M500 MKII is the latest midrange DAC from SMSL. Truth to be told here, SMSL has been on a spree lately, and it feels like they’ve released more DACs than I wish to keep a record of. SU-9, SU-9n, SU-8s, etc. All of these were fine midrange DACs but differentiating them became more and more difficult. I’ll admit here that I was fully prepared to skip this one completely because one can only test a certain amount of very similar products before becoming completely fed up. However, when the ShenzhenAudio store offered a review sample, my curiosity got better of me and I reluctantly accepted it. Even then it took me longer than a month to actually unpack the box and try it out. Oh my, am I glad I did.
SMSL packed a lot of stuff into the M500 MKII. Starting with digital inputs, we got all the usual suspects: USB, optical, and coaxial. Bluetooth is also on board. When it comes to the output section, we get both single-ended RCAs and balanced XLRs. Output can be set to either fixed or variable value levels. There’s even an integrated headphone amplifier of very decent power and quality.
The heart of the DAC is Sabre 9038 Pro chip, which is a flagship chip in their line. Sabre’s solution on a chip was also used to filter and stabilize the power supply. Powerful XMOS XU216 processors are used to handle the signal, and MQA is on board too if you care for it which I don’t think you should. Finally, SMSL used its own proprietary technology to provide stable clocks to the DAC. And that would be it, I don’t want to copy-paste every single technical detail from the manufacturer’s page. There’s a link down below the review so you can read all of it for yourself if you wish so. Here, we’re talking about what matters the most – the end results of all those efforts.
As usual, lately, SMSL provides a really rich user experience. M500 MKII has a small IPS display and a remote, and more importantly, it lets you tweak a lot of things. Among those are choosing a digital filter, using DSP to alter the sound color, changing DPLL (jitter suppression level), setting the display’s brightness, and even choosing the time after which it will automatically turn off. I got it set to only 5 seconds cause I like my displays dark unless I really need them. Anyways, this DAC’s UI is both rich and user-friendly – great job.
Sound – Headphone Amp
I first tried SMSL M500 MKII as an all-in-one DAC and Amp, hooking several different headphones to it. No matter if we’re talking about more traditional dynamic cans such as Beyerdynamics and Sennheisers, or about planars such as Hifiman, GoldPlanar, etc. I never felt lacking power and drive.
The overall tonality of the amp is slightly lean and bright, but very fast and resolving. The bassline is deep but very quick and well-controlled. It starts and stops very quickly, resolving respectable amounts of texture too. Move to the midrange and it’s the same story – edges are crisp and transients are fast. I never found myself missing any speed or resolution, but I could live with a bit more fullness in this region. Highs are well extended and bright, making for an open and airy presentation. All in all, this was a very respectable presentation with good separation and great detail retrieval.
A quick comparison to my Topping D30 Pro and A30 Pro stack showed a few things. The first one is that when M500 MKII serves as a DAC connected to an A30 Pro amp, you get a fuller midrange with somewhat calmer highs. So both instruments and vocals get juicer, and I feel there’s a bit more tone reverb too. The amplification section in this unit clearly can’t fully match the skills of A30 Pro. The second one was that as a DAC, M500 MKII sounded clearly better than D30 Pro, but more on that in the next section.
Sound – DAC
As mentioned above, M500 MKII proved to be a more capable DAC than the Topping D30 pro even in my desktop setup. This caught me by surprise and I quickly connected it to my main speaker setup. There it was fed with Pi2AES streamer, hooked to Acoustic Invader preamp and amp, and finally to KEF LS50 speakers. I was immediately caught off guard.
This DAC sounds full-bodied and punchy. The bassline is weighty and voluminous, but not slow or sluggish by any means. There’s a respectable amount of agility there, punch too, and it really adds to the excitement in every song. Move up the frequency spectrum and midbass is still very lush sounding, but masterfully tuned to add just the right amount of warmth and fullness to the midrange. This makes every vocal sound very lush and physically palpable. It matters not if we’re talking about male or female ones, they feel very present in the room, it’s almost as if you can stand up, come between your speakers and touch them. Leading instruments that are prominent in the mix are handled the same way too. Leading guitars sound present, big, and simply lush. The piano is presently full too, while drums have all the mass and energy that I could wish for. High-frequency details are there too, not rolled off in any way, but not as rich and substantial as the lower parts of the spectrum. They never dominate the recording and cymbal crush never feels really big and splashy as with some other DACs. Those tiny details are simply clean and crisp but without much drama and richness. They are easily noticeable but slightly laid back, tidy, and focused. They do their job well but let the bass, midbass, and midrange lead the way in impressing you, and sure enough, those didn’t fail to impress.
Move to the soundstaging and we’re talking about the focused and dense presentation. Both leading vocals and leading instruments are put forward and are very prominent in a pleasant way. But when recording contains backing vocals or instruments deeper in the scene, this DAC will recreate that depth very nicely. Empty space around those, and tiny reverbs are also there so layering is done skillfully. Soundstage width on the other hand is not that pronounced, and this is more of a well-separated but focused and dense presentation. There is depth and reverbs as mentioned, but not much in terms of width or air. I believe that the Sabre house signature is in the works here.
Finally, talking about dynamics, we can once again notice some Sabre traits. This is a lively sounding DAC with an energetic presentation. Play something rhythmic and I’ll dare you not to tap with your feet. The full but nimble bassline, decent punch, good dynamics, and those forward-sounding leading vocals and instruments are simply contagious.
As I was more than pleased with the SMSL M500 MKII DAC section, the only thing left to do is to compare it with some of the fiercest competition and see how it fares.
Topping D30 Pro comes at some fifty dollars less but doesn’t offer a head-amp. It is a nice-sounding DAC with a warm bassline and softer presentation. But in direct comparison to the new contender, D30 Pro sounds a bit bloated in the midbass, while too laid back and almost sedated in the midrange. It also has this kind of grainy quality to the midrange, compared to squeaky clean M500 MKII. Without further ado, I’ll call the SMSL M500 MKII a clearly better sounding of the two.
SMSL SU-9 (SU-9n too) is coming from the same company and costs roughly the same. It’s a DAC only, meaning there is no head-amp on board, so I expected this 2 in 1 solution to be inferior as a DAC. I was wrong. M500 MKII offers a fuller and lusher presentation, better presence, layering, and palpability. So to rip the band-aid quickly, I find M500 MKII to be a clearly superior DAC here.
SMSL D300 is SMSL’s answer to those who love really natural sound that resembles Multibit DACs or let’s say analog sources such as turntables. And it was completely successful in doing that with its smooth, mild, and soft sound where no harsh edge will ever peak its ugly head. But in the process, D300 sounded quite dynamically mild too. There is not much bass punch or slam to talk about, and M500 MKII ends up being vastly superior in that department, and the same goes for overall clarity and transients response. With M500 MKII, every sound just comes alive much better. I get that some of the listeners will still prefer D300’s mild and inoffensive approach, but I will personally give this one to M500 MKII hands down.
Denafrips Ares II costs significantly more than M500 MKII at 850 USD at the moment. It is once again a dedicated DAC only and it is an R2R construction with a big linear power supply inside the box. This is the one I’ve been using for more than a year now and I’m very fond of its full and natural tone timbre. Several times I listened to DACs that had more resolution but they were too sharp and analytical for me to take that bait. Now I’ve finally found the one that can match Ares’ full-bodied presentation while improving on its average resolution and dynamics. After listening to M500 MKII for a day or two I couldn’t say that I missed Denafrips much. Switching back to Ares II made it obvious, it has a slightly bloated bass section, less punchy too, and less resolving. Ares II is still the more laid back of the two, slightly more spacious, and has that effortlessly natural vibe that only R2R can provide. But I found myself missing that increased presence, clarity, dynamics, and punchiness of the M500 MKII. But the cherry on the top was that SMSL managed to put those qualities alongside the full and lush midrange, making vocals even more flushed out than with Ares II. At that moment I knew that my long and happy relationship with Ares II is coming to its natural end.
EarMen Tradutto is the only one in this list that could actually match, and maybe even slightly surpass the M500 MKII when it comes to sheer bass weight and punch. M500 MKII counters that with a more agile bassline, as well as with more extended highs, and more air around the instruments. Tradutto sounds a touch beefier down low but sweeter and darker up top. You might prefer one or the other, and listening to those in isolation you’d probably have a hard time noticing much difference, but I could say that I slightly preferred M500 MKII. Given it comes at a lower price tag and with full-sized XLR connectors, I feel that SMSL fully deserves a higher score here.
If you follow my impressions regularly, you’ll probably know that very few DACs came close to making me switch from Denafrips Ares II. Actually, the only one that had any real shot at that was EarMen Tradutto but I had a few gripes with it that prevented me from doing that. SMSL M500 MKII is a DAC that not only costs below one thousand but it’s actually below five hundred bucks, and that will not stop me from leaving it in my main setup instead of Ares II. Do I need to praise it more?
To ShenzhenAudio I have to say – thanks for sending me this one that I would simply never try out otherwise. But to SMSL I have another message – stop hyper-producing average models every month. I know different people like different flavors, but having more than five different models at the same price point is just too much. You almost drowned a gem such as M500 MKII, the one that has now become my next everyday DAC.
|SMSL M500 MKII – CHARACTERISTICS|
Input: USB / Optical / Coaxial / Bluetooth