I often think that SMSL produces too many similar models, but again and again, I keep testing them because you never know when a gem like SU-9 pro will turn up and bring a new definition of a good value. With this spoiler up and front, let’s see why I think that about this DAC.
Build and Features
Just like SU-9 and SU-9n that came before it, the SU-9 pro is built out of aluminium, and has a solid feel, a color display, a remote, and quite a rich set of features. We have the usual digital inputs such as USB, optical, and coaxial, but there’s also Bluetooth onboard. Regarding analog outs, we can choose between single-ended RCA and balanced XLR ones. Both of these can be used in a fixed or variable output level mode. Lastly, we see an AC power connector, meaning that the SU-9 pro is powered directly from the wall socket and there’s no need for an AC/DC adapter.
In the front, we find one volume knob that doubles as a button. Every function and setting is accessible this way but provided remote control is sure a more convenient option. Big LCD unit provides you with easily readable information about inputs, volume, and type of files being played. Once you enter the settings, among other things you’ll find an option to dim the display, change digital filters, etc. But one that stands out is Sound color. Here you can choose between No filter, Rich, Tube, and Crystal, all coming in several varieties. Everybody should try these for themselves and find out if they like how they affect the sound.
But the same appearance and similar name are very misleading when it comes to the extent of internal changes. For starters, the main D/A conversion chip has been upgraded to the latest Sabre flagship 9039MPRO. This one is supported by a very powerful XMOS XU-316 signal processor that enables all Hi-Res PCM and DSD formats that you can imagine. The signal is eventually passed through a total of eleven OPA1612A op-amps (instead of three in previous models). Even the decreasingly popular MQA compression support is onboard and fully supported by the hardware.
So what do all of those catchy technologies mean in reality, and how does this DAC actually sound and compare to other models?
Starting with the bassline, it 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 the midbass is very well-behaved – bold enough to sound physical and present but not spilling into the midrange. This makes all vocals and instruments sound very clear and transparent. Leading tones that are prominent in the mix sound present and energetic. High-frequencies are extended, and very clean. There’s a good sense of air around instruments and this end of the spectrum is generally quite improved and more expressive compared to some previous SMSL models I’ve tested.
Move to the soundstaging and we’re talking about a spacious and layered presentation. If the recording contains backing vocals or instruments deeper into the scene, this DAC will recreate that depth very nicely. Empty space around those, and tiny reverbs are also there so layering is done very skillfully. The soundstage width is as good as it gets at this price point. The same goes for the depth too, with clean and noticeable echoes and reverbs which all join to create what I would call a class-leading imaging.
Finally, talking about dynamics, we can notice some Sabre traits there. 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, and good dynamics are contagious.
SMSL SU-9 and 9n are now a few years old. They look the same and can probably be found at a decent discount these days. However, the SU-9 pro is such an improvement in every possible way you can imagine. SU-9 pro sounds much richer in terms of tone timbre, yet it manages to be more transparent. It has a bigger soundstage and better dynamics too. So I’ll keep it short and simple – buying these older ones doesn’t make much sense nowadays, SU-9 pro is a superior-sounding DAC.
SMSL M500 MKII is a much better competitor. This one has a warmer and juicer midrange, but slightly tamer high frequencies. I love that about M500 MKII, but I have to say that SU-9 pro offers slightly better detail retrieval and a slightly deeper soundstage. That’s about it. If you have the M500 MKII already, there’s no need to feel left behind, it’s still a great-sounding product. That said, I do find the SU-9 pro to be a modest upgrade and if you’re currently choosing between the two, I would give a small advantage to the newer model. On the other hand, M500 MKII comes with a decent headphone output if you need it, and it can be found heavily discounted these days.
Denafrips Ares II 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 at one point and I’m very fond of its full and natural tone timbre. SU-9 pro can roughly match Ares’ full-bodied presentation while improving on its average resolution and dynamics. Ares II has a slightly bloated bass section, less punchy too, and less resolving. Ares II is still the more laid back of the two, more spacious too, and has that effortlessly natural vibe that only R2R can provide. But I would find myself missing the increased clarity, dynamics, and punchiness of the SU-9 Pro. So my personal preference between the two goes towards SMSL SU-9 pro. Cherry on the top is that SMSL is more affordable too.
EarMen Tradutto is a fantastic DAC when it comes to sheer bass weight and punch. SU-9 pro 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 SU-9 Pro and its more natural sound signature. Given it comes with a lower price tag and with full-sized XLR connectors, I feel that SMSL fully deserves a higher score here.
As I said in the beginning, SMSL tends to produce too many models every year. It’s confusing and frankly a bit annoying to me as a reviewer – I can never catch them all. But I’m sure glad I didn’t skip this particular model because it rocks. Yes, that is my fully professional conclusion that I can stand behind – SMSL SU-9 pro rocks.
|SMSL SU-9 PRO – CHARACTERISTICS
DAC chip: ES9039MPRO