|SMSL A6 at home in my living room system with Tannoy Mercury Mx2 speakers. Doug MacLeod's Break The Chain (2017, Reference Recordings 24/176.4 downsampled to 88.2kHz, DR16) playing over Logitech Media Server.|
In the last 5 years, I've supplemented his system with various DACs for the CD player, and most recently got him a streaming connection with my Logitech Media Server based out of my home server using a Logitech/Squeezebox Touch.
After the positive experience with the company's iDEA DAC a few months back, I figured I'll give this a try as it seems to fit his needs (plus Amazon has its usual 30-day easy return policy). At ~US$450 it's certainly not expensive for the features listed and with a phono input and separate analogue line in (for CD), he can hook up his whole system without fuss.
I. Physical CharacteristicsLet's have a peek at the device:
The image above to the left is the box contents with the integrated amp, manual (surprisingly detailed compared to many other items from Asia), a short IEC power cable, generic USB cable, driver CD, and of course the remote. I show a close-up of the remote to the right. The remote feels quite good in the hand - metal construction with good weight, rubberized action on the buttons.
It seems that this remote must be a "universal" remote of sorts for SMSL products. The "A", "B", and "C" buttons seem to select different devices with the "A" assigned to the integrated amp. If you seem to have trouble controlling the device, make sure you press the "A" button first just in case someone had pressed B or C.
The prominent power button brings the device out of sleep when plugged in. The multidirectional ring allows volume control (up & down) and the various inputs (left & right). The center button toggles between various settings (including the color of the main text on the LCD screen - the "white" setting looks good). The button to the right of "A" with the arrow pointing down into a round icon is the input selection toggling between USB, the various S/PDIF options, analogue CD input and PHONO. "EQ" allows various settings like DIRECT, SDB, and TONE. DIRECT is without processing, SDB refers to "SMSL Dynamic Bass" - their bass boost system, and TONE allows manual +/-9dB gain in bass and treble. As you may suspect, unless specified otherwise, I stuck with DIRECT.
As an IR remote, it has to be line-of-sight +/-30-degrees from mid-line and SMSL recommends within 7m distance. As usual, I'd probably program the device into a learning universal remote if I were to keep it in my system.
Front panel is basic and non-flashy (good!). The centrally located LCD screen which can be seen in use above measures 1"x 1" which is small from a distance but the input selected (eg. "OPTI" for optical) is displayed with a larger font. You can change the color of the main text if you want (white, red, green, blue, yellow, purple). The LCD brightness isn't high which may make visibility more difficult in a bright room but for nighttime listening the setting is just fine and absolutely unobtrusive especially with a darker color like blue for text color.
It has 2 knobs - the left one allows you to toggle between menu items and settings. The right knob is the on/off switch when pushed down for a few seconds. When it's on, a quick click down mutes the device and rotating the knob acts as volume control.
You can also see the headphone output on the front. As with most devices, it will detect the presence of headphones in the socket and mute the amp while in use.
Here's the back. Standard IEC power connector. Right / left binding post output to the speakers - I just used locking banana plugs. A collection of 3 digital inputs - asynchronous USB, S/PDIF TosLink and coaxial. Then there are a series of analogue RCA's - line level output from the DAC if you want to use your own amplifiers, analogue (CD) input, then analogue phono input with accompanying ground lug to the far left.
No fancy features like network input, WiFi or Bluetooth. It's designed as a no nonsense integrated amplifier and quality DAC.
I found the metal enclosure sturdy and the device has a solid feel to it. It weighs in at less than 5 lbs which means it's not going to strain any actual bookshelf you might want to put it on. Notice that the exterior has a matte black consistency to it. While I prefer a bushed metal look, at least it's not highly reflective but it can be harder to keep clean when fine dust or oily fingerprints get on the surface.
II. Features & Internals
|I've got my 1MORE Quad Driver headphones plugged in playing Imagine Dragons' Night Visions. Notice on the front screen that it's using the "OPTIcal" input, headphone volume at 14 (out of 40), PCM 44.1kHz input. My digital camera accentuated the brightness of the LCD screen. In use, the background is clearly dimmer than the picture.|
III. Subjective Sound Quality
For a more familiar comparison, I took the SMSL A6 home and downstairs to my main listening room... As a size comparison, just have a look at how small this device is compared to my Emotiva XPA-1L monoblocks, Emotiva XSP-1 preamp, DAC and speakers sitting on top of the Technics SL-1200 turntable!
I hooked up the Raspberry Pi 3 Touch player via USB to the SMSL A6 input for a listen. The Raspberry Pi 3 had no issues detecting the A6 using piCorePlayer. As usual, select the proper USB input:
Subjectively, I'm sure it will come as no surprise that a modern Class D amp sounds good. What is noticeable of course is the fact that we are looking at a 22Wpc (into 8-ohms, 0.1% THD) amplifier here compared to my 250W (into 8-ohms, 0.1% THD) Emotiva XPA-1L monoblocks! Although the Paradigm Signature S8v3 speakers are reasonably efficient at ~92dB in room, when I run DSP room correction which applies a bit of attenuation, at 100% volume on the SMSL A6, the volume is loud but certainly not intolerable in my room of about 15' x 20' x 8' size. I have never pushed the XPA-1L monoblocks to 0dB on the preamp in actual listening; that would just be painfully loud and subject one to premature hearing loss!
Apart from the expected power limitation, the only thing I thought I noticed was a little more harshness in some of the compressed pop/rock music. For example, listening to the recent Coldplay & The Chainsmokers tune "Something Just Like This" (off Memories... Do Not Open, 2017, DR5), the vocal sibilance was a bit harsh compared to the monoblocks. Though I would not consider modern pop audiophile fare, I figured it was worth noting.
High quality recordings sounded great - Doug MacLeod's Break The Chain (2017, DR16) is a good example of a modern hi-res recording with great dynamic range, lots of detail and nuance for those into straight-up blues. The recording BTW was done by "Prof." Keith O. Johnson at Skywalker Sound with the CD release apparently still encoded as a HDCD (even in 2017). Great lyrics, performance and sound quality on the title track for example. Beautiful how the instruments just "hang" in the atmosphere enhanced by the natural sounding percussion section.
Something I liked about the A6's USB input is that even when switching between different sources, the USB connection remained intact from the perspective of the streamer. On some DACs like my TEAC UD-501, when I switch out of the USB input, the device will disconnect from the streamer or computer. Not so with the A6. I can switch between the different inputs while playing from USB and the streamer won't skip a beat.
Remember that there are quite a number of options out there when it comes to small integrated amplifiers like this with DAC functionality. For example, there are the inexpensive Onkyo A-9050 (75Wpc into 8-ohms, a little larger, US$350), NAD D3020 (30Wpc into 4-ohms, Bluetooth aptX, US$400), TEAC AI-301DA (same ICEpower 50ASX2 amplifier as the A6, US$400) and PS Audio Sprout (32Wpc into 8-ohms, US$500) around the same price range as this SMSL A6. Higher up in price we have the NAD D7050 (50Wpc into 4-ohms, network streaming, US$800), and the ELAC Element EA101EQ-G Integrated (US$700, 2.1 channels, 80Wpc into 4-ohms). Even higher up the price range, one could look at the beautiful Marantz HD-AMP1 (US$1100, 35Wpc 8-ohms, 2.1 channels), Peachtree nova150 (US$1800) and nova300 (US$2500). The Peachtree novas are using higher power versions of the B&O's ICEpower amps internally. Each device will have varying features like a remote control, number of digital inputs, Bluetooth, phono input for turntables, samplerate & DSD capability, headphone output quality, etc... Important to do some research to find the right features for your needs.
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