Today we’ll be taking a close look at the new SA700 $1,299 Digital Audio Player from renowned personal audio manufacturer Astell&Kern.
It sits right in the middle of the South Korean company’s expansive DAP line-up. You can check out some of our previous Astell&Kern reviews here.
Note: The SA700 unit featured in this review was loaned to us by Astell&Kern’s local Australian distributor, Busisoft AV, and will be returned to them after the review. We thank them for the support and the opportunity.
Like much of the world right now, you might find yourself bunkering-down under voluntary (or forced, depending on where you’re joining us from) time at home to help curb the spread of COVID-19. And if you’re reading this from the future – I hope that we all look back on this time as a crazy footnote in history and that we all managed to return to regular programming reasonably quickly afterwards. Although I’ve gotta say, that as an audio enthusiast, the notion of having to spend a lot more time indoors isn’t an altogether terrible one when you have some great music and listening equipment to pass the time with. It’s also a great time to be an audio reviewer – there are a lot fewer distractions from spending time with review gear, and a lot more time to sit down to critically evaluate and compare products.
This is the first review that I’ve conducted under ‘social distancing’ conditions. I was a little disappointed at first that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to give the SA700 a good run for its money under more ‘portable’ circumstances, but I quickly found that this didn’t present too much of a problem at all. You see, a good DAP should be somewhat of a ‘companion’ – a reliable source of entertainment that can be close-by at all times, and reliably provide you with the ability to let you listen to more music, more often. I have a number of separate music systems in my house – my desktop and two-channel set-up in my office/listening room; a DAC/amp in my bedroom; and a two-channel set-up in my living room. Each of them has been set-up for specific use-cases in each room, and generally, they only get used a few times each week. Given that my other half and I have both been working from home these past few weeks, I’ve found myself moving my ‘office’ set-up around my place frequently – from the couch, to the balcony, and thanks to the wonder of video conferencing, I’ve even managed to get through more than one meeting while cooking a meal in the kitchen.
I’ve found that a DAP is actually the perfect way to keep an uninterrupted musical ‘dialogue’ happening all day around your home. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve never listened to more music in my life than I have in the past 2+ weeks. But, on reflection, a lot of that has to do with the qualities of the thing that we’re here to talk about today: the new SA700 digital audio player from Astell&Kern. ‘A&K’ is somewhat of a heavyweight in the audiophile-grade DAP stakes, with a deep product line-up ranging from the $699 SR15 right up to the $4,999 Stainless Steel AK320 (imagine leaving that on the train…). It’s an impressive line-up from a company with hard-won pedigree, and they’re well-represented on our DAP recommendation list. The SA700 drops in as somewhat of a mid-tier DAP in the A&K line-up in terms of its features and $1,299 price point.
It’s able to pack all but the hugest of digital music libraries on-board thanks to 128Gb of built-in storage plus a Micro-SD expansion slot that can accept the largest current cards available (1 x terabyte at the time of writing). And for the tunes that you don’t have locally, A&K’s ‘Open App’ service allows you to install streaming apps to make use of the SA700’s wifi capabilities. Deezer and Tidal come loaded straight out of the box, but if you want to use Spotify, Google (or any other current/future services) it’ll require the APK files to be loaded and installed manually.
So what does this mean for this reviewer’s current use-case? Well, basically it means I can be in any room (or balcony) of my apartment with access to every digital music file I’ve ever collected, and I can stream for those I haven’t. Nice. But of course, there are all kinds of devices that can do this – including your garden-variety smartphone. But, if we’re going to be making the most of some COVID-19 time, then we’ve gotta do it full-fat. In my books, there are three reasons how a device can help you make the most out of your listening experience.
Firstly, it has to sound good. This might sound like a bit of a no-brainer, but an average-sounding device can get you to “meh” territory pretty quickly, and leave you flat and underwhelmed. And, before you know it you’ve hung up your headphones and you’ve watched two seasons of Grand Designs. The SA700 has some impressive horsepower under the hood. Power-wise, it’s capable of 2.0Vrms from its 3.5mm single-ended connection, and 4.0Vrms from its 2.5mm balanced jack. Digital to analogue conversion duties are managed by a pair of AK4492ECB DACS from AKM – the first time this chipset has been deployed in a DAP. Just about every file type you should worry about can be played via the SA700 (including one controversial proprietary type if that’s your thing), and it will happily dispatch very hi-res music well above the classic 16/44.1 Redbook sample rate.
Next, it has to be a joy to use. A poor user interface and user experience can quickly snap you out of the ‘zone’, making discovering old and new music a frustrating experience. The SA700 uses an Android-based operating system featuring a quad-core processor and features a 4.1inch (720 x 1,280) touch display. In terms of physical buttons, it’s a pretty simple affair. There are three small track-forward/back and play-pause button on the left-hand side, a power button on the top of the device, and an extremely tactile, prominent volume wheel.
And lastly, it’s gotta look good. If you’re going to have your DAP on the surface in front of you at all times, a good piece of industrial design will make that a far easier pill to swallow and make you want to regard it from arm’s length. The overall shape of the SA700 might seem a little familiar to the keen-eyed DAP-aficionados among you. That volume wheel which dominates the otherwise monolithic, rectangular profile evokes the lines of the AK120 – the original Astell&Kern DAP – from which they drew inspiration in terms of the SA700’s design. Astell&Kern set-out to combine analogue-design values of yesteryear with cutting-edge future technology in this latest chapter. Or, as they describe: ‘Past Meets Present’. The ‘party trick’ of the SA700 in the beauty pageant is the back-lit LED behind the volume wheel. depending on what sample rate or file type you’re listening to, it will glow in a nice red, green, blue or purple. It’s a nice, subtle effect and provides a comforting reminder of the device’s power and smarts while it’s sitting nearby.
Head over to Page Two to continue our review, just CLICK HERE.