GUI and Open APP Service.
The GUI of SPKM is identical to the original SPK, thus I refer you to read my original SP1000 SS/CU review where I already covered it in depth here. The SPKM interface is as fast and responsive as the original SPK, and yes, the Parametric EQ is still an eye candy with a very subtle sound adjustment since, according to A&K, they put a lot emphasis into the tuning of the original sound signature of their DAPs.
I’m sure there are some other tweaks behind the curtains, perhaps optimizing some performance, but the first noticeable change is the Floating Back button which can be easily disabled by dragging it to the middle of the display or enabled/disabled in the Settings menu under Input Method. The button itself is floating and could be moved to anywhere along the left/right sides of the screen. You still have a Home touch button in the center under the visible part of the display, and when browsing A&K menus and settings you will find Back button at the top to go to the previous screen. So, why do we need a Floating Back button?
The answer to the question could be found here, where Astell & Kern goes into details about their new Open APP Service feature which is going to be implemented in all of their Android 6.0 based DAPs, such as SP1000 SS/CU, SP1000M, SE100, and SR15. While SP1000M introduced it as a teaser with a new DAP release, a week later the firmware update was pushed to SP1000 to enable Floating Back button and Open APP Service which currently supports: Amazon Music, Spotify, Tidal, Sound Cloud, Pandora, Melon, Bugs, Music Mate, AWA, QQ Music, KK Box, and more supported services coming soon.
Now, back to the question of the Back button. When you start dealing with Android apps, in many cases you do need a Back button for navigation, and now you have one which going to come in handy when dealing with streaming apps. While Astell & Kern offers a built-in Tidal and Groovers+ services (without off-line storage support), for a long time their customers been asking to add Spotify and other streaming services. A&K latest DAPs do run on Android, but it’s a heavily modified closed OS without access to Google Play. In a way, it’s a blessing for a manufacturer to keep DAP performance optimized since you don’t have to worry about customers installing and running other unstable apps.
Now with Open APP Service you have more freedom, but the list of allowed apps is reasonably limited. And when you decide to install a non-blacklisted app, you need to download APK file (use a site like https://apkpure.com/), copy it to Open Service Folder located on internal storage, go to Services on the DAP, and when you see the app being recognized and listed in there – click to install it. Keep in mind, you will have to install Tidal apk if you want off-line downloads. Also, installed apps will not be updated automatically since you are not running Google Play. You will have to keep track of app updates and manually download and install new versions.
Since both SPK and SPKM will have access to Open APP Service, neither one has an advantage when it comes to streaming apps. Even the difference in internal storage doesn’t matter since off-line downloads can be stored on external microSD.
Without a doubt, many will be curious how does SPKM sounds in comparison to SPK. In this test I had both DAPs side-by-side playing the same song, using the same SE or BAL output (depending on cable termination), volume matched for consistency with the same pair of IEMs.
I took notes when listening out of the box and after a few hours, and then let SPKM play in a loop for about a week before making the final judgment about the sound comparison. A lot of manufacturers recommend burn in, especially for the benefit of capacitors, and I’m glad I did it here because there was a noticeable change in the treble tonality before and after. Before the burn in, out of the box, the treble was a lot smoother, still extended but with less sparkle, giving the overall tonality a warmer and smoother feeling. I also heard similar impressions from people who attended RMAF’18 where SPKM was introduced to the public with fresh units on the display. After the burn in, treble opened up, nearly matching the controlled sparkle of the original SPK.
Here is how I hear SPKM vs SPK. SPK has a more holographic soundstage with a wider expansion. Bass is nearly identical, from sub-bass rumble to mid-bass slam. Lower mids are just a little slimmer in SPK, while SPKM has a slightly fuller body, though the difference is subtle. Treble is also nearly identical after the burn in. When it comes to sound performance, these are nearly identical with the same resolution, sound layering, retrieval of details, bass impact, and upper mids/treble presentation and tonality. The most noticeable difference is in soundstage expansion (SPK is more holographic), and lower mids thickness (SPKM has a slightly fuller body).
In this testing I was using CFA Andromeda, UM Mason V3, Oriolus Mellianus, and 64 Audio U18t IEMs with a variety of instrumental, classical, pop/rock/EDM/acoustic lossy and lossless tracks. In every case I had to volume match since SPKM balanced output has a little more power, making it more efficient where I had to adjust volume by 3 clicks down. In every case I found SPK soundstage to be more holographic/wider, and only in case of Mason V3 I found SPKM treble to be a little smoother.
Furthermore, since we are talking about the sound and I already mentioned about SPK fw update which aligns it now with SPKM, I also noticed no changes in the sound of SPK after the update. Obviously, I can’t do a true a/b blind comparison since I don’t have two identical SPK units with different FW loads. Also, you can’t go back in FW after the update. The comparison was done by memory where I listened before and after the update. But in case of FW 1.08 to 1.10, I didn’t hear any drastic changes in SPK. There could be some subtle differences, but it’s hard to tell.
Lately, going bigger and heavier seems to be a new norm for flagship DAPs, getting to the point where some are starting to feel more transportable than portable. It’s fine for a home use where you don’t want to be tied up to your desktop, and it’s very convenient when listening to high res music at work, on a business trip or vacation, or during a long commute to/from work. But walking around with a larger size 350-400g DAP in your pocket will not be comfortable for everybody. As a result, people look for smaller devices, finding the best compromise between the size/weight and the performance.
Surprisingly, while SP1000M cuts corners in the size and the weight, its sound performance wasn’t compromised too much. SP1000M size is smaller and more comfortable for one-handed operation. Its weight is down to almost half of SP1000 SS/CU. Its screen is smaller, yet still with the same resolution, and large enough to view and to read everything clear. It still features the same two flagship DACs and fast processor. Optical output and external amp docking are removed since it’s targeted for a more portable pocket use. Internal storage is reduced from 256GB to 128GB, which could be under Cons for some. And there is a sweet reduction in price from $3.5k to $2.4k. But the most important one, with an exception of a wider soundstage perception in SPK, the rest of SPKM sound performance is very close.
In my humble opinion, if you already have SP1000 SS/CU – I don’t see any reason for an upgrade, unless you are really bothered by the size and the weight of it. And if you have been eyeballing SP1000 for a while, now you have a chance to save money without sacrificing much of the performance, with an exception of a few differences which some might not even hear. If you want the top dog, SP1000 SS/CU is still A&K flagship and SP1000M is not taking that crown away. But SP1000M is pretty damn close, even with additional benefits if you need a more portable DAP. And of course, both will have the latest FW with Open APP Service.