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Astell&Kern A&futura SE180 DAP Music Player Review

Not Your Father's Music Player


Astell&Kern is a company that is always innovating. They recently introduced the world's first multi-DAC music player on the market with their popular SE200 - designed with 3 DAC chips and an amazing range of sound for one device. In the same vein, The A&futura SE180 pays similar attention to the user's choice for personalized sound, by implementing interchangeable all-in-one modules. Don't like the DAC? Change it. Don't like the I/O? Change it.

Different modules equal different sounds, so is this a worthy entry into the SE lineup by Astell&Kern?

Riff Notes Logo

Pros:

  • Customizable sound and I/O due to interchangeable modules
  • Beautiful, large full HD 5in screen
  • Classic and striking A&K design

Cons:

  • On the heavier side
  • More things to carry if you bring multiple modules

Materials, Quality, & Comfort

I always enjoy a good Astell&Kern box opening. It's such a satisfying experience for a company that knows how to do premium packaging. Basically, Astell&Kern is the Apple of the audiophile world. I appreciate the fact that Astell&Kern put their product first and foremost in the box, opening it to reveal the device. It shows they have confidence in not only the quality of their devices but the value too. Underneath the music player, you'll find your paperwork and the USB A to C charging cable.

Like all A&K players, the SE180 is on par with the excellent metal construction. Astell&Kern likes to use hard angles and subtle design elements in their digital music players - you can immediately tell one apart from the crowd. The SE180 has some slightly curved lines on the side of the volume knob, which emphasizes the beautiful product design and overall quality. Each product line has its design element, and the SE180 has the back face offset from the front just enough so that the device rests comfortably in your left palm. Holding it this way allows you to reach your thumb over without rubbing against any hard angles. The same can be said for your right palm, holding it more with the grooves of your fingers as if the device was leaning towards your thumb for ease of use.

The device is heavier and thicker than I imagined it to be, but the implementation of the interchangeable modules means there has to be more room internally for compatible swap-able tech and clasping mechanisms. The size does have one distinct advantage: a new 5in full-HD 1920 x 1080 display with 441 PPI. It's one of the best screens on a DAC, comparing to the equally gorgeous DX300 by iBasso. Personally, I think 5 inch screens are a reasonable size for devices like this - much like your smartphone, it's large enough to navigate easily without taking up the space of a full-blown tablet. The full HD display also looks amazing at this size, and responsiveness is great like all Astell&Kern DAPs.

One of the hallmark Astell&Kern features is the volume wheel. Each player has their own styling for adjusting the volume level, and the scrolling mechanisms always show off the precise craftsmanship by A&K. The SE180 wheel does not eject out from the body as much as other models, but it is still easily accessible and maneuverable. It also features an LED ring around the wheel which can display information such as the bit rate of the music you are listening to. Like with all Astell&Kern players, we recommend getting a leather case to protect your investment. It would be a shame to get scratches on such a beautiful device.

The SE180 is consistent with other Astell&Kern music players, so nothing too surprising regarding the superb construction, excellent quality, and durability. They always make sure it's obvious you have just purchased a premium product that will make your music sound as good as the quality in which it was made.


Sound Quality

The SE180 DAP comes packaged with the SEM1 module, which is equipped with the flagship ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip. These days DAC chips are just a part of the sound signature equation, and one thing that the SE180 boasts that other DAPs can't is a completely separated DAC section from the rest of the machine. This means that the power and RF signals/noise from the main unit is completely blocked by the engineering design of the DAP. Less noise also means a more pure auditory experience.

The ES9038PRO is an excellent DAC, providing a surprising amount of detail and clarity to your audio. I would say it's on the analytical side of the spectrum, but not totally inaccessible for those who prefer a warmer sound. Don't worry though, if you don't like it you can always swap it out for a different DAC from a different module. That single factor is why I've been a fan of iBasso since they allow the user to tailor their sound to their personal preferences: listen to your music the way you want to. For my testing session, I paired the SE180 with the Focal Utopia and a Black Dragon Premium cable.

I'm a sucker for some solid '80s bops and synthpop, and the newer artist LeBrock hits the spot most of the time. The song "Intersteller" harkens back to a simpler time of pure rock, synths, and long permed hair. The low end is present and tight, but not bloated or overbearing. The soundstage really shows off on the chorus, expanding open like opening the windows on a windy day. The SE180 presents a balanced sound overall and never lacks detail from the excellent ES9038PRO. I can hear the extension in the low mids on the analog synths, something that really stands out and produces much better quality samples than digital synths. The detail is superb on the SE180.

I remember my dad playing some Blood, Sweat, & Tears on vinyl growing up, and they've always stuck with me ever since. The digitally remastered tracks from their Greatest Hits, especially the single version of "Spinning Wheel," represent a great example of panning and space usage in the mix. It still strikes me how wide the drums are mixed with the snare and toms sounding like they're in different time zones. They're a large band with an added horn section, and the sound is just as large. The wide soundstage accentuates the detail and individual performances to the point where I could listen to the SE180 for hours and discover new things in my music that I've listened to for years. It's an impressive thing to me when a device can help you rediscover and fall in love with your music all over again.

Barenaked Ladies are like comfort food for me. The band. I just wanted to clarify. Their early music is in the "energetic alternative" genre and the SE180 music player brings this energy to the forefront. Despite being a fairly balanced signature, it's far from being flat and sterile. Dynamics also translate well to classical. The low noise floor of the SE180 emphasizes the dynamic range of the device. The Pianissimo sections are soft but incredibly clear and transparent. Sergei Rachmaninoff's first symphony shows off the dynamic range of the SE180 nicely, with the crescendos building the tension of the orchestra and filling out the full spectrum of sound. The analytical nature of the 9038PRO chip does well to bring out the details in a large ensemble like classical music, allowing for plenty of perceived space for the instrumentation to sound expansive and immersive.

LeBrock: Fuse Album Cover
Blood, Sweat, & Tears Greatest Hits Album Cover
Barenaked Ladies Greatest Hits Album Cover
Rachmaninoff Symphony #1 Album Cover

Testing Tracks / Albums:

LeBrock: Fuse

Blood, Sweat, & Tears

Barenaked Ladies: Greatest Hits

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony #1

The wide soundstage accentuates the detail and individual performances to the point where I could listen to the SE180 for hours and discover new things in my music that I've listened to for years. It's an impressive thing to me when a device can help you rediscover and fall in love with your music all over again.


Features

Interchangeable Modules - With the SE180, Astell&Kern wanted to expand on the multi-DAC idea that was first introduced with the SE200. Like the SE200, different DACs can be used in one DAP, but for the SE180 they decided on implementing a new system of interchangeable modules. Swap-able cards or modules aren't new, as companies like iBasso have been doing them for years with their DX line of music players, but Astell&Kern is quick to point out that their system is different from the competition. Unlike iBasso, the SE180 is a module-separated product that increases the convenience of connection between the main body of the player and the module. It features an innovative double-locking design that securely connects each component while providing smooth lines that naturally flow without any sense of separateness between the two pieces. By applying different DAC/AMP configurations and adjusting the tuning and outputs for each module, the user can choose the most suitable module for their sonic preferences for High Fidelity audio.


Modules Double Lock for Ease of Use - The biggest difference between the SE180 and other products that use interchangeable modules is that the SE180 uses a double-locking mechanism rather than screws to fasten the module to the body. The first locking structure attaches the module and the body. The second locking structure informs the user that the module has been securely fastened to the main body. The spring-supported internal connectors of the main body allow reliable audio signal connection and are used to prevent connection failure in case of external shock to the player when on the go.


Astell&Kern Audio Technology Forms the TERATON ALPHA Sound Solution - TERATON ALPHA is AK's ultimate Sound Solution to produce audio playback that is close to the original sound through the audio output interface by use of effective power noise removal, efficient power management, and amplification with minimal distortion. TERATON ALPHA features Astell&Kern's patented technologies, which are the result of tens of thousands of hours of continuous research and development to produce the sound close to the original sound the artist and producer intended.


SE180 device circuitry

Next-Generation Advanced AMP Technology - It is extremely difficult to push beyond your previous best. With the SE180, Astell&Kern applied Next Generation AMP technology to push beyond the sound quality others feel is acceptable for Premium Hi-Fi Sound to produce the best sound possible. From the selection of OP-AMP parts to circuit design, board layout, and tuning, everything has been completely redesigned to produce the best sound. It is difficult to improve the Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) while maintaining a high output.

SE180 circuit separation structure

Circuit Separation Structure of Main Body and Module - By physically separating the main body from the All-in-One DAC module, Astell&Kern completely blocks power and RF noise that may occur from the main body. This creates an independent structure that prevents noise from interfering with music playback.

Upgrades to Enhance the User Experience

Navigation bar for easier navigation - To provide more convenient movement through the player user interface that is consistent with an Android smartphone experience, the SE180 features a new navigation bar, the first in an Astell&Kern player. Now you can easily navigate with a single touch and deliver music playback information from any screen. The new one swipe feature moves you to the previous screen.

AK File Drop to enjoy wireless transfers - The new AK File Drop function in the SE180 makes files transfers easier and more convenient. Using AK File Drop, you can freely transfer files wirelessly through a PC, smartphone, or FTP program located on the same network. Music file management is now possible with a cable-less, wireless solution.

Wireless Hi-Fi Sound Through BT Sink - The newly introduced BT Sink function connects the SE180 to an external device via Bluetooth, similar to connecting a smartphone with a BT speaker. Music from an external device, such as a smartphone can now be played back in high-quality on the SE180 using the BT Sink function.

Equipped with Bluetooth 5.0 and Support for Wireless 24-bit aptX-HD, LDAC Codecs - The latest Bluetooth version provides high sound quality with the convenience of wireless playback to headphones and IEMs. Bluetooth 5.0 features faster transmission speed, greater range, and a more stable wireless connection when compared to Bluetooth 4.2. Both LDAC and aptX HD are supported to provide audiophiles with the best wireless sound possible. Astell&Kern SE180 includes MQA technology, which enables you to play back MQA audio files and streams, delivering the sound of the original master recording.


Astell&Kern SE180 Modules

Available Now

Astell&Kern SEM2 is loaded with the Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ Dual DAC. The AK4497EQ can play files up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and native DSD512. Another module is planned for later in the year, with a further one coming in the first half of 2022. The first two DAC modules support 2.5mm, 3.5mm, and 4.4mm headphone connections and MQA support for locally stored files and playback via TIDAL. There could be different headphone port options coming with the next wave of DAC modules. We'll keep you updated on all the latest information.


Comparisons

Around the same price point but a little less, the SA700 Music Player from Astell&Kern makes for a good comparison piece for a number of reasons. The SA700 DAP is the first unit on the market to utilize an AK4492ECB Dual DAC, presenting new sonic options for an Astell&Kern player. It basically has a similar audio performance as the flagship AK4497EQ, but with much-improved power efficiency for longer battery life.

Let's get to the obvious differences. The SA700 is much smaller than the SE180 despite being similar in overall weight (SE180 has a 5-inch screen, the SA700 has a 4.1-inch screen). They also have some subtle design differences, but Astell&Kern does a great job with giving each product its own distinct style, while still maintaining the excellent build quality and AK aesthetics. The SE180 also includes the addition of a 4.4mm jack, whereas both music players share the 2.5mm and 3.5mm ports in common. Both devices have USB-C for charging and connection to your computer. The SA700 has a snazzy sliding cover to protect the microSD card slot on the bottom of the device, hearkening back to a classic and nostalgic design from Astell's earlier days.

Sonically, the SE180 has much-improved imaging and separation over the SA700. The SA700 sounds somewhat tighter on the other hand, due to the fact that the soundstage isn't as wide. Both the AK and the ES DAC sound incredibly clear and resolute, but the SE180 is the winner of the face-off. The combined chip with the circuitry design of the separated module from the body results in an excellent noise floor and SNR. The SA700 would be a great choice for those wanting a smaller portable device with some great retro design elements. Astell&Kern gives you a plethora of choices that provide some of the best portable audiophile-quality sound on the market, no matter what model you pick.

Winner: Astell&Kern SE180 Music Player


Dragon Cables

In my testing session, I paired the Astell&Kern SE180 DAP Music Player with the Focal Utopia Headphones and a Black Dragon Premium Headphone Cable. Due to the overall sound signature of the SE180 being on the analytical side, the Black Dragon cable adds more warmth and musicality to the audio, filling out the low end a bit more and thickening up the mid frequencies. A large part of the equation is your headphones too, so if you have warmer sounding headphones, a Silver Dragon might be a good option for more extension and detail.

About Dragon Cables

Generally, stock audio cables are manufactured with subpar materials, metals with impurities, poor geometries, and an overabundance of layers to make them look and feel like a fire hose. Inconsistency and lack of quality control in stock cables can lead to poor sound quality and a veiled sound vs what the musician intended for you to hear and feel from the music. Dragon cables are handcrafted with the highest standards and made to order according to your specific needs.

At Moon Audio, we create a custom cable for you using the highest quality UP-OCC silver or copper conductors that can be manufactured. UP-OCC metals are void of impurities and are optimized for signal transfer and sound quality. We have one of the largest collections of audio and headphone connection options available online and we create limitless audio cable options depending on your specific gear and needs.


Verdict

The Astell&Kern SE180 Music Player is the latest iteration in the perfected portables by one of the best DAP companies on the market. Although the design of an interchangeable module is not as "new and innovative" as A&K claims it is, in the same methodology as the SE200, giving the user the ability to tailor their gear based on personal I/O and audio preferences is always a welcomed choice. Ultimately, it's new for Astell&Kern, and for a company that holds a sizable chunk of the audiophile-grade DAP market, it might as well be a new innovation since iBasso specializes in switchable amplifier cards only. With a great FHD screen, premium Astell&Kern build, flagship-level DAC chip and sound quality, the SE180 allows you to listen to your music the way you want to. For those wanting a customized sound or to even have options without having to buy a completely separate device, the SE180 makes a good choice for your portable Hi-Fi solution.


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What's in the Box

AK SE180 Music Player

USB-A to C Charging Cable

Manual and Warranty


Videos

Unboxing Video (Coming Soon)

Video Review (Coming Soon)


Specifications

Technical Features
  • Model: SE 180
  • Price: $1,499
  • Finish: Moon Silver
  • Body: Aluminum
  • Dimensions: 3.98" x 6.1" x 2.4"
  • Screen: 5" Touchscreen
  • Resolution: HD 1920x1080
  • Single DAC: ESS ES9038PRO
  • Input: USB Type-C
  • Outputs: 3.5mm Unbalanced; 2.5mm Balanced; Optical 3.5mm; 4.4mm Balanced
  • Battery Life: 10.5hr Playback; (5hr charge (5V/2A), 3.5hr chg (9V/1.67A))
 
  • Storage: 256GB Internal
  • External Storage: microSD ≤1TB
  • Formats: Supports WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
  • OS: Windows 8, 10 (32/64bit); MAC OS X 10.7+
  • Wireless Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth v5.0
  • Decoding: ≤32bit / 384kHz; Native DSD
  • Frequency Response: Condition: 20Hz-20kHz (±0.04dB Unbalance; ±0.024dB Balance)
  • Condition: 20Hz-70kHz (±0.07dB Unbalance; ±0.06dB Balance)
  • Output Level: 2-3 Vrms Unbalance; 4-6 Vrms Balance
  • Impedance: 0.1 Ohm (3.5mm); 1.5 Ohm (2.5mm); 1.5 Ohm (4.4mm)

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