This is my first detailed review on an Astell&Kern (A&K) product, but over a decade ago, I owned an iRiver MP3 player, the H320, that runs on a physical spinning 20GB HDD (iRiver is the South Korean company that manufactures A&K). So, A&K has a long history in audio development, and in recent years, made a good name in developing digital audio players (DAP) that receive rave reviews from audiophiles. In 2018, they rebranded their product lines into 3 sub-brands – A&ultima, A&futura, A&norma. Here on review is the first A&futura premium-line DAP, SE100.
The SE100 design is a variant of the previous A&K designs, which to most people, might appear unusual and avant garde. In the words of its creator, the product resembles “unrestricted balance” from a composition of a trapezoid and curves together.
Every A&K DAP has a prominent volume knob, and the SE100 resembles an oversized watch crown that aids easy operation. The sides slope at an angle, which I find tricky to lift up from the table. The sharp angles makes it uncomfortable to hold the player for long, and the edges are so pointed, you risk damaging the hard floor if you drop it, but not before inflicting a dent. Getting a protective case is a must, but that also means you deprive the player from being appreciated as a work of art.
Apart from the volume knob, there are 3 buttons opposite, for track changes and play-pause. Power button is located at the top, away from the rest of the buttons, which I find is hard to reach under normal usage.
Included in the package is 2 sets of screen protector for both front and back glasses, 2 dummy microSD slots, and a thick USB-C cable. USB adapter is not in the package, yet the SE100 supports QuickCharge 3.0. So in order to reap the feature, you need to buy your own. Any normal 2A 5V charger will take 5 hours to fully charge the SE100, while a QC3.0 charge gets it done within 2.5 hours. The device can deliver up to 11 hours of play time, depending on the audio file format. Needless to say, lossless audio file like DSD will require higher processing power.
The SE100 operating system is the same as the other A&K music players, with a pull-down notification bar with a row of large shortcut icons. Swipe to the right to reveal the folders and playlist options, swipe to the left to show the playlist tracks, swipe from the bottom to show the history of music tracks played. The font size for each track listing will dynamically adjust to fit, so there is no guessing. To go back to the default play screen, tap the single capacitive button outside the bottom of the screen.
I do find the UI a little messy, but I guess if you use often enough, you will get more familiar. For instance, the back buttons are located at different places for different screens.
What makes SE100 a brilliant music player is the audio processing architecture. The DAC chip is SABRE ES9038Pro from ESS that delivers 8-channel digital audio processing capability, 4 for each left-right channel. Enhanced voltage-controlled crystal oscillator high-precision femto-second clock reproduces music faithfully by precisely measuring and accurately timing the synchronization of all instruments, vocal and even ambiance sound recorded in the digital music file. The resultant audio is a lot more detail, uncluttered sound staging, and intrinsic lifelike feel.
For sure you need good headphones to actually hear the difference. Through the Klipsch X12i and Sennheiser HD 650, I discerned more transparency details at higher frequencies, experiencing airiness without being excessive for the sake of clarity. I felt the multi-channel processing definitely helps in layering the instruments to make it sound like they are individually handled instead of just a single-pipe delivery. There is precision in how SE100 delivers the final sound to ensure what comes out is not noise, but music. Having said that, it does not necessarily mean it sounds better to the listener, since audio preference is subjective.
I connected the Chord Mojo to the SE100 to compare the DAC quality between the two. It is not easy to distinguish a unique character between the 2, unlike some other audio players or headphones. However, there are subtle characteristics that makes one prefer one over the other. I find the Chord Mojo offers a slightly cleaner, more precise, less hazy treble delivery, maybe a little too clean, digital. It’s relative compared to SE100, meaning on its own the Mojo is not entirely clinical. SE100, on the other hand, offers a wider sound staging, allowing me to pick up some recording ambiance more than Mojo. If you prefer to listen to more treble details and forward, the Mojo appeals more. If you like an overall precision of musical quality without only focusing on treble, then the SE100 is certainly one to look for.
Anyway, if you feel the SE100 tuning is in any way lacking, it is possible to adjust the EQ to very granular details, down to the frequency, gain and Q value, to fine-tune to their satisfaction. Note however that Bluetooth audio will not be able to support EQ. I was also dismayed that SE100 does not support LDAC audio codec, which is a shame as it might sway Sony users to A&K camp. Then again, one would be ashamed to spend so much on the SE100 just for lossy wireless audio. Also, SE100 does not support MQA format, and does not even play files despite containing in a FLAC file (I have to hope it’s a matter of firmware update to support in future).
I did not review enough A&K products to critique how it is better or worse than the other A&K, like other audiophiles might. I do, however, appreciate the utmost audio processing prowess that the SE100 offers, and there is no doubt of its quality and capability. I also let another audiophlie friend try the SE100 and he too agreed that the SE100 is one of the better A&K DAP he has encountered – detailed without too excessively technical.
If you are a A&K fan, if you are looking for an exceedingly brilliant, musically articulate audio player, the A&futura SE100 should be in your shopping list. Singapore retail price is S$2499, distributed by Eng Siang.
- Excellent audio production that reveals more musical details without unnaturally excessive clarity
- Granular EQ adjustment to get the sound right
- Non-practical design
- Relative short battery life yet long charging time (unless you use a QC3.0 charge, purchase separately)
- Display: 5.0 inch HD 720 x 1280 touchscreen
- DAC: ESS ES9038PRO SABRE 8-channel
- S/N Ratio: 122dB @ 1kHz, Unbalanced / 123dB @ 1kHz, Balanced
- Supported audio formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
- Sample rate:
- PCM : 8kHz – 384kHz (8/16/24/32bits per Sample).
- DSD Native: DSD64 (1bit 2.8MHz) Stereo / DSD128 (1bit 5.6MHz) Stereo / DSD256 (1bit 11.2MHz) Stereo
- Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz)
- Bluetooth: V4.1 (A2DP, AVRCP, aptX™ HD)
- Internal Storage: 128GB [NAND]
- External Storage: micro SD card up to 400GB (FAT32)
- Battery: 3,700mAh
- Charging: 2.5 hr with QC3.0, 5 hr with 2A 5V charger
- Weight: 241 g