Tag Archives: Sources

Astell & Kern SE180 Review – Big, Brash & Beautiful

Pros –

Class-leading build quality, Bright & sharp screen, Impeccably executed musical tonality, Excellent dynamics and extension, Top-level background cleanliness, Highly defined note presentation, Dead silent noise floor, Modular DAC & AMP setup, Fast WiFi and wide BT codec support

Cons –

Large and heavy for a portable source, Fiddly 3rd party app installation, SOC struggles to push a 1080p display, Neither modules suit those wanting perfect neutrality

Verdict –

The SE180 comes across as a beautifully formed transportable source with plenty of gusto for home use, decent portability and no shortage of convenient smart features.

Introduction –

Astell & Kern are one of the most internationally renowned DAP companies in the audio market. Incidentally, if you’ve scrutinised their marketing material, you’ll likely notice that they aren’t the most transparent about specifications nor are the raw specifications of their devices market leading. This aligns well with my personal philosophy; that the day to day experience of a device cannot be fully encapsulated by numbers. For A&K’s strengths have always lied in their ability to provide a refined, high-end user experience achieved through premium design and thought-out software. The proof is in the pudding as their DAPs are some of the most popular and well-regarded on the market. The new SE180 is the third product in their A&futura line featuring interchangeable all-in-one audio modules, Teraton Alpha audio technology and an updated UI with added functions for convenience. The modularity of this DAP means users can change both the amplifier and DAC setup in addition to opening up future upgrades, whilst retaining a familiar premium build and usability experience.

The Astell & Kern SE180 is available from Addicted to Audio and Minidisc for $2099 AUD at the time of writing. You can read all about it and treat yourself to a unit from either retailers. Also see Busisoft’s website to find other authorised local dealers.

Contents –

Behind the Design –

Teraton Alpha

Video courtesy of Astell & Kern

This includes a range of innovations and designs from Astell & Kern to optimise the implementation of their chosen DAC chips. The company designs their audio circuits from the ground up to minimise noise and optimise power consumption and amplification without compromising audio output. They break this down into three components:

  • Audio Power: A&K reason the power supply is the foundation of a high-quality listening experience, responsible for the delivery of low noise, clean power to the rest of the circuit. A&K use proprietary methods to remove power noise though do not further divulge the specifics in their material.
  • Amplifier: A&K boast an advanced AMP technology that features efficient power consumption and high-power output. In addition to targeting high efficiency, A&K are using a patented wiring structure that improves crosstalk as well.
  • Audio interface: The audio interface converts digital signals to analogue and is responsible for final output. The company use patented audio signal muting and digital signal conversion amongst other features to realise a better listening experience.

Interchangeable All-in-One Modules

Image provided by Astell & Kern

While most higher-end DAPs now feature some sort of modularity, Astell & Kern take this one step further with their all-in-one modules. Not only does this offer the option to change the available outputs, the listener can also swap modules with different DAC chips and amplifiers to suit their sonic preferences. Using a double-locking design, the modules require no screwdriver to swap yet retain a reliable connection.

Smart Integration

Built atop Android with a full radio system in-place, the SE180 supports a host of smart features to aid convenience. This includes AK File Drop, allowing the user to wirelessly transfer files to the device in addition to BT 5.0 with full apt-X HD and LDAC codec support. In addition, the DAP supports BT Sync which can permit the device to act as a Bluetooth receiver to another smart device, where the user is able to take advantage of the high quality audio output.

Unboxing –

Astell & Kern provide a premium unboxing experience to match the product itself. The box has layered card, providing depth to the experience. Inside is the DAP and I was satisfied peeling off the numerous protective covers coating all sides. Just below lies the accessories, a high-quality 1m USB-A to Type-C cable, quick start guide and 3 film screen protectors. The SE180 comes with the SEM1 audio module with the ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip. I also received the SEM2 module which is based of a dual AK4497EQ DAC chip with identical outputs, more on this in the audio section.

OEM Case

In addition, I received the official A&K leather case which will run you an additional $150 USD. Though expensive, this is also the nicest OEM case I’ve come across by a wide margin. It boasts a genuine Italian Minerva leather construction and has an aroma to match. The case delivers a supple in-hand feel and, in turn, button feedback is retained. It offers a perfect fit for the SE180 as you’d expect from an OEM product. The cut-outs around both the Type-C port and Audio outs are generous, leaving ample room for large plugs, even those without a case friendly protrusion.

The larger top cut-out also means the case works with all of A&K’s audio modules. The side cover tucks beneath the back face to provide a seamless and streamlined aesthetic with no open sides that would leave the DAP prone to scratches. A&K reason the high oil content of this particular leather is ideal for wear properties, as it will develop a mature patina over extended use. Ultimately, if you are going to invest in a case to protect the gorgeous and expensive chassis of the SE180, I would want one that retains such a premium look and feel.

Design –

I doubt any would disagree that, in the hand, the heft and solidity of A&K’s DAPs is second to none. Though metal chassis are nothing new, the refinement of their designs has always been a highlight. The SE180 upholds the same DNA; this DAP is large and masculine, an impression reinforced by its squared off edges and astounding 380g weight. Milled from a single block of aluminium with gunmetal anodization, the SE180 screams performance and delivers unyielding solidity in the hand. The small touches are what complete this design as there are few abstract machining choices. For instance, though angular, the edges are smooth, and the corners subtly rounded to aid ergonomics.

Every edge is refined, its ports and buttons chamfered. The buttons share a metal construction and offer superb feedback. The tolerances here are impeccable with zero wobble, rattle or looseness to be found. The colour matching and articular fit with the audio modules is perfect too, even on the additional SEM2 module which isn’t something you see on most DAPs. The volume wheel is an obvious highlight of this design, the only element with a lustrous finish and one that is beautifully machined, serving to enhance both aesthetics and tactility. Like the other buttons, the wheel has zero wobble and offers especially distinct feedback between each click. Haptics and refinement don’t get much better than this.

On the flipside, the SE180 isn’t ideal for portable use and isn’t the most modern or elegant looking device if that is your priority. It’s large and relatively wide at 137 x 77 x 19.9 mm with an angular form that does little to detract from those figures in the hand or pocket. This also means its 5” display is surrounded by bezels that have been more aggressively slimmed on many modern competitors. It remains pocketable but ideally, the user would want to place it in a jacket or tote bag. I would proposition this more as an all-in-one unit designed to be the user’s sole transportable audio source for home and portable listening. Of course, a larger form factor does facilitate higher sound quality and less space efficient features such as the modular DAC/AMPs, which is the reason true enthusiast DAPs like this will never attain the slender form factors seen on modern smartphone despite the technologies being readily available.

Next Page: Usability

The post Astell & Kern SE180 Review – Big, Brash & Beautiful first appeared on The Headphone List.

Shanling M3X review: Cute and powerful


I would like to believe that all of us are aware of Shnaling. They have been releasing products in a lot of catagories lately. They started with DAPs and now they are one of the best DAP makers in the market. They have ventured in to IEMs, BT and USB DAC/Amps.

I have previously worked on their M5s, M6 and both of these were the best sounding DAP of their time, much better at balance and value proportions than their competitors like DX120 or DX160. Even the Sony ZX300 had more colored and uneven emphasis across the spectrum.

Here I have the Shanling M3X, which fills the void between the M6 and the M2X. This $500 to $200 price bracket is the stepping stone for most of the audio enthusiasts. It is a follow up to the M3S and an upgrade to the M2X, the M3X comes with a lot on improvements. It has bigger display (4.2 vs 3.2 inches), runs on more powerful hardware and has Android 7.1 (the friendliest android version for audio) operating system. Basically M3X is a chubby mobile phone without a SIM slot. One can install Play Store and enjoy a lot of stuff on this slightly smaller display. Unlike the more expensive offerings M3X opts for a mid range DAC chip ES9219C and guess what, to provide a fully balanced output it has two of these.

All of this can be bought at $339 or 30,000rs.

Get one for yourself from here:

For Indian buyers:


There M6 comes in a clean and simple looking box and a few necessary accessories can be found inside it. There is a type C cable, a user manual and a warranty card rounds up the list of things out of the box. Both the screen guards are pre applied so one needs not to bother.

They like to sell their cases separately but it would have been nice if they had bundled it with a basic case.


The M3X looks like a more evolved M5S. Its metal body is flanked by curved glasses on both back and front. At the bottom one can find the Type-C port along with SD card slot. Right side houses the signature wheel which doubles as the power and wake up button, left side has three music controller buttons and the top is house to the 4.4mm and 3.5mm sockets.

With a weight of 168g the M3X is a very light weight DAP, lighter than both my mobile phones and thanks to the bigger body it feels less dense which helps with better weight distribution. With a height of just 109mm, width of 72mm and thickness of 15.9mm The M3X feels solid in the hand and is very comfortable to operate with one hand.

Nothing is mentioned about the glasses used on both the sides and I have not tried scratching them either but the pre applied protectors do help with confidence. Thanks to the use of glass the M3X will barely survive a fall even from the height of an average table so getting a case is totally a necessity.

Display: Front side of the M3X is dominated by a 4.2 inch capacitive display with HD resolution. Touch response of the display is very good, as good as mobile displays. It has acceptable sunlight legibility and I had no problem seeing the display in direct sunlight. There is a small led just below the wheel. It turns red when charging and turns blue when fully charged.


USER INTERFACE:  The M3X runs open android 7.1 and one can use playstore and APKPure app stores to install your favourite application. It is a pure android DAP with gain setting, lowpass filter modes and wireless playback quality options. In the drop down menu we have shortcut to audio setting, gain, airplay (for media servers), PO/LO option and we have an option to switch off the android mode and go into prime mode which disables the android UI and apps turning the M3X into a pure audio source. You still have access to setting, you can access wireless connections but you can’t access any other app. It is more like a launcher where the music player takes over.

Updating the Firmware is kind of tricky. There is no software upgrade option in the setting, it has to be updated from the support app or the whole firmware can be downloaded from the official website.

The Default (pre installed) music app is Shanling Player and it is not bad at all. It has UPnP and SyncLink options built into it, you can make playlists, delete tracks at your will and other basic functions include a basic graphic EQ if EQing is the need of the hour. You can always install and use your favourite music app from playstore for better control and customizable options.

SPECIFICATIONS: To handle the Android properly the M3X carries over the Snapdragon SD430 soc (octacore) from M6 but now has only 2GB of ram with 32GB of onboard storeage. Out of the 32 GB only 24.2GB are available for storage. Ram management too is very good, most of the time it has more than 1GB of RAM is available. If you want to run games on the HD display let me tell you the SD430 can run subway surfer and other low on graphics games without much trouble but don’t expect it to run PUBG or COD.

Now moving on the audio specs it uses dual ES9219C DAC chip which gets help from KDS crystal oscillators. In single ended mode the separation has improved from 65db with M5s to 75db and balanced crosstalk goes super high to 115DB.

It has “Hi-Res” certification for both wired and wireless connectivity.

Connectivity options:-

The M3X has all the connectivity options as any other android device. After the usual wired connectivity you can connect it to your PC via the USB cable and use it as a DAC too (Shanling PC app needed).

The M3X has handful of wireless connectivity options. It has BT 4.2 and full array of Wi-Fi connectivity. It supports 2.4g and 5G dual frequency Wi-Fi. If you like BT you can stream and transmit high resolution music or do both at the same time. Connect the M3X with your mobile phone or TAB and you can use it as a high-res Bluetooth amplifier (Codec support: Two Way – LDAC & SBC; Transmit only – HWA LHDC, aptX HD & aptX). With support of UPnP you can connect to your media servers without carrying around your whole music library with you.


The M3X has a healthy 3200mah battery to keep the lights on and its battery life is mighty impressive. The official figure is 23hrs when you use single DAC mode with display off but the practical number with dual DAC mode was giving me more than 17-18hrs of playback time. This is very impressive considering its battery size and playback duration of its competitors. Playing videos YouTube or streaming video definitely drains the battery faster. Streaming audio do sustain better battery life of around 20hrs.

Exciting News is the SDM430 has QC 3.0 and can be topped up in around 1hour 40 mins with a 15w charger. Using a 10w charger will take around 2 hours and 30 mins.


M3X is a mid range DAP and is not the most powerful DAP in its price range either but it has 80mw with 3.5mm out in single DAC mode and 101mw in dual DAC mode. The 4.4mm has a power of 240mw. all these figures at 32ohm which is not bad at all. Yes, one cannot say that it will drive tricky IEMs and most of the headphones without any problem but does well with most of the IEMs I threw at it. It can struggle with planar and some multi BA IEMs. At 1ohm output impedance it is compatible with nearly most of the IEMs.

Sound quality, select pairing and conclusion on the next page.

The post Shanling M3X review: Cute and powerful first appeared on The Headphone List.

Topping 30-Pro Stack Review – Performance Credentials

Introduction –

Topping have garnered quite the following lately for their focus on objective measurement-backed performance. Their designs target ultra-linear sounds, huge driving power and high efficiency, able to achieve a versatile performance in a compact, desk-friendly form factor. While this was exemplified by their flagship 90-stack, the same technology pioneered to top the measurement charts has gradually filtered down to far more affordable models. The 30-Pro stack perhaps exemplifies all of these mantras best. These are compact, handsome devices that draw clear inspiration from the flagship stack in all regards. The D30 Pro benefits from a modern digital screen with matching knob to the A30 for a congruent aesthetic while the A30 Pro feels like a shrunken down A90 with a similar rounded frame, large volume knob and similar switch-based interface. The reason the 30 Pro stack is on everyone’s mind is because it offers similar spec and connectivity to Topping’s TOTL models but at a much cheaper price, where lower-end models relinquish balanced connectivity to hit their price point.

The A30 Pro retails for $349 USD and the D30 Pro retails for $399 USD. You can read all about them including the full specifications on Apos Audio.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank John from Apos Audio and the team at Topping very much for reaching out and for providing me with the A30 Pro and D30 Pro for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the stack free of charge, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Contents –

Behind the Design –

D30 Pro

The D30 Pro utilises a quad Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chip setup alongside XMOS’ latest XU208 USB controller enabling wide codec and balanced support. An Altera FPGA with custom Topping code ensures stable clock and jitter reduction before the DAC stage for cleaner output. The power supply has also been well considered with 8 low dropout regulators ensuring a highly stable, tightly regulated voltage to each circuit within the DAC.

A30 Pro

Perhaps more notably, the A30 Pro is the first midrange amp to combined Topping’s legendary NFCA technology with balanced IO. This enables more flexible connectivity and enhanced performance alongside perfect pairing with the D30 Pro. Of course, not all NFCA implementations are created equal, the A30 Pro utilises 10x OPA1656 op-amps augmented by Topping’s ultra-high gain feedback topology. The company reasons this enables an ultra-low noise level in addition to a wide dynamic range up to a whopping 146dB.

Design –

The Topping 30-Pro stack offers a congruent aesthetic as one would expect for matching devices. There’s a certain charm to their design which feels like a miniaturised 90-stack with similar rounded faceplates and side walls. This gives them a more modern aesthetic than the more squared off L30 and 50s stack whilst retaining a low desk footprint, most notably with regards to depth. As before, the housings are entirely aluminium with a smooth satin finish. The edges are nicely rounded and there are no visible screws on the front or sides which contributes to their impression of quality and refinement, I was very impressed with the tolerances and finish here.

The larger knobs on both devices are also welcome, being far easier to handle than the A50s. They are well-weighted with a smooth action on the A30 Pro and an affirmative click for each setting on the D30 Pro’s rotary encoder. This impression is reinforced by the D30’s large, bright OLED screen. While it doesn’t offer colour, the screen has an orange backlight that grants the stack a high-performance aesthetic, an impression accentuated by the ventilated top-plate on the A30 Pro. Finally, four large rubber feet offer good grip and vibration reduction in addition to preventing scratches.

D30 Pro

In terms of IO, both devices have internal power supplies, only requiring IEC power plugs. This means third party power cables of different lengths and right-angle configurations can be used, great for convenience and optimising the ergonomics of your setup. The D30 Pro offers XLR balanced outputs on its rear and single-ended XLR outputs. It also supports digital input via USB Type-A, optical and COAX.

A30 Pro

Speaking of which, the A30 Pro is a clear step up from the lower-end models and almost on par with the A90. It supports balanced XLR and single-ended RCA input in addition to pass-through via another pair of RCA plugs and balanced output via two 6.3mm dual-mono plugs. On the front is are 4-pin XLR and 4.4mm plugs for balanced output in addition to a 6.3mm single-ended output. A smart addition is a ground/lift switch on the rear that changes the ground point of the amp from its chassis to other equipment in the audio chain. This can help with those experiencing added noise over RCA. 

Usability –

The stack was very easy to setup, simply connect your preferred input to the D30 Pro and connect it to the A30 Pro over either single-ended or balanced depending on your use case. While no audio cables are included (unless purchased from Apos’ Ensemble program), USB and power get the user started. I enjoy having physical power switches on the rear for hard resets too.

D30 Pro

While the D30 Pro does include a remote, all settings can be accessed using the rotary encoder. In standard use, however, it can only be used to adjust volume, denoted by a handy dB readout, and clicked to cycle between its 3 digital inputs. Accessing the menu without the remote requires powering off the DAC with the rear-facing switch, holding the knob down and powering on reveals the menu. Unfortunately, it does have a steeper learning curve than some devices due to the screen’s limited resolution, showing only one number and letter.

Memorising this system can take some time but is manageable if you reference the user manual. Operation via remote is easier since there are dedicated buttons for each function and no power cycle is required. The menu offers the ability to change filters, adjust the between pre-out and line-out mode and enable/disable particular outputs. In addition, you can set the DAC to auto turn on and off when it detects USB input, and can adjust the screen brightness. Of note, the final brightness setting sets the screen to auto shut-off after 30s (without shutting down the device) which is thoughtful for home-theatre/TV setups where its light may be distracting.

While a case can be made for more comprehensive physical controls, realistically, these will be more set it and forget it options for most users. Usually I am not a form over function guy but do personally enjoy the balance Topping have achieved here if at the cost of a steeper learning curve for those that like to tinker.

A30 Pro

The A30 Pro is a far more analogue device, with no remote operation and really, no need for one. Usability is simple and streamlined, making it a pleasure to use day to day. It offers simple switch-based operation. There are two 3-position switches on the front, one toggling power off, XLR and RCA inputs (and in so doing, power on the Amp), the other toggling between its three -14, 0 and 14 dB gain settings. It’s good to see an additional gain setting here as I did find the A50s to lack granularity with sensitive IEMs without a negative gain setting. That said, astute readers will note a lack of preamp functionality.  

Powerup takes only a second and is denoted by a white LED next to the switches. I enjoy how Topping have used a diffuser, so it isn’t too bright or distracting, a nice QOL consideration. The amplifier does get noticeably warm over time, understandable given its huge output power and small size. While I was never concerned by the heat, I would recommend putting it on top of the D30 Pro to allow its ventilated housing to breathe. It does function just fine if placed below the D30 Pro which is more ideal for ergonomics as it doesn’t place strain on the ports or cable connectors.

While it still didn’t become hot to the touch in this configuration, perhaps as the sides are also ventilated, this is not ideal for the componentry over long-term use. Besides this, there is not much to complain about when using the A30 Pro. The pot is smooth, of good size wand channel imbalance is minimal unless you’re at the lowest 10 deg of the volume range; unlikely due to the inclusion of a third -14dB gain setting. All of its output can be used simultaneously, handy for comparing gear. I would have liked a 3.5mm output too but it is understandable that Topping would preference the more capable balanced standards.

Next Page: D30 Pro Sound & Comparisons

The post Topping 30-Pro Stack Review – Performance Credentials first appeared on The Headphone List.

Lotoo PAW 6000: Trickling Gold – A Digital Audio Player Review

DISCLAIMER: Lotoo provided me with the PAW 6000 in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Lotoo for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

Lotoo is an Asia-based audio manufacturer; world-renowned for their high-performing digital audio players and sources. Though they initially broke onto the scene with the explosive-sounding, button-rich PAW 5000 DAP, Lotoo hit an all-new high just recently with the flagship PAW Gold Touch; a DAP acclaimed for its clean aesthetics, rugged build, blazing-swift OS and reference-grade sound. It found favours among enthusiasts and professionals alike, especially those seeking for as colourless a sound as possible. But, at the end of the day, it was still a flagship product with a flagship price, ultimately limiting its accessibility to a certain type of consumer. Thankfully, Lotoo are not ones to rest on their laurels. What we’ve got here is their PAW 6000 DAP: A $1300, scaled-down LPGT with equal class and a musical, yet balanced tone of its own.

Image courtesy of Lotoo.cn

Lotoo PAW 6000

  • DAC chip: AKM 4493EQ
  • Output power: 300mW @ 32 Ω
  • Audio I/O: 4.4mm balanced (also line out), 3.5mm single-ended (also line out)
  • Sample rate support: Up to PCM 768kHz and DSD256
  • Key feature(s) (if any): LTOS, PMEQ II and ATE sound-shaping
  • Price: $1300
  • Website: www.lotoo.cn

Page 1: Introduction, Unboxing and Accessories, Build and Physical Controls
Page 2: GUI and Presentation, Navigation, Connectivity and Storage, Battery Life
Page 3: Sound Impressions, EFX, Noise Floor and Power
Page 4: Select Comparisons, Verdict

Unboxing and Accessories

Lotoo has always excelled at packaging, and their latest effort is no different. The PAW 6000 comes in a sleek, matte-grey box with – emulating the player itself – a pseudo-anodised finish and gold, metallic accents throughout. The image of the volume knob even has the same, cross-hatched texture as the one on the actual device; an incredibly clever detail. All in all, it’s a great effort from Lotoo with a clean look, a textured, shimmery finish and excellent accents all screaming luxury.

Inside, you’ll find the same packaging layout as Lotoo’s flagship PAW Gold Touch; really convenient and clean. At the very top is the player itself sat within foam, and underneath are its accessories divided between three smaller boxes. The first contains a truly in-depth, multilingual user manual, a warranty card and two, tempered-glass screen protectors. A part of me wishes they’d have one pre-applied, but it’s a no-issue. Installation is easy enough, and a pair should suffice for most.

In the second box, you’ll find the PAW 6000’s Type-C cable. Again, as with the Touch, I love the look-and-feel of this cable; wrapped in smooth, braided paracord, then finished with Lotoo branding and gold-plated plugs on both ends. So far, the build of it is solid too, but time will tell whether or not that’ll hold up in the long run. For reference, the black capsule that says Lotoo has now loosened on the cable that came with my Touch. Though it doesn’t hurt functionality at all, it is a ding towards user experience. So, hopefully, it won’t occur with the 6000’s cable here and ruin what’s otherwise a great extra.

And, in the third and final box, we have the PAW 6000’s gorgeous leather case. I’ve talked ad nauseam about what extras like these can do for a product’s sense of value and completeness, especially in the $1000-and-up bracket. So, it’s a huge joy to see brands like Lotoo delivering here on a consistent basis. Then, on top of that, it looks like they’ve addressed the couple issues I brought up on my Touch review as well. This case no longer has a slick, oily feel to it; now drier, smoother and more akin to tumbled leather. This has also made it tighter – more firm – to the grip. And, lastly, they’ve widened the gap at the bottom of the case, which means easy access to the player’s microSD card slot. Again, massive, massive kudos to Lotoo for not only continuing to provide these extras, but listening to feedback and improving them over time as well.

Visually, the different (or differently-treated) material has also given this leather a new texture. It’s not as granular as the Touch’s, and the finish is more matte as well, which I think gives it a more aged, artisan sort of look. The indentations for the buttons have also been brilliantly refined; now three-dimensional and clean-cut compared to the Touch’s, which isn’t as sophisticated. On the back, you’ll find the same gold stitching lining the border of the case, which – again – beautifully accents the gold on the DAP. Now, the one gripe I have – a subjective one – with this case is Lotoo have swapped out the almost-tribal-looking PAW Gold logo on the back with a cleaner PAW 6000 one instead. I preferred the former, because of how much attitude it had. But, again, it’s subjective, and I can see a lot of people preferring the understated look instead.

Build and Physical Controls

As we’ve come to expect from Lotoo, the PAW 6000 is an impeccably-built audio player. Like the Touch before it, it sports a CNC-milled, aluminium-alloy body, finished in an anodised matte-black without a jag, nor a bump, nor a wiggle in sight; truly outstanding. In the hand, the 6000, despite its robustness, is also impressively lightweight. At 225 grams, it’s barely any heavier than my daily-driver iPhone 11 Pro (with case). Then, a combination of thin bezels, tight bends and a levelled top all contribute towards the player’s wonderfully sleek silhouette, as well as its deeply modern, sophisticated aesthetic.

Furthering that motif is the 6000’s slightly altered contour, which does away with the Touch’s inward grooves in favour of smooth, outward curves; particularly, along the sides. This not only gives the DAP a more uniform silhouette throughout, it also prevents it from compromising grip at the same time. The 6000’s slight convexity makes it easy to wrap your digits around, compared to the more blocky outlines we’ve seen from DAPs in the past. Then, lastly, around the back, you’ll see a lavish, dark-mirror finish. It lends an aura of luxury to the 6000, and contrasts the matte nicely. Though I can also see it becoming a potential debris magnet over time, this shouldn’t be an issue, especially if you decide to use the leather case.

Button-wise, the PAW 6000 features the standard four: Power, Play/Pause, Previous and Next, along with a small indent on Play/Pause for easy navigation. I would’ve preferred the Touch’s layout of two bumps on the first two buttons, but, in use, I’ve truly had no issues with either. The buttons, again, are precisely milled and depress with a solid, satisfying click; a tad more than the Touch’s even. Then again, I’ve also had the latter for over a year, so that may be the difference. Lastly, you may also flip Previous and Next in software if you’ve perhaps already accustomed yourself to another brand’s orientation.

And, finally, topping off the PAW 6000’s shell is a Lotoo classic: The golden volume wheel. It’s been their calling card since the original, aptly-named PAW Gold, and I’m glad to see its continual inclusion and refinement with each new player. The 6000’s iteration has been sized down quite a tad from the Touch’s, owing to its smaller stature and its now-level top. As a result, it isn’t as easy to get to as the Touch’s, and it’s a bit more difficult to turn too. I’ve found if my thumb were right up against the case, I’d just catch the edge of the wheel with the tip. So, I probably would’ve liked the wheel just a hair wider.

The post Lotoo PAW 6000: Trickling Gold – A Digital Audio Player Review first appeared on The Headphone List.

Astell & Kern PEE51 USB-C Dual DAC Cable Review – Je Ne Sais Quoi

Pros –

Low noise floor, Flexible braided cable, Ultra-premium build quality and aesthetic design, Smooth and refined sound, Spacious stage

Cons –

Slightly higher OI can limit versatility, Type-C plug isn’t case friendly, No accessories included

Verdict –

The Dual DAC Cable ultimately showcases greater refinement in both feel and listening than even its premium competitors, however, its higher output impedance especially makes it a far more situational buy.

Introduction –

Astell & Kern are one of the most renowned DAP makers on the market with a legacy of innovative designs. One example includes new SR15 which implemented a rotated screen in order to accommodate the ergonomics of handheld use. Upon such a foundation, the company has decided to address the death of the headphone jack in smartphone design with their new Dual DAC USB cable. This dongle-style DAC/AMP sports AK’s signature aesthetic and sound design with a full metal chassis and Dual Cirrus DAC setup – one handling each channel. In turn, the company promises the same premium experience provided by their DAPs scaled down into a hyper-portable form factor and at a reasonable price. As always, the company demonstrate their prowess with a carefully considered premium design that showcases profound attention to detail.

The Dual DAC Cable retails for $169 AUD or $199 NZD at the time of launch. You can read all about the DAC/AMP and treat yourself to a set here.

Contents –

Specifications –

  • Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz
  • S/N: 118dB
  • THD + N: 0.0004% Unbalanced
  • Output Impedance: 2-Ohms
  • DAC: Cirrus Logic CS43198 x2
  • Sample Rate: PCM up to 32bit.384kHz, DSD64 (1bit, 2.8mHz) Native, Stereo, DSD128 (1bit, 5.6mHz), Stereo/DSD256 (1bit, 11.2mHz), Stereo
  • Input: USB Type-C
  • Output: 3.5mm Headphone
  • Dimensions: 17 x 50 x 10.3 mm
  • Weight: About 25g

Behind the Design –

Full Metal Housing

Reminiscent of their DAP designs, the Dual DAC Cable implements a design drawn from the concept of light and shadow. It features a robust zinc alloy build that provides a solid feel and daily durability. It has a noticeably different feel to aluminium with a premium weight and density alongside a different surface finish. The angular design was optimised for comfortable grip and one-handed use, AK also focused on providing a flawless, smooth finish. 

Dual-DAC Chipset

AK’s dongle features two of Cirrus Logic’s CS43198 MasterHIFI DAC chips supporting native DSD256 and 32bit/384kHz playback. This is Cirrus Logic’s power and space-efficient chipset superseding the CS4399. It has been designed with proprietary digital-interpolation filters and low jitter. Two chips have been implemented, one for each channel.

Independent Amplifier

AK forgo Cirrus’ integrated amplifier in favour of their own independent module – a prime differentiator from the vast majority of competing hyper-portable designs. The Dual DAC cable is built atop a micro 6-layer PCB with custom micro-resistors and tantalum capacitors designed to provide stable operation and improved capacitance for a dynamic audio performance. AK’s amplifier circuit offers 2Vrms output (no load)

Silver-Plated Copper Shielded Cable

An often-neglected part of dongle design, AK’s Dual DAC Cable features a custom-made large-gauge 4-core cable with copper noise shielding. It resembles a litz design with a combination of SPC and copper wire entwined around a centre aramid fibre damping core. Separate shielding is then applied over the cable to further shield the device from noise from the playback device.

Unboxing –

The Dual DAC Cable comes within a compact rubberized box and is nestled within a foam inlet. The experience is streamlined and no-frills. Given that the cable is soldered onto the device, no other accessories are included. For the more premium pricing, a carrying pouch would have been appreciated and perhaps a USB-A adaptor.

Design –

Visually satisfying design has always been a defining trait of Astell & Kern’s products and this same ethos is embodied here. For though the Dual DAC is one of the larger dongles I’ve reviewed, it is also one of the most premium. Furthermore, given its slim design, it doesn’t feel too substantial when stacked with a smartphone. The 2-piece Zinc alloy construction surely makes a strong first impression, feeling immediately more robust in the hand than competing plastic and aluminium designs. This experience is reinforced by an extrusion-moulded Type-C connector with matching zinc housing and the cable too impresses greatly; in my experience, one of the most overlooked aspects of dongle design.

AK’s custom 4-core braided cable is especially flexible, which in addition to the weight of the dongle itself, makes the device very easy to stack and handle alongside a smartphone. It also places less stress on the Type-C port of the playback device – and I found the dongle to provide very reliable connectivity here too. Solid rubber strain reliefs are to be observed on both terminations, however, one niggle is that he Type-C connector is quite large and features no protrusion. This means you will need a smartphone case with a large cut-out in order to use this DAC/AMP. Overall, beside the bulky connector, I found the look and feel of this dongle to be highly appealing and a prime differentiator from competitors.

Usability –

As with most competitors, the Dual DAC Cable is marketed as being plug and play on Windows, OSX, IOS and Android devices. Though I was unable to assess compatibility with Apple’s products, I experienced no difficulty using the dongle with either my Windows 10 laptop or Xperia 5 II smartphone, neither requiring unique apps or drivers to interface. On Android, however, a music playback app supporting DSD is required should you want to take advantage of this function.

The dongle also lacks an auto-power function which, to me, is a positive as it maximises compatibility and reliability. Once plugged in, the dongle powers on, denoted by a white LED indicator on its face. There’s no jack-mounted switch or timer which streamlines usability at the cost of power consumption (though realistically, the dongle would be unplugged when not in use). The dongle itself has no controls so the source devices handles playback and volume. I found the dongle to offer a good range here, suitable for sensitive in-ears with enough headroom for less sensitive headphones too.

As there is no integrated battery, the dongle is powered by the playback device. This may limit compatibility with some older smartphones that do not support power output, however, should not be a problem on modern Smartphones and laptops. Power drain was not substantial despite the robust amplifier – I found the Dual DAC Cable to draw less power than most competitors such as the Cozoy Takt-C. This suggests that the circuitry has been well-implemented to optimise efficiency. Do note that the dongle does not support 4-pole in-line remote signal but will support audio-playback on 4-pin remote cables.

Next Page: Sound & Pairings

The post Astell & Kern PEE51 USB-C Dual DAC Cable Review – Je Ne Sais Quoi first appeared on The Headphone List.

Topping D70s Review – Effortless

Pros –

Highly linear sound, Excellent detail retrieval throughout, Hard-hitting yet even bass, Wide BT codec support

Cons –

Settings menu overly-complicated to access, Volume buttons are inefficient, Large footprint

Verdict –

The D70s’ strength lies in its ability to effortlessly resolve the minutiae and do so without any fatigue, all the while upholding an almost perfectly even-handed presentation

Introduction –

I’m sure by now the vast majority are no stranger to Topping. The company has been making source devices for quite a few years now and have recently received widespread accolades for their chart-topping measurements and cost-efficient, scalable designs. The D70s represents the successor to Topping’s original D70, sitting just below the D90 in their dedicated DAC line-up. It utilises two of AKM’s AK4497EQ chips and features an upgraded XMOS 16-core XU216 microcontroller in addition to BT5.0 with LDAC support. Topping promise less jitter and native MQA decoding for a hearty jump in measurable performance over its predecessor.

The D70s retails for $649.99 USD at the time of writing. You can read more about it and treat yourself to a unit on Apos Audio (affiliate).

Disclaimer –

I would like to the team at Apos Audio for their quick communication and for providing me with the D70S for the purpose of review. The company is a sponsor of THL, however, all words are my own and no monetary incentive has been provided at any time for a positive review. Despite receiving the DAC free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Contents –

Behind the Design –

Linear Power Supply

All great sources are built atop a quality power supply and the D70s is no different, using the same linear, regulated toroidal transformer as the D90. It has 8 independent voltage regulators and 7 Nichicon electrolytic high-grade caps built for audio application that provide clean and stable power.

Dual AK4497EQ DAC Chip

At its heart lies two of AKM’s 2nd highest DAC chip, the AK4497. However, Topping were able to beat even AKM’s own reference design in terms of measurable performance, to the extent that it almost matches the flagship AK4499 as used in the D90. Besides this, the D70s implements the same Accusilicon AS317 femto-clocks and Altera MAX II CPDL FGPA module with Topping coding.

High-Performance Inputs

The D70s utilises XMOS’ latest USB chipset that enables full-MQA decoding and native playback. In addition, they pair the AKM DAC with AKM’s AK4118 chip handling digital inputs for maximum compatibility and performance. On the Bluetooth front is the CSR8675 receiver chip from Qualcomm with wide codec support and BT5.0.

Unboxing –

Similar to Topping’s amplifiers, the D70s comes within a large card box with the device itself safely secured within a laser cut foam inlet. There are adjacent cutouts for the remote, power wire, BT antenna and USB cable in addition to a user manual and warranty papers on top. The unboxing experience is simple, effective and utilitarian matching the ethos of the product itself.

Design –

As compared to the original D70, the successor boasts a slightly more sophisticated design and proud MQA certification on its faceplate. It retains the aluminium shell that provides rigidity in addition to enhanced isolation. Robust silicone feet provide a planted and stable feel on the desk. The fit and feel is also impressive with rounded edges and a nice, uniform sand-blasted finish across its exterior. Though this remains far from a modern design, especially coming from SMSL’s competing devices, with visible screws and a simplified black and white OLED display with 4-button navigation. The faceplate is squared off and protrudes noticeably from the housing rather than sitting flush. In turn, I find this design to be nowhere near as sleek as the D90 or even the former D70 to my eyes. However, this can also suggest that the device is intended to be stacked or contained.

Otherwise, it feels solid and robust; Topping are clearly capable of providing strong build quality and the D70s’ BOM are well considered. The device does have quite a large footprint, being the largest Topping DAC in fact, which is something to consider if you have small desk. It is clearly larger than my THX789 and the SMSL SU-9, especially in width. The control scheme is button-based as opposed to the rotary encoders we’ve seen implemented elsewhere. On the rear are the inputs and outputs. A power switch sits adjacent to the plug and a voltage selection switch is located on the right-hand side since this device uses a linear power supply that cannot automatically adjust for different voltages. The D70s supports AES, COAX, USB, Optical, I2S and Bluetooth inputs while providing XLR and RCA outputs.

Usability –


The D70s provides, to me, a versatile experience albeit not the most intuitive one for the user. It excels best, in my experiences, as an all-in-one DAC used not just for headphones but also speakers and perhaps even a media/TV setup. This is because the device is, by far, easier to navigate with the included remote, which can be inconvenient to constantly have on hand during use in a regular headphone/desk setup.

Accessing the sound setting menu without the remote requires powering off the device using the rear-facing power switch, holding the sel button and switching the DAC back on. Otherwise, when on, the sel button simply changes sources, the arrows the level of the pre-amp output unless set to pure DAC-mode (in which volume control is disabled). It’s frustrating that holding the sel button whilst the device is on offers no further functionality here as would be intuitive.

Apart from this, the D70s provides a streamlined experience and users shouldn’t feel the need to constantly tweak these settings during daily use. It also features an auto-power on feature which is super handy for use with a PC setup. A small niggle, the volume control via the front-facing buttons is noticeably slower than a rotary-encoder, however, source selection is quick and clearly denoted by the large OLED display. The DAC also constantly provides status of the inputs/outputs in use, the volume setting and the sampling rate it is currently using.


The Bluetooth input is also easy to use, simply change to the BT source input and it becomes discoverable by any BT source. The D70s promptly paired to my Xperia 5 II over an LDAC connection. On the phone I was able to prioritise either signal stability or sound quality in addition to LDAC’s usually auto-scaling function. The wide codec support of this DAC is a huge plus, providing the convenience of wireless with surprisingly low-quality degradation. Of course, this is not how the DAC will be assessed but is surely handy when listening to music during social events. I found the connection to be stable and the range easily sufficient to traverse a large room without any form of intermittency or artefacts on behalf of the external antenna.

Next Page: Sound Breakdown & Verdict

The post Topping D70s Review – Effortless first appeared on The Headphone List.

SMSL SH-9 Review – Modernisation & Moderation

The Pitch –

The SH-9 is SMSL’s midrange headphone amplifier featuring THX AAA-888 technology and is marketed as a direct upgrade to the SH-8 that launched 2 years ago. It retails for $289.99 USD at the time of writing.

Pros –

Modern design and UI, Digital volume control with zero channel-imbalance, Balanced and detailed sound, Well-rounded soundstage, Sub 1-ohm OI

Cons –

Some hiss on very sensitive IEMs, Delay on changing volume and gain, Could do with a little more body and dynamics

Verdict –

Pairing the SH-9 with SMSL’s matching DAC, the user is treated to a delightfully modern and natural sounding stack that doesn’t disappoint.

Introduction –

Where most industries seem to be moving towards integration and convenience, the audio world almost seems to celebrate the analogue, purpose-built legacy long left behind. SMSL’s SH-9 serves as a refreshing change; a modernisation of the headphone amplifier with trick colour-screen GUI and the latest THX AAA module inside. Following the SU-9 balanced DAC, the new SH-9 plays AMP duty to their previous release like the 8-series before it. The SH-9 implements the same modern design with high-res colour screen and handy rotary encoder. It implements 2 mono-amplification blocks to provide balanced output – though take note that the output power and noise characteristics are the same between single-ended and balanced outputs so this is mostly useful to optimise connectivity and prevent ground loops. Similar to the SP200 before it, the SH-9 uses THX’s lauded AAA-888 amp stage and it appears as if SMSL have learnt a thing or two since as the noise figures are noticeably lower on their newest amplifier despite power figures remaining the same.

You can read more about the SMSL SH-9 and treat yourself to a unit on Apos Audio. Be sure to peruse their Ensemble range for discounts when purchasing the SMSL 9-series stack.

Disclaimer –

I would like to the team at Apos Audio for their quick communication and for providing me with the SH-9 for the purpose of review. Apos is a sponsor of THL and affiliate links may be used in this review. However, I personally receive no monetary kickback or incentive for sales or a positive review, all words are my own. Despite receiving the AMP free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Contents –

Specifications –

  • Frequency Response: 0.1 Hz – 500,000 Hz
  • SNR: >137 dB
  • THD: < 0.00006%
  • Balanced IO
  • 256-level relay volume control
  • Switchable gain with pop-less design
  • Output Power: 6W x 2 (16Ω), 3W x 2 (32Ω), 440mW x 2 (300Ω), 220mW x 2 (600Ω)
  • Dimensions: 187.5 x 154 x 40mm

Behind the Design –


If you’re anything Like me, you were probably introduced to THX by the infamous deep note that resounded at the beginning of countless films in the 80’s and 90’s. THX are an audio and video certification company but also develop their own technologies according to their stringent standards. Their AAA (achromatic audio amplifier) technology has perhaps been most lauded, consisting of patented feed-forward error correction topology, super low noise and high efficiency. In practice, we’ve seen a wealth of new Amp designs featuring THX AAA tech at their core boast excellent measurable performance in addition to huge power output. Though tough competitors have come to challenge the throne, THX’s AAA amps are surely nothing to scoff at. You can read THX’s technical breakdown here.

Unboxing –

The unboxing experience is much like the SU-9 with a clean card sleeve containing specifications and model designation that slides off a hard card box. The amp lies within nestled inside a protective foam inlet. Beside is a power cable that can be changed for your region in addition to the remote control. No other accessories are included such as a 1/4″ to 3.5mm adaptor though I’m sure most users are already in possession. It’s a simple yet effective unboxing and enough to get the user started.

Design –

Coming from my brutish THX 789, the SH-9 was a breath of fresh air. This is a sleek metal-clad design modernised by a front-facing colour screen and a high-tech complement to SMSL’s matching DAC. Indeed, those familiar with the SU-9 DAC will find a very familiar experience here with identical dimensions and UI, both also featuring right-hand rotary encoders. And this is a key part of the SH-9’s design, featuring digital volume control. You do miss the weight and smoothness of a standard analogue pot but there’s also no noise or channel imbalance throughout the volume range.

The unit has good heft and sturdiness, and benefits from a clean and even black finish alongside nicely rounded edges for a premium feel. Of note, colour matching between the SH-9 and SU-9 units I have on hand is perfect which is good to see as this isn’t always the case with these products that can vary between batches. Similar to the SU-9 there are only 3 silicone feet on the base which makes it a little less stable when stacked. I have a space limited desk and place my B&W MM-1 speakers on top of my audio stack where rocking can become irksome. Still, an additional foot is easily added, albeit a strange niggle to me.

The IO experience also accompanies that of the SU-9 with two 3-pin XLR inputs on the rear to take advantage of its balanced design alongside RCA single-ended. Do note that there are no preamp outputs, however, the SU-9 does have RCA outputs for those who purchase the entire stack. Besides this, there’s only a 3-pin power input as the SH-9 does have an internal power supply. This is a plus for those requiring larger cable lengths for their setup as this cable is easily swapped out. At the front, the experience is fairly standard, with XLR balanced output, ¼” single-ended output, colour screen and rotary encoder that handles volume and UI navigation. It’s a streamlined and refined package that looks decades newer than the 8-series before it and most competitors in its price range for that matter.

Usability –

As expected, the SH-9 is a breeze to setup and operate, simply plug in the power, inputs and enjoy. While the GUI does bring greater flexibility over a standard button-based interface, I also didn’t find it hamper quick operation of its basic functions; the controls and menu layout is well-considered in my experience. Besides this, the SH-9 provides a refined experience as you would expect from any high-quality source device. There are no noises or pops when plugging/unplugging headphones nor when powering the device on or off. Similarly, the adoption of digital volume control means there are no noises introduced when changing volume nor is there channel imbalance at low volumes. I did note that the unit got quite warm over hours of use, especially with SU-9 on top, but never hot or uncomfortable to touch. Still, it may be better to place the AMP on top which will give it more surface area to dissipate heat.   


With the SH-9 and SU-9 both lined up on my desk, I was able to enjoy the fluidity between usability the company had created. The control scheme is essentially identical to its DAC counterpart with rotary encoder that enables the user to adjust volume with a push granting access to the menu system. This means the SH-9 is able to achieve a clean and button free aesthetic with gain, input, vol mode, screen brightness and software information accessible by the onscreen menu. However, this also introduces additional steps, say, when moving from a headphone to IEM and adjusting gain accordingly, the user has to navigate through the menu rather than simply pressing a physical button as on most amps. The volume control is also less sensitive than a physical pot so it can take some time to adjust between different gear but there are 256-steps of fine control making it easier to set and forget. Besides this, the SH-9 is a simple and fluid device to operate and using the remote can speed up interacting with the device. One upside to purchasing the full SMSL stack is that one remote can be mapped to operate both the DAC and AMP. As before, the screen is bright and sharp and the UI is quick and without issues such as freezing or lag. I also didn’t notice any coil whine on this unit as I did on the SU-9 and didn’t find a negative gain setting necessary as the digital volume system offers a bit more fine control at the lowest volumes for sensitive IEMs than pot designs. Overall, a good user experience.

Next Page: Sound Breakdown

The post SMSL SH-9 Review – Modernisation & Moderation first appeared on The Headphone List.

SMSL SU-9 Review – Epiphany

Pros –

Linear sound with dead neutral tone, Coherent and layered presentation, Outstanding resolution, Intuitive UI with remote, Effective sound colour modes, High-quality BT implementation

Cons –

Only 3 rubber feet can wobble when stacked, Prominent coil whine, No single-ended outputs, Smoother top-end won’t suit all

Verdict –

The SU-9 is for those wanting a balanced DAC with a pure sound, excellent staging and strong resolving power without spending a small fortune to get it.

Introduction –

Though almost as diverse as the in-ear and headphone market, buying a source has been heavily simplified by many online resources – buy the JDS Atom and Khadas Tone Board if you’re on a budget, the THX789 and SMSL SU-8 if you value balanced output (albeit at a higher cost). We’ve certainly reached a point where sources are less imperative simply due to the majority now measuring better than the capabilities of human hearing. Is that to say that all sources sound the same or that high-end audio no longer has a place? The answer is invariably not so simple. So, welcome the SMSL SU-9, an update to the SU-8 that features two of ESS’ flagship 9038PRO DAC chips built atop completely redesigned and upgraded circuitry. It promises further improved performance while introducing a higher-res colour screen and Bluetooth in addition to a new external design.

The SU-9 is available for $439.99 USD. You can read more about it and purchase one for yourself from Apos Audio.

Disclaimer –

I would like to the team at Apos Audio for their quick communication and for providing me with the SU-9 for the purpose of review. The company is a sponsor of THL, however, all words are my own and no monetary incentive has been provided at any time for a positive review. Despite receiving the DAC free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Specifications –

  • MQA decoding
  • Remote control
  • THD+N: 0.000095%
  • SINAD: 120dB
  • Linearity: Perfect accuracy to -120dB/20 bits
  • Inputs: USB, Optical, Coax, Bluetooth
  • Outputs: XLR, RCA

The Pitch –

ESS 9038Pro

Though the SU-9 may appear identical to the SU-8 at a glance, it’s important to note the distinction between tiers of 9038. This is the current flagship chip line of ESS but not all are made equally; think of this like a car platform, with cheaper, more efficient incarnations being stripped down but operating from the same chassis. The PRO variant is more expensive than the Q2M and draws more power in return for better performance. It is an 8-channel converter as opposed to the Q2M that only offers 2-channels, enabling it to use 4:1 summing to achieve a 6 dB SNR improvement – about double the performance in this regard since the dB scale is logarithmic.

Balanced Design

There are undisputed benefits to a balanced desktop audio setup. Much of this comes down to the elimination of ground loops and noise rejection, some implementations may also offer lower stereo crosstalk. By eliminating ground loops, balanced audio does not necessarily increase audio quality, but ensures a best-case scenario for performance. It can also offer double voltage swing helpful for high-impedance gear. Often this comes at the cost of doubling the output impedance and cost of production as you essentially need to double the componentry. There has been much discussion on the net so I won’t ramble as this is not a field I am not qualified to dissert nor is it the intention of this review.

Unboxing –

The SU-9 has a straight-forward unboxing similar to SMSL’s other products. Inside the outer sleeve is a card box with the DAC within. It is well-protected within a foam inlet with a plastic sheet that prevents scratches. Beside it is the 3-pin power cable and remote alongside papers. Of note, the power cable is very short, only about 1m long which may limit placement or require the purchase of a longer cable for some setups. Though it would have been nice to see some cables included as well considering the more premium price-point, I do acknowledge that many audiophiles prefer to select each component themselves – so a lower price point in exchange for fewer accessories here is acceptable.

Design –

The SU-9 assumes a svelte form factor that’s a departure from its predecessor. Though it is no work of art like some high-end sources, the 3-piece housing feels well-constructed, being all aluminium and featuring even seems and flush joins. The edges are chamfered and soft on the skin while the anodized finish is even and consistent. The base feels a little hollow when tapped and this isn’t aided by tightening the four corner screws, though play or other noises aren’t apparent once placed on a surface. The front face sports a relatively high-resolution TFT LCD colour display alongside a rotary encoder.

The rear houses the main interfaces that have been expanded relative to the SU-8 as well. Users also no longer have to set the input voltage, it automatically accepts 100-240v 50-60Hz through the 3-pin connector. Beside is a short antenna for its new Bluetooth input in addition to Coaxial, USB and optical inputs. A dividing line separates the inputs from the outputs, that being two 3-pin XLR outs for balanced and two RCA for preamp functionality.

The SU-9 also features an internal power supply that gives the device a nice heft in the hand and stability on the table in addition to omitting the need for an external power brick. This also means the cable can be extended to suit any setup as it uses a common connector. Besides this, setup is as with other sources, simply connect input(s) and desired outputs and enjoy listening. Of note, the SU-9 does not have any single-ended outputs, but you’ll be able to use an adaptor cable and retain the option of going balanced down the road.

Usability –


I am a fan of the device navigation; the integrated screen is clear and bright enough to be visible in well-lit rooms. It provides feedback for options, source and volume with the latter two being displayed constantly on the home screen. This aids an intuitive and simple user experience. All features are accessible by both the rotary encoder on the front and the included remote so users shouldn’t be constrained to using the remote if their setup is within arm’s reach. The remote has 3 channels as well, enabling the user to control their entire stack from just one remote should they be using one of SMSL’s amplifiers too.

Within the menu, users have the option to adjust audio settings in addition to a few liveability tweaks. There’re the usual PCM and DSD filters in addition to DPLL bandwidth that alters jitter attenuation. This isn’t the most accessible option but, in a nutshell, jitter is distortion of the actual waveform during digital to analogue conversion, so it is different to simple latency. Lowering jitter is desirable, measurements have suggested that there is no jitter over USB, but it does help with TOSLINK where the lowest setting works best. The user is able to adjust timing here to some extent here to what sounds best to their ears, I kept this at the stock value since I listen over USB.

The remaining options enable the DAC to control volume on the pre-outs (or set a fixed volume) and adjust screen brightness. A reset button is available if things go wrong and a screen that displays the HW, SW and USB versions provides feedback for firmware updates. Though not common, a toggle to enable and disable the pre-outs would have been appreciated as I split output to active speakers and a sub, it would be convenient to be able to turn both off from one device when listening to headphones. Nevertheless, the overall usability experience here is very straight forward and streamlined making it suitable for seasoned audiophiles and newcomers alike.


Bluetooth is a new and welcome addition, signified by the screw-on antenna. It works without the antenna too and the antenna can be angled horizontally if below another device in a stack. Of course, the range is compromised in so doing. Selecting Bluetooth through the source selector enables pairing and it auto connects to previously paired devices, nice and simple. Range was very good. With the external antenna attached, I was able to cross 3 rooms with double brick walls and the sound didn’t become intermittent. Latency was also on the low side with barely noticeable lip sync that wouldn’t irk during videos or movies. This makes it suitable for TV setups and larger rooms. It supports LDAC and the display provides feedback on the sample rate. I was able to stream at up to 96kHz from my Pixel 4 without issue. 

Next Page: Sound, Pairings & Verdict

YULONG DA-ART Aquila II Review

The YULONG DA-ART Aquila II is an integrated DAC, preamp, and balanced headphone amplifier featuring an ES9038PRO DAC and up to 4W of balanced output power. It is priced at $700. Disclaimer: The YULONG DA-ART Aquila II sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank the team at YULONG for […]

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