Introduction - What is the Astell & Kern SE200?
The Astell & Kern A&Futura SE200 is a portable audio player that occupies the middle rank of the company’s extensive range of products. Its healthy asking price reflects the nature of the portable audio market in 2020. With the terrestrial tiers surrendered to the smartphone (which has itself modified the market for headphones and earphones around its own changes), the portable audio player has headed upmarket; effectively augmenting your phone rather than competing with it.
Astell & Kern has understood this process better than most. Originally known as iRiver, the company competed with the iPod at the time when the iPod ruled supreme. As Apple moved away from this sector, prescient minds at the company saw that the future lay upmarket and pivoted to meeting the expectations of this new clientele. Even when we reviewed the Junior in 2016, at £400, it was content to leave the entry level to other brands, reflecting the lowest price that the company felt their design approach could be achieved with.
This is fine as far as it goes and the company continues to contest these price points with other models. It does mean though that confronted with the SE200 at £1,800, the ‘premium’ experience it needs to offer should be very good indeed. Is this a transcendent digital experience that fits in a pocket? Let’s find out.
Specification and Design
First, before we go any further, in a bid to ensure that this document I’m typing isn’t a forest of red lines, a quick word on naming. Astell & Kern not only issues their products with model numbers; in this case SE200, it also adds the tier of product it belongs to. There are three of them, the ‘entry’ A&norma, the flagship A&Ultima and the middle tier A&Futura that the SE200 belongs to. For the rest of the review, I’ll be typing ‘SE200’ but it is part of the A&Futura range of products.
The fundamentals of the SE200 are conventional but capable. Internal capacity is given at 256Gb and this can be augmented by a micro SD card to a maximum of 1Tb. I had been about to type something along the lines of ‘but the cost of doing so will mean most people realistically won’t’ but given that the price of a 1TB card at the time of writing (July 2020) has dipped below £400, on a player of this price category, it’s a realistic add on. Cumulatively, unless you’re the sort of person who doesn’t feel that their collection is right unless the ‘shuffle all’ could oversee a trip to Mars, you should be fine. A 3,700mAh 3.8V Li-Polymer Battery won’t handle a voyage through the cosmos but gives up to 14 hours of playback with a 2.5 hour recharge.
An octo core processor oversees the player’s functionality and controls an interface that is extremely interesting. The SE200’s operating system is at least partially derived from Android but such is the level of alteration, it can only be partially recognised in use. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Nothing I’ve done while testing the SE200 has unsettled it or made it do anything unexpected. All too often, devices with bespoke interfaces can feel clunky or slow and that really isn’t the case here. The SE200 feels distinct but does so without driving you to distraction at the same time. Using it is quick and straightforward.
There are some niggles though. The SE200 has support for Tidal (inclusive of Tidal Masters), Deezer and - somewhat unusually - YouTube. If you don’t use these services, you can't just pop on to the Play Store and put them on (and neither can you use an APK). What you get is what you get. Furthermore, the services that are on the SE200 are not the Android ones but are instead bespoke. The good news is that with Tidal, it’s nicer to use than the standard mobile app. The less good news is that the SE200 won’t allow offline storage. You can sit on a wireless network or hotspot and listen to what you like but you can’t take it with you. This is a device for music that you own.
To emphasise this point, the SE200 can play a great many different files. It can handle PCM to 384kHz and DSD to 256, encoded as (deep breath) WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF and MQA. In short, the Astell & Kern cares not what your library happens to have been archived in so long as you have one.
More: Audio Formats
So far, this sounds worthy but not the sort of thing, you drop nearly two grand on. It is the decoding of the SE200 that puts it in a different category to more terrestrial products. Look at the top of the chassis and the four headphone sockets should be a clue that all is not as it first appears. The SE200 is a unique answer to the contest between the two flagship DAC chip builders of the age; AKM and ESS. It is fitted with an AKM AK4499EQ DAC that can output to a 3.5mm or four pole 2.5mm balanced connection. It then also has a pair of ESS ES9068AS DACs that can output to a 3.5mm or four pole 2.5mm balanced connection. Effectively it has two completely bespoke output stages available in balanced and unbalanced configurations. Both DACs have separately adjustable filter settings and the performance can then be further adjusted via on board EQ. I’m not aware of any other such configuration either fixed or mobile that can do this. If you do believe that there are pros and cons to both DACs (and I have to say, I do), this is the ultimate solution.
It’s also not the only aspect of the SE200 that’s worthy of note. I’ve been deeply impressed by the way that Astell & Kern has been building products for some years but the SE200 is by far the most complete offering I’ve ever tested from the company. What do I mean by that? Well, some designs have felt like they were trying a bit hard. The company has some unique ideas about angles and orientation that reflect the idea of it being hand held… but… I’ll be honest, some felt weird and too fixed to one method of holding the device. The SE200 just feels right. The angled sides make it comfortable to hold and the size is well judged. The screen isn’t canted over and this means that when I hold it, neither is the image. It feels more focused and thought out than some other models and, combined with a brighter, crisper screen and fast responses, it doesn’t do anything to frustrate.
And it is beautifully built. I mean, jewel like. The metal detailing around the volume dial is one of the most perfectly finished things I’ve seen on any device at any price. The ceramic plate that makes up the rear panel and top edge is also extremely smart. It feels robust and well designed and starts to instil a little of the confidence required for you to part with the substantial asking price. Astell & Kern seems to recognise better than many other companies that the level of design and finish on premium phones and tablets is such that anything that costs more than those has to be spectacular and the SE200 meets the brief.
Effectively it has two completely bespoke output stages available in balanced and unbalanced configurations
How was the SE200 tested?
The Astell & Kern has been used on a home network and out and about with files placed on a micro SD card. Some listening also took place via Tidal. Earphones used have been the Astell & Kern Billie Jean, Sennheiser IE800S, AKG N5005 and Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z headphones. Material has included FLAC, AIFF, DSD and Tidal including Tidal Masters.
With the SE200 set up and charged, I kicked off listening to the SE200 using the Sennheiser IE800S via a 3.5mm connection - a device that represents a truly capable earphone that I’ve used in the company of some very talented electronics. Even allowing for the illustrious company it has kept before, the performance with the SE200 is still something a little special. Selecting the AKM DAC first, the performance with Peter Gabriel’s Live in Athens concert is sensationally good. It demonstrates the phenomenon that this most intimate of Hi-Fi systems, when done right, has the uncanny ability to recreate the space and atmosphere of live events.
Push past the euphoria that dominates initial listening and the fundamentals of good performance are all there. Noise levels are low to the point of nonexistence which helps the Astell & Kern to sound staggeringly dynamic. The AKM is unfailingly accurate but there’s a sweetness to the upper registers that means that you can push on through less than stellar recordings and they still sound good. Push the same material with the ESS and the effect - while never remotely unlistenable- is harder edged. With the Sennheisers, I prefer the AKM.
This isn’t the whole story though. We’re at a frustrating point in headphones and earphones in that we have competing balanced connections on 2.5 and 4.4mm sockets and, while I understand AKG’s affection for the 2.5mm option in terms of casework real estate, I do feel that 4.4mm is gaining the upper hand (adapters are, of course available). As such, the only transducer I have with a 2.5mm connection is the AKG N5005 (I have… temporarily mislaid… the Sennheiser’s cable) but combining it with the SE200 has me revising my opinion on the DACs - which is effectively the whole point of having the choice. The balanced performance, combined with the slightly less urgent presentation of the AKG sees the ESS outputs start to make more sense. It gets stuck into Visual Audio Sensory Theatre by VAST in a way that leaves the AKM sounding a little safe by comparison.
What this means is that the SE200 enters the market with an ability to work with your preferred transducer that is better than almost any rival. The headroom on offer is considerable too. The Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z is pretty sensitive for a full size, over ear headphone but still needs rather more oomph than any of the in ear designs. The SE200 still has power in reserve at a healthy listening level and should not struggle even if you decide to use some of the more demanding designs out there. You will need to remember your charger though. I think that Astell & Kern’s battery life claims are achievable with earphones (including the intriguing phenomenon that battery life using the single AKM DAC is lower than when running the dual ESS units) but once levels are higher with full size headphones, this drops off a little.
There’s a final unexpected wrinkle to the SE200’s performance that might seem superficially pointless but having spent some time with it, I’m more enthused about. The SE200, like a number of other Astell & Kern players, has Bluetooth. Given the extreme care lavished on that parallel output stage, this might seem a curious inclusion; like making a perfect steak au poivre and putting a catering size bottle of ketchup down alongside the plate, but the reality is more nuanced than that. The reality of life in 2020 is that sometimes, having a cable attached is a pain, a pain even when you’ve got an £1,800 source. If you have an earphone that also switches over to wireless running for those phases, you’re going to see more use out of it.
It helps that the SE200 is a good Bluetooth source too. AptX HD is supported and it is stable and consistent in use and listening to Wild Beats’ Boy King over Bluetooth with the N5005 via its wireless yoke is sufficiently engaging that you feel compelled to keep listening to it even though it’s never going to touch using wires. Given the surprising number of phones that don’t include aptX (let alone aptX HD) hitting the market, this is more useful fitment than it might first appear.
Noise levels are low to the point of nonexistence which helps the Astell & Kern to sound staggeringly dynamic
- Exceptional sound quality
- Unusually flexible in terms of sonic setup
- Incredible build quality
- Some limits to on demand streaming
- Will most likely need storage boosting via micro SD
- Not cheap
Astell & Kern A&Futura SE200 Portable Audio Player Review
Let’s be very clear. The Astell & Kern SE200 is niche. In 2020, it’s not a mainstream requirement to have a portable audio player and certainly not one that costs £1,800. You have to be very sure that this is the sort of product you need and I can’t help you with that part of the equation. Props to you though if you know that this isn’t something you need and you’ve made it this far into the review.
What I can tell you is that this is a sensationally good player. The SE200 looks, feels and - most importantly - sounds special. It is a device that exudes the ‘specialness’ that any high end product needs to have to be a high end product. It’s not perfect - I’d like to see the streaming support bolstered in both breadth and capability - but it’s by far the most convincing Astell & Kern I’ve ever tested and its sensational performance and fabulous design ensures that it comes Highly Recommended.
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