Astell & Kern A&K SP3000

Clean and Pure!

PROS: 2 separate AK4191EQ modulators and 4 separate AK4499EX DACs, 904L stainless steel chassis with a solid build, hi-res 5.46” display, Snapdragon 665 SoC, updated fast user interface, 2.5mm/3.5mm/4.4mm PO/LO, MQA, DSD512, LDAC Bluetooth (both Tx and Rx), 256GB internal storage, hi-res sound with super black background and big soundstage expansion.

CONS: weight, price.

The product was loaned to me for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.

Manufacturer website: Astell & Kern. Available for sale directly or from on-line retailers like Bloom Audio.


Intro.

We all get excited in anticipation of new audio gear announcements, especially from well-known manufacturers who have a consistent schedule with new releases. That was one of the reasons A&K fans were expecting a new SP-series flagship DAP before Xmas of last year. It didn’t happen, though they were still treated to a surprise when SP2000T with a hybrid SS/NuTube design was announced. Also, if you are diehard fan of A&K DAPs, you probably aware how their flagship releases coincide with being one of the first in implementation of the latest AKM DACs, just like with SP1000 and AK4497 and then SP2000 and AK4499. The fire at AKM factory, which happened at the end of 2020, put a delay on introduction of the next gen AKM DAC flagship. Then, early this year at High End Munich show, AKM made the announcement of AK4499EX in conjunction with AK4191EQ delta-sigma modulator to fully separate digital and analog circuitry. So, while we were anticipating the release of a new A&K flagship DAP, A&K themselves were waiting in anticipation of a new AKM DAC combo.

Of course, every manufacturer has their own vision of what goes into the next gen flagship release. Some like to add more features, others focus on finetuning of the sound quality. From discussions with a number of my readers, I sensed a wishful thinking of a new A&K flagship with a modular design (similar to SE180), variety of amp flavors (similar to SP2000T), and maybe a new ROHM DAC. Don’t think any of them will be disappointed even though none of their wishes come true. Instead, Astell & Kern decided to follow the essence of a straightforward SP1000 and SP2000 designs, focusing on a sound quality improvement with 4x new AK4499EQ and 2x new AK4191EQ chips, boosted system performance with a help of Snapdragon 665 SoC processor, new exclusive chassis material, and continuing with 4.4mm output and LDAC support. I only had two weeks with SP3000 before sending it back a month ago, though I found it enough to collect my listening notes and to complete my usual comparison and pair up tests, all of which I would to share with you today.

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SP3000 vs SP2000

Unboxing and Accessories.

Since I received SP3k without the official packaging, I’m not able to share unboxing pictures, but was told the experience should be similar to all of their previous flagship SP-series DAP releases. Thus, we should probably expect a fancy premium quality wooden storage box along with additional accessories like screen protectors and quality USB-C high speed cable for charging, data transfer, and USB DAC functionality. I’m sure that a quick start guide and a warranty card will be included as well.

I was also told a leather case will be included, a premium quality goat leather case by ALRAN (Southern France), one of the oldest leather shops in France which is also considered to be one of the top goatskin manufacturers. They use hand-boarding technology to process the leather by rubbing it in various directions using wooden planks to emphasize the texture of the surface. I did see a promo picture of the case, looks either black or dark grey, with an opening for USB-C connector at the bottom and covered microSD card slot next to it, covered play/pause/skip buttons on the left, generous phone ports opening at the top, and generous cutout for power/volume wheel on the rights-side. Since the top part of the case only has PO port cutout, I assume the design will be similar to SP2kT case with DAP sliding from the left and the side flap tucking in securely inside.

Design.

With its dimensions of 139.4mm x 82.4mm x 18.3mm and the weight of 494g, SP3k is the biggest DAP in A&K SP-series. Well, it is only 1.7mm shorter than SP2kT, but everything else, especially the weight (70g heavier than SP2k), puts it above other SP-series DAPs. A big contributing factor here is Stainless Steel 904L chassis used in SP3k, the first time they implemented this high caliber SS material in a DAP. SP3k will be available in 2 body color finishes, black and silver.

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SP2000T vs SP3000 vs SP2000

The focus of the design is still around a gorgeous 5.46″ HD touch screen occupying the front view. This front view of the DAP is asymmetric due to uneven sculptured bevel sides, including slightly bulging-out area around playback buttons on the left and a crown-patterned volume wheel on the right. The volume wheel here also doubles as a power button with a typical long press to turn the power on/off followed by confirmation to shut down or a short press to turn the screen on/off, though personally I like Double-tap to wake up the screen.

The volume wheel is easy to turn using a thumb, though it’s not loose and has some resistance with a click action felt with every rotation turn of 150 volume steps. Implemented here is also a multi-function LED behind the wheel to indicate charging status or bit depth depending on the source file (16bit – red, 24bit – green, 32bit – orange, DSD – purple). LED light could be disabled in Settings. The design of the volume wheel has a detailed unique crown pattern, typical of a wristwatch.

On the left side you have Play/Pause and Skip controls, three identical small rectangular buttons located in the upper part of the left side. They do have a nice tactile response and spaced evenly with enough room in between to avoid pressing an adjacent button by mistake. The top of the DAP has access to 3.5mm phone output port which also used for Line Out and Optical out. Next to it, you have 4.4mm and 2.5mm balanced phone ports that could also be configured for corresponding Line Out.

At the bottom to the right, you will find a spring-loaded microSD card slot. In the middle, there is USB-C port, used for charging (including Fast Charging), data transfer, USB DAC connection, and USB OTG external device connection for digital audio out. The back of the DAP also has a typical A&K asymmetric design with an extra cutout around the volume wheel. Overall, the lines of SP3k design are not as aggressive as in previous A&K DAPs, giving it a classier look.

Under the hood.

As already mentioned in the Intro, A&K has a history of flagship model releases aligned with introduction of the latest AKM flagship DACs. When early this year AKM made the announcement of AK4499EX, it only made sense that A&K will be the first to introduce it in their SP3000 design. And it is not just about AK4499EX, but also their new AK4191EQ in conjunction with AK4499EX. After the devastating factory fire of 2020, AKM came back strong with a new solution where they separated digital and analog circuitry of the DAC, partitioning it into AK4191EQ to process the digital signal of D/A conversion (digital filter with sigma delta modulation and oversampling) and AK4499EX for analog conversion and processing.

It is becoming more common to see ckt boards with a partitioned layout of analog and digital circuits. Here, the DAC chip itself is partitioned into two separate chips to improve the purity of analog signal, to lower the noise and increase the SNR, and to lower the clock jitter by separating digital and analog portions of the clock. And as part of SP3k HEXA audio circuitry structure, A&K implemented 2 separate AK4191EQ modulators, one for single ended and one for balanced outputs. Then, taking it one step further, each modulator is connected to a pair of AK4499EX DACs, for a total of 4 separate AK4499EX, with each one driving a separate signal.

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While already making its debut in previous A&K DAPs, this is the first official SP flagship with 4.4mm balanced output in addition to 2.5mm and 3.5mm. Though SP2000T had 4.4mm, prior to SP3k release the original SP2k was still above “T” model as their latest flagship. So, you are getting all 3 outputs with SP3k. The single ended 3.5mm PO has output impedance of 0.8ohm and 3.3Vrms, while balanced 2.5mm has 2ohm output and 4.4mm has 1.8ohm output with each one delivering max 6.3Vrms based on unloaded measurement. Each port can be switched to Line Out, and 3.5mm also has Optical SPDIF output.

The touch display is 5.46” HD with1920x1080 resolution. The interface is very fast, noticeably faster than in all previous A&K DAP modules thanks to implementation of Snapdragon 665 SoC processor. The interface is still closed Android so it is hard to compare to other open Android DAPs since I can’t run 3D benchmark app, but the user interface is noticeably faster than SP2k or SP2kT. And there is plenty of processing power to do flawless audio decoding while supporting all the popular lossy and lossless formats, such as WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, and DSF, with PCM rates up to 32bit/768kHz and DSD rates up to 22.58MHz (DSD512). Also, MQA playback support, covering Tidal Masters, Local files, External USB, and MQA-CD (ripped).

I was a bit surprised the internal storage is only 256GB (rather than 512GB), but you also get microSD external memory expansion up to the latest largest capacity card (A&K tested with 1TB). I guess it doesn’t matter as much today since many people are streaming and high-capacity microSD cards are relatively cheap, but I was still surprised since SP2k had 512GB of internal storage. Furthermore, USB-C OTG supports external hard drive storage or usb stick expansion. I didn’t have enough time for a battery test, but according to A&K, their high capacity 5,050mAh (3.8V LiPo battery) should give you up to 10hrs of playback time under normal IEM listening. Also, fast charging (QC3.0) is supported and should give you a full charge in about 3.5hrs.

To support fast charging and to speed up data transfer, SP3k uses USB 3.0 Type-C interface for charging, data transfer, and USB DAC functionality. WiFi is dual band, supporting both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Along with that you have OTA firmware update support and of course streaming of many popular apps. Furthermore, Bluetooth is up to 5.0 with a wireless support of not only aptX HD but also LDAC protocols for 24-bit playback over Bluetooth, plus both Bluetooth Rx and Tx.

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Page 2 – GUI overview, Open APP Service.
Page 3 – Sound Analysis, Comparison.
Page 4 – Pair up, Wired/wireless connections, and Conclusion.

48 thoughts on “Astell & Kern A&K SP3000

  1. hello dear tornado! thanks for your great work!! query, is it really worth going from a sp2000 to the new sp3000 just for sound? I’m not interested in anything other than sound quality.

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    1. If you are on the budget, probably not. With a release of SP3k, more people will be selling their SP2k and you probably won’t be able to recover as much money for it. And as you know, when you go up in pricing, it is all about diminishing returns. Is SP3k an upgrade over SP2k? You betch ya! But is that a huge upgrade? Not really. At this flagship level, the upgrades are on a finetuning level. But I gotta say, interface is faster, thanks to Snapdragon 665 processor. And it feels more solid inside those bulletproof steel chassis. It’s a nice DAP for sure and definitely an upgrade. But it will be for you to decide if it worth it depending on your financial situation. Just being honest with you.

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    2. I have just upgraded from the SP2000 Silver to the SP3000 Black and the difference is superlative in every way – full upsampling ON – (DAR) renders immense performance, space and overall depth in detail. But ‘space’, I’m blown away. In use with Focal Utopia can finally hear these headphones correctly.

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      1. isn’t that upsamping function (DAR) great? Sometimes I want to be sure it’s not a placebo effect, but the difference is quite noticeable! Glad others hear it the same.

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      2. Yes, I wasn’t sure at first but I’m operating DAR at full 5.6MHz which seemed counterintuitive, but it’s like a gift from the heavens! Everything is just silky and open. I haven’t enjoyed listening to headphones like this ever. This is now closely on par with my main audio system. The DAC here is as I wrote: superlative! And Utopia just barely played correctly with SP2000 (something was off) so if anyone has heard that pairing, it’s lacking and this changes everything, it’s like the Focal’s spatially new.

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    1. Yeah, Snapdragon 665 SoC does the job here! The funny thing, Sony released WM1ZM2, their open Android 11 dap, yet used an old processor which makes its android performance (with some of the streaming apps) kind of sluggish. While here, it’s the opposite. You got closed android system with a fast processor, and that scales up the enjoyment factor.

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      1. But because it’s closed android system I can’t change the google play region right? I have to change it to US to use qobuz apps because I live in asia. Oh, and I hope you can review UM multiverse mentor later on canjam 😀

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      2. Not going to Canjam in SoCal, but maybe I can borrow it from Musicteck for a quick review/overview. Regarding Google Play, you are not loading apps through Google play here where it will be checking your region. You are side-loading apk of the apps. Don’t even need to download anything separately, A&K has it indexed so you just click in the menu to select which app you want to download and to install, the same how it is with all other A&K DAPs.

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      3. Oh I see. As long as I use my US region ID then I can use qobuz then. Will be waiting for the copper version maybe. And one more thing, you say you need to use P+ mode on n8ii to match the sp3k so I assume now AK has enough juice to drive demanding IEM? On n8ii I only need 50 vol but on sp2k I need around 70 volume

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  2. any comparison with cayin n6ii? I know that the prices are far apart. just as an illustration because I only have n6ii with module e02

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    1. Don’t have SP3k with me anymore for comparison, and those are in a different category anyway, the reason I compared SP3k to N8ii. It probably will be an insult to compare it to N6ii 😀 But with that aside, N6ii is a great dap, and if you want to enhance its sound quality, get R01 module.

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  3. Hello Is this SP3000 will be able to handle obravo Ra c-cu 182 ohms without amp? Thanks Miloudi

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    1. Sorry, I only had SP3k for a few weeks last month when I tested it for my review, don’t have it with me anymore so can’t test it with RA C Cu. But my guess, probably not. Ra C Cu needs a good powerful source, maybe an external amp like Romi audio BX2+ or Cayin C9 would be better on top of your source.

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  4. Hi,
    Great review as usual, as I hesitate between the SP3K and the N8ii, could you precise if the N8ii sounds more natural (analog) thanks to its tube flavor than the SP3K or is it similar.
    Has the SP3K also this great analog natural sound ?
    What is the main difference between the two regarding the analog, natural way of sounding ?

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    1. Neither of them sound digital, and a lot of the final sound characteristics will have to do with a pair-up synergy. For example, FirAudio XE6 has a massive “analog” quality bass. The pair up of XE6 is better with N8ii (in P+ voltage boost mode) than with SP3k. Doesn’t make one DAP worse than the other, it just the way it works out. But I think SP3k will be more appealing to those who like a very clean sound with maximum extraction of details (without being too cold or analytical) while N8ii is more for those who want a variety. Also, if you want a great analog sound source, SP2000T in hybrid or NuTube mode is great!

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      1. I think they are both good in terms of “realism” of the sound. SP3k might sound a little more natural while N8ii could get a bit analytical in some pair ups.

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      1. In terms of details, sp3k will take a crown, its super black background makes details pop out of the blackness. Naturalness/organic mature of the sound, I find wm1zm2 to have an edge. Also, please keep in mind, I’m going by memory now since I reviewed sp3k back in August and it was on loan before its introduction at CanJam SoCal

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  5. Excellent early review as always.

    How does the SP2K v SP3k comparison sound when you add the C9 into the chain. I found the amplifier improved the dynamics with the SP2K and bird. I’m not sure how much there is between the AKM chips v the circuitry and amplifier differences between the two models. And if the C9 will help narrow the margin.

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    1. As I mentioned in my review, unfortunately I ran out of time before sending it back and didn’t test LO. But I expect a similar results using external portable amp as with SP2k. C9 is amazing amp, giving you both SS and NuTubes outputs to color the sound in a different way. The Bird is very easy to drive, no need for external amp, but it can change the synergy of pair up with higher power, switching between Class A and AB, or solid state and NuTubes.

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    1. It’s in the game but just outdated. Since I don’t have SP3000 with me anymore, you can probably extrapolate that comparison from my SP2000 review where I compared it to SP1000.

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      1. Thanks. I listen only to my extensive library of hi-res and DSD albums on the SP-1000 using Ultimate Ears IEM’s so I’m still pretty delighted with the audio quality. I do have to say, however, that I’ve not been impressed with Astell & Kern’s technical support

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    1. EE Odyssey was unveiled only a few days ago at CanJam SoCal, nobody had a chance to hear it until the last weekend. And I think even now EE not allowed to send review samples, only through A&K so I will try to request it.

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  6. Hi great review. Truly appreciated.
    I have the SP 2000T and I really love the warmth you mentioned that it brings out with the tube and hybrid amps.
    However, the thing that troubles me is the WiFi. Leave the house for a few feet to water the plants and I lose my connection. Plus, when traveling and you are required to put in information as a “next step” to connect to free WiFi say in an airport or a hotel, the unit won’t allow you to enter that information. Thus, you better have your streaming services downloaded.
    Did any of these features get any better with the 3000?
    Best to you!

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    1. Daps are not smartphones, and their wifi and BT will never have the same level of performance as your iPhone or Galaxy phones. And that will not improve going from SP2kT to SP3k. My only advice, use your smartphone as a wifi hotspot outside home. That’s what I do with my galaxy S22.

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      1. No comparison to the DX320? I am not sure what you mean about the BT and Wifi regarding daps. I am getting the same wifi and BT performance on my dap as my iPhone 13 pro. Maybe I misunderstood.

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      2. With a number of tws, Im getting half the distance in comparison to my Galaxy S22. Plus, closed Android nature of A&K daps will prevent you from accessing additional config settings per original question about SP2kT vs SP3k wifi.

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  7. Hello. Thank you very much for the review. I’m using SP 1000 SS + SP 1000 AMP + 64 audio Trio. It looks like I will be benefited and will notice the differences if I upgrade to SP 3000.

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    1. Yes, you will, for sure. Of course, it’s a personal preference, but in my opinion since Trio is a V-shaped tuned iem with a hot treble, maybe consider SP2000T in tube or hybrid mode to smooth it out. SP3000 is super detailed without holding it back, SP2000T will give you a smoother texture in this particular pair up with Trio.

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      1. There’s an exhibition booth in my home country showcasing SP3000 and Odyssey. I tried playing two Japanese music soundtracks with the sliver version and Trio yesterday. DAR was on. Gosh, it was very impressive, and I love the details that could not be noticed from SP1000! It was as if I was listening in a small-sized theater installed with surround systems – wider and deeper soundstage; clearer and darker background; the position of musical instruments is noticeable.

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  8. Question about Bluetooth and wireless headphones. Does it matter what version of Bluetooth a headphone has to get the best sound from the SP3000. Any recommendations. Thanks

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    1. Tbh, if BT is very important to you, why spend so much money on a DAP where you can get a better wireless performance and better BT compatibility using just a smartphone? Otherwise, whichever version SP3k has it sounds fine, as good as my S22 phone. But, smartphones usually have better compatibility with various TWS and BT headphones.

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  9. The selling price in Singapore is at SGD5,799. About SGD1k more expensive than WM1ZM2 and Cayin N8ii. Can money really buy happiness?

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  10. Detail review! Would u recommend pairing 12t, 18t with sp3000 or other dap?
    Also, i know its off topic but really want to know which upgrade cable u recommend for 12t and 18t which price below USD1000, to enhance the mid, dynamic and the bass especially for 18t?

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    1. For 18t under $1k try Eletech Socrates. My favorite for 18t is EA Leo II, but it is more expensive than $1k. Both 12t and 18t pair up fine with SP3k. These iems are easy to drive, they don’t have DD bass driver (which might benefit from higher voltage/power output), and both iems have apex modules to fine tune the pair synergy with various daps.

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