3W / 32Ω
I think all of us recognize SMSL Audio, which is a sister brand for Topping Audio. They’re on the market for a while. Before, they were making some more metallic and not fully pleasant stuff for me personally. That changed about two years ago. Right now, they’re doing well-priced, well-built audio devices, starting from small DAC/Amps up to power amplifiers like SMSL A2. In this review, we’ll be talking about a headphone amplifier that stays under 400 bucks, so let’s see if it’s worth it.
Oh, a little disclaimer – the SMSL HO200 is made in collaboration with Aoshida Audio, as the whole series. Their main target was to produce unique products with great value.
Packaging & Build Quality
The box is pretty big, with a sketch of the amplifier on the top. Inside, we won’t find much, as it’s almost always within amplifiers. Only the HO200 and pc grade computer cable, but this boy is thicc. In terms of build quality, there’s nothing to complain about. I have to admit that I was afraid of problems with balance at low volumes, but that doesn’t occur, so well done!
HO200 is a few centimeters bigger in every dimension compared to the SH-9, which is a rather compact amplifier. On the front, we can see three headphone outputs. Single-ended 6,35mm jack, balanced 4,4mm jack, and 4pin XLR. This amplifier is truly balanced using the unique topology of SMSL. On the middle, SMSL placed the potentiometer, which works really smooth, with a delicate resistance that can assure us that we won’t go to the full volume by accident. On the right side, there are four switches. The first one is responsible for the input selection, the second one for choosing between headphone amplifier and pre outputs, the third one is gain, and the last one, set just after a blue diode launches the device.
I’m really happy that SMSL placed there the pre-outs, as I can use my DAC with both loudspeakers and headphones. That’s the feature that I was missing in SH-9. The gain switch is also well designed, it changes the volume for about 1/3 of full possible rotation, and there’s a moment of silence after changing its position. Many people forget to turn down the volume before changing the gain, as it can damage the amplifier in some cases. All switches work great, with rather a silent click and smooth operation.
On the rear side, we will find the AC connector, two pairs of XLRs, and RCA. One pair of each is the input, and the second pair stands for using HO200 as a preamplifier. The last thing is a micro USB for service, so I think none will be interested in that.
SMSL HO200 pushes up to 2×3 Watts at 32Ohms, which is a really good result at this price, especially if it’s a true power, like in this case. Some of the amplifiers have much power, but they can’t drive headphones properly. I don’t know why is that happening, but I’m not really crazy about technicalities at this point. The output impedance is rated around 0Ohms, so if you would like to use the HO200 with IEMs, there’s no problem with that. Of course, if we don’t count some earphones like Holocene, that hum with every source. What’s good, the HO200 remains very cold during usage. My SU-9 is warmer, and it’s only a DAC.
At this point, there’s nothing shocking, HO200 plays almost exactly how I imagined. It’s an even headphone amplifier, with a little more focus on the midrange.
It’s hard for me to focus on anything when I’m listening to anything with HO200 and Hifiman Ananda, as I find this combo on the top of my list of pleasure over-ear setups. It loses to Cayin HA-6A with Kennerton Odin, which is way more expensive. Of course, it is far away in terms of technicalities but just look and compare the prices of these setups. It’s a perfect all-rounder for every genre of music, but I would expect a little bigger upgrade from SH-9. I will get back to this a little later, and now let’s move to the exact description of the sound.
The bass is very gentle. It’s mainly playing behind the midrange, even in dark-recorder tracks like the whole album “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish. The subbass is purring in the background, and in some cases, it can start roaring. It’s rather smooth than textured, but even as usually the smoothness causes me to chill out, this time I’m more engaged in the music. That is of course caused by the midrange, which is slightly warmed but lets the feelings come into the music. That’s especially visible in the song “Joanna” by Sevdaliza, at the very start. This guitar sounds so lovely and charming. It has more texture than the subbass, but still, it’s smoother. If I would have to touch it, I would say that it’s like something we think we may grab, but after all, it’s not possible because our hand is slides off. Kickbass on the other hand feels a little sloppy. It’s not as swift and hard punch as I expected. On the other hand, it performs way better with the Hifiman HE-5XX or IEMs described below the review than with the Hifiman Ananda. The bass gets similar to SH-9, so it’s slightly elevated, with a lot of texture and punch. The thing that changed the most is the fact that it’s now bolder. On the other hand, the whole bassline with Ananda is perfect when I’m listening to “The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala or “The Look” by Metronomy. Everything goes together as it should, making these songs sound better than ever.
The midrange is the part where HO200 truly shines. I would love to complain a little, but there’s nothing that would make me do. The midrange is sweet, bold, and exact. Every voice sounds adorable, maybe besides that where people are more talking than singing, but I don’t know if they can sound pleasant in any situation. Vocals are always on the front, they are the most important thing in the whole show. It doesn’t matter if the voice is lower, higher, it’s always wonderful. For example, Billie Eilish has delicate hoarseness in her voice, but using HO200 she is sounding sweeter and more mature. Using that setup, I also started to listen to Olivia Rodrigo, who has a thinner voice. In this case, she feels powerful and very confident. That’s a similar feeling to a tube amp. That timbre remains the same with any headphones, but the texture is dependable. I have only Ananda which was smoother than usual, but if there’s one case like that, I’m sure there is another. With the HE5XX, there’s more texture, and everything keeps a little faster, engaging the tempo and making me work faster. And, what’s good for some of you, it hides mistakes of realization which are quite popular in the vocals, especially with some underground bands. I’ve seen in one review, that they wrote the opposite thing, but that depends on what we’re referring to, so please check below the list of the amplifiers I was listening to.
The treble is very transparent but delicate. It remains natural and neutral most of the time, with a very good amount of air. The soundtrack from “The Pianist” is wonderful, it’s light, charming, and just lovely. The texture of the piano is highlighted, and it leaves a nice, natural echo. That makes it sound like in real when some amplifiers make that disappear pretty quick. If that’s not the first review written by me that you’re reading, you probably know that I’m always mentioning “Pristine” by Snail Mail in this paragraph, and it won’t be different this time. There are no sibilances, although the HO200 is showing a lack of realization, especially with drum plates. They sound like a sample, not real drum plates. On the other hand, Ray Charles is taking us to the land of pure pleasure. He is sometimes getting to higher octaves with his voice and that sounds absolutely perfect. The trumpets that are getting into the treble level are also full of joy and life. Let’s move to absolutely another artist, dedmau5. Even if the electronic music he makes is more bassy and typical for some clubs, there are some things in the treble that might hurt your ears in some cases. Luckily, not in this one. For example, “When the summer dies” with amplifiers like A50s could be painful for me. With the HO200 it’s accented, but far away from cutting my ears. It lets the Lights go first, and that’s wonderful.
The soundstage is really deep, but it lacks width. I can roughly distinct the directions. In the “Cantina band” by John Williams and London Symphony Orchestra I can distinct that the trumpet is slightly behind me, the double bass in front of me, and the tambourine is on the right, but nothing more. As I said, the depth is a very strong point of the soundstage. The sound source can be really far away, and that doesn’t make any problem for HO200. The layering is decent, sound sources are not covering themselves one by one, and there’s no feeling of a wave of sound. Imaging could be better, but it’s doing its best within the given area. For example, the whistling at the end of “The Queen’s High Seas” by Borislav Slavov was just in front of me, when with Topping A30 Pro it was swirling from left to right.
I have sad news for hardcore gamers, this amplifier is not really helpful because of the poorly shown directions.
Any DAC used for testing performed well and found a synergy with HO200. Of course, some of them were better at one point or another, but the amplifier is just gaining the DAC’s manner.
Hifiman x Drop HE5XX
It is probably my favorite combo of overall use. It’s full of life, really speedy, well textured. The subbass in deadmau5 songs is not covering the rest, midbass from a bass guitar or the double bass is always singing with thick technique. The kickbass is another great point there. It hits hard, without any mercy. The midrange? Oh my. That’s truly wonderful. Full-bodied, well accented, pushed to the front, and full of texture. The treble is great, but to match my taste, it could be a little brighter. Detailing is awesome at every point. The soundstage remains narrow, but really deep, with great height.
Well, that’s rather weird. Ananda with HO200 is way softer than I expected. The bass is a little sloppy, but warm and chilling. The midrange is again sweeter, with great detailing and a lovely timbre. The treble is again softened, even a little pushed back. Ananda remains smooth at every point, with a little addition of texture on the midrange and midbass. The soundstage is wider compared to HE5XX, but it’s still not a killer.
Craft Ears Four CIEM
Well, at first, it’s lovely to hear only silence in the background. Even when I’m using 4.4mm output. The sound is overall balanced, pretty dynamic, and full of life. The bass is powerful as always from the CE4. It’s a vivid one, with a great punch. The midrange is delicately sweetened, without losing the right texture and details. The treble is delicately softer compared to e.g. Cayin N6ii T01 or SH-9, but it has a great amount of details and a really natural style.
I’ll put three amps in one paragraph because in two of three cases the differences aren’t big – it’s all about the taste, and in the Topping A50s case there’s a too big contrast in price.
So, the bass. It’s very similar to SH-9 overall, but using Hifiman Ananda, it’s a little softer, when with HE5XX and others tested it’s delicately faster and more textured. Compared to Topping A30 Pro, it’s more exact, cleaner. A30 Pro sometimes made me feel a little too pumped in the sound, and HO200 is free of this problem.
The midrange is almost the same as SH-9, again. I find the HO200 a little sweeter, that’s probably because of the THX chip inside the SH-9. They both focus on the mids, and both show beautiful texture. A30 Pro on the other hand is smoother, more natural, and delicate at this point.
The treble in HO200 is between the SH-9 and A30 Pro. The first one is delicately more clinical when the second one is rounded.
The soundstage, in a few words, is the best with SH-9 in terms of width, the HO200 goes head to head. But when it comes to depth, the HO200 goes absolutely wild. He destroyed the opponents at this point.
Topping A50s is a way brighter, and thinner amplifier. It loses in terms of… everything. Of course, if you like both signatures because A50s got less bass and tend to be more technical than natural.
After all, it’s all about your taste and headphones, I’m not sure if I could choose only one amplifier out of this four.
The SMSL HO200 is a lovely headphone amplifier. If you’re looking for one for yourself at this price range, you should really consider this one. It has plenty of power, a universal playstyle that suits all music genres, and various headphones. It also offers various outputs and can work as a preamplifier. In the end, we have the perfect build quality, but that shouldn’t surprise you, as it’s SMSL.
Disclaimer: SMSL SH-9 was sent to us in exchange for an honest review by Aoshida Audio – Thank you!
This review is my unbiased opinion, and it wasn’t influenced by anybody.
Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:
- Headphones – Audeze LCD-X 2021, Hifiman Ananda, Hifiman HE5XX, Craft Ears Four, Fir VxV, CFA Vega 2020
- Sources – SMSL SU-9, xDuoo XD-05 Plus, EarMen TR-AMP, Acoustic Research CD-07
- Other amplifiers – SMSL SH-9, Topping A30 Pro, Aune S6, Topping A50s
I am a 22 years old audiophile, photographer, coffee lover and Star Wars fan. I love checking out new audio stuff and sharing my opinions with people not being overly bloviating. I believe that a review acts as a guide to just interest people, and then comes the most important part, which is actually testing the device by themselves.