Anyone looking for a high-end portable music player may be subliminally swayed by the name of the Astell & Kern A&futura SE100. But a considered assessment would also point you there, for the SE100 is a portable pleasure that deserves to be pocketed.
At a rather pricey £1499, it sits between the A&ultima SP1000M (£3299) and What Hi-Fi? Award-winning Kann (£899) in Astell & Kern’s hi-res player portfolio, but justifies its position above the latter with a far better performance.
Playing a range of music genres and file resolutions, the A&futura SE100 comes out on top at every turn. Thanks to its 32-bit, eight-channel ESS Sabre ES9038Pro DAC and its crystal oscillator clock’s jitter-reducing efforts, it isn’t just a small improvement either – the SE100 sounds miles better than the Kann. That’s just as well, considering the £600 premium.
What’s most noticeable is its stark openness, which not only expands the presentation’s soundstage, but also serves as an invitation for more detail to be heard.
Hi-res DSD 11.2MHz/PCM 32-bit/184kHz
Screen 5in HD touchscreen
Input USB 3.0 Type-C
Outputs 3.5mm, balanced
Dimensions (hwd) 13 x 7.5 x 1.5cm
We play Leonard Cohen’s Born In Chains (16-bit/44.1kHz) and the A&K does justice to the gospel-like production that took Cohen four decades to commit to tape. The melodic organ opener fills the head space with the timbre variation and breathy texture integral to the instrument, while Cohen’s vocal growl is startlingly clear and aptly hollow.
Choral backing singers are so clear they can be individually counted, and subtler cymbal taps and piano keys are not only distinct but textured and precisely placed. David Bowie’s I’d Rather Be High (24-bit/96kHz) is an even more impressive listen. That psychedelic guitar riff has power and drive behind it, while the track’s underpinning drums are rhythmically sound.
Of course, you will need a headphone partner of equally decent calibre to make the most of the SE100’s transparency. We use the Grado SR325e (£269), Focal Elegia (£795) and Grado PS1000e (£1900), and even the latter doesn’t feel overqualified for the job. In fact, open-back headphones such as these play to the SE100’s glorious spaciousness.
We play Tidal over wi-fi, and while a stream of Jesseye’ Lisabeth by Mercury Rev ft. Phoebe Bridgers sounds understandably compressed compared to the hi-res tracks, we can still put a mental ring around the onslaught of instruments in the elaborate folky collaboration.
Tidal comes pre-loaded in the ‘services’ section, as do Deezer and Groovers+. Others, such as Amazon Music, Spotify, Qobuz, Pandora and TuneIn radio, can be downloaded and dropped onto the SE100 in the same way you would music tracks.
The SE100 supports native DSD playback up to 11.2MHz and PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz, and has an impressive 128GB internal storage. As with other A&K players, that storage can be expanded by a microSD card.
Another potential accessory for the SE100 is a fast charger (9V/1.67A), which, plugged into the player’s USB Type-C connection, allows the player to fully charge in just two hours. Astell & Kern claims playback of 11 hours from a single charge, based on 16-bit/44kHz FLAC file playback at mid volume with the screen off.
However, dipping into the SE100 over the course of several days, playing largely hi-res files and Tidal streams at higher volumes, and getting to grips with its interface navigation, its battery life proves closer to six hours. Astell & Kern’s updated 5in HD touchscreen interface prioritises album artwork, and is bright, crisp and colourful enough to do justice to Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief cover.
Framing that gorgeously glassy screen is the new architecturally-inclined aluminium body that has been adopted by all A&K players, apart from the older Kann. Those angular lines, the diamond-patterned glass back plate and small volume dial are now familiar parts of A&K’s designs. The latter is our favourite physical feature of an A&K player – even if swiping the touchscreen is a quicker method of changing volume.
The SE100 is slightly slanted, allowing it to satisfyingly lean into your hand when held. It should come with a ‘handle with care’ sign, though. While the cassette-sized, reassuringly hefty player is a work of art, its straight edges and particularly cutting corners can be pretty wince-inducing if (or when) they catch your skin. While a large box of plasters might be cheaper, we’d suggest investing in the £89 dedicated leather case (available in black, navy and red) to save yourself the affliction.
The SE100 represents a serious evolution of Astell & Kern’s already excellent previous efforts, delivering an engaging sound, bold design and a feature-heavy music player experience. It even retains the A&K trademark DAC alter-ego, which allows it to be the sound-enhancing middleman between a computer and headphones.
Of course, the A&futura SE100 is priced out of reach for most. Along with a few rare cases, such as the A&K A&ultima SP1000 (£1999) and Sony NW-WM1Z (£2570), this really is top-tier pricing for the portable music player market. But for those with grand portable ambitions, high-end headphones and, crucially the budget, the supreme SE100 is both a luxury and a logical buy.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 4
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