Astell & Kern SE180 Review (SEM2)

Sound Quality – SEM1

I didn’t know what to expect from the SE180 with its standard module. The SEM1 module has a single ESS 9038 Pro chip inside. I was using the SP2000 when I received the device, so I expected it to be a significant downgrade in sound. After listening to it, I reminded myself about the law of diminishing returns in the audio hobby.

The SE180 is no slouch, even with the standard module. I will share my experience with the SEM2 below but don’t expect the SE180 to be a “nice guy”. It’s very capable, resolving, and transparent. Especially its resolution impressed me the most, and I think it’s not a night and day difference when you compare it to the Ultima line.

The SEM1 module sounds a bit analytical and with a highly resolving sound with lots of detail. It sounds very detailed with great stereo imaging and separation. It has an attacking nature with an in-your-face type of presentation. The SEM1 actually doesn’t follow the A&K house sound to me overall.

It sounds very crisp and detailed. The micro detail performance is very impressive as well as resolution and transparency. The presentation and delivery are rather intimate than relaxed. The dynamism is very good with good attack and speed overall. Especially the bass is well-controlled with good decay and recovery. The presentation of the SEM1, for some reason, reminded me of the old but good Lotoo Paw Gold.

So the standard module performs more sterile whilst the SEM2 is more musical which soon I’m getting into. It’s like having sharp and reference studio monitors versus a bookshelf or tower speaker setup. Overall the SEM1 feels a bit airier but its soundstage is still a bit more cramped and small.

Sound Quality – SEM2

The SEM2 module has an Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ Dual DAC setup inside. When you switch to the SEM2 from SEM1, you notice that the sound becomes fuller and instruments and vocals have more depth and body in them. The midrange becomes more musical and enjoyable since the SEM1 sounds a bit dry in that area. The sound stage depth is better with the SEM2 and layering also improves when you switch to this module.

Resolution-wise the SEM1 and SEM2 are similar, but I think the SEM2 has better transparency overall. The bass in the SEM2 has a bit more presence and it hits from a wider area. It has better stage depth and the mids are richer with a good body. Tonality is more musical and there’s a more rounded and holographic soundstage.

So the main difference between the two modules lies in musicality and tonality, as well as soundstage dimensions. The SEM2 definitely has the A&K house sound, much more than the SEM1. It plays wider and deeper with better layering between every element of a song. Its tonality is more pleasing and smooth. Whilst the SEM1 has great resolution and technicalities, the SEM2 upgrades the sound with better layering, timbre, musicality, and soundstage/imaging.

Astell & Kern SE180

The question is; does the SEM2 worth an extra 349$? I think it does. With the SEM1, the SE180 doesn’t really sound like an A&K device to me. Don’t get me wrong here. You can still be satisfied with the standard setup, but the SEM2 enhances the performance and makes it closer to the beloved SP2000, which is an amazing flagship player in its own right. Although you don’t quite get that flagship level of performance, the SP2000 in this case becomes a prime example of diminishing returns.

Page 1: Intro and No Sound Topics

Page 3: Comparisons and Conclusion

4.8/5 - (6 votes)

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. 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 favourite Jazz recordings.


  • Reply August 26, 2021


    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


      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


        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


          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


            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


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

    • Reply August 27, 2021


      It will come sooner or later 🙂

  • Reply September 4, 2021


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

    • Reply September 22, 2021


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

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