Astell&Kern has just released the SE180 ($1500), their first modular DAP. In many respects, it is a DAP that aims to compete with its older brother, the SE200, which was released not even a year ago. The SE200 was a “first” in the DAP industry with its dual DAC chips that allowed listeners to swap between two distinctly different sounds. But with the introduction of swappable modules for the SE180, listeners aren’t limited to just two options! Of course, this is assuming A&K releases more modules in the future, as there are only two modules available at the time of this publication. I’ve spent the last couple weeks comparing the two DAPs, and now I’ll be answering that burning question on your mind: Which one should I buy?
Presentation & Accessories
The A&K DAPs come in minimalist, black cardboard packaging. As for included accessories, they’re sparse:
USB Type-C Cable
microSD Card Slot Cover
Screen Protectors (2x each for front and back)
Quickstart Guide & Warranty Card
Exorbitant pricing aside, A&K is known for their elegant, visually-appealing designs. But if I didn’t know better, I could’ve mistaken these DAPs for self-defense weapons. The SE200’s edges are incredibly sharp, to the extent of which I refuse to pocket it and I actively have to watch how I’m holding the DAP to avoid injury. Moving to the SE180, it clocks in at 380 grams (versus the SE200’s 274 grams). Spoiler alert: That’s darn heavy for a DAP. If I wasn’t pocketing the SE200, then I think you know where this stands. And the SE180s edges are also sharp. I have to recommend that you purchase their leather cases sold separately. Finally, for all my nitpicks, the A&K DAPs do sport excellent build quality. They’re wonderfully made, robust, and certainly inspire a sense of confidence in the hand. I cannot think of another manufacturer at this point in time that has A&K matched for their craftsmanship.
Now let's take a look at some more of the physical characteristics. On the SE200, you have a more standard button configuration. There are four slim, rectangular buttons on the side used to control playback and power, while on top you have four ports; double of 2.5mm/3.5mm each for the DAP’s separate chips. The SE180’s design switches things up. It utilizes a single, flush button on the right to control playback and then a power button on the top right of the DAP. Pretty interesting way to cut down on extraneous buttons, I can behind that. The SE180’s also one of the few A&K DAPs to (finally!) support 4.4mm among its 2.5mm and 3.5mm ports. On the side, there are flush notches which you can use to swap out the module without the use of a tool. You have a 1280x720 screen with the SE200, and a 1920x1080 screen with the SE180. The SE180 actually has a higher resolution screen - although taking advantage of it might prove cumbersome, something I’ll explore shortly.
Both DAPs sport USB-C ports and a Micro-SD card slot at the bottom. Internal memory consists of 256GBs, pretty sweet if you ask me. Like most of the A&K DAPs, you also have a very classy volume wheel on the right side of the DAP. There is an integrated LED inside which will change colors depending on the file type of the track that is being played. Claimed battery life is ~10hrs for both DAPs. Running the SE180 off of my Andromeda 2020, I found that the battery drained by exactly 50% in 5 hours. You can expect the battery to drop quicker if you’re using the screen to choose songs; battery life will also vary depending on what transducers you are using.
But looks only get you so far. All of the A&K DAPs use a stripped version of Android that has been optimized for solely listening. Optimized. Well, I’m not sure about that. Whatever CPUs A&K is using in their DAPs (and they don’t disclose this information) has not aged well. The SE200 is acceptable for navigating the device normally. But the SE180 is laggy; touches often take a split second longer to register, and it frequently hangs while navigating or loading up album artwork. One of the most annoying things about the new navigation bar on the SE180 is that it also visually lags behind the main bar in the player by a second or so during these times. It’s 2021. And if you’re asking this reviewer, this level of performance is not acceptable even for a niche product. To make a point, there’s plenty of stuff like the iBasso DX300, Hiby R8, and Fiio M11 (all DAPs of comparable or less cost) running Snapdragon 660s which isn’t even state of the art!
Installing apps is also a cumbersome process on the A&K DAPs. You’ll have to download the .apk file on your computer and then transfer it over to the DAP to install it. While you’ll be able to install most popular streaming apps using this method, be aware that you’ll need to manually update the apps using the above process. Furthermore, due to the aging nature of the Android OS being used on the A&K DAPs, I have seen multiple reports on Head-Fi of the native Tidal app not being able to run among other issues. A&K is aware and has released a statement that they are working on a fix. Hopefully, support for streaming remains intact in the future, as it's a critical feature for many listeners.
Taking a look at the stock player itself, it provides most of the things one would expect. I really had no complaints on this front, and I think the player has been dialed in well at this point. EQ on the A&K DAPs consists of a 20-band graphic EQ. I'd recommend using the mini-menu on the bottom to navigate the EQ, as the larger one is sensitive to inadvertent touches. I’ll just drop some pictures below of the stock player, because it’s all pretty self explanatory (and yes, maybe it’s because I don’t want to type it all up!):
As usual, I need to drop some quick disclaimers: 1) The differences that I hear between sources tend to be minor, although I will definitely attest to differences existing, 2) burn-in is usually not a consideration in my assessment, and 3) critical listening was done off of a variety of transducers including my 64 Audio U12t , Campfire Andromeda 2020, and Moondrop Blessing 2 .
Let’s set the stage with the SE200. The SE200 is unique in that it sports two types of DAC chips: an AK449EQ and 2xES9068AS. The left side of the DAP contains the AKM chip and the right side contains the ESS chip; however, annedocatal listening would have me think it’s the other way around! Honestly, I kept mixing them up, so I’ll just call them the “right-side” and the “left-side” (screen facing the listener) for convenience.
On the right side, the SE200’s presentation is reminiscent of A&K’s house sound (or at least the sound that I associate with their other DAPs I've heard). Plugging in my Andromeda 2020, I hear a muddier response than I'd prefer; as a whole, it sounds like a regression to the Andromeda 2019 minus the treble sparkle. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a fan of the Andromeda 2019 even if I certainly respected it. Decay on this side leans more textured than it does smooth or etched, which is certainly not a bad thing. My biggest issue here, then, is that it all comes off as strangely forced. There is what I can only describe as a lack of authenticity to the timbre, as if everything from the upper-midrange and up has been intentionally suppressed for a smoother, darker listen. In foodie-terms, it's the auditory equivalent of eating a stack of brownies, and maybe feeling a tad sick afterwards from sugar overload. More forgiving ears might call the overall presentation "velvety” or “organic”.
That said, I found myself enjoying the left side of the SE200 significantly more. Some readers might find it ironic that it sounds nothing like any of A&K’s other DAPs that I’ve heard. The left side presents a more traditional “Hi-Fi” sound, so think of an IEM like the qdc Anole VX: upfront with an emphasis on sheer clarity. Bass is tight and defined, and the upper-midrange and treble have been brought forward whilst not straying far from neutral. Midrange transient attack is very crisp, although I think treble is where things get taken a tad far; it can be splashy and over-aggressive. As a whole, this side also does not sound particularly natural, generally coming off as slightly etched in decay, digital, and overly bright. But make no mistake: This is an excellent sound overall for those who desire a more forward, transparent presentation, and it immediately impressed me.
As you can see, the SE200’s two sides present distinctly different sounds; in many respects, they are opposite sides of the coin. But what if you wanted something in-between? That’s where the SE180 comes in, or at least the SE180 with the stock ES9038PRO DAC. Tonally, the SE180 presents a sound that is more closely reminiscent of the “velvety,” right side of the SE200. It is darker and tries to emulate a smooth, downwards-sloping signature. But to my ears, this is a case of “be careful what you wish for”. The SE180 ports over more of the plasticky quality that plagues the SE200’s left side. Bass slam feels strangely splayed, and the midrange and treble lack the characteristic note richness that A&K’s other DAPs tend to exhibit. It generally comes off as quite...well, fake, if you’ll forgive my lack of formality. Almost unabashedly so. Perplexing amalgamation of contrasting tonality and intangibles in hand, I think you can tell I’m not exactly sold here.
Per Astell&Kern's recommendation, as this was a new unit, I burned-in the SE180 for 50+ hours after the above was written. I will not attest confidently to differences observed; however, I did feel that the treble response "opened" up more. It sounded brighter, slightly more brittle than what I remembered previously. The upper-midrange also moved forward a tad, but notes became thinner as a result. Dynamics sounded slightly more energetic. Ultimately, whether good or bad, I think these differences are better left to personal interpretation.
Technicalities on the two A&K DAPs are generally solid. The SE200, on the left side, has excellent clarity and detail, enough to play at the flagship level. I think the right side also has good detail, but it suffers on the front of sheer clarity due to the downwards-sloping signature. The SE180 sits somewhere slightly behind the SE200’s right side for technical performance. I will also commend the A&K DAPs' remarkably dark backgrounds. This is in the sense that I perceive the stage as a pitch-black canvas of sorts with which instruments seem to pop-and-sink out of nowhere.
The images itself fleshed-out by both DAPs can generally be considered one that goes for precision over a sense of grandiose. This compliments the aforementioned dark backgrounds nicely. Some might find that the SE200’s right side has a slightly more expansive stage due to the upper-midrange recession; however, I did not find either DAP to sound particularly open for staging. Macrodynamics on both of the A&K DAPs are also a mixed bag. The SE200’s left-side easily sports the best dynamic contrast to my ears; whereas the right-side comes off as more downwards compressed. I would say the SE180 falls somewhere in-between; that is, more flat to the way it scales dynamic swings. The SE180 also tends to lack a sense of macrodynamic weight, or body, when compared to something like the iBasso DX300.
As usual, I started from the bottom by testing with my Campfire Andromeda 2020 . The SE200 hissed noticeably off both of its outputs. Surprisingly, the SE180 had a remarkably low noise floor with the Andromeda 2020, although hissing was still audible on the quieter, instrumental tracks I listened to. That in mind, I would not purchase either of these DAPs expecting a whisper-black background with more sensitive IEMs, although the SE180 should certainly be workable for most listeners. For headphones, I paired the DAPs with the Focal Clear , HiFiMan Sundara , and Sennheiser HD800S I had on-hand. Both were able to drive the headphones to sufficient listening volume (for me) without an issue.
As a reviewer, I often find myself asking a simple question: “Would I be happy if I purchased this product with my own money?”. And the answer here is no. My concern with the SE180 and SE200 is not that they are necessarily bad products, but rather, that they are circumscribed by their cost of entry. I have simply assessed them according to their respective pricing. And for the price, I would be remiss to ignore the SE180’s middling sound quality and software deficiencies; the SE200 to a lesser extent.
My pick? If you are keen on picking up an A&K DAP, I would definitely go for the SE200 between the two. Sure, it’ll set you back a little more, but it’s considerably speedier, sports flagship-level sound quality, and its two DAC chips mean that you’re more likely to find synergy between a given IEM. The benefit of the SE180 is that it’s modular, which affords you more options later down the line. But when you consider that the modules are going to set you back ~$350 a piece, it’s clear that the value proposition plummets considerably. In fact, just purchasing one extra module will cost you more than the SE200! So you heard it here: Go big or go home.