Another Series of Firsts in a DAP for Astell&Kern
I know it's going to be a good day here, because any time one of these players comes my way, I know it's going to be a premium music listening experience day. That's what Astell&Kern offers their users and why time and time again, they deliver the latest innovations in their players to the excitement of the audiophile world. Sure, they might not be the first to bring a feature to the industry, but I'll be darned if they're not the ones that implement it the best.
Okay, enough singing the praises of Astell&Kern. Their latest A&futura music player is out the in wild now, and as with all their DAPs in this lineup, let's take a quick look at what new innovations they bring to the table and how your music can sound the very best it can with their latest premium music player: the SE300. You won't find some of this stuff in any other Astell&Kern music player on the market.
Astell&Kern SE300 Review: A New Standard for Innovation
Astell&Kern never stops innovating. I'm here today to tell you about, yet again, another series of firsts for an Astell&Kern music player. The A&futura line brings something new to the table with each new DAP - always raising the bar and changing the status quo. The SE300 is no different, offering a number of new things to come to an Astell&Kern DAP.
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- Excellent R-2R DAC, natural and robust-sounding
- Class A/AB switching
- FPGA NOS/OS modes
- Power output is on par with lesser SR35 - not an issue but would expect a bit more from a higher-priced unit
- Bass heads will want to pair with warmer headphones
Astell&Kern is a South Korean company that focuses on creating some of the most popular DAPs (Digital Audio Players), CD players, headphones, and home cinema products on the market. The company was founded in 2013 by iRiver with the debut of their AK100 digital audio player (DAP). Later that year they released the AKR01 in-ear monitors to go along with the new music player. The brand name Astell&Kern was created in October of that year to develop their in-brand products.
Astell&Kern products stylistically stand out from the crowd with their modern metals aesthetic, sharp edges, and sleek designs. Their digital music players look like the future. They are best known for high-end music players, portable audio devices, or hi-res “iPods.” As the Financial Times notes, Astell&Kern is committed to fidelity and quality. To say Astell&Kern media players are HOT would be an understatement. As consumers learn about the need for higher resolution music files to feed our high-quality media players, those made by Astell&Kern have thrived.
What makes AK different?
Astell&Kern creates the best music players in the world as our customer reviews note plus their technology is easy to learn and navigate as a newbie or a technology wizard. Our founder, Drew Baird, P.E., and the staff at Moon Audio recommend Astell&Kern high-resolution music and media players for people who love “mobile audio.” Astell & Kern (A&K) music players are "iPods on steroids". If you love to listen to music “on the go” and want hi-fi sound AK Digital Audio Players (DAPs) are essential listening gear with Mastering Quality Sound (MQS). Playing all the high-res information captured during the music recording process is Astell & Kern’s expertise. You will not believe what your ears were missing once you try AK music players!
Materials & Quality
I'm not going to go into my usual schpiel about the design and stylings of Astell&Kern players. You can read my countless reviews on previous products for that. Just know this: they're amazingly stylish and premium. You won't find another music player on the market that marries a user experience, premium materials, design, and of course amazing sound quality in one complete portable package. It doesn't happen with anyone else other than Astell&Kern - at least to this level.
On the top of the SE300 music player, you'll find the power button and the 3 headphone jacks: a 2.5mm (balanced), 4.4 (balanced), and a 3.5mm (unbalanced). On the left side of the DAP are three buttons (from top to bottom): track skip back, play/pause, and track forward. On the bottom is the microSD card slot for external storage and the USB-C jack for charging and USB Audio. The right side is the most interesting: the large tactile volume knob and the first for an Astell&Kern player: a smooth curve protruding from the otherwise angular device.
Let's talk about this curvature. This is part of the design concept for the SE300 which is, "Stream." "Like small ripples on the water turning into crashing waves, AK designed the SE300 with a Class A amplifier - the ultimate amplifier form, to have a completely unique identity for an Astell&Kern DAP." -Astell&Kern
Like all Astell&Kern DAPs, it's an angular device with many sharp corners. You'll probably want to put a case on it, especially when packing it away in your bag. You don't want to get any holes in your bag. All things considered, Astell&Kern doesn't reinvent the wheel here, and they don't need to, because their DAPs are and have always been some of the best-looking hi-res music players on the market. And that's enough for me. Let's talk more about how this thing sounds.
For the first time in an Astell&Kern music player, there is finally a fully discrete 24-bit R-2R DAC. Previous music players in AK's wheelhouse usually packed a series of AKM, ESS, or Cirrus Logic DAC chipsets. Delta Sigma DACs are easier to implement in a portable music player, but Astell&Kern was up to the challenge of figuring out how to put a ladder DAC into their latest DAP.
The R-2R DAC, also known as a ladder DAC, arranges resistors in a ladder form and offers natural yet dynamic Hi-Fi sounds. It is extremely technical and difficult to execute as it requires complex refined resistor units and hard-to-manage current controls. Despite these technical challenges and after several years of development and a lot of trial and error, Astell&Kern has successfully created a new analog sound for their innovative DAP lineup in the A&futura series. AK has meticulously selected each of the 96 ultra-precision resistors and finalized the R-2R DAC technology - it is indeed a new sound for an Astell&Kern player, at least from an analog perspective.
R-2R DAC Features:
- Realization of 24-bit Decoding with R-2R DAC: The R-2R DAC within the SE300 arranges 48 pairs (23xR and 25x2R) of 96 ultra-precision resistors to create analog signals, in turn realizing true Hi-Fi 24-bit decoding.
- Ultra-precision resistor Design, the Key to Hi-Fi Sound - It is key to total the accurate current value with resistors that have the smallest error ranges in order to create Hi-Fi sound with an R-2R DAC. To realize this, Astell&Kern inspected each specifically selected ultra-precision resistor of 0.01% error range to complete the design of SE300.
- Ultra-precision TCR10 Specifications - To create Hi-Fi sound without distortions within such an extremely precision design, Astell&Kern analyzed and preconceived any potential impacts that may be caused by changes in temperature. The SE300 comes with special *TCR10 specifications to minimize the changes in the 0.01% resistor error range. *TCR10: 10 ppm/℃ Low-Temperature Coefficient of the resistor.
We'll see how this new R-2R DAC sounds in the sound impressions section coming up.
The other new feature in the SE300 that makes another first for Astell&Kern is the dual amp mode switching. Dual amps provide a lot more tonal variation than some might think and also affects the overall efficiency of the device which can prolong or shorten battery life, based on your fidelity preferences.
Let's start with Class A: Class A amplification creates low distortion and natural sounds, which is really great if you're wanting more warmth and musicality without losing dynamics or resolution. Class A is more powerful and also uses more battery, which can shorten the amount of time you'll be away from a wall socket. It's not going to cut your battery life in half, as there are other factors like gain settings, Wifi/BT, and volume that can also play a role in this. Class A is warmer than AB, and can provide a level of emotion and intimacy in your music that Class AB just can't.
Class AB, on the other hand, adds more distortion to the signal, but is much more efficient than Class A, resulting in longer battery life for your music player. Class AB is also more dynamic, offering fun and punchy presentations. A lot of times people choose the amp setting based on the genre of music too. Personally, I won't listen to rock on anything other than Class AB - it just provides more energy and fun to the music according to my listening preferences. It's a nice premium feature to have so you can A/B test and see how it brings out different elements of your music too.
Class A/AB differences:
- Class A AMP mode: Class A AMP is an analog amp that offers the best linear output, amplifying signals without distortion or loss of signal and providing soft, warm, and natural sounds. The refined analog signal created directly by the R-2R DAC reproduces a sound closest to the original analog audio through the organic and powerful Class A AMP.
- Class AB AMP Mode: Class AB AMP is an analog amp that offers a powerful output with the added benefit of high efficiency. This presents dynamic and crisp sounds with less harmonic distortion.
You'll also find High and Normal gain modes on the SE300. This allows you to get the perfect match for power output with your favorite headphones or IEMs. Offering up to 6Vrms in balanced mode, it'll have enough juice for most full-sized headphones out there, except specifically demanding cans.
For my testing session, I paired the Astell&Kern SE300 DAP Music Player with the Meze Liric Headphones and a Black Dragon Premium Cable for Meze Headphones. I also paired them with the new HIFIMAN HE1000 V2 with stealth magnets and a Black Dragon headphone cable.
The SE300 sounds different from other AK players. Thanks to the implementation of the R-2R DAC mostly, it provides a clean, detailed, and natural sound to the music. I'm not hearing much coloration like some ESS and AKM chips/signal chains. I would definitely still consider it on the forward side, which is not that uncommon for the A&futura or A&norma lineups of DAPs. Detail is something Astell&Kern does best, so I would actually be surprised if it was anything less from what I'm hearing.
Natural. I'm really appreciating the timbre of the ladder DAC here. Vocals and midrange for genres like Rock and Folk are ahead of the instrumentation, but not at the expense of the impact and dynamics of the instrumentation, if that makes sense. Class AB, high gain, NOS mode (more on that in the Features Section), and some quality rock and roll sounds crunchy and powerful. It's a great tone overall for distorted guitars.
Genres like Classical and Jazz are especially lovely with the SE300. The Class A amplifier provides a more lush presentation to the music, smoother, and combined with the R-2R DAC, a really enjoyable listening experience. Even at low volume levels, these genres are still dynamic on the SE300, really showing off the natural and uncolored nature of the audio circuit. I'll tell you right off the bat though that the SE300 isn't going to be for bass heads. The bass is present, tight, and articulate, but I think lovers of RAP, EDM, and more bass-heavy genres might find it lacking. Pairing the music player with a warmer headphone is certainly the way to go in this regard. For those wanting a more balanced tone than some of the ESS or Cirrus Logic chipsets that Astell&Kern uses, the SE300 will please. The more natural timbre and balanced presentation isn't going to have the body and warmth of some of the AKM chips, but it's a happy medium.
All My Loving
by The Beatles
(With the Beatles)
Sultans of Swing
by Dire Straights
The Ends of the Earth
by Brian Tyler
(Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag)
by Bloc Party
Optimized FPGA OS / NOS Modes - The SE300 comes with Astell&Kern’s exclusively developed FPGA and provides optimized OS / NOS modes.
The SE300 uses an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) that Astell&Kern self-developed for optimized design instead of using common off-the-shelf commercial semiconductor chipsets, relaying digital signals to the R-2R DAC through its algorithm. Astell&Kern’s FPGA, developed specifically for the SE300, supports the most ideal OS (Over Sampling) / NOS (Non-Over Sampling). Enjoy the sound styles reproduced by NOS and OS modes, meticulously designed for the SE300's hardware and programs.
- NOS (Non-Over Sampling) Mode: In NOS mode, the player reproduces the pure original sound without any digital processing, allowing users to enjoy the true unprocessed sounds decoded by the R-2R DAC itself.
- OS (Over Sampling) Mode: OS mode offers partial digital processing that expands the bandwidth of the original signal to offer impressive details, with an expansive sense of space creating crisp and clear sounds.
New Experience, New User Interface - The SE300 comes with a redesigned Crimson-themed UI/UX transforming into a "true music player" for users to deeply connect with their music listening experience. The new UI/UX is designed so that users can quickly browse music categories and re-discover songs within their music library. Astell&Kern also added an easy album art search function so that users can re-discover the joy of viewing and interacting with music album art whilst listening to their music.
The crimson theme focuses on edge, simplicity, and dark mode keywords. The color theme of black with red highlights lowers visual fatigue and offers intuitive user experiences, and many other improvements were made to the device’s user-friendliness of app service, artist view, album sorting, and the album art search function.
For my testing session, I paired the Astell&Kern SE300 DAP Music Player with the Meze Liric Headphones and a Black Dragon Premium Cable for Meze Headphones. The Meze Liric is a forward-leaning closed-back planar magnetic headphone - some of my favorites for genres like classical and jazz. The Black Dragon cable adds some additional warmth and body to the sound with the additional copper stranding, but it makes for one of the best portable setups for classical or soundtrack music that I've heard in a long time. Lovers of bass and more low-end can certainly go the route of pairing the SE300 with a warmer headphone or even beef up the bass and sound with a Bronze Dragon Cable. The sonic possibilities are literally endless when it comes to pairing the SE300 with a headphone and cable. I also paired them with the new HIFIMAN HE1000 V2 with stealth magnets and a Black Dragon headphone cable.
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.
Why Dragon Cables?
You’ve heard the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right? Well, the same applies to your brand-new audiophile-grade headphone or other audio components. The weakest link, in this case, is your stock cable or the cheap interconnects the manufacturer threw in the box just to get you up and running. Why is the cable always an afterthought, when it’s just as important as the rest of your system? At Moon Audio, we use the best raw materials in our cables to unveil your music. We believe the materials matter and your audio cables should have the same care and craftsmanship that manufacturers put into their audio components and headphones. Audio cables are ultimately the connection to your music. The fact remains that cabling is often considered the last priority to that of the main product and a means to cut down the overall production costs. It’s as simple as that.
Like the rest of Astell&Kern's A&futura lineup of music players, they continue to innovate and implement firsts in their high-end DAPs. The addition of the new R-2R ladder DAC in the new SE300 is great for those who want a more natural sound and little coloration to their music, as it provides a rich and dynamic presentation. The new amp-switching mode is a welcome one, for those wanting more control over the efficiency of the battery life or the amount of finesse and noise in their signal. Over-sampling mode adds an impressive amount of detail and space over non-oversampling, which brings it into the feature category rather than a gimmick. The SE300 is going to be a great DAP for lovers of detail: classical, jazz, rock, folk, and alternative in particular.
There are enough firsts here that Astell&Kern should be proud of the way they've implemented these new features and continue to bring something new to the table. Hopefully, some of these new features will find their way to becoming Astell&Kern music player staples for future DAPs to come, as they greatly impact the sound of the music and the value of the device - which is giving the user more control over how they want to listen to their music. I don't think anyone can get upset over that.
What's in the Box
- Astell&Kern SE300 DAP Music Player
- USB-A to USB-C cable
- Quick start guide
- Body Color: Platinum Silver
- Body Material: Aluminum and Stainless Steel
- Display: 5.46inch HD 1080 x 1920 touch screen
- Supported Audio Formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
- Sample rate: PCM : 8kHz ~ 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample); DSD : DSD64(1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128(1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256(1bit 11.2MHz), Stereo
- Output Level: [Normal] Unbalanced 2Vrms │ Balanced 4Vrms (Condition No Load)[High] Unbalanced 3Vrms │ Balanced 6Vrms (Condition No Load)
- CPU: Quad-core
- DAC: Full Discrete R-2R
- Decoding: Support up to 32bit / 384kHz playback
- Input: USB Type-C input (for charging & PC & MAC)
- Outputs: Unbalanced Out (3.5mm), Optical Out(3.5mm)Balanced Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported | 4.4m, only 5-pole supported)
- Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz)
- Bluetooth: V5.0 (A2DP, AVRCP, Qualcomm® aptX™ HD, LDAC)
- Dimensions: 3.01” (76.45mm)[W] x 5.49” (139.45mm)[H] x 0.69” (17.6mm)[D]WeightAbout 11.18oz (317g)
- Feature Enhancements: Firmware upgrade supported (OTA)
- Operating Temperature: 0℃ ~ + 40℃ (32℉~ 104℉)
Frequency Response: ±0.038dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Unbalanced │Balanced±0.45dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Unbalanced │Balanced
S/N: 114dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 115dB @ 1kHz, Balanced (Normal Gain)115dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 115dB @ 1kHz, Balanced (High Gain)
Crosstalk: -135dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ -144dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
THD+N: 0.006% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 0.006% @ 1kHz, Balanced
IMD SMPTE: 0.005% 800Hz 10kHz (4:1) Unbalanced │Balanced
Output Impedance: Unbalanced Out 3.5mm (1.3ohm) │ Balanced Out 2.5mm (1.3ohm), 4.4mm(1.3ohm)
Clock Jitter: 25pS (Typ)
Reference Clock Jitter: 500 Femto Seconds
Built-in Memory: 256GB [NAND]
External Memory: microSD x1 (Max. 1TB)
Capacity: 5,050mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer
Charge Time: about 3.5hours (9V 1.67A Charging)
Playback Time: about 12hours (Standard : FLAC, 16bit, 44.1kHz, Vol.50, LCD Off, Normal Gain)
Windows 10,11(32/64bit) MAC OS X 10.7