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Astell&Kern SE200 DAP Music Player Review

SE200 DAP with Focal Stellia Headphones

The More DACs The Merrier

By Ricky Kovacs


Astell&Kern’s A&futura product line has always been the best of both worlds: top-tiered performance at a price that doesn’t break the bank. The SE100 was a popular option for those that didn’t want to fork out the extra money for a flagship product, but was still rewarded with some of the best sounding DAC chips on the market.

Digital Audio Player (DAP) owners are a special breed of Audiophile. They desire the ability to take their high-fidelity library with them - a convenience afforded by it’s small size and powerful internals. However, most of the time (if not always), convenience comes at a price. Is a $1,799 DAP going to sound as good as a $25,000 home system? Of course not; but then again, you’re spending roughly twelve times the price so it better not.

DAP users have always compromised something for portability compared to their home counterparts. But what if you didn’t have to? What if you could have multiple options for sonic fidelity all while on-the-go? What if you could tailor your sound with various DACs rather than being tied to one when you’re traveling?

What if you didn’t have to compromise your high resolution music sound quality while listening on the go?



Materials & Quality

If you’ve never picked up an Astell&Kern DAP, then you’ll probably be surprised at first how heavy it is. Milled from a block of aluminum, the body itself is striking and weighty. Astell is not shy to commit to the hard angles and sharp aesthetics of the device. It really is a piece of art. The back of the device implements a ceramic cover now, instead of glass on previous models. Astell&Kern suggests that it also improves wireless network performance. I never really had an issue with this on previous models, and have no way of verifying this claim, but at least it looks and feels great. It is also more durable than the glass backing, making it more resistant to cracking and increasing the overall durability of the device.

They’ve done some interesting designs with past music players, such as the SR15 that has an angled screen against the hard outline of the rectangular housing. It’s something that makes Astell&Kern stand out among the competition. Their consideration of the device design isn't solely placed on the internal circuitry of the DAP.

One of the design features that Astell&Kern is known for is their enlarged side volume knob. All their DAP designs feature a volume knob that is each styled a little differently for each product model, but is located on the right side of the device. Sorry left-handers. The knob has a very satisfying scroll and click mechanism that makes adjusting the volume of your music an organic experience. You know with all our music playing devices we have the volume range memorized - in my car I’m setting it to 18, on my phone 60%, home stereo at 14. The Astell&Kern players are the only device where I adjust by song, depending on what music I’m listening to and what headphones I’m using. It changes all the time, and the mechanism for adjusting the volume on your Astell&Kern music player is perfect.

The display on the SE200 is a nice and crisp 720 x 1,280 5-inch touchscreen. Like all their devices, it's very responsive and tracks accurately. Their menu system is consistent with the rest of their product lineup.

SE200 Machining IMages

"After the first A&futura model, the SE100, we were once again thinking about the nature of the word premium and asked ourselves, "What is the value of premium in Hi-Fi and how can we express it in a product?" We decided, "Let's make one device that nobody can duplicate."

 

-Astell&Kern



Features

SE200 Feature Icons

The A&futura SE200 is the world’s first multi-DAC player. Since the release of the dual DAC AK120 player in 2013, we have not seen any products feature more than dual DACs in the last seven years. That being said, Astell&Kern set out to make something no one else has. The SE200 features the latest audiophile-grade DACs from ESS, the Sabre ES9068AS in a dual DAC configuration. Dual DAC designs are common in many of the top flagship-level music players, offering enhanced fidelity, lower noise floors, and much more. But Astell&Kern didn't stop there. They also added a single AK4499EQ, AKM's flagship DAC that is used in Astell's own flagship model, the SP2000. Why you ask?

Because everyone hears differently.

Astell&Kern wanted to give users the freedom and choice to tailor their music the way they want to listen to it. All three DACs sound great, but their sound also varies. We'll get into that more in the next section. With more components, so too the development time for such a product increases. Astell&Kern has spent a lot of time properly tuning the player so that each DAC brings the absolute best sound to your music. The entire device is what they call "a completely new music experience." And from my time with it, it certainly is (more in the "Sound Quality" section).


The SE200 was designed with multiple, separate AMP circuits designed to optimize the different characteristics of the AKM and ESS DACs that are used in the player. Each of the signals for the balanced and unbalanced outputs are separate, and have independent circuits that do not interfere with each other. This provides for the purest sound for each of the DACs to flex their muscles independently of each other.

Q: Are two DACs better than one?

A: Not necessarily. But three are.  

Some will argue that dual DACs offer greater fidelity, lower noise floors, etc and that these differences are measurable. In some cases they are, but all in all, it's not going to matter one iota if they are poorly implemented. Completely separate signals and independent AMP sections are absolutely the best thing to do, as Astell&Kern has done with the SE200.

SE200 DAC Circuit Design

The SE200 features a volume wheel LED that displays a variety of music playback information including volume range, bit-rate of track currently playing and the current DAC that is being used for playback of music.



Sound Quality

It would be great with just the dual ESS DACs, but they had to raise the bar and add their flagship DAC too. Everyone hears differently. Remember that? It's true. To make matters more complicated differing music genres sound better on different DACs, and different headphones, and different cables. However, Astell&Kern has given you more control over the sound of your music than any DAP has before.

For testing, I paired the SE200 with the Focal Stellia Headphones and a Black Dragon Cable.

SE200 Top - Balanced and Unbalanced jacks for DACs

Depending on what type of music you like to listen to, or even how you like to listen to it, each DAC is going to bring something different to the table. I started with the dual ESS DACs on my first listen through. The ESS chips definitely lend clarity to the music. When listening to some Rachmaninov, the ESS chips bring out the subtleties and expressions in the piano; almost feeling the emotion put into the weight of the keys and the pressure applied by the pianist. I was actually quite surprised at how much I enjoyed a more analytical listening of classical music from the SE200. I tend to really enjoy feeling the musicality of larger and more powerful orchestra pieces; feeling the rumble of the timpani, the roar of the low brass and triumphant french horn sections. I'm a sucker for (Gustav) Holst and Hans (Zimmer). The SE200 can certainly deliver on that end with the AKM DAC. Fuller and more expressive, the AKM lets those brass sections shake your core. A more musical interpretation, the AKM DAC provides something completely different than the ESS, and it's all in one device.

Wanting to see how the sound changes with genre, I shifted gears to some Beatles. They're my go to for testing gear. I know their music like the back of my hand. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I've been enjoying the deluxe re-releases of Abbey Road and the White Album. A lot of the material is just remastered from Anthology set, so I've heard it before, but regardless I never pass up a "new" release, no matter how old it actually is.

To be expected, the Beatles sound absolutely great on this device. The high-resolution files coming out of the ESS DAC really tightens up Ringo's kick and Paul's bass. The vocals are what stood out to me however. George's voice on take 9 of Here Comes the Sun sounds clear and natural; he takes more liberties with the melody line and you can almost see him lean in and back off the microphone during his performance. The sound of the plastic pick on the rhythm acoustic in the intro is emphasized through the ESS, making it sound more light and airy than usual. When switching playback to the AKM DAC the performance also shines in a completely different way. The new 2019 mix has a stereo spread on the backing vocals and harmonies, whereas the original stereo release had them panned to the right. This really fills out the new mix and brings it up to modern mixing practices. It's like a completely different performance than what I'm used to hearing. The SE200 provides me the details for what I want to hear and how I want to hear it. It's a completely revolutionary take on the DAP.


Another new function the SE200 brings to the world of DAC and multi-DACs are filters. As you can see above, each filter is specific to the AKM and ESS DACs, and can be configured to your preferred sound profile. A little experimenting and I found a subtle, yet effective adjustment on the music. It's not going to be as expressive as your main EQ settings, but it adds nuance to the sound profile to give your music that extra finesse.

Dragon Cables


When testing out the SE200, I used a Focal Stellia with a Black Dragon headphone cable. The Black Dragon also has its own sound signature that can adjust the overall sound of your music. Depending on the genre of music you listen to, one of our Dragon Cables can dramatically improve the quality of your headphones or audio gear. You can check out the sound signatures of each of our Dragon Cables to see which one is right for you.

In light of this review for the SE200, the Black Dragon makes the Stellia more musical, making your music more expressive. Being a closed-back headphone, their soundstage is going to be smaller compared to that of the Focal Utopia, but the Black Dragon cable opens up the "in-your-head" sound and gives you more the "front row at your favorite band's concert" sound.

Despite the SE200's triple-DAC system, I found that Dragon Cables can be a great addition to your portable setup, allowing you even more sonic combinations to get lost in. With a SE200 and a Dragon Cable, you have the ultimate portable audiophile setup that will be hard to beat.

Comparisons

To keep it in the family line of A&futura, we’ll be comparing the SE200 to the previous generation: the SE100. The SE100 was the first A&futura product, bringing a new level of value and performance to the Astell&Kern line of premium DAPs. What sets the SE music players apart from the rest of the product line is the number of high-end features for the price. Most manufacturers charge flagship pricing for flagship-level performance, but Astell&Kern hits the sweet spot, finding a balance between premium performance without breaking the bank.

Like the SE200, the SE100 includes a 5-inch touchscreen, an 8-Core CPU, supports up to 32bit 384kHz Bit to Bit Decoding and Native DSD256. Both devices also support Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C, and fast charging. However, the SE200 improves on a number of those features with the latest version hardware support for Bluetooth 4.2 (versus 4.1) and doubles the internal storage from 128GB to 256GB. Apart from that, the SE200 is hardly a minimal upgrade.

The largest difference is the DAC, or should I say DACs. The SE100 comes equipped with the 8 channel ESS SABRE ES9038PRO DAC chip. The SABRE PRO line of ESS DAC chips are flagship, so expect to get flagship-quality sound. What does that mean? Let's look at the placement of the ESS lineup for comparison:

ESSSABRE PRO Series DACs

  • ES9038PRO - Flagship SABRE 32-bit 8-Channel Audio DAC with 140dB DNR
  • ES9028PRO - 32-bit 8-Channel Audio DAC with DNR up to 133dB
  • ES9026PRO - 32-bit 8-Channel Audio DAC with DNR up to 128dB

ESS SABRE 8-Channel DACs

  • ES9018 - SABRE Reference 32-bit 8-Channel Audio DAC
  • ES9016 - SABRE Ultra 32-bit 8-Channel Audio DAC
  • ES9008 - SABRE Reference Audio DAC
  • SABRE9006A - SABRE Premiere 8-Channel Audio DAC

ESS SABRE 2-Channel DACs

  • ES9068AS - 32-bit Stereo Low-Power CODEC with MQA Rendering
  • ES9038Q2M - 32-bit Stereo Mobile Audio DAC with 129dB DNR
  • ES9028C2M & Q2M - 32-bit Stereo Mobile Audio DAC
  • ES9018C2M & Q2M - 32-bit Stereo Mobile Audio DAC
  • ES9016C2M & Q2M - Ultra 32-bit Stereo Mobile Audio DAC
  • ES9010K2M - Premiere 32-bit Stereo Mobile Audio DAC

 

Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 Digital Audio Player

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The SE100 is not something just to brush aside. With the SABRE flagship DAC chip, you're going to find one of the industry's highest dynamic range ratings, lending incredible depth and expression to your music. Keep in mind that just because the newer SE200 DAP utilizes a non-PRO chip, doesn't mean that it's low in the totem pole regarding offerings. Aside from the chip itself, another part of the equation is how it is implemented. You can have a great DAC chip, but if it's not integrated into the circuitry in such a way to provide a low noise floor, etc., then it’s a missed opportunity. The SE200 implements two of the ES stereo DACs (SE9068AS), which provide an incredible amount of headroom and detail to your music.

Sonically, I'd place the SABRE PRO DAC of the SE100 somewhere between the ES9068AS and the AK4499EQ chips. The 4499EQ chip is the AKM flagship on the other side (think Intel vs. AMD or PC vs. Apple, but not as hostile), provides a depth and weight to the performances as described earlier. The SE100 SABRE chip adds the weight while maintaining the details that the stereo chips present so well in the SE200. The best way I can describe it is that you’re not missing out on a lot with one SABRE flagship chip in comparison to the DAC options provided in the SE200. It sounds great and performs well.

However, that’s where the true value of the SE200 shines: options. The DAC’s will provide you with different “interpretations” and add in the filters and you have the ability to make any genre shine. It’s the Swiss Army knife of music players. We all like having options, right? For that reason alone I would recommend the SE200 over the SE100 any day of the week.

The only downside to the SE100 is that the newer model is priced similarly, giving you the only reason you need to go with the SE200 if you're looking for a new DAP in this price point.

The Verdict

The Astell&Kern SE200 DAP does something that no one has done before: it gives you the power to listen to music the way you want to hear it. The triple-DAC design is truly revolutionary, and affords you a plethora of sonic opportunities when combined with their DAC filters. Both the ESS and AKM DACs are top-notch, and you'll be hard-pressed to find something of this quality for cheaper than flagship pricing anywhere else.

That's the amazing thing about the A&futura line from Astell&Kern - they offer flagship performance at non-flagship pricing. And they keep getting better and better.

If you are in the market for a new DAP but don't want to break the bank, I would highly recommend the SE200. Packed with a ton of features and the quality that Astell&Kern is known for, the SE200 music player is a premium product. With excellent battery life and plenty of power behind the hood, it's the best value for the money on the market right now.

If you have any questions about the SE200 please feel free to Contact Us. More info about the Astell&Kern SE200 Music Player can be found below.

SE200 DAP with Focal Stellia Headphones

Specifications

Technical Features

Color: Moon Silver
Material: Aluminum

Dimensions: 3.02" x 5.2" x 0.62"
Weight: 9.66 oz
Screen: 5" Touchscreen
Resolution: HD 720x1280
CPU: Octa-Core
DAC:
AKM AK4499EQ
ESS ES9068AS (x2)

Input: USB Type-C

Outputs
3.5mm Unbalance (x2)
2.5mm Bal. 4-pole (x2)

Battery Life (AKM/ESS)
10/14hr Playback
2.5hr chg (9V/1.67A)

Storage
256GB Internal
microSD ≤1TB

Performance

Format: Supports WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA
OS: Windows 7, 8, 10 (32/64bit)
MAC OS X 10.7+
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth v4.2

Decoding
≤32bit / 384kHz
Native DSD256

Frequency Response (AKM/ESS)
Condition: 20Hz-20kHz
±0.015dB/±0.023dB Unbalance
±0.01dB/±0.015dB Balance
Condition: 20Hz-70kHz
±0.05dB/±0.065dB Unbalance
±0.03dB/±0.10dB Balance
Output Level (AKM/ESS)
3.0/2.0 Vrms Unbalance
6.0/4.0 Vrms Balance

Impedance (AKM/ESS)
0.7 / 1 Ohm (3.5mm)
1.3 / 1.6 Ohm (2.5mm)



What's In The Box

Unboxing an Astell&Kern music player is always an amazing experience. The care and quality they put into their packaging assures you that you've purchased a premium product.

Opening up the box, you’ll find the SE200 DAP right at the top. Like all of their screen stickers say, “Astell&Kern ULTIMATE HIGH FIDELITY SOUND SYSTEM;” and they make you believe it. Next you’ll find the included USB-C charging cable. The regular paperwork (warranty, instructions, etc) are also there, along with some screen protectors for the device. Everything is included for you to start using your device right out of the box.


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