Clarifier: I was sent this unit as a test sample, in the past David of HLLY has also sent me other pieces.
Short and Sweet: This unit can be found for as little as $199 including S&H in eBay. At this price it is IMO a great bargain for a DAC/Amp Combo. If you wish to read no further so be it, otherwise go on.
Note 1: The specs I found on this unit indicates it can decode up to 24/96. For most of the listening I used the USB out of an iMac 3.06, I did play with the MIDI settings and fed the unit files that were coded as 24/96 but were sent as 24/44.1 (could not figure out how to use the MIDI software to send them up to 24/96) and the HLLY SMK-II played them beautifully.
Note 2: I also fed the SMK-II via coaxial. The files were 24/96 which were played without a hick-up.
The unit was first burnt-in for about 210 hours, this was an arbitrary number I chose up front. During most of the burn-in I did not listen to the unit except for brief periods while I connected various cans to load the SMK-II with various impedances. I was informed by David of HLLY that the unit sounds best with higher impedance cans so I expected it to sound best with Senn HD580 and AKG K501 which are the higher impedance dynamic cans I currently have. Which by the way they did sound very good with the presentation via the Senn HD580 being very smooth. I would venture to say that those who suffer from “high frequency overload” would find this unit very much to their liking.
The AKG K501 are the hardest dynamic cans I own. I listen at very low levels (average of 65 dB to 68 dB) and the volume pot was no higher than 9:30 o’clock. As a wild test I took out a 1/4” to a 4-Pin balance adapter and I tried an AKG K1000 ear speakers. Yes, not the intended use but ... anyway the volume pot did not go past 12 o’clock. This was to me quite surprising in a very positive way. For the record zero volume is at 7 o’clock.
What I did not expect was for the Grado RS-1 or the SR-80 to sound as good as they did. Perhaps it is time to interject that although the unit sounds very musical and I could listen to it for hours without any fatigue it does not posses great top end extension. This while it may translate to some as not having sufficient detail (not the case) it could also translate to others as not being harsh. Overall I rather have and engaging presentation with no harshness than being fatigued after a few minutes of listening. Or to put differently I found the sound very smooth and musical with the Grado cans.
Since what may be good for one person may not be so good for the next I chose this time to present the same observation from both perspectives. Thus you will see the Pros and Cons sections below.
- No optical input: For those who do not need/use an optical input the lack will not be missed plus it is less “stuff” inside the unit thus reducing the cost, complexity, and size. For those using files beyond 24/96 should not be an issue since that is an optical limitation.
- Smaller footprint and less weight.
- Higher level of fit and finish.
- Sockets for rolling op-amps.
- Linear regulated power supply: This should provide an overall better sound presentation over switching wall-warts.
- RCA inputs for an analog source and also for fixed DAC out: Would allow you to hook up an iPod or similar with a line out dock as well as feed an external amp/receiver.
- Mechanical switches for on/off and source selection: I really prefer this method to the unit automatically selecting the source, a matter of personal preference. The switches engage positively and after a few cycles with an smooth positive feel. No indicator light to indicate 44.1 or 96 which reduces cost, size, and potential electrical noise.
- All the switches, 1/4” plug, and volume control are very easy to access and use.
- The packing has improved.
- No optical input: This will be missed by those who want to electrically de-couple their computers from the DAC.
- Smaller footprint, however the rubber feet do not provide sufficient “grab” to prevent the unit from sliding. Also if you have very heavy or inflexible cables they may “pull/tug” the SMK-II DAC unit.
- Higher level of fit and finish, however the volume pot action is still a bit “rough”. I did not hear any channel imbalance with the Grado RS-1 or SR-80 the lowest cans I tried.
- Sockets for rolling op-amps: However the case is not horizontally split like in previous versions which means both the front and back must be un-screwed and the entire unit pulled out in order to roll op-amps.
- Linear regulated power supply: However the unit will run slightly warm and use a bit more electricity.
- RCA inputs for an analog source and also for fixed DAC out: If you have extremely large RCA connectors they may not work here.
- Mechanical switches for on/off and source selection: Some may prefer the automatic method used in other HLLY units. It took a few cycles before the switches operated smoothly. Some may really wish the unit had a pilot light indicating 44.1 or 96.
- Although the 1/4” plug was able to accept up to the Furutech FP-704 plug I wish the relief was a bit larger.
- Although the packing has improved I believe the volume pot would benefit from additional protection specially since the unit is traveling all the way from China.
I considered rolling op-amps like the AD843, OPA2604, and NE5532 which according to David can be used in the SMK-II. However I chose not to since in most cases most users do not roll them.
In closing I would like to thank David for the opportunity to listen to the SMK-II. It is IMO a very desirable unit and one which at $199 will make ears and wallets of many users very happy. Thanks for taking the time to read these impressions!
I borrowed the following pictures from a HLLY advertisement in eBay.
Edited by mrarroyo - 4/30/11 at 5:33pm