Today I’m checking out the Astell & Kern SE180 DAP with SEM1 and SEM2 DAC modules together.
Disclaimer: A&K sent me the SE180 and the SEM2 module in exchange for this review. The unit is not needed back as far as I know. This review reflects my honest impression of the product as always. The unit costs 1499$ and comes with the SEM1 as standard. The SEM2 is sold separately at 349$. This review focuses on the sound department.
About Astell & Kern
I guess almost no one needs any introduction about the South Korean Astell & Kern brand but let me briefly enlighten you if you need so. Astell & Kern is a luxurious digital audio player brand (mostly) and they’re a well-established well-known company when it comes to sound quality among audiophiles. Since the AK100 model, they’re releasing high-quality and authentic DAPs to the market with their own distinct design language and rather classic software solution and UI.
The Astell & Kern SE180 is a mid-to-high range digital audio player in A&K’s lineup. It follows and improves the multiple DAC concept of the SE200 model. You can check that review from Matty below:
Although the SE180 model name is a bit confusing about whether it’s an upgrade or a similar model in terms of sound performance, the new device improves the multi DAC concept regardless. Now you can remove the whole DAC module from the device and replace it with different DAC modules, and the possible upcoming ones as well (vacuum tube maybe?). This allows you to upgrade your DAP without changing the whole device. At least that’s what I took from it.
The SE180 comes with the SEM1 module as standard, and the SEM2 module can be bought at 349$ cost. With the SEM2 the total cost is around 1849$, so I guess it’s an alternative model to the SE200 with different tech and slightly updated software. Of course, it might surpass it with even more modules soon.
No Sound Topics
Nano has already reviewed the SE180 with his thorough review which you can check out below. I will mostly review the device on sound performance terms, but let me summarise the overall user experience.
Design & Build
The device is a bit hefty and large, even more so than what I expected. Of course, it’s lighter than the flagship SP2000, so it’s a bit more pocketable. But the screen and the casing itself is definitely large. So this is again a not-so-portable A&K player, and I wouldn’t use it outdoors too much.
The design has a classic A&K look & feel with unorthodox lines and edges. It has a diamond shape on the top and the bottom, which is quite edgy overall. The left and right sides have a more rounded design with aesthetic lines with a very distinctive, “outside of the box” design mentality. I think it looks great and cool but sometimes it’s a bit difficult to hold it in one hand without a case.
The build quality is excellent overall. A&K has a great reputation in that department. The device feels like a monoblock piece despite having a removable DAC module and the volume wheel is also very sturdy. I have no complaints here.
Removing the DAC module is rather a creepy experience. It’s not very straightforward and the releasing buttons are rather quirky, but you get used to it in no time. When removing the module it comes out a bit too stiff in a split second. So make sure you’re stopping the module safely when you remove it. Otherwise, it might fly over to your kitchen table or living room. As a side note, don’t remove the module while the device is awake as it might damage your SE180.
I really liked the new multi-functional button on the right side just below the volume wheel. Instead of having three different buttons on the side of the player, you just have one to play/pause, skip, and backward. You press once for pause, two times for the next song, and three times for the previous. It’s a very simple solution for having a cleaner, more elegant design.
The UI and software provide a smooth and pleasing experience. Yet, some people don’t like A&K’s approach to the UI because of its closed and non-customizable nature. As you know, A&K uses heavily modified and closed Android software for their players. I have no problems with their approach as they want to provide a distinctive experience with their brand. Brands like iBasso, HiBy and FiiO provide a vanilla Android experience with faster CPUs, but I don’t think A&K would change their philosophy about the UI.
I don’t think it’s realistic to expect A&K to be similar to other brands in software. It’s the very thing that sets them apart from others, just like their DAP designs. It’s their brand DNA. The UI is not the fastest, not the most responsive but it gets the job done with every function and you won’t have too many surprises. I particularly like the search function of A&K players if I have to pick one feature alone.
The new navigation bar is useful and it’s a good idea to remove the hardware “home” button and replace it with the new bar. You can also skip songs or pause them through this new function while you’re on different screens. But A&K could’ve given the users an option to close it with an update. Some people might prefer a full-screen experience.
Speaking of updates, A&K has released the new 1.16 firmware version for the SE180 just a few days back. If you have the SE180 or plan to get one, make sure to update. The SEM2 module had a stereo L&R problem with DSD files when I received the module, but it’s fixed with the new update so DSD files play perfectly fine.