Astell & Kern SE180 Review – Big, Brash & Beautiful

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Pros –

Class-leading build quality, Bright & sharp screen, Impeccably executed musical tonality, Excellent dynamics and extension, Top-level background cleanliness, Highly defined note presentation, Dead silent noise floor, Modular DAC & AMP setup, Fast WiFi and wide BT codec support

Cons –

Large and heavy for a portable source, Fiddly 3rd party app installation, SOC struggles to push a 1080p display, Neither modules suit those wanting perfect neutrality

Verdict –

The SE180 comes across as a beautifully formed transportable source with plenty of gusto for home use, decent portability and no shortage of convenient smart features.


Introduction –

Astell & Kern are one of the most internationally renowned DAP companies in the audio market. Incidentally, if you’ve scrutinised their marketing material, you’ll likely notice that they aren’t the most transparent about specifications nor are the raw specifications of their devices market leading. This aligns well with my personal philosophy; that the day to day experience of a device cannot be fully encapsulated by numbers. For A&K’s strengths have always lied in their ability to provide a refined, high-end user experience achieved through premium design and thought-out software. The proof is in the pudding as their DAPs are some of the most popular and well-regarded on the market. The new SE180 is the third product in their A&futura line featuring interchangeable all-in-one audio modules, Teraton Alpha audio technology and an updated UI with added functions for convenience. The modularity of this DAP means users can change both the amplifier and DAC setup in addition to opening up future upgrades, whilst retaining a familiar premium build and usability experience.

The Astell & Kern SE180 is available from Addicted to Audio and Minidisc for $2099 AUD at the time of writing. You can read all about it and treat yourself to a unit from either retailers. Also see Busisoft’s website to find other authorised local dealers.

Contents –

Behind the Design –

Teraton Alpha

Video courtesy of Astell & Kern

This includes a range of innovations and designs from Astell & Kern to optimise the implementation of their chosen DAC chips. The company designs their audio circuits from the ground up to minimise noise and optimise power consumption and amplification without compromising audio output. They break this down into three components:

  • Audio Power: A&K reason the power supply is the foundation of a high-quality listening experience, responsible for the delivery of low noise, clean power to the rest of the circuit. A&K use proprietary methods to remove power noise though do not further divulge the specifics in their material.
  • Amplifier: A&K boast an advanced AMP technology that features efficient power consumption and high-power output. In addition to targeting high efficiency, A&K are using a patented wiring structure that improves crosstalk as well.
  • Audio interface: The audio interface converts digital signals to analogue and is responsible for final output. The company use patented audio signal muting and digital signal conversion amongst other features to realise a better listening experience.

Interchangeable All-in-One Modules

Image provided by Astell & Kern

While most higher-end DAPs now feature some sort of modularity, Astell & Kern take this one step further with their all-in-one modules. Not only does this offer the option to change the available outputs, the listener can also swap modules with different DAC chips and amplifiers to suit their sonic preferences. Using a double-locking design, the modules require no screwdriver to swap yet retain a reliable connection.

Smart Integration

Built atop Android with a full radio system in-place, the SE180 supports a host of smart features to aid convenience. This includes AK File Drop, allowing the user to wirelessly transfer files to the device in addition to BT 5.0 with full apt-X HD and LDAC codec support. In addition, the DAP supports BT Sync which can permit the device to act as a Bluetooth receiver to another smart device, where the user is able to take advantage of the high quality audio output.

Unboxing –

Astell & Kern provide a premium unboxing experience to match the product itself. The box has layered card, providing depth to the experience. Inside is the DAP and I was satisfied peeling off the numerous protective covers coating all sides. Just below lies the accessories, a high-quality 1m USB-A to Type-C cable, quick start guide and 3 film screen protectors. The SE180 comes with the SEM1 audio module with the ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip. I also received the SEM2 module which is based of a dual AK4497EQ DAC chip with identical outputs, more on this in the audio section.

OEM Case

In addition, I received the official A&K leather case which will run you an additional $150 USD. Though expensive, this is also the nicest OEM case I’ve come across by a wide margin. It boasts a genuine Italian Minerva leather construction and has an aroma to match. The case delivers a supple in-hand feel and, in turn, button feedback is retained. It offers a perfect fit for the SE180 as you’d expect from an OEM product. The cut-outs around both the Type-C port and Audio outs are generous, leaving ample room for large plugs, even those without a case friendly protrusion.

The larger top cut-out also means the case works with all of A&K’s audio modules. The side cover tucks beneath the back face to provide a seamless and streamlined aesthetic with no open sides that would leave the DAP prone to scratches. A&K reason the high oil content of this particular leather is ideal for wear properties, as it will develop a mature patina over extended use. Ultimately, if you are going to invest in a case to protect the gorgeous and expensive chassis of the SE180, I would want one that retains such a premium look and feel.

Design –

I doubt any would disagree that, in the hand, the heft and solidity of A&K’s DAPs is second to none. Though metal chassis are nothing new, the refinement of their designs has always been a highlight. The SE180 upholds the same DNA; this DAP is large and masculine, an impression reinforced by its squared off edges and astounding 380g weight. Milled from a single block of aluminium with gunmetal anodization, the SE180 screams performance and delivers unyielding solidity in the hand. The small touches are what complete this design as there are few abstract machining choices. For instance, though angular, the edges are smooth, and the corners subtly rounded to aid ergonomics.

Every edge is refined, its ports and buttons chamfered. The buttons share a metal construction and offer superb feedback. The tolerances here are impeccable with zero wobble, rattle or looseness to be found. The colour matching and articular fit with the audio modules is perfect too, even on the additional SEM2 module which isn’t something you see on most DAPs. The volume wheel is an obvious highlight of this design, the only element with a lustrous finish and one that is beautifully machined, serving to enhance both aesthetics and tactility. Like the other buttons, the wheel has zero wobble and offers especially distinct feedback between each click. Haptics and refinement don’t get much better than this.

On the flipside, the SE180 isn’t ideal for portable use and isn’t the most modern or elegant looking device if that is your priority. It’s large and relatively wide at 137 x 77 x 19.9 mm with an angular form that does little to detract from those figures in the hand or pocket. This also means its 5” display is surrounded by bezels that have been more aggressively slimmed on many modern competitors. It remains pocketable but ideally, the user would want to place it in a jacket or tote bag. I would proposition this more as an all-in-one unit designed to be the user’s sole transportable audio source for home and portable listening. Of course, a larger form factor does facilitate higher sound quality and less space efficient features such as the modular DAC/AMPs, which is the reason true enthusiast DAPs like this will never attain the slender form factors seen on modern smartphone despite the technologies being readily available.

Next Page: Usability

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About Author

Avid writer, passionate photographer and sleep-deprived medical student, Ryan has an ongoing desire to bring quality products to the regular reader.

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