PROS: choice between different tonalities, solid build, modular design, hi-res 5” display, modules (SEM1/SEM2) with 2.5mm/3.5mm/4.4mm outputs, MQA support, aptX and LDAC Bluetooth (both Tx and Rx).
CONS: battery life, cost of additional modules.
The product was loaned to me for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Looks like I can’t use “when hell freezes over” anymore when talking about Astell & Kern DAPs. In October of last year, they finally introduced 4.4mm BAL output, in addition to Wireless LDAC protocol, in an all-new KANN Alpha DAP. And if you thought it was just a fluke or one-time thing, here comes the latest A&futura series SE180 modular DAP release with LDAC and 4.4mm BAL, along with 2.5mm and 3.5mm, on stock SEM1 and optional SEM2 modules.
SE180 announcement caught everyone by surprise, and not only because of LDAC and 4.4mm BAL output, but also a modular DAC/amp design and a reduced price. While A&K didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here with a modular dac/amp design, they improved it and set a high bar to even challenge their current flagship. Years ago, DAP competition was less fierce. Today is a different story with a highly competitive market, and A&K responded with a highly competitive product release.
I received SE180 as a loaner for 2 weeks because this is the first and the only demo unit available in US now, and I appreciate the opportunity to test it. I didn’t have time for a lot of my usual pair up and comparison examples, but I still tried to cover as much as I can to paint a detailed picture of this new A&K DAP from A&futura series. So, let’s take a closer look at what I found.
Unboxing and Accessories.
I received SE180 without a packaging box, just the chassis and SEM1 and SEM2 modules, so there is nothing to write about the unboxing experience or accessories. I’m sure packaging will be similar to SE200 or other entry and mid-fi level A&K DAPs, probably including a manual, a few sets of screen protectors, and a premium quality charging/data usb-c cable. I don’t expect leather case to be included since I don’t recall seeing SE200 unboxing with a leather case. Would love to be proven wrong, but SE180 is cheaper than SE200 and I expect it to follow the same footsteps.
I think many audiophiles are well aware that A&K pays as much attention to the sound tuning as they do to chassis design of DAPs. All of their players have a unique signature look and solid build, and sometimes you don’t even feel like hiding it inside of a leather case. To me, their flagship A&ultima SP2000 has a more formal classy look, while their “entry” level SR25 A&norma pushes the envelope with a funky tilted screen and slightly tilted sides design. SE200 also has a unique tilt of the chassis when you look at the side profile and a sculptured wavy line around the volume wheel.
SE180 picked up a lot of cues from SE200 design. The same size screen (5”) and overall dimensions are close, 77×137.2×19.9mm, just a little taller and thicker due to a modular design which contributes to 380g of weight (100g more than SE200). SE180 also features tilted chassis sides and a little less pronounced wavy line around its LED volume wheel with multi-function light that lit up with red (16bit), green (24bit), blue (32bit), and purple (DSD) which can also be disabled. The wheel itself has a signature A&K watch crown design with a precise click action control as you turn the volume up/down using your thumb. But what I found atypical here is a single playback physical button with functionality of single click to play/pause, double click to skip forward, and triple click to skip back.
You no longer going to find 3 separate buttons on the opposite side from the volume wheel, and you also going to lose being able to fast-forward/back by holding separate skip buttons. It took me a minute to get used to this new multi-control button, typical control of wireless headsets. Afterwards, I found it quite intuitive and convenient since I was able to control the volume and the playback using my thumb due to their close proximity to each other. The only thing I was missing is pushing the volume wheel to turn display on/off. For that you have to reach to a power button located at the top of the DAP. I’m so used to SP2000, that I continued to push the volume wheel on SE180.
With volume wheel and playback multi-function button on the right side, the left side is empty. At the bottom of the DAP, you have usb-c multi-function port used for charging, file transfer, USB DAC in connection, and USB Audio out connection. Next to it is the spring-loaded micro-SD card slot to expand the internal storage. The top of the DAP is where you will find a new major element of SE180 modular design – that is where the actual module goes in. And at the top left and right corners of the chassis sides you will find small release buttons you have to push in to release the DAC/amp module. Unlike other modular designs with 2 screws holding the module down, here you don’t need any tools.
I will go into more details about the modules in the next section, but do want to mention that stock SEP1 module and optional SEP2 have the same look and the same ports, featuring single ended 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm headphone/LO outputs. Each module also has a power button used to turn the display on/off as well as power down/up the DAP. One thing to keep in mind, SEP modules are not hot-swappable. Once you remove a module, SE180 will power down and you will have to turn it back on after inserting a new module.
Under the hood.
As one can imagine, the first thing that stands out from under the hood is the modular design and 2 removable interchangeable modules. While SE200 had multi-DAC design, SE180 modular design allows you to completely remove and replace a card with another DAC/amp combo.
The default SEM1 module has ES9038Pro DAC and comes with 3.5mm SE (1ohm output impedance) and 2.5mm/4.4mm BAL (1.5ohm output impedance) outputs that can function as either Phone Out or Line Out. In addition to providing access to digital filters of corresponding DAC, for the first time I also see access to change the gain, either Normal (SE 2Vrm, BAL 4Vrms) or High (SE 3Vrms, BAL 6Vrms) which going to be useful for IEMs with higher sensitivity.
The optional SEM2 module will come with dual AK4497EQ DAC, and also has 3.5mm SE (1ohm output impedance) and 2.5mm/4.4mm BAL (1.5ohm output impedance) outputs that can function as either Phone Out or Line Out. Similar to SEM1, you have access to digital filters of corresponding DAC and access to change the gain, either Normal (SE 2Vrm, BAL 4Vrms) or High (SE 3Vrms, BAL 6Vrms) which going to be useful for IEMs with higher sensitivity.
It is not coincidental that A&K selected ESS module to be default since audio market is still recovering after AKM factory fire and experiencing AKM DAC shortage. Based on what I heard, while SE180 with SEM1 should be shipping soon, availability of SEM2 module is delayed until July.
Both modules yield about 10hrs of playback time on 3,800mAH LiPo battery. I didn’t have enough time to test battery endurance under different conditions, but from my experience of testing other A&K DAPs, this number usually holds true using average sensitivity IEMs from balanced output while playing FLAC files in the loop with display mostly off. This battery life is no different than SE200 using AKM output. Another thing to keep in mind, while both DACs support all the popular formats, such as WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF, MQA, SEP1 w/ESS goes up to DSD256 while SEP2 w/AKM goes up to DSD512.
The rest of the features are common, such as internal 256GB and storage expansion with microSD (Max 1TB). The touch display in SE180 is 5” like in SE200, but the resolution went up from 1280×720 to an impressive 1920×1080. You will also find a support of BT5.0 Wireless standard that includes both aptX HD and LDAC (while SE200 had BT4.2 and only aptX HD). Plus, now BT supports both Tx and Rx. Unfortunately, there is only 2.4GHz Wifi band, wish they would implement a dual with 5GHz to improve the connectivity. Still OpenApp support to load a number of popular streaming apps, but the Android OS is closed and if I’m not mistaken, based on Android 9.0 with additional sound optimizations.