Astell and Kern Aultima SP3000 Review
Almost incredibly, the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 gets this close to justifying the asking price. For those who demand (and can afford) the best products around, you won’t have much to weigh up here.
- Thrillingly complete audio quality
- A luxury accessory as much as a music player
- Brilliantly over-the-top specification
- Not what you’d call ‘affordable’
- ‘Portable’ is a relative term, too
- Not altogether suitable for vegetarians
- DACQuad AKM4499EX DACs
- Audio support32-bit/784kHz and DSD512 native resolution
- CPUSnapdragon octa-core CPU
Astell & Kern is no stranger to an eye-popping price-tag – but with the SP3000 digital audio player it’s outdone itself. You thought the price of the SP2000T I reviewed towards the end of 2021 was optimistic? This new SP3000 range-topper is almost twice as expensive.
What exactly does £3799 put Astell & Kern’s way get you, then? Just a digital audio player? Surely there’s more to it than that?
- UKRRP: £3799
- USARRP: $3699
- AustraliaRRP: AU$5499
The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 (to give it its full and borderline-incoherent name) is on sale now, and in the United Kingdom it costs a fearsome £3799. In the United States you’ll have to part with an only slightly more palatable $3699 to secure one, while in Australia you’re looking at AU$5499.
There’s a Copper colour version of the speaker retailing at the same prices, available at stockists such as Selfridges and Astell Kern’s own site.
It rather goes without saying that this is very big money indeed for something that, on the face of it, doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t. So why exactly would you cough up the price of a nice clean second-hand car for a portable music player?
- 904L stainless steel chassis
- 1080 x 1920 touchscreen
- Goat-skin case
First things first: what do you think of when you hear the word ‘portable’? Because although the SP3000 is obviously portable – it can be picked up in one hand and easily moved from place to place – it may not fit your idea of the word.
At 493g and 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD), it’s certainly not going to slip into a jacket pocket, and its pointy metal corners are no friend to clothing either. Yes, it’s supplied with a tactile (and doubtless costly) protective case supplied by French tanners ALRA, which helps a little – but it’s made of goatskin, which isn’t going to excite any vegetarian audiophiles thinking of spending money with Astell & Kern.
The main body of the chassis is only mildly angular by A&K’s standards, and it’s built from 904L stainless steel. Not only is the material heroically resistant to corrosion, it also accepts an extremely high polish – which is why it’s favoured by the likes of Rolex. The front and rear faces of the SP3000 are glass, and at the front it constitutes a 5.4in 1080 x 1920 touch-screen. An extremely responsive touch-screen, what’s more, thanks in large part to A&K specifying a Snapdragon octa-core CPU.
The upper right-hand edge of the frame features a push/turn ‘crown’ control wheel. It operates with luxuriously damped precision, and sits above a circular light that glows in different colours to indicate the size of the digital audio file that’s playing. On the opposite edge there are three small control buttons- they’re equally well implemented but nothing like as exciting to use.
The bottom edge is where you’ll find a USB-C socket for recharging the battery – a full charge from empty takes around 3.5 hours, and the battery itself is good for about 10 hours of playback (if you’re listening to mid-res files at middling volume). There’s also a micro-SD card slot here, which can accept cards of up to 1TB to bolster the player’s integrated 256GB of memory.
The top of the SP3000 is where you’ll find headphones sockets. There are three here: a 3.5mm unbalanced output, and two balanced alternatives – one is 2.5mm and works only with four-pole connections, while the other is 4.4mm and supports only five-pole connections.
- Entirely separate balanced and unbalanced audio circuits
- Native 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 playback
- Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD and LDAC compatibility
Astell & Kern says the A&ultima SP3000 is ‘the pinnacle of audio players’, which is obviously debatable. It also says it’s ‘the world’s first DAP with independent dual audio circuitry’, which is rather more difficult to take issue with.
The independent dual audio circuitry, which keeps the signal path for balanced and unbalanced outputs entirely separate, also includes completely independent digital and analogue signal processing. The SP3000 marks the first appearance of AKM’s new ‘statement’ AK4499EX DAC – or, rather, four of them.
In conjunction with a pair of the same company’s AK4191EQs, they form what A&K is calling HEXA-Audio circuitry. Other technical highlights – and there are plenty – include a single system-on-chip handling CPU, memory and wireless communication duties, and Teraton X. Teraton X, explains A&K, is a processor that keeps power-derived and DAC-derived noise to a minimum while providing clean, efficient amplification. A&K suggests, without apparent hyperbole, it’s the ‘ultimate sound solution’.
The SP3000 supports all the obvious audio formats like FLAC, MP3, MQA and WAV, as well as quite a few of the more esoteric alternatives. Sample rates of up to 32-bit/784kHz and DSD512 can be handled natively, and the player is Roon Ready too. Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.0, and there’s support for SBC, AAC, aptX HD and LDAC codecs.
What else? Well, there are half-a-dozen DAC filters to experiment with. There’s DAR (digital audio remaster), which will – if you want – upsample the sample rate of the file you’re listening to in an effort to deliver superior sound. And with Crossfeed, A&K intends the SP3000 to create the effect of listening to loudspeakers when you’re listening to headphones by mixing part of the signal from one channel into the other, with a time-adjustment to centre the audio image.
Extensive seems a reasonable word to use when discussing the A&ultima SP3000’s feature-set.
- Convincing, lifelike sound
- Fairly easy-going about partnering headphones
- Doesn’t insist on the highest of hi-res audio files
There’s no two ways about it: the bigger and more information-rich the digital audio file you play, the better the SP3000 likes it. But it’s equally fair to say this Astell & Kern player is no snob – rather than exposing the limitations of lower-resolution content, it simply does what it can to make the best of it.
It’s similarly laid-back where the quality of your headphones is concerned, too (although it’s safe to say you should be spending big money on headphones if you want to hear exactly where the big money you spent on this player went). It’s an admirable trait, and not one that’s all that common in high-end audio equipment of any type.
So whether it’s a bog-standard 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV file of Shoplifting by The Slits or a DSD64 copy of Stevie Wonder’s Big Brother, the SP3000 is an engaging, entertaining listen with a list of sonic talents as long as your arm.
Detail levels are high enough to provoke vertigo. Control is absolute – the attack and decay of individual sounds is judged beautifully, and so where the lower frequencies are concerned there’s real momentum to go along with almost implausible weight. Information regarding tone and texture is dished up in lavish fashion. Dynamic headroom is prodigious where the big shifts are concerned, and the lower-key dynamic variations in a solo instrument are made absolutely evident too.
The SP3000 ties the entirety of the frequency range together seamlessly – from the deep, substantial bottom end to the clean, crisp top, the A&K is smooth and convincing. It creates a believable, well-defined and easy to follow soundstage, and manages the by-no-means straightforward job of allowing each element of a recording the space it needs to express itself while integrating it effortlessly into the overall performance. Which means that timing – that sense of unity and commonality – is about as good as it gets.
Fiddling with the DAC filters can make little, rather fussy, differences to the way the SP3000 goes about delivering music – but in all honesty, the fundamentals of its performance remain unchanged. It’s precise and accurate, but not analytical for the sake of it. It’s punchy and substantial, but it’s not muscle-bound. It’s wide-open, but it’s tightly unified.
It’s at about this point of a review that I like to do the ‘yeah, but…’ thing to try and add a little salt to the menu. But in all honesty, in purely sonic terms the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 just doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s a pleasure to listen to, to the point that the 10-hour battery life begins to seem inadequate.
Should you buy it?
You want the best-sounding digital audio player available: Here it is… get your credit-card out.
You don’t believe in diminishing returns: This is the best-sounding DAP around, no question – but it’s not twice as good as something costing half as much.
In all honesty I was ready to dislike the SP3000. Ridiculous price, not as portable as it thinks it is… and then I spent a few days listening to it. That it’s not for everyone is pretty obvious – but those who demand (and can afford) the best products of their type around don’t have much to weigh up here.
How we test
We test every portable music player we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
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Tested for a week
Tested with real world use
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The SP3000 can support microSD cards up to 1TB.
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LDACLDAC is an audio technology from Sony that allows for higher quality audio streaming over a Bluetooth connection, with bit-rates of up to 990kbps
Hi-Res audio is referred to as a standard as well as a marketing term that describes digital audio files of better-than-CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz).