Look, I don’t want to throw any shade whatsoever on either of the hi-res audio players I'm about to discuss. Both are quite frankly superb for the money. I love Astell & Kern's new cheap USB-C DAC and entry-level A&norma SR25 MKII player just as much as I adore the A&ultima SP2000T and the new A&ultima SP3000 – which is one of the options I'm here to talk about.
But there comes a crossroads in any audiophile's journey (or fledgling music lover tentatively looking into it as a lifestyle choice) when the simple and reasonable question is posed: "Come on, which of these would you have if money were no object?"
And I need to give you an answer. Despite my enduring love for my humble-res iPod Classic and respect for some of the best MP3 players at cheaper price points (Cowon Plenue D3, I am looking chiefly at you) I'm afraid it isn't good news for the more frugally-minded. If, like me, you can't drop $3,799 / £3,799 / AU$4,999 on the A&ultima SP3000, you're going to have to trust me on this one (and hey, maybe we could start a Just Giving page?) but if you've got the folding, there's one player you should be holding.
Can't buy me love
But you can buy me hi-res audio players or digital audio players (sometimes shortened to DAPs).
The two hi-res audio players I tried? Astell & Kern Kann Max and A&ultima SP3000. The headphones: various, but mostly the Audeze Euclid, Focal Bathys, Grado SR80x, and Sivga Oriole.
Now, some simple comparison via cold, hard specs.
|Astell & Kern Kann Max||Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000|
|Price||$1,300 / £1,199 / AU$1,899||$3,799 / £3,799 / AU$4,999|
|DAC||4 x ESS ES9038Q2M 32-Bit||4 x AKM4499EX 32-Bit and 2 x AKM419EQ 32-Bit|
|Audio resolution||PCM: 8 ~ 768 kHz / 32-Bit DSD512: 2.8 ~ 22.4 MHz / 1-Bit||PCM: 8 ~ 768 kHz / 32-Bit DSDNative: 2.8 ~ 22.4 MHz / 1-Bit|
|Quoted battery life||13hrs, charges in 5.5hrs||10hrs, charges in 3.5hrs|
|Wireless Connectivity||Bluetooth 5.0 Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n); aptX HD, LDAC||Bluetooth 5.0 Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac); aptX Adaptive, LDAC|
|Frequency response||20 Hz to 20 kHz ±0.023 dB (Unbalanced) 20 Hz to 70 kHz ±0.035 dB (Unbalanced) 20 Hz to 20 kHz ±0.026 dB (Balanced) 20 Hz to 70 kHz ±0.072 dB (Balanced)||20 Hz to 20 kHz ±0.019 dB (Balanced) 20 Hz to 70 kHz ±0.026 dB (Balanced) 20 Hz to 20 kHz ±0.006 dB (Unbalanced) 20 Hz to 70 kHz ±0.014 dB (Unbalanced)|
|Max output voltage||8 Vrms (Unbalanced Line Out, High Gain) 15 Vrms (Balanced Headphone Out, High Gain)||6.3 Vrms (Balanced 2.5 mm Out/4.4 mm Out) 3.3 Vrms (Unbalanced 3.5 mm Out)|
|Impedance||1 Ohms (Unbalanced 3.5 mm Out) 1.6 Ohms (Balanced 2.5 mm Out/4.4 mm Out)||0.8 Ohms (Unbalanced 3.5 mm Out) 2 Ohms (Balanced 4.4 mm Out) 1.8 Ohms (Balanced 2.5 mm Out)|
|Signal to noise ratio||114 dB (Unbalanced) 115 dB (Balanced)||130 dB (Balanced) 125 dB (Unbalanced)|
|Screen||4.1" LCD (1280 x 720 resolution)||5.46" LCD (1920 x 1080 resolution)|
|Storage||64 GB (expandable to 1TB with microSD)||256 GB (expandable to 1TB with microSD)|
A quick glance shows the extra DACs and better specs of the wildly more expensive SP3000 (apart from that battery life), but what the above grid doesn't explain is that the flagship player is the world’s first digital audio player with independent Dual Audio Circuitry, thanks to that new top-of-the-range AK4499EX DAC chip from Asahi Kasei, used in the HEXA Audio Circuitry structure.
This complete separation of balanced and unbalanced output boasts "the purest possible sonic reproduction" – no, A&K isn't holding back on the merits of this one. And nor should it, because I believe that statement is correct.
But let's start with the basics. Both are objects of brutalist beauty and actually, the Kann Max slips into the pocket like a treat. Some of the team actually prefer Kann Max's dark and brooding looks to the shiny SP3000, even though the latter's casework is quickly covered by the included premium leather case. The A&ultima SP3000 is also the world’s first portable player to be hewn from a watch-grade 904L stainless steel body, a premium-grade and extremely durable metal, beloved by luxury watchmakers that has never been used on a portable player – until now.
But that's all just looks, isn't it? Well, actually no. The glorious rotary dial that has become a calling card of A&K players does click delightfully on each player, but only the one on the flagship model can be pressed for power. The Kann Max has a little power button on the top right corner, but it doesn't exactly feel like one physical button to rule them all.
The SP3000 is also the first player to use the new flagship AK4499EX DAC chip from Asahi Kasei. It's used in the innovative HEXA Audio Circuitry structure that separates digital and analog signal processing. Then again, both players can handle just about any hi-res file format going, with support for all key formats (including MQA, Native DSD 512) and streaming-service connectivity. So why pay the extra?
Here's one reason: A&K's staple watch-style crown rotary dial joins a new 5.46-in full high-definition display and a new-generation on-screen interface in the SP300, which means that Tidal and Apple Music (my go-to streaming services when hi-res audio is on the menu) are much easier to access and link – because the screen is so much bigger. Anyone who's ever tried keying in their emails and passwords to link such services on their DAP knows what I mean here.
And thanks to the "reimagined user interface", you can slide across to cue up an album in your downloaded collection, with album artwork placed in CD-case-type frames, just like old times! And there are myriad other details here, such as the fact that when tweaking the volume, which goes up to 150 increments in both cases, the SP3000 glows red as you go higher. It just makes the Kann Max's display, while perfectly adequate for the level, a little congested in (completely unfair) comparison.
Gimme the beat boys and free my soul
Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of any hi-res audio player is in the listening. Both of these propositions walk all over your smartphone. But the SP3000 is three times the price and, I have to tell you, it is emphatically worth it in the sound-per-pound stakes.
Is this value? That depends on whether you really want to hear separation, space, and detail between each of Tom Yorke's simultaneous layered vocals in Radiohead's Let Down. The neutrality, the three-dimensional breathiness, the cleanness – all are just that bit more apparent. And Radiohead aren't going to play this one any time soon, are they? The studio version makes it incredibly difficult to perform live. It truly depends on what price you put on hearing that and it's not an easy one, I'll grant you. But your music sounds remarkably agile, emotive, and alive here.
The pensive bass riff in Dire Straits' So Far Away From Me (on DSD, which makes the volume knobs on both players glow purple) is just that bit more crisp through the leading edges of notes and as the track builds, the dynamics have me shaking my head to the hidden oomph just waiting to come across in the SP3000.
Again, the same track comes over beautifully in the Kann Max (and it'll ruin your smartphone and cheap earbuds for you – even if they're some of the best wireless earbuds going), with all musical strands held resolutely in check just as you'd expect. It's just that for the discerning audiophile, an even better performance exists – and why else would Astell & Kern have offered to throw out the budgetary concerns and try to do it?
So there's the truth, much as it pains and excites me. Now, if I only had the expendable income.