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SMSL SU-9 Balanced DAC Review

Veri

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I'm seeing zero proof here of "the difference" between the ESS and the AKM chips.

Also it's funny you guys describe AKM as "grunty" and ESS as "neutral", while some years back subjectively people said ESS was "harsh/glarey" and AKM was "velvety/soft". Almost like these descriptions aren't worth much.. :p give it another year and people will be claiming yet something else. Again.
 

Rover

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Time to give back and save people a bunch of money. I recently got curious to so called upgrade my SMSL SU-9 DAC to another perhaps more natural sounding (as described by subjectivists) DAC that as per some members here blew the SU-9 out of the water.

I am talking about the D70S by Topping. I did compare both the units feeding the Topping Pre90 balanced. Both DACs were used in DAC mode (not Pre-amp mode).

While it was a lot more expensive than the SU-9 and for the same measured performance...some people here said it sounded much better and so I researched and researched...many marketing sites saying the SU-9 doesn't fare well in instrument localization, depth, resolution etc. when compared to the D70s. I finally got my hands on a D70S with a return policy and here are my subjective observations after A/Bing them both (not a blind test, but with very familiar music):

The D70S has a different presentation than SU-9 in that the D70S seems to emphasize the bass notes more (it's not a FR tilt as I know). It has a more fuller sound / vocals (mids) and has noticeably tamed treble. In comparison, the SU-9 has a more even or balanced bass presentation (after 3rd harmonic fix) and much smoother and distinct vocal presentation. What I mean by that is that vocals stay dead center floating in air between my KEF R7s, not so much with the D70S which despite having more fuller sounding vocals lacked a bit of that localization ease...which was a theme accross all instruments as well by the way, which were much more easily sketched in space by the SU-9 as the case was with vocals. Here is what I most missed in the D70S...airy highs. In Melody Gardot's If you love me (great song btw)...there is quite a bit of air in the highs as are several spacial cues. They were slightly easily noticed via SU-9 VS D70S. Another observation was around the sound stage...now I know DACs don't affect sound stage but I believe the SU-9's airy presentation, lack of extra bass emphasis and more neutral tonality did give the impression of a more holographic presentation...like it has a bigger/wider sound stage as compared to the D70S. To be fair to D70S, it did seem to bring out some of the layerings out a bit easier in busy passages...but maybe be by say 5% more ease....again it's the presentation that maybe at play here.

Different is not always better is what I've learned in this hobby after shelling $$$!

Suffice to say I ain't selling my SU-9 for cheap and shelling out more on the D70S...I presume this same logic can be applied to all SOTA DACs in this price range. They WILL sound nearly the same with different presentation. If I wanted the D70S presentation...I'd add a +1 db shelf at say 100Hz and I would be there, but as I said I liked the SU-9 presentation more.

Hope this helps prospective buyers make an informed purchase decision.

Here is my question the DAC designers/experts at ASR...I compared the boards of the Topping D70S to the SU-9. Obviously there is a lot more going on in the D70S with those Nichicon caps, those accusilicon clocks, that linear PSU, while SU-9 is plain vanilla in comparison with none of those nice things in the chain. Considering the ASR view of DACs sounding the same in case they measure good/implemented well...what is the reason manufacturers invest money in those components. I am asking coz I don't understand what audible difference those components make and does skipping those results in an inferior sounding product.

I believe that in the case of above two DACs, since they are so we'll implemented....the differences I noted in presentation is more to do with the Chips used...AK being more grunty while ESS being more airy and neutral.

By the way, for dedicated headphone users...get the most affordable SOTA DAC you can and be happy...these subtle differences I explained are generally only perceivable when in full blown speaker setup, not so much with headphones.

As always, no shooting the messenger.

Equipment used (very revealing as you can imagine): Tidal HiFi, KEF R7s, SVS SB-3000 subwoofer, IFI Zen Stream to SU-9/D70S via USB to Topping Pre90 to NAD C298 - all balanced, all Mogami cables.

Note: I did face problems with D70S locking to MQA streams and I had to tap the middle of the songs for sound to appear when playing...don't know why but this may be an IFI-Topping compatibility issue...rest of the times it worked fine as well.
Hello.Your conclusion is that in the corrected SU-9, the emphasis on the bass was lost, which was present there thanks to the "3 harmonics".After correcting the accent on the bass now there is no?
 

Shoaibexpert

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Hello.Your conclusion is that in the corrected SU-9, the emphasis on the bass was lost, which was present there thanks to the "3 harmonics".After correcting the accent on the bass now there is no?
Subjectively...with a grain of salt, Yes!

Please understand that placebo plays a huge role in all subjective assessments.
 

Shoaibexpert

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I'm seeing zero proof here of "the difference" between the ESS and the AKM chips.

Also it's funny you guys describe AKM as "grunty" and ESS as "neutral", while some years back subjectively people said ESS was "harsh/glarey" and AKM was "velvety/soft". Almost like these descriptions aren't worth much.. :p give it another year and people will be claiming yet something else. Again.
True and proof wasn't the objective here. Its a subjective account on a decent system, of my personal experience...in a world where people are bombarded with new similarly measuring (beyond hearing clean) DACs with same or similar implementations in new chassis, every couple of months supported by marketing BS calling them night and day different.

By the way, meant grunty in a good way...bit more meaty at the cost of overall sound stage width and instrument localization (very slightly off course). I guess implementation may have something to do with that between the DACs released a few years ago and now. We know that SU-9 is one of the warmest ESS implementation out there so there's that...but I could be wrong*. All I am saying is that one isn't better than the other DAC... perhaps different in musical presentation.... slightly!

*Lots of caveats
 
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ABSNimes

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Hi all,
I'm a French customer who purchased SU-9 from Amazon.fr early this year.
I've got a quick answer from @SMSL_Mandy : SMSL EU Service Center (SU-9) is Audiophonics.
They are qualified to perform SU-9 Firmware Update.

Thanks to SMSL_Mandy my faulty SU-9 will be fixed ;)
Hope this could help French/EU customers.
 
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reddie.k

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I had to return mine to Audiophonics because it was distorting at full volume. The right channel very badly. They sent me back (free postage) a new unit with no problems up to now. Both new and old units are/were supposedly firmware updated.

Audiophonics seem quite reliable as sellers but I would be very hesitant to buy anything from SMSL again.
 

Shoaibexpert

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Any users who tried the sound colors especially Rich and Tube colors? Love to hear your thoughts if anyone tried in speaker setups. I feel it's the ace in SU-9s proverbial sleeves... really takes away that digital glare.

Although, after fighting so much over higher 3rd harmonic distortion...this does sound conter intuitive...
 
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G-rig

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Hi guys, I ordered the S.M.S.L SU-9 from Amazon AU and it turned up the next day (yesterday). I'm not new to audio but seems that Chi-Fi is an exciting journey but great value and sound quality when working right. Due to the great reviews of this unit thought I'd upgrade to this or the X16. For years I've been using these setups:
- Chomecast -> DACMagic (optical) -> Yamaha HS80M monitors (XLR) (via a nano patch for gain control)
- PC -> iFi Zen DAC-> Matrix M-Stage ->DT 1990 Pro.

I know most people are probably using this on a desktop setup, but my main aim is to eliminate the two sets of cables and the nano patch, have a volume control, achieve gapless playback and stream hi-res (tested 96kHz works great with the current setup using a trial of Qobuz but mainly using Tidal so wanted MQA).

Just wanted to clarify a few things:
1. Would this SU-9 have the new firmware (will contact amazon now and email shenzehenaudio now), it seems that the updated units have a s/n beginning with DAC6**** - my sticker on the side of the unit is DAC21012, the box has an older one X00WX****, HW 1.0, SW 1.2, USB 2.06 (which don't get updated so bit useless).

2. Don't particularly want to get stuck with a defective device, Amazon seem quite good for returns so would rather get it sorted now, and it's not exactly cheap at A$630. Was also considering the DACMagic 200M but they wouldn't sound as exciting or much better than what i have, and pretty expensive (and short supply), although they are a quality brand with no issues. For whatever reason there aren't many devices with MQA decoding and balance outputs with built in network streamer. I'm looking at building a RPi4 for direct streaming and to replace the CCA for gapless. Not sure if I add a 7" touch screen before the SU-9 if it will give me a player interface - don't want to subscribe to roon, Volumio etc, VitOS may work (no HATS, happy with USB input).

3. The Cambridge had a hard power button so used on a smart plug with master/slave power board to then turn on the speakers. Does it hurt to kill the power to the DAC or better to leave on standby (can power off just the speakers automatically).

4. There is a small pop on the right speaker when power on/off. The monitors have some hiss in the tweeters anyway if listen closely but want to check for this third harmonic problem. (Edit: selecting different inputs makes a pop also, not very premium feeling).

5. Regarding PREAMP settings. I know it's advised on here to set to Preamp mode (Vol '99') for best sound quality, if I do this there isn't much range on the phone/app volume and run the risk of it being fooking loud, remove volume doesn't work etc. Can I calculate the optimum volume for the DAC and leave it (Vmax to Vrms conversion??) the monitor's Input Sensitivity/Impedance =-10 dBu/ 10 k-ohms. I know too many different volume controls in the chain isn't idea, but still need some functionality.

Anyway those are the main things to sort out, it's much easier running on a PC/desktop setup in exclusive mode with a headphone amp like with my iFi. Ideally I'd just get the Cambridge EVO-150 but it's $$$, and similar options are also expensive. It's hard to believe you still need two or three pieces of gear just to do this. Having powered monitors means I should be able to use the SU-9 directly to the monitors.

Edit: Bluetooth mode sounds better than expected, wouldn't plan to use too often but handy especially with guests etc.
Tidal seems to top out at 96kHz on tracks I've tried. Still assume MQA, high res PCM and DSD are superior?

Thanks in advance!
 
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G-rig

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Heard back from them, want me to send it back to China now, not Amazon. Big stuff around this, provided a quote for shipping (which is meant to be refundable) but it's not cheap and will take 2 months (I reckon) before I'd see the replacement.
 

mario_rouge

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Heard back from them, want me to send it back to China now, not Amazon. Big stuff around this, provided a quote for shipping (which is meant to be refundable) but it's not cheap and will take 2 months (I reckon) before I'd see the replacement.
Return it to Amazon and buy a Dac without issues.
 

G-rig

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Return it to Amazon and buy a Dac without issues.
Yes, done... better going through Amazon as you say considering the amount of issues already. It didn't even work with the SMSL drivers in windows, (crackling sound in all modes. iFi gets it in waspi /Qobuz but ASIO fine. It's a good thing I did test it. considering sending to China for repair but already wasted enough time on it. Cambridge Audio and iFi work straight away and no weird problems.
 

mario_rouge

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Smsl su9 with updated firmware is a great DAC. but there are too many outdated and faulty drives out there. I don't understand why Shenzhen Audio doesn't withdraw them from the market.
 

ABSNimes

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Hi All,
I've got a replacement unit for my SMSL SU-9 from Amazon.
Now I've got a brand new unit with s/n beginning with DAC6xxxx.
This little black box is working fine by now, very nice DAC !
Thanks to @SMSL_Mandy and [email protected] for the help provided.

The SU-9 is a very good DAC ;)
 

BIGB

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Hi Experts,
This is my first post here, got the SMSL SU-9 a few days back,
However, I've noticed one problem, while playing TIDAL MQA (96 OR 192kHZ) I'm facing intermittent sound issues.
The sound would cut in and out, On the Dac, the MQA display goes off while this happens.
I don't have this issue while playing MQA @ 48 Khz, non-MQA, or DSD files from Foobar.
My Setup is as follows.
Intel® NUC Kit NUC5CPYH - USB - SMSL SU-9 - RCA - YAMAHA RN 803.
Appreciate any help.
Thanks in Advance.
 

G-rig

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Smsl su9 with updated firmware is a great DAC. but there are too many outdated and faulty drives out there. I don't understand why Shenzhen Audio doesn't withdraw them from the market.
Which version of the driver works? I downloaded the one from their site and no good (https://www.smsl-audio.com/portal/product/downlist/id/11.html).

I'm can imagine it would be a nice desktop setup, could always get the bundle with headphone amp and short XLR cables from them directly, but was after a DAC/preamp for my living room setup (active monitors). Could always sell the ifi zen DAC + Matrix m-stage, old gear feels more premium (like the dacmagic). Even though these new players look like cheap set top boxes they seem to cram a lot of good sound inside. Just want them to work properly.

My mate has the evo-150 which is fairly impressive if you have passive speakers, it's a Shame nothing else in the range ticks the boxes for MQA decoding and balanced outputs, I feel the DAC magic 200m would be a little average for the price.
 

archerious

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Anyone test this DAC with LG OLED TVs? I had a D90SE and had to return it as it wouldn't work properly on optical or coax with my TV, many others with LG TVs reported the same.

Curious if the SU-9 is prone to the same issue or not.
 

Toku

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Hi Experts,
This is my first post here, got the SMSL SU-9 a few days back,
However, I've noticed one problem, while playing TIDAL MQA (96 OR 192kHZ) I'm facing intermittent sound issues.
The sound would cut in and out, On the Dac, the MQA display goes off while this happens.
I don't have this issue while playing MQA @ 48 Khz, non-MQA, or DSD files from Foobar.
My Setup is as follows.
Intel® NUC Kit NUC5CPYH - USB - SMSL SU-9 - RCA - YAMAHA RN 803.
Appreciate any help.
Thanks in Advance.
I think from your report there is a problem with the processing power of the CPU. Your NUC is a 2015 model with Celeron. I think the load is too heavy for MQA processing using TIDAL. Also, if you are using virus software, the burden will be heavier.
Please check the operation once using another PC.
 

Toku

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Anyone test this DAC with LG OLED TVs? I had a D90SE and had to return it as it wouldn't work properly on optical or coax with my TV, many others with LG TVs reported the same.

Curious if the SU-9 is prone to the same issue or not.
I feel that the OPT/COAX connection troubles reported to ASR are concentrated on LG and SAMSUNG TVs for some reason. Maybe there is a part of the S/PDIF manufacturing standards of both companies that does not match the connection with general audio equipment?
 
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