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It is rather remarkable that there is a market in 2022 for $3,000 DAPs (Digital Audio Players) with billions of smart phones in the hands of consumers around the globe, but the segment has demonstrated a resilience that drives manufacturers like Astell&Kern to push the envelope every two or three years. The Korean manufacturer has sat upon the Iron Throne for more than a decade and while other brands have managed to claim the mantle for a few months — A&K always seems to find a way to reclaim its control over the DAP category. If you thought that the SP2000 was an impressive piece of digital playback hardware — the new Astell& Kern A&ultima SP3000 is a significant leap forward.
Thanks to Invixion, the American distributor for A&K, we were able to get an advance look at the SP3000 DAP and it was not a joyous day when it had to get shipped back.
Imagine having to ship a Maserati Grecale SUV with a Sonus faber loudspeaker system back to Italy after two weeks of fun in the mountains. The Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 is certainly more affordable than an automobile, but its impact on my music loving soul was equally as meaningful.
They clearly took advantage of the pandemic to hunker down and design the next generation of DAPs that push the envelope.
Critics within the Head-Fi community will bemoan the industrial design and form factory which seems strikingly familiar — but the internal differences are significant and having spent the better part of two years listening to the SP2000 that it replaces, there is no question that Astell&Kern have moved the goal posts into the parking lot for the competition.
Our sample of the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 was sent to Invixion for trade shows in Q4 2022 and was the not the official “retail” version of the DAP that consumers can now purchase. We only received the DAP and charging cable because the final packaging was not ready and we were limited to two weeks of listening time before the unit had to be shipped back for the forthcoming CanJam SoCal.
But it was two weeks very well spent.
The SP3000 looks very similar to the SP2000 ($3,499), and you need to place them side-by-side to fully realize what differentiates one from the other. The industrial design is very close but the SP3000 is most certainly larger and it feels more substantial in your hand.
Astell&Kern made the decision to switch to 904L stainless steel for the chassis; 904L is an extremely tough material to machine but also one that demonstrates extreme levels of toughness and resistance to corrosion. The material is favored by high-end watch makers for their luxury and rather expensive time pieces.
904L stainless steel has more than 20% chromium and 20% nickel which impact its strength and corrosion resistance and also allows 904L to take a mirror polish and keep it nearly indefinitely.
The flip side of that is Astell&Kern must put that much more effort into machining and the polishing the steel and those costs have to be absorbed. At first glance, the chassis looked like it was chrome plated as opposed to being polished metal because the surface has such a clean mirrored looking finish.
This should be a very hard device to scratch which will be good news to those willing to spend $3,699.95 USD on the SP3000.
Most DAP users add a case to their device to protect them because they do get scratched and nicked up — SP3000 users will most likely want to show them off while listening and rely on the new finish.
The external design is largely the same as the SP2000 with the USB Type-C port and spring loaded micro-SD slot on the bottom, three control buttons on the left side, and the volume wheel on the right.
The big changes are on the top panel which now offers 3.55mm, 4.4mm, and 2.5mm headphone jacks, and the face of the DAP that now sports a 5.46-inch 1920 x 1080 HD display.
We first saw the addition of the 4.4mm headphone jack on the SP2000T DAP when it was introduced.
The top surface no longer features the glass plate design of the SP2000 and is part of the chassis once again — something that is likely to add to the durability of the unit.
Like the SP2000, the crown-patterned volume wheel operates as the on/off switch with a long press required to turn the player on/off and users now see a confirmation screen to avoid any accidental shutdown of the unit while listening.
A short press of the button turns off the display which is advisable because leaving it on with drain the battery.
The volume wheel has enough resistance to feel solid but is still easy enough to work with a single finger and provides plenty of range regardless of the headphone or earphones being used with its 150 steps.
The three button arrangement on the left side operates the track forward, play/pause, and track backward operation while listening. All 3 have enough resistance to prevent accidental changes and now feature a tactile click which is helpful when controlling the DAP when it is inside your pocket.
The external changes to the industrial design are indeed rather minimal, but the engine and DAC that drive the Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP3000 have experienced a major upgrade.
The DAP now features a Snapdragon 6125 octa-core processor with 8 gigabytes of memory and 256GB of storage. The 6125 integrates the processor, communication processing, and RAM into a single module, which allows A&K to isolate the operating system components from the audio path.
The micro-SD card slot supports up to 2TB cards for added file storage, and with 802.11ac wireless support, the SP3000 DAP is now better equipped to support hi-res streaming.
The heart of the SP3000 is a new DAC chip that was introduced by AKM at the 2022 High-End Munich Show. There are actually 6 chips in the new design; the SP3000 uses two 4191 chips that handle filtering and the Delta/Sigma processes, each of which feed two 4499ex chips that handle the digital to analog conversion.
Some will remember that AKM experienced a devastating fire at their fabrication facility a few years back; the announcements in April highlighted that they are back in production, and that they had used the time off to redesign and improve their DACs. The 4499 received the biggest update with A&K’s engineers working with their counterparts at AKM to optimize it for the SP3000 and other forthcoming products.
Splitting the process into two chips allows AKM to lower the amount of digital noise that ends up in the analog portion of the process and also allows for decoupling the conversion so a single chip can take care of the ΔΣ and filtering and then send each channel to a separate chip for conversion to analog.
AKM’s documentation lists an A weighted SNR of 135dB per channel with a THD of -124dB; those results are not a huge improvement from the 134dB of the original 4499 chip, but it still represents one of the best measuring DACs so far.
32-bit/768kHz PCM support has been the upper limit for most DACs, but the new 4191/4499ex combination inside the SP3000 supports 64-bit/1563kHz PCM and 44.8Mhz DSD (DSD1024).
Before anyone gets too excited about that, the SP3000 is limited to 32-bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512, and it does decode MQA.
Not that there is any music currently available that goes beyond that and let’s not forget that less than 10% (perhaps 12-15% according to the folks at Qobuz) of all available digital music is above 16-bit/44.1kHz.
What you want is a DAC that makes the music that is available to you now sound its best and the SP3000 succeeds at that task in a very meaningful way.
Nobody will be streaming above the current limits for years to come so getting obsessed over any future limitations is quite silly.
This new separation of duties gives the SP3000 the highest SNR of any portable DAP to date and true dual mono paths through the DAP with complete separation of the digital and analog domains.
Astell&Kern have also integrated pure silver shielding to prevent any noise from the digital domain entering the analog outputs.
Each 4499ex feeds a Teraton Alpha amplifier module again keeping each channel distinct and isolated; many DAPs combine the signals to produce the single ended output and balanced outputs from the same circuitry, but the SP3000 dedicates one pair of paths to balanced outputs and the other pair of paths to the single-ended output again making sure no noise is introduced to either path by the other.
Bluetooth has been updated to version 5.0 with aptX HD and LDAC support in addition to SBC. Rumors of a possible firmware update to support Bluetooth aptX adaptive were not confirmed by A&K but we will update the review when we receive accurate information about that.
The SP3000 features a 5050mAh battery (up from 3700 in the SP2000) that gives roughly 10 hours per charge. The A&K DAP supports the quick charge feature using a 2.1 amp charger which allows a full recharge in 3 hours; using a standard charger takes approximately 9 hours.
If you take a look at the current crop of DAPs, you will notice that most are utilizing an open Android OS — Astell&Kern have chosen to use a scaled back version.
Astell&Kern believes that stripping back the operating system improves the battery performance, does less damage to the music during playback, and provides for a better user experience because it enables them to curate the list of supported apps and streaming services to ensure compatibility and ease of use.
All of that sounds reasonable but how does it actually work in practice?
Starting up the unit takes about 20 seconds with the Astell&Kern logo displayed on screen as it loads. Once completed, the user is greeted by the main playback screen. It is well laid out and with the large display, the screen doesn’t appear cluttered and touching the various controls is easy even with my large hands.
During playback, the top half the screen shows the embedded cover art and the lower half displays the playback controls and the operating system buttons. Tapping the album art takes the user to the lyrics if available, while swiping left or right will advance the track or go backward to the previous one.
The file type, bit depth and sampling rate can all be clearly seen between the artwork and the title along with a heart icon for adding a song to the favorites playlist.
Navigation to other menus is handled by pressing “A” in the upper left corner of the screen or by swiping the main screen right which opens a list of various options.
All of the music search options offer further customization and allow users to decide how and what they look for. Folder view and MQS provide alternate views of the files either by location or quality as well, and CD-library works with the A&K Ripper to directly load CDs onto the player.
The AK Ripper supports either FLAC or WAV; adding additional storage may be needed if copying ones entire CD collection to the DAP which will run out of space.
The “services” and “settings” tabs open up a much wider range of options including access to streaming platforms; the SP3000 works in conjunction with the Open APP service and allows users to load the various streaming services.
TIDAL comes pre-installed and 30 other streaming platform options are available; the process, however, is not as easy as just picking them out of the store and requires setup and rebooting of the device if the app does not load or work properly.
If you load APK files not on Astell&Kern’s approved list, they will not help you should they not work correctly and you may wind up having to factory default the player to remove the offending app.
For the review, I downloaded Amazon, Spotify, iHeart Radio, TIDAL, Qobuz, Apple Music, and Soundcloud. I used APK to add Bandcamp as well. The SP3000 does not support TIDAL in “offline” mode which is something to be aware of.
The settings menu has a lot of sub menus and can be a bit daunting to sort through; most of the options people frequently use can be accessed via the notification bar at the top of the screen, which does help with how quickly you are able to locate them.
The notification bar allows toggling between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, enabling the EQ, changing USB mode, enabling AK Connect, and tuning on/off some of the other modes.
One major new change is that Astell&Kern have made all 6 digital filters accessible; that option did not exist on the SP2000 DAP. The EQ options on the A&K DAPs have been some of the best of any DAP; the default mode offers a 20 band EQ and there is an advanced quasi-parametric EQ (the bandwidth is fixed). Having access to 6 filters and the EQ allows listeners to really experiment with the sound and find a balance that they prefer.
The learning curve can be somewhat steep with the UI but it is certainly worthwhile to learn all of the settings and dig through the menus to find everything. If you plan on using multiple streaming platforms, it is somewhat disappointing that the apps are not native and that you have to dig for them.
The simplest way to use the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 is by plugging a pair of headphones or IEMs into one of the 3 headphone jacks and hitting play on the device.
Wireless headphones and earphones take a minute or two to pair before hitting play, but the process was painless and the display lets the user know how they are connected; my Sony XM5 were paired via LDAC, while the Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 used Bluetooth aptX HD (adaptive doesn’t have its own logo).
The SP3000 can also be used as a USB DAC/Amplifier by connecting the USB port to a source device; one can also use the SP3000 as a digital transport by connecting the DAP using the USB port to an external DAC.
In either case, the USB mode needs to be set via the notification panel to make sure the mode is correct; connecting the DAP to a PC in default mode, exposes the storage as drive space.
The 3.5mm port also serves as a line out for connecting to an external amplifier or PA system — just be careful never to enable this mode with a headphone attached as damage to the headphone and the listener will likely ensue.
For $3,699 USD, the Astell&Kern SP3000 needs to be the “best” in the category because there are a number of less expensive models from A&K, FiiO, Cayin, and Questyle that can deliver the sonic fireworks.
My UE Live IEMs are highly resolving earphones and connected to the 4.4mm headphone jack they verified one A&K claim after about 20 minutes of listening.
The SP3000 is the most accurate and natural sounding A&K DAP so far with reference quality resolution and timbre.
Not that the SP2000 was mediocre in either of those two categories, but the SP3000 is significantly better with the UE Live and Campfire Andromeda — an IEM that the SP2000 struggled with somewhat.
When paired with the SP2000, the Andromeda suffered from too much emphasis in the mid bass and lower treble and I found the lack of balance surprising. In comparison, the UE Live came across as far more balanced sounding with the SP2000.
The same issue reared its head with the Meze Empyrean and Audeze LCD-4 headphones; the Romanian headphones were very linear sounding and incredibly open, whilst the Audeze headphones suffered from similar peaks and valleys in the bass and treble.
Because of those results, I tested the same 4 headphones and earphones with the SP3000 to see if the results would be similar.
They were not; the Audeze LCD-4 and Campfire IEMs sounded completely balanced from top to bottom and I was even more impressed with the sound with the Empyrean and UE Live.
The UE Live are my favorite IEMs for their cavernous low end response and airy, detailed top end. The midrange resolution took a step up with the SP3000 and I felt that the level of transparency and dynamic punch improved as well.
The Campfire Andromeda has been eclipsed in recent years by the UE Live and Empire Ears Wraith IEMs, but the A&K SP3000 narrowed the gap between by improving the clarity, detail, and low end punch. The SP2000 was not a great match with the Andromeda when it came to vocals; there was a nasal quality to almost everything and it did win the day.
The SP3000 completely transformed the sound of the Andromeda IEMs in that department; vocals were balanced sounding, rich, detailed, and pushed slightly forward of the instrumentation.
The SP3000/Meze Empyrean combination may be one of the top 3 set-ups I have tried with this specific headphone; and that includes some very expensive desktop headphone rigs that are double the price of the DAP.
The speed and detail are reference quality and the soundstage width extended well beyond the headphones. The Audeze LCD-4 took on new life with the SP3000; the added emphasis was in the areas where the LCD-4 needs some support and this combination gave the Empyrean a run for its money.
Soundstage depth, width, height, and stereo separation clearly depends on the headphone or IEMs connected on the other end of the cable, but the SP3000 excelled in each case.
The SP3000 does have a neutral sounding tonal balance, but it is also one of the most transparent sounding digital sources I have yet to try and the timbre of most instruments is very accurate.
Strings have excellent timbre and the decay listening to some classical recordings made me sit up and start thinking about which headphones I needed to dig out of storage because the SP3000 allows one to listen to music in a very engaging manner that you don’t experience very often.
Imaging with all 4 headphones was state-of-the-art; the ability to place individual instruments on the stage while listening to complex orchestral works was quite something. Vocalists don’t float in space but are instead firmly planted on the ground and with wonderful resolution and presence.
The noise floor and background noise with IEMs was very quiet and I was surprised that the balanced output (2.55mm) was quieter than the 3.5mm single ended output when using the Campfire Andromeda, which is known to be slightly sensitive in that regard.
Using Over-Ear headphones, the 3.5mm headphone jack was certainly up to the task with models like the Sennheiser HD580 and Beyerdynamic T5p; larger planar magnetic headphones did benefit from the added power when using the balanced outputs.
It is worth noting, that the SP3000 is not the most powerful DAP on the market and is probably closer to the Sony WM1 Series than the Fiio M17 or Cayin M8ii when it comes to overall output.
The A&K DAP has a lusher tonal balance in comparison to the Sony, and it delivers a higher level of resolution than the other two DAPs that are some of the best in the category.
The best match with the SP3000 were the Empire Ears Wraith IEMs; the combination created an almost holographic soundstage, with a very natural sounding tonal balance, deep lows, and a remarkable degree of top end detail and airiness.
If I could afford to spend $3,699 USD on a DAP — this would be the combination I walk out of the house with every single day to use at work.
Astell&Kern believes that the SP3000 is the best DAP that they have ever produced and I think they would be correct in that regard. It takes everything that was great about the SP2000 and improves the sound quality, durability, battery life, UI, and ability to drive a much wider range of headphones and IEMs.
The chassis feels somewhat indestructible and the build quality raises the bar for every DAP in the category.
Does it make sense to spend $3,700 on a DAP in 2022?
Depending on the headphones or IEMs on the other end — the SP3000 is the best potable digital source we have ever tried and that’s no exaggeration.
For more information: us.astellnkern.com/products/a-ultima-sp3000
Where to buy: $3,699 (coming October 2022)