|As you can see, the SMSL DO100 displays DSD samplerate in the form of DSD64 (64 x 44.1kHz = 2.8MHz), DSD128 (5.6MHz), DSD256 (11.3MHz) and DSD512 (22.6MHz).|
I. DSD Performance
As a convenient "battery" which allows us to look at a number of characteristics, let's start with the RightMark as I usually do with PCM testing. Since there is typically quite a bit of noise with DSD, let's just look at side-by-side comparisons of 24/192 DSD-encoded signals at various rates with the native PCM playback; this will show us the noise up to 96kHz. XLR output was measured for best performance:
The synthetic RightMark test signal originated as a 24-bit PCM so the conversion to 1-bit DSD is to some degree "lossy". One does not expect exact measured resolution but it should be close. Indeed, if we look at the numbers above, the results are close with similar frequency response, dynamic range around -120dB(A) or even better, and likewise very low distortion results.
|For DSD graphs, due to the high ultrasonic noise, sometimes a simple noise graph will be misaligned. This can be realigned in the -60dB Dynamic Range graph while still showing the noise shaping effects.|
|The little spikes at the bottom in the above image represent low-level random noise that fluctuates during the measurement.|
II. Subjective Impressions
|Size-wise, this is a relatively small DAC - smaller than the Raspberry Pi "Touch" streamer in width. Notice BTW that I'm playing the album as 48kHz. As an old 1986 analogue recording, the Top Gun OST was released in 1999 on SACD and the rip did not suggest anything more than 16/48 resolution was needed.|
Okay then, with the objective content out of the way, let's talk about how this device sounds subjectively with some music.
As per usual testing procedure, I listened to this DAC in my sound room for a couple of evenings for some initial impressions prior to sticking it on the measurement test bench.
It's Top Gun summer blockbuster time. As a child of the '80s, there is clearly no way the original Top Gun OST (1986, DR11) will be supplanted by any sequel soundtrack! The new Top Gun: Maverick OST (2022, DR8) has reprised a number of the tracks including Harold Faltermeyer's "Anthem" and Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone". Much of the music consists of soundtrack instrumentals (with many tracks giving Lady Gaga scoring credits) and there are not as many songs and no great ballads here like Berlin's "Take My Breath Away", or even secondary pop hits like Loggins' "Playing With The Boys".
Lady Gaga's "Hold My Hand" is clearly the attempt here at creating a hit single and possibly targeting the Oscars Best Original Song category. I'll need to listen to this a few more times to determine if I really like this song. To me it doesn't have the "sweetness" of '80s pop, and there's an awkwardness here suggesting that Gaga's just trying a little too hard... OneRepublic's "I Ain't Worried" sounds alright, much like most generic pop I hear these days and just not memorable.
Regardless, the SMSL DO100 handled the live Miles Teller cover of "Great Balls of Fire" conveying good vitality, plenty of resolving ability to differentiate the numerous voices and incidental audience noises. Good width and depth to the soundstage. The classic Faltermeyer "Main Titles (You've Been Called Back to Top Gun)" theme sounds beautiful with variations throughout the score - evoking wonderful memories from decades back (I'm reminded of the first time I watched Top Gun on a Laser Disc and experienced Dolby Pro Logic, no AC3 back then, in a friend's home theater), revisited now in the 21st Century.
Moving on from blockbuster soundtracks, I've been enjoying the social activism, protest rock of Midnight Oil's Resist (2022, DR5). Yeah, it's very much compressed sound but the material is good, including catchy melodies ("Lost at Sea"). Important lyrics to ponder upon in tracks like the urgency of "Rising Seas", the slower meditative "We Resist", and hopeful inspiration of "We Are Not Afraid". Since the first time I heard Diesel and Dust (1987, DR14), I've been impressed by the band's sincerity and passion. Although I have not followed the band over the years with every release, I know some critics have suggested that this new album is some of their strongest material in years.
No problem with full frequency extension through this DAC (one would not expect any issues given the frequency response!). Despite the restricted dynamic range of the album, the songs come through "loud and clear" for the most part. Although there's a significant amount of peak limiting applied, audible distortions were not obtrusive except very obviously on "Nobody's Child" where the cymbals and high-hats sounded harsh, unnatural. Also the louder, complex portions on tracks like "Reef" (around 4:00) is a reminder that this is obviously not "audiophile" sound quality.
With the death of longtime bassist/vocalist Bones Hillman in 2020, it looks like the current tour will be the last for Midnight Oil. Check 'em out if you can. (I regret that I missed their stop here in Vancouver on June 1st.)
Alright, how about some "audiophile approved" tracks?
There are a number of demo discs from audiophile "high end" brands and Burmester released a series of "Reference" discs a couple decades back. There's also this newer one shown above - Burmester Selection Volume 1 (2017, DR10). Of course as an audiophile demo disc, one cannot go wrong when Nils Lofgren's "Keith Don't Go" is one of the tracks in this compilation. ;-)
Track 1 Scarlatti's "Sonata in C Major, K.406" is a nice piano workout for your system. Excellent attack on the keys with realistic sound envelope. Nice sense of space with the piano sounding a bit further back behind the plane between the speakers. Good articulation and dynamic variation as well. This is followed by Al Di Meola's rendition of the Beatles' "And I Love Her" on guitar (amazing guitarist) which sounded awesome - the realism of the guitar was goosebumps-inducing.
The techno-beat female-vocals of Norwegian Kari Bremnes' "Spor (2015 Version)" has a nice vibe and I had no idea what it was about until I saw this translation for "Birds". Tight bass, excellent clarity and presence of the vocals. Mckinley Black's "My Diamond Mine" is one of those excellent acoustic, broad soundstage recordings with singer front and center, guitar and bass spread out behind the singer. A typical well-recorded Stockfisch track.
While admittedly I don't listen to these audiophile demo albums usually, it's good to have a few of these in the streaming library when friends and family come by for a listen to what "hi-fidelity" sounds like. Needless to say, the S.M.S.L. DO100 reproduced the tracks wonderfully and shows its ability to just play back material like this in a "transparent" fashion.
I've been a fan of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's since I was turned on to the fantastic recording Tabula Rasa more than a decade back. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chor Des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Choir) went back to work to record many of the tracks on Pärt's Miserere (2021, DR12); a liturgical composition which was penned back in 1992. Pärt has been credited with bringing sacred/spiritual works back to the mainstream audience and this is another rewarding example. Much of this work is minimalistic ("Versus III"), other times dramatic and dynamic ("Dies irae" - Day of Wrath).
The recording itself sounds excellent through the DO100 on my system. Choral voices are smooth and clear with the ambiance of the venue (BR Studio 1 for many of the tracks) nicely captured and envelops the listener in the sweet spot. Beyond the standout multipart "Miserere", there are a few other choral works including "Tribute to Caesar" and "Which Was the Son of..."; the latter starting off this recording and seeds the contemplative atmosphere.
After a long day at work, sometimes it's nice to get into the "man cave", turn on some music like this and "float" into the spiritual ether...
For a taste of Pärt's music to those who are not already familiar with this composer, consider the compilation The Very Best of Arvo Pärt (2010, 2CDs, DR13). There's some great stuff here including excerpts from the aforementioned Tabula Rasa, parts of Magnificat Antiphons, and versions of Fratres.
Again, excellent sound quality from the DO100 with these acoustic recordings. Strings reproduced with natural timbre (lovely performance by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra on "Summa"), superb separation of the multiple vocal parts on "Cantate Domino", and smooth, gentle overlay of voices and organ on "Beatus Petronius" (composed for 2 church organs and 2 choirs).
Of interest, contrast "Beatus Petronius" with the dynamic power of "Statuit ei Dominus" which is a piece also commissioned for the 600th anniversary of the Basilica San Petronio in Bologna; both can be found on Adam's Lament (2012, DR14).
Let's end off with one more album I had a listen to while evaluating the other night. How about a live concert soundtrack? I ripped George Michael's Live In London (2009, DR10) Blu-Ray awhile back with both the 24/48 2.0 PCM, and also decent 5.1 DTS-HDMA multichannel versions. While I would highly recommend multichannel for live recordings to better reproduce the energy and ambiance in the performance venue, the 2.0 version, played over the S.M.S.L. DO100 certainly does a great job reproducing Michael's interactions with the crowd and backing vocalists on "Faith". Good pace and bass on the electropop "Fastlove". The live version of "A Different Corner" is perhaps my favourite recording of George's amazing voice.
While the measurements show excellent DSD performance, I only spent maybe 30 minutes browsing through some SACD rips. It has been years since I listened to Arne Domnérus' Jazz At The Pawnshop, or Ennio Morricone's The Mission. As discussed last week in the comments, I don't think DSD64 is completely transparent but it does have a sweetness to the sound that I think works well with analogue recordings like these which were never really "high-res" to begin with, yet still compelling and as good as I've heard these albums played.
The SMSL DO100 is very very much "perceptible perfect" as far as I can tell. It just plays the audio data it's fed without editorializing.
III. Final Conclusions
|Nice sounding pairing: S.M.S.L. DO100 connected directly into Hypex nCore NC252MP amp. To my front Paradigm Signature Reference S8 v.3 speakers (not shown).|
I am very impressed by this little SMSL DO100 DAC; simply excellent, near state-of-the-art objective and IMO sonically transparent performance at around US$250 which I believe will hold its own against basically anything out there regardless of price fidelity-wise.
Objectively, while I'm sure we will see even more resolving DACs in the future at this price point, I think we have to be very honest with ourselves in questioning just how much more resolution is needed. With 7 filters to choose from, essentially perfect time-domain performance with at worst microscopic jitter through all inputs (USB, S/PDIF coaxial, Toslink), true hi-res performance even down to THD+N below -120dB at 0dBFS and dynamic range of 125dB over the XLR output, uniform performance across all PCM sample rates, and excellent low-noise, low distortion DSD playback, I really have nothing to complain about. I suppose the only nit-pick I can propose is that they could improve the intersample overload characteristics of those digital filters.
In terms of "look and feel", well, it's a small black metal box which feels robust and has a useful remote control mainly to turn ON/OFF, select inputs and adjust volume. LED brightness setting is nice and should be standard these days for darker rooms. Also nice to have both RCA and XLR output (not balanced TRS like on Topping D10 Balanced or their E50 that might require an adaptor). In my sound room, while I will more likely use the remote, I do prefer the large control knob like this on the front over push button controls, looking a bit more elegant and cleaner. I did not run into any control issues or playback problems with S/PDIF when fed the digital out from my Squeezebox Touch, or a Raspberry Pi + JustBoom Digi HAT. As discussed in Part I, perhaps the DPLL setting could come in useful if you have very jittery S/PDIF sources like TVs or older CD transports.
Comparing the objective performance of this DAC with others, while we can say that the Topping D90SE with its ESS ES9038Pro DAC can provide even higher dynamic range and lower distortion (in PCM at least), we again need to question whether the improvements are necessary. I would strongly suggest that they are not audible.
Unless over the last few months Topping updated the D90SE firmware to address inconsistencies in distortion level (ie. I found higher distortions >96kHz playback) and improved the DSD noise level, this little DAC performed with none of those issues.
Arguably, with the release of the Topping D90LE (~US$800) which incorporates processing like "Tube Simulation" that increases significant amounts of harmonic distortion, we have reached the point of recognition even among hardware manufacturers that we are near the end of the pursuit for "high fidelity" alone in modern DACs. Perhaps it is also time to "scientifically" start giving the end-user control over their "euphonic distortion" preferences as well.
Maybe in the near future, the goal of digital audio is not just ubiquitous hi-res/hi-fi playback, but also to make tube preamps obsolete. Without purchasing any other piece of equipment, the DAC then might be able to satisfy the desires of both the "high-fidelity enthusiast" and the "euphonophilic" audiophile. ;-)
There was an interesting discussion in the last blog post's comments section from KSTR about glitches that one might see in the 6-bit SDM of the Topping D10 Balanced (ESS ES9038Q2M) with noise modulation and the potential for "ripples" related to output levels.
Previously I had published the THD vs. Frequency graph using typically 1dB stepped level 1kHz sine:
Notice that the harmonics start to rise from about -25dBFS up as highlighted in the graph above. The relative amount of distortion looks chaotic at this resolution. The result above was from back in August 2021 before some significant upgrades more recently.