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Astell & Kern SP2000T Review – Finding Harmony in Dichotomy

Pros –

Class-leading build quality, Excellent driving power with zero noise, Immaculate background, Natural tonality, Versatile AMP modes, Spacious stage with sharp imaging

Cons –

Slow and choppy UI, Controls can be hard to reach, Separation leaves to be desired, Coherent character in all AMP modes

Verdict –

So long as you aren’t expecting smartphone-like smoothness, the SP2000T is a premium flagship DAP that performs accordingly, crafting an impressive listening experience with efficient tunability.


Introduction –

Astell & Kern are a legendary name among DAP makers, renowned for their focus on premium designs and a refined listening experience. The company has experimented with various approaches to DAP design from the 2 in 1 dual-circuit SE200 to the new SE180 with modular DAC/AMP section. The company returns to the former with their rebooted flagship in the A&ultima range, the SP2000T. As the name suggests, this is a follow up on their previously released SP2000 but now features dual amplification circuits, both solid-state and tube. Furthermore, the company has outfitted this DAP with a hybrid mode should you want to extract qualities from both. Though not cheap, the SP2000T is substantially cheaper than its predecessor while being no less capable or versatile.

The Astell & Kern SP2000T is available from Addicted to Audio for $3599 AUD at the time of writing. Also, see Busisoft’s website to find other authorised local dealers.


Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Rachel from Busisoft and the team at Astell & Kern very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the SP2000T for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. The DAP is to be returned following review.

Contents –

Behind the Design –

Dual Amp System

The SP2000T introduces a Dual-AMP system with three modes of operation to suit listener preference. Based on the original SP2000, the OP-AMP configuration targets clarity and dynamics with a full solid-state topology. The SP2000T also houses a Tube amp section that offers a warm, musical sound. It uses dual-triode KORG Nutube 6P1. A hybrid mode can be used to capture the qualities of both. As this is a portable design, AK has implemented several features to minimise microphonic tube noise. This has been achieved using a silicone cover and maglev amp circuit design that reduces physical contact with the chassis making it less susceptible to forces.

Internal Mechanical Design + Silver plating

On the DAC side, Astell & Kern adopt ESS’ flagship ES9068AS DAC chip in a quad configuration with two per channel. This results in reduced noise and enhanced detail presence and sound staging. To further enhance sound quality, AK used silver plating on the existing shielding.

TERATON ALPHA

Video courtesy of Astell & Kern

This includes a range of innovations and designs from Astell & Kern to optimise the implementation of their chosen DAC chips. The company designs their audio circuits from the ground up to minimise noise and optimise power consumption and amplification without compromising audio output. They break this down into three components:

  • Audio Power: A&K reason the power supply is the foundation of a high-quality listening experience, responsible for the delivery of low noise, clean power to the rest of the circuit. A&K use proprietary methods to remove power noise though do not further divulge the specifics in their material.
  • Amplifier: A&K boast an advanced AMP technology that features efficient power consumption and high-power output. In addition to targeting high efficiency, A&K are using a patented wiring structure that improves crosstalk as well.
  • Audio interface: The audio interface converts digital signals to analogue and is responsible for final output. The company use patented audio signal muting and digital signal conversion amongst other features to realise a better listening experience.

Smart Integration

Built atop Android with a full radio system in place, the SP2000T supports a host of smart features to aid convenience. This includes AK File Drop, allowing the user to wirelessly transfer files to the device in addition to BT 5.0 with full apt-X HD and LDAC codec support. In addition, the DAP supports BT Sync which can permit the device to act as a Bluetooth receiver to another smart device, where the user is able to take advantage of the high-quality audio output.

Unboxing –

The SP2000T makes a statement with its wooden packaging and layered unboxing experience. Sliding off the outer lid reveals the DAP itself within a foam inlet. Below lie the papers and a nice, high-quality Type-C cable in addition to a tan leather case. As always, I love Astell & Kern’s leather cases as they have a seamless design and a supple in-hand feel. Their authentic leather construction also picks up a nice patina over time, adding to the style factor. Otherwise, not much else is included besides 2 screen protectors making for a simple yet high-quality unboxing experience in totality.

Design –

Better than any words can express, holding an AK DAP elucidates the experience the company sets out to provide. Their devices are hefty creatures, unyielding in solidity with sharp art-piece lines. Perhaps the latter is more exemplified here, for while I was impressed by the in-hand feel of the SE180, the flagship SP2000T is characterised by more elegant, slender proportions and a lighter all-aluminium complexion. It’s not a small or light device but has an elongated design that fits comfortably in the hand. As always, it employs angular side panels that aid handling by providing some purchase during use.

As further elaborated upon in my SE180 review, the charm here is really in the haptics of the device. The buttons are all machined aluminium with zero wobble and super clicky feedback. Edges showcase a very refined finish with zero sharpness despite the angular design. Furthermore, all of the ports align perfectly with chassis cutouts and are subtly chamfered. The added touches really help to elevate the experience beyond the DAPs of yesteryear for an experience that is far more comparable with modern premium smartphones.  

This impression is further reinforced by relatively slim bezels surrounding its 5” display and only a small forehead permit by its unibody shell. The rear of the device accentuates this with a slick frosted glass lower panel and faux carbon-fibre top panel with hidden RGB LED bar that illuminates during operation. It changes colour depending on amp mode and bitrate, the stock leather case also has a cutout here so this remains visible. As with many AK DAPs, the centrepiece of the design is the elaborately machined volume knob that provides awesome tactile feedback during daily use.

I do feel that form has taken some precedence over function here. Both the right-side volume knob and left-side playback controls are located towards the top of the device which can make them difficult to access during one-handed use – and this is further exacerbated by the SP2000T’s taller form factor. Otherwise, the bottom houses the spring-loaded micro-SD card slot and type-C port. Up top, the SP2000T offers three outputs, 3.5mm (combo optical), 2.5mm balanced and 4.4mm balanced. There’s also a capacitive button hidden below the display on the front.

Next Page: Usability

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