Astell & Kern SE180 Review – Big, Brash & Beautiful

Usability –

Astell & Kern has considered the overall user experience and control scheme well on the SE180, making it intuitive to pick up and use. This is aided by the quality of the buttons themselves, however, the simplified layout also aids ease of use. All are reachable during one-handed operation, the power button at a stretch, and the slant of the side walls does make it easier to hold too. The spring-loaded micro-sd slot and Type-C slots are located on the bottom, the volume wheel and play/pause button on the right side with the left being bare. Of note, copying music to either the internal storage or inserting an SD card automatically begins the library scan function. The volume wheel has an LED ring illuminating its perimeter. It glows different colours to denote the bit depth/when a DSD file is being played. While it supports MQA, there is no dedicated colour for this standard. The top side is reserved for the exchangeable audio modules. At present, the company offer two, the ESS-based SEM1 that comes pre-installed and the SEM2 with AK DAC chip. Both offer 2.5mm balanced, 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm single-ended. More on this in the audio breakdown. The SE180 does have 256GB (226GB usable) of internal storage in addition to Micro SD support up to 2tb.

UI

I tested the SE180 on firmware version 1.16 the latest available at the time of testing. I found the device to offer passable responsiveness but a fairly choppy framerate, meaning it isn’t a slow DAP but certainly isn’t a smooth one either; certainly a far cry from any modern smartphone and many modern DAPs for that matter. Don’t expect a buttery 60 fps locked UI, the SE180 clearly runs at a lower framerate, transition animations stutter and album art takes a second to load in. It is saved by a lack of stutters or freezes once fully booted, that said. As was my experience with former A&K devices, it runs at a very consistent speed which minimises the impact of a low framerate on overall usability. It’s small things like this and the fast WiFi implementation that uphold a compelling user experience. Again, it didn’t blow me away with its smoothness but rarely left me waiting either, even with a full music library, which is far more important in day to day use to me.

Screen

The stability of its UI speed can be appreciated more when factoring in the SE180 has to push a high resolution 1080p panel, matched by a few and bested only by a handful. It’s a 5” display and, given the viewing angle, appears to be of an IPS variety. I was impressed by the quality, it’s bright enough to be visible outdoors, appears to cover a wide colour gamut and has excellent contrast. In addition, the lowest brightness is quite low for nighttime listening too. As you would expect, text and images come through vibrant and clear, and the digitizer is responsive as well, aiding usability. I had no complaints with the screen at all though arguably, the 720p display of the older SE200 did yield a more responsive UI experience and may have been a better choice here until the SOC gets refreshed.

Software

The SE180 runs A&K’s signature “locked” version of Android that is without Google Play services and restricts access to the base operating system. You are only able to interface with Astell & Kern’s overlay, making this a purely audio-focused experience. That said, certain flexibilities of Android remain, for instance, the ability to run apps/APKs should you want access to streaming services. You will need to do so through their Openservices menu. Simply connect the DAP to a computer, drag and drop the APK file of your choice onto the device and it will appear in the services menu for install. For those that exclusively stream, perhaps this won’t be the best choice for you as the streaming services are more buried into the OS than vanilla music playback. In addition, note that the SE180 is using an older version of Android (9.0), so you will not be able to use the latest version of certain apps – for instance, the latest version of Spotify didn’t even show up in the services app for install, but the older version 8.4.67 installed and functioned perfectly fine.

Also note that while the SE180 comes with V-Link, Deezer and TIDAL pre-installed, you cannot download tracks from these services for offline listening unless you sideload the official version. The downside to this, is that it requires manual updating as Play services are absent but again, it is unlikely that the latest versions will be supported given the installed Android version. Note as well that there is a list of supported apps on Astell & Kern’s website and other apps won’t appear in this menu for install. Quad core players can only have 4 apps installed at one time whilst octa-core players like the SE180 can have unlimited. Astell & Kern reason these limitations enable them to better optimise the software for performance and sound quality which is a valid point but not for everyone.

The actual interface will be familiar if you’ve used any of the recent AK devices, but the gestures have been updated to optimise single-handed. It boots quickly into the now playing screen and can be navigated via swipes. Swiping to the right accesses playlists and allows you to edit them, swiping left returns to the overarching categories. It works as you’d expect, and the layout is clean and simple. My main gripe here is that it is strangely difficult to scrub through tracks – though arguably this aligns with its intention as a music immersion device, so make of that what you will. You can also access a customised version of the Android swipe down quick settings menu. You have radio toggles, quick access to EQ and USB modes, AK connect, car mode, line-out toggle and volume wheel lock for portable use. Further settings are available at the far right. 3rd party app such as Spotify, are able to run in the background and playback controls will appear in the drop down menu too.

Within the settings menu you get more granular control over WiFi and BT including the option to prioritise certain BT codecs. There’s the basic gapless and low/high gain toggles, balance and playback settings and 7 digital DAC filters on the SEM1 module and 6 on the SEM2, – I used brickwall on SEM1 and short delay, sharp roll-off on SEM2 during testing. Also included is volume limit, double tap to wake, LED indicator toggle, date and time and basic device name and language settings. An appreciated addition is a toggle to remove the floating back button and change the keyboard to G board for instance, should the included board not be to your preferences. You can also change the directory for downloads and update via OTA.

Car Mode and EQ

I felt it appropriate to delve more into car mode here given many use DAPs for car audio playback as wireless support here remains widely lacking. In car mode, you are no longer able to leave the now playing screen and controls are simplified to include a large fine scrub bar, skip track and playback modes. You can toggle landscape and horizontal orientations though it defaults to landscape. Playlists are available at the top right, but you cannot browse by album, song, etc. Car mode is easily exited via the button in the top left.  The inbuilt equaliser is very capable and offers almost as much granularity as a parametric system. It has very fine frequency bands and gives you gain setting granularity to the 0.1dB, indicated also in the bottom left. This means you are able to very finely tune the sound output of this device and such flexibility is surely something I haven’t seen hugely adopted.

Audio Modules

Astell & Kern first introduced a flexible DAC system on the SE200 which contained two audio circuits, one with based upon an ESS architecture, the other an AKM chipset. The SE180 assumes a modular approach to the same goal with its all-in-one hot swappable audio modules. In fact, this system offers greater flexibility, allowing the user to alter the DAC and AMP setup (though not independently), albeit at the cost of the convenience of having both on device at all times. The modules are a sleek affair and, as note above, I was impressed by the tight tolerances and colour matching with the main housing. They have a brushed metal heatsink on top and interface via USB type-C. The shape of the modules means they always interface reliably with the connector within the DAP when attached. They lock in very securely with clips on either side and I never experienced any issues with connectivity. That said, they are quite difficult to remove. You also cannot hot swap modules during operation as the device will shut down once the module has been removed.

Battery

The SE180 uses a 3800mAh battery which is medium sized considering its physical dimensions. Runtime is claimed to be around 10 hrs which I found to be accurate when listening to FLAC files on IEMs using normal gain around volume level 45-55/150, WiFi on. This is a fairly typical result for a DAP of this size and output power and it’s commendable that runtimes match A&K’s figures so well. You can get much higher figures on smaller DAPs but they’ll also be more locked down from a software POV and this will come at the cost of output power. The SE180 auto powers off after 30 minutes of inactivity, but this can be changed in the settings menu up to 24hrs. Standby power drain is quite low too, and the device is smart enough to pause playback and disable the amp circuit when headphones are disconnected. This means there’s always power remaining for listening when you need it. Charging is also simplified by the addition of fast charge from supported wall charger or power banks. This means you can top up in about 3hrs as opposed to 5hrs from a regular 2A, 5V charger.

Wireless

I would like to talk about the WiFi implementation. In transparency, I haven’t personally been involved in the DAP scene for a while and am not the most familiar with the latest generation of devices, so I cannot say if all perform as well as this. However, the SE180 does take full advantage of the WiFi speeds in my area, it has great range and didn’t struggle to buffer during lossless streaming as my older DAPs frequently would. OTAs also download very quickly, the 500mb 1.13 update downloaded and installed in under 10 minutes – of course, this will rely on your WiFi connection as well. Do note that you can only update the SE180 via OTA at this time, no files were available on A&K’s website.

Bluetooth impresses similarly, especially when it comes to Codec support. You get LDAC, apt-X HD and AAC and SBC for Apple and older devices. In addition, you are able to force a certain codec which is handy for LDAC especially as you can prioritise either stability/range or quality. The DAP streamed just like any smart device to my wireless devices and used the highest quality codec available. Conversely, BT receiver functionality is very easy to access and works seamlessly as intended. It connected to my Xperia 5 II over LDAC where I experienced a reliable connection free of artefacts. Range is not the best on LDAC quality priority but can be set to scale according to signal so you get the highest quality possible without skipping or cutting out.

Other Connectivity

The SE180 adds versatility with its variety of connectivity options. With Android and full radio support, it can act as a BT transmitter and receiver, both functioned well for me with no hickups. Over its Type-C connector, the device can be used as a USB DAC/AMP and worked well with my Windows 10 PC requiring no additional drivers. Volume control and latency were both ideal. The SE180 can also output to external audio sources. However, do note that volume control is disabled so the output device must have some form of control here, otherwise, you will be locked to 100% volume.  

Next Page: Sound Breakdown

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Ryan Soo

Ryan Soo

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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