Astell&Kern A&ultima SP-2000T review: 4 DACs and a tube amp equals glorious sound
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4 DACs, two for each channel, deliver hyper-detailed audio performances
Integrated tube amp offers a choice of warm, classic sound
Exquisite build quality
Frustratingly slow software
Will not stream Apple Music in Hi-Res Lossless
This one-of-a-kind portable digital audio player is for the music listener who will spare no expense in pursuit of sublime audio playback and can tolerate a slow operating system to achieve it.
Astell&Kern’s A&ultima SP2000T Hi-Res Digital Audio Player is packed with features that make it the dream device for discerning 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 wealth of configuration options, making it an endless source of entertainment for users who like to drill down and fine-tune the details of genres, albums, or even individual 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 your premium audio experience work for you.
The A&ultima SP-2000T is Astell&Kern’s first quad-DAC player, allowing two digital-to-analog converters for each channel (left and right). All four ESS ES9068AS DAC chips have integrated MQA hardware rendering and support MQA 8x rendering. The DACs support bit-for-bit playback up to 32-bit/384kHz.
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 warm and fuzzy sound option. A&K specifications promise a 30,000 hour vacuum tube life.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best portable hi-res digital audio players, where you’ll find reviews of competing offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to features to consider when buying.ng 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 advantage of the player’s DAC hardware.
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The device can run apps and download music to local storage from a wide selection of streaming services. Whether 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 built-in dual-band (2.4 and 5 GHz) Wi-Fi adapter.
The rectangular aluminum case measures 3.07 x 5.55 x 0.68 inches (W x H x D) and weighs just under 11 ounces. Its beautifully machined volume wheel evokes an era when all hi-fi audio equipment emphasized both form and function.
The tube is housed in the top of the unit, and there’s a glass window that enhances wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) and offers a color-coded light that reveals the bit depth of the track you’re playing from. A look. . You have a choice of headphone jacks with 2.5mm, 3.5mm, or 4.4mm outputs.
A 5-inch touch screen features a Full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. There is a USB-C port for charging. The SP-2000T promised approximately 9 hours of playback on one charge and a charging time of 3.5 hours with compatible fast charging.
Once you’ve made the investment, you’ll likely want to protect your device from nicks and scratches. Astell&Kern includes a tan handcrafted case from the Carlo Badalassi workshop in Italy. If you prefer a case in black or olive green, you can buy 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 cover for the microSD card slot.
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The SP2000T runs a forked version of Android, and the software will be frustratingly unresponsive to anyone who owns a recent, high-end iOS or Android device. And it seems likely that anyone who can afford this player also has the resources to invest in a new phone.
If you’re the kind of person who picks up an album or playlist and sits back to listen, it’s easier to ignore the delay. If you’re trying to flip through a playlist to see the new releases in a series of Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Music playlists, you might get frustrated comparing the experience to what you’d get on your phone.
Navigation is bad. There are no shortcuts to the home menu, so you may experience lag as you go up one level at a time if you want to switch between a streaming service and high-res files you’ve uploaded to the SP2000T.
This is a device where the music source makes a big difference. I heard 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 staggering.
For Coltrane, Apple Music streaming was limited to 16-bit even though the service offers 48kHz high-resolution lossless streaming. 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 high-resolution 48kHz lossless stream. Tidal re-streams the album at 32-bit resolution via 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 of the SP2000T is the convenience of having access to the service. The tracks sound good, but they are not offered in a resolution that takes advantage of the capabilities of the device.
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The Tidal MQA streams are much more impressive. Astell&Kern has fully embraced the much-maligned proprietary format, and the SP-2000T delivers streams that come remarkably close to the quality you’d expect from high-resolution files stored on the device itself.
Ultimately, it’s the files on the device that really take advantage of the SP2000T. While it’s a bonus to have access to subscription music services, the heart and soul of this experience remains a high-end player for your personal collection.
I spent most of my time listening with Focal Celestee and a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones. The Sony pair remains the most reliable reference can in my collection, and it sounds great with the SP-2000T. The fact is, anyone investing $2,500 in a digital audio player should plan on using it with a pair of headphones that can reproduce the details the player is designed to handle. The Celestee/SP-2000T pairing was definitely the superior listening experience.
Of the seven options available in the Hybrid AMP configuration, I finally selected what configuration 2 would be if you labeled the pure op-amp as configuration one and the pure tube as configuration 7. The vacuum tube delivers on its promises; you will hear a vintage warmth or a loss of detail. The 50/50 mix between the two amps (setting 4, so to speak) seems like the signature sound here. It will definitely delight some listeners, but I prefer the detailed sound of the Op-Amp option more.
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Your experience with the Astell&Kern SP2000T depends on your patience and attitude to go deeper into the settings to maximize the experience. Some people love to play around with the settings and spend as much time adjusting the sound as they do listening to the music. Those people will find a lot to love here.
And, once you’ve gotten used to listening, the SP2000T offers a fantastic audio experience. As I write this, I’ve been listening to a 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC version of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album. I wish you were Hereand even a die-hard Syd Barrett fan like myself can get carried away by the band’s performance.
That said, you’ll still have to deal with the software. It’s frustrating that such a beautiful, well-machined, and solid computer is running an operating system that in no way reproduces the premium feel of the physical drive.
There’s a contingent of cranky old audiophiles who might take that choppy, slow software experience as a badge of honour. 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 keystroke before taking the desired action.
It’s worth locating a dealer, so you can hear exactly how good the SP2000T sounds and experience the software before deciding if Astell&Kern has built a device that works for you. If you can stomach its software, the high-end components inside this player add up to a phenomenal music delivery system on the go. To that end, my final score reflects my opinion of its audio playback far more than its underlying operating system.
James has worked in music as a producer, A&R executive, music editor, manager, and record store clerk. He writes about music, technology and movies from his home in Georgia.