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Astell&Kern’s A&ultima SP2000T high-res digital audio player comes loaded with features that make it a dream device for demanding listeners. Its audio reproduction is truly exceptional, and its build quality is spectacular, but there are a few caveats to consider before committing to this $2,400 device.
The SP2000T has a myriad of settings options, which makes it an endless source of entertainment for users who like to dig down and adjust the details on individual genres, albums, or even songs. If you’re looking for a simple plug-and-play experience, on the other hand, the SP2000T probably isn’t for you, because paying attention to those settings is an essential part of making its premium audio experience work for you.
Decoding the music
The A&ultima SP-2000T is Astell&Kern’s first quad-DAC player, which allows two digital-to-analog converters for each channel (right and left). The four ESS ES9068AS DAC chips have MQA hardware rendering built in and support MQA 8x rendering. The DACs support up to 32-bit/384kHz bit-to-bit playback.
The other big news from inside the player is the addition of a dual-triode Korg Nutube vacuum tube, which allows the player to offer a throwback warm and fuzzy sound option. A&K’s specs promise a 30,000-hour lifetime for the vacuum tube.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best high-res portable digital audio players, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
The SP2000T can decode DFF, DSF, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, MQA, WAV, FLAC, MP3, WMA, OGG, APE, and CD files. The player supports Bluetooth 5.0 and the LDAC and aptX HD codecs for 24-bit audio streaming. You can also make a Bluetooth connection to stream to an external speaker or stream music from a phone or tablet to take advance of the player’s DAC hardware.
The device can run apps for and download music for local storage from a wide selection of streaming services. If you use Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, Tidal, SoundCloud, Qobuz, SiriusXM, Tune-In, myTuner, Bandcamp or Deezer, Astell&Kern has you covered. The device has a dual-band (2.4- and 5GHz) Wi-Fi adapter onboard.
The rectangular aluminum case measures 3.07 x 5.55 x 0.68 inches (WxHxD) and weighs just under 11 ounces. Its beautifully machined volume wheel evokes an era when all hi-fi audio equipment emphasized form as much as function.
The tube is housed at the top of the unit, and there’s a glass window that both improves wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) and offers a color-coded light that reveals the bit depth of the track you’re playing at a glance. You’ve got a choice of headphone jacks with 2.5mm, 3.5mm or 4.4mm outputs.
A 5-inch touchscreen features a full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. There’s a USB-C port for charging. The SP-2000T promised roughly 9 hours of playback on a charge and a 3.5-hour charging time with fast charging supported.
Once you’ve made the investment, you’ll likely want to protect the device from nicks and scratches. Astell&Kern includes a tan-colored handcrafted case from the Badalassi Carlo workshop in Italy. If you’d prefer a case in black or olive, you can purchase it for $120.
The SP2000T comes in a wooden box and includes a USB 3.0 to USB-C charging cable, the leather case, quick-start instructions, and a microSD card slot cover.
The SP2000T runs a forked version of Android, and the software will be frustratingly unresponsive for anyone who owns a recent, higher-end iOS or Android device. And it seems likely that anyone who can afford this player would also have the resources to invest in a new-ish phone.
If you’re the kind of person who picks an album or playlist and settles in to listen, it’s easier to ignore the lag. If you’re trying to flip through a playlist to check out the new releases on a series of Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Music playlists, you might get frustrated if you compare the experience with the one you’d get on your phone.
Navigation is poor. There are no shortcuts to the home menu–at least not that I could fine, A&K insists one is there. My experience involved delays as I went up one level at a time looking to switch between a streaming service and high-res files I’d loaded to the SP2000T.
This is one device where the music source makes a huge difference. I listened to the title track from John Coltrane’s 1958 album “Blue Train” and “Ramble On” from Led Zeppelin’s 1969 album “II” from three different sources and the differences were startling.
For Coltrane, the Apple Music stream was limited to 16-bit even though the service offers a 48kHz Hi-Res Lossless stream. As it turns out, I was wrong on that score and just hadn’t correctly configured my Apple Music subscription. Tidal streams the album at 32-bit resolution via the MQA compression format and Astell&Kern included a DSD file for the LP loaded on the SPT2000T.
For Led Zeppelin, the Apple Music stream was again limited to 16-bit even though Apple offers the same 48kHz Hi-Res Lossless stream. Tidal again streams the album at 32-bit resolution via the MQA compression format and Astell&Kern included 24-bit/96kHz FLAC files for the LP loaded on the SPT2000T.
If you’re an Apple Music or Spotify user, the only real benefit to the SP2000T is the convenience of having access to the service. The tracks sound good on Spotify, but they aren’t offered in a resolution that takes advantage of the device’s capabilities.
The Tidal MQA streams are far more impressive. Astell&Kern has fully embraced the much-maligned proprietary format, and the SP-2000T delivers streams that are remarkably close to the quality you’d expect from high-res files stored on the device itself.
Ultimately, it’s the on-device files that truly take advantage of the SP2000T’s strengths. While it’s a bonus to have access to subscription music services, the heart and soul of this experience is still as a high-end player for your personal collection.
I spent the most time listening with Focal Celestee and a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones. The Sony pair remains the most dependable reference cans in my collection, and they sound great with the SP-2000T. The fact remains that anyone who’s investing $2,500 in a digital audio player should plan to use it with a pair of headphones that can reproduce the details the player is designed to deliver. The Celestee/SP-2000T pairing was definitely the superior listening experience.
Of the seven options available in the Hybrid AMP settings, I eventually selected what would be setting 2 if you label the pure Op-Amp as setting one and pure Tube as setting 7. The vacuum tube delivers on its promises; you’ll either hear a vintage warmth or a loss of detail. The 50/50 mix between the two amps (setting 4, if you will) seems the signature sound here. It’ll definitely enchant some listeners, but I prefer more of the detailed sound of the Op-Amp option.
Your experience with the Astell&Kern SP2000T is dependent on your patience and attitude towards digging into settings to maximize the experience. Some people love to fiddle with the settings and spend as much time tweaking the sound as they do listening to the music. Those people will find a lot to love here.
And, once you’re settled into listening, the SP2000T delivers a fantastic audio experience. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been listening to a 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC version of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here, and even a stubborn Syd Barrett fan like me can get carried away by the band’s performance.
That said, you’ll still need to deal with the software. I found it frustrating that such a beautiful, well-machined and solid piece of gear is powered by an operating system that in no way replicates the premium feel of the physical unit. That’s my opinion, of course, you might feel differently.
There’s a contingent of crusty old audiophiles who might take that jerky and laggy software experience as a badge of honor. If you think the current generation of iPhones or Google Pixel phones are too slick, here’s a device that lets you meditate on each press before it performs your desired action.
It’s worth tracking down a dealer, so you can hear exactly how great the SP2000T sounds and experience the software before you decide if Astell&Kern has built a device that works for you. If you can tolerate its software, the high-end components inside this player add up to a phenomenal on-the-go music-delivery system. To that end, my bottom-line score reflects my opinion of its audio reproduction much more than its underlying operating system.
Correction: This article was updated to report that the A&ultima can play high-res tracks on Apple Music; the author didn’t have the app configured correctly during his review. Also, Astell&Kern says its version of the operating system does in fact have a button to take the user to the home screen, but the author couldn’t find it.