Astell & Kern SE180 Review (SEM2)

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.

Astell & Kern SE180

About SE180

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:

Astell&Kern SE200 Review

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.

Astell & Kern SE180

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.

Astell&Kern A&futura SE180 Review

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.

Astell & Kern 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.

Software

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.

Astell & Kern SE180

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.

Page 2: Sound Quality SEM1 & SEM2

Page 3: Comparisons and Conclusion

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A keen audiophile and hobby photographer, Berkhan is after absolute perfection. Whether it is a full-frame camera or a custom in-ear, his standpoint persists the same. He tries to keep his photography enthusiasm at the same level as audio. Sometimes photography wins, sometimes his love for music takes over and he puts that camera aside. Simplistic expressions of sound in his reviews are the way to go for him. He enjoys a fine single malt along with his favorite Jazz recordings.

9 Comments

  • Reply August 26, 2021

    Claudio

    At this moment the DAP market is saturated. Companies are releasing models very quickly and they are making expensives products with bugs and slow UI. I always enjoy your reviews guys but I think it’s important to consider the user experiencie not only about the sound. Your top recomendation must have all the features that can give us a great experience. I said that because in your list there are product wirh poor quality or very slow and really expensive. I think the SE180 can be a great DAP but you mention that the UI is slow. So is that acceptable for a product that cost 1.500?? I don’t think so!!!

    • Reply August 26, 2021

      Berkhan

      Hello Claudio,

      We of course consider the user experience and the SE180 provides a nice one. The UI is not slow on its own but slower when compared to some other DAPs. But it’s not a deal breaker because it gets the job done without any issues or bugs.

      To us, the most important aspect is the sound quality so that always comes first.

      Can you give a few examples of the slow DAPs in our recommended list?

      • Reply August 26, 2021

        Claudio

        Hi Berkhan

        Of course. The SA700 (very poor UI and bad user experience), the Shanling M6 pro (good sounding but to slow). In you DAC/AMP list I have the experience with the Honey H1 (Good sound, horrible performance. The released a new firmware and my unit didn’t work). To be honest I bought all of this DAP and DAC base on your reviews. Of course, all of them sound great but the user experience is not good enough to pay the price. If I compare with the Sony WM1A even though it sound is not superior to my other DAPs the Sony is miles ahead in terms of reliability and performance and durability. Is just my opinion I hope you don’t take this in a bad way.

        In terms of sound I will love to hear all DAP!!

        • Reply August 27, 2021

          Berkhan

          Thank you for valuing our reviews as a reference.

          I tested the SA700 and I thought it was quite OK. I don’t know about the M6 Pro though. Honey H1 is not a fully complete package as I remarked in its review but it sounds was so good I had to recommend it.

          I also used the WM1A and 1Z and I agree with you on that part. But A&K experience in software is still quite good in my opinion. You need to also consider about WM series not having some functions of A&K DAPs. The search function for example, is not even a choice with the Sony.

          So we of course consider the user experience but the priority is always the sound performance.

          • Reply August 27, 2021

            Claudio

            Thanks for answer me. And I agree about A&K experience in other models. I have the SE200 too and the experience is great. My only concern is that I cannot use it with the Honey H1 (and also my fiio Q5s) because the DAP freeze but is not important for me because that DAP sound great. On the other hand the WM1A works perfect with both DAC. I agree that the sound quality is one of the most important factor too. Bye

  • Reply August 26, 2021

    MhtLion

    Great review. Looking forward to SP2000″T” review.

    • Reply August 27, 2021

      Berkhan

      It will come sooner or later 🙂

  • Reply September 4, 2021

    Troels

    Hello Berlhan
    How do you think SE180 SEM 2 compares to SE 200 (AK chip) soundwise?

    • Reply September 22, 2021

      Berkhan

      I really don’t know. I haven’t heard the SE200.

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