Astell&Kern make a large range of digital audio players (DAP) with the A&ultima series the flagship devices. The series of devices where they introduce all their new tech are the A&futura series, denoted with the prefix SE.
The Astell&Kern DAP we were sent is the SE300, of the A&futura series and brings with it some new features designed to improve the sound quality of the audio player even more.
“A&futura SE300 is built with an ultra-refined R-2R DAC, instead of a Delta-Sigma DAC which is most commonly used in audio players. R-2R DAC, also known as Ladder DAC as it arranges resistors in a ladder form, offers a natural Hi-Fi sound with unrivalled dynamism.”
The SE300 is about the same size as most other Astell&Kern DAPs, 139.5mm x 76.5mm x 17.6mm but is a lot lighter than others we have tested of similar size, especially the SP3000 from last year coming in at just 317 grams.
The front of the DAP is nearly all display with the display a 5.46-inch HD touchscreen (1920 x 1080) although the navigation buttons at the bottom of the display are permanent so you essentially do not get full use of the whole display.
The left-hand side of the DAP has play/pause and skip buttons which give a nice clicky feel so you definitely know when they’ve been pressed, and also you are unlikely to accidentally press them.
The right-hand side of the SE300 houses the volume wheel/crown. This has an LED underneath it which signifies either charging status or the bit depth of the source file that is playing at that time (16bit – red, 24bit – green, 32bit – blue, DSD – purple). The wheel is very easy to turn, possibly too easy though as I often accidentally changed the volume just in the process of picking it up. To prevent this lock the wheel in settings (or Quick Settings in the drop-down menu).
The top of the device houses a power button along with three input / output ports – a 3.5mm port (this can slo be set up for line in and also supports Optical SPDIF output as well) and 4.4mm and 2.5mm balanced ports.
Those who like the wireless option on occasion have plenty of choices with Bluetooth 5.0 supported along with playback of aptX HD and LDAC protocols. There is also Bluetooth Sink Mode if that is your preference too. The SE300 also includes dual band Wi-Fi support, handy for streaming music through any of the supported apps.
The bottom of the DAP houses the spring-loaded microSD slot and a USB-C charging port which also supports data transfer and USB DAC functionality.
Most of us don’t really care just that much what is under the hood making our devices run but for an audiophile it is incredibly important as it can affect the quality of sound produced.
The SE300 arrives with the new R-2R Ladder DAC which uses discrete matching resistors for the DAC. These ladder DACs pre-date the Delta-Sigma DACs found in modern DAPs but went out of favour due to the introducing noise to the system when they are not matched – ie. exactly the same.
Astell&Kern use a full discrete 24bit R-2R precision DAC with 48 resistors per channel and this 96 in total. They are matched so closely that they have an accuracy tolerance of just +/-0.01%. Technically, the Ladder DAC can be more accurate than a Delta Sigma DAC as they eliminate the need for feedback loops, thus producing a more accurate sound.
In the SE300, Astell&Kern has also introduced a new dual amp architecture allowing selection of either Class A or Class AB amp modes along with Over-Sampling (OS) and Non-Over Sampling (NOS) modes. OS and NOS allow for different sound processing implementations and reproduction.
“Dual AMP mode with Class A amplification which reproduces a natural sound as close as possible to the original, while Class AB amplification introduces crisp, dynamic sounds with high efficiency. The SE300 allows listeners to choose from the two amps according to their listening preferences and music genre.”
Software + features
As with the SP3000 and 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 Astell&Kern reviews 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.
The new interface comes with an easy album art search function so that users can quickly browse music categories while re-discovering the joy of viewing and interacting with music album art as part of the listening experience. I do prefer to see the artwork on my music and it was relatively easy to find just what I wanted to play on each occasion.
Creating playlists though was finicky though but if you like your music enough to buy this you won’t mind the time it takes to import or create your playlists.
There is still the option to install most of your favourite streaming music apps although there is still no YouTube Music support (I suspect this is because YouTube music does not stream in high enough quality to make it worthwhile streaming on a DAP). It is Roon ready – check out our Roon Nucleus review in the coming days. The Roon ready update was just a toggle in the settings that allowed the SE300 to become and “audio zone” for the Roon to send music to. I tested it out with the Roon Nucleus and it worked perfectly, giving yet another way of streaming high-quality music to your DAP.
Once again there is support for the same services as that on the SP3000 – Tidal, Spotify, AmazonMusic, Moov, Qobuz, Deezer, FLO, AppleMusic, KKBOX, AWA, YandexMusic, Bugs and Melon. There is V-Link which connects YouTube and YouTube Music although it is basically a web wrapper – Google, get your butt into gear and make an app for this.
Sound quality-wise Qobuz (the high-quality streaming service I used for this review) was far far far superior to that from V-Link and YouTube Music. I would be steering clear of V-Link if you can get the same audio from other quality streaming services. This is the same for the other big names in streaming. Tidal and Qobuz are favourites for those who prefer high quality music – but sometimes their libraries are limited. You can always buy and download FLAC and other quality files such as MQA of your own which is my preference.
The SE300 supports just about every single audio format though so if that is all you can get then it *should* work. The file formats supported are MQA, AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DFF, DSD, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA.
Astell&Kern has included an equaliser in the SE300, as you’d hope. There are no genre-specific presets but there are sliders for 20 frequency bands to tune that sound to exactly how you like it to sound.
The SE300 sports a 5050mAh Lithium-ion polymer battery that gave me around 12 hours using Qobux (streaming) and a bit longer when playing local FLAC files. For me this is plenty of battery life as how many of us listen to music on the go for more than this amount of time.
If you listen this long, you are likely to be near a charging port so you can just plug it in. Charging is not very quick and is terribly slow (although it is meant to support QC 3.0 from Qualcomm) when you consider what we are used to with our smartphones these days. I dare say that Astell&Kern has limited the charging speeds and hardware required for higher speeds with a preference to choose hardware that won’t affect the quality of sound output by the device.
Just how good does it sound?
I’ve said this before when reviewing these DAPs. You get what you pay for. Even the average person will be able to hear a difference in the quality of sound from your mobile phone to a DAP. The big question is though, is it worth it for the average person? Probably not.
For the audiophile though they live for their high-quality music and love to be able to hear the music how the artist intended it to be heard. To hear every single note and sound in the correct pitch without any interference or noise. For them, the DAP is well worth the investment given how much better they sound than the music from a mobile phone.
The Astell&Kern SE300 is no different. Its sound has a smooth, natural quality which comes across warm and full in the ear. Testing it with my Focal Bathys the sound was amazingly good. Much better than the sound from my mobile phone – and that was using Bluetooth. Plug the headphones in using one of the output ports on the top of the DAP and the quality of the sound is even better.
This warm, rich sound is noticeable using decent headphones but you can adjust your settings using the OS and NOS if this isn’t to your liking.
Those looking for a soundstage type sound will love the SE300 with its wide coverage of the details replicating that sound stage accurately and full of vigour.
Listening to your music with the SE300 resulted in an experience that I often forget exists in between reviewing DAPs. You can turn your music up and still be able to discern every conceivable note in the song. This is music as it is meant to be experienced.
Of course, you can tailor the sound to your ears and your preferences using the AMP, the EQ and the OS/NOS. This is very useful for an audiophile and if you are just starting out in the quality music game it is worth taking the time to find out just how you prefer your music and how to get there with your DAP and its equaliser.
The R-2R resistor DAC seems to make a difference in the quality of the sound but if you already have a decent DAP it may be worth waiting for them to arrive in one of the flagship DAPs for a more useful upgrade.
Although the SE300 is not part of Astell&Kern’s SP flagship series it has a feature set and performance that suggests it could be. It has the old-is-new discrete R-2R DAC, dual amplifier mode, a fairly settled and relatively easy to use user interface and a quality performance to top it all off.
The design of the DAP follows Astell&Kern’s usual industrial design which is solid and attractive in its own way. Add in the usual Bluetooth with aptX HD and LDAD support, Bluetooth Sink, AK Connect (Wi-Fi direct) and ROON ready and you have all the connectivity options you could need.
The addition of various streaming apps such as Tidal and Qobuz provide even further playback options while at the same time boasting a battery life that will keep it going all day. Do not leave it to the last minute to recharge it though as the charging is slower than you’d be used to with your smartphone.
Sound quality from the Astell&Kern SE300 is fantastic with a warmth to the sound which sounds amazing in the ears. You will need to pair it with decent headphones to get the most out of it though. All these combined makes for a very compelling product that I can highly recommend.
As with all quality DAPs the Astell&Kern SE300 is not cheap. The Astell&Kern SE300 is available for AUD$3,099/NZD$3,599 with a protective case setting you back AUD$209/NZD$249 in Black and Petrolio colours exclusively via BusiSoft AV and its authorised dealers.