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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
- Eagles - Hotel California [Hell Freezes Over (Simpy Vinyl 180g 24Bit Rip)
- 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].
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 Out
- 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.
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 SMSL SP 200 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.
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!