivity is usefully more reliable and consistent and maintains a solid connection even in spots in my home that would deny its smaller predecessor a signal. So far I’ve had no drop-outs or other issues, even while wandering around or sitting on the deck (for the couple of hours the weather was conducive at least).

This is a much needed improvement!

UX & Navigation

The UX is fundamentally the same as the 1000 series players. However, compared to the SP1000M the extra screen space makes for a much easier time interacting with the unit. Hitting the scroll bars, characters on the keyboard, and reading the smaller legends/icons and so on is simply easier here.

You also get more information on the screen at once, with more visible albums or songs, which while not a big deal when playing from on-board files is a significantly better experience when using streaming clients.

Screen Protectors & Cases

In general I don’t use screen protectors. I’ve had every iteration of iPhone, and those have lived in my pocket with no protector or case, and not one of them has sustained any screen scratches or damage.

As the price of DAPs has gone up I’ve started reconsidering that practice - mostly for resale purposes as unlike my phones, I do sell my retired audio gear.

After so many very poor experiences with almost every brand of screen protector, I stuck to only using tempered glass ones. Those are MUCH easier to install/re-install, don’t suffer with bubbles like the plastic/film ones do (as long as you don’t get any dust under them). And they look and work much better too … with no impediment to touch-sensitivity nor reduction in contrast or sharpness of the screen.

For the SP2000, with it’s 5.1" screen dominating the unit, I wanted to put a screen protector on it. I’ve never had good luck with the A&K supplied protectors, to the point I gave up trying to install them several units ago. And alas I couldn’t find one in tempered glass that’s available within a month.

So … I took a gamble on a “Healing Shield” protector.

This is one of those anti-glare, stiffer-plastic, “film” type protectors. Usually these are almost as much of a pain to install cleanly as the softer film type protectors, invariably resulting in bubbles you can’t manage to squeegee out, and that never seem to “just go away over time” as the packaging/instructions often claim.

Color me very pleasantly surprised when I was able to install this one easily, quickly, with no bubbles at all! I’ve only done the front of the unit (it comes with protectors for the antenna area and the copper back of the unit … but this will be in a case anyway), but that only took a couple of minutes (in the usual high-humidity/low dust environment of a bathroom after running the shower, and pre-applying three “tape hinges” to align and position the protector before starting to remove the backing).

No bubbles at all. Touch sensitivity seems about the same, even at the edges of the screen. Though being anti-glare screen-contrast is noticeably reduced … a trade off for not having visible finger-prints or glare.

No doubt I’ll switch to a tempered glass protector if/when one becomes reasonably available, but I was pleasantly surprised with the “Healing Shield” one … enough that I thought it worth mentioning specifically.

I DO tend to keep my DAPs in cases. Sometimes it’s just a felt/wool slip-case … usually if I’m just using them around the house. Otherwise it’s something prettier and more form-fitting.

The A&K players come with a very close-fitting leather case as standard. It’s quite attractive, decently well made, and VERY close fitting. In fact it’s an absolute pain in the arse to get the player back OUT of!

Instead I use the slightly-less attractive, but more practical, Miter case.

They fit nicely, even if they add a tiny bit more size overall then the A&K case, have a nice built-in flip-stand, and you can actually get the player in and out of the case without a fight, while it still being held snugly enough that it won’t come out accidentally.

Battery Life

So far, I’m getting a bit better than the advertised 8 hours or so. The battery meter also seems to still be in its “calibration” phase, as it will show 100% for a disproportionate amount of time, before starting to tick down at a more representative rate.

Over an hour of TIDAL streaming over WiFi and driving the Rosson RAD-0 and I’m still over 90% on the battery, and it took 35 minutes or so drop below 100%.

Back to listening … and absent any issues arriving, most future commentary will be on SOUND.

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Between the completion of my Focal Arche listening, and the arrival of the Bifrost 2 and Jotunheim R, most of my listening time has been taken up with the A&K SP2000.

I’d started off with full-sized headphones, where the SP2000 shows a clear advantage over the SP1000M. There’s just more power, and 50% more voltage swing, available with the SP2000, making for a better pairing with higher-impedance headphones.

The interim-two-days I’ve spent focused on this have been mostly with IEMs, and in balanced mode. And that has been very impressive, if not necessarily a big departure from the SP1000M.

I have yet to hear any hiss out of the SP2000 with any of the IEMs I have around here. The background is utterly black, and with every transducer I’ve tried it with, it is completely silent. Not that this is necessarily uncommon with A&K players … but it is an issue with more DAPs than not, so it’s worth calling out.

The CA Andromeda, which is unusually fussy about the output impedance of its source, behaves beautifully here (okay, so they still don’t fit my ears at all but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what they can do). This is probably the best I’ve heard them from a portable source.

This is the third player that gives my now-departed Sony WM1Z a proper run for it’s money. The SP1000M was the first DAP I’d heard that I felt was genuinely at the same level (while also being useable for me). The Cayin N8 killed my need for the WM1Z (though I do miss the Sony’s battery life sometimes). And now there’s the SP2000.

Proper SP2000/N8 comparisons will be needed. Though I enjoy the N8’s tube-mode so much that no matter what transpires there, the N8 isn’t going anywhere.

I do wish the SP2000 had an actual line-out. I’d love to see (or hear, I guess) how those dual AKM4499 DACs do without the amplifier in the chain.

I was surprised about how much more convincing the stage and portrayal of venue was here vs. the SP1000M. It is more expansive, reverberations/reflections/echoes are more apparent, and it feels more palpable with the new flagship.

Tone is indiscernibly different from my SP1000M (which is an aluminum model, vs. this copper unit). I don’t really buy that the different metals used in these players have an audible effect. At the upper extremes (50% beyond the accepted limits of human hearing) there are some minor measured differences, but proper blind testing with the SS, Cu and Aluminum versions of the A&K 380 series showed no audible difference - at least for me, and I doubt it’s different here.

So, I would (and did) buy the version I liked the look of the most … in this case the copper … and not worry about it.

Proper, sound-specific, impressions are the next stop …


*Not the final shipping unit, but a “production qualifier”, which absent problems is what will go to production.

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It really sounds like a great Dap, though I am sure you’ve no need of the N8 anymore. :blush:. You should just send it to me I can look after it for you. :blush:.

With regards to you looking for another Custom Iem. Have you any ideas as to what you may be inclined to get yet?

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I bet you’d give my N8 an excellent home! :wink:

If the N8 could do on-device streaming (and had more internal storage, or dual card slots), it’d likely be the only DAP I’d have at the moment. If the SP2000 had a similar-sounding tube-output mode, it’d likely be the only DAP I’d have at the moment.

It’d definitely be nice to only need/want one of the two, but sadly that’s not looking like it’ll be the case any time soon!

As for custom IEMs … I still haven’t figured out which way to go.

I’d kind of like 64Audio to figure out how to make the tia Fourté in custom form … and maybe while doing so imbue it with swappable APEX modules. And I was sort of hoping that my procrastination/lack of progress might delay things to the point where that happened. But obviously it hasn’t!

Beyond that, the AAW Canary looks interesting. So does the Noble Khan. It’s a question of getting some time with them to see if they live up to the potential/whether I like them or not.

There aren’t a huge number of options that actually satisfy what I’m looking for (and ironically if I was looking for a universal fit I’d have lots more options in this regard), which includes a dynamic low-frequency driver and perhaps an electrostatic high-frequency driver. The former is much more important to me than the latter.

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Thanks for your prompt response. I will be interested to know which iems you do chose in the end. There doesn’t seem that many new flagship iems in the market at present. Especially with what you’re specifically after. Good luck with your search.

As far as I know the SP2k has a line out. The 3.5 se out can be switched to line out from the notification bar.

It has a “line out” mode, not a true line-out.

And this line-out “mode” doesn’t bypass the amplifiers, there’s no separate audio path, it just sets the output level to a fixed 2V. So any evaluation will always be influenced by the performance of the amp, not just the DAC.

The “line out” toggle in the notification bar/settings drop-down doesn’t do quite what you’d think even then, either. It doesn’t directly put the unit in line out “mode”, it simply turns the option to do so on or off.

Once you turn that setting on from the notification bar, you then go to the volume control screen and now you’ll see a new “Line Out” button in the middle of the screen (the volume function with variable output is still enabled at this point). To get line-out “mode”, you have to press that button, at which point you get a warning/confirmation of what its going to do, and then it goes into “line out” mode - the screen will show that mode, the 2V output, and the volume indicator in the notification bar now just says “Fix”

This also disables the volume control - using it just brings you back to the volume screen - where you can turn off line out “mode” off again if you wish.

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Is this portable player’s performance comparable to similar priced source and DAC/amp? Or is there a premium for making the gears portable?

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