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Today, I share my impressions on the Astell&Kern Ultima SP2000T and discuss any incremental changes in firmware or performance from the initial first look video we did on the SP2000T.
This article will focus on the quality of sound paired with several different headphones and some comparisons vs. the Chord Hugo 2/2go combo, my reference portable headphone amplifier, and DAC.
One of my favorite features that were added since the last time I had the SP2000T in the house was the ability for the player to be Roon Ready via the settings menu. As an avid Roon user, listening to the digital audio player via Roon was my preferred listening method.
In practice, since the unit becomes a certified Roon endpoint once you add the device to Roon via the audio settings of Roon, you will still need your phone, tablet, or computer to control the playback, surf for music, and playlists.
Playback takes place almost instantly from the moment I press play on my iPad or iPhone. The track quality info is displayed under the album cover and the song’s name. Additional artist, album, and track info will still need to be viewed via your phone, tablet, or computer.
MQA support was also added for all of us, Tidal users. I used Tidal and Qobuz through Roon to formulate most of my sound impressions and a few FLAC files pre-loaded on this review unit for this article. If you are not a Roon, Tidal, or Qobuz user, you also have several other streaming options such as AmazonMusicHD, Apple Music, Spotify, and Deezer, to name a few.
I don’t watch videos on a DAP, but if that is your thing, the SP2000T has V-Link. When starting V-link, a built-in warning pops up before being allowed to play video that says, “The device supports video playback up to 720p. When playing the video above 1080p, it may cause damage to the unit not covered by warranty.”
I asked A&K about the warning message, and they let me know, and I quote, “Some of the older players with V-Link support have 720p screens and quad-core CPUs, so viewing YouTube videos in 1080p and above resolutions are not optimized for those devices. They said there have not been any issues with players that have V-Link installed, more of a suggestion to not play above 720p for best performance.
The newer players, such as the SP2000T with Full HD screens and octa-core players, would play those higher res videos without issue. However, for optimal playback and battery life, A&K still recommends not playing greater than 720p video.” I would air on the side of caution and stream in the recommended 720p if you want to watch video content on your DAP.
As far as navigation goes, I found the user interface very easy to use, locating songs internally stored on the unit by the song title, album name, artist, genre, favorites, or playlists. There is a built-in EQ profile called Normal for you EQ lovers out there, or you can add your user EQ profiles. I am not a big EQ user and generally prefer system matching to achieve my desired sound quality. However, I know many EQ lovers that will likely enjoy this feature.
For my sound impressions of the SP2000T, I used several headphones looking for synergistic pairings and good power and current output for each of the headphones. I will also mention briefly how each headphone paired audibly with the SP2000T vs. the Hugo2/2go combo for comparison’s sake and reference.
Starting first with the Meze Elite, this combo is terrific. In all three amplifier modes with the SP2000T, I had hours of listening enjoyment with this combination. My preferred amp modes were the Hybrid and Tube modes, but that was the case for almost all the headphones.
The tube mode was great with the Elite for a warmer, smoother, and slightly euphonic sound. The Hybrid mode was spectacular with the Elite for a more accurate and defined sound. Since the Elite is 32ohms and 101db per 1 m/W, the SP2000T had no issue driving them.
Compared to the Hugo2/2go listening to EricClapton’s album, The Lady in the Balcony Lockdown Sessions Live, I found the sound of the SP2000T to sound a bit less defined, especially when in tube mode. The soundstage of the A&K sounds a bit wider than the Hugo2/2go. However, I found the sound stage accuracy, three Dimensionality, and depth to be a touch better when listening to the Hugo2/2go. Utilizing the hybrid or OP amp mode brings the resolving power of the SP2000T closer to that of the Hugo2/2go combo.
The Chord provides more detail and information from well-recorded music, while the A&K provides beautiful decay and vapor trail that only tubes can provide when using the tube mode. I enjoyed both pairings with the Meze Elite, and I can see Elite owners having two excellent options to consider.
Listening next to the LCD-5- I chose to listen to The Weekend’s Dawn FM, a very dynamic album. I tried the SP2000T in all three modes and found the best match for my preferences sonically with the LCD-5 was the OP amp mode and Hybrid Mode. I think the SP2000T combo with the LCD-5 is very good and highly enjoyable; however, I preferred the Hugo2/2go combo a little more with this album and headphone pairing.
The Chord sounded fuller, and more dynamic, and seemed to display better control over the Audeze LCD-5 drivers. I suspect Planar Magnetic headphones that require more current to perform at their best are where the Hugo2/2go may have an advantage.
If I were not comparing the sound signatures of the SP2000T and the Hugo2/2go, I would be pleased with the SP2000T LCD-5 pairing or the Hugo2/2go pairing. Both are extremely enjoyable, with the LCD-5 allowing me to get lost in the music.
Listening next to the HEDDphone from HEDD audio, one of the tougher-to-drive headphones in the group of headphones I heard with the SP2000T. I chose Hans Zimmer’s Live in Prague album this time around. I did need to ramp up the volume to get to optimal listening levels with the HEDD. However, I still had some headroom and wasn’t close to the max volume level via the balanced output.
Like with the LCD-5, I preferred the OP amp mode or Hybrid mode as each of these two modes presented a bit tighter, more dynamic overall sound presentation. The tube mode was delightful to listen to, giving up a more technical presentation for a more euphonic warmer sound quality.
Compared to the Hugo2/2go, the SP2000T presented more bass energy throughout this album, whereas the Chord Hugo2/2go had a tighter, more defined lower end. The Chord combo sounds slightly more dynamic and defined. Again, the overall resolution is close, with the Hugo 2/2go seemingly resolving a bit more detail and information across the album.
The performance is close between the two, and honestly, both SP2000T and Hugo2/2go sound very enjoyable with the HEDD. The HEDD is 42 ohms and 87db per 1 m/W making them a little tougher to drive, and for harder-to-drive headphones with higher current demand, the Hugo2/2go does have the advantage in quality of sound to my ears.
Moving into the Dynamic headphones, starting first with the Focal Stellia, I found the pairing of the SP2000T and Stellia to sound spectacular. I chose to listen to Melody Gardot’s Live in Europe album for my sound impressions. I preferred the Hybrid and Tube modes the most for this pairing, giving a bit more natural sound synergy and three Dimensionality to the highly resolving, more intimate-sounding Focal Stellia.
The Stellia is easy to drive at 35ohms and 106db per 1 m/W, making it a breeze for the SP2000T to pair up with them sonically very well. When using the tube mode with the Stellia, I loved the decay of Melody’s vocals compared to the other two modes, and if I had to choose one mode for the Stellia, it would be a tough choice to make between the Hybrid and tube mode.
This is one of the most significant advantages of the SP2000T; The differences in sound can be subtle on some tracks but having the option to have three different sound signatures, and several sub-options of each is very rewarding for a listener who wants to tweak to get their favorite quality of sound without using EQ. For those of you who love EQ, you have that option, in addition, to the different amplification modes without having to leave the user interface of the SP2000T.
Compared to the Chord Hugo 2/2go combo, while I give the edge in technicalities to the Hugo2/2go combo, the addition of the tube or hybrid mode on the SP2000T gives an overall quality of sound that I enjoy more with the Focal Stellia.
The euphonic sound of the tube mode works so well with Melody’s vocals seeming to allow them to hang in the air just a bit longer than the Chord, really pushing me back towards the A&K pairing for the more pleasant timbre and better musicality. Of course, each listener will have their sound preferences. The Stellia and SP2000T pairing is one of my favorites.
Listening next to another headphone from Focal, the Clear MG. For these headphones, I chose to listen to one of TSAV Jason’s favorites, Snarky Puppy; the We Like It Here album. With the Clear MG being 55ohms and 104db per 1 m/W, the SP2000T had no trouble driving them appropriately.
As far as my preferred amplifier modes with the Clear MG, I preferred the OP amp and Hybrid modes the most with this album. While the tube mode still sounded enjoyable, the other two modes better served this album’s speed, dynamics, and resolution.
The Clear MG has a bit of a bass bump over neutral to my ears, and the tube mode tended to exaggerate it some. Some listeners may prefer that, but the Hybrid mode with the Clear MG hit the sweet spot for my preferences.
Comparing the SP2000T to the Hugo2/2go was fun as both devices were a very good match for the Focal Clear MG. I find the Clear MG tends to display the sonic characteristics of the DAC and AMP that they are matched up with very well.
The Hugo2/2go showed off more of the dynamic slam capability of the Clear MG while also fleshing out more detail and soundstage depth than the SP2000T. However, the SP2000T allows for a slightly more colorful listening experience with more flavor with the Hybrid and Tube modes engaged. Again, both the A&K and Chord are a pleasure to listen to with the Clear MG, and it will come down to a listener’s sound preferences.
Shifting next to the higher impedance headphones, starting with the Sennheiser HD800s. For this headphone, I chose one of my favorite live albums from Nils Frahm, “Tripping with Nils Frahm.” With the HD800S being 300 ohms and around 101 dB per 1 m/W, I did find I needed to turn up the volume a bit to get to an optimal listening level. However, I still had plenty of headroom, and the SP2000T drove the HD800s without issue.
As far as what amplifier mode I preferred with the HD800s, this was most definitely the tube mode, and at times the hybrid mode. The tube mode helps some with the anemic bass of the HD800s, as well as smooths out the top end a bit, making them a much more enjoyable, less analytical listen. This didn’t surprise me, as I have always found the HD800s sounds best with a warmer-sounding tube amplifier instead of a solid-state or hybrid amplifier.
When comparing the Hugo 2/2go to the SP2000T, this was a more straightforward choice for me which I preferred. While I enjoy the way the Hugo2 shows off the HD800s’ impressive soundstage capability, the overall timbre and balance of the sound signature sounds more enjoyable with the SP2000T on the Hybrid or Tube mode than the more detailed and defined sound of the Hugo2/2go. This is an excellent example of why system matching to achieve synergy is so important.
Lastly, I listened to the ZMF Verité Open LTD Edition with the SP2000T and chose Pink Floyd’s The Later years album for my sound comparisons. The Verité Open is legendary for how marvelous they sound with tube amplification, and the tube mode of the SP2000T didn’t disappoint, creating a euphonic three-dimensional quality of sound! I also enjoyed the hybrid mode with the ZMFs.
Comparing the SP2000T to the Hugo2/2go with the Verité Open, I found the SP2000T to sound better overall to my ears thanks to the tube mode. Much like the HD800s, the Verité Open is at home with the euphony and harmonics from tube amplifiers vs. solid-state. The Hugo2/2go was still enjoyable to listen to, but I would lean towards the A&K for this pairing. The ZMF Verite Open with the SP2000T was one of my favorite combos I listened to.
The SP2000T is a phenomenal-sounding, genuinely portable device. It has one of the most fantastic tricks up its sleeve that other portable devices don’t have, actual tube amplification. I feel its sound signature matches exceptionally well with all the headphones I tested it with, with the Meze Elite, Focal Stellia, ZMF Verité Open, and Sennheiser HD800s being my favorite overall pairings.
I hope you enjoyed this article about my experiences with the Astell&Kern Ultima SP2000T, and the information I shared helps you determine if it might be a good fit for you.
If you are in the greater Los Angeles region or just looking to make a trip to hear the SP2000T or other DAPs, headphones, and headphone amplifiers, The Source Audio Video Design Group's showroom, and headphone bar have one of the largest selections of audio enthusiast gear to listen to in the country.
Until next time friends, always remember, let the music be your guide!