SMSL SP200 THX 888 Review

SMSL SP200 THX AAA 888 headphone amplifier

Power and performance

 

 

The SP200 is no slouch in the power stakes. In fact, with 6 watts on tap at 16 ohms, and 3 watts at 32 ohms this basically equates to near-limitless reserves of power for just about every current, and likely any future headphone pairing. Those of you on a budget who are concerned about the need for a future power ‘upgrade’ need not be concerned here – the SP200 has oodles of drive. Despite power rating dropping down to 440mW at 300 ohms and 220mW at 600 ohms, this is still ample power to drive higher-impedance cans to their full potential, very quickly and very capably. 

There SP200 has two gain settings – ‘low’ adds 6dB of gain, whilst ‘high’ increases gain by 18dB. The highest I ever set the volume pot was to 10 o’clock for the hardest-to-drive headphones I have on hand, the 600-ohm Beyerdynamic T1’s – and that is in low gain. 

What’s remarkable about THX’s AAA amplifier technology is its ability to deliver this kind of power and drive with the complete absence of any perceivable distortion, background noise or hiss – even with sensitive IEMs. 

SMSL SP200 THX 888 headphone amplifier

The given power ratings are identical for both balanced XLR and single-ended outputs on the SP200, unlike the Drop THX amp which outputs considerably less power to its single-ended headphones. Swapping out single-ended for XLR cables on the MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open does indeed prove that the sound pressure levels are identical for both XLR and 6.3mm connections, implying that the topology of the SP200 is not fully balanced from end to end. This being the case, the provision of the four-pin XLR output is there for convenience and compatibility more than anything else. But, it does mean that the SP200’s single-ended performance is markedly stronger than its competitors, and worth noting if you plan on using single-ended headphones. 

The SP200’s output impedance of ‘near 0ohm’ helps to add to its versatility and ability to play nicely with headphones of varying impedances without unduly affecting their frequency response. 

SMSL SP200 THX AAA 888 headphone amplifier

Volume control 

If there’s one weak spot to the SP200, it’s the implementation of the volume pot. Whilst it’s built from metal, it’s pretty light and floaty and lacks tactile feedback that allows for precise levelling. If you do plan on having an SP200 take pride of place on your desktop, just be mindful that the volume pot does feel pretty cheap, and does detract from the overall product experience. But then again, to deliver a product at this price does require sacrifices somewhere…right? 

The SP200 I tested also had some clear problems with channel imbalance at lower levels. This was less evident with full-sized headphones, but testing with the 5-ohm Audio Technica ATH-IEX1 IEMs showed some significant imbalance at low levels, requiring my DAC’s source volume to be lowered to ensure I could get proper level matching between channels. 

Sound characteristics

Trying to describe how the SP200 ‘sounds’ is a somewhat abstract task, as it becomes immediately clear that it performs its given task with absolute stone-cold precision: it amplifies headphones without distortion, colouration, nor artifice. The SP200 is an absolutely transparent look into your music, your source material, and of absolute importance for Headfonia readers – your headphones themselves. With its linear power delivery, low output impedance and absolutely imperceivable distortion levels, the SP200 plays back nothing except the innate characteristics of your headphones, unleashing their dynamic capabilities and individual traits in their purest form. 

Don’t expect to hear adjectives like warmth or lushness when it comes to describing the SP200, because it adds nothing of the sort. Nor is it appropriate to describe what the ‘bass’, ‘mids’ and ‘treble’ sound like on the SP200, because it doesn’t have any colour to speak of – you inevitably start to describe your headphones instead of the amplifier itself. Many amplifiers create tangible differences when paired with certain headphones, the SP200 does not.

Now from what I’ve just described, you might be mistaken that I think the SP200 is ‘boring’ – it is not. It sounds absolutely killer. The overwhelming feeling you get from listening to headphones on the SP200 is one of energy. Familiar micro details hidden inside your favourite tracks are extracted and delivered front-and-centre. Bass and percussion hits are delivered with speed and slam. You feel like you want to continually turn-up the volume pot to add more of that addictive sense of energy, but then you realize that you’re able to enjoy all the dynamic swings and detail of your favourite music at comfortable listening levels on the SP200.

Click-over to page 4 to hear about listening tests, comparisons, and our final conclusions. 

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Matty's a musician, music-fan, and 'gear-phile' from Sydney, Australia. Outside of his day-job in creative advertising, Matty enjoys live music, lawn bowls, craft beer, and spending far too much money collecting vinyl.

    21 Comments

    • Reply January 13, 2020

      Shane D

      Nice write-up! I bought this unit on Black Friday. It took a while to get used to the sound. I have several amps and was slow to warm up to this one. However, I just got a pair of Fostex TH-610’s and plugged them into this amp. It has been audio bliss for ten straight days.

      Love the small size, the small price and now the sound.

      • Reply January 14, 2020

        Matty Graham

        That’s really interesting, what was unusual about the sound at first? Too ‘lean’ or neutral-sounding? Great to hear it’s working out for you, the 610’s are on my list to try.

    • Reply January 13, 2020

      Timothy

      The volume knob can easily be replaced by a 20mm one from AliExpress, giving it more heft. On the plus side, the knob can be whatever colour you want

      • Reply January 14, 2020

        Matty Graham

        I’ve bought a few knobs in the past from AliExpress for my Crack – that’s definitely worth noting. This gets me wondering – an aftermarket stepped attenuator plus a filter on the blue LED light could be very nice mods on the SP200…

        • Reply January 14, 2020

          Shane D

          Yes on the lean/neutral sound. I am running SMSL SU-8 into my SP200.

    • Reply January 13, 2020

      Mike

      Great breakdown!! I bought the The amp and abesolutely love it! I paired a smsl su-8 dac (250$) and really enjoy the stack I’m looking for an eQ next and incorporate tubes at some point.. my cans are sennheiser 6xx and the Argon MK3s

      • Reply January 19, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Thanks for reading Mike! That sounds like a great set-up for your cans – if you’re looking for something ‘different’ to complement your SP200 try an OTL-variety tube amp to pair with your Senns.

    • Reply January 17, 2020

      James Longman

      Hi Matty,

      If you are using power hungry and high impedance headphones ( high ohms ) this amp is great. 🙂

      Regards
      James

      • Reply January 18, 2020

        Matty Graham

        I used to strap my old Hifiman HE-5’s into the back of a speaker amp, I reckon would sound great on this.

    • Reply January 24, 2020

      Bertrand

      Hello, thanks for this review.
      I’m looking for an amp or combo amp / dac to drive my HD800s, received a few days ago for an attractive price, but my MOJO seems to lack power.
      I’m eyeing the SP200 but would the JDS ATOM be a little warmer?
      The balanced headphone output is not balanced at all?
      For the DAC I don’t really know yet do I keep the MOJO or connect it to SP200).
      Sorry to be long …
      Thank you in advance for your opinion.
      Best regards.

      • Reply January 27, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Hi Bertrand, your Mojo will make for a perfect DAC – definitely hang onto it and use it in line-out mode if you’re looking to add another amp. I haven’t heard the Atom side-by-side with the SP200, but they ought to sound just about identical. Either should be a good pairing with your HD800, it just comes down to whether you need some extra juice + XLR connectivity options down the track.

    • Reply February 12, 2020

      Gerry

      Matty, I totally agree with your suggestion, I paired my Mojo with the SP200 using a SKW 3.5mm to RCA cable ($25.00 on Amazon). The result was superb on my HD6XX headphones. I highly recommend this combination. The warmth, clarity dynamics and impact are all greatly enhanced. I was surprised at the huge improvement.

      • Reply February 12, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Hey Gerry, that’s awesome to hear! Glad that’s working for you, enjoy the music mate. I might give this exact same combo a go myself : )

    • Reply February 23, 2020

      Gerry

      There is almost nothing on the internet about amplfying the Chord Mojo. I very much anticipate your reaction and review to the Mojo>Sp200 combo. Best regards.

      • Reply March 10, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Hey Gerry, there’s not much to it – simply put the Mojo in ‘line-out’ mode (depress both volume buttons when switching-on for a 2V signal) and plug into the SP200. It sounds expectedly transparent + excellent.

    • Reply March 9, 2020

      H

      Bought one recentl, pairing with Dx220 & Chord Mojo.
      Headphones: Sennheiser HD700
      IEM: Campfire andromeda + EA Thor Silver ii+/Ibasso IT04 + EA Thor Silver

      Compared to directly driven by Dx220/Mojo, the HD700 simply flies when driven by SP200. There is actually tangible bass slam and sub=bass rumble. Bass slam in comparison was a pop, and sub-bass has a “droning” sound. Sound-stage expanded for all devices. Pitch-black background (even with CA Andro), tiny bit of channel imbalance with CA Andro. Seems to pair with Mojo just as well as Dx220 (truly a transparent amp!), not warm or cold.

      Cons: The sides are not straight, OCD triggered.

    • Reply March 15, 2020

      Gerry

      H
      Thanks for your input. I love the Mojo/DP200 combination.
      Matty,
      I can’t wait for your hands-on review as well.

    • Reply June 6, 2020

      Venkat

      Hey, i am on the verge of pulling trigger on this setup: Topping D90+SP200+6XX and later LCD2C/X. Have you tried this setup? If so how did you find it?

    • Reply June 8, 2020

      JP

      Hi, how would you compare this to the THX 789?

      • Reply June 9, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Sonically indistinguishable, it depends on whether you appreciate a smaller footprint and price-tag (SP200), or would prefer three gain settings (789).

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