It’s a scientific reality of life that people have completely different tastes and preferences, and equally true is that almost all merchandise on this world merely can not enchantment to all of them. Very similar to the geniuses behind Celebrations and mixed-flavour crisps multi-packs, Astell & Kern desires to please as many as doable (effectively, these enthusiastic about premium music gamers anyway), and is attempting to take action by means of its quirkiest mannequin but.
The brand new SE180 is the third mannequin in Astell & Kern’s near-flagship A&futura vary, following the inaugural SE100 and SE200, each of which gained What Hello-Fi? Awards in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The latter launched a multi-DAC idea that noticed two user-selectable DAC configurations constructed into the participant, and the SE180 right here expands on that with an interchangeable DAC module design. The thought is that Astell & Kern releases a collection of DAC modules, all with completely different sonic characters, that house owners of the SE180 can then swap in for the usual equipped one in the event that they so want.
On the time of scripting this evaluation, there’s one separate module available on the market to this point, the SEM2 (£319, $349, AU$499), which includes twin Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ DACs that help 32-bit/768kHz and native DSD512 information. The subsequent might be launched later in 2021, with one other mannequin set to observe within the first half of 2022. These detachable modules, Astell & Kern says, have completely different DAC and amplifier configurations and parts, in addition to various tuning and outputs. Flexibility apart, the modular design also needs to assist with sound high quality – as the principle physique and modules are bodily separated, energy and radio frequency noise generated by the previous ought to theoretically be blocked.
After all, these modules will be thought of elective extras; potential improve or experimental paths that may be taken benefit of or fully ignored. In spite of everything, the SE180 is an all-in-one participant in itself, with the default module containing the ESS ES9038PRO DAC. It helps 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA audio and, just like the elective SEM2 module, has 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs to cater for a variety of headphones.
The SE180’s enchantment doesn’t stay and breathe solely on its quirky idea. It’s additionally the primary mannequin to boast Astell & Kern’s new Teraton Alpha audio expertise, which progresses the corporate’s Teraton resolution and has been additional designed to take away noise and optimise effectivity proper by means of the chain, from energy to amplification to the output part the place the digital-to-analogue sign conversion takes place.
Astell & Kern A&futura SE180 tech specs
Options 5-inch, 1920×1080 show; Interchangeable DAC improve
File help 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
Output 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm
Enter USB Sort-C
Reminiscence 256GB built-in, expandable by as much as 1TB microSD
Dimensions (hwd) 137.2 x 77 x 20mm
Bluetooth is onboard with help for LDAC, aptX HD and AAC, permitting the participant to output wirelessly to a pair of Bluetooth headphones or audio system. However one other ‘first’ for its sort is BT Sink, which lets the participant play audio from an exterior supply equivalent to a PC or telephone. So if, for instance, you wish to management your music streaming service playback out of your telephone however pay attention by means of the participant, you may. It’s kind of a Bluetooth (and due to this fact offline) model of AK Join, which is a wi-fi- and app-based characteristic that primarily turns the SE180 right into a streamer and permits telephones and PCs to take the management reins.
The SE180 has built-in wi-fi in addition to direct entry to streaming service apps in its menu, thoughts – Deezer and Tidal come pre-loaded on our pattern, and others will be manually put in onto it by means of the Open APP Service. Those that merely, or moreover, wish to retailer their downloaded or ripped music onto the participant – old-school MP3 player-style – can achieve this due to 256GB of onboard storage, which is expandable by as much as 1TB by means of the acquisition of a microSD card.
Nevertheless you’d prefer to play music by means of the SE180, the participant doesn’t make onerous work of it. For the interface, Astell & Kern has tried to duplicate the Android telephone expertise, making it extra intuitive for these acquainted with it, and it’s paid off.
The interface is centred on a right-hand aspect navigation bar the place you may browse your library by songs, albums, artists, style, playlists and folders. A pull-down navigation bar up high – sure, identical to the one on an Android telephone – gives shortcuts to the likes of wi-fi, Bluetooth, EQ and wider settings. We just like the familiarity and lack of bloatware as we navigate the menus – and it’s logical and intuitive even for those who’re new to the OS design.
Finishing the pleasing person expertise, the five-inch, Full HD touchscreen is good to take a look at and use, too, each pleasingly responsive to the touch and appealingly lucid to the attention. Like your album art work current and tune data daring? So does Astell & Kern. Along with displaying file measurement and sort on-screen, a small ring of sunshine across the side-panel quantity dial shines in several colors to indicate that too – pink for 16-bit, inexperienced for 24-bit, blue for 32-bit and purple for DSD. It may be switched off, however we’re personally keen on the spot of color in opposition to the in any other case monochromatic (and we should always say, elegantly styled) chassis.
The one barely difficult factor from a usability viewpoint is, we discover, really eradicating the modules. It requires squeezing the 2 buttons on the aspect panels and pulling the highest panel out, which takes a little bit of knack on the expense of your fingers – particularly for those who don’t have sturdy fingernails. Fortunately we will’t think about it’s one thing many house owners who buy completely different modules will do all that commonly, and at the very least its firmness means that the double-locking connection is stable and doesn’t seem simply breakable.
Value-wise, the A&futura SE180 is positioned between the Kann Alpha, SA700 and A&futura SE200 within the firm’s music participant line-up – and sensibly so, too. Sonically, the SE180 advances on the What Hello-Fi? Award-winning Kann Alpha, equally wealthy, clear and punchy in character however including larger subtlety (each dynamically and by way of texture), house and refinement to proceedings to suitably justify its further outlay.
We play Nick Cave & The Dangerous Seeds’ Ready For You (24-bit/96kHz) and from the opening percussive piece the additional house and precision presents itself. There’s clearly extra deliberation to, and texture behind, the doleful, gracefully performed piano sequence that follows, and the electronics that then rise behind them make themselves extra clearly recognized too, importantly elevating the unhappiness of the piece. Sealing the deal, Cave’s subsequent crooning takes on extra form and scale than it does by means of the Kann Alpha.
That is yet one more instance of Astell & Kern getting the efficiency steadiness between informing and entertaining spot on – to the extent that that is, in our minds, the decide of the corporate’s premium gamers.
We swap within the SEM2 module and, as we hoped, it does serve up a distinctively completely different sonic flavour. We discover it a little bit smoother and extra measured in its strategy, delivering music with larger house and the type of finesse and precision that performs to classical items – even when, in comparison with the usual module, that comes on the expense of punch and musical cohesiveness.
Astell & Kern has been notably prolific within the portable music player market in recent times, having give you new methods to justify fashions of various sizes and quirky characteristic units. The A&futura SE180 is one in every of them and, whether or not you take into account the modular design useful or not, stands as among the best performance-per-pound choices within the firm’s line-up.
The standalone music participant market is comparatively area of interest – and at this value level much more so – however for those who’re on the lookout for an excellent-sounding participant with out spending 1000’s, the A&futura SE180 is among the many greatest we’ve come throughout, no matter its worthy USP.
Learn our evaluation of the Astell & Kern A&futura SE200
Try our round-up of the best portable music players