Astell & Kern SA700 Digital Audio Player review: Audiophile DAP
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Your smartphone plays audio, has access to streaming services, supports headphones, and is almost always close by. In many ways, it’s an excellent musical partner. However, a genuine standalone music player is a tempting alternative for those who really take music-on-the-move seriously.
Astell & Kern make some of the most well-respected music players you can buy. They cost similar to what you’d pay for a good smartphone, and the latest models, like the SA700, have the ability to run streaming apps like Spotify. Unlike a smartphone, however, the big advantage is that the SA700 is a dedicated player, meaning it should deliver superior sound quality because that’s the device’s only job.
The Astell & Kern SA700 carries a full retail price of $1,299, though it’s on sale now for $999. That’s about the same price as an Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. Obviously, a player like this is not a straight alternative to buying a phone, but if you’re serious about music, is it worth considering as a luxury indulgence? Or should you just stick to a multi-purpose playback device like a smartphone? I spent some time with the SA700 to find out.
- Weight: 10.69 oz/303 grams
- Screen: 4.1-inch, 1280 x 720 pixels
- Sample rate: PCM 8kHz – 384kHz, DSD Native DSD64 1bit 2.8MHz, Stereo DSD128 1bit 5.6MHz.
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2
- Outputs: 3.5mm unbalanced jack, 2.5mm balanced jack
Inputs: USB Type-C USB 3.0
- Battery: 3,150mAh
- Storage: MicroSD card slot, 128GB internal storage
If you’re used to the shape of your phone in your hand, the Astell & Kern SA700 feels very different. It’s smaller, thicker, sharper, and has more heft to it. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing but a solid block of stainless steel, but on the front is a glass covered touchscreen, and inside is plenty of hi-res audio technology.
The asymmetric shape is produced by the large volume knob on the right, flanked by swooping, textured guards that blend into the angular body. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition with the otherwise blocky design, which gives the SA700 real character. Turn the player on, and the volume knob is lit by a bright LED behind it which turns red when you reach high volumes.
When it comes to connections, there’s a 2.5mm balanced jack on top of the player, next to a standard 3.5mm jack. There’s Bluetooth with aptx HD support for wireless listening as well.
Personally, I think the design is fantastic, and the build quality and materials match the cool looks.
Using the AK T9iEs, it’s immediately obvious how much power the SA700 has, as there’s more than enough volume here. Outside of its ample power, the device’s stereo separation is the next element that really stands out.
GuGu-LuLu’s “Caution!!” is always a fun listen with vocals and instruments spread all over the soundstage, and the track sounds fantastic here. Of course, the AK T9iEs should sound particularly good when paired with this player, since they’re rather expensive headphones priced at $1,299. With that in mind, I sampled playback wth a few other models as well.
When listening through a pair of Audeze Sine on-ear headphones, Pax Puella’s” It’s a Wonderful Day” sparkles, with the group’s vocals sounding so natural and detailed, it’s like they were right there with you.
Swapping to Bluetooth headphones, I used Audio Technica’s wonderful DSR5BT, and listened to hi-res files from Qubuz. A 96KHz version of Micheal Jackson’s “Billie Jean” reveals a sound that’s detailed but slightly clinical and perhaps a little cold. The technical aspect of the song is astonishing, with perfect stereo separation and wonderful detail, but the track just doesn’t carry as much emotion as it should.
Meanwhile, a 48KHz version of Linkin Park’s “Somewhere I Belong” really should be bombastic and almost harsh, but the SA700 doesn’t quite deliver the rawness I anticipated. Thankfully, a 96KHz version of “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets does provide the depth and feeling I’d been missing, as long as I push the volume near maximum as the movement reaches its crescendo. It’s quite something.
A Hi-Res 88.2KHz version of Wolfgang Heffner’s “Piano Man” also plays more to the SA700’s strengths, with a delicate touch that emphasizes the piano keys, the strum of the bass guitar, and the steady beat of the drum. Thanks to its involving playback, it’s easy to lose yourself in jazz on the SA700.
Although I wasn’t always as deeply engaged as I’d like when listening to my personal choice of music, there’s no denying how accurate and controlled the sound from the SA700 is. The sound has been tuned almost to perfection, but the by-product is a slightly disconnected feeling, and it’s missing emotion. As a result, I tend to use the SA700 with a pair of Master & Dynamic’s MW60 0.95 Bluetooth headphones the most. The headphones’ strong musical character makes up for what I feel is missing from the player.
The SA700’s 3,150mAh battery capacity is below what you find in most modern smartphones, and Astell & Kern estimates it’ll last about eight and a half hours before it needs recharging.
Whether it ends up lasting that long, however, will depend on how you use the player. During my time with the device, an hour playing music from a MicroSD card drained 10% of the battery using Bluetooth headphones, while streaming from the Qobuz app for about the same amount of time drained 25%.
Assuming you primarily use the SA700 during commutes with music stored on the device, it should just about make it through the week. You need to turn it off when it’s not being used though, as ambient power draw reduces the battery life when it’s on standby. It also takes nearly five hours to recharge, and that’s very problematic.
Software and reliability
The player’s software is built using Google Android, just like you find on Samsung Galaxy and many other smartphones. It’s the open source version of Android, however, so it doesn’t have the Google Play Store, but it can run Android apps if you install them yourself. This is a selling point of an A&K player, as you can use Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz and other streaming apps when the player’s connected to Wi-Fi.
However, in my experience this isn’t an easy exercise. Apps are installed using APK files, which must be sourced either from the company, like in Spotify’s case, or through a website like APKPure.com. Unfortunately, it’s a massive pain.
Spotify’s APK file refused to install on my player, and while I eventually got a version from APKPure.com to install, the player’s keyboard did not have one of the special characters I required to enter my password. Expect to jump through hoops installing apps. Qobuz installed easily, but the app performance is slow and frustrating.
If you’re used to a modern smartphone, using the SA700 is a world apart. It’s just about fast enough, but the menu system is very basic, and the user interface isn’t always well designed. For example, the Back button is often in different positions on different menus. The screen itself is also quite small which makes the keyboard cramped and awkward. The display is bright and colorful, though, so album art always looks good.
I also have problems with the Wi-Fi connectivity. While it connected to my home network without issue at first, it began to drop the signal and then refuse to reconnect. I had better luck connecting to a Hotspot from my iPhone 11 Pro, but it still doesn’t always work. I also experienced volume consistency problems with Bluetooth headphones. My Audio Technica ATH-M50x are incredibly quiet even at maximum volume, but my Master & Dynamic MW60 0.95 headphones are fine.
If you’re a big audiophile who prioritizes accurate sound over everything else, then the Astell & Kern SA700 audio player is designed for you.
It’s expensive, however, and it lacks the convenience, usability, and easy connectivity of a typical smartphone. With that in mind, most buyers will be better off sticking with a phone for music playback.
Your smartphone is the most obvious and most convenient alternative. Regardless of which model you own, and how old it is, it will be able to replicate the base functionality of the SA700. But, how competently it does so will depend on the phone. The iPhone 12 series and the iPhone 11 series both offer great sound quality, but they lack a 3.5mm headphone jack, which will put audiophiles off.
Meanwhile, Sony makes a compelling range of music players. The $1,199 ZX2 Walkman directly competes with the SA700, but it’s also worth looking at the cheaper ZX507 player, which supports Android apps, has a balanced output, and a more compact design.
If you’re set on owning an Astell & Kern, the A&norma SR25 is $699 and although there are several differences in components — including the DAC — the cheaper price makes it more attractive to those wanting to experiment.
The Astell & Kern SA700 has one major problem: the existence of smartphones. My smartphone is easier to use, is more consistently reliable, stays connected to Wi-Fi, has a competent keyboard, and runs every streaming music service app without a problem. Plus, it’s always with me, and the battery lasts longer.
To compensate, the SA700 really needs to impress with its sound quality if it’s going to convince anyone to spend $999 on a dedicated music device. At the end of the day, the player’s audio performance is nearly there, it’s not quite at the level I’d like.
It’s missing a little emotional involvement, but the sharp detail, soundstage, and superb control means it’s still a deeply enjoyable listen. The player is quite headphone sensitive, however, with some models sounding far better than others. It’s at its best with A&K’s own AK T9ie headphones, and that makes it a $2,300 package — which is a serious investment
But, perhaps most crucially, while I never feel the need to swap to a phone when listening to the SA700, the reverse is also true: I don’t always reach for the SA700 instead of my smartphone. This is mostly a decision driven by convenience, but that’s a problem if you’re going to spend this much money on a device that’s supposed to offer a superior solution.
True bottom line? The Astell & Kern SA700 is a uniquely designed, astonishingly accurate music player strictly for audiophiles with deep pockets. All other buyers will be better off sticking to a smartphone for their music listening needs.
Pros: Accurate sound, cool design, beautifully made
Cons: Expensive, your phone is more user-friendly, short battery life