A True Flagship HiRes Music Player
What does peak performance look like? What does the best of the best get you when it comes to music and sound quality? Well, for a long time it was the SP2000 from Astell&Kern. Astell&Kern just released the SP3000 - the update to the SP2000 that came out about three years ago. A lot has changed in three years, and I have to say, this might be one of the slickest generational updates I've seen in a long, long time. A new DAC chip? A new UI/UX design? A new body material? I'll admit, I'm intrigued. My only question is, "is the SP2000 now outdated?" Technically from a spec standpoint it (the SP2000) still outperforms some new DAPs coming out today. But Astell&Kern has to keep innovating, right?
Are you looking for the latest and greatest portable music player on the market? Then this is the review for you.
- New HEXA DAC circuitry sounds amazing
- Flagship features
- Great AK Design and Style
- New UI/UX!!!!
- 256GB internal memory is low for a flagship in my opinion
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, much like Chord Electronics, 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. Astell & Kern's music players are natural partners with great DACs and amps such as Chord's Hugo 2 and Mojo and great headphones or in-ear-monitors (IEMs) such as Astell&Kern Layla AION IEMs, Audeze LCD-5, Fostex TH900 mk2, Sennheiser HD800S, and of course Astell&Kern's very own AK T5p 2nd Gen.
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).
MQS includes high-resolution digital music recording formats from 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/192kHz. Sound engineering tech-speak can be confusing. More is usually better. Higher amounts of information can mean better sound with crisper highs and fuller lows (bass). The trick is to process and play as much information as possible or as much information as your recordings started with, in the first place. 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
There's one thing you can't argue about, and that is Astell&Kern DAP music players are some of the best-looking portable audiophile gear on the market. Their sleek and cutting-edge designs help their music players stand out from the crowd, but the important thing is that they're not just all looks (but very capable feature-heavy DAPs). The Astell&Kern a&ultima SP3000 aesthetically looks similar enough to other AK DAPs, as they all have hard angles and sharp edges, though they vary from model to model. The new thing with the SP3000 is the patterned backplate, showing off some very nice geometric designs. The notches for the volume knob are part of the most varied angles of each device model, and I like that the SP3000 accentuates the volume knob, as the right side of the DAP is now convex to the knob, rather than being concave like on the SP2000. This makes for much easier control and movement for volume adjustment.
The craftsmanship and precision of the chassis are always stunning to me. This is actually the first year and model that Astell&Kern has used Stainless Steel 904L for the body. It looks a lot more refined and premium than premium materials, and as AK says, "using this material has expanded [the SP3000's] value from just a digital device to the realm of a luxury good." 904L stainless steel is harder and more difficult to process than general stainless steel, requiring much more time and effort. However, due to its excellent durability and corrosion resistance, it retains the premium finish indefinitely. It is commonly used on premium luxury watches and other jewelry.
The SP3000 also sports a larger screen, this time upgrading to a 5.46-inch screen (from a 5-inch). The screen is sharp and responsive, benefiting from the Snapdragon 6125, and controls are snappy and fluid. On the top of the music player, you'll find a 3.5mm unbalanced, 4.4mm balanced, and 2.5mm balanced headphone jack. On the left side are three buttons: track skip backward, play/pause, and track skip forward. At the bottom of the SP3000 is the USB-C charging port and microSD card slot, and the right side contains the volume knob which doubles as the power button when you click and hold. Due to the larger screen size, the front of the device looks great, and the bezels are slightly smaller, especially the bottom bezel where the touch home button used to be on the SP2000.
Overall I like the design better than the SP2000, so I consider it an upgrade due to the improved internals, larger and great-looking screen, and the premium chassis.
I think Astell&Kern has made some significant improvements in the sound department this year with the new flagship. This is the maiden voyage for the world's first AK4499EX DAC chips, AKM's latest flagship set, which arranges them in a quad-DAC format. On top of that, the new innovative HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure design puts two AK4191EQ chips for processing digital signals directly. Most digital players process digital and analog signals together inside the DAC. However, the SP3000’s advanced HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure reduces the noise of the digital signal input through the AK4191EQ, a separate digital delta-sigma modulator, and the AK4499EX DAC is then designed to process the analog signals separately.
This is a new approach to sound for DACs, and by using this design the digital and analog signal processing is physically separated resulting in some astounding signal-to-noise ratio measurements and dynamic sound. Astell&Kern's marketing-speak made this a bit confusing for me at first so let me break it down for you. The AK4191 chip handles the digital filtering and the initial delta-sigma conversion stage, while the new flagship 4499EX does the final digital-to-analog conversion. It's impressive that the new silicon design can apparently output PCM sample rates at 1,536kHz at up to 64-bit resolution. It can also convert up to 44.8 MHz sample rate DSD. Insane. Of course, that's not really helpful right now, as anything over 24-bit is hard to come by. I do however appreciate the future-proofing, as higher bit and sample rates become more popular and available. That being said, the SP3000 maxes out at 32-bit, 768kHz, and DSD512, which is pretty standard for flagship-level performance. Note that the DAC arrangement and design are implemented by AKM's chip architecture, Astell&Kern collaborated in its development and is one of the first in the high-end consumer market to use one of the new chips.
So just what does this new architecture do for the SP3000 sonically? Quite a bit. The SP2000's AK4499EQ chip was rich, full-bodied, and dynamic - fitting for not only the flagship DAC chip at the time for AKM but also one of the most premium DAP manufacturer's music players on the market. It was considered the best of the best. It's been over three years now, and much of the tech has greatly improved. The only DAP that even came close since then was the SP2000T, and that was mostly due to the overall flexibility in tone and sound that it offered. The SP3000 is a true upgrade from one flagship to the next. The 4499EX chip combined with the HEXA circuitry provides a richer, more dynamic listening experience that really shows off in the imaging, layering, and textures. Yeah, generic I know, but I'm coming into this review from the point of view of "if I have the SP2000, what would the new one offer me?" Let's get into it a little more.
Imaging. It's some of the best three-dimension sonic renderings I've heard on an audiophile device. It sounds more accurate than what I've heard previously. Typically with imaging for me, it's like, "oh yeah, I can hear the french horns around 11 o'clock." With the SP3000 it's more precise, in the sense that there are 4 horn players at 11:17 - positioned right behind the 3rd the 4th violins. The layering helps with the clarity and prominence of the entrances, cleanly hearing when they come in, trail off, etc. And the texturing helps the various orchestral instruments not get covered by roaming competing frequencies, along with making out individual performances, articulations, and breathing. With music involving large ensembles, the SP3000 flexes its sonic muscles well, and it only gets better with smaller groups and instrumentation. Entrances of different instruments are surprisingly natural and smooth, entering clearly into the mix without distraction. Combined with the Elite headphone's superb soundstage, the SP3000 provided one of the most enjoyable listening experiences I've had in a long time. Plenty of energy, tons of resolution, some of the best layering in a DAP, and more. The music player improves greatly on the SP2000 sound, keeping the great bottom-end weight and definition, but adding equally refined sound on the upper-mids and highs that create a sound that will better appeal to all audiophiles and music lovers alike.
The SP3000 redefines flagship sound for me. It's a spectacular-sounding piece of equipment.
by The Beatles
by Foo Fighters
(In Your Honor)
(The Merry Sisters of Fate)
WORLD'S FIRST USE OF STAINLESS STEEL 904L FOR DAP BODY MATERIAL - The SP3000 uses 904L stainless steel material that has never been attempted before in a portable audio player. Using this material has expanded its value from just a digital device to the realm of a luxury good. 904L stainless steel is harder and more difficult to process than general stainless steel requiring significantly more time and effort. However, due to its excellent durability and corrosion resistance, it has a characteristic that does not lose its beauty and is why it is used in expensive luxury watches where perfection in all materials and parts must be pursued with an irreplaceable and wonderful luster.
TERATON ALPHA - THE ESSENCE OF A&K AUDIO TECHNOLOGIES MERGED INTO THE SP3000 - In order to develop the ultimate audio player that has never been experienced before, not only does AK use the latest DAC and technology available, but also the innovative audio technology of TERATON ALPHA, AK's Ultimate Sound Solution, which has been refined for the SP3000. TERATON ALPHA, engineered through endless research, is Astell&Kern's unique technology that has been designed to produce audio playback that is close to the original sound through effective power noise removal, efficient power management and unwavering amplification, and a fully converted audio output interface. The HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure and independent dual audio circuit, implemented for the first time in the SP3000, are paired together with TERATON ALPHA's sound solution to create pure, original sound.
FIRST USE OF AKM'S LATEST FLAGSHIP DAC - COMPLETE SEPARATION OF DIGITAL AND ANALOG SIGNALS - Astell&Kern worked with AKM from the initial development stage to develop the DAC and circuit structure. As a result of the collaboration, the world's first four AK4499EX DACs, AKM's latest flagship, were applied to the SP3000, and the innovative HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure design in which two AK4191EQs that process digital signals are applied separately, completing the sound. Most digital players process digital and analog signals together inside the DAC. However, the SP3000’s advanced HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure reduces the noise of the digital signal input through the AK4191EQ, a separate digital delta-sigma modulator, and the AK4499EX DAC is then designed to process the analog signals separately. By applying this unique design, digital and analog signal processing that is physically separated has been achieved for the first time in a digital audio player, and the overwhelming SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio) is maximized..
SILVER PLATED SHIELD CAN - A shield can is applied to prevent various noise and electromagnetic interference from affecting the audio block. The SP3000 takes it a step further to achieve excellent audio performance and perfect shielding by applying highly conductive, high-purity silver on the existing shield can, and physically separating digital and analog signals.
INDEPENDENT DUAL AUDIO CIRCUIT - In order to create a truly innovative DAP, not just a great DAP, Astell&Kern tried to overcome the limitations of sound by envisioning an independent dual audio circuit that has never been attempted by anyone with a HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure with unbalanced and balanced outputs. Almost all other DAPs, including Astell&Kern, use an internal DAC for both unbalanced and balanced outputs. Since the signal from the DAC is divided into unbalanced and balanced then delivered to the AMP, an Audio Switch is essential. However, when using a switch, there is a limit to the range that can receive the signal sent by the DAC, so most DAPs reduce the signal size first and then when the signal is transmitted back to the amplifier, it is necessary to restore the original signal size. This causes a limitation in improving the audio performance. To overcome the limitations, our engineers designed a HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure using two AK4191EQs and four AK4499EXs, creating an innovative unbalanced and balanced independent dual audio circuit design. In result, the SP3000 achieves a SNR of 130dB, the best of any DAP available.
LATEST SNAPDRAGON OCTA-CORE CPU - The A&ultima SP3000 is equipped with a Snapdragon 6125 Octa-core processor, so you can enjoy the overwhelming sound, faster system response and a redesigned new generation user interface that moves comfortably and smoothly. Featuring a high-performance CPU and improved 8GB of DDR4 memory, which is twice the amount commonly used, the more powerful system is stable with fast and fluid movement. The CPU, memory and wireless communication parts are configured as one module, with the digital circuit parts arranged in the same area creating a single system on a chip (SoC). This maximizes the efficiency of the overall circuit configuration by providing more audio-only circuit space as well as reducing heat and noise from digital circuits.
NEW GRAPHIC USER INTERFACE - With the newly developed UX/UI, the SP3000 is focused on the process and experience of listening to music, and we wanted to become a ‘player for music’ that one can feel this process. The new theme is designed with a focus on the experience of rediscovering songs that you have forgotten; you can quickly browse through music categories with simple gestures. A convenient search feature along with album art has been added so that you can enjoy a digital display of CD album covers of your music collection. It is designed to give you not only the pleasure of listening to music, but also to create fun when operating the device. In addition, the Crimson theme, one of the main features of the new generation UI, is designed so that you can feel the appearance of the SP3000 on the screen. The graphics are simple and unintrusive, focusing on usability and intuitiveness. Three key concepts, Edge, Simple, and Dark Mode, were used to improve usability and increase clarity with a style unique to AK. The black and red theme colors are chosen to reduce eye fatigue, maximize battery usage and reduce heat generation.
DAC FILTERS - With the SP3000, you can have fun creating your own sound style by selecting various DAC filters provided by the DAC manufacturer. Design your own sound with 6 different DAC filters.
QC 3.0 FAST CHARGING - The SP3000 supports Qualcomm QC 3.0 fast charging, so you can charge your DAP faster and more efficiently than previous models, reaching a full charge in about 3.5 hours.
DIGITAL AUDIO REMASTER TECHNOLOGY - The SP3000 is equipped with Digital Audio Remaster (DAR) technology, which was developed to deliver fine sound at higher sample rates. DAR technology is developed to upsample the sample rate of the sound source being played to go beyond the limits of the source format. The high sample rate allows more refined play and offers delicate and analog-like original sound, helping you to enjoy the richness of the original sound, subtle differences in the nuance of the music and rich sounds at a higher level.
CROSSFEED - In a headphone environment in which the left and right channels are clearly separated, ear fatigue may increase during prolonged listening. The moment you turn on Crossfeed, the experience of crisp, but comfortable sound begins. Crossfeed mixes parts of the original signal from one channel and sends that signal to the opposite channel with a time difference to center the sound image. Through the use of detailed settings such as Shelf Cutoff, Shelf Gain, and Mixer Level, you can set the level of crossfeed according to your listening preferences.
AK FILE DROP - The new AK File Drop function in the SP3000 makes file 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 cableless, wireless solution. See our tutorial video below on everything you need to start using AK File Drop with your DAP.
BT SINK - BT Sink function connects the SP3000 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 SP3000 using the BT Sink function. See our tutorial video below to setup and start using BT Sink.
REPLAYGAIN - ReplayGain, which adjusts sound sources with different volumes to an identical level, has been applied. Now, enjoy your own playlists seamlessly through the ReplayGain feature on the SP3000. *ReplayGain supports up to 24-bit/192kHz sound sources.
The SP3000 is a pack leader, but how do other pack leaders new and old stack up to it? Let’s take a look at the obvious – the SP2000 which the 3000 replaces. The SP2000 is still a very capable flagship-level player in its own right, equipped with one of the best DAC chips out there, the AK4499EQ and it provides some of the best, full-bodied and resolute sound in a portable player. It still beats out many newer music players from other manufacturers using sub-par DAC chips. The SP2000 actually has double the internal storage of the SP3000, with a total of 512 GB of space. I feel like giving the newest flagship player less memory is a step-down, but with the added features and the new DAC chip design maybe there was a space issue on the PCB or less space overall internally and some sacrifices had to be made. I certainly don’t know, but there are certainly other specs of the SP2000 that prevent it from becoming obsolete. Equipped with an 8-core CPU, the SP2000 is capable of playing back extremely high-resolution audio files up to 32bit/768kHz and native DSD22.4MHz support, keeping it on par with the latest SP3000. Build quality is going to be similar as well since the chasses are milled and styled through the same design process. Side by side, other than the updated UI/UX of the SP3000, it would be difficult to tell which one is the new or older model. I don’t think the release of the SP3000 makes the SP2000 obsolete, but it is an inferior product in comparison. The SP3000 does have a slight power boost over the 2000, with 3.3Vrms (unbalanced) and 6.3 Vrms (balanced) output (compared to 3 and 6 Vrms respectively on the SP2000). This doesn’t put the power output even remotely close to more powerhouse DAPS like the Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000 or the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha and KANN Max, but you’ll have plenty of power for most full-size headphones and earphones.
When it comes to other DAP manufacturers, iBasso represents an excellent pairing of quality features and performance at an amazing price point. Their flagship, the DX320 is a phenomenal-sounding audiophile-grade music player, and worthy of consideration for any “best of” DAP list. The thing that sets iBasso apart from the competition is their swappable amp cards. iBasso allows the user to change amp output, I/O, and effectively the battery life depending on what they want in their music player. The ability to customize and personalize your DAP is such an appealing idea that even Astell&Kern tried it out with the SE180 music player, developing multiple SEM DAC cards for the player to allow the listener to adjust the DAC chip and sound according to their preference. I dare say iBasso does it best, and since the Astell&Kern a&futura SE180 and corresponding SEM cards have been discontinued, if you like having the ability to change the sound of your device then the DX320 should be a no-brainer. In many ways, it’s a lot more convenient to have a little module packed with you than to bring two separate devices. The other thing the DX320 has over the SP3000 is the screen. iBasso has some of the best-looking screens on the DAP market, with vibrant colors, responsive displays, and near-bezel-less designs, they are certainly pretty to look at. However, if your number one priority is sound quality, then the SP3000 is going to blow the DX320 out of the water. The iBasso flagship still sounds great, but the new audio circuitry of the SP3000 puts it in another plane of existence entirely.
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.
Silver Dragon Sound Signature: The Silver Dragon is the original cable. Silver strands clarify instrument separation, increase the soundstage, and find previously lost high and mid-frequency sounds. Transients appear more cohesive and the bass tighter for a more controlled sound. The detail and clarity of the Silver Dragon make it a perfect match for classical music and other genres with many nuanced instruments.
Black Dragon Sound Signature: The Black Dragon is warm and smooth with a musical presentation. Copper strands enhance the body, shape, and immediacy of the music. The detail and expansiveness of the Black Dragon make it a flexible fit where a broad range of musical genres are played. It can also improve bass frequencies on bass-light headphones. The smooth, musical quality makes it a perfect fit for headphones that tend to sound a bit edgy or bright. Despite its warmth, the Black Dragon does not have a laid-back, lush sound. It is much closer to neutral, making it a very natural-sounding cable. For more information on finding your signature sound, visit our Sound Signature Guide.
I consider the SP3000 a great update and upgrade for any existing all-in-one DAP owner that wants the best of the best. Yep - even you SP2000 owners. The new HEXA DAC circuitry makes enough sonic enhancements to make it noteworthy. More efficiency, better layering, imaging, dynamic performance - it checks off all the boxes for what a flagship music player should sound like in the year 2022.
I'm glad Astell&Kern finally listened to me (I joke) and updated the UI/UX! It was getting dated and in need of an overhaul, and the new design is just the facelift I was hoping for: enough to keep it familiar but refreshed to look modern. Navigation is improved, the screen is on par with some of iBasso's best screen offerings, and it just feels like a modern music playing device again.
The SP3000 retains all of the amazing flagship-level features that we love and adds crossfeed, the latest fast charging, and more. The new stainless steel 904L body is stunning, and everything about the SP3000 exudes premium craftsmanship and sound quality that few can compete with. The only question left to answer is: "is it worth the hefty price?" Look, if you want the best of the best then here it is. If money can't buy you happiness it can at least buy you the best portable sound quality on the market. Astell&Kern has yet again raised the bar on what "flagship" means (and provides).
What's in the Box
- Astell&Kern SP3000 DAP
- USB-A to USB-C cable
- Screen protectors
- Premium Goat Leather Case
Astell&Kern SP3000 DAP Review Video
Astell&Kern AK File Drop Tutorial & Review
Astell&Kern BT Sink Tutorial & Review
|Body||Color Black, Silver Body|
|Material||Stainless Steel 904L|
|Display||5.46inch HD 1080 x 1920 touch screen|
|Supported Audio Formats||WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA|
|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 Level||Unbalanced 3.3Vrms │ Balanced 6.3Vrms (Condition No Load)|
|DAC||AKM4191EQ x2 + AKM4499EX x4 (Dual DAC x2)|
|Decoding||Support up to 32bit/768kHz Bit-to-Bit 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™ Adaptive, LDAC)|
|Dimensions||3.24” (82.4mm)[W] x 5.48” (139.4mm)[H] x 0.72” (18.3mm)[D]|
|Weight||About 17.39oz (493g)|
|Feature Enhancements||Firmware upgrade supported (OTA)|
|Operating Temperature||0℃ ~ + 40℃ (32℉~ 104℉)|
|Frequency Response||±0.006dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Unbalanced │ ±0.019dB (Condition : 20Hz~20kHz) Balanced ±0.014dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Unbalanced │ ±0.026dB (Condition : 20Hz~70kHz) Balanced|
|S/N||125dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 130dB @ 1kHz, Balanced|
|Crosstalk||-125dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ -131dB @ 1kHz, Balanced|
|THD+N||0.0005% @ 1kHz, Unbalanced │ 0.0004% @ 1kHz, Balanced|
|IMD SMPTE||0.0005% 800Hz 10kHz (4:1) Unbalanced │Balanced|
|Output Impedance||Unbalanced Out 3.5mm (0.8ohm) │ Balanced Out 2.5mm (2.0ohm), 4.4mm (1.8ohm)|
|Clock Jitter||25pS (Typ)|
|Reference Clock Jitter||200 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 (QC3.0 Charging)|
|Playback Time||about 10 hours (Standard: FLAC, 16bit, 44.1kHz, Vol.80, LCD Off, Low Gain)|
|Supported OS||Windows 8,10,11 (32/64bit) MAC OS X 10.7|