Review: Astell&Kern SP1000 – Impressive

Sound – Intro

“The evolution of a masterpiece”

Astell&Kern promotes the SP1000 as an evolution of the AK380 and that’s exactly what it is to me. The AK70 is a bit different but to me the SP1000 evolution is as follows: The AK120II, which I still love, evolved to the AK240. That AK240 quickly was followed by the AK380 which was quite a bit better in all possible ways. And then the AK380 – which still is a great sounding & looking DAP, came in to join the AK380 as flagship model.

Astell&Kern doesn’t look at the SP1000 as the AK380 replacement for now but I think everyone is taking it that way anyhow. If you can choose between the AK380 or a newer, more developed DAP for the (in theory) same price, wouldn’t you always go for the newest one. That of course also depends on which sound signature you prefer – you might like the AK380’s more – but the fact is that the second hand AK380’s are getting a hard time finding new owners unless you’re selling for a price which is under the market’s average.

The AK380 was my favorite DAP for a very long time but when the SP1000 arrived at the HQ, I immediately started using the SP1000 when I normally would have used the AK380. After months of listening to the SP1000 instead of the AK380, I went back to the AK380 and to my own, I still loved it almost as much as I once did. But more on the AK380 vs SP1000 later in this article.

Sound – The team

I’m not the first one looking at the Astell&Kern A&Ultimate SP1000, Linus and Berkhan both have talked about it on Headfonia already. You can find their views on the SP1000 here and here. Linus in example say: “It is a definite step up from the AK380: it is more dynamic, renders a higher resolution picture, goes deeper and just sounds clearer to me. The A&ultima SP1000 is the sexiest DAP out there and it offers great sound but secretly I wished for it to be Roon Ready“.

Ever since the Linus got his SP1000, his AK380 – just like mine – has been in hybernation

Sound

Of course Berkhan was comparing the SP1000 to his favorite Sony WM1Z but I do think he, and Linus as well for that matter, nailed several sound characteristics of the SP1000.

To me the SP1000 is the best sounding AK DAP so far. Key words are clarity, precision and resolution and you have to see those with a more neutral presentation, especially if you’re a fan of warmer sound. The SP1000’s levels of clarity, resolution and dynamics are incredibly high and some say they even make the AK380’s look pale in a direct comparison.

The SP1000 is very linear and it doesn’t add body anywhere. Overall it body-wise is lighter in presentation, as you would expect from a neutrally tuned high-end portable player but it has enough body to please everyone, or most of you anyway. Both of the outputs are dead silent and I mostly use the 2.5mm headphone output in combination with IEMs. I have to say I really only use the SP1000 in combination with in ear monitors. The sound stage of course is wide and deep and you get excellent separation with just the right amount of space. The tonality simply is of a very high level and most of you would describe it as the typical audiophile tuning. At the same time AK manages to keep the presentation musical and it’s never, dry, cold or overly analytic.

Bass is tight and fast and still comes with great resolution and layering. You get a rich bass but without the big and boomy impact. Delivery is neutral but very dynamic: call it quality over quantity. Basically the same can be said of the high resolution mids which are very transparent. What I like in particular is how the voices blend in without making them sound digital, unnatural, upfront or in the back. Don’t expect a lush and smooth delivery, but think speed, precision and resolution. Treble is extended and precise and very detailed. If you’re a fan of soft, rolled off treble then the SP1000 won’t become your best buddy. But if you au contraire can appreciate lively and energetic treble, you’ll love AK’s latest.

As we’re used to from our South-Korean AK friends, the SP1000 delivers a coherent sound that will blow you away if you’re in to a rich & resolving, clear and precise type of sound with a neutral presentation.

USB DAC / Digital out / Line Out / AK Connect

I have to admit that the Chord Hugo 2 has quickly become my DAC/AMP office setup but when I accidentally forget it at home, it’s the SP1000 that gets to serve as USB DAC with my laptop. To get the SP1000 to work in Windows and with Roon you of course have to install a driver first. Personally I sonically prefer playing the song from the SP1000’s internal and external memory over that of the USB connection. The USB reception and conversion produce a more digital sound with lighter body from top to bottom. When playing directly from the SP1000, the same songs have better body, imho of course.

You can of course use the SP1000 as media source and use one of the digital outputs (USB/Optical) to send a digital signal to your DAC of choice. I’ve been doing it with the Hugo 2 but the reality and truth is that the AK4497EQ DAC chip is of very high quality as well. So it’s more about preferring a different sound signature. At home I have been using the SP1000 & Hugo 2 combo (over optical with the RCA out) as source and DAC for my HA2-SE amplifier and while that is an incredibly good sounding setup, I do admit it’s a bit crazy to only use the SP1000 as a transport. If you’re in to these things however you could give the SP1000/Hugo 2 combo a try using a USB-C to Coax cable, especially if you like your sound to have a more analog sonical touch. Unfortunately my USB-C to Coax cable I have been using with the Cayin i5 does not work for the SP1000 and Mojo/Hugo2 combo.

I also very frequently use the SP1000’s line outputs, both single ended as well as balanced, in combination with my Violectric V281, the Auris HA2-SE and the Cayin HA-1A mk2. You get a top quality sound from the line-out and as it’s of the neutral type, you can use an external (desktop) amplifier to tune the sound to your liking, while “keeping” all the detail and precision from the source.

Something I myself use the AK70 for is AK Connect, but you can use the SP1000 in the exact same way if you’re more into streaming music from your local NAS. In my setup I use the AK DAP as network streamer for all the music that’s on my NAS. The line out of the AK goes to the Aux input of my speaker amp, and with the updated (very stable) AK Connect app for Android, you can control the player from everywhere in the house. It’s perfect! Again, you can do that with the AK70 as well and you don’t need to buy the most expensive AK DAP on the market for this, but if you do have an SP1000, why not!

Comparisons and more on page four of the review. Click HERE

Review: Astell&Kern SP1000 – Impressive
4.7 (93.13%) 163 vote[s]

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

23 Comments

  • Reply September 30, 2017

    John Lee

    “On technicalities the new SP1000 certainly takes the first price”
    A Freudian slip? 😉

  • Reply March 3, 2018

    Michael

    Hi Lieven,
    how is it compared to AK320 in your opinion? I run it with Spiral Ear SE5 Ultimate. They are awesome, but I’m not sure if AK320 is the perfect match. Some say AK320 was the least coloured DAP in the range of AK. What do you think, is it worth the upgrade?
    Best regards, Michael

    • Reply March 5, 2018

      Lieven

      That’s not easy. To me the SP1000 is the best DAP when it comes to BA drivers (and UI), just for sound there’s also the L&P L6. And then there’s the Sony. But to keep it to AK: after I used the sP1000 for several weeks, I went back to the 380 and the difference just was too big to go back.
      Now I’m not overly familiar with the 320 but to me the SP1000 isn’t colored. So I do think it will be a nice upgrade but it does come with a nice price tag. Are you willing to invest in a TOTL DAP (you know, the maw of diminishing returns)

  • Reply March 29, 2018

    Alfred

    HI Lieven
    I don’t have L&P L6 but I had tried SP1000 and it sounds much rich compare AK 380.
    One important thing to me in terms invest DAP is the quality of sound. How was sounds quality of L&P L6 compare to SP1000? since the price gap of the two DAPs are so high 🙂
    what I means is the sound quality of both DAPs not other goodies 🙂
    Thanks
    Alfred

  • Reply April 23, 2018

    Rryy

    Is lime ear aether a good combination with sp1000? I just bought sp1000 and beat audio emerald 8 wire cable with inear sd2.

    • Reply April 23, 2018

      Lieven

      I like it (great treble) but that doesn’t mean you will. Any chance to listen to it upfront?

  • Reply April 24, 2018

    Ram

    Hello Leiven,

    Can you please list out best IEM to use with SP1000?

  • Reply May 22, 2018

    Gideon

    Hi,

    Excellent review!
    How does the SP1000 compare to the sound of the Hugo 2?

    • Reply January 28, 2019

      Jared Crandall

      I would also like to know how the SP1000 or SP1000m fair in relation to the Hugo2. As much as I search online I can’t get a direct answer of what to expect when going from DACs to DAPs. I understand that the functions are not apples to apples, but no reason that the sonics can be compared apples to apples…

  • Reply July 19, 2018

    Nitish

    Hello
    How to connect sp 1000 balanced/unbalanced output to Violectric v281 RCA/XLR?
    Thanks

    • Reply July 19, 2018

      Linus

      Hi Nitish,

      for XLR you’d need a double-headed 2.5mm/3.5mm to dual XLR cable, where the 3.5mm is for ground only. AK sold a cable for that purpose, called PEF21. There are many cable makers that offer that one too, cheaper than the AK cable.

      If you want to go RCA just get a 3.5mm to dual RCA cable.

      Hope that helps!

      • Reply July 20, 2018

        NITISH

        Thanks for the help.

  • Reply September 26, 2018

    Thurein

    Hi, I am using SP1000 with Layla ciem.
    May I know which pure amp will be best paired with SP1000?
    Looking to maintain JH house sound, AK clarity with a touch of warmness.
    Thanks.

    • Reply September 26, 2018

      Lieven

      desktop or portable? Budget?

      • Reply September 27, 2018

        Thurein

        Thanks Lieven.
        For portable, much of my listening sessions are on daily train commute 🙂

        • Reply September 27, 2018

          Lieven

          I’m thinking Vorzamp, Woo WA11, CypherLabs Duet (if you can find one)

          • Reply September 27, 2018

            Thurein

            thanks, i could still get Vorzuge amp pure II and CypherLabs Duet.
            Woo WA11 with DAC is a bit out of my budget.

            Which AMP would you recommend for my SP1000 with Layla ciem.
            Cheers,

            Thurein

  • Reply October 7, 2018

    Joelparisi

    Very good and very helpful reviews. I want to ask one thing, if this player is compared to Altman Tera. Where is the difference?

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