It’s a scientific fact of life that humans have different tastes and preferences, and equally true is that most products in this world simply cannot appeal to them all. Much like the geniuses behind Celebrations and mixed-flavour crisps multi-packs, Astell & Kern wants to please as many as possible (well, those interested in premium music players anyway), and is trying to do so through its quirkiest model yet.
The new SE180 is the third model in Astell & Kern’s near-flagship A&futura range, following the inaugural SE100 and SE200, both of which gained What Hi-Fi? Awards in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The latter introduced a multi-DAC concept that saw two user-selectable DAC configurations built into the player, and the SE180 here expands on that with an interchangeable DAC module design. The idea is that Astell & Kern releases a series of DAC modules, all with different sonic characters, that owners of the SE180 can then swap in for the standard supplied one if they so wish.
At the time of writing this review, there is one separate module on the market so far, the SEM2 (£319, $349, AU$499), which comprises dual Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ DACs that support 32-bit/768kHz and native DSD512 files. The next will be released later in 2021, with another model set to follow in the first half of 2022. These removable modules, Astell & Kern says, have different DAC and amplifier configurations and components, as well as varying tuning and outputs. Flexibility aside, the modular design should also help with sound quality – as the main body and modules are physically separated, power and radio frequency noise generated by the former should theoretically be blocked.
Of course, these modules can be considered optional extras; potential upgrade or experimental paths that can be taken advantage of or completely ignored. After all, the SE180 is an all-in-one player in itself, with the default module containing the ESS ES9038PRO DAC. It supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA audio and, like the optional SEM2 module, has 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs to cater for a wide range of headphones.
The SE180’s appeal doesn’t live and breathe solely on its quirky concept. It’s also the first model to boast Astell & Kern’s new Teraton Alpha audio technology, which progresses the company’s Teraton solution and has been further designed to remove noise and optimise efficiency right through the chain, from power to amplification to the output section where the digital-to-analogue signal conversion takes place.
Features 5-inch, 1920x1080 display; Interchangeable DAC upgrade
File support 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
Output 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm
Input USB Type-C
Memory 256GB built-in, expandable by up to 1TB microSD
Dimensions (hwd) 137.2 x 77 x 20mm
Bluetooth is onboard with support for LDAC, aptX HD and AAC, allowing the player to output wirelessly to a pair of Bluetooth headphones or speakers. But another ‘first’ for its kind is BT Sink, which lets the player play audio from an external source such as a PC or phone. So if, for example, you want to control your music streaming service playback from your phone but listen through the player, you can. It’s more or less a Bluetooth (and therefore offline) version of AK Connect, which is a wi-fi- and app-based feature that essentially turns the SE180 into a streamer and allows phones and PCs to take the control reins.
The SE180 has built-in wi-fi as well as direct access to streaming service apps in its menu, mind – Deezer and Tidal come pre-loaded on our sample, and others can be manually installed onto it through the Open APP Service. Those who simply, or additionally, want to store their downloaded or ripped music onto the player – old-school MP3 player-style – can do so thanks to 256GB of onboard storage, which is expandable by up to 1TB through the purchase of a microSD card.
However you’d like to play music through the SE180, the player doesn’t make hard work of it. For the interface, Astell & Kern has tried to replicate the Android phone experience, making it more intuitive for those familiar with it, and it’s paid off.
The interface is centred on a right-hand side navigation bar where you can browse your library by songs, albums, artists, genre, playlists and folders. A pull-down navigation bar up top – yes, just like the one on an Android phone – provides shortcuts to the likes of wi-fi, Bluetooth, EQ and wider settings. We like the familiarity and lack of bloatware as we navigate the menus – and it’s logical and intuitive even if you’re new to the OS design.
Completing the pleasing user experience, the five-inch, Full HD touchscreen is nice to look at and use, too, both pleasingly responsive to touch and appealingly lucid to the eye. Like your album artwork present and song information bold? So does Astell & Kern. In addition to displaying file size and type on-screen, a small ring of light around the side-panel volume dial shines in different colours to signify that too – red for 16-bit, green for 24-bit, blue for 32-bit and purple for DSD. It can be switched off, but we’re personally fond of the spot of colour against the otherwise monochromatic (and we should say, elegantly styled) chassis.
The only slightly tricky thing from a usability point of view is, we find, actually removing the modules. It requires squeezing the two buttons on the side panels and pulling the top panel out, which takes a bit of knack at the expense of your fingers – especially if you don’t have strong fingernails. Thankfully we can’t imagine it is something many owners who purchase different modules will do all that regularly, and at least its firmness suggests that the double-locking connection is solid and doesn’t appear easily breakable.
Price-wise, the A&futura SE180 is positioned between the Kann Alpha, SA700 and A&futura SE200 in the company’s music player line-up – and sensibly so, too. Sonically, the SE180 advances on the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning Kann Alpha, similarly rich, clear and punchy in character but adding greater subtlety (both dynamically and in terms of texture), space and refinement to proceedings to suitably justify its extra outlay.
We play Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Waiting For You (24-bit/96kHz) and from the opening percussive piece the extra space and precision are present. There’s clearly more deliberation to, and texture behind, the doleful, gracefully played piano sequence that follows, and the electronics that then rise behind them make themselves more clearly known too, importantly elevating the sadness of the piece. Sealing the deal, Cave’s subsequent crooning takes on more shape and scale than it does through the Kann Alpha.
This is yet another example of Astell & Kern getting the performance balance between informing and entertaining spot on – to the extent that this is, in our minds, the pick of the company’s premium players.
We swap in the SEM2 module and, as we hoped, it does serve up a distinctively different sonic flavour. We find it a little smoother and more measured in its approach, delivering music with greater space and the kind of finesse and precision that plays to classical pieces – even if, compared to the standard module, that comes at the expense of punch and musical cohesiveness.
Astell & Kern has been particularly prolific in the portable music player market in recent years, having come up with new ways to justify models of different sizes and quirky feature sets. The A&futura SE180 is one of them and, whether you consider the modular design valuable or not, stands as one of the best performance-per-pound offerings in the company’s line-up.
The standalone music player market is relatively niche – and at this price point even more so – but if you’re looking for an excellent-sounding player without spending thousands, this award-winning A&futura SE180 is among the best we’ve come across, regardless of its worthy USP.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 5
See all the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022 winners
Read our review of the entry-level Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII
Check out our round-up of the best portable music players