Astell&Kern A&ultima SP1000 portable audio playerPage 2

None of this would be worth a damn if a full charge of the SP1000's battery pooped out too soon, but A&K claims it will last 12 hours. Using a 9V, 1.67A charger (not supplied), fully charging the completely drained battery should take no longer than 140 minutes. A 5V, 2A adapter did the job in five hours. A 12V charger won't work, and could damage the SP1000. Supported operating systems are Windows XP/7/8/10 (32/64 bit) and Mac OS10.7 and up.

For every reason I hate iTunes, I loved the A&ultima SP1000's Android-based operating system. An hour with the SP1000 made me realize that my problems with iTunes were not related to my age or computer illiteracy but to iTunes—a terrible, user-unfriendly app built years ago that has ever since been regularly upgraded by engineers who are out of touch with users, and uninterested in connecting with them to find out why iTunes continues to suck.

After reading the quick-start guide, I understood the SP1000's basic functionality. The review sample arrived with some music already on it, and soon I was playing and enjoying it, and navigating its menus with ease. Not once did I find myself cursing and screaming in frustration, as I often do when trying to find stuff on my iPhone with iTunes.


I read the manual, then found I could use all of the SP1000's incredible functionality without again referring to it. If I got lost while learning, I'd go back to the top and start over by gently touching the Home button—a tiny, almost invisible spot at the center of the non-illuminated black band at the bottom of the touchscreen. In little time, I could swipe the screen to get any desired result and/or information (of which there's a great deal). What's more, the powerful CPU was fast, responsive, and glitch-free.

All of this versatility, plus the ease with which I was able to grasp it, meant that in short order I'd downloaded the Android-to-Mac file-sharing app and easily transferred many hours' worth of hi-rez files from my iMac to the SP1000, and streamed music over my WiFi network from the SP1000 to my two Marantz receivers, which the A&K automatically found. Files of 24/96 were smoothly streamed from the SP1000 to the receivers, but 24/192 files weren't glitch-free.

The A&ultima also found and played music from a Wolf Audio Systems Cub music server I'd been playing with for fun—the Cub had come loaded with hundreds of files—as well from the libraries on my computers. The hi-rez files I'd loaded into the SP1000 produced the best sound I've gotten from my auxiliary home-theater system (see "Associated Equipment").

I digitized at 24/96 hundreds of tracks from LPs for the AnalogPlanet WFDU-FM radio show that I hosted for nearly two years (footnote 1). The music folders for each show are stored on an external hard drive connected to my iMac. It was easy to quickly load on the SP1000 many shows' worth of files, and just as easy to grab an appropriate JPG image from the Web and place it in the uploaded file, so that an image appears on the touchscreen for each file, as it does for an album. I'd devoted a two-hour show to Phil Spector, and for that I'd pulled that well-known shot of the huge-haired Spector during his trial for murder. The song titles, as listed in the folder, appeared on the SP1000's screen, as did the files' resolutions.

Among the other things I did with the SP1000: I switched the player's output to optical, then used an optical cable to connect it to my home system's DAC. I also streamed CD-resolution music via Tidal. The SP1000 doesn't include MQA decoding, but perhaps that's coming via firmware. In any case, on the road it's not critical.


It was easy to create playlists. The SP1000's OS automatically creates Most Played and Recently Added lists. You can choose or search for music by song, genre, album title, and artist name. The OS offers a linear playback history or it can be sorted by number of plays. You can play an album's tracks in sequence, randomly, or in repeat mode. If you select the Random icon in Song mode, the system goes into Shuffle mode. Master Quality Sound (MQS) mode lists files of 24-bit or greater resolution. The one option I didn't try was using the player as a soundcard via an outboard portable DAC. In that mode, DSD is converted to PCM or DoP (DSD over PCM, if your DAC can handle that).

There are even more playback options. I could fill more pages describing more of what the SP1000 can do, but I won't. Instead, you can download the manual. Basically, the SP1000 is an incredibly versatile, high-resolution audio player that was easy to use.

On the Road
I've now taken two long trips with the Astell&Kern A&ultima SP1000. One was to California, and the other to Bangkok, Thailand. When I landed in LA (from New York), the battery was a good bit less than half drained—my point being, despite the SP1000's versatility and powerful processor, it's not wasteful of power. The player probably would have made it to Tokyo without a recharge, but I plugged it into the plane's USB port after about 15 hours. And compared to an iPhone, its greater weight was actually helpful on an airplane, especially during takeoff, landing, and turbulence: The SP1000 stayed put—and the phone went into my computer bag, where, when I fly, it now stays.

When I arrived in LA, I heard from Audeze's Mark Cohen, who told me that a pair of their new, portable LCDi4 planar-magnetic in-ear headphones were on their way to my hotel room, where I was required to stay put for days (footnote 2). I didn't know then that the LCDi4s cost $2495, but when I plugged them in and listened to some files, I figured they must be pricey. The A&K-Audeze combo put on my head a truly high-end, ultra-lightweight, super-comfortable, $5994 audio system that produced a level of portable hi-rez sound I hadn't thought possible.


The differences between Audeze's planar-magnetic and Jerry Harvey's multiple-balanced-armature 'phones were similar to the differences I've heard between planar-magnetic and moving-coil loudspeakers: respectively, higher resolution and delicacy vs greater dynamic slam and image solidity. If I had more space, I'd go into greater detail (footnote 3). To say that either pair of 'phones brought the sound of a first-class, digital home audio system into my hotel room is not hyperbole. On the go, I hadn't ever before experienced anything like what I was now hearing, nor had portable listening gear ever brought me so much enjoyment.

Smooth, Dazzling Sound
One of the first things I played through the Audeze LCDi4s was the Doors' Strange Days (Elektra): the 24/96 commercial download, as well as a needle drop of an original pressing. Jim Morrison's voice floated there eerily, more in front of than between my ears, relaxing on a rich, cushiony reverberant field, presented in a way I'd never before heard from this album.

While some think the band's first album, The Doors, is better, nothing in their discography matches this second album's dark, creepy atmosphere. Through this system, "Moonlight Drive" was rapturously three-dimensional, spread across a soundstage that seemed impossibly expansive and that wrapped well beyond the usual "in the head" dimensions.

In some ways, the various musical elements were excessively dissected, but overall, the timbral and textural balance, along with the precision of attacks and generous sustain, produced a picture that seemed to be organic on the "cellular" level, without ever sounding mechanical. The sound of John Densmore's cymbals, particularly from the vinyl rip, was ideal, as was the sound of his kick drum in the title song. That was a tribute to both the Audeze headphones and to the A&ultima SP1000.

Being an audio nerd, I of course swapped the LCDi4s for the Jerry Harvey Laylas. The sound now had more bass slam, weight, and extension, and more tightly compacted images on a somewhat narrower but more focused stage. Two different sounds, both first-rate. I'd have a hard time choosing one over the other, though I found that the LCD-i4s' lack of noise isolation made them unusable on an airplane, or even in the low din of the United Club.

But this is a review of a portable player, not a pair of headphones. The qualities I found so easily identifiable and annoying with every track I listened to during my first encounter with an A&K portable player—that mechanical edge to transients and a bright tonal coloration, particularly as I increased the volume—were completely absent with the SP1000. Now, each file revealed its own familiar qualities, rather than anything tacked on by the player. The SP1000's output was sufficiently high to drive, without strain or distortion, both the planar-magnetic, 32 ohm Audezes and the 20-ohm Jerry Harveys. At home, I also tried high-impedance AKG AK-701s, and while not the ideal match for the A&K, they sounded ultra-transparent and pure, with more than enough volume, and plenty more available from the SP1000's output.

I particularly enjoyed the vinyl rips that I'd never listened to on headphones. Would I now hear vinyl artifacts close up—or, worse, the stylus scraping through the groove? No. Sure, there were occasional pops and clicks, but for the most part, my greatest pleasures with the A&K were listening to those vinyl rips. They were worth all the time they'd taken me to make.

You were expecting something else?

Astell&Kern's A&ultima SP1000 is probably more portable player than you'll need, and at $3499, its price might even offend some. But in terms of build quality, ergonomics, and sound, A&K's ultimate player delivered what A&K has promised. All you might need is one of A&K's less expensive players, but if you want the best, this is it.

It was so much fun to listen to hi-rez files and rips from my turntable at 40,000 feet. Sandy Denny's aching voice singing her "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" (from a pink-rim Island pressing of Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking); or Fleetwood Mac's "Future Games"; or "Transfusion," from John Renbourn's Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & ye Grene Knyghte; or Mel Tormé singing "New York State of Mind," from his Live at Marty's; or Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic performing John Williams's Star Wars Suite—it all sounded so thrillingly transparent, delicate, and analog-like that I plunked down the dough and bought the demo unit.

You were expecting something else?

Footnote 1: All of my themed radio shows are archived here. Check out my three-hour tribute to Rudy Van Gelder, complete with Ben Sidran's NPR interview with Van Gelder from the mid-1980s.

Footnote 2: I was there to testify as an expert witness in the trial of Quincy Jones vs Michael Jackson, which Jones eventually won.

Footnote 3: JA is reviewing the Audeze LCDi4s in the December issue.—Ed.

IRiver Ltd.
US: Astell&Kern
39 Peters Canyon Road
Irvine, CA 92606

Richardharmer's picture

At this price and quality some may buy this to use as a solution for at-home listening through ones home system as well as using it on the go. Perhaps this duel use could justify the price? Could it offer a better solution than a stand alone server/DAC and portable player for the same total budget?

dalethorn's picture

I would use it as the core of a home system, except that I'd have to make sure it's not constantly charging the battery when plugged into the AC mains.

mrkaic's picture

1. The machine looks heavy. Is that useful in a portable player?
2. At this price I would expect perfection. What is the issue with that clipping into 300 Ohm and behavior at 96hHz?
3. How does it compare to LG V30?
4. Are there any cheaper alternatives?

tonykaz's picture

we needed 3 Devices to do what these AK players do.

The AK240 is pretty much the ultimate travel rig.

This new AK is better but I'm not clear as to why.

Still, the darn thing is cheap compared to anything in High-End and it doesn't have a Monthy Subscription Rate like an iPhone so it's Pay-Once sort of thing.

Well, how long is it's service life?, we should know that sort of thing, shouldn't we? Sony Walkman stuff lasts 4evvvvvvvah. Will these AK devices end up in the dead drawer with all those little electronic things we no longer use? or is there a 'deep' support system established and if so, where is it and just how do we access it?

What about those Batteries?, who replaces them when they won't take a charge?, that will affect ReSale Values and Trade-in Residuals, won't it?

There's lots of 'what about' questions that need answers when it comes to much of this Asian stuff, it starts to matter as prices increase beyond the cheap price of a eBay Chinese digital pedometers.

Sony had a Service Center here in Michigan that they closed a looooooong time ago. Now, if an Asian device needs service we end up looking for a local lad with our fingers crossed. Phew.

Expensive Asian Electronics is 'Risky Business'

So, the decision on a $3,500 Asian gizmo is a matter of Disposable Income: Can we afford to loose our investment?

Some Asian stuff has superb support: KIA, Samsung, Nikon, Cannon and quite a few others but not everything by a long shot.

Astel & Kern is the highest end of high end travel gear for music lovers. I think it could replace everyone's music source with the possible exception of a died-in-the-wool Vinyl guy or a guy like me that has an iMac as my Big Base System.

But, the Smart Phone is just around the Corner and coming fast. One Smart Phone already has a quad DAC. So, these beautiful Astel players seem to be on borrowed time.

Here comes iPhone 9

Tony in Michigan

ps. Quincy Jones showed me Electrocompaniet

Mihalis's picture

True, MQA capable phones/portable DACs can soon move aside the storage and retrieval function of these players. However, arguably, the electric storm that is a phone will not be able to compete at the ultimate level with dedicated players. Possibly irrelevant when travel and flight noises are a nuisance.

tonykaz's picture

I more than 'mostly' agree with you.

These AK players are much greater than 'this' review experience reveals.

Overall, I'd say, this Analog Planet guy has just given ( his loyal following ) permission to buy, own and enjoy this cute little $3,500 digital player. hmm It's a 3rd. Generation music format device.

Which seems to be the point behind this interesting personal story : 'Analog Planet' is recommending Digital Players now. Who could've predicted this outcome?, of course, it's a toy compared to anything Analog, where prices for serious gear begin at twice the measly price of the AK.

Anyone that can find happiness with an AK player should consider themselves lucky not be burdened with having to manage a vault filled with pristine vinyl, hundreds of thousands of dollars in playback gear and the general disapproval of family members who probably consider the vinyl guy a 'crazy' uncle sort of person. ( which might or might not be the case ).

The 4th. Generation Format is where we play our music on our Smart Phone and we Rent our music from Tidal or some other outfit.

What the 5th Generation will look like will be fun guesswork for the next 25 years.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I've lived in all 4 Generations of music formats and I'm pleased with this 3rd. Generation and it's playback gear. The full implementation of the 4th Generation Format seems too good to be true.

dalethorn's picture

"The 4th. Generation Format is where we play our music on our Smart Phone and we Rent our music from Tidal or some other outfit."

They've been saying that about the Cloud (or whatever they call the latest "we provide the best uptime" service) since before the Internet, when IT services were provided by Big Blue and others. There will never be a streaming service so reliable that I can depend on it 100 percent, during the critical 90 minutes I have between missions where I can listen to my favorite symphony uninterrupted.

tonykaz's picture

it's still the 4th.

I hope they make it reliable and universally useful.

We'll still have old geezers like me collecting the hell out of CDs and loving the playback on the latest Oppo.

I hope the 4th becomes a smashing success for all involved, I'd love to have unlimited access to all the music ever recorded.

preferably for free or less with a lifetime subscription to room and Tidal.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Old geezers like me will have a 5-10 terabyte Sandisk flash drive, size 2x2x0.5 inches in my wallet, with tens of thousands of music and video tracks at my fingertips for instant lookup and playback.

I have hundreds of tracks that will likely never be on the streaming services, or if any of them are, they'll be nearly impossible to find (read: time consuming).

When you really think about all of the show-stoppers between you and some specific but not easily accessible tracks you want to hear, you'll be saying "Well, I didn't need to hear that anyway - lots of other things to listen to."

And it's not that you *have* to hear what you want, nor is it that other good things aren't available - the simple fact is that there are consequences to giving up control of your music, and you should be honest and acknowledge those consequences.

tonykaz's picture

Sure, 5-10 terabytes.

I have all my music on memory.

But, there's plenty of interesting music out there to explore.

Still, I don't know how much time i have left, I'm having another Ct Scan Nov 7th. I could get bad news at any time.

On Sony: I had a few un-repared SONY ProVideo pieces. I was mostly referring to Garage Sale Walkman stuff. Of course everything, even Motorola & vintage Western Electric stuff can and does break, nothing is immune to failures. ( except the loyalty of Trumpeters )

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

I hope your scan goes OK - I've had so many scans that they killed all the bugs in my system. I don't know how many Trumpeters you know, but I always played Cornet myself. And BTW, we've decided that the current administration will continue forever through inheritance, much like a good universal music format that doesn't need to be replaced. And that's the name of that tune.

Michael Fremer's picture

The scans obviously missed a few bugs

dalethorn's picture

Funny thing - I have several friends who thought the 'maga' thing was a scam - not needed. But then a few weeks later they're talking about our "empire in decline". Could be my friends fell into the quantum rabbit hole, and still think 2 plus 2 equals 3.

Michael Fremer's picture

Please take some antacid and call your gastroenterologist in the morning. The review was not intended to give anyone "permission" to buy this player. It is not a "toy". No one considers me a "crazy" uncle sort of person. However you sound unhinged. There's no apostrophe in "its playback gear". Not sure who to whom the "we" refers in your post. "Crazy" people usually address imaginary people like that. I've used this player on airplanes, at the gym, at the pool etc. It's filled with 96/24 vinyl rips that sound better than any downloaded files or streamed on TIDAL files, though I appreciate TIDAL a great deal as a means to buy new vinyl.

tonykaz's picture

"Unhinged" ?

You may be right, back then ( about one year ago ) I was undergoing a Second Cancer Screening to confirm. My older twin brother just died of Brain Tumors. So-far, I'm clear but have to keep a close watch for active killers.

I'm scared for the first time in my looooooong life. I might be acting out my fears.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

"Sony Walkman stuff lasts 4evvvvvvvah."

Well, no. I had a couple of Sony WMD6C's that were practically indestructable, and a couple of reliable Sony TVs in the 1970's. Of the thirty other Sony handheld products I've had, all failed within 3 months. The VAIO computer ($2500) was a joke - the only service center available to me (I was in Irvine CA) was a fly-by-night outfit in Florida, which put the wrong O/S on it, then after 6 weeks when they returned it, it failed permanently.

Not to mention the handheld digital recorder ($800) I bought circa 1992, which used Sony camcorder batteries as I remember. Both the original battery and a genuine Sony backup battery I bought ($110 each) failed after about 3 charges.

tonykaz's picture

well then, phew.

Garage sales have Sony stuff, it always seems to work.


I'll accept that my experiences are different.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

It's arguable that your experiences in product failure are different, but if you had the defective Vaio in So. California, your experience with Sony service would NOT have been different.


he said Walkmans ... not TVs or computers.

dalethorn's picture

As I'm sure I said already, my Sony handheld products had a more than 90 percent failure rate within the first 3 months. The only reliable Walkmans I found were the D6C's. The *primary* gripe I had against the tiny computer wasn't the failure anyway, it was the scam "service". The other failures I either returned or tossed.


I'm pretty sure you said that already.

Mihalis's picture

“You were expecting something else?” Yeah, I was. I was hoping that the respected Mikey would respect himself and those of us who have spent time to also learn the portable format with a professional review of the standard of his analogue corner.

Zero absolute experience? Check. No relative benchmarks? Check. New associated equipment? Check. Focus on headphones instead of the player? Check.

An Iphone user phoning in his review. Then again, I did learn that a larger, heavier object balances better on the airplane table during turbulence. Duh.

Mikey you are literally the last reviewer that I read. Please don't take that away from me!

Now on the players:
(1) In the same way that the AK240 was bested by the 380, this new player is a further step towards the AK evolution and house sound.
(2) It is significantly more powerful and the control of headphones is greater, solid and noticeable.
(3) There is an increase in soundstage, especially horizontally.
(4) The player continues to not be the quietest thing around (the Sony beats it handily there) but it is more "airy" and as such still quite engaging.

Richardharmer: you would need to be specific about which comparison you seek. I can say that for headphones, paired with a good amp, it can be the base of a very high end system. Otherwise I dont know.

mrkaic: it is heavy like the Sony. Both companies will claim that is necessary for isolation and sound quality. They both feel great. I wouldn't want either in my pocket unless it is a jacket. But you can survive an hour at the airport before sitting down on the plane. Compared to the LG? It blows it out of the water. These are not comparable devices. Yes there are tons of alternatives from AK, Sony, Fiio, iBasso, HiFiMan, Onkyo, Pioneer, Questyle, Pono, etc. Some would in fact argue that buying a less expensive player and pairing it with a great portable amp like Vorzuge's offerings (or Chord etc) may be a better overall idea for performance.

tonykaz: I respectfully disagree. The Sony gold is indeed regarded as the best player (as can be seen by its dominance of shows lately) but obviously one can very reasonably argue against that (what is "best" anyway.) I am a lot less worried about reliability as the quality of these devices has proven to be excellent. Whether AK survives as a brand is another issue/question. But for those starting up, I would look for used equipment where the initial 30% discount is already gone.

Michael Fremer's picture

I'll stop reviewing portable players. I had to start somewhere. You've given me the incentive to stop. I don't need to take shit from anyone at this point in my reviewing career so I will not explore this subject any further.

lothlorien's picture

Hi Michael...I have been following your online videos, reviews, comments etc for a couple of years now. I am a planetary scientist with some expertise in a number of areas, but I can safely say that the #1 expertise I have acquired over time is to know when a person might know a thing or two more than I do about a subject and maybe listen and learn. After reading all the comments above, I felt compelled to join the site and ask that you continue to review "outside the box" (not just digital players!). I think it's great you that you happened by a product that you didn't expect to review, but tried it, found it worthwhile, and related the experience to the rest of us. Anyone who follows your reviews know that you are not afraid to say if a thing is shite or not, and that you are always very careful to give qualifiers and caveats where needed when expressing a subjective opinion (which you assume full responsibilty for). In the final analysis, opinions aside, I have always found your reviews to be informative and insightful based on your experience, which is why I continue to follow your reviews! That you expect us to not be rude in considering your learned and experienced opinion is hardly a lot to ask. I am sure I speak for a lot of readers when I say that the enjoyment of my audiophile hobby has only been enriched by your reviews over time. Of course, "Analog Planet" is mainly about all things analogue, but it's always refreshing when you aren't "prescriptionist" and venture "outside the box" in giving us useful and insightful comparisons of the analogue and digital worlds where appropriate. With candor I can also say that for my part, I really enjoy the slight irreverence and cheekiness that is part of your cache. And your insistence that folks employ a modicum of common sense and critical reasoning in following your reviews. Many thanks and I hope your reconsider your position regarding reviewing "outside the box". After all, that is usually where all the interesting stuff and fun is!

Best regards,

Chris Parkinson

valius55's picture

3500 Euros and portable ? No, thank you. I am happy with my opus 2, which is not the cheapest DAP too, but I would never invest more into a portable player


I got a refurb SanDisc portable for $30 and listen to it via a Grado SR60. And I'll bet dollars to donuts that you can't hear a difference. Prove me wrong ... and tell my why.

Plus, it firmly clips onto my clothing ... which your $3500 player is incapable of doing.

And a Sony portable CD player if I don't want to do any transferring. Not perfection, but it's good enough, y'know?

spacehound's picture

This 3000 dollar plus A&K can't do anything that a cheap Android phone, the 10 dollar Onkyo HD player app, a plug in micro or nano memory card, (for which most Android phones now have one or two slots), and a Chord Mojo can't do at an equal or possibly better quality, lower weight, and no bigger (even though it is 'two box').

And you can make phone call on that too :)