Sound Quality – SEM1 (from the original review)
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 with that certain fullness in the sound. 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 (from the original review)
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. However, it does feel less full and less dense because the sound stage depth is better with the SEM2 and layering also improves when you switch to this module. So you have more space overall, which prevents an overly full-bodied presentation.
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.
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.