Astell & Kern SP2000T

Sound Analysis.

The sound analysis of 2kT was done using Oriolus Traillii, playing a selection of test tracks, such as Agnes Obel “The curse”, Sandro Cavazza “So much better” (Avicii remix), C-Bool “Never go away”, Ed Sheeran “Shape of you”, Alan Walker “Darkside”, Galantis “Hunter”, Iggy Azalea “Black widow”, Indila “Boite en argent”, Dua Lipa “Love again”, Counting Crows “Big yellow taxi”, David Elias “Vision of her”, and Michael Jackson “Dirty Diana”.  I had about 100hrs of burn in time before I started analyzing 2kT.

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I prefer to describe the DAP sound based on the comparison to other DAPs and pair ups with different IEMs/headphones since the DAP by itself doesn’t have a “sound”.  What we hear is how it sounds through connected IEMs/headphones or the difference in sound relative to source comparison using the same pair of IEMs/headphones.  This is my subjective opinion, describing how I hear it while analyzing the sound of 2kT, and you will get a better picture in the follow up sections of Comparison and Pair up.  Here, I would like to talk more about the different AMP modes, and how they compare.

I found the overall sound tuning of 2kT to be more neutral, natural, and balanced.  Of course, you would expect that from Tube and Hybrid outputs, but even with OP (solid stage output) I heard a more natural tonality.  When comparing OP vs Hybrid vs Tube amp modes, I hear the same technical performance, soundstage, layering, separation, and dynamics, while the main difference is between the speed of the bass and the body in lower mids.

In more details, OP (solid state) mode has a faster, tighter bass with a little better articulation and mids with a leaner body and more transparent tonality.  Tube (NuTube) mode has a little slower, more relaxed bass and fuller body mids with a smoother warmer tonality.  Hybrid (in the middle) mode has a combination of both, with a faster and more articulate bass and smoother mids with a fuller body which sound somewhere in between OP and Tube.  The intermittent steps, two steps between OP and Hybrid and between Hybrid and Tube, to my ears have a hardly noticeable change in sound.

I know it’s a bold statement to make, but the difference in tonality between OP and Tube modes reminded me a lot of comparison between a typical Astell & Kern SS (OP) and Cu (Tube) tuning of other SP flagship DAPs.

2.5mm/4.4mm (BAL) vs 3.5mm (SE)

The difference in power output here is noticeable when going from SE to BAL where I always have to lower the volume to compensate for the difference in output power.  Another noticeable difference is BAL output having a wider soundstage and slightly blacker background.  Other than that, the sound signature, tonality, and even technical performance are nearly the same.

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Comparison.

In every comparison I used Oriolus Traillii, volume matched while listening to the same test tracks between DAPs.  Also, I only covering the difference in sound as I hear it, not the design and other functionality.

SP2kT vs SP2k SS – There are some technical differences such as 2k having a little wider soundstage and slightly better dynamics and layering of the sounds, but the bigger difference is in tonality.  2k is more revealing, brighter, more micro-detailed and with a little more sparkle.  In contrast, 2kT has a smoother and more natural tonality, a little more coloring without compromising too much of detail retrieval.  When comparing to OP, the gap is not that big.  Switching to Hybrid/Tube widens a tonality gap a little more, still not night and day, but it is more noticeable.

SP2kT vs SE180/ESS and w/ Cayin C9 – Comparing 2kT to SP180 (SEP1/ESS), 2kT has a wider soundstage and better vertical dynamics of the sound.  2kT OP mode is a little more transparent and less colored, while Hybrid/Tube mode matches closer a warmer tonality of SE180.  Adding C9 into the equation is not exactly the same as 2kT because C9 has dual fully balanced NuTube output, but it was worth a shot.  One difference I did notice is soundstage being wider with SE180/C9 which is mostly likely due to dual-NuTube config.  2kT wasn’t too far behind, but C9 output was wider.  The overall tonality was very similar, just a little more sparkle with C9 output, but other than that the tonality was quite close.  Vertical dynamics of SE180 w/C9 also got closer to 2kT level of performance, not the exact match, but very close.

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SP2kT vs L&P P6 Pro – Some might wonder why would I be comparing these two DAPs, one being android based with app support while other is audio playback only with R2R DAC and more minimalistic interface?  Well, in Hybrid/Tube mode the natural tonality of 2kT reminded me a lot of P6 Pro.  Perhaps, P6 Pro has an upper hand with a technical performance, wider soundstage and a little more resolution and some improvements in dynamics, but they do share a natural organic tonality.

SP2kT vs Sony WM1Z (vinyl processor on) – I had a few people asking me about this comparison, especially with vinyl processor effect enabled on WM1Z.  Technical performance between these is not too far off, maybe with WM1Z having just a touch wider soundstage.  The tonality is where I hear a lot of difference.  WM1Z bass is a little more aggressive, stronger, while 2kT is softer, especially the attack of the bass.  Mids are a little brighter in WM1Z and so does the treble, while 2kT mids are smoother and more organic in comparison; the same with treble, 2kT has a bit smoother treble.  But there was one peculiar difference that stood out for me.  WM1Z has a blacker background which turns its warmer tonality into more digital sound, while 2kT has a dark background as well, but not as black, and that creates a more analog smoother sound, more appropriate for “Tube” output.

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Pair up.

Here is how 2kT pairs up with some IEMs and headphones.  In each pair up I noted either SE or BAL connection and the volume (V) setting.

Audio-Technica ATH-R70x (SE, v110) – very open and effortless sound with a balanced signature and natural transparent tonality.  In OP mode mids sound a little thinner, while Hybrid/Tube has a similar tonality with a full body and a little warmer mids.  Nothing is over-emphasized; the sound is very natural and with excellent retrieval of details.  Bass is a little more neutral, giving more room for vocals to shine, but I still find the overall signature to be relative balanced and 2kT has not issue driving R70x.

Beyerdynamic T5p 2nd (BAL, v72) – in this pair up T5p2 sound like open back headphones, the sound was very open, did not even feel like I was wearing closed back headphones.  The sound sig is closer to balanced as well, with tonality being a little more revealing but still closer to natural.  Bass has a good tight punch, mids are transparent, even when I switch from OP to Hybrid/Tube, vocals didn’t feel colored, though I enjoyed extra body in sound.  Treble has a natural sparkle, T5p2 can get bright in upper frequencies, while here it stayed natural and revealing.

Meze Audio Empyrean (BAL, v83) – open sound with a soundstage that has a lot of depth/height, a little less width. The sound signature is balanced, and tonality is natural and smooth.  Bass has a nice deep rumble, mids/vocals are clear, detailed, and has a little bit of warms, especially in Hybrid/Tube mode.  Treble is clear and natural as well.  The overall sound is very soulful and smooth, yet still with a good retrieval of natural details.

I enjoyed pair up with all 3 headphones, preferred Hybrid/Tube modes, and was actually a bit surprised, in a good way, about pair up with T5p2 that sounded quite natural and very open-back like.

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CFA Solaris ’20 (BAL, v37) – first of all, zero hissing.  Soundstage expansion is pretty wide, and I hear a balanced sound sig with a little more focus on mids.  The bass is above neutral with a good extension and tight mid-bass punch, sub-bass is there, but I’m hearing more punch than rumble. Mids/vocals are very clear, detailed, natural.  Treble is crisp and has extra sparkle, good upper end extension with plenty of air, not harsh.  The sound is a little more revealing, but at the same time non-fatigue.  Hybrid/Tube mode adds a little warmth and body not only to the lower mids, but also a bit of extra weight to the bass.

UM Mest MKII (BAL, v59) – the sound in this pair up is almost holographic.  The sound signature was v-shaped with more emphasis on bass and mid-treble.  I preferred Tube more in this pair up.  OP/Hybrid were OK, but they didn’t bring as much weight and impact to the bass as Tube mode, giving Mest more rumble and stronger punch.  Mids are smooth, natural, warmer, and slightly pulled back in their presentation.  Treble is crisp, detailed, airy.  Treble does have a little extra energy, not exactly smooth, but it wasn’t too bad.

Empire Ears EVO (BAL, v59) – the soundstage here also approaching holographic level, especially with mids/vocals being a little more out of your head.  The sound signature is more U-shaped with a lean toward L-shaped due to extra emphasis on bass and upper mids.  Bass is big and bold, with a very strong and slightly hollow mids-bass punch.  Lower mids are leaner while upper mids are detailed, natural, layered; treble is also detailed, natural, extended.  Bass and treble are definitely stars of this tuning, mids are lagging a bit behind.

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Empire Ears Odin (BAL, v57) – excellent soundstage expansion in all 3 directions.  I preferred switching to Tube mode in this pair up, not even Hybrid, because it gave the bass deeper rumble and more weight, and lower mids gain more body which gave vocals more organic tonality.  The only positive about OP pair up is a wider soundstage expansion while Tube output shrinks it a bit, giving the sound more depth/height than width.  But this trade off was well worth it because of improvements in low end and in mids.  Not even a hint of hissing.

64 Audio U18t (BAL, v59) – the soundstage in this pair up has more depth/height than width, but width is also above average.  The sound sig is leaning more toward being mid-forward due to more neutral bass, and tonality is more revealing and a little brighter.  Bass has a good extension and a tight punch, but both sub-bass and mid-bass are closer to neutral in quantity.  Mids are lean, layered, resolving, crystal clear and detailed.  And the same with treble, crystal clear and detailed without being fatigue.  I preferred Tube mode in this pair up which gave bass a little more weight.

Oriolus Traillii (BAL, v59) – very nicely expanded soundstage in all 3 directions.  The sound signature is balanced with a natural detailed tonality.  Bass has a deep extension with a smooth warm rumble and mid-bass has a tight fast punch.  Mids/vocals have a very natural detailed tonality, especially comes to shine in a Hybrid mode which I preferred in this pair up.  Treble is crisp, detailed, and still natural and non-fatigue.  Mids do sound a bit out of your head, placing them a little further out.  But overall, it was a very good pair up.

In many of these IEM pair ups I preferred to use Hybrid mode.

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Page 4 – Wired/wireless connections, and Conclusion.

8 thoughts on “Astell & Kern SP2000T

  1. Hi, thank you for a very thorough and detailed review for SP2000T. I am wondering if a DAP has reached a level like a stand alone DAC to play music files from computer for instance in the same level of Chord Hugo 2 or maybe Hugo TT2? I think SP2000T deserves to be compared to other DAC since it has 4 chips and NuTube and hybrid mode. Thank you again for your review!

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    1. I have a Hugo 2 and the SP2000. While the latter is really, really good, it is still not as good as the H2.

      Perhaps 85-90%, subjectively speaking.

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  2. Hi, Thank you for your very detailed review. Just struggling whether to upgrade my N6ii with R01 board or go for SP2000T. Ans recommendation and comparison to help?
    Thank you for your attention

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    1. Tbh, either one will be great. R01 will be cheaper as an upgrade vs buying a new SP2kT. Plus, N6ii is fully open Android without restrictions like closed system SP2kT. But at the same time, hybrid mode of SP2kT sounds so good. Tough decision.

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  3. I’ve been looking for this review all over the internet! Thank you, although it doesn’t help me decide whether to get this as my SR25 upgrade this summer or wait for the SP3000…

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    1. If you would have to make a decision right now on the spot, it is no brainer as an upgrade from SR25, unless you really want to keep that small form factor. SP3000 hasn’t ben even announced, not even speculation or rumors. So, who knows. But Head-fi’s CanJam NYC is coming back in Feb of next year, and a lot of manufacturers planning their big announcement around that time 😉

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