In this article, we review the SMSL SU-8s & the SMSL SH-8s. They respectively cost $359 USD and $229 USD.
Disclaimer: ShenzhenAudio sent us the SMSL SU-8s & SH-8s for this review, free of charge. I only covered the customs fees & taxes. All thoughts and experiences with the product are naturally my own.
This review consists of 3 pages. The SMSL SU-8s will be reviewed on page 1, the SMSL SH-8s will be reviewed on page 2 and the SMSL SU-8s & SH-8s stack performance of the two will be evaluated on page 3.
Honestly, if you don’t know SMSL, you have to get acquainted as soon as possible because you’re missing A LOT. They’re a Chinese company that focuses on a wide range of devices, the most notable ones being DACs & AMPs. They are famous for their value for money-oriented products and that’s the main reason I found them online about 5 years ago.
Their products are always well-built and they are quite picky when it comes to components. I have never used anything from them that was not a CNC machine milled. That is some commitment right there! SMSL (ShuangMuSanlin Electronics Co. LTD) was founded in 2009 in China’s famous techno-city, Shenzhen. We have reviewed a lot of gear from them in the near past and none of them were even mediocre. I can honestly say that they are on a winning streak and I hope that they continue designing brilliant devices. Today we’ll be reviewing their latest DAC & AMP, the SU-8s & the SH-8s. They are a really good stack for the price and you will know why we gave them an award soon enough.
You can find all of our SMSL reviews here. Let’s get started with the reviews of the SMSL SU-8s & SH-8s.
SMSL SU-8s Desktop DAC with MQA & Bluetooth
The SMSL SU-8s‘ dedicated web page can be found here. It costs $359 USD.
Packaging & Accessories
The SU-8s DAC comes in a medium-sized, white rectangular box. It seems that the SMSL has changed their packaging design. At the top of the box, we see an outline picture of the SU-8s itself. SMSL did not include any product details or specifications on the box and aimed for a cleaner look as usual. Only the model name and the brand name is present on the outer cover. Upon opening the box, you are welcomed by the foam compartment that protects the device from damage. As for accessories, SMSL provides all the essentials. You get a power cable, a remote, a USB-A to USB-B cable, a Bluetooth antenna, and 4 pieces of extra rubber feet.
Design & Build Quality
The design of the SU-8s is exactly the same as the SU-9. The build quality is top-notch. Like everything from SMSL, the SU-8s’s design has their famous cues such as the CNC milled aluminum chassis, a perfect, anodized matte black paint job, and altogether durable construction.
My eyes can’t detect any CNC imperfections and milling defects. The form and factor are also quite good, the device is not big and it won’t occupy much space on your desk. It is rather compact, especially when stacked with the SH-8s amplifier. The layout is identical to SMSL SU-9 as well. On the front, we have a 1.9-inch color TFT display and a volume knob. The volume knob also acts as a navigation button and can be pressed on to access the device menu. It feels durable and tactile. The 1.9-inch screen shows information about the volume level, sample rate, and active input. It is bright and easy to read. There is also an automatic dimmer included in the firmware, which will make many audiophiles who work at night, happy.
The dimmer feature was a highly requested one, especially among SU-9 users, and it’s a pleasure that SMSL listened to users and integrated this feature into the SU-8s. All the I/O options are located on the rear side of the DAC. From left to right there is an IECC power socket, an antenna socket, optical and USB inputs, coaxial input, and balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs side by side on the back. The sockets feel solid and well-made. To sum this section up, we can say that the build quality is very impressive!
The SMSL SU-8s utilizes the ES9068AS premium-grade DAC from ESS Technology. Compared to the SU-9’s 8-channel ES9038Pro DAC chip, ES9068AS utilizes a 2-channel layout. Apart from that, SMSL states that they used 5 pieces of the popular OPA1612 op-amps. As for the USB controller, SU-8s features a newer 32-bit XMOS USB chip, XU-216. It can decode DSD512 & PCM up to 32bit/768kHz natively. The device supports full MQA decoding as well. If you don’t know what MQA is, let me explain. In a nutshell, Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is an audio codec that lets you stream songs in ”Master” quality. After capturing and recording the performance, MQA folds the file to make it small enough to stream or download. They call this ”Music Origami”.
Products with a full MQA decoder, like the SMSL SU-8s, unfold the file to deliver the highest possible rate for the user. Popular streaming service Tidal supports MQA and you can try it for a month or two, depending on your region, without paying. There is also a Qualcomm Bluetooth chip under the hood of the SU8-s, though, it only supports aptX HD. Unfortunately, it does not support the LDAC codec. The performance measurements of the device are quite good and we will see how good it is, in the sound section.
Controls & UI
The device menu can be accessed via the volume knob or the remote. You can control quite a few things here. Starting with the essentials, you can control inputs and outputs and you can also invert their phases if such a need arises. You have the option to change PCM filters and there are 3 different filters available. Those are ”fast linear”, ”slow minimum” and, ”minimum phase”. The filter’s effect on the sound is quite subtle. You can also change the auto-dim timeout duration and the screen’s brightness level.
There is a Pre-Mode that can be used to disable volume control and enable the pure DAC mode of the SU-8s. If you toggle this option on, you will not be able to control the volume via the remote or the knob so be careful. The last one is the sound-color settings and there are several presets to select from. Those are rich, tube, crystal, and standard. Their effect on the sound is subtle as well, don’t think of it like PMEQ. On another note, the device control is much easier with the included remote and SMSL has been quite consistent with its inclusion lately.
The performance of the SU-8s is quite impressive for the price. Let’s start with that. The signature is flat and energetic with a fast transient response. It is clean and airy across the spectrum. Detail-retrieval is really good and the DAC sounds transparent. The low end is fast and tight. It can get quite impactful with the right gear combination. However, if you pair it with a flat and reference sounding gear, you will get a very linear frequency response from the DAC because the tonality is linear and even, across the spectrum. It does not manipulate or color the gear’s signature and lets you listen to the raw signature of the device you plug into it. The tonal balance is easily felt throughout the spectrum, everything feels right and in place. Therefore, coherency is really good. If you like warm sources or smoother sound, look elsewhere or pair it with a tube amp because this DAC is highly resolving and clean from top to bottom. The midrange is articulate and breathy while having an adequate body.
The note-weight is good too, it is not thin and it does not feel artificial. The instruments are detailed, clean, and definite. The positioning is clear, therefore imaging is quite good. There is plenty of air between the instruments and the stage feels wide. Vocals are easy to follow just as the individual instruments on the stage. The upper midrange has plenty of energy but the control is good. The cymbals and hi-hats do not feel excessive or unwantedly sharp. Both male and female vocals are delightful to listen to. You get to track every nuance, every little detail quite easily. The treble region behaves similarly. It is linear, accurate, and expansive.
Harmonics are felt easily and the extension control is really good here also. Highs offer excellent resolution and detail while being articulate and precise. PRaT is excellent, as with many SMSL products we reviewed in the near past, and the SU-8s deals with congestion quite easily thanks to the airy presentation. I think the sound quality is really good for the asking price and it should not be overlooked, at all.
The SMSL SU-8s & SH-8s review continues on Page Two, after the click HERE or by using the jump below.
Page 2: SMSL SH-8S Desktop Amplifier Review: Packaging & Accessories, Design & Build Quality, Technology & Power, AMP Performance
Page 3: SMSL SU-8s & SH-8s Stack Performance, SMSL SU-8s Comparisons, SMSL SH-8s Comparisons, SMSL SU-8s & SH-8s Stack Comparisons, Last Words
Page 4: Specifications of the SU-8s & SH-8s