Firmware/ User Interface/ Usability
The FirmWare version of the SP2000 at the time of the review is version 1.22CM.
The A&ultima SP2000 features the same revamped interface design as the SP1000, which provides music playback from the home screen to give users a more music-centric experience.
By placing the power button on the Multi-function wheel located on the side instead of on the top, users can control the volume and turn the LCD screen ON/OFF, all with one simple control. Finding your way around the SP2000 menu structure is very easy. Like any modern Android unit you can now swipe menus down, left and right. This allows for a much easier and faster use of the player. As you can see in the pictures above, the menu structure also is very clear and learning the basic principles only takes minutes.
The User Interface, as we’re used to from Astell&Kern, is clear and straight forwarded. The player never is slow on non-responsive and the Octa core CPU does a great job here. Updating the firmware over the air (OTA) is easy and the SP2000 will simply alert you when a new update is ready. If you’ve ever worked with one of the latest AK DAPs then working with the SP2000 will be a piece of cake. But even if you’ve never had the opportunity to mess around with them, you’ll known how exactly they operate within minutes.
The overall user experience is very positive: no flaws – no hiccups – no crashes. On the SP1000 I remarked that the screen blinked when you set the brightness very low but this is no longer an issue with the SP2000. The only thing I can remark regarding the SP2000’s usability is that the left side buttons are very recognizable when you’re using the case. The buttons in this situation are hardly feelable and distinguishable. That’s why I prefer using the SP2000 without its case.
Sound – Intro
As I remarked in the preview article, I didn’t expect a huge improvement over the SP1000 as that one already sounds exceptionally good. But AK’s engineers have managed to make the SP2000 sound even better and the upgraded DAC chip really is doing magic.
Often when there’s a new flagship or improved version of a unit, we only very rarely go back to the previous or original model. With these AK flagship players I have to admit this is not the case, and I use both the SP1000 and SP2000 depending on what signature I feel like listening to. The SP2000 probably is the technically strongest one of both, but the SP1000 still is incredibly good and at the discounted price it’s going for right now, it offers high value for money. The SP1000 will be shipped back to the factory soon though, and that’s ok because if I has to choose only one of these, it would be the SP2000.
Ever since Astell&Kern launched their first portable player, the AK100, back in 2012, I’ve been a fan of their typical sound signature where neutrality, detail retrieval, clarity and precision play important roles. Technology since 2012 has evolved and DAC chips have only gotten better, and I’m glad to see that the Astell&Kern players have done the same.
For the part on sound below, a whole series of IEMs were used, but mostly the Unique Melody MEST, the Jerry Harvey JH13V2Pro and the Vision Ears EVE20
The SP2000 sound clear and überclean, especially in balanced mode. The overall dynamics are exemplary and the SP2000 is very precise. The detail retrieval of the new AK4499EQ chip is impressive and the SP2000 delivers music with a fast pace. The background is black and 95% of your IEMs no noise will be audible at all. With the remaining 5% there is a little bit of noise audible at extremely low volumes, but once you reach a minimum listening volume, you won’t be able to notice this at all.
The SP2000 is linear and balanced and it doesn’t really boost any frequencies, though I’ll come back to that in a bit. It delivers the perfect mix of micro detail and musicality. In this regard the only other DAP I have listened to that plays at the same level is the Luxury & Precision LP6. The timbre, note extension and decay of the SP2000 are impressive from top to bottom.
Sound stage-wise the SP2000 performs excellent in both width and depth. Connect a high end IEM to it and the separation, layering positioning will strongly impress you. The SP2000’s dynamics are also very good, as well as the left-right balance and stereo imaging.
In balanced mode you get a wider sound stage with even better extension on top and at the bottom. You get a more spacious presentation, which is even less inside your head as well. The depth and the layering also improve further and become more apparent. While the technicalities in balanced are the very best, I can’t help but notice that the bass also gets a bit more body and it comes delivered with higher impact. The upper mids and vocals also become a bit more forward sounding. Because of the this the balanced output sounds a bit more aggressive/pushy, where the single ended output sounds smoother, softer and more relaxed.
A lot depends on how you like your music to sound and both outputs have their strengths. I always recommend to get a balanced cable and a small converter to 3.5. That way you can simply and quickly switch between modes, depending on the music you’re playing or the IEM you’re using. I switch outputs all the time but I have to admit that the balanced output probably is the one that I end up using most.
Bass is tight, fast and very detailed. Bass goes deep and has excellent layering (especially in balanced mode). With the right IEM the sub-bass will be impressive with a good rumble down low, just never in an exaggerated way. The amount of bass body and the impact are excellent, making the bass section both technically as well as musically strong. As said, you in balanced mode will get slightly bigger bass body with more impact, but it’s never too much or near the level where you could call this a bass heavy DAP. It at all times is quality before quantity.
The mids section also is very detailed and music is presented in a spacious way with excellent separation. The mid depth and layering also are strong, especially in balanced mode. The mid body and fulness connect perfectly to the mids to keep the linear presentation AK flagships are so famous for. The mids are presented with great timbre and naturality and especially in balanced mode the timbre, dynamics and the decay/note extension are impressive. Seriously impressive. As mentioned earlier, the upper mids and vocals in balanced mode are presented in a more forward way. This gives the vocals a more energetic touch vs the sifter and smoother delivery in single ended mode. Again, it’s all about your preferences.
The Astell & Kern way of presenting treble in their TOTL players is unique. It’s one of the reason one so many people like the AK sound. For others the treble can be too extended, clear and energetic but I really like it. Treble is lively, detailed and extends well in both depth and wide. Treble is never harsh or shouty, just clean and clear with great dynamics and precision. In balanced mode the treble extension takes it even a notch further but treble is always realistic and natural. Treble is perfectly inline with the mids but it at the same time nicely contrasts the lower end. This contrasts is most perceivable in balanced mode.
All-in-all a really great tuning yet again by the Astell&Kern engineers. Where the SP1000 performs very well already, the SP2000 takes it a notch further and especially the difference in bass and timbre is jaw dropping. Let’s compare them a little more.
The review continues on the fourth page, after the click here. You can also use the jumps below.