When Astell&Kern first announced the A&futura SE100, what caught my eye was the use of ES9038PRO SABRE DAC from ESS, possibly the first on a DAP. Having listened to a number of desktop products that are designed around the ES9038Pro, I am a fan.
The ES9038PRO SABRE DAC is the flagship of the PRO series by ESS is a 32-bit DAC chip featuring ESS’s patented 32-bit HyperStream DAC technology. Its programmable functions allow customizing outputs to mono, stereo, and 8-channel output in current-mode or voltage-mode based on performance criteria. Coupled with user-programmable filters and programmable THD compensation to minimise THD caused by external components, the ES9038Pro registers a new benchmark with the highest dynamic range (DNR) of 140dB and offers impressively low total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N) at -122dB in a 32-bit, 8-channel DAC.
Astell&Kern’s implementation of the ES9038PRO is that of a stereo configuration where the DAC will output to the respective left and right analog amplifier circuits. While this is a single DAC design, it is interesting to observe that the resources meant to handle 4-channel are now utilised on a single channel.
The A&futura SE100 has a signal to noise ratio of 122dB @ 1kHz on the single-ended output and 123dB @ 1kHz on the balanced output with an output power of 2.0Vrms and 4.1Vrms respectively.
In general, the A&futura SE100 has a neutral sounding signature with a minor but noticeable prominence of warmth, it is very clean sounding, much attributed to Analog Amplifier Block designed by the Astell&Kern engineering team. The DAP is a breath of fresh air and a positive one for the Astell&Kern line-up.
For those who are familiar with Astell&Kern DAPs would recognise that the smoothness of playback is a strength of the brand when compared with other offerings in the market. The inclusion of a voltage-controlled crystal oscillator (VCXO), a high-precision femto clock, coupled with tuning by the team at Astell&Kern has ensured the DAP faithfully reproduces analogue sound closer to the original source. By precisely measuring and accurately timing the synchronisation across the frequencies, there is a balance of detail, vibrancy, and clarity on the A&futura SE100. This has allowed me to enjoy the DAP over hours without fatigue, just pure music.
The A&futura SE100 portrays probably the widest soundstage I have experienced on an Astell&Kern DAP, it’s bigger and spacious presentation allowed the musical elements greater scope to evolve without bumping into each other.
Playing Shostakovich’s Andantino from String Quartet No. 4, op 83 (24bit / 96kHz / FLAC) rearranged for violin and piano by Dmitri Tsyganov, the melody of the Andantino begins softly as intended with great texture and nuance clinging onto the violin strings and piano keys, gradually builds up to a high, wailing climax before ending with a morendo marking. Notes are crisp with distinction, never decay prematurely – even when forthcoming notes tumble over the top. An extremely enjoyable piece on the A&futura SE100.
I next play Fleetwood Mac’s Second Hand News (24bit / 176.4kHz / FLAC), the upbeat track is a combination of acoustic, bass and electric guitar with Mick Fleetwood’s drumming into an exuberant and hyper-rhythmic mix, coupled with a wordless solo to highlight the guitar solo. One of my favourite songs from Fleetwood Mac. The track showcases the DAP’s excellence in timing, which is critical in the showcase of the rhythmic nature of Lindsey Buckingham’s work.