Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: a high-end hi-res digital audio player

Astell & Kern takes the idea of the DAP to its logical conclusion

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Future)

TechRadar Verdict

If you demand (and can afford) the very best digital audio player around, the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 is a no-brainer. Remarkably, it gets pretty close to justifying the asking price.

Pros

  • +

    Audio excellence in every respect

  • +

    Uncompromised specification

  • +

    A lovely object as well as an impressive device

Cons

  • -

    Stunningly expensive

  • -

    Not as portable as is ideal

  • -

    Not vegan-friendly

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Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000: One-minute review

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 is the most expensive digital audio player in a product portfolio full of expensive digital audio players. It’s specified without compromise (full independent balanced and unbalanced audio circuits? Half a dozen DACs taking care of business? These are just a couple of highlights) and it’s finished to the sort of standard that wouldn’t shame any of the world’s leading couture jewellery companies.

Best of all, though, is the way it sounds. It’s remarkably agnostic about the stuff you like to listen to, the sort of standard of digital file in which it’s contained, and the headphones you use too – and when you give it the best stuff to work with, the sound it’s capable of producing is almost humbling in its fidelity. Be in no doubt, this is the best digital audio player – aka best MP3 player – when it comes to sound quality you can currently buy. Which, when you look again at how much it costs, is about the least it needs to be. 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Price and release date

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Priced at $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 (which I think we should agree to call ‘SP3000’ from here on out) is on sale now, and in the United Kingdom it costs a not-inconsiderable £3799. In the United States, it’s a barely-more-acceptable $3699, and in Australia you’ll have to part with AU$5499.

Need I say with undue emphasis that this is quite a lot of money for a digital audio player? I’ve reviewed very decent digital audio players (DAP) from the likes of Sony for TechRadar that cost about 10% of this asking price – so why on Earth would you spend ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’ money on something that doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t do? 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Features

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD and LDAC
  • Native 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 playback
  • Discrete balanced and unbalanced audio circuits

Admittedly, when Astell & Kern says the SP3000 is “the pinnacle of audio players”, that seems a rather subjective statement. When it says this is “the world’s first DAP with independent audio circuitry”, that’s simply a statement of fact.

That independent audio circuitry keeps the signal path for the balanced and unbalanced outputs entirely separated, and it also includes independent digital and analogue signal processing. Astell & Kern calls the overall arrangement ‘HEXA-Audio’ – and it includes four of the new, top-of-the-shop AKM AK4499EX DAC chipsets along with a couple of the very-nearly-top-of-the-shop AK4191EQ DACs from the same company. When you add in a single system-on-chip to take care of CPU, memory and wireless connectivity, it becomes apparent Astell & Kern has chosen not to compromise where technical specification is concerned. And that’s before we get to ‘Teraton X’... this is a bespoke A&K-designed processor that minimises noise derived from both the power supply and the numerous DACs, and provides amplification that’s as clean and efficient as any digital audio player has ever enjoyed. 

The upshot is a player that supports every worthwhile digital audio format, can handle sample rates of up to 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 natively, and has Bluetooth 5.0 wireless connectivity with SBC, AAC, aptX HD and LDAC codec compatibility. A player that features half-a-dozen DAC filters for you to investigate, and that can upsample the rate of any given digital audio file in an effort to deliver optimal sound quality. And if you want to enjoy the sound as if it originates from a pair of loudspeakers rather than headphones, the SP3000 has a ‘Crossfeed’ feature that mixes part of the signal from one channel into the other (with time-adjustment to centre the audio image) in an effort to do just that.

Features score: 5 / 5

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Sound quality

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Insightful, engaging and convincing sound
  • Not too fussy about file sizes
  • Only slightly fussy about headphones

Some digital audio players are quite picky about what goes into them and how it comes out again - but happily, the SP3000 is not among them. Obviously it performs to its fullest when given big, information-rich digital audio files to work with and is connected to appropriately talented headphones – but it’s not about to have a hissy fit if that’s not the case.

So no matter if you listen to a big 24bit/192kHz FLAC file of Old Man by Neil Young or a bog-standard 320kbps MP3 file of Cool About It by boygenius, the SP3000 is unflappable. It doesn’t matter if you connect £50-worth of Final Audio E3000 via the 3.5mm socket or a pair of £1299 Sennheiser IE900 into the 4.4mm socket, the Astell & Kern will make the best of the situation.

In each and every circumstance, the SP3000 is an uncomplicated pleasure to listen to. Its overall presentation is almost instinctively correct, positive without being pushy, and utterly convincing. 10 hours of battery life looks perfectly adequate when written down, but in practice it’s nothing like long enough. I could listen to this Astell & Kern almost indefinitely.

Detail levels are high in the same way that The Shard is tall. No element of a recording is too minor, too peripheral or too transient to elude the SP3000 - it extracts every scrap of information from a digital audio file and organises it confidently. There’s nothing uptight or fussy about the way this player puts you in the picture, though – everything is contextualised and serves only to ensure you’re fully informed. 

Control, from the top of the frequency range to the bottom, is unarguable. The attack and decay of bass sounds, in particular, is so well-managed that rhythmic expression is completely natural and momentum is maintained in all circumstances, despite the considerable weight and substance of the low end. There’s similarly well-supervised attack at the top of the frequency range, and in between the Astell & Kern communicates eloquently through the midrange.

Dynamic headroom is extensive, so big shifts in intensity and/or volume are made plain. Lower-key dynamic variations in voices or harmonics are made absolutely plain, too. Tonality is never anything but balanced and naturalistic, and the SP3000 knits the whole frequency range together smoothly. The soundstage it’s capable of generating is well-defined and expansive – even dense or complex recordings have more than enough elbow-room to let every element express itself without hindrance. And the SP3000 achieves this without losing sight of the fact that it’s presenting a performance – the unity and togetherness of its presentation is direct and unequivocal.    

You can fiddle around the edges of the way the Astell & Kern performs by investigating your DAC filter options, sure - but in broad terms, its methodology doesn’t really change. It’s precise and meticulous, but it's no dry tool of analysis. It hits very hard through the low frequencies, but it never gets bogged down under its own weight. It’s spacious and open, but it’s seamlessly unified. 

Sound quality score: 5 / 5

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Design

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • 904L stainless steel chassis 
  • 493g; 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD)
  • 1080 x 1920 touchscreen

‘Portable’, of course, is a relative term. The SP3000 is not the most portable product of its type around – it weighs very nearly half a kilo and is 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD) – but if you can slip it into a bag then I guess it must count as ‘portable’. Its pointy corners count against it too, though – and while it comes with a protective case sourced from French tanners ALRA, the fact it’s made of goatskin is not going to appeal to everyone. 

To be fair, the body of the SP3000 isn’t as aggressively angular as some A&K designs. And the fact that it’s built from 904L stainless steel goes a long way to establishing the SP3000’s credentials as a luxury ‘accessory’ (in the manner of a watch or some other jewellery) as well as a functional device. 904L stainless steel resists corrosion like nobody’s business, and it can also accept a very high polish - which is why the likes of Rolex make use of it. I’m confident you’ve never seen such a shiny digital audio player.

The front and rear faces of the SP3000 are glass - and on the front it makes up a 5.4in 1080 x 1920 touch-screen. The Snapdragon octa-core CPU that’s in charge means it’s an extremely responsive touch-screen, too.  

On the top right edge of the chassis there’s the familiar ‘crown’ control wheel - which is another design feature that ups the SP3000’s desirability. It feels as good as it looks, and the circular light that sits behind it glows in one of a number of different colours to indicate the size of the digital audio file that’s playing. The opposite edge has three small, much less exciting, control buttons that work perfectly well but have none of the control wheel’s visual drama or tactile appeal.

The top of the SP3000 is home to three headphone sockets. There’s a 3.5mm unbalanced output, and two balanced alternatives – 2.5mm (which works with four-pole connections) and 4.4mm (which supports five-pole connections). On the bottom edge, meanwhile, there’s a USB-C socket for charging the internal battery - battery life is around 10 hours in normal circumstances, and a full charge from ‘flat’ takes around three hours. There’s also a micro-SD card slot down here, which can be used to boost the player’s 256GB of memory by up to 1TB. 

Design score: 5 / 5 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Value

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)

In absolute terms, of course, $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499 for a digital audio player is nonsense. The law of diminishing returns is at work here as surely as it is anywhere else - and you can get a big serving of the SP3000’s talents by spending less than half of its asking price (mostly, but not exclusively, by spending it with Astell & Kern itself). But if you want absolutely, positively the best-sounding DAP around, and you are fortunate enough to be able to justify the cost to yourself, well, this player is currently number one in a field of one.

Should I buy the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000?

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if... 

You want the best portable sound available
Obviously it’s going to cost you, but there’s no denying the potency of the SP3000’s performance.

You like nice things
The SP3000 is beautifully made and finished in the manner of high-end jewellery.

You’re prepared to spend big on headphones too
The SP3000 doesn’t absolutely insist on high-end headphones, but if you’ve come this far… 

Don't buy it if... 

You’re primarily interested in value for money
I can’t suggest the SP3000 represents complete value for money with a straight face.

You’re vegetarian
Specifying goatskin for the travel case seems a bit wilful. 

You’re careless
It would be a tragedy if anything were to happen to that super-polished stainless steel finish. 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Also consider

Image

FiiO M17
The FiiO M17 is, by any rational standard, a bit of a biffer - even though, as I’ve observed, ‘portable’ is a relative term. It’s a straightforward pleasure to listen to, and even if it’s lacking the last scintilla of detail and insight the SP3000 offers, you can console yourself with the act it costs comfortably less than half of the Astell & Kern.

Read our full FiiO M11S review

Image

Astell & Kern SP2000T
Or you could get within touching distance of the SP3000’s performance by putting ‘just’ £2399 Astell & Kern’s way for its SP2000T. You’ll have to sacrifice the Rolex-tastic standard of polish and shine though… 

Read our full Astell & Kern SP2000T

How I tested the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Tested for over a week
  • Tested indoors and out
  • Tested with wired and wireless headphones

I loaded the internal memory of the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 with quite a lot of high-resolution digital audio files, and I also installed the Tidal app – so ultimately I was able to lot of different types of music via a lot of different audio file types and sizes. 

I listened to the player in my home and while out and about (listening outdoors made me quite anxious at first, I don’t mind admitting – it’s an expensive device, after all). And I listened to it using a selection of wired and wireless headphones – generally, headphones able to do some justice to the SP3000’s unarguable quality. I mostly used the Sennheiser IE900 via the 4.4mm balanced input and the Bowers & Wilkins’ Px8 via Bluetooth. 

  • First reviewed in December 2023
Simon Lucas

Simon Lucas is a senior editorial professional with deep experience of print/digital publishing and the consumer electronics landscape. Based in Brighton, Simon worked at TechRadar's sister site What HiFi? for a number of years, as both a features editor and a digital editor, before embarking on a career in freelance consultancy, content creation, and journalism for some of the biggest brands and publications in the world. 


With enormous expertise in all things home entertainment, Simon reviews everything from turntables to soundbars for TechRadar, and also likes to dip his toes into longform features and buying guides. His bylines include GQ, The Guardian, Hi-Fi+, Metro, The Observer, Pocket Lint, Shortlist, Stuff T3, Tom's Guide, Trusted Reviews, and more.