Excellent sound and user experience, united with an innovative swappable DAC feature, while the A&futura SE180 isn’t cheap and not all that portable, it’s an impressively featured and assured music player.
- Open, expansive soundstage with lots of detail
- Premium build quality
- Intuitive user interface and operation
- Extensive specification
- Swappable DAC feature
- Player and DAC modules are expensive
- Not exactly portable
- Battery life not the longest
- Swappable DAC featureCan swap the internal DAC and customise the audio performance
- Teraton Alpha Sound SolutionAims to remove power noise and provide more efficient power consumption
- Audio fileSupports up to native DSD256 and 32bit/384kHz support with original DAC
If you believe the likes of Apple and Samsung, an iPhone or Galaxy smartphone is all you will ever need to keep you company on your travels. Clearly, no one has told Astell&Kern.
The Korean company continues to swim against the tide, launching new portable music players and updating its older models – and for good reason. If you want the best audio performance on-the-go, you ought to consider picking up a dedicated music player.
And according to Astell&Kern, the A&Futura SE180 is its most advanced player yet, offering users the ability to switch DAC modules on-the-fly to produce a different sound. It’s a radical notion in the field of portable music, and it doesn’t come cheap, but quality this good rarely ever does.
- Premium build quality
- Excellent volume wheel operation
- Not exactly pocketable
Surprisingly, the Astell&Kern A&futura SE180’s appearance isn’t as eclectic as some of its more angular and off-kilter brethren, taking on a – believe it or not – more straightforward but still asymmetric and, most definitely, minimalist approach to design.
As a unit, the SE180 feels reassuringly well built. When turned off, the touchscreen looks like it takes up much of the player’s front real-estate. However, the screen isn’t a top-to-bottom, side-to-side affair with black borders running around it. Nevertheless, the 5-inch touchscreen looks handsome, and the back is covered by a tough glass surface.
Both the rear and front are prone to picking up smudges and fingerprints, but other than that you’ll find it hard to cause it any significant (or, potentially irreversible) damage. Having dropped it (accidentally) on a wooden floor, the first thought was relief that it didn’t fall on my foot, followed by a check on the integrity of the wood-panelled flooring. They are screen guards included in the packaging, if you’re concerned about potential scratches.
To call the A&futura SE180 portable is something of a stretch. At 280g it’s lighter than some headphones; when carried in the hand, there’s a weightiness that affirms its premium price point. But the weight isn’t the issue – it’s the A&futura’s size. The SE180 takes up plenty of place in a trouser pocket, which makes it cumbersome to carry around – unless you’re storing it in a jacket pocket.
There is a wonderfully tactile volume wheel on the side, and behind it is a colour LED light that signifies the resolution of the file being played (16-bit is red, 24-bit is green, DSD is purple). Below the volume wheel is a function button for playback (start, stop, skip etc).
At the bottom is a USB-C connection and microSD slot, while up top you’ll find 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced outputs alongside a 3.5mm unbalanced out. At either end of the player’s top half are buttons to prise the DAC module area away to insert a different one. It seems the more you swap DACs around, the easier it becomes to pull it out.
- Intuitive and well-designed interface
- Innovative swappable module feature
- Extensive file support
Where to begin with a player that’s as feature-complete as the A&futura SE180? Storage, like other Astell&Kern players, is 256GB internally, with the microSD slot supporting cards up to 1TB. Conveniently, the player’s interface mixes albums/tracks from both storage options into one seamless whole.
A&K calls the user interface Android-like, but don’t go in expecting a carbon copy of Android Pie; similarities encompass the navigation and operation functionality. A swipe from the top reveals notifications, wireless connectivity, EQ modes and a brightness slider for the screen. Swipes to the left and right flick through album tracks, and there’s a degree of modification of arranging your tracks and albums just how you like them.
It’s all fairly speedy thanks to the quad-core CPU, and intuitive to use, making perusing through your music collection a simple joy rather than a chore. Firmware updates are supported, and you can download streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal, although they’re delivered in a slightly truncated form compared to their Android counterparts.
The 5-inch touchscreen features a 1920 x 1080 Full HD display, and it’s excellent. Colours look great, text is clear and legible, and glare from any light source doesn’t have a detracting effect. Notch this up as another tick in the win column for the SE180.
There’s no mention of battery life, but in use the A&futura SE180 feels like it eats up its battery like a savoury dish at times. Charging isn’t the quickest either, with three hours considered a fast-charge and five hours in total to get back to full beans if the battery is depleted.
Audio format support is encompassing and is more a case of what isn’t supported by the SE180. WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, and MQA are all onboard, with PCM supported up to 384kHz, and DSD up to DSD256. A slight addendum to that is you can reach higher bit-rates by plugging in different modules. The SEM2 Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ Dual DAC goes up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and native DSD512.
And those modules can be bought from Astell&Kern, with the SEM2 and SEM3 available – although at the time of the review, the SEM2 was out of stock and both cost a chin-stroking £319. Switching the module isn’t as easy as A&K would have you believe. I managed to chip a few nails in the process; it isn’t simply a case of easing the DAC module from the main housing – some force is most definitely required.
Other features include the AK File Drop, for wirelessly transferring files to a PC, smartphone of FTP program on the same network and the BT Sink function, for connection to an external device over Bluetooth. Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity brings with it wireless high-res compatibility with aptX HD and LDAC, too. However you look at the A&futura SE180, you’re not short of options for feeding it with top-quality sources.
- Open and expansive sound
- Excellent levels of detail and insight
- Swappable DACs can affect overall presentation
Having used the A&futura SE180 with a range of headphones, its key traits become clear: namely a smooth, clear, and naturalistic approach to sound; a fanaticism for uncovering detail; and a presentation that’s layered and spacious.
Of course, which headphones you pair the A&futura SE180 with will bring their own characteristics and quirks. A pair of Beyerdynamic AK T9iE in-ear monitors were supplied for this review, and I wasn’t fond of their detail retrieval or their sharpness with higher frequencies. As such, I used other headphones.
The A&futura SE180 is a player that rarely overcooks or oversells a track. It’s transparent in the signal it feeds to a pair of headphones, natural and nuanced, and presents as much detail as it can wrangle from the recording. Separation of instruments within the soundstage is finely done, with each distinct from one another that makes for a dense, layered and – ultimately – very communicative soundstage that’s broad and big in scale.
Smoothness is a word that comes to mind often when thinking about the SE180. It offered a composed and assured listen that’s endlessly engaging and encourages the listener to play ‘one more track’ to hear how the Astell&Kern describes it.
The character of vocals is preserved well, with the smooth and distinctive delivery of Jez Williams’ voice in Doves’ The Universal Want (24-bit/96kHz) retained or conveyance of mournful longing of Nick Cave’s Ghosteen album (24-bit/96kHz) standing out. There’s never been anything less of a sense that from an emotional standpoint, the SE180 guides the listener to where they need to be.
With higher-resolution files, the A&futura SE180 – as you might expect from a £1399 player – stretches its legs and flexes its muscles. The low-frequency performance of Ludwig Göransson’s Rainy Night in Tallinn (24-bit/44.1kHz) is big, weighty and propulsive when piped through the Meze Audio Liric headphones, while a DSD file of the Bach Concerto is fettered with tremendous detail, clarity and insight, the timbre of instruments and texture of notes naturally described.
If there’s an area of the SE180 that I could nit-pick at, it’s that the player’s measured approach can rein in greater levels of expression – but this was my perspective with the original SEM1 DAC in play. Brass instruments in David Bowie’s Modern Love on Tidal sounded a little less expressive than I remember; the track more crisp in its delivery. A swap to the SEM2 DAC module and there’s more of a smoothness to the SE180 with vocals, there’s some more weight and texture to the bass, and a slight hint of more overall warmth; but it still maintains its expansive stage and handle for unearthing detail.
Should you buy it?
If you want the intricacies of your music collection revealed Top-notch presentation from the Astell&Kern, with its expansive soundstage and fanatical sense for detail.
If what you seek is something portable It’s big, chunky and a bit heavy, too – if you’re looking to put the SE180 into a trouser pocket, you may want to think again.
If you treasure your music collection, you ought to have a dedicated music player – and Astell&Kern consistently puts out some of the best on the market. The A&futura SE180 is another effort of superior quality.
Build quality is excellent, the screen and interface make it easy to use, and the performance provides an excellent foundation for your favourite music. The A&futura SE180 is expensive, nor is it especially portable, but its performance is unarguably impressive.
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 with a range of audio formats
Tested over several weeks
Tested with various headphones
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Astell&Kern has priced both the SEM2 and SEM2 DAC modules at £319