<$300 Stack King?: Passion for Sound On the TOPPING E30 + L30 II

Note: This article is based upon the video "Topping E30 II and L30 II - Where do they sit in the crowd?” made by Passion For Sound on their YouTube channel and is printed here in partnership with Passion For Sound. The review was originally posted on December 10th, 2022. Edits have been made for clarity and length. The TOPPING E30 II and L30 II are available for purchase on Apos Audio. 

Intro

Hey folks, welcome to another Passion for Sound audio review. Today we're taking a look at the Topping E30 and L30 Mark II (or version 2, whatever you want to call them).

I want to start off by saying a huge thanks to Apos for sending me these devices for review. As is always the case, even though these have been sent to me for free for review purposes, it doesn't influence what I'm going to say about them. If you've watched any of my past reviews on various products sent to me by Apos, you'll know that they're sometimes good and sometimes not good reviews, and that's true for any products that I get sent like this.

The E30 and the L30 version 2 are both priced exactly the same as each other, at $149 US dollars, meaning that this little stack beside me comes in at just $298 for a fully-featured DAC, headphone amp, and preamp. So, if it performs well sonically, it obviously offers excellent value. That's what we're here to find out, particularly to compare it to a few other competitors in the market, in the form of the SMSL SU-6 and SH6, the SMSL D100 and H0100, and the bigger brother to the Topping 30 stack here, which is the E50 and L50 behind me, also from Topping.

Let's dive in and see how the E30 and L30 version 2 compare to these.

Sound Quality

Let's start talking about how they sound. There's not a huge amount to say when it comes to a stack like this. The DAC performance is, once again, excellent. I say once again because I was impressed with the original E30 and even more so with the 850 behind me. The A30 Mark II (or version 2) continues that trend by producing a really nice quality DAC at the price point. It has a good tonality that's neither too cool or too warm, it's just very balanced and very natural. The sense of imaging separation is really solid too. It doesn't produce a particularly large sound stage, but all the instruments are nicely separated and it gives you a clear sense of the music.

The L30 version 2 amp is also really solid. It does come across just a tiny bit muted when compared to other amps, but that's in comparison. When I was using this on its own just to get to know the stack, I felt like I was missing absolutely nothing from the sound.

So, in isolation, it's a wonderful combination, but as you'll surely hear when you do start to get into comparisons with other higher quality amps, you do hear that you're getting what you're paying for here, in the sense that you're getting a good amplifier, but it is still a budget amplifier. Going to a higher level amp can get you a better sense of separation, a sense of clarity, and attack on the notes, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with the L30 Mark II. 


As I said before, there's not a huge amount to say about this in isolation. It's always hard to describe DACs and amps on their own because, without context, unless they're deeply flawed, there's really not much to say. They either do a good job or they don't do a good job. So, unless they're deeply flawed and have a really striking tonal character or a really flat sound stage or something like that, there's not much to say. And I think it's better off to put them into context with the various competitors behind me.

TOPPING 30 Stack II vs SMSL 6 Stack

I started off with the E30 and the L30 up against the SU6 and SH6. I was playing "Helpless" by John Mayer and I was listening via the Meza 109 Pros. Flipping back and forth between the two stacks, I immediately heard that the Topping stack does provide better sound. That extra bit of money that you're paying definitely pays off. Specifically, I was hearing a bit of sense of space in the sound. There was more separation of individual instruments. The soundstage came across a little bit larger as a result, and everything just sounded a little bit more detailed as well.

The SMSL stack is still very good, it's a stack that I really, really like, particularly the price. Some might prefer the way the SMSL stack produces a slightly thicker and fuller sound, but for me, you are getting better technicalities and not really any drawbacks in my opinion when you're using the E30 and the L30. So I moved on fairly quickly from the SMSL6 stack because, for me, there's clearly a reason to spend a bit more on the Topping 30 stack.

TOPPING 30 Stack II vs SMSL 100 Stack

So the question then came down to what if you're willing to spend just a little bit more again and get something like the SMSL DO 100 and HO 100? As you can see behind me, these are a little bit bigger than the E30 and the L30, so they are going to take up a little bit more space, but it potentially is also going to give you a bit of sound.

Flicking back and forth between the two different stacks using "When the Party's Over" by Billy Eilish, what I heard was that the Topping stack comes across a little bit flatter in the soundstage than the SMSL stack. You're going to get a slightly flatter sound, you're also going to get all the sound coming a bit more forward to you. What I mean by that is it's going to feel like you're sitting one seat or maybe two seats closer in the audience with the Topping stack compared to the SMSL stack.

Much like the previous comparison between the 30 stack and the six stack, what's happening here again is that the 30 stack is now the one that sounds just a little bit thicker and a little bit fuller, and that's going to be partly why it sounds a bit closer as well, because there's a bit more weight to the sound. That can be for better or worse.

I think overall, there's a bit of a trade-off here, where you're getting a slightly thicker and richer sound from the Topping stack, whereas the SMSL 100 stack is giving you a little bit more detail and resolution in the sound. So if you're running PCM and you just want the best possible sound and you've got the budget for any of these so far, then the SMS 100 stack is the bit of choice by a moderate margin. I wouldn't say it's a huge gap, it's a small gap, but it's a noticeable gap.

That said, if you're going to be running DSD–if you're going to be, say, up-sampling through Roon where you've got a significant DSD library, what I found was that when I fed both tax DSD and I had the A30 in that pure DAC mode, in that situation, the difference was pretty much negligible. I did still hear differences between the two, but it wasn't at a point where I would say one is better than the other, so much as they're just a little bit different. So regular PCM playback, if you're not up sampling and say you're streaming from Qobuz or Tidal, or you've got a Redbook CD collection that's been ripped, or direct from CD in those situations, I do think the 100 stack is a little bit better for the money. But if you're going to be running DSD, it becomes a bit harder to choose. And so I'll let you work out which one's better for you in terms of whether you're going to be running PCM or DSD, and then of course, the size of them as well.

TOPPING 30 Stack II vs TOPPING 50 Stack

Then I moved on to the final comparison with Topping's own E50 and L50. So essentially, we've got the little brother or sister and the bigger brother or sister. For this test, I was using "Hot Kitchen" by Michael Spivey and still using the 109 Pros as the headphones. Going back and forth between the two, it became really obvious why you'd spend the extra money on getting the A50 and L50. They are basically identical tonality, so you can very much hear that they've both come out of Topping, but everything's just improved on the 50 stack. You've got a greater sense of space, a greater sense of resolution, but everything's been done with identical tonality. So for me, what this is telling us is that Topping has produced another excellent combo here.

Conclusion

We're kind of spoiled for choice when you look at all the options on my desk. You can step up in little incremental jumps of budget and each step you take, you are getting slightly better sound. So for me, it really comes down to exactly how much budget you've got and which form factor you might prefer. There are arguments for all of these, none of them are bad in any way, shape, or form.

And so the E30 and the L30 Mark II slot perfectly into kind of a hierarchy here. They cost a bit more than the six stack from SMSL, a bit less than the 100 stack from SMSL, and they perform right in between the two.

Before I wrap up, I should mention what I alluded to before, and that is that when you look at these in isolation as just an amp and just a DAC, I think both of them are also really good. Once again, there's nothing around the price point that I would say is clearly better as a DAC or better as an amp. There are certainly other choices around, and so what I would say is that if you're in the market for a DAC or a headphone amp or a stack, the E30 and the L30 Mark II should absolutely be on your list to check out. At $149, I think they represent excellent value. I'll be curious to see how they compare to the brand new Magni and Modi. I've got those coming soon, that's the plus versions.

And so again, make sure you subscribe if you want to see how the Chinese gear here compares to the American gear coming from, but for now, let me close this off by saying that I think the E30 and the L30 are a really solid and good option within that budget range. For under 300, I think it's going to be very, very difficult to do much better than what you get here. Hopefully, I've been able to provide some helpful comparisons for you and put these into context with the rest of the options on the market.