A&Ultima SP2000 Review

Astell & Kern’s T9iE recently passed across my review desk, and in the process of reviewing those IEMs, A&K also reached out to me asking if I’d like to review their then-recently released flagship DAP the SP2000. ‘Why not!’ was my enthusiastic response. The $3499 SP2000 is exceptionally expensive by any measure, but I’m not typically a DAP user, so if any piece of gear could convert me, one would hope it would be the flagship of A&K’s line.

Now, the reason I typically haven’t been a DAP user is quite simple: when it comes to on-the-go listening, I used to have a fancy portable amp/DAC setup and when it died, I never felt the need to replace it. As a kid I distantly recall a hand-me-down iPod shuffle and eventually a used iPod classic – well after the iPhone had come out.

Nowadays my travel music source is simply a Lightning adapter from my iPhone to a decent pair of IEMs or occasionally a Bluetooth headphone. They’re noisy, hissy and generally unfussy. Load up music on TIDAL and Qobuz and I’m good to go for long flights or evening writing sessions on friend’s couches or occasionally AirBNB’s or hotel beds.

There’s something kind of zen, or at least stoic about listening this way. I use my ears all the time, when I’m not making, producing or mixing music, I’m doing sound research, discovering new music, etc. My review time for InnerFidelity is a time when, after my critical listening is done, I like to strip back my system to the basics and see if my phone and a basic pair of cans or IEMs will do it for me. There’s something I find tremendously satisfying about a really modest experience that conveys an experience that gives you just enough taste of quality without any of the ‘wow’ factor of truly high-end gear. It’s easy to be satisfied, content with this kind of equipment, and it’s often my favorite experience in any field: audio, cars, food, etc. It’s the ‘goldilocks’ experience where things are just right.

The unboxing experience for the SP2000 was a good start to ‘just right’ as despite the cost, the unit comes in a modest wooden box and cardboard outer container. The packaging is all quite nice, but not over the top. It’s simpler than I was expecting and refreshingly unfussy. The wooden box is a bit old-fashioned to my eyes, but is certainly a classy touch. I also tend to have very avantgarde design tastes, so your opinions may differ.

The unit itself is very much more avantgarde however, with sleek gunmetal grey lines, and angular bevels cut into the face. I think it’s a kind of a cool look, but some folks may find it a bit Tron-y. If you’re the kind of person who always wished you could have a car to match your iPod, order a Tesla Truck and an SP2000 and you’ll be ready to star in the next Tron remake.

Looks aside, the unit is pretty straightforward, a 3.5mm single-ended and a 2.2mm balanced on top, volume knob-power button on the side, and a USB-C charging and connection port on the bottom. There is also volume up/down, and pause/play and skip track buttons on the left side of the unit, though these are quite small. All other functionality is via the spacious touchscreen. Although it’s only a 720p resolution, this didn’t particularly bug me – I don’t generally expect to use a DAP for watching Youtube videos, and the interface was sharp enough in resolution that I had no practical issues with this choice. That said, for the very high price I did wonder occasionally if a full 1080p screen would have been significantly more expensive or difficult to implement. I’m also guessing battery life was a necessary consideration in this decision.

Battery-wise A&K claims about an 8 hour battery life on a full charge for typical 16/44 playback, though I found with normal screen brightness and occasional browsing and volume adjustments I got closer to 6 or 7 average hours on a full charge. A bit less than I’d prefer for a device of this type, but good portable battery packs aren’t insanely expensive nowadays and I’ve used them for my phone on longer flights, so I suppose this isn’t out of line, though my personal preference would be for a slightly longer battery life - I fondly remember the days of Nokia phones and original iPods where charging was not always a nightly or hourly ritual.

Use-wise the SP2000 is very refined and has obviously benefited from A&K’s long design history. The volume and lock button is positioned where your thumb naturally falls if you’re right handed. Not as ideal if you’re a lefty, though as long as you don’t have tiny hands, I found it easy enough to reach the volume with my left pointer finger. The first thing I noticed about the SP2000 in hand is that it is heavy. The specifications list the weight of the stainless steel model as 14.4 oz, which is nearly a pound. Don’t drop this on your toes.

Functionality-wise the unit operates much like any typical music player, with a main menu setup for organizing various file types, and most of the screen taken up by playback controls of media lists during use. There is also the option to use streaming services such as TIDAL, Deezer, etc. You can also install additional apps such as the Qobuz app, however this requires you to connect it to your computer and install through A&K’s proprietary software. I found the whole system rather backwards considering the simplicity of Android launchers, I’m curious as to why A&K chose not to go this route. In theory the open APK service they promise is a great boon to DAP flexibility, but in the age of the smartphone, where apps are simply a tap and a few seconds away, it feels archaic. I suspect anyone in the market for this kind of device is already aware of these kinds of idiosyncracies however, and if your library is largely high-resolution hard-copy files, none of this will particularly affect the very easy core functionality.

Speaking of core functions, the 512gb SSD in the SP2000 is blisteringly fast, and uploading and removing files was a total cinch, more likely to be bottle-necked by my computer’s hard drives than the DAP itself. If you do still maintain a large library of high-rez files, which I do, this is about as good as it gets. Organization can be done manually, but the automatic sorting system was pretty close to on par with Roon, so I can’t complain. Huge thumbs up in this category – I would expect nothing less from A&K and they sure delivered.

On to the interesting part though, how does it sound? This is where the real test comes in, as A&K have several much less expensive DAPs which do largely the same thing - playback files - and those are often smaller and lighter. I’ve had recent experiences with the FiiO M series and Cayin DAPs, and the FiiO had a specific coloration, though one that I found pleasing, which I’ve noticed in many popular DAPs. That is, a slight warmth or darkness, especially in the midrange, which I suspect is to accommodate for the fact that many people will be using IEMs with these units, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who would take a slightly bright IEM over a slightly dark IEM.

Even some early A&K DAPs that I heard had this slight warmth or darkness to the sound, though the KANN Cube which I heard recently seemed pretty middle-of-the-road in tonality. The SP2000 to my ears is almost totally devoid of a particular sound. I thought I detected a slight smoothness or softness to transients at first, but swapping through various headphones and IEMs, some with punishing impedance and sensitivities, the SP2000 was resolutely the same sounding. It was not excessively clear or bright, nor was it dark or rich or warm. There was such an absence of character even when A/B-ing it with other gear that my attention was naturally focused on the music, rather than the gear.

The SP2000 includes a very flexible 11-band equalizer if you wish to color the sound in a particular way, but I didn’t find the need to use it unless I was looking for a specific ‘wow’ factor sound or a headphone naturally had too little bass for example. Dynamics, if they were present on the record, were plentiful, and if they were compressed, sounded as such. If a track was bright, it sounded bright, if there was saturation and lots of harmonic content, it was displayed, and the separation didn’t flense apart tracks like some gear, but had an extremely fine level of resolution and detail. On several very seamlessly mixed tracks I could actually make out individual harmonies at times, an extremely hard thing to resolve for any electronics. If things had been too spread out and separated, you’d actually miss it, and if they were too focused, you’d also miss it. The SP2000 somehow hit a middle ground that gave me textural insight into tracks that I know very well.

After extensive listening and comparing however, one quality did emerge that made the SP2000 standout from nearly every other piece of gear on my desk, including many pieces of high-end desktop gear. The noise-floor on the SP2000 is vanishingly quiet, as in simply absent. I could have the volume set at the highest level with some of the most sensitive IEMs in my collection, and there was zero hiss or noise, a feat even some pretty serious high-end gear couldn’t match. There was no competition with other portables I’ve heard recently or own, and the hissy, noisy Lightning adapter from my phone was god awful in direct comparison, like Apple had built a promotional loop of the snake jazz from Rick and Morty into every song.

I didn’t have a ton of DSD or DXD to test, but the few test files I have downloaded easily and played back just fine with the SP2000, though even my test mp3’s sounded great out of the SP2000, as did high-rez and CD quality files. My reactions to the sound are largely file agnostic, and I still think there’s something exceptional about the quietness of the SP2000. It has pretty much no wow factor - my non-audiophile friends and roommates who I often ask for gear impressions just for fun were decidedly flabbergasted, identifying almost not difference or exceptional sound quality. And while in a certain sense, they’re right, there were songs I tested on every other setup I have, some of them firmly high-end, and I did not hear some of the minute textural details the SP2000 was digging up. That absolutely insanely low noise floor and tonal neutrality put me in the music everytime without fuss or circumstance. It simply dropped me right in.

I usually only get this sensation from that special kind of mid-fi that appeals to my low-fuss attitude and habit of very low listening levels. I think in a certain sense, the appeal of the SP2000 is something you can only really appreciate after a fairly lengthy period, and I suspect many folks will want more ‘wow’ factor. As for me, I can very much see the appeal of the SP2000 and it’s subtlety and flexibility with the 11-band EQ. Add-in the T9iE IEMs I recently reviewed, which do indeed seem to work very well with this unit, and sound even nicer off the balanced output, and you have a pretty killer setup.

That said, this is still a $3500 unit, and I think for my money, it almost comes off as too subtle and refined. If you want to forget about questions of sonic signature in your listening experience on the go, then this is a stellar unit for you, perhaps honestly the best money can buy. As for me, I’m decidedly not fussy enough, nor well-heeled enough to be interested in the SP2000. Now, if the new A&Norma series sounds anything like the SP2000, I might certainly be interested, but I am guilty of wanting just a little more ‘wow’ factor in my very highest-end gear, and being happy to listen to earpods or basic IEMs from a phone for my casual ‘fuhgeddaboudit’ listening.

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