Earlier this year we reviewed the Astell&Kern KANN MAX digital media player and were extremely impressed with the quality of sound produced by it.  Just as with headphones though, there are different levels of quality.  So, what does the more discerning, and affluent, audiophile do for a portable media player when the KANN MAX isn’t enough to pair with their new $7,000 Focal Utopia headphones?  They buy the best.

Astell&Kern has recently released their new flagship portable music player, the A&ultima SP3000 and when you are considering the best quality portable media player this must definitely enter your discussions.  At $5,499 the A&ultima SP3000 is not cheap and we put it through its paces to see if we thought it was worth the price.

The new Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 is a big leap forward for them with not just a new design but big under-the-hood improvements designed to deliver an even better-quality sound.

What’s new in the SP3000?

The new improvements include a new Qualcomm Snapdragon 6125 Octa-Core processor driving the even more streamlined, customised Android OS to speeds we didn’t see in the KANN MAX.  The 8GB of RAM doesn’t hurt either.  There is 256GB of onboard storage for your songs with support for microSD up to 1TB if 256GB isn’t enough for you.  The display is a larger 5.46-inch 1080P display.

The front of the device is the display and a decent chin – this isn’t a bezel-less smartphone, that’s for sure.  The left-hand side of the device houses three buttons – forward, back, play/pause buttons – allowing you to control the music without having to turn the display on.  The bottom of the device is a USB-C charging port – you can use it for a USB-C headphone jack if you want but you won’t get the quality you’d get from the more standard headphone jacks – and the microSD slot for memory expansion.

The top of the device is where the A&ultima SP3000 differs from its predecessor, the SP2000.  The A&ultima SP3000 has three ports in the top for your wired headphones.  There is the standard 3.5mm jack which provides for unbalanced headphones but now there are both 2.5- and 4.4mm balanced headphone jacks.  

Surely there isn’t much difference between these ports right?  Yes there is. If you have a decent set of headphones, and if you don’t I find it highly unlikely you’d be looking at buying this media player, you most definitely be able to discern the difference between the ports. We were sent a 4.4mm balanced cable from Cardas valued at $289 and comparing it to the unbalanced 3.5mm headphone jack there was a decent difference.

The 4.4mm balanced port provided for an even better experience, and let’s face it, if you are buying this you will be wanting the best quality sound you can get.  

Overall, the build of the A&ultima SP3000 is super premium and feels that way.  Made from 904L stainless steel, it is not light at 493 grams but if I’m paying this much for a portable media player, I want it to be not just a quality build but also durable and not going to break with the first bump – your Rolex case also is made from 904L stainless steel for reference.

Of course, with a player worth $5,500 you will want to protect it – “The SP3000 comes with a premium leather case to protect and highlight the beauty of the 904L stainless steel body.  The case is made by ALRAN, who have been hand-crafting leather since 1903 inTarn, France, and supply many leading luxury brands.”

Enhancements under the hood

The improved sound from the A&ultima SP3000 can also be put down to the new flagship DAC from AKM, the AK4499EX.  Not only does it have this new DAC but it has four of them along with two of AKM’s also-new AK4191 delta-sigma modulators to process the digital signal before the digital to analogue conversion (normally done within the DAC itself).

So what are the four DACs used for?  One is for the left channel and one the right channel to feed a left/right pair of amplifiers for the 2.5- and 4.4mm balanced outputs.  The other two DACs are used to drive amplifiers for the unbalanced outputs, making the entire player complete no matter how you listen to it.  The result is an incredibly impressive signal to noise ratio of 130dB. 

Software and features

As with the KANN MAX, the software is Android-based and if you use an Android smartphone it will be all very similar to you.  The software is extremely similar to that seen in my previous A&K KANN MAX review but this time it flows a lot faster with access to FTP, AK File Drop and more.

I was easily able to connect to my local NAS and download FLAC files onto it to test it out.  As per the previous version there is Bluetooth 5 support along with Wi-Fi 2.4GHz and 5GHz support and support for USB-C drag and drop of songs.  

There is still the option to install most of your favourite streaming music apps although there is still no YouTube Music support.  It is Roon ready – an audiophile favourite – along with TIDAL.

So how good does it sound?

Considering I thought the KANN MAX sounded amazing you would think that A&K’s flagship digital media player would sound even better – and you’d be right.  Whether using a streaming service, or pre-loaded music on the system the resultant sound was as clean, crisp and clear as you could hope for.  

Astell&Kern has put a lot of work into minimising the inherent noise in the system and it shows.  I turned the volume up and was still greeted with a lack of any noise, nothing at all to interfere with the music being played. 

Describing the quality of the sound is difficult, with the mid-range being warm with airy, fun highs but still a rich bass without overpowering any other region.  It is excellently tuned, bringing great enjoyment while listening – stick a song on with all of the above in it and you will not be able to wipe the smile off your face with just how good it is.

When combined with the top end Focal Utopia 2022 open backed headphones the quality was amazing.  You can hear every single sound just as it is meant to be heard – there is an equaliser for those who wish to change the sound profile but for those who want it to sound just how the musician/sound engineer wanted it to it is as close to spot on as you are going to get with a portable media player.

Should you buy it?

If you are not an audiophile and do not consider music sound quality the most important thing, look elsewhere.  BUT if you consider yourself an audiophile and don’t mind dropping over $5k for a DAP then look no further.

Astell&Kern has produced a portable digital audio player with the most innovative use of DACs and other chipsets, along with their own software enhancements producing the best portable DAP on the market today.  Every single piece of hardware and software is designed to reduce the noise in the system to produce the most neutral, clean sound possible.

The new innovations they have introduced in the A&ultima SP3000 has helped Astell&Kern leap forward ahead of not just their own media players but everything else out there on the market.  If you are looking for the most complete, best quality portable DAP on the market, then the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 is for you.

The Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 is available to pre-order in black or silver via Addicted to Audio now for RRP AUD $5499 // NZD $6,499 with it shipping in “late October.”