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
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