NOTE: This article is a contribution and do not necessarily represent the views of IBTimes.
Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000 Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Digital audio players (DAPs) date back to the late 1990s when the first MP3 players were introduced, but they did not become widespread until 2001, when Apple revolutionized the market with the introduction of the iPod. However, fast-forwarding to 2023, DAPs have taken a backseat, serving only a niche market of audiophiles who refuse to settle for anything less than the best sound - even when on-the-go.

Today, most would agree that this niche market is led by Astell&Kern, the high-end portable audio equipment brand that was established in 2012 by the South Korean company iRiver. A&K's latest endeavor - the A&ultima SP3000 - is meant to be the crown jewel of the DAP market, a culmination of everything that makes DAPs still relevant more than a decade since the birth of the company. Will it continue to be ground-breaking enough to pave the way for future development of DAPs? Let's dive in to find out.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The finish on the SP3000 can only be described as jewelry grade Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Jewelry Grade Build

With the sophistication of mobile phones these days, flagship phones easily cost over $1,000 - in the same price range as a decently specced ultrabook. Spending this amount of money, the expectation for build quality is higher than ever. So, I was quite curious about what kind of build quality a $3,499 (RRP) device like the SP3000 would have.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The polygon motif playing out on the polished stainless steel case is mesmerizing to behold Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Upon laying my eyes on the SP3000 for the first time, I have to say it was quite a sight to behold. The polished Stainless Steel 904L cuboid is complete with sharp corners, and the signature polygonic sides are both distinct and mesmerizing to look at.

The SP3000's 17.39oz (493g) heft adds to the impression that this is more like a piece of jewelry than a digital device. Weighing in at twice the weight of an iPhone 14 Pro Max, this is probably not the best music player you'd want to take while jogging. Rather than calling it a mobile digital audio player, it's more fitting to call it a portable music station.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The volume knob that doubles as the power button Jeff Li/IBTimes US

To complete its unique look, its volume dial looks like it's taken straight out of the IWC Schaffhausen design book - an oversized diamond-shaped crown. The crown doubles as the power button and screen on/off button, when depressed from the face. At the base of the crown you also have the sole LED indicator light on the SP3000, which displays the bitrate of the music that is played.

All-in-all, the aesthetics of SP3000 would match, if not exceed anyone's expectation for a flagship from the top DAP makers on the market today. If you're after the best, you won't find many that are better than this.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The triple output for headphones Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Sound: Aiming for Realism

One look at A&K's description of its internal circuitry would send heads into a spin. It's one thing to attach two DAC and two AMP chips for each of the balanced channels - but the SP3000 has four AK4499EX DACs (The new flagship DAC chips from Asahi Kasei), as well as two AK4191 DACs. The massive array of DAC chips creates two separate circuits for the balanced and unbalanced - conclusively to avoid needing an audio switch and to achieve an impressive 130 db Signal-to-Noise ratio.

I can repeat all the specs and numbers here, but they can easily be found. Conclusively how does it sound? Putting things in perspective, I will use the FiiO M11 Plus ESS as a frame of reference - unfair, I know in terms of price point, but just so that we have a reference to go by.

When comparing the soundstage and instrument separation, they are head-to-head, with both DAPs performing splendidly. You're getting a clear presentation of each instrument that spans a full 180 degrees from left to right.

Sound texture is where the two devices differentiate, with the SP3000 noticeably having a rounder, warmer sound that is less fatiguing. This could be due to the AKM chip used in the SP3000, as opposed to the ESS chips in the M11 Plus. The timbre is much rounder, which may be interpreted as less energetic by some, while many will appreciate its realistic presentation.

Overall, due to the nature of its sound, the SP3000 is best suited for acoustic recordings such as jazz, classical, acoustic pop, and vocal-driven music. A&K seems to be aware of this strength, as all the preloaded demo tracks in the DAP are from these genres.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The SP3000 shines the most when playing acoustic music like jazz and classical music Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Critical Headphone and Earphone Pairings

During our time with the SP3000, we had the chance to pair the A&K DAC with various headphones and earphones. Starting with the headphones, we paired it up with the Sennheiser HD 660S and HD 660S2, the Audeze LCD-2C, and the Meze Audio Elite. After spending considerable time with each of these combinations, we concluded that while the SP3000 is a powerful sound source capable of driving these headphones to high volumes, it didn't have enough power to fully "open up" the instrument separation and soundstage in the headphones.

Hands-on with Astell&Kern SP3000
The Meze Elite was a good pairing with the SP3000 Jeff Li/IBTimes US

There was, however, one exception, and that was the Meze Audio Elite. Due to its low impedance of 32 Ohms, the Meze Audio Elite's sound opened up nicely with great presentation and dynamics when paired with the SP3000. In fact, the Elite was the best pairing out of the headphones we tested, also due to its slant towards an analytical sound, which balanced well with the SP3000's warm signature. However, in conclusion, if you want to get the most out of the SP3000, using external amplifiers would likely be necessary when using headphones.

Hands-on with Astell&Kern SP3000
The winning pairing we found was with the L'Acoustic Contour XO IEM by JH Audio Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Earphones, on the other hand, are where we'd place our bets when it comes to maximizing the performance of the SP3000. We paired it with the Sennheiser IE 900, IE 200, and the L'Acoustic Contour XO (made by JH Audio), as well as the UE Live and UE 11. Among these, we noticed that the best pairing by far was with the Contour XO, which was able to capture the nuances that the SP3000 produces with great precision.

As a specific example, we noticed a striking difference in the presentation of Coldplay's 'In My Place' when paired with the SP3000 and the Contour XO. While most other pairings presented the bass drum beats as a flat "dup", the SP3000 with the Contour XO produced a deep "dooom" that captured the rich reverb of the bass drum, reminiscent of top-of-the-line Sonar kits. This organic and detailed presentation extended to other aspects as well, with smoother vocals and shakers sounding more true-to-life, like an actual shaker in the recording. Drummers in particular would appreciate the nuanced and realistic reproduction of the SP3000 with the Contour XO.

Hands-on with Astell&Kern SP3000
The testing with the latest Sennheiser HD660S2 Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Conclusively, based on our tests, we found that the SP3000 performs best when paired with top-tier in-ear monitors (IEMs) that utilize Balanced Armature drivers. Despite the high quality of the Sennheiser IE 900 with its Dynamic Drivers, it still fell short compared to the Contour XO in terms of capturing the SP3000's warm and nuanced sound signature. This indicates that the SP3000 is particularly well-suited for IEMs with Balanced Armature drivers, delivering exceptional audio performance with rich details and organic sound reproduction.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
A&K's own operating system has its pros and cons Jeff Li/IBTimes US

A&K's Custom Operating System

Historically, one common criticism of A&K digital audio players (DAPs) is that they use their own custom operating system (OS) instead of utilizing Android. This can add a learning curve for users who are accustomed to Android-based devices, as the custom OS may have a different interface and functionality. Additionally, it restricts access to the Google Play Store, limiting the availability of third-party apps and customization options for users. Some users find this to be cumbersome and prefer the flexibility and customization possibilities that come with an Android-based OS.

However, there is a reward for A&K's decision to use its own operating system. The custom OS is designed to be free from bloatware and optimized for audio performance. Even down to its system menus, every function is crafted with the sole purpose of delivering the best possible sound quality as intended by the audio engineer. If you are an audio purist who is passionate about extracting every last detail from your audio device, the SP3000 is one of the closest options available, offering a focused and optimized audio experience.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The LED showing the quality of the music file being played Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Sound Customization: DAC Filter, DAR, EQ and Crossfeed

The SP3000 offers four sound customization options: DAC Filter, DAR, System-wide EQ, and Crossfeed. While the first two functions are not uncommon and can also be found in other DAPs like FiiO, what is surprising is the noticeable impact these options have on the sound quality of the SP3000. The DAC Filter and DAR settings allow users to fine-tune the sound characteristics, while the System-wide EQ and Crossfeed settings offer additional flexibility in shaping the audio output according to personal preferences. This level of sound customization adds to the versatility of the SP3000 and allows users to tailor the audio performance to their liking, making it a compelling choice for those who seek a personalized audio experience.

Despite having long dismissed the practical impact of these functions, the implementation of these options by A&K on the SP3000 allows for shaping the music texture to match individual taste. This level of customization provides users with the ability to fine-tune the sound output according to their preferences, making the SP3000 a versatile option for those who enjoy tweaking their music to suit their personal listening preferences.

Hands-on with the Astell&Kern SP3000
The SP3000 is a finely crafted device, even down to its packaging and a custom leather case Jeff Li/IBTimes US

Final Verdict

The Astell&Kern SP3000 is a notable product that showcases the best of what a Digital Audio Player (DAP) can offer. Despite being in a product category that some may consider past its prime, the SP3000 defies expectations with its exceptional build quality and sound performance. With a stellar track record of innovation, the SP3000 continues to push the boundaries in terms of design and audio excellence. It is a top choice for audiophiles and music enthusiasts who prioritize uncompromising sound quality, refined design, and advanced functionality in their portable music player.

The most remarkable aspect of the SP3000, as we've discovered during our time with it, is its ability to reproduce instruments in an incredibly authentic manner. Every instrument in the music comes alive with astonishing realism, and it instils confidence that even the tiniest details in the recording are being accurately portrayed. This quality is not solely determined by power or technical specifications that can be measured, but rather a unique characteristic that sets the SP3000 apart from its competitors in the Digital Audio Player (DAP) market. In an era dominated by smartphones, the SP3000 remains irreplaceable, offering a listening experience that is unmatched and unparalleled in its ability to convey music with unparalleled precision and fidelity.