“My Favorite Sub-$1000 DAC”: GoldenSound Reviews the SMSL VMV D1se DAC

Note: This article is based upon the article "SMSL VMV D1SE Review - A great all-rounder” made by GoldenSound on his YouTube channel. It’s printed here in partnership with GoldenSound. The review was originally posted on December 27th, 2021. You can check the the SMSL VMV D1se here.

Intro

This is the SMSL VMV D1SE DAC, and this was sent to me for review by Apos Audio. Thank you very much, Apos, for sending this over.

This has quickly become probably my favorite sub-$1000 DAC, maybe tied with the Denafrips Ares II. But if I had to pick one between the two of them, it would probably be this for the simple reason that this is such a good all-rounder. This is good with every genre, every pairing situation I’ve put this in, and there isn’t really anything that I can point to with the sound of this DAC, where I go, “It’s not doing that so well. It should be doing that better.” For the money, it’s just really good at everything. But I’ll talk about the sound in a bit.

Build Quality

Let’s talk about the build quality. The build quality is lovely. The front has this minimalist aesthetic. The edges are sharp. The buttons have no text. The display is sharp and clear, and one subtle detail I like is that they’ve gone with a red glow on the screen rather than a blue one. I like the red just because it’s a little bit more neutral. It kind of blends in. It looks more premium and pretty. It’s a really good looking product.

There’s only two issues I’ve got with the build. One is that I’ve got a slight QC issue here where that knob’s just a bit scratchy. It works fine, but it’s just a bit annoying there. That’s only on this unit though. I did try another unit, and I’ve also got the VMV A1 amplifier, which uses the same chassis, and neither of those had the issue, so I think it’s just this unit.

What I don’t like about the design, though, is this. These are the feet that come with the D1SE. You get these four spikes, two of which are slightly longer, so that you can angle the front of the DAC up, and then these little pads or cups to have the spikes rest on. So the idea is you screw these into the DAC, put that on whatever surface you want to actually have the DAC going on, and then those just sit in there. But there’s two problems. One: it’s basically impossible to position these properly, because as soon as you want to make a small adjustment, it’s just super grippy, and the whole surface moves. You basically have to just pick it up, move it, and put it back down. Which, if you’re trying to align four of them and hold the DAC at the same time that makes it quite tricky. You’ve also got the risk of scratching whatever you put this on. If I wanted to put it on top of my preamp, for example, or a rack, which is likely to get scratched, the surface will get damaged. So I didn’t use these. I just got these taken off. I really wish there was just a rubber foot or something instead, and I’m just using a coaster, because that’s a lot easier than those spikes. They look nice, but I hate them.

Sound Quality

Let’s talk about how this DAC sounds. The sound signature is what I would describe as “neutral done right”. I say neutral done right, because this is not sacrificing anything compared to the resolution of a D90SE. The D90SE is an impressively resolving DAC, but I didn’t like it that much, just because it was too thin and sterile. This has the exact same level of detail retrieval. I couldn’t tell a difference in that particular area between the two, but this one is warmer. It’s more full and natural-sounding. It’s not going to add warmth and body like an Ares 2 would. But it’s not thin and missing stuff like a D90SE. This is just a really well-rounded sound, and it’s closer to what I would consider neutral and natural. It’s not adding anything. It’s not missing anything, and you can throw any genre you like at this, and it’s gonna sound great.

Instruments just appear out of absolute blackness, nothingness. It’s something which R2R DACs typically do better, but I actually think this might be doing it slightly better than the Ares 2. Detail retrieval on this is just wonderful as well. It is more detailed than an Ares 2. The absolute low-level information that it brings forward is definitely better. Timbre is good on this. It’s really good, but the Ares 2 does edge it out there. The Ares 2 has this warmth to it, but at the same time it does present instruments in a slightly more natural and realistic-sounding manner. It’s slightly better than this, but the detail-retrieval on the SMSL is a little bit better. So, depending on your preferences, one may win out, depending on what genre you’re listening to. 

Conclusion

I really like this DAC, and this review might be a little shorter than normal because it’s hard to describe when something necessarily doesn’t have any problems. A lot of the time you can talk about stuff and you go, “This is good, this isn’t so good for this price”. Nothing about this DAC is bad. Everything is good. And some things are great. The detail retrieval is great. The sound stage is really good. This is just a really good product. If you are considering buying this, do it. If you only listen to classical music, the Ares 2 might be better. If you only listen to rock and metal, the Bifrost 2 might be better. But for anyone else, or if you listen to a mix of stuff, the D1SE is fantastic.