The SP200’s best attribute is its ability to bring out the individual characteristics and traits of any given set of headphones, as well as your source gear. I found from the many pairing combinations that I tested it with that it helped me re-discover some interesting quirks, as well as reveal some flaws of many headphones. The SP200 should be viewed as an absolutely transparent window into your transducers and your source material, and a brutal one at times.
The Sennheiser HD600 is often unfairly labelled as ‘boring’ and neutral – either by people with bad taste (sorry), or who haven’t driven them properly. While their bass extension isn’t the greatest, I find they’re capable of producing hugely enjoyable low-end with the right pairing. The Jesus Lizard’s ‘Then Comes Dudley’ is an absolute riot on the HD600/SP200 pairing, with simply awesome bass texture and impact on the kick drum and bass guitar.
‘Let me Ride’, from the excellently produced Dr Dre record “The Chronic” (no streaming link, sorry but please do try and get a hold of a copy!) is a great test for bass-slam and speed. The SP200 wakes-up the bass abilities of slightly warmer Sennheiser HD650 and also shows-off some great imaging and separation among the individual back-up vocal tracks.
Radiohead’s ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’ is an extremely fast, complex and congested track. Listening to it on SP200 with the Beyerdynamic T1 is an absolute feast of micro-detail, speed, and bass texture.
Nirvana’s live performance of ‘Oh Me’ sounds stellar on the Grado GH1 with the SP200, revealing their ability to deliver attack, decay, and dispatch transients with lightning-quick pace. Some “S” sounds in Kurt Cobain’s vocals can get a little hot, and there’s no ducking them with the SP200, however.
While there was some noticeable channel imbalance with Audio Technica’s new ATH-IEX1 flagship IEM’s (review inbound!), there was zero hissing whatsoever. ‘Enrique El Cobrador’ from Oh Sees is a busy hoot of a track, and the SP200 turns up the ATH-IEX’s exciting W-shaped signature to ’11’. It’s full-on.
‘Rival’ from Pearl Jam shows-off the imaging chops of the Aeon Flow Opens, as well as their thick, full-bodied mid-range and great guitar tone (there’s a pretty freaky binaural effect at the start of that track too, by the way).
All well-implemented solid-state amplifiers really ought to sound audibly similar, but I did test the SP200 against a few other amps in a volume-matched set-up to get a sense of how it compares versus other amps that I’m intimately familiar with.
The Chord Mojo has a noticeably leaner body than the SP200, with less bass weight and impact. It also reveals the SP200 to have a slightly more spacious sound stage presentation.
I found the SP200 to be audibly indistinguishable to the Questyle CMA600i – in a blind test I was unable to tell them apart. This is good news for the SMSL amp, as the CMA600i is a bloody excellent amplifier and my solid-state benchmark for good reason.
Comparing the SP200 to the recently reviewed (and very impressive) Burson Conductor 3, the SP200 feels slightly more clinical in its delivery, whereas the Conductor 3 has an ever so slightly richer tonal presentation that feels a hair warmer.
It’s never been a better time to be a personal audio enthusiast when THX certification and technology is available at an attainable price-point like the $289.99 S200. While ‘SMSL SP200 THX 888 headphone amplifier’ might not be the easiest name to roll off your tongue, it’s a name you ought to remember it because arguably it has become THE new benchmark in terms of value and performance for desktop headphone amplifiers, and you’ll no doubt be hearing much more about it.
At $289.99 it’s an absolute no-brainer recommendation for anyone looking for a high-performance, versatile amp to throw at any set of headphones and extract maximum performance from them. Sure, it’s not fancy in its appearance or feature set, and it does forgo a few luxuries. This is a stripped-back, dynamite little amplifier that is focused on performance, and perform it does.
It goes without saying that you can now find the SMSL SP200 THX 888 on our best Amplifier / Recommended buy list!