Astell & Kern SP1000M hands-on review

Smaller, cheaper, and better sounding? The A&K SP1000M does the impossible

The Astell & Kern SP1000M pulls off the impossible by being better than its sister player for far less money.
The Astell & Kern SP1000M pulls off the impossible by being better than its sister player for far less money.
The Astell & Kern SP1000M pulls off the impossible by being better than its sister player for far less money.

Highs

  • Compact and light body
  • New color stands out
  • Superb, highly detailed sound
  • Costs less than the closely related SP1000
  • Can side-load streaming music apps

Lows

  • Still expensive
  • Software can still frustrate

When any product gets smaller, lighter, and cheaper, very rarely does it get better at the same time. Astell & Kern has managed to pull off the impossible with the SP1000M, which is indeed smaller, lighter, and cheaper than its close namesake the Astell & Kern SP1000; yet the company says it has worked hard to not just maintain the same level of audio quality, but actually improve it. It’s the result of seven months of work, and we’ve listened to it to find out if such a feat is really possible.

To begin with, the SP1000M is way more portable than the SP1000, which, at more than half an inch thick and weighing 13.64 ounces, is a bit of a beast. The update’s overall volume has been reduced by 18 percent, and the weight has been reduced by 48 percent. It’s really only a little larger than the Astell & Kern SR15, which is a truly pocketable music player. While it’s still a bulky slab of metal and glass, the SP1000M is a device you can now realistically carry around with you. It comes in a new color too, called lapis blue, and it looks great. The brighter hue accentuates the mad angles and sharp corners that separate an Astell & Kern player from the crowd. You’ll want to take it out and show it off.

It’s this reduction in size that forced the company to get creative internally and push the audio quality to new heights over the SP1000. Inside is the same AK4497 DAC as the SP1000, and the same octa-core Exynos 7420 processor too, but the audio block has been redesigned, with everything getting smaller and placed closer together on the circuit board. For example, the capacitors are now closer to the DAC, which, according to the company, results in less interference and greater clarity.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

To test the Astell & Kern SP1000M, we brought along a pair of Brainwavz B400 quad-balanced armature in-ears, which we’re familiar with and have enjoyed using with a variety of music players and phones. We listened to a few different tracks, before settling on two to repeat.

Commanding power, rampant detail, and superb musical control.

First up was Blackpink’s Playing with Fire, where the strong vocals are perfectly centered right from the start, the central riff doesn’t lose its passionate harshness, and the baseline thumps throughout. From the crackle at the start of the track, and the spot-on echo in the vocals, we loved the detailed sound, and pushing the volume up didn’t change it either. You’ll lose your hearing long before the player starts to distort or run out of power. Why did we repeat the track? Because we wanted to hear the SP1000M play it again and again.

The Eagles’ Hotel California came next, and the 24-bit, 192Khz FLAC version from the studio album was already loaded on the device. It begins with some beautiful stereo separation that suddenly blends into a wonderful, cohesive sound right before the bass thump signifies the true start of the song. I was taking notes at this point, but from then until about four minutes into the song, I wrote nothing. I just lost myself in the music. The room fell away, and all that was left was Hotel California. That’s the mark of a great player. Overall, our time with the SP1000M revealed commanding power, rampant detail, and superb musical control.

The software felt smooth and moderately fast. There is still work to be done here though, with annoying pauses while the software finishes its animations, plus the new virtual back button — added for use with streaming services — does feel tacked on, despite being helpful. The SP1000M has what Astell & Kern calls an open app service, which means you can side-load Android music streaming apps using the APK file. It currently supports Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, and SoundCloud. Not all streaming services will work, as some require data from Google Play, which does not come installed on the player. It’s still great news though, increasing the versatility of the player.

Any other changes or downsides? The smaller body means a smaller battery, which is expected to last 10 hours on a charge rather than the 12 hours from the SP1000. There’s also 128GB of internal storage space, rather than 256GB, purely because Astell & Kern could not fit the larger amount onto the circuit board. The player still has a MicroSD card slot to increase this figure.

astell & kern sp1000m music player interface
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

We’ve established that the SP1000M is smaller and lighter than the SP1000, and while we weren’t able to put it up against the original SP1000 for a A/B comparison, there’s no doubt it sounds superb; but what about the price? It costs $2,400, or 2,000 British pounds, while the SP1000 costs $3,500. The new price is still high, but who doesn’t want to save $1,100 and get something better in the bargain?

Why would anyone buy the SP1000? It’s simple, they shouldn’t. Buy the SP1000M instead. Astell & Kern told Digital Trends an SP1000 replacement will likely come in May next year, and presumably it will be an improvement over the SP1000M; but for now this does everything the wonderful SP1000 does, for less. What more could you want?

The Astell & Kern SP1000M goes on sale at the end of September.

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