Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 Digital Audio Player Review

Evolution in audio, like all things, inches forward with unwavering inevitability. South Korean audiophile manufacturer Astell&Kern - creators of some of the best-sounding and distinctively-crafted digital audio players (DAPs) on the market - certainly never rest when it comes to keeping their product lineup on the forefront of emerging technology. The prolific list of portable audio devices Astell&Kern has released over the course of the past decade certainly attests to their philosophy of innovation, and it’s remarkable to think that they’ve become perhaps the dominant name in DAPs despite only having existed as a brand since 2012.

At the top of the Astell&Kern evolutionary tree sits the “A&ultima” range. This name is reserved for only the very best flagship-tier DAPs they create, which they say must meet the requirements of having “...the best specifications, high technology, and superior functionality”. The most recent flagship in the Astell&Kern lineup, the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP2000 Digital Audio Player, was launched back in 2019 (a veritable age ago in digital audio) and has since stood as the pinnacle of Astell&Kern’s audio engineering and industrial design prowess in the time since.

A&ultima DAPs have always carried the corresponding top-of-the-line DAC chip from Japanese digital manufacturer Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM), barring the recently-released Astell&Kern A&ultima SP2000T Digital Audio Player, which stands apart as somewhat of an eccentric “middle child” thanks to its “Triple Amp” system (featuring a vacuum tube mode) and use of 4 x ESS ES9068AS DAC chips. However, AKM suffered a widely-publicised devastating factor fire in October 2020 which suddenly created a global shortage in their sought-after digital processing components, and (presumably) set back Astell&Kern’s development of what would ultimately surpass their SP2000. And surpassing the SP2000 is no mean feat, as it’s probably the finest portable source I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy listening to up until now. 

A new A&K DAP pinnacle

Not wanting to rest on their laurels, Astell&Kern set about reaching new heights in portable audio design with the creation of a flagship DAP that logically increases the numerical suffix over their previous SP1000 and SP2000: meet the all-new $5499 Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 Digital Audio Player, where A&K are proud to state that “Luxury meets Innovation”.  

The new SP3000 boasts a bevy of new innovations never before seen in a portable audio device, including no fewer than four of AKM’s latest flagship AK449EX DAC chips, plus the implementation of the world’s first independent Dual Audio Circuitry to completely separate the processing of digital and analogue signals. It wouldn’t be an A&K flagship without an over-engineered and lavish design, and the SP3000 evolves the Astell&Kern design language with the use of 904L stainless steel for its gorgeous 493-gram chassis, encasing an all-new full-HD 1080x1920 display. But perhaps the most substantial update (in my books) is the unveiling of an all-new Android-based interface powered by the Octa-Core Snapdragon 6125 CPU, which results in an all-new user experience that simply makes it easier to dive in and enjoy your music on an Astell&Kern device. 

Unboxing the SP3000

Astell&Kern’s presentation and packaging for their DAPs - even their entry “A&norma” models is second-to-none, always giving you the impression that you’re being treated to a product that’s steeped in quality and brimming with technology. The SP3000, being the new A&K flagship certainly meets these expectations, housing the player itself plus its accompanying accessories inside two separate matte black cardboard protective boxes inside the understated outer sleeve. 

While it doesn’t come with the wooden display box of the SP2000T, Astell&Kern creates a sense of “drama” and flair from the moment you (gently) unbreak the seal of the box containing the SP3000, which unfolds to reveal the player in a dynamic “ooooh” kind of way. I have a feeling that SP3000 owners will want to keep this display box somewhere conspicuous to keep their player on permanent display while not in use. 

Opening up the accessory box reveals a number of useful and welcome items. As well as the standard warranty and quickstart guide, you’ll also receive:

  • A microfibre cleaning cloth (which you’re going to need, more on this later)
  • A USB-c data and charging cable 
  • Transparent adhesive screen protection films
  • A leather protective case 

I do need to spend a moment mentioning the SP3000’s gorgeous olive green leather case because it really is a superb piece of craftsmanship. The case is actually made from goatskin from renowned French manufacturer Alran, and it’s simultaneously soft and rigid with exquisite stitching and attention to detail. You’re definitely going to want to keep this on your new SP3000 at all times - not only to protect your new investment from scratches and bumps but also to protect yourself! Like many A&K devices, the SP3000’s angular, abstract design results in some rather pointy corners. Combine this with its nearly half-kilogram kerb weight, and you could actually do some serious damage if you were to drop it on your foot…

SP3000 build and design 

The first thing you’ll notice about the new SP3000 is that it’s quite the substantial device in terms of size and heft. Measuring 82.4mm (W) x 139.4mm (H) x 18.3mm (D) and weighing 493 grams, the SP3000 feels solidly dense in your palm while also giving you the impression that you’re carrying a precision-crafted device that’s packed with potency. It’s nowhere near as big as the (almost cartoonishly large) FiiO M17 Portable High-Resolution Audio Player, but I would plan on wearing a belt if you decide to carry the SP3000 in your pockets - it’s a pretty chunky unit.  

The bevelled, angular outside panels wrapping the SP3000 are made from highly-polished dark chrome stainless steel that catches and refracts light in interesting ways, making the SP3000 always a pleasure to twist around and look at while you’re listening to it. Being highly reflective on each surface, the SP3000 also manages to catch fingerprint smudges easily, so be prepared to break out the supplied microfibre cleaning cloth while you’re using it. 904L stainless steel - another “first” in DAP construction - was chosen by A&K for its renowned durability and ability to resist corrosion, despite the fact that it’s significantly more difficult to manufacture with. The result, however, is simply stunning - the SP3000 looks and feels like a piece of high-quality jewellery rather than an audio player. 

The solid machined volume wheel also gives off “jewellery” vibes, being reminiscent of a crown on an expensive timepiece. Like other A&K devices, the volume wheel has an LED backlight which lights up in different colours to convey the bit-rate of the music being processed by the SP3000. It’s a nice touch, and it helps to create a sense of emotional warmth while you’re enjoying music with the SP3000. The volume wheel is clicky and tactile, and lets you accurately and quickly dial through the SP3000’s 150 units of volume. If you’re using the SP3000 as a source device upstream of another audio device (such as a preamp), you can engage “line out”, which sets the volume to maximum (be careful of touching this feature if you’re wearing headphones!). 

The rear panel of the SP3000 is covered with a polished ceramic plate, patterned with a subtle fractal design which Astell&Kern explains is an interpretation of light and shadow, expressed as “wrapped in light” - the overarching design philosophy that guided them when designing the SP3000. 

And lastly, there’s the surface of the SP3000 that you’ll be interacting with most: it’s a gorgeous 5.46-inch 1080x1920 full-HD display. The SP3000’s screen is bright and has vivid colours plus great contrast - even in bright surroundings. Whether you’re listening to your streaming service of choice or flicking through a list of albums that you’ve painstakingly ripped along with their cover art and metadata, the album covers really do “pop” on the SP3000. Astell&Kern’s new user black, white and red interface (which is debuting on the SP3000) also looks terrific on screen while being easy to navigate.  

SP3000 digital and circuitry upgrades

Astell&Kern is touting the new A&ultima SP3000 as the “world's first DAP with independent Dual Audio Circuitry” and “the latest DAC with HEXA-Audio Circuitry structure”. Working closely with DAC supplier AKM, Astell&Kern developed a unique architecture that separates the processing of digital and analogue signals. Two AK4191EQ DAC chips are first used to process the incoming audio signal to first help reduce the level of noise. After passing through a separate delta-sigma modulator, an array of four of AKM’s latest flagship AK4499EX DAC chips then process the analogue signal. To help eliminate electromagnetic interference and further eliminate noise from the audio circuits within the SP3000, A&K has installed a “shield can” inside the device made with high-purity silver. Astell&Kern explains that this complex configuration maximises the SP3000’s signal-to-noise-ratio (SNR) to a remarkable 130dB from the balanced circuit, with a ludicrously-low total harmonic distortion + noise rating of 0.0006%. The SP3000’s digital section is capable of processing practically any conceivable digital audio format, including native decoding of MQA which should be of note to you Tidal listeners. PCM audio can be processed up to 32-bit/768kHz, and DSD512 (22.4MHz) can also be handled natively. 

While it’s primarily designed to be paired with high-quality wired IEMs and headphones, Astell&Kern has paid significant attention to the SP3000’s Bluetooth performance to ensure that it performs as a first-rate music source no matter how to choose to have your music reach your ears. The SP3000 uses the Bluetooth 5.0 standard and is capable of streaming via the higher-resolution aptX-HD and LDAC formats (with compatible devices). As well as being able to transmit a Bluetooth signal to an external device such as speakers or headphones, the SP3000 can also work as a Bluetooth receiver using its “BT Sink” functionality. This allows you to connect a device such as your smartphone, and use it to control playback via the SP3000 as a high-quality DAC/amp. 

SP3000 physical controls, inputs and outputs

On the top of the SP3000 are three headphone jacks - a standard 3.5mm single-ended output capable of 3.3Vrms power, and two balanced outputs for pairing 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced headphones which nearly doubles the SP3000’s power to a respectable 6.3Vrms, which promises to have full-sized headphone driving potential. 

As well as managing volume controls, the knurled volume wheel is also responsible for powering the SP3000 on and off (long press), or to turn the screen on and off (short press). The screen can also be woken by double-tapping on the touch screen, which is by far the easiest way to interact with the SP3000 conveniently if it’s sitting in front of you (this function can be disabled if you prefer).

Three tactile, clicky buttons on the left-hand side of the SP3000 manage play/pause + track skipping in the usual familiar layout. They’re easy to find and operate if you’re feeling around in your pocket, but might be a little trickier to locate if you have the SP3000’s case fitted which does have some embossed raised sections on it to accommodate the buttons, but this does mean that it’s easy to press the wrong button occasionally. 

On the bottom of the SP3000, we have a USB-c connection for charging the device as well as data transfer. Transferring files over to the SP3000 is a simple case of connecting it to your PC or Mac (which does require you to install Android File Transfer) and dragging the files across to either the onboard or expandable storage. Wireless file transfers to the SP3000 can also be managed via “AK File Drop”, if you’re reasonably adept at setting up and finding your way around local networks on either a PC or a Mac. 

The SP3000’s 5,050mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer battery is good for a reputed 10 hours of playback under general usage conditions, with the volume set to “80” playing standard 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM, and it can be charged to full in about 3.5 hours using a QC3.0-compliant charger. The USB connection also allows the SP3000 to be used as an external “DAC” when hooked up to a source device such as a laptop or smartphone, and correspondingly as a transport/source device, sending onboard data downstream to a USB DAC. If your DAC has an optical input, the SP3000’s 3.5mm output also doubles as a digital output, making the SP3000 quite the capable source and streaming device. 

Lastly, the SP3000 also has a port to insert a microSD card to boost the device's 256GB of onboard storage by a further 1TB, which is good for around 1700 CD’s-worth of lossless audio (if my maths are correct). 

SP3000 user interface 

One familiar comment I get from Astell&Kern users when chatting in the Addicted To Audio store is that they love the sound of their devices, but would love to see a refresh to the walled version of Android that A&K has been using for some years now. While it is reasonably intuitive and definitely doesn’t hold you back from enjoying music, some of the UI choices like the “floating back bar” are occasionally frustrating - especially if you’re used to a purer version of Android on your smartphone. 

It seems that A&K has been listening to customer feedback because the new user interface in the SP3000 is both a substantial overhaul and a marked improvement over the previous generation. Astell&Kern sought to make their new interface more conducive to music discovery, making it gesture-based and more intuitive to help their new device become a “player for music”. The most first difference that you’ll experience if you’re familiar with older Astell&Kern players is the new “Crimson” display scheme, which contrasts a white and red graphic scheme against a dark background, making for a more appealing and striking on screen experience. 

Next, you’ll find that the interface has more of a “smartphone”-like navigation experience to it, with a familiar three-button system on the bottom which directs you to 1) Services (different apps), 2) Home, and 3) Back. It’s a hugely welcome update and makes the SP3000 a breeze to use. A drop-down menu icon in the top left-hand corner pulls up key device settings, while an icon in the top right-hand corner lets you jump straight into your music library, which is now navigated by using a series of swipes and gestures rather than “clicking” through sub-menus. Astell&Kern even has a handy UI tutorial to help guide your way through the new user experience when you first fire-up the device, which is a nice touch. Like a classic Android operating experience, the SP3000’s settings and notifications are accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen. 

The SP3000 is powered by an Octa-core Snapdragon 6125 CPU, with 8GB of RAM. The use of an upgraded processor can be immediately felt - it’s a far snappier experience than previous A&K DAPs, with fluid, responsive movements and is practically lag-free. This helps to make the SP3000 feel like the premium device that it is, bringing the overall user experience inline with A&K’s build and sound quality. 

Additional SP3000 audio features 

Knowing that the SP3000 will find a home with serious audiophiles and digital “tinkerers”, A&K has tricked-out their newest flagship with a number of settings and features to help tailor its sound according to your preferences as well as the particular IEMs or headphones that you’re listening to with it. 

A&K’s comprehensive EQ functionality is carried over from other models in their DAP line-up, giving the listener the ability to fine-tune the gain and Q-value of different bands in the frequency response of the outgoing signal, and save multiple settings if you feel like changing your tune between different cans or different genres. Six different DAC filter settings can also be chosen when playing PCM audio up to 24-bit/192kHz:

  • Sharp Roll-off
  • Slow Roll-off
  • Short Delay Sharp Roll-off
  • Short Delay Slow Roll-off
  • Super Slow Roll-off
  • Low Dispersion Roll-off

The differences between each mode are extraordinarily subtle, if you can hear them at all, so it’s probably best to leave these in default unless you have a bunch of experience using these and have a particular preference (which I don’t). 
Further digital calibration can be made using the SP3000’s Digital Audio Remaster (DAR) functionality, which upsamples incoming digital signals. In “PCM” mode, 44.1kHz music will be upsampled to 352.8kHz, and 48kHz files will be upsampled to 384kHz. In “DSD” mode, PCM files lower than 96kHz will be upsampled to DSD128, while higher sample rates are resampled at DSD256. DSD sample rated lower than DSD256 will also be converted to DSD256. I was surprised to find that I actually heard a noticeable difference in some recordings when this feature was switched on - there was a more analogue-like sound to the leading and trailing edges of notes, which also had a greater sense of layered depth. For this reason, I kept DAR engaged throughout my time with the SP3000, and let its clever DAC take things to the next level. 

You may or may not be familiar with “crossfeed” - a feature that allows headphone listeners to create a more “speaker-like” sensation by allowing a small amount of the left/right audio signal to be audible in the other channel. Some headphone customers at Addicted To Audio swear by crossfeed, because for them it provides a more natural-sounding way to enjoy music, particularly if the recording has overly-emphasised stereo separation (try listening to some early Beatles recordings if you want to know what they mean by this). The SP3000 gives you the option to engage crossfeed while listening to headphones or IEMs, including the ability to set the frequency of the shelf cutoff plus the level of shelf gain to tailor the experience to your liking. This feature works well on the SP3000, but I tend to avoid crossover generally as it tends to cramp the sensation of soundstage and overall “space” within a recording. 

Streaming wirelessly with the SP3000

If you’re more of a streamer than a “collector” of digital audio, the SP3000 can cater to your needs thanks to its dual band 2.4HHz/5GHz wifi connectivity. Astell&Kern’s Open APP Service allows Android-based (APK) streaming apps such as Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify and Apple Music (plus many more) to be installed onto the device.

My personal streaming service of choice happens to be Qobuz - after turning on the SP3000 for the first time and connecting to my home wifi, I downloaded the app, entered my credentials, and voila - I had all my favourite albums and playlists ready to go. The SP3000’s wireless performance is a smidge better than other A&K products I’ve had experience with, but did struggle to keep up with hi-res playback (96kHz or higher) if I ventured a couple of rooms away from my router. However, thanks to the SP3000’s onboard and expandable storage you can load it up by downloading gigabytes worth of offline files to your heart’s content. 

The SP3000 is a “Roon Ready” device, meaning that you can stream directly to it when it’s connected to the same network as your Roon “core”. As someone whose whole digital audio world has been wound into Roon, this is a huge “tick” for me when it comes to enjoying the SP3000 at home. Whether I’m listening at my desk and controlling playback with my Mac, or chilling on the couch and using my phone as a remote, having the ability to use all the music discovery and DSP power of Roon adds a whole other dimension of usability to the SP3000. 

Listening to the SP3000

The majority of DAP users tend to skew towards IEM listening, seeing as their more modest (by desktop standards) power output and portable form-factor favour this format of listening. I tested the SP3000 mainly with two very capable (custom) in-ear monitors, the Ultimate Ears UE Live Custom In Ear Monitors - Ultimate Ears’ flagship 7 x balanced armature/1 x dynamic driver CIEM, and the 64 Audio A4s Custom In Ear Earphones - 64 Audio’s latest hybrid CIEM design, which features 3 x balanced armature and 1 x dynamic driver. 

The SP3000 has a dead-quiet background with even the most sensitive of in-ears, without any skerrick of hiss nor operating noise detectable while operating whatsoever. I appreciate this while a device isn’t playing, but it’s even more appreciated during quieter (or silent) moments during a track, as it leaves you immersed within a completely “black” space and makes you forget for a moment that you’re even listening via a couple of tiny tubes sticking into your ears. 
Having downloaded an offline 24-bit/44.8kHz Qobuz version of Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool (which is still technically the “new” Radiohead album, if you’re not counting re-issues), I was immediately struck with the familiar feeling of being bathed in detail while simultaneously experiencing a rich, velvety presentation - the classic hallmarks of a high-end A&K player. However, the SP3000 feels even more buttery-smooth and liquid in the way that it slides between notes and recreates the organic texture of instruments compared to the SP2000, or even the SP2000T with tube mode engaged.

There’s no mid-bass hump or a treble cut that creates this feeling of silkiness - in fact, the voicing of the SP3000 feels faithfully bang-on at every point in the frequency response chat. Rather, the SP3000 simply has a beautiful sense of depth and an ability to layer information in a track that makes it feel anything but “flat”. The moment when the strings enter at the five-minute mark in Daydreaming is simply rich, creamy goodness over the A4s; and the slow, restrained bass notes in Decks Dark land with perfect, tactile weight on the UE Live while the choral backing vocals float ethereally around the corners of an imagined abandoned church. 

That convoluted DAC implementation that A&K developed for the SP3000 seems to have done wonders because its sense of spatial information is remarkable. Whether the SP3000 is taking you on a frenetic laser-like hyperspace journey through Aphex Twin’s T69 Collapse or just letting you float blissfully within the downtempo Tame Impala remix Borderline (Blood Orange Remix), its ability to create a vivid 3D recreation of music really is like nothing else. What adds to the SP3000’s sense of immersion is its sheer levels of detail - not only are notes recreated with enormous levels of insight and resolution, but it’s all done with an impeccable sense of refinement that makes digital music feel…real. Never have I felt so big a sense of air and vastness from a portable device. In fact, calling the SP3000 a portable device feels like I’m selling it short - I’d be happy plugging it directly into my two channel system via a balanced adapter and using it as a reference streaming DAC and hi-res source. And you can bet that I spent some time doing just that.  

Confident in its IEM-driving prowess, I reached for some full-sized headphones to see how the SP3000 would fare with some more difficult loads and larger transducers. The SP3000 did a more respectable job than I anticipated driving the notoriously fickle HIFIMAN Susvara Planar Magnetic Headphones (with a challenging 83dB sensitivity), and was able to reach “enough” volume for me at 105/150 on the volume dial when driven from the 4.4mm output. It wasn’t the most dynamic performance I’ve ever heard from the HIFIMAN open-back flagship, but it was generally pretty enjoyable. 

The 300-ohm Sennheiser HD800s Audiophile Headphones proved to be an easier meal for the SP3000 to tackle, requiring only 75/150 to reach similar sound pressure levels. Beck’s Milk & Honey had plenty of dynamic pep, soundstage drama, and decent bass weight, but the HD800s felt tonally a little dry compared to a good Class-A solid state or OTL tube amp. 

While the SP3000 can be used for occasional enjoyment with difficult-to-drive planars and higher-impedance dynamic driver headphones, it’s utterly convincing with low-impedance dynamics. The SP3000 was rock solid and utterly convincing driving a pair of balanced-modded Grado SR325x Prestige Series Headphones, extracting as good a performance from the aluminium-shod Brooklynites as ever I’ve heard.

The brutal drumming, pounding bass guitar and deliciously crispy guitar chugging in Helmet’s Turned Out is exactly what rock music ought to sound like. When you have a source device this capable that also drives lower-impedance headphones like they’re being driven with a flaming whip, then the SP3000 could easily be your one-and-done desktop piece of source equipment…that you could also just happen to take on the road with you (if you wanted to). 

Final thoughts

It’s a genuine treat to be continually “wowed” with each subsequent release of an Astell&Kern “A&ultima” flagship digital audio player. While they had an extraordinarily high benchmark to clear in terms of besting the SP2000, Astell&Kern has raised it yet again with the stunning SP3000. As well as looking better, sounding better, and bursting onto the scene packed with some welcome new features to customise your audio experience, the SP3000 is simply an easier device to fall in love with and get lost in music enjoyment thanks to its well-thought-out and implemented user experience. 

I find myself almost wishing that cargo pants would come back into fashion, because the sound of the SP3000 is so addictive, that I have the urge to listen to it at all times - no matter where I find myself. I know it isn’t a cheap proposition, but if you listen to it enough you’ll eventually bring its “cost per listen” ratio down to something that makes academic sense, eventually. And when it sounds this good, the improvement it will make to your life really isn’t a bad investment at all.

Astell&kernDaps (digital audio players)