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Impressions:  My Brutus Awards for 2019, Part the Third

01-15-2020 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 107

The Mytek Digital Manhattan DAC II, with Network and Phono Section options…megatons of I/O options (image courtesy of Mytek Digital)

Mytek takes another of my 2019 Brutus Awards for the sonic advancements in their flagship Manhattan DAC II.

As I've said in Part the Second of these awards, I have been following Mytek since the days of their original Stereo192 DSD DAC, which was quite a breakthrough in price-performance. It excelled in dynamics particularly, being muscular and ballsy in its presentation of DSD. Since then, Mytek has made notable progress in fleshing out the audio virtues of their designs, with Michal Jurewicz showing his customary masterly audio chops in each step forward.

Color options for the Mytek Digital Manhattan DAC II…we have the Silver Frost Matte in residence here (image courtesy of Mytek Digital).

The current top of the line for Mytek is their impressive and uniquely-styled Manhattan DAC II. Its specifications, which will be found at the link just cited, are impressive enough in themselves…the next gen ESS 9038 processor, providing up to Quad DSD and 384kHz/32 bit PCM, the precision in its clock, the quality of its power supplies, the excellent set of I/O, MQA, and so on…

The Network Option Board for the Manhattan DAC II (image courtesy of Mytek Digital)

We brought in the Manhattan DAC II in Silver Frost Matte. It was equipped with both the Network and Phono options.

My listening concentrated on the performance of the Manhattan DAC II on the DSD side of the ledger:  Single, Double, and Quad DSD. After allowing for 100+ hours of break-in, my listening in our PF reference office system made it clear to me that Mytek had taken its game to the next level sonically. Whereas before, with the earlier generation Manhattan DAC, dynamics and punch continued to rule the roost, this DAC II version has produced a much more well-rounded presentation of the music.

Damn. I was impressed with the noticeably enhanced balanced musicality of the Manhattan DAC II…very impressed. I think that Michal and company have really hit the bullseye with this revision. Professional I/O and excellence in functionality is now married to a fine rendering of the recordings played through it.

One thing that I should mention. Mytek lists the Manhattan DAC II as “Roon certified.” This is not the same as “Roon ready.” The DAC II is not a Roon end-point…at least, at this point…and so you'll have to install Roon software on your computer to complete the ability to run Roon on the DAC II. You'll want to keep this in mind as you consider the Manhattan DAC II.

Otherwise, and overall, this is a commendable DAC, with a broad array of options and capabilities. Recommended for those looking for more than just the basics in a DAC. Its price of $5,995 (base) is significant, but so are its strengths.

A 2019 Brutus Award to Michal and company.

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000

The magnificent Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000 reference portable player, and its color options. (Image courtesy of Astell & Kern)

Astell & Kern is another company that I've been following for years here at PF. Ever since I encountered their early designs for portable players, I have been taken by the excellence of their work.

This led to me to evaluate their AK240 back in 2014, when it won a Brutus Award. I followed up the next year with the AK380, which took a Brutus Award that year. Last year, the A&K A&ultima SP1000 also won one of my Brutus Awards. Each one of these represented Astell & Kern's reference portable players at the time.

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000 in Copper, the model that we received (image courtesy of Astell & Kern)

Late this year, Jason Henriques was able to send along one of the first review sample of their new reference player, the A&ultima SP2000. You'll find the A&ultima SP2000 specifications HERE. Really strong stuff…absolute reference quality. Up to DSD512, MQA, Tidal and Qobuz streaming support, Dual Band Wi-Fi (2.4/5GHz) Wireless LAN, USB 3.0 for faster file transfers, Bluetooth…what's not to like?

The audio processing is via a Dual DAC configuration of the ADM AK4499EQ. It's capable of Native playback of 32-bit/768kHz PCM and DSD512 “without compression or loss.” And yes, I've confirmed that DSD512 plays flawlessly, using albums kindly provided by NativeDSD.com. (Talk about amazing sonics with 8x DSD!) The music capacity has been increased, as well, with 512GB of internal storage, and a micro-SD slot that allows for up to an additional 1TB (!) of space. Ongawa! Up to 1.5TB of music, with the external micro-SD allowing for the easy swapping-in on an unlimited basis. Tasty!

I have spent significant amounts of time listening to the A&K SP2000. I used both unbalanced (3.5mm) and balanced (2.5mm) outputs. The balanced output clearly is the more powerful, and provided a presentation that I preferred, although the unbalanced output is no slouch at all.

Among the headphones that I've used with the SP2000 are the JH Audio Pro 16 custom in-ear monitors (unbalanced mode, 3.5mm), the Grado Labs LAOC Audio Society 25th Anniversary California wood headphones (balanced mode, via 4-pin single adapter to 2.5mm), and the Blue Microphone powered headphones (unbalanced 3.5mm). In each case, the A&ultima SP2000 shone wonderfully. Incredible dynamics, regardless of headphone type; improved transparency; brow-furrowing detail; and a harmonic integration that significantly bested even our current reference SP1000. (Ouch!)

Cantate Domino in DSD512, from Naxos/2xHD via NativeDSD.com…unbelievably fine on the A&K A&ultima SP2000!

I was able to test the Native mode DSD playback with a handful of the hundreds of DSD albums that we have here. DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, and (even) DSD512 played flawlessly, with no glitches. It was nothing less than delightful to listen for hours to the SP2000. The very intelligently designed thumb wheel, combined with the larger touch screen, made for easy control of all functions, once you learned the moves.

Speaking of listening for hours, the battery life of the SP2000 was improved, as well. While taking it along on flights, I found that I could rely on three or so hours of playback, even with Quad DSD. On longer flights, just hook up the USB 3.0 connection to an in-flight power supply, and go on and on….

The streaming of TIDAL Masters and Qobuz Studio files flowed without a problem, once I had connected to our PF Wireless Network. I was able to switch back and forth between them without a problem. MQA worked as it should on the TIDAL side of things…no problems.

In sum, the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000 now resides as the king of portable players in my book…absolutely the best of the best that I've heard. If you can swing the $3,499 price, you'll find the results justify the purchase many times over.

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000 therefore receives my very highest recommendation, and with the greatest enthusiasm!

All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson (excluding cover art), unless otherwise noted.