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Astell&Kern SEM3 Module for the SE180 DAP Review and Comparison

All the Sounds with All the SEMs


People like to customize according to their preferences. This is an essential behavior of human nature. How do you make something uniquely yours? Astell&Kern has released yet another module for the popular SE180 DAP music player - for a total of three current options to tailor your sound to your liking: the SEM1, SEM2, and SEM3. Each removable module provides a distinct sound signature for your SE180, from warm and musical (SEM2), to balanced and resolute (SEM1), to now a more analytical offering with plenty of top-end sizzle (SEM3).

Replaceable modules aren't anything new in the world of portable music players, but Astell&Kern has finally put their own flair on the design. The SE180 DAP implements this new design for AK, giving the user complete control to change the sound of their music according to their own listening preferences. Why? Because everyone hears differently.

People like choice, and the SE180 digital audio player departs from the design of the SE200, and instead of including multiple digital-to-analog converters in a single device, they have designed the music player to have removable DAC modules. It's not the first time we've seen this design, but Astell&Kern makes it their own and does it well. Now they've released the SEM3, the latest module for the music player. How does it compare? And will there be more on the way?

Riff Notes

Riff Notes Logo

Pros:

  • Replaceable Modules are compact
  • Snug and secure connection
  • Great Sound
  • Customization

Cons:

  • Pricey
  • Can be difficult to unlock and swap out

Materials & Quality

Like the Astell&Kern SE180 music player, the SEM3 is made with matching aluminum, disappearing into the design when installed. The fit is so precise that it's hard to tell if the module is removable at all. The craftsmanship, in general, is superb, with each button finely cavity milled out for seamless precision. The double-locking mechanism is effective in making sure you have a tight and secure fit of the module inside the music player. The module itself connect to the DAP circuitry by means of a USB-C connection, allowing for fast transfer speeds between the DAC and headphone amplifier sections.

With the detachable module section, the DAP is no heavier than a similar weighted player like the SP2000. It's not unwieldy by any means, but there is some weight involved when considering the overall portability of the device. We certainly recommend using a leather case on the device to protect your investment, because it's not so much the fear of dropping the device as it is scratching the glossy front and back glass finish.

Size-wise it is also comparable to the SP2000, sharing the larger chassis when set side-by-side to the SA700 or SR25. Still palm-able, the SE180 is the player to beat when it comes to the overall customizable sound that you can tailor to your own listening preferences. The only downside is that the module fits so precisely inside the music player that it can sometimes be difficult to eject. You'll need to find the right angle where you can apply enough pressure on each side of the unit which gives you enough clearance from the locking mechanisms while simultaneously using your fingers or fingernails to pull the module out from the small groove located on the back. After a couple of times of struggling, I found what worked best for me and haven't had any issues since.

As expected, all the SEM cards have the exact same dimensions and build quality. You won't find anything different here other than the superb build quality that Astell&Kern is known for.


Sound Quality

ES9038PRO x 1 vs. AK4497EQ x 2 vs. ES9038Q2M x 4

Now we have not just two options, but three options for interchangeable modules. 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 balanced and provides plenty of detail, but not totally inaccessible for those who prefer a warmer sound. Compared to the other two DACs, Astell&Kern did well to pick a DAC module that was quite the middle of the road compared to what the SEM2 and SEM3 have to offer. Bass is present, though not necessarily as defined to the extent that a higher-end DAC would perform. I like that the vocal frequency is not boosted, but it sounds more present, I think due to the closer soundstage than some other DAC options will provide. It's almost as if the range is fairly well balanced (albeit in certain cases I would define the sound of the SEM1 on the analytical side of balanced), but the close proximity of the soundstage makes for less room and more competition among frequencies. This is especially present in the Meze 99 Classics rather than the Focal Utopia, so keep in mind that your headphones will certainly play a role in this.

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. The best way to test this was to do a simple A/B test and swap the modules out after listening to each song. For my testing purposes, I used the SE180 DAP Music Player with the Meze 99 Classics and the Focal Utopia for both high-end and entry-level sound. Of course, all three SEM modules were swapped out for testing.

You can read more about our sound impressions of the SEM2 module in our written review, so I won't spend too much time on it here. Basically, it's a great choice for those wanting a warmer and more bodied sound compared to the SEM1 module. You're gonna get tones closer to the SP2000 from the SEM2, but the dual AK chips won't compete with the Flagship player. Rolled-off top end, better layering, and more defined imaging are just some of the characteristics out of the box. The SEM2 is a smooth listening experience. Check out our review HERE for more info.

The SEM3 is a totally new flavor of sound for the SE180 music player. Equipped with four ES9038Q2M DACs, it's interesting to see that they went with a quad-Q2M chip variant with this module, as there are some notable differences between the PRO and Q2M chips. PRO chips are 8 channels whereas the Q2M chips are only 2 and are more power-efficient. Without getting into specifics of channel architecture and how multi-DAC configurations affect SNR and THD, just know this: there are sonic differences between the PRO and Q2M chips despite both being ESS and designed for the same DAP music player. The most notable difference in A/B testing was with the song "This Is Home" by one of my all time favs, San Diego-based Switchfoot. With the SEM3, the xylophone bell tones at the beginning of the song are more vibrant, with the new module providing more sizzle on the top-end than the original SEM1. The soundstage is enhanced as well, with the instrumentation having more expanse and depth when compared to the SEM1. Because of this soundstage expansion, the vocals in this track seemed more recessed, but far from being covered up. The SEM1 certainly made the vocals stand out more in the front of the mix, but the SEM3 just allows for more breathing room, with imaging being more precise. Attacks sounded sharper with a tighter bass response on the SEM3 as well, the drums and bass having less rumble, but still very present in the overall sound.

These changes translated as well to other songs like Across the Universe (Beatles) and Across the Great Divide (Semisonic). The SEM3 provides better soundstage and top-end sizzle than the SEM1, but I would say that the SEM1 provides better energy and overall balance. I think Astell&Kern made a good decision with how they've marketed these removable modules, providing the most balanced option to be packaged with the SE180 music player. The SEM2 and SEM3 are great options on either side of the sound signature spectrum, depending on the genre of music you like to listen to and what complements best your existing headphones and cables (if applicable).

Sound Signature Recap:

SEM1: Balanced, forward-leaning, dynamic, closer soundstage

SEM2: Warm, musical, extension in the low frequencies, better layering, and improved imaging over SEM1

SEM3: More analytical, improved depth and imaging, sharper attack, and tighter low end.


Switchfoot The Best Of
Let It Be (Deluxe)
Semisonic The Great Divide
Bernstein Century: Copland

Albums/Songs

This is Home by Switchfoot (The Best Of)

Across the Universe by The Beatles (Let It Be Super Deluxe)

Across the Great Divide by Semisonic (The Great Divide)

Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland (Bernstein Century: Copland)


Features

Interchangeable Modules - With the SE180 DAP, 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/Amplifier configurations and adjusting the tuning and outputs for each module, the user can choose the most suitable module for their sonic preferences for high-end audio quality.

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 to 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.

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.

Circuit Separation Structure of Main Body and Module - By physically separating the main body from the All-in-One 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.


Verdict

The SEM3, like the SEM2, provides some great alternative sound signature options to the SEM1 that comes with the SE180 music player from Astell&Kern. Astell&Kern have given the listener the ability to customize their music player according to their personalized sound preferences. The SEM3 offers some nice differences from the SEM1, providing more depth, a wider soundstage, more top-end sparkle, and other characteristics that make it a better option for those wanting a more analytical and detailed sound to their music player.

The SEM3 is a good tool to have in the arsenal if you like being portable and having choices for your music. The nice thing about the SEM modules is that they are small enough you could potentially take all three with you on the road if you wanted to. We said it before: it's good to have options, and Astell&Kern is finally providing them.


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What's in the Box

  • SEM3 DAC/AMP Module for the SE180 DAP Music Player
  • Plastic Protective Sticker for Top of Module
  • Manual/Paperwork

Specifications

SEM2 General Specifications
  • Model: PAP12
  • Body Material: Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Polycarbonate
  • Body Color: Moon Silver
  • Sample Rate: PCM : 8kHz ~ 768kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample) DSD Native: DSD64(1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128(1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256(1bit 11.2MHz), Stereo / DSD512(1bit 22.4MHz), Stereo
  • Output: Unbalanced Out (3.5mm), Balanced Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported / 4.4mm, only 5-pole supported)
  • Output Level: [Normal Gain] Unbalanced 2Vrms / Balanced 4Vrms (Condition No Load) [High Gain] Unbalanced 3Vrms / Balanced 6Vrms (Condition No Load)
  • DAC: AKM AK4497EQ x2(Dual DAC)
  • Decoding: Support up to 32bit / 768kHz Bit-to-Bit playback
  • Dimensions: 3.03"(77mm)[W] x 2.99"(76mm)[H] x 0.78"(19.9mm)[D]
  • Weight: 3.53oz (100g)
  • Operating Temperature: 3.53oz (100g)
  • Playback Time: about 10.5hours (FLAC, 16bit, 44.1kHz, Vol.50, LCD Off)
  • Audio Performance
  • Frequency Response: ±0.07dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Unbalanced / ±0.06dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Balanced ±0.68dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Unbalanced / ±0.67dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Balanced
  • Signal to Noise Ratio: [Normal Gain] 122dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 124dB @ 1kHz, Balanced [High Gain] 125dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 127dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
  • Crosstalk: [Normal Gain] -138dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / -145dB @ 1kHz, Balanced [High Gain] -138dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / -147dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
  • THD+N: [Normal Gain] 0.0006% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 0.0005% @ 1kHz, Balanced [High Gain] 0.0008% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 0.0006% @ 1kHz, Balanced
  • IMD SMPTE: 0.0002%, 800Hz 10kHz (4:1), Unbalanced / 0.0002%, 800Hz 10kHz (4:1), Balanced Output Level: 3.5mm (1ohm) / 2.5mm (1.5ohm) / 4.4mm (1.5ohm)
SEM3 General Specifications
  • Model: PAP13
  • Body Material: Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Polycarbonate
  • Body Color: Moon Silver
  • Sample Rate: PCM : 8kHz ~ 768kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample) / DSD Native: DSD64(1bit 2.8MHz), Stereo / DSD128(1bit 5.6MHz), Stereo / DSD256(1bit 11.2MHz), Stereo / Native DSD512(1bit 22.4MHz), Stereo
  • Output: Unbalanced Out (3.5mm), Balanced Out (2.5mm, only 4-pole supported / 4.4mm, only 5-pole supported)
  • Output Level: [Normal Gain] Unbalanced 2Vrms / Balanced 4Vrms (Condition No Load) [High Gain] Unbalanced 3Vrms / Balanced 6Vrms (Condition No Load)
  • DAC: ESS ES9038Q2M x 4(QuadDAC)
  • Decoding: Support up to 32bit / 768kHz Bit-to-Bit playback
  • Dimensions: 3.03"(77mm)[W] x 2.99"(76mm)[H] x 0.78"(19.9mm)[D]
  • Weight: 2.82oz (87g)
  • Operating Temperature: 0°C ~ +40°C (32°F ~ 104°F)
  • Playback Time: about 13 hours (FLAC, 16bit, 44.1kHz, Vol.50, LCD Off)
  • Audio Specifications
  • Frequency Response: ±0.05dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Unbalanced / ±0.068dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Balanced / ±0.05dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Unbalanced / ±0.68dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Balanced
  • Signal to Noise Ratio: [Normal Gain] 121dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 123dB @ 1kHz, Balanced [High Gain] 124dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 126dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
  • Crosstalk: [Normal Gain] -138dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / -143dB @ 1kHz, Balanced [High Gain] -138dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / -145dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
  • THD+N: [Normal Gain] 0.0005% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 0.0005% @ 1kHz, Balanced [High Gain] 0.0007% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 0.0006% @ 1kHz, Balanced
  • IMD SMPTE: 0.0007%, 800Hz 10kHz (4:1), Unbalanced / 0.0008%, 800Hz 10kHz (4:1), Balanced Output Level: 3.5mm (1ohm) / 2.5mm (1.5ohm) / 4.4mm (1.5ohm)

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