Astell & Kern A&ultima A&K SP2000

GUI.

I’m often being asked why I go into so much details describing the GUI.  I review a lot of products, including many DAPs, and often asked numerous questions after the review, days, weeks, and many months later.  Sometimes I don’t have DAP in front of me at that moment, and it’s easier to “reach out” to my review if I don’t remember the answer off top of my head.  Also, you can think of this GUI section as a user guide, to make sure you didn’t miss any hidden gems.

Once you press the Power-crown and after waiting for about 20sec as you are greeted with “A” symbol, you arrive at the Main Playback screen of the SP2k, also accessible by pressing a touch Home button at the bottom of the screen.  Thanks to a large 5” display, there is plenty of room for a clear view of the interface with all the controls out in the open.  The embedded artwork (with cover art) window occupies top half of the screen, tapping on it expands the view and shows lyrics if one is available.  Swiping artwork window left/right skips to prev/next song in your playlist.  Above it you get a summary of song format (file type, bit depth, and sampling rate), with a link to Now Playing (where you can edit/modify from within) in the upper right corner and a link to Navigation Menu in the upper left corner.

Right under the artwork window there is a thin strip of transport control to fast forward/back by swiping through the song.  Of course, you can also do that by holding Next/Prev touch buttons or physical playback control buttons, but I have a feeling majority of users will probably prefer to take advantage of touch-swiping through the song.  While this control strip is narrow and requires user to be careful where you tap, A&K came up with a clever way for you to see the current song position as you swipe by turning the whole artwork window into semi-transparent transport control and literally expanding the swipe area to the entire screen when you touch and hold it.

In the lower half of the screen you have a row of controls with a left arrow (taking you back to the current folder you are in, along with a storage info), ‘+’ to add to the playlist, ‘…’ with a link to a detailed ID tag song info, and two right-most icons to control the playback by selecting play all, repeat, repeat one, play through and random.  The playback section also gets reflected in notification bar area of the DAP, all the way at the top.  Below this row of controls, you have a song name with an artist and album name, and 3 playback touch buttons with Play/Pause in the middle and Skip Next/Prev on the sides.  The buttons are large and adequately spaced so it’s easier to tap them.

The Navigation menu, accessible by pressing “A” in the upper left corner, takes you to a list with various Sorting option (song, album, artist, genre), Playlist, Folder view, MQS, CD library, Services, and Settings.  You can also access this screen by swiping display to the right from the main Playback screen, where you can also swipe to the left and get into Now Playing screen.  Under every sorting option you have other options to add songs to playback queue, different layout to view album (single, double, or triple columns), view artist with every album under each name, genres according to id tags, and my favorite Folder browsing which also gives you extra info about internal storage.

Settings menu is very important, but you can also access some of the shortcuts by swiping the screen down to see what’s available in Notification area where you can toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, EQ, USB mode, external usb, AK connect, Line Out, Car Mode, Gapless, Wheel lock, and shortcut to the main Settings menu.  Many of these toggle options don’t just enable the functionality, but if you long press on it – will take you to the menu of that functionality.  In the main Settings screen you have Wi-fi, Bluetooth, AK Connect, then Equalizer, Gapless, Line Out, L/R Balance, Playback setting (location where you add the songs in now playing and other options to add a song), Notification Panel (to customize shortcuts in notification bar), CD ripping (for external AK unit), usb mode (MTP or USB DAC input), usb audio (DSD converted to PCM or DoP), S/PDIF conversion (upon connection, enabling selection of bit depth and sample rate), and Car Mode (enabling).  Other options are DAP related, like brightness setting, date & time, device name, language, keyboard, Power settings (power, screen, sleep setting).  And of course, Update, System Info, and Default settings reset.

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Despite AK4499EQ DAC support, access to DAC filters is not enabled.  Would have been nice, but A&K is very specific about sound tuning of their DAPs.  Another thing is EQ.  One Normal EQ preset is available and no other genre specific presets, but you can create your own ones.  EQ interface is very polished and has two modes, Main and Advance.  In the main mode you have standard Paragraphic EQ sliders covering 20 bands (30, 45, 60, 90, 120, 180, 250, 380, 500, 750, 1k, 1.5k, 2k, 3k, 4k, 6k, 8k, 12k, 14k, and 18k) where you can either slide the bar or use a more precise 0.1 adjustment of the gain, as well as scrolling through available frequencies. And as you adjust, it gets reflected in the lower right corner, showing you overall shape of the EQ.  Switching to Advance, turns EQ adjustment into Parametric EQ with a full GUI view of the EQ shape where underneath you have FREQ band selection (a choice of 20), Gain selection in 0.1 and even 0.01 micro adjustments, and Q bandwidth selection in 0.1 increment adjustments.

This PEQ interface looks great and has a perfect layout, but the actual adjustment has a very subtle effect on the sound.  I was a little puzzled by this, because +/- 5dB adjustment of any band (the slider range) should be more audible, but not in this case.  I personally don’t use EQ, so it’s not a big deal for me, but if you are a frequent EQ user – please be aware.

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The whole interface is very intuitive, has a very logical layout, and very easy to read and to navigate.  I like the big display with its big control touch buttons and easy to read menus.  I like Home touch screen button which always takes you back to the main playback screen, and I like the notification bar at the top with all the available info (volume setting, playback setting, enabled controls, battery icon with percentage indicator and time display), and I like shortcuts to the main controls once you swipe the notification bar down.

And of course, the Floating Back button is another plus, though it 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.

 

Open APP Service.

Earlier when SP1000M was introduced, along with a new firmware, A&K added Open APP Service which later was implemented in all of their Android 6.0 based DAPs, such as SP1000 SS/CU, SP1000M, SE100, and SR15, and SP2000 SS/CU as well. More info could be found here where Astell & Kern goes into details about how to install and to use it.

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 service (without off-line storage support), for a long time their customers been asking to add Spotify, Qobuz 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 to about 21 apps now.  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, for example, 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.

I installed and used without a problem Spotify and Qobuz streaming apps and was able to download off-line content in Qobuz just like I would on my smartphone.

 

Page 4 – Sound analysis and Comparison to other DAPs.
Page 5 – Pair up with IEMs and Full-size headphones.
Page 6 – Wired and wireless Connections, and Conclusion.

17 thoughts on “Astell & Kern A&ultima A&K SP2000

  1. I listen exclusively via my Nagra main setup ..The holografic wide bandspread is Obvious..no hardening but romantic ..very pleased . I have a sp1000M to compare ..
    Fantastic ..

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  2. Thanks for the informative write up. Was a proud owner SP1K ss and in the midst of deciding whether to buy the SP1K amp or SP2k instead. Wondering if u have tried and compares them both. I have tried SP2k in my local headphone store and your writeup accurately described my listening experience (the higher power output delivered a better dynamic + a touch wider soundstage) which is a pleasant surprise. But unfortunately they dint carry the amp thus was uncertain if they improved the sp1k ss SQ. Sorry for the long writeup and question. Bt ur kind answer will be deeply appreciated

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    1. Sorry, I didn’t have a chance to try SPK amp. But that is a very good question. I have read comments from other people who found SPK + amp to drive demanding headphones better than sp2k. But adding amp to SPK makes it very heavy and bulky. Perhaps, SPK + amp is a good option if you have harder to drive full size headphones. But if you have many iems and want a high res portable setup, sp2k will be a better solution.

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  3. Hi Twister6. Thanks for the great review. I am planing to buy the SP2000 to go with my W80 (Ref8 cable, 2.5mm). You seem to know well the W80. I would like to you thoughts where I should get the SS or CU version to pair with W80. I can’t demo them where I live sadly and I would like to buy the one that pairs the ”best” with W80. Thank you for your time !

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  4. Hi Alex, great review and good set of comparison DAPs.

    Can you help me to understand a certain sound difference. So i’ve tried many DAPs recently in my search. Fiio, A&K, iBasso. I disliked the sound of all of them and was convinced I’d need a desktop DAC to get the sound i’m chasing. This sound is both clear (which i find comes most from a re-clocked USB source) and organic. It’s the organic piece I’m chasing the most – i’ve heard most prominently from a Schiit Gungnir/Mjolnir stack where Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car for example sounded so resonant, natural, organic and just down-right effortless. There’s good instrument separation but vocals always sit just above the instruments (where i feel they should be). I’ve been chasing this signature ever since. So i tried all the mid-level offerings of the above DAP makers and heard nothing but flat, distant and lifeless signatures. Then the shop owner suggested the SP2K and voila, there it was! Note this was the SS version, i also heard the CU version and didn’t find it there. So now my search has expanded and at that sound quality it makes sense to pool cash into maybe a single SP2K SS instead of 2 desktop systems (home and work) which is what i though i’d have to do to get this sound.

    So my question is ‘which other DAPs have this sound signature i’m chasing?’ Given the Schiit stack reference which use an r2r, is the Hifiman R2R2000 Red the answer or maybe Black. What about LPGT, Cayin N8 or DTR1 even sounds promising. My main use is local flac files but OTG USB functionality is useful too. Or is there anything i’m missing?

    Appreciate you work here and any direction you can give.

    Thanks

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      1. I’ve got 64Audio a12t customs.

        10/10 need is this organic and easy sound
        10/10 need is local flac files
        6/10 need is that it’s reasonably portable
        5/10 need is ability to use DAP as a USB DAC
        3/10 need is for balanced
        0/10 need is for good battery life
        0/10 need is for touch screen

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      2. you can cross DTR1 and R2R off your list. Those are nice DAPs to have in addition to your main dap, but you will get very frustrated with their user interface, not to mention both of these daps will make your A12t hiss like SOB. N8 is great, but not as portable, especially with those knobs/controls. It’s a great DAP for sure, so maybe keep it under consideration, but only for its tube output. SP2k might be your best choice, but also you should consider N6ii with new E01 dac/amp card which has 2 modes, Class A and Class AB where Class AB makes sound more revealing, while Class A adds a touch of smoothness you desire.

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      3. Oh wow. That’s amazing to not have to worry about dtr1 and r2r. Thanks. I hadn’t considered N6ii. Will check it out.

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  5. I finally heard the 2000cu at Canjam and I was shocked at how good it was. I used my Cleopatra and Valkyries, the were taken to a whole different level…

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  6. Twister6 , Thanks so much for the detailed product description , very useful

    could you tell us more about the differnce between steel /black steel and copper , thanks a lot

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