Introduction to the SMSL DO300EX review
Another SMSL review here at Ear Fidelity. After reviewing the DO300 in March 2023, I was quite surprised to see the new SMSL DO300EX being released and reviewed this quickly.
However, while the name might be misleading, the DO300EX is not really a successor to the DO300 to begin with. Instead of going for an ESS DAC chip again, SMSL went with a new AK4191+AK4499EX chip to achieve the best possible performance.
Also, while the DO300 was just a DAC, the SMSL DO300EX now has a headphone output built-in as well. Another thing worth mentioning is that the design has changed completely, into what I would consider a much more interesting, unique design now.
I’m going to skip the part where I’m introducing you to the company itself since SMSL is just too well-known for anyone in this hobby to not know about them. Let’s get straight into the review, shall we?
While the reviewed SMSL DO300EX does look different than their previous models, the unboxing experience remained basically the same.
It comes in a standard, white cardboard box that has been a standard for SMSL for years now, so no surprises here. Inside the box also won’t surprise anyone.
What do you get in the packaging then? First of all, a plastic remote control that we’ve all seen by now. On top of that, there’s a USB cable, a power cable, a Bluetooth antenna, and a user manual.
Nothing fancy, but also nothing to brag about. This is a gold standard when it comes to SMSL packaging and you’re basically getting all you need.
The box itself is fine, no complaints here. It gets the job done, which is to deliver the SMSL DO300EX safely wherever in the world you’re located. It’s not a fancy multi-thousand-dollar piece of equipment, so expecting a nice display box would have been ridiculous.
Overall, the unboxing experience and included accessories are good and SMSL did a good job here.
Design and Build Quality
Now things are getting really interesting. The DO300EX uses an all-new design language for SMSL, and I must admit, it looks fantastic.
At first, the DO300EX might look like a classic SMSL device, but it’s just a first impression from a few meters away. When you get closer, it starts to look like something completely different.
First of all, the screen that is placed on the front has a great asymmetrical embellishment on top of it, which adds depth to the whole design concept. It looks modern, clean, and unique. Next up, the knob is called “Retro Knob Design” by SMSL itself, and it’s definitely a good description. It has great tactile feedback when turning it, and it’s easy to hold and use it overall.
The actual build quality itself is also spotless. Every edge is made well, there are basically no sharp edges anywhere to be found, the device feels dense and it’s made entirely out of metal. SMSL got us used to good build quality over the past few years, and the DO300EX only improves on it even further. I would go as far as saying that this device feels like it’s 2x more expensive. Nice one!
Tech inside the reviewed SMSL DO300EX
Reviewed DO300EX is a new device by SMSL, so you can surely expect some impressive technology to be used here. Let’s see what’s new this time.
First of all, the new flagship DAC chip, the AK4191+AK4499EX. This Chip combo promises the distortion level to be as low as 0.00006% (-124dB), which is absolutely incredible. We’re living in a crazy time when you can get the TOTL new AKM chip in a DAC/Amp costing less than $500. Brilliant stuff, really.
Next up, the SMSL DO300EX uses a brand-new 3rd-gen XMOS XU-316, with 16 core high-end independent control chips. It uses 5 OPA1612A. It lets you decode DSD of up to DSD512, as well as 32bit/768kHz PCM.
Reviewed SMSL DO300EX can also natively decode MQA, but as most of you know already – MQA is dead, so no comment on that.
The reviewed device has a built-in Bluetooth capability with Bluetooth 5.1. It lets you stream your music wirelessly from any phone, and what’s even more important – it supports LDAC and aptX HD.
SMSL also focuses on the new power supply, which is a super low-noise, stabilized power supply here. It’s said to improve power efficiency, while also reducing power consumption.
Lastly, but definitely not the least important is the headphone amplifier section. Take note that the reviewed SMSL DO300EX is mainly a DAC, and the headphone output is more like an “addition”. It offers up to 1W in 32oHms, which is far from enough for hard-to-drive planars these days. However, if you plan to use efficient headphones or some IEMs, this will cover your needs easily.
Now let’s get into what all of you are waiting for – the sound of the DO300EX.
When I plugged it in for the first time, I was expecting a very reference-like tuning with fantastic technical performance, as one would expect from the new flagship AKM chip. And guess what…I was right!
The new SMSL DAC sounds incredibly fast, natural, and detailed. SMSL once again pushes the limit when it comes to “affordable” audio even further, with a DAC that is truly a marvel in its price range.
Luckily, the times when neutral, budget devices sounded thin and lifeless are long gone, as the DO300EX has nothing like that when it comes to its sound performance. The tuning is spot-on with no coloration, which gives you a wonderful device for testing other equipment. Also, thanks to that, the DO300EX is incredibly versatile when it comes to pairing and music you’re planning to listen to.
First of all, the bass is snappy, fast, agile and energetic. It has a lot of texture, reaches deep, and never loses control (as long as your headphones can keep up). The low frequencies are not overpowered by any means, nor they are thin-sounding. It sits right in the middle, where it should be, to be honest. This type of bass performance lets you experiment with different amps or headphones, if you want a less “neutral” type of sound.
So for example, when pairing the DO300EX with the Feliks Envy, plugged into the HiFiMAN Susvara, I got an incredibly textured, fast-sounding bass that was truly a reference grade. Literally has zero sloppiness, is not boomy, and never bleeds into the midrange whatsoever.
On the other hand, paired with the SMSL HO100 and the HiFiMAN HE-R9 gave me a much more prominent, thick-sounding bass that was less about the texture and detail, and more about the huge impact and energy of the bass frequencies. At the same time, the HE-R9 were properly driven straight out of the reviewed SMSL DO300EX without any issues, and it’s a good example of a headphone efficient enough for this amp section.
The midrange is clean, and I mean VERY CLEAN. It sounds transparent, insanely detailed, and open, just like you would expect from a new flagship chip DAC.
It doesn’t favor male or female vocals, it does it all. The midrange is not thick sounding, nor is it thin. Once again, it’s just perfect when it comes to the tuning, which SMSL has been known for now.
The airy and detailed presentation gets you a very natural, yet insightful type of listen, and if you pair it with similar-sounding headphones, you’ll get a performance you would not expect from a sub $500 DAC.
Luckily though, there’s nothing artificial-sounding about the midrange of the DO300EX. The timbre of the instruments is spot-on every single time, and it has the ability to show you all the little details. Lastly, not only micro dynamics but also macro dynamics are both great in this DAC.
The treble is once again clean, fast, and snappy. It has a good weight to it, so it doesn’t sound bright or thin, which is something I’m really sensitive about.
Reviewed SMSL DO300EX just gives you a highly crispy, yet refined treble performance that once again – will show you all the little details that are present in the recording.
However, don’t expect it to sound analytical or digital, because it simply doesn’t. This treble performance sounds just right when it comes to its tuning, and absolutely mind-boggling when we’re considering the technical performance.
Once again, it’ll be up to your headphones of choice if you want a “different” type of sound, rather than just straight-out neutral. The Audeze MM-500 sounded like a proper sound-engineering pair of headphones (which they are, to begin with), while the Meze Elite sounded more romantic, smooth, and full. The DO300EX works great with both, as it gives you that natural, yet highly technical type of sound.
Lastly, the soundstage is also quite impressive. It’s open-sounding, has a lot of air and great separation.
It’s not a surprise for me though, as SMSL has mastered the natural soundstage performance years ago already. A new DAC will not be a “revolution” when it comes to the soundstage performance, as there’s nothing left to achieve to be fair.
However, the credit has to be given where it’s due. The soundstage of the DO300EX is simply excellent and once again, it will depend hugely on your headphones of choice. If you want something a bit more intimate and up-close, the Rosson Audio RAD-0 would be a great choice. If you want a HUGE stage that goes miles in each way, the new Erzetich Charybdis might be the best headphone to pair the DO300EX with on the planet right now.
Here comes the most important comparison. As I already said in the beginning of this review, the name of the DO300EX might be a bit misleading, as I don’t see it as a straight-up successor to the great DO300.
First of all, the DO300EX has a headphone amplifier section, which the DO300 lacks, so basically no comparison here.
When it comes to the DAC comparison, things are interesting. The DO300 is a bit warmer-sounding, a bit more full-bodied and smooth. The DO300EX however has a more neutral and transparent tuning.
But, the differences don’t end here. The DO300EX is even better than the DO300 when it comes to technical capabilities. It’s more detailed, snappier, faster, and more dynamic. No, it’s not a huge difference, especially since the DO300 is a great DAC to begin with.
However, I find the DO300EX to be even more impressive than the older model, and it seems to push the limit of what’s possible at this price range even further. While doing all this, it also has more functionality than the DO300, especially the headphone amp section. All this for a lower price than the original DO300. This all happened within 6 months of launching the original DO300, which is incredibly impressive. SMSL takes no prisoners, and it just can’t stop releasing more and more impressive devices. KUDOS.
This comparison is also quite natural since both devices are DACs with built-in headphone amplifiers.
Take note, however, that the C200 is about half the price of the DO300EX, so we shouldn’t really expect the same level of quality. I’m going to compare the two anyway, and boy oh boy…this is brutal.
The C200 got absolutely outplayed here in every single aspect of the sound quality. The DO300EX is faster, more detailed, has better resolution, more air, and the tuning is even more spot-on.
What C200 does well, the DO300EX does even better, and I’m not even kidding at this point. It’s just a more mature sound, which is also significantly better technically.
Sure, the C200 is still a fantastic buy at around $200, there’s no doubt about it. However, if you have more to spend, and the DO300EX is within your budget, then it’s just a much better-sounding DAC. Twice the price, double the class.
This one is going to be very quick – the DO300EX doesn’t drive the Susvara, it’s not even close. It’s power output of 1W into 32oHms is just not enough for the famous HiFiMAN flagship.
It was obvious from the beginning, but I still wanted to test it.
Now we’re talking The wonderful Meze Elite doesn’t need a lot of power to be sounding at its best, and the DO300EX actually does a good job powering these. Of course, it’s not the best that the Elite can sound like, but it’s definitely good enough for sub $500.
When I plugged the DO300EX into an external headphone amplifier though, is when I started to salivate. Once again, its raw DAC performance is just incredible and it lets the Elite shine with all of its power.
This DAC is definitely worthy of pairing with high-end cans like the Meze Elite for example. It won’t be a bottleneck in your system, don’t worry about it.
Now let’s pair the DO300EX with a high-end IEM, because why not?
The Radon 6 is a monster or an IEM with its class-leading Kinetic Bass technology. This pairing sounds absolutely incredible, as the DO300EX gives this IEM all the detail, resolution, and speed it can use.
Also, the power output of the SMSL DAC is plenty enough to run this IEM like a charm, which results in a sound that is nothing short of high-end worthy. Detailed, thick, natural, and wonderfully fun to listen to.
As I said previously, the DO300EX’s headphone amplifier section works great with IEMs and headphones that are on the “easier to run” side.
So, if you have some dynamic headphones or easy-to-run planars, as well as a few IEMs, this device could be the only one you’ll need for years to come.
SMSL DO300EX – Summary
I was expecting a good device when I found out that the reviewed SMSL DO300EX was headed my way, but I wasn’t expecting how good it would actually be.
The best-sounding SMSL DAC I’ve ever heard by some margin, a beautiful yet minimal design, a lot of functionality, and all this at a price that I would easily call a bargain. Ladies and Gentlemen, the SMSL DO300EX gets my highest recommendation possible. You probably can’t get any better for $500 in this hobby right now.
Big thanks to Aoshida-Audio for providing the DO300EX for this review. I wasn’t paid or asked to say anything good or bad about this product, all of the above is just my personal, unbiased opinion.
You can order the DO300EX at Aoshida-Audio here.
Founder of Ear Fidelity. I’ve been into audio for many years, working in production, distribution, retail, and marketing throughout my career. Now trying to revolutionize the art of reviewing audio gear, but one thing will never change: Music is the most important.