Today I’m checking out all of the Astell&Kern SEM modules on the Astell&Kern SE180 DAP.
Disclaimer: A&K sent me the SEM2, SEM3 and SEM4 modules in exchange for this review, together with the SE180 which they had already sent to us. The SEM1 Module comes with the DAP itself. The units are not needed back as far as I know. This review reflects my honest impression of the product as always.
I guess almost no one needs any introduction to the South Korean Astell & Kern brand but let me briefly enlighten you if you need to. 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 line-up. It follows and improves the multiple DAC concept of the SE200 model. I won’t review the DAP itself in this review since this article is focused on the DAC modules. However, you can check my review of the SE180, including the SEM1 and SEM2 modules just 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 to the SE200, the new device substantially improves the multi DAC concept regardless. Now you can remove the whole DAC/Amp module from the device and replace it with different DAC modules, as well as the possible upcoming ones (vacuum tube maybe?). This allows you to upgrade your DAP without changing the whole device. At least that’s what I took from it.
SEM DAC Modules
How many options do you need?
The SE180 comes with the SEM1 module as standard with an ESS ES9038PRO chip. The SEM2 launched first as an upgrade DAC, with Dual Asahi Kasei AK4497EQ DACs. It was a noticeable improvement and the SEM2 module can be bought at 349$ cost.
The SEM3 and the newest SEM4 set you back 399$. They’re the most advanced modules so far on paper. The SEM3 has Quad ES9038Q2M DACs, whilst the SEM4 is equipped with Dual AK4493SEQ configuration.
The SEM4 has the battery life advantage, however, and A&K claims that you can run 14 hours with the SE180 with this particular module. In addition to that, the SEM4 also introduced the new “DAR” feature. It’s called ”Digital Audio Remaster” which is kind of an upsampling. Basically, it upsamples your lossless files to DSD256. A very interesting feature.
So without further ado, let’s dive down to the sound quality of the SEM DAC modules right away.
Removing/Attaching the Modules
The device feels like a monoblock piece despite having a removable DAC module but the operation requires getting used to it. It 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. And, the mechanical design is perfect.
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 become quite used to the operation since I tried and compared them back and forth.