In all honesty, it has been quite a while since I have had the pleasure of reviewing a product from Astell and Kern. With the pandemic banging up supply chains and wreaking havoc on everything from design to shipping, getting my hands on a high end portable player has been one of those categories that has been sadly overlooked. Well, a lot of things have changed in the 8 years that have elapsed since the days of the original AK100. Today’s focus will be squarely aimed at the newest flagship from the Korean company, the Astell and Kern A&ultima SP3000 ($3,699, available October 2022).
Like many things in life, experience matters. Creative thinking will get you far, but there is little substitute for first hand knowledge. Luckly, AK has proven to have piles of both at their disposal. In the vast array of products they have put together over the past decade, each portable digital audio player was a progression forward from the last, even across price point categories – now broken out clearly into A&norma, A&futura and A&ultima lines. The new flagship Ultima SP3000 is the peak of the peak, and really brings the fire when it comes to the feature set, tech, and overall build.
It is important to point out, before we get into all the beeps and boops, that the unit itself is very heavy to hold, especially when lined up next to a comparable iPhone. Giving the intent and build of the product, this is undoubtedly a plus for many. The heft feels luxurious, sturdy and put together well with an internal body composed of “904L stainless steel material”. To hold it in the hand is, well, a thing to behold. It’s a beast of an audio product, and showcases how far the collective R&D from Astell and Kern has really come both for the previously mentions specs, but also for the craft of industrial design and hand feel.
Although heavy for the size, the Astell and Kern SP3000 is still roughly the size of your average iPhone (with a little more depth to it). The scroll wheel volume control feels solid, and has a back lit color changing LED which is also pretty fun. Navigation through the menus is done through the 5.46” touch screen and looks and feels as high quality as any modern day phone. Among the multiple menus and adjustments lies a few interesting caveats. Of course purists will likely pass on the option, EQ is available for those who don’t mind tinkering with the frequency curve. Between the “main” and “advanced” settings, it is possible to fine tune the EQ down to a very granular level. This includes small steps in the frequency and even adaptations to the curve to allow for smooth or more dramatic changes at any given point on the scale. There are even 6 filter options for a PCM signal which includes more easy to understand descriptions – as opposed to the usual “filter 1, 2, 3,” etc. The filters do not apply to either MQA or DSD, which is typical with most high end audiophile products, although very rarely some DACs will include a few custom DSD options. In the end, these type of filters do make a difference but are rarely a huge leap from each other (or very wrong or right). But from my experience, they almost all are better than no filter at all, at least for PCM.
One can now drop downloaded songs much easier into the device than ever before, and even connect the signal outward in a ton of various ways (including BT Sink, which allows the SP3000 to act as an external DAC to a smartphone wirelessly). The top panel consists of the 3.5mm single ended connection, but also both a 2.5mm and 3.5mm balanced connection. Wireless options for both playback, output and library sharing are numerous within the sub menus in the interface. The audiophile favorite Roon is also an option for those who utilize the ecosystem. Bluetooth can even be used in a pinch, offering selectable varieties from LDAC, aptX HD and the usual Apple and SBC fare. The base codec of Bluetoooth 5.0 is utilized, and 24 bit audio is possible through aptX and LDAC – there is even a car mode for easy navigation while driving. The UI seems snappy and responsive with the pre-launch software loaded on the review sample. Volume numbers jumped around a little when using the control knob, but the actual gain was smooth to the ear.
One area many DAPs fall apart is their ability to properly drive demanding audiophile headphones. Using the 300 ohm ZMF Atrium and Verite open headphones, it was possible to drive music to loud levels, but not before a stern warning from the software that loud listening was bad for the hearing. This is undeniably true, however the gain need to drive the latest from ZMF did not render on the same scale to merit this caution tape. However, as the volume soldiered upward, there were some clear indicators the AK SP3000 was capable. Bass control was most noticeable, with clear, punchy and responsive articulation for songs that demanded it, and for those who just brought a little along for the ride. The entire discourse was perfectly balanced, as expected, but demand was met with an ease of delivery that put an iPhone 13 Pro Max to shame. It’s not just about slam, but does the delivery feel real and natural? For headphones, this can become an almost impossible task. The SP3000 held up its end of the bargain, to be sure.
This effortless conviction carried over to the middle bands of the frequency spectrum. Listening to The Darkness Love Is Only A Feeling, there was a tangible richness to the vocals and guitars that never felt overbaked or over resolved. This high quality performance poured over into the band’s song Friday Night with a dynamic sense that one could detect almost layers of sound as they came in. Instrument separation was fantastic and the iPhone once again felt flat and motionless by comparison. Astell and Kern’s SP3000 has tone that is both fleshy and flushed out.
Really soulful music is about more than just how much detail we can wrench out of the original source file. It is also about finesse and realism. This is where AK’s latest piece of hardware (and software) really starts to shine. With headphones, the control exerted by the internal amplifier and other hardware is simply next level. Is it as colorful as a huge 300b tube amp? Perhaps not, but it’s quite hard to find any outstanding weaknesses, and considering the real estate AK’s designers had to work with, well, that is the considerable accomplishment in the realm of portable players.
While the tech and spec work with the Astell and Kern SP3000 is a big part of the overall picture, a lot of the launch talking points are actually based around a new design intended to improve isolation within the multiple working functions in the interior of the device. Digital and analog processing is physically separated within the structure, and achieved using chip maker AKM’s latest flagship called the AK4499EX. Four of the chipsets were used alongside a new architecture AK calls HEXA-audio circuitry structure. Does this specific line item revolutionize the sound? Lowered noise floors have always allowed for increased dynamics and a great backdrop to let music really jump out from the canvas. It might be hard to tell with all the improvements and new hardware included in the design, but separation and isolation have always been hallmarks of high end components. The implementation here actually seems like a natural evolution, if possible, within such a tight space. I am inclined to think perhaps it might contribute, if not a large part, at least a small drop of helpful clarity and slam to the bigger picture. In the same vein, both balanced and unbalanced connections feature unique signal paths that reach all the way back to the DAC, with no switch involved. This “independent dual audio circuit design” within the HEXA structure is also a first for any AK player. Maximum effort here, apparently.
It may not be hard to find a portable source that has a great interface and allows for easy music playback. If that is your only goal then look no further than Apple’s ecosystem. It also may not be as hard to find a portable player that is capable of rendering digital files back with pristine transparency. It may also be possible to find a portable device that offers a massive amount of connectivity, both wired and wireless, in and out. And yet again, it may be possible (albeit much harder) to find an amplifier that expresses supreme control over headphone transducers. What you get from the Astell and Kern SP3000 is all four of these things in a single package. And that collective is what hopefully adds some value to consumers for the high end ticket price. Once you tack on a layer of luxury aesthetics you start to see the vision that AK was taking when they set forth to produce the top of the line for their top line. The SP3000 has all the tech, specs and high fidelity sound available at the moment, get it while it’s hot.
Highly recommended if you can afford it.
More info: Astell & Kern SP3000