Astell&Kern All SEM Modules Review

Sound Quality – SEM3

The SEM1 and SEM3 modules (ESS based) are not necessarily the typical A&K sound. Especially SEM3 has an analytical presentation with great detail, sound stage and resolution. However, from the pure audiophile and realism/reference standpoint, the SEM3 is the best module you can attach to the SE180 in my opinion. Amongst all of the four DAC modules, the SEM3 has the best PRaT, decay, dynamism and attack. It also has the best instrument separation, and the best sharpness and focus.

The bass with the SEM3 hits cleaner with better speed when compared to SEM2 & 4. The stage is quite relaxed and airy, with good width and depth. The mids are crisp and very transparent, and tonality-wise they’re a reference point in the SEM3 against the other modules. The liveliness and tonal correctness in the SEM3 is very impressive. Treble has good extension and resolution, with great articulation.

Overall, the SEM3 is a very impressive module and actually reminded me of the SP1000 SS model, the old flagship. There’s a great amount of detail and sharpness with this module and if you’re after pure, truthful and reference-class sound, the SEM3 is the module for you.

Sound Quality – SEM4

Now, I was quite impressed by the SEM4 when it first arrived. It brings musicality, warmth, staging and full-bodied sound which is very natural and smooth. I don’t mean that I’m not impressed anymore, but it turned out to be a sound alternative to the SEM3, instead of being the straight better module. Well, it’s actually my mistake there to expect that, since they have the same asking price at the end of the day.

The SEM4 brings the AKM sound, in a very musical and warm way. The bass of the SEM4 is heavier with more impact, rumble and kick, It has more sub-bass presence, creamy mids with lively tonality, and smooth treble which is quite easygoing. The SEM4 is the best musical alternative among the modules, but I still think that the SEM3 has better technicalities.

The SEM4 has the upper hand in the sound stage department. But the SEM3 provides a nice stage too, and actually, it separates the instruments sharper and there’s more air between them. So yes, the SEM4 is wider and deeper sounding, but the SEM3 makes up for it with its excellent separation and air, so you don’t really feel congested at all.

The ”DAR” feature of the SEM4 is actually surprisingly good. It creates better dynamic range, better layering and a bit more warmth, especially in the bass region. You get a bit more bass impact and overall the sound becomes smoother with better musicality. However, these differences are very very small, and you need to concentrate for quite a while for it, but the technology is great to see nevertheless.

The SEM4 is the perfect balance between technicalities and musicality. The SEM3, with its Quad-Ess setup, doesn’t care that much about musicality and gives you a fully honest presentation. And that’s why I like it as you can see. I use the SEM4 when I need good warmth, smoothness and musical delivery.

SEM2 vs SEM4

So you might wonder, does the SEM4 is a worthy AKM upgrade over the SEM2? I say yes. However, you should choose the SEM4 if you have a capable IEM. Otherwise, look for a way to upgrade your IEM first. Now, assuming you have a capable IEM, the SEM4 has better technicalities between the two.

The SEM2 is more aggressive in the treble, with more sparkle and brightness. So it’s good for the treble-heads, but the SEM2 sounds narrower and closer in terms of sound stage, whilst the SEM4 performs wider and deeper with a more immersive presentation. Layering, in particular, is better with the SEM4.

Conclusion

Long story short, we have two ESS and two AKM DAC modules. SEM3 and SEM4 are simply the better versions of SEM1 & 2, with noticeably better technical performance. Yet, if I have to choose just one module out of these, I would pick the SEM3 with its Quad ESS config. The SEM3 has everything you need in its sound if you’re a pure audiophile. When it comes to technicalities, the SEM3 is the way to go for me.

The SEM4 provides more battery and DAR function, together with a very musical and enjoyable, immersive sound. It has the A&K signature, and when the DAR feature is on, you have the warm and organic DSD sound all the way.

I recommend the SEM3 module and it just entered our Best Accessories list. To the owners of the SE180; just listen to it and you’ll be impressed. The DAP itself, the SE180, is already a recommended DAP from us.

Page 1: About the Brand, SE180 and the DAC Modules
Page 2: Sound Quality SEM1 & SEM2

4.8/5 - (6 votes)

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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.

5 Comments

  • Reply July 24, 2022

    Julius

    Hello dear Berkhan, how is this se180+sem4 vs sp2000 doing in terms of sound? I have read some that say that this sem4 reached sp2000 and it sounds almost the same, that astellkern practically shot himself in the feet with this launch, what could you comment on it?

  • Reply July 24, 2022

    Berkhan

    No way. It’s not SP2000 and it will not be. Presentation wise you get the most SP2000 type of sound with the SEM2 card, and SEM4 is like Shanling M8 with its warmth and bass emphasis. However SP2000 is superior in technical performance.

  • Reply July 27, 2022

    Andy

    May I know if SEM3 is on par with lotoo paw gold touch?

  • Reply July 27, 2022

    Berkhan

    No, but it’s not too far away.

    • Reply July 28, 2022

      Andy

      Thank you.

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