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Astell & Kern A&futura SE300

Personal audio players have had a strange couple of years. From the out-and-out dominance of the iPod era, they flirted with extinction in the face of smartphones before settling into a niche that has come into being, in part, because the headphone socket has ceased to be standard fitment on most smartphones. Astell & Kern has been a key player in this niche for many years, but it has aspirations to be rather more than a portable audio company. And while it might not look like it at first, the SE300 is a fine example of where the manufacturer is going.

This doesn’t mean that the A&futura SE300 isn’t a very good portable player, though… far from it. Its 256GB of internal storage is joined by a microSD card slot that supports cards of up to 1TB storage – more than sufficient to cover you getting to work and back even if your commute is intercontinental. Sample rates of up to 384kHz PCM and DSD256 are supported, and the device uses the latest version of the company’s ‘Crimson’ operating system for control. As well as allowing you to browse and access music, this also gives access to the huge selection of settings that include choosing between high and low gain output and running the output as a pure Class A design. 

Internally, the first significant change for the SE300 is the decoding. Up until now, most Astell & Kern players have used ESS or AKM DACs (and sometimes have allowed you to switch between them, or even have both in the same player). The SE300 uses a ladder DAC, where an individual resistor is associated with each bit of the digital sample. In this case, it means that 96 selected precision resistors are used - it’s a complex and interesting bit of hardware. It’s also fully balanced, which means that the SE300 has both 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced outputs in addition to the 3.5mm single-ended connection. This gives you a free choice in headphones - but combined with another aspect of the design, it adds something extra. 

As well as its own operating system, the SE300 is also equipped to run as a Roon endpoint. Parked on a wireless network, it becomes a compact, fully functional digital front end that can compete against full-size streamers. This leads to the intriguing possibility of the SE300 improving your existence both when out and about and also being a key part of your audio system when you get back home. 

Sound quality

It is important to stress that no matter how many roles Astell & Kern might envisage the SE300 performing, it is first and foremost a superlative portable audio player. Tested with both Sennheiser IE600 in-ear earphones and Focal Clear MG headphones, the Astell & Kern is capable of delivering a sensational level of performance. The all-new ladder DAC doesn’t do anything that leaps out and has you going ‘yep, that’s a ladder DAC alright!’ - but you soon become aware that this is an outstandingly natural performer. It combines exceptionally even frequency response with a very natural sense of tonal realism. Nothing sounds overblown or embellished, but everything is present in the mix and vying for your attention. And everything is underpinned by sensational bass - it never dominates proceedings, but offers immense depth combined with impressive articulation. 

This is also the most forgiving piece of Astell & Kern digital equipment I can remember testing. In the past, less than brilliantly recorded material often found itself being shown up by the sheer resolving power on offer. Here, the SE300 is able to make great recordings sound spellbinding, but when there is less outright quality on offer it manages to take what is good and avoids over-emphasising where the limitations are. As a device for exploring your entire music collection without fear or favour, it takes some beating. 

And then, when you come back home and connect the SE300 to an amplifier, it genuinely has the means to keep full-size streaming rivals honest. Connected via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable, the Astell & Kern delivers a performance that has you forgetting the size of the device producing it and revelling in the performance that results. With the SE300 set to low gain and a Class A output, there is an effortlessness to how it makes music that you only really appreciate when you switch to something less casually capable. Being hypercritical, there are devices that generate a greater sense of three-dimensional space, but the SE300 never feels constrained even when playing large-scale material - and it never struggles, even with complex and congested passages of music.

Living with

The SE300 is not the first Astell & Kern player to combine its own operating system with Roon, but it is by far the most convincing. The ‘Crimson’ O/S has been around for a few years, but here it feels better than I’ve seen before. It moves with a slickness and reliability that inspires confidence in its long-term stability. It supports various on-demand streaming services via downloadable plugins, and these now work properly - which is a big step forward over older iterations. 

You might question why a device that has had this much care and attention lavished on its decoding and output has Bluetooth. In the real world though, it’s a genuinely useful thing. If you are commuting in a busy space, having the means to listen wirelessly (and in very high quality) feeds into the narrative that Astell & Kern has built the SE300 to be used in the ‘real world’ rather than how the company feels you ‘should’ use it. 

As a portable player, there is one limitation: battery life. Astell & Kern’s quote of 12 hours with 16bit/44.1kHz FLAC, volume at ‘50’, LCD off and ‘normal’ gain is meaningless - because pretty much any connected headphone or earphone will be far too quiet at that setting. When being used as a line-level source, I suspect six or seven hours is about your maximum. Why does this matter? Because charging the player at the same time as using it via 4.4mm-to-XLR cable introduces audible noise into the audio signal. 

It is also fair to point out that the home streaming attributes of the SE300 are rather dependent on your having a Roon subscription. I’m a huge fan of Roon, a borderline evangelist even - but I won’t pretend that it’s not an extra layer of cost that some rivals simply don’t have. Thanks to the arrival of Roon ARC, though, the SE300 can technically run as a Roon device all the time (as long as a hotspot signal is present), accessing a library that can potentially be far larger than 1.25 terabytes – and that changes the value calculation somewhat. 

As is usual for Astell & Kern, the SE300 is superbly made. If you handle the SE300 for any length of time, you become aware of just how well-engineered it is and, once again, it manages to be special as a piece of portable equipment and every bit as robust as any full-size rival.  


The SE300 is less a ‘portable audio player’ and more a ‘go anywhere digital front end’ - and while not everyone will need such a thing, it does broaden its appeal considerably. This is a brilliantly executed idea that breathes new life into the whole portable audio player concept.

Listening notes

Get the Blessing OCDC

A superb collection of shuffling, lo-fi jazz funk, which the SE300 recreates with exceptional tonality and a genuine sense of the energy and joy that underpins the band’s work. 

John Grant Pale Green Ghosts 

Getting to the heart of this Icelandic electronica-infused effort means doing justice to John Grant’s fantastic vocals - and the SE300 is well and truly up to the job of making him sound exceptional. 

Primal Scream XTRMNTR

Not too long ago, this rough-and-ready recording would have been an unhappy fit for an Astell & Kern. But the SE300 keeps the harshness in check while delivering on the sheer sonic fury it possesses in spades.  

What the press say

Why you should buy it

If you spend the day out of the house and want something that is every bit as good on the train as it is in your lounge when you come home, the SE300 is a brilliantly executed way of having a digital source that works wherever you happen to be.

Video review

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