This article is based upon the SMSL SU-9 Balanced MQA DAC review made by Zeos at Z Reviews on his YouTube channel and is printed here in partnership with Z Reviews. The review was originally posted on Sept, 26, 2020. Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Zeos is back in action and he has the latest review on the new SMSL SU-9 Balanced MQA DAC! While he appreciates the non-slant design for the SU-9 that the SMSL SP200 has, and he disagrees with SMSL’s go-to-market strategy for their various DACs, Zeos has very good things to say about the latest creation from SMSL: “My point is this DAC is very, very good. This is probably the best sounding SMSL DAC.”
When comparing it to the SU-8, its predecessor for a few years ago, he notes that the “menu is a whole lot easier to figure out than the SU-8 menu…. The screen is 100% legible and readable — at a distance — because it's not made of blinding blue LEDs.”
If you’re a bit flummoxed choosing between the various SMSL DACs available on the market, don’t worry, you are in good company. Zeos had some biting but insightful views on their product segmentation in the market:
SMSL is trying to do that thing where they compete by putting multiple DACs out on the market, but they're using “SMSL” as the same name! There’s like nine DACs and it's all "SMSL;" it's like if you found out TOPPING and SMSL were owned by the same company, then that would make more sense as far as competing, but SMSL has like five of their own brand name DACs out.
When it comes to the features of the SU-9 that Zeos appreciates, his most glowing review was about the Sound Color options that allow you to tweak various sound options to your preference with your equipment:
Sound Color: this is the only thing that should be on a DAC, or anything that has an EQ. When I get a unit and it's like, "Here's your EQ choice: jazz, rock, blowhole, vocal"...it's like stop being stupid! Because those are changing things and it has nothing to do with anything! How do you know the genre of rock needs a specific EQ? That's dumb. What the Sound Color offers you is Standard; Rich One, Two, and Three; Tube One, Two, and Three; and Crystal Tube One, Two, and Three. And those are flavors, so instead of EQ'ing your stuff so that there's weird bumps in the actual equalization of it, it's like the smallest DSP tweak. Rich, I don't want to say it's V-shaped, but it does lift the mid-range a little bit, but not as much as Tube does; Tube smashes up the low-end a bit in three different varieties. Then Crystal, which is probably my favorite, just sharpens the highs, but not in an "EQ way," like a, "Is that doing it? I think I hear it!," sort of way. And if you hear it a lot at Crystal Three, you draw it back down to Two and all of a sudden, the headphones that might have been lacking in like 1.7 decibels of treble...are perfect now. That's fine, I don't mind flavors on your audio. I mind when you over-EQ things and it's bad. I'm glad they kept that for this new one, the SU-9.
Zeos concludes his review by comparing the SU-9 to the latest releases by SMSL, saying that:
Between the SMSL M400 — the $800 DAC that they just dropped — and this SU-9...I can't audibly tell a difference. And then the SU-9 has those “Sound Color” modes...I feel like that's enough. Is it an upgrade from the SU-8? Yes. Is it a “side-grade” from the M400? Yes! I could pull that M400 off the shelf and put it right next to the SU-9, and I would have to spend endless days analyzing every particular song, with every particular headphone amp combo, to try to suss out: “is is this actually better?”
This is probably the best sounding SMSL DAC. It's got the numbers to back it up — even ASR did a thing and the SU-9 bottoms out their measurement graphs!