Astell & Kern SE180 Review – Big, Brash & Beautiful

Comparisons –

What better comparison than Astell & Kern’s own SE200. This DAP is positioned as a higher end model and was released just before the SE180. Though it lacks the modularity of the SE180, it contains both audio circuits and its integrated nature has permitted a much slimmer and more elegant in addition to lighter form factor. This means you get two 3.5mm and 2.5mm outs at the top but no 4.4mm with no option to expand down the line. Another large benefit to note is that you can swap between the two audio sections on the SE200 without having to reboot the device.

The SE180 is a chunkier device but its modular nature opens up the ability to upgrade down the line. Both have a similar usability experience otherwise, with the exception of the SE180’s revised software control bar replacing physical playback control buttons. I did notice the screen on the SE200 has slightly better contrast but also worse viewing angles. It also has a 720p resolution, with the 1080p SE180 being noticeably sharper, albeit also resulting in a choppier UI experience on the same limited processor platform. The SE180 also supports a newer BT standard 5.0 vs 4.2 but both support the all-important aptX HD codec.

SE180 SEM1 vs SE200 ESS: The SE200 assumes as lightly darker approach here, being no less defined, but less energetic tonally. In so doing, it epitomises the refined aspects of the A&K house sound albeit at the cost of headroom. Both extend equally strongly in the bass, but the SE200 actually flips this impression on its head here, offering the more energetic bass. Specifically, the SE200’s bass notes are not as enlarged, but cleaner and more separated. It is slightly pacier, delivering slightly higher bass note definition. Meanwhile, the SE180 is a touch more robust here, just as dynamics but slightly less articulate.

The midrange showcases a more linear character on the SE180, boasting slightly more openness and air. Despite this, the SE200 has slightly higher resolution to my ears, though this isn’t instantly apparent due to its darker tonality. It did pick up small details slightly more clearly though the SE180 isn’t far behind and is slightly more revealing tonally. Treble tells a similar, the SE180 emphasises note attack slightly more, the clash and splash of cymbals for instance, being more prominent. Meanwhile, the SE200 is one step more refined, offering a more dampened and controlled presentation that trades energy for greater texture and a complete absence of brittleness.

It does sound a little closed off to me, its background is even darker and it has no more sparkle which can make it sound a bit murky for lack of better terminology. The SE180 SEM1 isn’t as sparkly as the SEM2 but does showcase slightly more headroom than the SE200. In tune with its more laid-back top-end, the SE200 provides a deeper yet narrower stage, the SE180 being wider and taller. I did find the SE200 to layer slightly better but the SE180 was more multi-dimensional overall to my ears.  

SE180 SEM2 vs SE200 AK: The AK section of the SE200 is one of the cleanest audio experiences I’ve had, scoring high marks for combining excellent technical performance, convincing tonality and an immaculately well-proportioned stage; a true flagship. The SE180 with SEM2 modules provides a similar experience here, albeit scaled back in most degrees. It glimpses many aspects of the SE200’s AK-section performance but doesn’t quite match it in any regard. Bass extends equally well on both, similarly, the note presentation is highly similar between the two. The SE200 comes across as slightly more controlled and composed on complex passages, it has slightly better dynamics here and its mid-bass is slightly more articulate, being both slightly more assertive in attack and decaying a touch faster. The SE180 is not far behind all considered.

The midrange also has a similar character when taken superficially. The SE180 has just slightly larger and more intimate vocals, it has a hair more warmth giving its voicing slightly more gusto. Meanwhile, the SE200 is a touch more coherent and smoother in its voicing. While it is less tonally coloured, this means it is not much more separated. Its presentation has noticeably higher resolution that said, which it likely the weakest aspect to me on both of the SE180’s modules. This impression is further reinforced by the SE200 being a touch roomier in the lower-midrange which draws greater focus to layers and harmonisations. Highs uphold a similar trend, tonally both are smooth and refined performers, the SE200 has a hint more zing and vibrance to its expression further aided by a superior technical performance.

I loved the ultra-clean background on the SE180, but the SE200 AK section takes this to the next level, giving its foreground more pop. The SE200 also has a little more bite in the lower-treble contributing to higher note definition at no cost to texture or delicacy. Both have excellent extension and sparkle, the SE200 resolves slightly better at the very top. The soundstage is the most intoxicating aspect of the SE200, I was instantly impressed by its especially well-rounded proportions and the acuity of its imaging and layers. The SE180 is just as wide but not as deep, so it isn’t quite as multi-dimensional. The cleaner background on the SE200 combined with its greater depth give it a more accurate and immersive sense of instrument positioning and it separates fine details better than the SE180.

Verdict –

The impression I’ve always had of Astell & Kern is that of refinement. Often, this is attributed to a collection of little intangibles, though I would argue here the contributors are clear cut. The SE180 has sensational build quality and finish; every surface is unyielding, button feedback is crisp and tolerances impeccable. While the UI is choppy, it is also consistent and the wireless implementations leave little to be desired. The sound is defined by truly immaculate background cleanliness, and a masterfully tuned note presentation that forms a wonderfully immersive experience. This is backed by a strong technical foundation, performing well with regards to output impedance, background noise and driving power and dynamics which aid versatility.

It is all the more impressive that Astell & Kern were able to retain a consistent note character between the two modules whilst still retaining a distinct shift in signature and style of soundstage presentation. Still, I would question the validity of the SE180 as a truly portable device due to its sheer weight and dimensions. Similarly, though no tools are required to swap between modules, having to reboot between module swaps isn’t nearly as seamless as the experience provided by the SE200 for instance. Altogether, 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.

The Astell & Kern SE180 is available from Addicted to Audio and Minidisc for $2099 AUD at the time of writing. You can browse Busisoft to find other local distributors. I am not associated with Addicted to Audio, Minidisc or Busisoft and receive no earnings from purchases through these links.

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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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