Sometimes, concessions have to be made. The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T portable music player has an uninspired name, yes. It costs a lot of money, true. And it plays fast and loose with the definition of the word ‘portable’. But if you want a premium digital audio experience while you’re out and about, don’t look (or listen) any further. The SP2000T sounds superb.
Some of this is undoubtedly due to the hair-raising level of specification that’s incorporated here. Two amplifier stages offer seven distinct options, while no fewer than four DACs are deployed to handle two channels of audio information. The SP2000T is unconcerned by digital audio file size or type, and it will happily power any (and I mean any) pair of headphones you care to mention.
What else? Well, the control interface is clean and responsive. The player itself is not so much built as sculpted. Even the battery life is half-decent. And (as mentioned once, and not for the last time) the audio quality it’s capable of delivering is truly outstanding.
The SP2000T is a deeply accomplished digital audio player, and it will keep you entertained and informed all day long. Just as long as you can justify the not-inconsiderable outlay to yourself.
Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T price and release date
- Available now
- $2,399 / £1,999 / AU$3,599
The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T is on sale now. That’s all well and good, but much more relevant is the asking price: in the United Kingdom it sells for a pound short of £2K. American customers hoping to maximize their portable audio experience will need to put $2,399 aside, while in Australia you’re looking at AU$3,599.
So we can safely assume the mainstream will ignore this product. In fact, unless the SP2000T can make a watertight case for itself and its price tag, the chances are the specialists will ignore it too. No pressure, then.
- Angular, asymmetrical chassis
- 141 x 78 x 18mm (H x W x D)
Astell & Kern established its design vocabulary quite a while ago, and it’s not about to change now – certainly not after investing a lot of money on fancy-pants metalworking machines. So the A&ultima SP2000T is edgy, pointy and slightly unharmonious in its shape; it could never be confused as the product of any other brand. And as seems only sensible when asking this sort of money, the SP2000T is constructed with the kind of solidity more commonly associated with bank vaults – and it doesn’t weigh much less than one, either.
Being a fair bit bigger in every direction than even the biggest smartphone does at least mean there’s plenty of space, both inside and out, for all the specification Astell & Kern has decided to deploy. If the SP2000T doesn’t feature it, it’s because it’s not worth featuring.
Perhaps it’s the tri-amp element of the specification that’s most immediately attention-grabbing. In addition to its customary OP AMP amplification, Astell & Kern has also fitted the SP2000T with dual-triode KORG Nutube amplification – which is fundamentally an extremely compact vacuum tube, or valve, amplification stage.
This is the sort of expensive, complicated and fragile amplification beloved of audiophiles, but not the sort of thing that tends to show up in a portable digital audio player. The user can select one method or the other to amplify their headphones, or can choose one of the five different hybrid settings that combine the two.
Oh yes, headphones. It should go without saying that the SP2000T demands high-end (and high-priced) headphones for you to enjoy the complete audio experience – but at least Astell & Kern has fitted three headphone sockets. So you’re able to deploy 2.5mm or 4.4mm balanced headphones as well as the (much) more common 3.5mmm unbalanced alternative.
But before your digital audio information gets anywhere near the amplification or the headphone output(s), it has to first get on board. Wireless connectivity is via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth – the latter can handle AAC, aptX-HD and LDAC codecs, so high-resolution wireless streaming is firmly on the menu.
Once the information is on board (the SP2000T is able to handle any file type you care to mention) it’s pored over by four ESS Sabre ES9068AS DACs, capable of handling file sizes from the poverty-spec Spotify free-tier variety to huge DSD512 alternatives. And we think it’s worth saying that just one more time: four DACs. Two for each channel. There’s ‘thoroughly specified’ and then there’s the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T.
Operating the SP2000T is done using the big (5in), bright, full HD (1920 x 1080) capacitive touchscreen. If previous Astell & Kern players have had a recurring weak point, it’s been the quality (or otherwise) of their control interfaces – but here the screen is responsive. It’s also clean and clear in its typeface, and smooth-scrolling. Which is exactly how it should be.
Battery life is an adequate-we-suppose nine hours (which is enough to see you through all but the longest-haul flights), and the SP2000T needs three hours to go from ‘flat’ to ‘full’ (which will seem a lot longer than it actually is). You can drain that battery by listening to music stored on the A&K’s 256GB of internal memory, which can be boosted by up to 1TB with a microSD card.
- Wide open soundstage
- Assured rhythmic expression
- Deep, controlled bass
So we can all agree Astell & Kern has made an effort with the A&ultima SP2000T. And the good news is that if you team this player with appropriately talented headphones (the majority of this test was done using Sennheiser’s splendid IE 900 in-ear monitors) you’ll hear the results of all that hard work in pretty unequivocal fashion. The SP2000T is a deeply capable, thrillingly musical and endlessly listenable audio player.
Naturally enough, the A&K does its best work when given the best stuff to deal with – it only takes a brief listen to Stevie Wonder’s He’s Misstra Know-It-All in DSD32 form to demonstrate that. But unlike a lot of digital audio players with pretensions towards genuine hi-fi sound, the SP2000T isn’t picky or snobby. It’s just as happy to make the most of a bog-standard Spotify stream of Car Seat Headrest’s Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales as it is the big high-resolution stuff.
No matter what you end up listening to, the A&K demonstrate really even, convincing tonality from the bottom of the frequency range to the top. Detail levels are sky-high (especially/inevitably with the more information-rich stuff) and there’s a wide-open, utterly believable soundstage established on which musicians can do their thing. If it’s the full picture you’re after, well, here it is.
Low frequencies are deep, controlled, loaded with detail and carry plenty of momentum. The midrange is absolutely alive with the finest details of technique and timbre – which means a singer as accomplished as Stevie Wonder sounds about as intimate and immediate as you’ve ever heard him. And the top end is assertive, substantial and just as fulsomely detailed as the rest of the frequency range.
Rhythmic expression is assured, and the SP2000T is just as confident where both broad and minor dynamic variations are concerned. It’s utterly in charge of every recording you give it, and yet manages to make the fun stuff sound like fun. Some players with this sort of high-end emphasis can sound quite po-faced and analytical, but the Astell & Kern sounds enthusiastic without ever getting carried away.
Downsides are a) remarkably few and b) easily mitigated. Basically, the self-assurance the SP2000T demonstrates when reproducing the highest frequencies can quite easily tip into overconfidence if your choice of partnering headphones isn’t sympathetic. So make sure you audition a few pairs before making a decision. And the number of amplification options seems, in all honesty, quite a bit more interesting when written down than it proves in practice. The variations in sound are extremely subtle, and you’ll almost certainly find one of the seven options you like best and end up sticking with it.
In every other respect, though, the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T needs no caveats. It’s as good a portable audio player as you can buy.