Before I start off babbling about all the technicalities, performance, design blah blah blah, I want to tell you that I had been in pursuit of a DAP that would be a definite step up to my present DAP, the Astell&Kern AK70. I gave the Astell&Kern SE100, a shot and found it to be quite boring and non-engaging even though it was more resolving and technically advanced in many ways so I finally got my hands on the SP1000M or as they call it the A&ultima, Astell&Kern’s flagship.
At first glance, the outer box looked like it contained some sort of exotic French perfume. The color of the outer box was a purplish blue and it took forever to remove the outer sleeve from the inner box. Inside the box, there was the usual boring yet very much necessary stuff like a fast charging USB cable, some bad quality protective films for the front and back of the device and some other minuscule manuals which need a microscope to be read. However, to my surprise, I found a beautifully stitched leather case which slightly elevated my mood. And, then I saw a shimmer of sapphire blue, well encapsulated inside the box, the A&ultima itself. Astell&Kern calls the color, Lapis blue, which apparently is the color of a deep blue metamorphic rock (probably even invented by Astell&Kern). When I held it in my hand, I was not feeling it all over the place like I did with the SE100 but was rather fixated on the extremely gorgeous device.
The SP1000M looks like it’s made out of pure sapphire itself. It was a perfect size, not as small as the AK70 and not too large as the SE100. I got a sensation of holding some extremely powerful object (one of Thanos’s infinity stones from the Avengers movie) and unlike the SE100 which is better off with a case, the SP1000M should be used without one because of its form factor and debonair looks.
The SP1000M is so well finished and the attention to detail is of the highest order. The lapis blue is actually one of the best shades of blue I feel because it’s neither too bright nor too dark and it perfectly compliments the SP1000M's design. I found the volume click wheel to be a lot smoother than that of the AK70 and of the SE100, almost as smooth as the crown on a Rolex watch. The glass back of the SP1000M has a carbon fiber insert that changes color according to the lighting which again exudes beauty. You can easily tell that this is no joke, the build quality, and the finishing are simply second to none; this is crème de la creme. I will not delve much into the UI and technical specifications much in this review and bore you all.
The two main IEMs which I used to put the SP1000M through its paces was the Shure SE846 and the JH Audio Roxanne. Even though I had many other IEMs, I thought it would be best to pair this two top-of-the-line IEMs to glean the most from the SP1000m. The genres I used ranged from jazz, pop, classical, folk, blues, punk rock, alternative rock, progressive metal, doom metal, death metal, EDM and whatever else I could throw in.
The first song I listened to was “What I’ve Done” by Linkin Park in the SE846 because I’ve heard this song at least a million times. Okay, one thing I realized was that Chester Bennington (lead singer of Linkin Park) is NOT DEAD. My God, even though the SE846 doesn’t place the vocals up front like the Roxanne or even the Shure SE535, I could hear everything that came out of Chester’s mouth. And then as the song continued to play, I was dissolved in tears as I really felt like Linkin Park was performing just for me. It was a very emotional moment for me as I loved Chester a lot and miss him till date. I could literally hear every note, beat and hymn in that song and it was the best presentation I had ever perceived. What beats me is how the SP1000M manages to reproduce every single nuance in the music recording, yet maintain a non-fatiguing tonality. It’s like Albert Einstein making the average man completely understand the theory of relativity (if ever that was possible). Everything had more layering and it was like eating a sandwich with cheese for the first time in your life when you’ve only eaten plain bread till that moment. It’s not just the clarity and the resolution that the SP1000M beholds, but its capability to deliver them so smoothly in such an emotional and engaging fashion. Now, that is pure art, not just technological progress.
Moving on to the Roxanne, The SP1000M really brings out the best from it, adding much more clarity and layering which it lacked when paired with the AK70 or even the SE100. It was almost like there was an invisible veil obscuring my music on the Roxanne when paired with SE100 and AK70 but the SP1000M totally lifted that out. At half volume (75clicks), with the bass knob in a neutral position, the Roxanne felt like it was very much alive. So, I took on Jerry Harvey’s (Founder of JH Audio) challenge and pushed the mighty 12 drivers of the Roxanne to almost full chat (135 clicks of volume and bass knob just shy of max) to see if it would distort. Nada! The SP1000M controlled the Roxanne with such prowess, almost like how an alpha male wolf would hold its fierce pack in perfect tandem. Somehow, I found the chemistry between the Roxanne and the SP1000M to be sublime like they were made for each other.
It is absolute blasphemy to say the SE100 sounds almost like the SP1000M. The SP1000M blows the SE100 out of the water in all aspects, be it soundstage, tonality, resolution, control and so on. It’s got this grandiose sound presentation; everything sounds BIG! There is not a chance you can do something else on the side while listening to the A&ultima, it grabs your absolute attention. The bass is deep (almost as deep as the Mariana trench) and also well layered. You get this sensation of feeling the sub-bass especially in tracks like “Walk on Water” by Thirty Seconds to Mars. Another example is the track “Rasputin” by Boney M, where you feel like transported back in time to hear them live. The live performance of Hans Zimmer’s “Mombasa” soundtrack from the inception movie is yet another track where you feel the rush and the drummer’s fervor, cymbals crashing on either side of your ears, teleporting you to another dimension. I wanted to listen to every single song on my library through the A&ultima with every single IEM that I own, that’s what Astell&Kern have created, a true masterpiece.
The resolution is so high that sometimes you can hear the brushing of the vocalist’s dress robe on the stationary microphone. That is the level of details we are talking about. The mids sound just so fluid and the transition between each note is immaculate. The treble might just be one small weak point, lacking some sparkle which I’m sure will smoothen out after some hours of burn-in. The soundstage stretches out wide in all the directions and makes IEMs sound like open back headphones in this regard. The A&ultima can make anything sound good, probably even if the entire world war II was captured in audio and played back through it.
I always knew that I was being deprived of the full potential of the Shure SE846 when paired both with the AK70 as well as the SE100. I knew it needed a DAP of a higher caliber to unlock its full potential. But now, I feel that the SP1000M has so much to offer that both the SE846 as well as the Roxanne fall short to make full use of the A&ultima’s mammoth capabilities. So, now I will work in reverse and begin my quest to find an IEM that can milk the most out of the A&ultima’s potential. Some hard-core audiophiles might feel the A&ultima a bit colored because it might not sound “perfect”, but then again you have the pro level EQ settings to tweak it to sound neutral or non-colored which I’m guessing. But doing that is plain stupidity, it’s like asking Michael Jackson to slow down his dance moves.
I know that the A&ultima would soon be surpassed technologically by Astell&Kern’s next flagship itself or even by other DAPs but I can assure you that the A&ultima would go down in the record books for its musicality, personality, and presentation. To sum it all up, I would say that if you love music and you want something that would elevate your heartbeat every time and get completely engrossed in the music, then the A&ultima is something you should go for. The A&ultima is artistic, involving, captivating and most importantly it will put a wide smile on your face, every time you listen to it.