Today, we review the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000, a flagship DAP with a separated Quad-DAC and analog signal processing design. It is currently priced at $3699.
Disclaimer: This is a sample temporarily loaned to us in exchange for our honest opinion. Headfonics is an independent website with no affiliate links. We thank Audio Essence and Astell&Kern for giving us this opportunity.
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Note that this article follows our latest scoring guidelines, which you can read here.
Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000
The Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 is a luxuriously designed DAP with an impressive sound performance that is neutral, crisp, and detailed.
If having superior vocal performance is your thing, then the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 will satisfy your groove.
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Classy and premium build
Quad DAC Architecture
Neutral and highly resolving
Lack of additional power options compared to other flagship DAPs
The Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 (SP3000) is the latest flagship DAP to hit the shelves in a year which has seen many companies come to play in the portable source market.
At $3,699, the SP3000 is aimed at the upper market segment and seeks to compete against the likes of the Cayin N8ii and the newly released HiBy RS8 DAPs.
The SP3000 takes the baton from its predecessor, the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP2000, and seeks to achieve new heights in delivering the ultimate portable experience to its end user.
But does it achieve this and how does it fair amongst the other heavy hitters in the DAP world? Read on to find out.
The SP3000 comes equipped with two distinct features to support its audio interface: “HEXA-Audio Circuitry Structure” and an “Independent Dual Audio Circuit”.
The HEXA-Audio Circuitry Structure refers to the DAP’s 6-circuit structure where a total of 2 digital filters and 4 digital/analog converters are linked together to deliver balanced and unbalanced output:
Based on the diagram above, Astell&Kern utilizes a digital filter (AK4191EQ) and four digital/analog converters (AK4499EX) to support both the 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm or 2.5mm unbalanced outputs.
This result is an “Independent Dual Audio Circuit” which allows separate processing of digital and analog signals. Within the image below, the red area highlights the digital signal conversion whereas the gold area illustrates the analog conversion of the signal. Both processing steps then combine to form the final sound output.
The overall goal here is to produce a highly resolving and clean audio output capable of producing 16-bit, 24-bit, 32-bit, and DSD sound.
The SP3000 measures 8.2cm wide, 13.9cm long, and 1.8cm thick. Although it is quite thin, it is quite heavy at 493 grams. Once you add on a case, this only gets heavier to the point where it becomes cumbersome to wear on you or transport in your pockets.
To put things into perspective, the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP2000Cu (AK SP2000Cu) weighs 432 grams meaning that the SP3000 is around 61 grams heavier.
Compared to other flagship DAPs such as the Cayin N8ii which weighs in at 442 grams the SP3000 leans towards the heavier side.
Astell&Kern had one thing in mind when designing the SP3000, and that is luxury. Once you can hold and feel the DAP in your hands, there is a premium and stylish vibe to it.
The SP3000 uses a very special grade of stainless steel 904L which has excellent durability and corrosion resistance. It also gives the SP3000 a very shiny finish, especially with the silver model.
One noticeable factor of the SP3000 is the finishing of the edges on the sides, especially at the corners of the screen which are quite sharp and angled.
The casing of the DAP however is very susceptible to fingerprints and smudging especially on the sides and back. Thus, if you choose to use it without a case, be prepared to continually wipe it down to maintain that shiny and glossy look.
The 5.46-inch (13.9cm) screen on the SP3000 is superb and comes with a full HD 1080 x 1920 resolution display. With its low profile and thin bezels, the screen fills up most of the surface area on the front of the DAP.
Colors and resolution of album art pop with flair and detail. Given the SP3000 uses a 5050mAh battery, screen time and usage need to be monitored to avoid overconsumption from the screen itself.
The SP3000 comes with the minimum number of ports you would expect to see on a flagship DAP. At the top of the DAP, there is a 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced output which is situated next to a 3.5mm unbalanced output.
The 2.5mm/4.4mm balanced ports can deliver 6.3Vrms of voltage whereas the 3.5mm unbalanced is capable of 3.3Vrms. At the bottom of the DAP, there is a USB-C input for charging and USB-DAC connection, and a micro-SD card slot.
The SP3000 keeps it simple with the control set and features a volume knob and three buttons for playback: fast forward, play/pause, and rewind.
The volume knob is made from the same special steel as the rest of the DAP and has a sturdy and robust finish. The volume knob features a LED light which indicates the playback quality of the music.
The three buttons for playback have a slight elevation and are situated on the left side of the DAP. The buttons feel tactile and responsive.
As the playback buttons are situated directly across the volume knob, it is very easy to accidentally adjust the volume at the same time because your hand is grasping both sides of the DAP to make the adjustment.
The SP3000 is packed with a 5050mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer Battery which sounds quite low compared to other flagship DAPs.
However, as the SP3000 utilizes Astell&Kern’s “Teraton Alpha” sound solution which focuses on efficient power management, the SP3000 can use its battery very efficiently by giving a total playback time of around 10 hours with the screen turned off.
Charging time is decent at 3.5 hours. As noted above under the screen section, as the battery is quite small, the screen can be quite demanding on the battery life given how large it is coupled with its high-resolution output.
Packaging & Accessories
The SP3000 comes in a stealthy black box where the contents of the DAP itself are separated from the provided accessories.
The box which houses the DAP has a unique feature where it opens from the middle to reveal the player itself.
Astell&Kern provided a decent number of accessories and have included a green leather case, USB-C cable, microSD card slot covers, suede cloth, and a set of protective films for the front, back, and top of the DAP.
Before we dig into the software, it’s worth mentioning that the SP3000 features an Octa-Core snapdragon 6125 processor which results in an ultra-responsive and fluid user experience. This is supported by 8GB of DDR4 ram.
Astell&Kern Open APP Service
If you are familiar with Astell&Kern DAPs, then you know the drill. If you are new to this, you should be aware that Astell&Kern uses custom Android software as a basis for its DAPs.
On top of this, Astell&Kern then implements what they call an “Open APP Service” which allows users to load, albeit manually, android apps on the DAP.
Unfortunately, the Google Play store app is not available nor pre-installed on the SP3000.
Although there are many apps that are pre-installed and validated for use by Astell&Kern on their website, the SP3000 falls short of the idea of giving users “complete freedom” with their DAPs compared with other flagship DAPs which have a completely open Android system.
Astell&Kern Graphic User Interface
The pre-installed Astell&Kern music app has been revamped under the SP3000 giving users a smooth and enjoyable user interface.
The music app is well-structured and very user-friendly. It is very easy to navigate between albums, songs, and playlists with ease.
Visually, the AK music app comes in a red and black theme and there are subtle graphic enhancements that give the app a modern and fresh feel.
The SP3000 comes with Bluetooth V5.0 which is capable of streaming high-quality audio formats such as aptX HD and LDAC.
During testing, the SP3000 paired quickly with Bluetooth headphones. Testing was performed with 1m, 2m, and 5m distances. Within the same room, no connection issues were noted with the distances mentioned.
However, when there were multiple rooms involved, small connection issues were noted but only after 5m which could have been partly due to the Bluetooth headphones themselves.
Although the Bluetooth connection was stable and fully functional, the issue of using Bluetooth headphones with the SP3000 does not arise from the connection itself but from the restriction to download and use the apps that Bluetooth product relies on to function properly.
This is due to the lack of the Android play store and full open Android functionality. As such, this should be considered if using Bluetooth devices with the DAP would be a primary use case.
The SP3000 comes fitted with a 2.4/5Ghz receiver which resulted in a fast and stable connection when streaming music, especially with highly demanding apps such as TIDAL.
In this case, the SP3000 was able to easily render master-quality songs and there were no issues with lag or buffering.
The USB-C connection enables for USB-DAC interface between the SP3000 and an external device such as a laptop or computer.
During testing, the SP3000 connected effortlessly to a computer and there was no need to pre-install drivers or applications on either the computer or the DAP itself.
Once connected to the computer, the “line out” mode must be activated on the DAP which will enable the passthrough DAC interface.
Neutral. Crisp. Detailed.
These are the 3 keywords to describe the SP3000’s main objectives. The SP3000 aims to take the original sound and reproduce it in its most original form.
As such, the SP3000 comes off as neutral and highly resolving, especially within the mid-range. The focus of Astell&Kern was to direct the DAP’s energy into the midrange.
One key thing to note is that the SP3000 has one main timbre setting without any options which can be found on other DAPs at this price point.
Furthermore, the SP3000 lacks additional power output settings meaning that you are left with one core power level which limits the potential of any increase in sonic performance.
The SP3000 comes off as a neutral-sounding DAP with a focus on providing clarity to the mid-range. It does not provide additional or less warmth to the sound.
The mid-range is the focus area where the lower and upper midrange are brought into focus.
This is achieved by making the sub and mid-bass response snappier with a faster decay. Even with a slow roll-off setting applied; bass notes were still evidently faster to decay than usual.
Simply put, the bass response is crisp with a great level of detail. Thus, this opens the mid-range and allows it to shine through the overall sound.
The midrange is presented in a lush and highly resolving manner which makes the SP3000 suitable for those who prefer listening to music with a focus on vocals. Treble energy is very good and remains neutral without too much coloration.
Staging & Dynamics
The staging on the SP3000 was very wide and tall. However, as it was wider than it was tall, I for one saw this as a shortcoming as the SP3000 and its potential users would have benefited from a soundstage with more height, grandeur, and space.
This led to imaging coming off as decent at best where instruments and vocals were placed accurately but with a linear finish to it.
That being said, the SP3000 has a very black background and excellent dynamic range.