S.M.S.L SP200 THX 888 Amp

General Information


  • sp200 a.jpg sp200 back.jpg sp200 c.jpg
  • Amplifier Description: Dual-Mono Amplifier
  • Supply Voltage: +/-18V
  • Output Power 16 Ω/ch: 6000 mW
  • Output Power 32 Ω/ch: 3900 mW
  • Output Power 300 Ω/ch: 465 mW
  • THD (16 Ω, -3 dB 1KHz): -140 dB
  • THD (32 Ω, -3 dB 1KHz): -147 dB
  • THD (300 Ω, -3 dB 1KHz): -150 dB
  • Output Noise Voltage (A-wt): 1.6 uVms
  • SNR (A-wt): 137 dB
  • Stereo Quiescent Power Consumption +/-VDC: 2770 mW
  • Apos is the exclusive provider in the US.

Latest reviews

Pros: Clear sound, great headphone drive, small size, dual input and output.
Cons: Lowest gain setting too high for IEMs.

SMSL sent me the SP200 to review. After the Drop THX AAA 789 I was curious to check it out.

THX AAA-based amps have a reputation for their excellent measurements and fantastic clarity, so with SMSL releasing a cheaper competitor to the Drop THX AAA 789, and Schiit having just updated their Asgard 3, it made for an interesting review experience.

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The amp is quite small, significantly more so than either the Drop or Schiit amps, though larger than a Magni. Like the Asgard, it has a direct power in rather than using a wall-wart as the Drop amp does. However, feature wise it doesn’t have the auto-off, or lowest gain level, nor does it have a 3.5mm jack, meaning that IEM users will need an adaptor for the 6.5mm socket.

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Like other THX amps, it has balanced and single-ended inputs (XLR and RCA respectively), but as the amp circuit itself is only single-ended internally, the balanced input will be converted to single-ended before amplification. That makes the RCA inputs the most ideal. For headphones, however, it has 4-pin XLR and 6.3mm sockets, though the former isn’t a balanced output.

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Like other THX amps, it uses active negative feedback to reduce distortion, resulting in great measurements. However, this does not relate directly to the performance, as measurements are only taken using sweeps and tones, not actual music. It does have a lot of power, as the THX 888 circuit has 6 Watts of power output (at 16 Ohms) and 3W of power at 32 Ohms, more than enough to drive even very insensitive headphones like some HiFiMan models.

It is also very quiet with IEMs, only the very sensitive Andromedas bringing out hiss. However of the two gain settings available, the lower one doesn’t give much volume control range for IEMs, making it less than ideal, especially as the cheap volume pots used in these amps often have channel mismatch at the very start of their travel.

SMSL SP200-12.jpg

I tested the SP200 from a Schiit Bifrost 2 and Yggdrasil, as well as a Hugo 2 primarily. Headphone-wise I had a Drop Sennheiser HD6XX, HiFiMan Sundara and a variety of high-end headphones on hand such as the Focal Utopias and Meze Empyreans. As it is an inexpensive amp, I tended to focus on the experience with equally inexpensive headphones, with the high-end models used only to confirm performance differences.

I listened to a huge variety of music. While in the past I might focus on particular types of music, especially for headphones and IEMs, when it comes to electronics, I tend to focus on the overall results, using a particular track or two that most demonstrate the differences I heard.

First impressions of the SP200 were of the typical THX “sound” — clean, clear and lacking in any (obvious) colouration. I didn’t have any issue driving any headphones at all, with enough voltage swing for the HD6XX and enough power that I could even run Susvaras out of them. IEMs, as previously stated, didn’t have enough volume control range for it to be an ideal amp for them, even out of the 6.3mm socket. However, the SP200 never sounded strained driving headphones, and I found myself hearing clearly the way each DAC presents the music.

In general, while very clean and clear sounding, the SP200 did present something of a flatter soundstage that wasn’t as deep as other amps. This was most noticeable in comparisons with high-quality stereo recordings which was already quite familiar. Schiit Audio’s Asgard 3, for example, which I level-matched to within 0.1dB, didn’t have the same clean-and-clear sound, sounding warmer, but it did seem to present more depth to the music. As well, drum impacts seemed a bit flat from the SP200, where they has more body from the Asgard 3. The SP200 had the strength of sounding more clear on some tracks, especially in the treble, than the Asgard 3.

SMSL SP200-17.jpg

Level-matched as before, it was quite difficult to tell it apart from the Drop THX AAA 789. However, after some careful back-and forth listening, the Drop amp sounded deeper and also managed to bring out the subtle nuances of music better than the SP200. This was most noticeable with high-quality recordings. However, the Drop amp is a third more expensive, which is very significant in this price range. It should also be noted that I was using much more expensive high-end DACs, which really puts this review in perspective. With less expensive DACs, I’d be surprised if it were possible to notice the difference.

What the SP200 offers is both a technically and sonically great performance for the $289 that they are asking. For the average person buying to to use with a similarly priced DAC, or as a more powerful amp to use with a DAP, the SP200 offers a great degree of power and clarity that will appeal a great deal to people who consider measured performance important.
G
gadgetgod
Thanks for your review man, I am keeping an eye out for this AMP for quite some time. I had listened to the DROP THX AAA 789 AMP. But I am worried to get it as my country will impose heavy customs on it.
Between you mentioned the SMSL one is not that big, how heavy is it in comparison to the THX one?
L
LeMoviedave
You feel that the Bifrost 2 is enough to bring out the advantages of the 789 over the sp200?
Pros: -Clean Tonal Presentation
-Flat Response
-Vivid Transient Response and Micro Detail
-Precise Cohesive Imaging
-Even Envelope
Cons: Volume Pot Taper
Featuring the THX AAA 888 linear bipolar amplifier circuit, SMSL SP 200 is the newest product from SMSL line of Audiophile Headphone amplifiers. It's available stateside for $289 via Apos Audio who were kind enough to ship me a loaner unit to listen to and review. That said my thoughts are my own and I received no compensation for them.

Build Quality
SMSL SP200 is built well, aside from the odd slant I found no real problems with build quality. Power, gain and input are controlled by one of three switches. Each switch has a smooth firm action and is set perfectly centered.

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The reverse houses the power input alongside a pair of RCA and XLR inputs each. The overall construction feels solid with no gaps in the chassis or protrusions. The screws are flush and each input has a solid firm fit.

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My only real complaint with the unit is the taper of the volume knob. I only got volume adjustments from about 10% to 75% rotation with little to no changes above 75% or under 10%. Additionally I had no issues with unbalance while using headphones ranging from 13 Ohms at 92dB/mW, 33 Ohms at 100dB SP/mW and upwards to 300 Ohms at 102dB/1V RMS.

Sound Quality
While I did work through more than a few songs in my Library to confirm my findings, my primary track list was simple consisting of;

1. Eagles - Hotel California [Hell Freezes Over (Simpy Vinyl 180g 24Bit Rip)
2. Hwayoon Lee & Daniil Trifonov & Roman Patkoló & Anne-Sophie Mutter & Maximilian Hornung - Schubert: Piano Quintet In A Major, Op. 114, D 667-"The Trout"-4. Thema-Andantino-Variazioni I-V-Allegretto [Forellenquintett - Trout Quintet (Live)].

I found the overall characteristic of SMSL SP 200 to be simply powerful and transparent. I didn't feel it really added or detracted from the tonal presentation, nor lacked any detail and the staging was cohesive with above average precision.

An outside of my reference system I could hear some slight bass to low mid forwardness which lead to a kinda blur to the staging and overall precision of the perceived sound stage. Honestly I feel it might be a side effect of some 60hz hum off inbound from the Power supply, I used to have issues with that so I swapped my entire reference review system over to Pangea power cables and I run two Mid Range Furman Power-conditioners, each with both analog and digital noise filtering. This system also has a Schiit Etir running USB to COAX and even my USB is a dedicated PCI card with it's own PSU lead within my desktop. So while I get that not every one buys into the effects of power conditioning I've found benefits and within my reference system with what I feel is a set up that effectively removes the majority of " 60 hz Mains Humm" I don't hear or perceive forwardness in the bass and low mids.

That said, removing THAT literal noise really opened this unit up, as I found a lot of the issues I had with staging also dissipated once there was better clarity in the low end. As I was able to discern longer reverb trails and a more vivid sense of space. I certainly felt that the 60hz mains humm was masking and overlapping with those lower frequency reverb trails just a bit. An with that noise gone it was like a fenced in space had it's boundaries knocked down.

Headphone Specific Amp Comparisons
For comparison to other solid state amplifiers I used my HD 600 and compared SMSL SP 200 to the HiPower Output of my RME ADI 2, a JDS Labs Atom and a RNHP Precision Headamp.

An I used my Prefazor LCD 2 to see how SMSL SP 200 compared to my other high powered amp the Project Ember II which has all bypasses active with a Psvane CV181-TII [6SN7].

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RME ADI 2 HiPower Out
  • Clean Envelope and Tonality
  • Lacked some Dynamic Contrast
  • Lacked clarity during busy passages
  • Staging was a little disjointed sometimes but not "intimate"

JDS Labs Atom
  • Slightly Soft Envelope
    • Slight demphasis on attack or leading edge of sound
  • Clean Tonality
  • Good Dynamic Contrast
  • Slightly Smeared Clarity during busy passages
    • Better than RME ADI2 hiPower Ou
RHNP
  • Slightly Soft/Slow Envelope
    • Slight emphasis on sustain and release
      • Added a sense of heft and weight in the lows and mids without being "soft"
      • Presented a "sweeter" top end
    • Attack was still well defined
  • Slightly Thick/Wet Tonality
  • Slightly Intimate Staging
    • Good precision and cohesiveness but not as "open"
To my ears RHNP was as detailed as SP 200 despite not being as transparent. I'll admit I really enjoy RHNP with dynamics that have rolled off bass so HD 600 and K501 pair quite nicely. However there were some headphones where RHNP unique character is a poor match. HD 800 in particular sounded a bit dull and overly thick with RHNP in particular.

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This comparison was closer than I thought, in the end for my LCD 2 I still felt my Ember was the better amp but here's how the two units differed.

SMSL SP 200
  • Drier yet Smoother Tonality
  • Better Defined Macro-dynamics
  • Even Envelope
  • Slightly diffuse Micro-Dynamics
Mshenay's Project Ember II
  • Slight Upper Mid & Top End Emphasis
  • Richer Tonality
    • Proportionate sense of heft and weight
  • Better Defined Micro Dynamics
  • Sharper Envelope
    • Slight emphasis on the attack
    • Slight emphasis on the release or reverb trails
  • More precise cohesive imaging
  • Reserved Macro-dynamics
Despite Ember II's slight emphasis creating the perception of more detail I did feel the two units had the same level of total resolve and detail retrieval.

What was lacking with SMSL SP200 and my LCD 2 was a lack of weight and presence, things were often too quick and lacked heft with SMSL SP200. Ember II had a more grounded presentation which not only sounded more natural to my ears but also allowed for a greater perception of detail. Tonally drums often sounded a little thin and one dimensional and Cello's had too much emphasis on the rasp of the body & bow vs the weight and reverb of the instrument. Lifeless is sadly the best way to describe the synergy between Prefazor LCD 2 and SMSL SP200, my LCD 2 sounded much more ALIVE with Ember II.

But overall though what I appreciate about SMSL SP200 is it's consistency and uncompromising power. While subjectively didn't enjoy it as much with my Prefazor LCD 2 I also understand part of that subjective experience has to do with the unique presentation of the headphone it self. Part of why I enjoy Ember II so much is it's kinda odd presentation and ultimate synergy with my DAC an preferred headphones in MY system. Ember II is a tool I've learned how best to use and I don't always like recommending it as not every one will appreciate nor experiment with it sufficiently to get it to perform at it's best within their system. Granted there are no massive LIFE changing tweaks that make Ember II something it isn't in terms of resolve and presentation but the devil is in the details and the small details are what you can fine tune with Ember II. Heck I also have a second tube for my Ember II is quite dry and has a slightly different presentation.

Conclusion
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Ultimately SMSL SP 200's even envelope, linear frequency response, clean high power output and transparent presentation make it one of the best solid state amplifiers I've heard. While it will not help address faults or problematic traits within your system or Headphone of choice it will provide clean uncolored amplification, thus it certainly earns my recommendation to any one looking for a powerful and truly transparent amplifier capable of driving most any headphone on the market today!
Mshenay
Mshenay
bamboo banana hanger ala Amazon
rocksteady65
rocksteady65
"Slight demphasis on attack or leading edge of sound" You obviously meant Emphasis?...
Mshenay
Mshenay
Regarding the JDS Labs Atom no I mean that it's soft or has a slight demphasis on the attack or leading edge of sound,
Pros: Great build quality, fit & finish
- Extended frequency response
- Linear and straight as a line, zero coloration
- Deep and controlled bass, clean top-octave
- Ultra-low harmonic or any kind of distortion even at loud levels
- Lightning quick transient response, great slam
- Natural fluidity and smoothness
- Incredibly powerful headphone amp section
- Highest value in the headphone amp category as of today
Cons: Soundstage is not the widest

Probably the biggest hype I ever encountered in the headphone kingdom was the announcement of THX AAA 789 headphone amp by Massdrop. People called it as the Holy Grail of headphone amplification, as an End-Game, shift+delete your head-fi account type of amp. Everybody dreamed about it and everybody wanted one. That is not because it was expensive, not at all, at only $400 it was among the cheapest balanced and powerful desktop headphone amp I knew about. Everyone dreamed about it because of the availability of that particular amp, the first batch was sold-out in one hour I recon, second batch sale lasted few hours and only the third one lasted a day or so. I am not that lucky by nature so obviously I forgot to pre-order one and put my hands on it. People were selling it on the used marked at higher prices than MSRP! Its demand was much bigger than supply, the hype was real!

A year passed and people are still genuinely interested in it, it carries two THX AAA-788 stereo modules known for lowest distortion, high output power and close to zero coloration. If you wanted to go all-in for the best available THX chips available: the dual-mono only THX AAA-888, you needed to shelve some serious cash for the $3000 Benchmark HPA4 that I also reviewed and later on purchased for myself as I couldn’t sleep at night without one, that’s how good it sounded with all my headphones. Benchmark Media was the sole manufacturer with for the top-of-the-line THX modules but that soon changed with the introduction of the $289 SMSL SP200 headphone amplifier – It’s super affordable, it’s small, has RCA and XLR inputs and a gain switch, should it deliver impressive sonics? Let’s check that out!



Inside the Box

When I picked up the fairly small and lightweight box from the delivery courier, as usual my doubts started working me from the inside. A serious headphone amp should be big and heavy, carry toroidal transformers and should be carved from 20 kilo aluminum ingots, right?

Unboxing it I couldn’t believe how small and lightweight it was, it brought a smile to my face. In the same time, I remembered how good my former reference Gilmore Lite Mk2 from Headamp sounded, or the Burson Fun or even the cute Bacillus from Erzetich Audio, all were small but huge in terms of sonics.

Inside the foam protected box you’ll find: the SP200 unit, a power cable and some papers with its detailed specifications. No user manual to be found but sincerely this is only a headphone amp with no additional features, I don’t think a user manual is needed, just attach your source to it, select RCA or XLR on the front and listen to some tunes.



Design & Build Quality

What surprised me really, is that it doesn’t have an external switching power supply like how THX-789 by Massdrop is having, but has it inside the unit, if the audiophile in you wants to use some fancier power cables you can do that with SP200 and you can’t with THX-789.

Build quality is great, the case seems to be aluminum milled on a CNC machine, the case is thick and the back and front panel are even thicker. It has rubber feet underneath in small cut-outs so those will not wobble around. Its build quality is pretty much on the same level with THX-789 from my perspective, I have no complaints.

On the front panel you have two headphone outputs: a ¼” and a 4-pin XLR output, an On/Off switch, a RCA or XLR input selector, a High/Low gain selector and a volume wheel. No display, but it’s really not needed for a pure analog amp.

On the back you have a universal 100 to 240V AC input, so you can use it anywhere on the globe without changing a jumper or flipping a switch, you also have an RCA and an XLR input. It doesn’t have any analog outputs so it can’t work as a line-stage (preamp).

When I first looked at it, I wasn’t really sure I am looking from a right angle at it, but when I got to play with it in my hand, I observed the slightly angled case. I think it looks interesting, it’s not over the top and most importantly doesn’t have any sharp edges. The only thing that bothers me a bit is how easy I can turn the volume wheel, it has very little mechanical resistance and sometimes I just raise the volume way too easily to uncomfortable loud levels.



Technology Inside SP200

This is where it gets super interesting. HPA4 by Benchmark Media has a competitor now at just 1⁄10 of its price as SP200 is also using dual-mono THX AAA-888 circuitry inside. If you never heard about those, THX modules are reducing harmonic, intermodulation and crossover distortions by 20 to 40 dB compared to regular headphone amplifiers, offering a truer to life, a realistic and fatigue-free listening experience. All was possible by using patented feed-forward error correction to null conventional distortion and noise levels.

SP200 will deliver up to 6W of power into 16 ohms or 3W in 32 ohm loads on both ¼” and 4-pin XLR outputs, it doesn’t really matter if you have a balanced headphone cable or not, it delivers its full power on both outputs. With all those impressive numbers it should drive even the most demanding headphones as high impedance dynamics or current-driver planar-magnetics, we will of course test both instances.

It has an output impedance close to zero ohms so damping factor should not be affected at all and at only 2.8 micro volts of noise under load it should pair nicely even with extra sensitive IEMs. What I really like about THX AAA amps is that they have their noise floor undetected at any volume levels, but will see about that very soon.

It seems that SMSL designed a special 24Watt power supply for this unit to be very efficient, small and obviously an ultra-low-noise one. It is encapsulated inside a metal shell, that is always a good sign and hum or hiss should be undetected. As with all THX AAA designs, the electrolytic caps are not in the signal path but are used for power filtering.

The volume works in analog domain, this is an analog pot and at lowest volume there is a bit of channel mismatch, but going past 8 o’clock the channel balance comes back and is not something to be concerned about.



Test Equipment

To test SP200 at its maximum potential, a super linear and honest sounding source with close to zero colorations was needed, that is why I used a Matrix Audio Element X.

I will be testing the noise floor with FiiO FH7 and with Simgot EN700 PRO IEMs, transient response will be tested via Quad Era-1, power output, control and linearity tests would be done via Hifiman Arya and I’ve thrown a Sennheiser HD660s into the mix as well, just for fun.

I’m happy to report that in few days I will also be comparing it to Massdrop THX-789 and with a Benchmark HPA4, it will be a battle of the titans and I am looking forward to that one.

Ok everyone, time to hit some eardrums.



Sound Performance

I. Noise floor/Background noise

I connected my sensitive IEMs and I am glad to report that the noise floor is nowhere to be spotted in low gain mode. I was skeptical at first, since in low gain position it doesn’t have a unity gain of 0 dB, but a higher one at +6 dB that might induce a bit of hiss, but my fears are now gone. Background is black, all I hear is complete silence even at maximum volume. I tried High gain setting, I paused my music and I started hearing hum from about 10 o’clock position, however if I would press play, I would go deaf at that volume. In low gain mode it works exceptionally well and there is plenty of volume.

There is however a small issue with sensitive IEMs: it starts to be really loud really fast so take great care when you touch that volume wheel, I personally can’t listen at more than 8 o’clock position, at 9 it is way too loud for me. With portables like Sennheiser Momentum 3 and with Erzetich Thalia I can go higher, maximum to about 10 o’clock position and that’s it. Plenty of volume even on low gain. Funny thing is that except for one headphone, every headphone I tested worked great on low-gain position. I used high-gain only with Hifiman Arya for the best results.

In terms of noise floor, SP200 is indeed playing with the big boys like HPA4 and THX-789 and may put to shame some more expensive designs.



II. Tonality

SP200 stays true to the source it is fed by and true to the recording. It doesn’t add a lot from itself, it has close to zero colorations. I consider it linear sounding without putting an emphasis on anything. Its neither bright or warm, it sounds exactly like your source and your headphones. As such I can’t say it has a tonality, it is without one.

System matching is crucial with SP200, you really need to love your source as it will enhance all its sonics, including its flaws. With a great source the final result will be great and with a mediocre source the final result can be disappointing. I encountered this phenomenon multiple times even with HPA4 by Benchmark.

Some might say it even has an incredible fluidity and smoothness, due to a very low noise-floor you have a darker room and louder sounding musical notes that somehow are bonded to each other. This is a different kind of smoothness, SP200 doesn’t roll-off anything in the frequency range, this is just how your music is supposed to sound when you take out all the distortions and noise floor.



III. Transparency & Resolution

This is where SP200 is shining brighter than other headphone amps, it feels at home when it comes to resolution. When you lower down the noise, you hear everything else clearer, louder and more outlined. SP200 as the rest of THX family of products are excelling at recreating the original intent of the recording engineer, it will extract everything that the engineer intended us to hear. It is brutally honest – this could be a good thing or a bad thing. Bad mastered music becomes almost unlistenable, you hear all its flaws and you hear them very clear; some people don’t like that. As an owner of HPA4 I enjoy that a lot, I can review new records with this kind of gear and in the same time I enjoy those explosive dynamics it reveals in music that you never knew were there in the first place.

When noise and distortion lowers, I can now look at a bigger picture, I can appreciate the distance between few notes, between me and the singer, everything becomes so much easier. SP200 has a high transparency, all the flaws from my usual bass tracks to my rock tunes are easily spotted. If you want a revealing amplifier that will show all the strengths and cons of your source (digital or analog), SP200 will offer you that.



IV. Transient response

The best transient response I ever heard from a headphone transducer was heard on HPA4, if I move to faster paced music it will always put a big smile on my face. It just grabs you and pounds you with tons of energy, speed and impact, its spectral decay is perfect and diaphragm control as well. SP200 is the same but to a smaller degree.

My usual folk-rock tunes and my older electronica kicked some serious punch into my eardrums. It sounded grainy at first and treble was hotter than usual but just after few hours it didn’t sound that way anymore. Speed was back and the treble became detailed yet free of harshness as I remembered it.

With a close to zero impedance and a whopping 6W of power the damping factor is huge and transient response is on a very high level as well. Listening to Wolf Totem by The Hu at half way thought the song will present a strong kick in the treble and a lot of presence in the midrange with that magical throat singing and horsehead fiddle that switches places from time to time, that mix was always punchy and kept a faster pace than usual.



V. Soundstage & Depth

Probably the only thing that I don’t consider impeccable is the soundstage size, it is medium in size, sounds outside my head but doesn’t envelop my entire body how hybrid, all-tube designs or just bigger solid-state headphone amps are sounding. I don’t know what might be the culprit, maybe the power supply, maybe something else, THX-789 is sounding basically the same. Only the bigger and costlier HPA4 will present a bigger and more believable stage in front and around me.

In exchange, SP200 presented a really good see-thought depth where I can easily appreciate how far are all musicians and their location in a 3D field. Listening to Roger Waters you hear all those tiny sounds, tiny amounts of air moving around creating a feeling that I am not listening to headphones but to a cleverly positioned speaker system. With the right music, SP200 will present spatial cues and render all depth information.



VI. Power Output

With Sennheiser HD660S I cannot go past 10 o’clock in low gain mode, with Quad Era-1 I can’t go past 11 and with Hifiman Arya I can’t pass 13 o’clock position. High gain is raising the gain to 18 dB – that is a 12 dB raise compared to low gain. With Erzetich Thalia or Sennheiser Momentum 3 it’s a child’s play, it will power them all easily without breaking a sweat. I presume it will do just fine will all planar-magnetic headphones with an exception or two (AB-1266 and Susvara came to mind).

Power wise it is basically on the same level with THX-789 and offers just a bit lower than HPA4 that has a higher voltage power-supply and as a result offers more power on tap and a better control.

SP200 is tiny, but the sound and the power that comes out of it is not. SP200 is incredibly powerful, I almost can’t believe it drives the Arya like it’s nothing. Impressive would be an understatement.



VII. Frequency Response

Sub-bass is incredibly tight, I think this is the right word, it is palpable and very detailed yet layered and deep. Bass control is not something a lot of headphone amps can be proud about and yet SP200 has it under a strict control. It is ultra-linear and will show its face only when its needed and will go back to shadows in an instant.

Mid-bass is not overdone or emphasized, the mid-bass hump is not present and will not color the overall performance. It’s there in a right dose and again it comes when it’s called for. What I really like is how tactile, fast and instant it can be. It’s lightning quick, strikes immediately with a huge force and impact. If you prefer a bass that lingers a bit more, with a longer and smoother decay then this will not be for you. SP200 is brutally honest, it can be slow only when the song asks for it, otherwise expect some impressive dynamics.

Midrange is again neutral to a point that at first it might sound as dry or uninvolving but the more I listen to it the more it impresses me and the more I understand why it changes its character so often and so easily. Sometimes it will sound wet, smooth and involving, sometimes dry or even bright or unbearable. A true chameleon of an amp. You have amps that are sounding warm, smooth and involving with their milk with honey approach, then you have linear or bright sounding amps and then you have THX amps that are sounding like all those of the above plus a bit more, a new breed of amps, that will alter their sound signature depending on the quality of the recording, of the source, source material and of the headphones.

Treble is extended and top-octave can be spotted without even closing my eyes, it extracts treble information so easily and so amazingly vivid and clear. In terms of overall frequency response SP200 is dead neutral and straight as a line. It stays true to its source and doesn’t add a hint of coloration.



VIII. Headphone pairings

This is an easy one. If you really love your headphones and your source be it digital or analog then you will be in love with SP200, I have no doubts about that. If you have a mediocre sounding source and you expect that a headphone amp will somehow magically make it sound much better, that will never happen with SP200, it will expose all the flaws of the source and of your recordings.

Since it doesn’t have its own character and doesn’t leave a stain, it will pair nicely with every headphone you will throw at it, dynamic or planar-magnetic doesn’t really matter. I personally enjoyed all my headphones with it and they sounded exactly how I remembered them on the bigger HPA4.

Comparisons.

In two days, I will publish my comparative in-depth comparisons between SMSL SP200, Massdrop THX-AAA-789 and between the Benchmark HPA4. I’m very excited about that comparison, stay tuned for that!



Conclusion

At $289 this is currently the most affordable THX-AAA amp that sounds stunningly close to its bigger brother. In the past I believed that a top performing headphone amp with top specs and sonics can be only achieved at past $1000.

SMSL proved me wrong on so many levels with its SP200, it offers a balanced sound across the board and delivers truly high-end sonics without murdering your wallet.

Did it impress me? You bet it did, it wiped the floor with some higher priced amps and this is why it gets my highest recommendation.

You know what its best feature yet? It is available right now, you don’t need to wait for the next batch and you don’t need to preorder anything.

PROS:
  • Great build quality, fit & finish
  • Extended frequency response
  • Linear and straight as a line, zero coloration
  • Deep and controlled bass, clean top-octave
  • Ultra-low harmonic or any kind of distortion even at loud levels
  • Lightning quick transient response, great slam
  • Natural fluidity and smoothness
  • Incredibly powerful headphone amp section
  • Highest value in the headphone amp category as of today
CONS:
  • Soundstage is not the widest
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT:

  • DACs: Matrix Audio Element X, Burson Audio Conductor 3
  • Headphone amps: SMSL SP200, Benchmark HPA4, Massdrop THX-789
  • IEMs: FiiO FH7, Simgot EN700 PRO
  • Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Arya, Quad ERA-1, Sennheiser HD660S
  • Portable headphones: Sennheiser Momentum M2, Erzetich Thalia
  • Wireless headphones: Master&Dynamic MW65, Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
  • Interconnects: QED Reference XLR (x2), Aune AL3 XLR
  • Power cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x2)
  • Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600


Overall score 95/100
nishan99
nishan99
Nice review!
where can I find your comparison to the 789?
Currawong
Currawong
Just a heads' up that a few images seem to have gone missing from your review.
DarKu

Comments

I love this little amplifier. LOVE it. It was my first THX AAA sampling. Love the compact form, its simplicity, its price, its stellar sonic performance with every headphone I've used it with. I even like its rhomboid styling. Build quality is excellent; it's a stout and sturdy little thing.

There's one thing, and just one thing that diminishes my enthusiasm for this little amp - the volume potentiometer. It has lots of play in the shaft, both end float and run out.

I haven't found any channel tracking problems with it within the rotational range I find I use, but there is some - just tracking little - error just off full attenuation.

I sent my first one back (EXCELLENT service from Apos Audio) hoping for a replacement unit with "better" potentiometer performance, but the replacement unit was pretty much the same (serial numbers were very close).

S.M.S.L specifies in the SP200 product literature that the volume control is specially selected for low distortion. Whatever may be going on with the volume potentiometer, the sonic benefits are clear; it sounds great.

Some reviewers have noted volume tracking issues with the SP200.

I've kept the current unit because I like the amp so much and the volume potentiometer doesn't seem to be effecting performance. Heck, I certainly like it enough that I would consider investing in and installing a nice potentiometer.

I now also have a Drop x THX AAA-789 to compare the S.M.S.L to. I prefer the S.M.S.L.
 
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