The Astell&Kern SE100 delivers a neutral and clean performance, crystalline, and powerfully resolving. Thanks to the pro-grade SABRE DAC, there is only a hint of warmth, too avoid coldness and sterility, and to achieve that famous AK smoothness, which brings to bare a level of refinement rarely heard. It’s an excellent balance and masterfully done.
The presentation can be described with these two words: Big and Clear. Soundstage is expansive, and the rendering is profoundly vivid. AK bolsters this experience with a full, meaty sound and great dynamics. There is proper authority to these notes. You shall not decry wispy, thin, or bright audio. Though it is fair to say, if you crave warmth, there are better options out there.
Depth is portrayed well. I’ve always said dimensionality is where higher-end DAPs show their worth, and the SE100 is no exception. You get a real sense of the space as you move through the layers. As opposed to lower-tier devices, where the players might be spaced out on the horizontal axis, but there’s no atmosphere around them, and you cannot perceive the three-dimensional structure of the notes. SE100 captures this with amazing accuracy.
So what do I mean by “AK smoothness”? Well, smoothness is achieved by super-low jitter and tuning. Astell&Kern always uses extremely good oscillators and clean circuits, so electronically things are as smooth as can be. Then there’s the AK house sound. They tune for extra smoothness. By maintaining subdued, yet extended treble, with no peaks, you get a mellow upper register, which gives the whole presentation a silky, relaxed feel. But if you take it too far, you lose vibrancy, detail, and clarity.
The smoothness/clarity balance on the SE100 is remarkable.
Opus#2 by theBit ($999, Review HERE) was my reference player for well over a year. I sold it just a couple of weeks ago. It makes a great comparison to the A&futura. They both have a good amount of power, 128GB internal storage, outstanding SABRE sound, and when Opus was new on the market, it was priced more or less the same as AK.
In terms of sound, I can’t easily say which I like better. They are both behemoths of resolution and detail. Soundstage width is close, perhaps edging a little in favor of AK. Depth is even more obvious, with another AK win. Yet Opus#2 is the more natural sounding. There is no Opus house sound. No special tuning to achieve distinctness. Opus#2 is naked in its honestly, naturalness, and realism. It’s the player I most easily forget I’m listening to. Which I guess makes it the most transparent. On the other hand, AK’s satiny render adds a flavor which is always pleasant to the ears. You can’t go wrong with either player. Deciding between the two will be a matter of preference.
Now, the iBasso DX200 with AMP8 Module ($899 + $199, Review HERE) is not so close a comparison. With the High Current amp module, you get a noticeably more dynamic, holographic experience. Of course, this comes at the expense of battery life. Most DAP manufacturers choose to sacrifice ultimate power in favor of longer play time. And based on what I read on the forums, that’s what the majority of the community wants. The AMP 4, 5, 7 and 8 Modules are for the insane minority, who would rather only have 6 to 8 hours playback if it means reaching a tier of performance seldom seen in portable gear. Indeed, the iBasso DX200 with AMP8 sounds like a step up from either the Opus#2, or the SE100. Soundstage goes MUCH deeper. Layering and background blackness are superior. Dynamics and dimensionality outstrip the competition.
“But wait! Does that mean Astell&Kern is overpriced?” F**k no! The SE100 is a luxury item. You can see and feel it, with superior build and aesthetics, a much nicer display, outrageously good battery, and double the internal memory. If none of that matters to you—and it’s okay if it doesn’t—then Astell&Kern is not for you. Make no mistake; you are paying for more. Whether or not you value luxury features is entirely up to you.