My Video Review:
I have a long-standing tradition of reviewing SMSL Audio gear. My first-hand experience was trying their unusual looking, but great sounding M500 DAC/Amp combo a few years ago. I wasn’t a huge supporter of its wagon-like look, but it was a darn good sounding DAC for its price. In my case, it was the very first MQA enabled unit, spotting a nice build quality and providing a decent amount of power under its hood for headbangers as myself. A few months followed and again, some unusual looking boxes showed-up at my front door. I’ve never quite understood the philosophy behind their SP200 and M200 bodies, or the meaning of tiny displays on integrated amplifiers as DA-8S, that should be used in the living room. Let’s be honest, most of their older stuff is looking plain and simply…ugly. While that is perfectly fine with affordable entry-level devices, once you reach a certain price point, potential buyers are taking into account their looks, maybe Wife-Acceptance-Factor, as those are becoming modern furniture to be used in an office desk or in the living room. At a later date, a SMSL representative reached out, asking how their devices should look for the Western market. They should resemble metal bricks with round edges and big screens, I’ve replied back. It seems that my feedback found its target, as much nicer looking units followed like SU-9, SH-9, M400 and SP400 that were for the first time - pleasing for my eyes. There was some uniqueness and order in those shapes and for a second, I felt that SMSL finally forged a design language of their own.
While SMSL Audio always resonated with affordable audio, that anybody could enjoy without eating more bread and less pudding, offering an outstanding bang for your buck, a time came in trying a slice of that sweet ‘n’ fat pie that is High-End Audio. Everything changed when SMSL revealed their VMV line somewhere in 2018, challenging Western companies with their top-dog VMV D1 converter that was going for $1299. In those times, people weren’t bowing to SINAD, SNR and THD and it seems that VMV D1 scored big time, being discussed online even today. In late 2020, I was informed that a successor to D1 is in the works and that is should cost less than $1000. Fast forward a few months and VMV D1SE is being revealed to the world. Powered by an audio-grade Noratel transformer, spotting a big colorful screen, top-class electronics, a cool metallic remote and fresh new looks, all while costing just $720.
In typical SoundNews fashion, I will be going deep into the rabbit hole and in the latest chapters of this review I’ll be comparing it with its biggest competitor: Topping D90SE. Be sure to check that out and until that happens, let’s unbox this bad boy.
I must add, that I’ve never expected such a nice unboxing experience coming from SMSL, it’s simply fabulous! They used a much thicker card-board box with a big VMV logo stamped on it. Double boxed is the usual affair, as it should be with devices at this caliber. After opening it up…it was clear that again, I’m dealing with a top-class SMSL device. Just look at that big and colorful User manual, the unit itself is looking by orders of magnitude nicer to anything they’ve done. Its case is milled on a CNC machine, I see rounded corners, a big screen and look at that metallic remote-control – it looks like an Apple designed product. D1SE scores huge points when it comes to unboxing experience.
D1SE is coming with several screw type metal spikes, you’ll find four of them that elevates it by around 1 cm from the ground and two taller ones will elevate it by around 1.5cm. Besides this, you’ll find a Bluetooth antenna, a USB Type-B cable and a power cord to kick-start your listening experience.
Design & Build Quality
I have complained about their past designs, over and over again, but that is no longer the case, as no matter from what angle I’m looking at it, D1SE just screams high-quality craftsmanship, choosing simple, yet beautiful design choices. SMSL put a much bigger accent this time around on the tiniest details, crafting a clean looking device that carries smooth lines and rounded edges, all made out of premium materials. D1SE doesn’t use a simplified metal case, this is a full metal roll-cage that is wrapping it entirely and it’s being carved from a single block of aluminum. There is just a single metal plate attached underneath it, making it the first uni-body design of SMSL.
I like matte-black everything and it seems that SMSL also likes that option, choosing this color scheme and discarding all other options. They powder coated it with a finer grain paint that should help it against scratches and accidental drops. VMV and D1SE lettering seems to be laser engraved adding some high-end flair to it. It’s 1.9” LCD screen is protected by a layer of tempered glass for a longer life, I find it big, it’s easy to read and bright enough to be used in the living room.
You can place it directly on your table or you can add four metal spikes by screwing them in with your bare hands, you can tilt its faceplate a little with taller spikes, but I don’t see the point of doing that. They’ve added four metal discs with inlays pooled to one small point of contact. This creates a maximum pressure to the underlying surface, which eliminates all disturbances as micro-vibrations coming from the electronics.
I can’t say a single bad word about its build quality, it is really well-made, it’s built at higher standards, it’s pretty small and cute, but at ~1.65 kilos (3.6 lbs) it feels solid and quite heavy. Its heavier case tells me that a bigger transformer is sitting in there and that thought alone makes me very excited. Thanks to its smaller case, you could easily place it in tight spaces, in a killer headphone or loudspeaker setup, you can hide it just below your TV, or on top of your gaming console or Blu-ray player – in this regard it’s versatile unit.
All in all, no matter where I’m looking at, I see a higher attention to the smallest details and a lot of care.
Controls & I/O
A big portion of its face plate is surrounded by a sheet of tempered glass, under it they hid its infrared sensor and of course that beautiful LCD screen. To its right there are two buttons that lets you choose between 5 digital inputs and the one below it lets you choose your desired output. Its volume knob doesn’t wobble, it offers a decent physical resistance, it is going in steps so it works as a stepped attenuator - it doubles as a menu navigator too, it’s very easy to use and you can access all its features from there or better yet – you can use its metallic remote for that.
On its back, all the nicer digital inputs are present as: USB, Optical, Coaxial and I2S, there is a Bluetooth antenna socket too. Being a fully balanced DAC, it offers a pair of XLR and RCA outputs. Both are volume controllable or fixed, depending on the settings and you can even disable a pair of analogue outputs if you will. You really can’t get a better connectivity than this.
This is by far the most complex user interface I’ve seen on SMSL devices and all its features can be controlled via its remote control or via its volume knob that doubles as a joystick. In the stand-by mode a single press on the knob will power it on and another press will enter its menu where you can select:
- Input – USB, Optical, Coaxial, I2S and Bluetooth
- Outputs – All Normal, XLR Normal or RCA Normal
- PCM Filter - you can select your desired digital filter that are built-in directly in the DAC chip itself, there are 7 filters to play with, but the sound difference is slight at best. I’m using Slow Minimum, since there is less treble ringing.
- DSD Filter – 47, 50, 60 or 70 kHz Cut Off – for the most natural sound choose the first option, for the most extended sound choose the latest
- Sound Color – Standard, Rich 1,2,3, Tube 1,2,3 and Crystal 1,2,3. I must say that I’m surprised hearing a substantial difference between them. like the standard one the most, but if you would like to alter its voicing, there are plenty of options to choose from.
- PRE Mode – Volume Fixed or Variable, if you will be using it as a DAC only device, leave it at Fixed.
- DPLL Bandwidth – 15 positions, 7 is the default one. A lower number will provide a better jitter (noise) rejection, I left it at its default position
- I2S Mode – Normal or Inverted
- I2S DSD Channel – PCM Data or PCM LRCK
- I2S DSD FLAG – Pin 15 or Pin 14. For points 8, 9 and 10, please check its user manual if you are willing to try a few DDC converters or wireless streamers via I2S inpu
- FN key function – All Outputs or Bluetooth, it’s self-explanatory
- Dimmer – Dims its display from 5 to 60 seconds or leaves it always On
- Brightness – 6 positions, lowest one is almost dimming it completely
- Reset – Goes back to factory settings
In the end, you have the power of making it smoother, more tubey or you can go with the most transparent and detailed sound possible. It is really up to you to decide which sound tuning works better for your needs.
Tech Inside D1se
When I’m getting new toys to play with, I would pop their hoods, as good audio starts with good PCB design and with high-quality internal components. I would follow their signal path, finding some cool ideas, simplified/overkill digital or analog sections, sometimes small mistakes, but always suggesting a few things. Opening it up was a difficult task, as several ribbon cables are holding its PCB in place, so I took just a small glimpse of what’s inside. Carving two rooms inside its aluminum case, a smaller one for its power supply section and another one for its analog and digital section, already tells me that SMSL is very serious about this one.
First and foremost, high-end audio starts with an outstanding power supply design, kill its noise at the inception, until it becomes a bigger problem down the road and that’s exactly what they’ve done with D1SE. SMSL added an IEC filter that already conditions the incoming AC voltage, a filtering stage follows and then a huge surprise: an audio-grade toroidal transformer from Noratel. As a small detour, I’ve had a Noratel transformer in my former Matrix Audio X-Sabre PRO ($1700), I have one in the Matrix Audio Element X ($3400), another Noratel in the Plixir Elite BAC400 ($1600) passive power conditioner and a huge one in the Elite BAC1500 ($4000). As you can guess, not all transformers are made the same, but the one used inside D1SE is a very special one that is being used only in high-end electronics. DC power coming from its transformer is then rectified and filtered multiple times with Nichicon KG caps and ultra-low-noise voltage regulators.
At the heart of its digital processing, stays a powerful ES9038 PRO 8-channel DAC chip of ESS Technologies. This is their best and most premium converter. SMSL has plenty of experience with this chipset, as they used it in its predecessor (D1), in their M500 and SU-9 DACs.
Thanks to the newest XMOS XU-216 interface that takes care of the USB input and to its higher processing power (2000 Mips) and RAM size, D1SE is capable of decoding and unfolding natively MQA material. It can fully unfold MQA files stored on your PC or played back via streaming desktop apps, as Tidal for example.
There’s a Bluetooth 5.0 receiver on board that supports several codecs as SBC, AAC and AptX. Sadly, higher grade codecs as AptX-HD, LDAC and UAT are not supported, suggesting that it was put there mainly for convenience. Its antenna works as a wireless signal booster and its operating distance should be around 10 to 15 meters, depending on how many walls are in between both units (sender and receiver).
All in all, SMSL D1SE uses only top-grade components, one of the best transformers, audio grade capacitors and a very capable DAC chipset and I expect some great things coming out of it. My ears started itching, so what are we waiting for? Let’s hit some eardrums!
I. Preliminary Impressions
Before I’ll tell you exactly how it sounds, let’s zoom out a little and have a chit-chat. Exactly four years ago I’ve published a detailed review for the Matrix X-Sabre PRO that forever changed my preconceptions about ESS-Sabre equipped converters. It was one of the very first ES9038 PRO dressed DACs and yep…it was powered by a Noratel transformer. I loved it so much, that I decided to buy it from the local distributor and the rest is history. As years passed by, it was clear to me that DAC chips are telling only a very small portion out of a much bigger story. I’ve tried terrible sounding ES9038 PRO designs and supernatural sounding digital creatures that used the same silicon. Some of them sounded natural, life-like yet resolving and detailed and others were on the opposite camp, choosing plenty of resolution and cleanness, but close to sub-zero naturalness and texture. You should never judge a book by its cover and the same can be said about digital audio.
With affordable stuff, audio-engineers are forced to trade-off audio-grade components with lower-grade parts, fitting less impressive filtering stages and what not and that’s precisely why top-grade DAC chips can sometimes deliver a mediocre performance at best. It’s a completely different story when you are no longer chasing a particular price point and the only thing that limits you as an engineer is your wild imagination. When doing reviews for higher tiered DACs, generally it’s a race for cons and not for the pros as after a certain point, there is little to complain about, it’s more about system matching and personal preference than anything else.
Without messing with you too much, I’ll tell you that D1SE is a different sounding unit to any other ES9038 PRO equipped SMSL unit I’ve tried before. It’s not about an extremely detailed and transparent presentation as it has that in spades, it’s not about being honest, noiseless and distortion free or about preserving the frequency response in full, as it’s doing that already. Finally, some emotions made an appearance in my music as if a miracle happened in front of me, voices felt fuller and weightier sounding as if a muse was singing directly into my ears. The soul of the music awakened from a deep sleep, adding textures and colors, I’ve felt a longer vibration of string-based instruments. It didn’t sound like an ESS-Sabre equipped converter at all, it was considerably more organic and alive and this isn’t an exaggeration from my part.
When I’m not using two AHB2 power amplifiers in my office driving the notorious Hifiman Susvara, then I would use their easier to drive sibling, the HE1000SE that became my daily driver headphones. The only problem with HE1000SE is that in long listening sessions it adds an unnatural treble ringing, an over sharpness filter is put of top, making everything extra clean to a point of becoming too much in longer listening session. While HE1000SE is truly an outstanding headphone in every possible way and it’s probably the best one in the $3500 to $4000 price range, it doesn’t work with all DACs and headphone amplifiers, as I always tend to use a warmer and a smoother sounding source and amplifier with them. When D1SE arrived, a Benchmark HPA4 was sitting on my desk and I though that I should give them a try together, with HE1000SE hopping on my head. After pressing play and listening for a few tracks, I’ve added more music in my daily playlist, I’ve added some more in the evening. I couldn’t stop listening to music, as HE1000SE’s treble glare was completely cured, that over-sharpness wasn’t as obvious, voices became weightier and sweeter sounding, exactly as I know them to be on top R2R converts. I couldn’t believe my ears, an ES9038 PRO based D/A converter was transforming my daily driver headphones into music-making machines that I could use even with ultra-linear headphone amplifiers. Forget everything you know about ESS-Sabre converters as D1SE is not following that rule anymore. There is more authority in the bass, there’s impact and some body slam, there is more sweetness with vocals, there is some liquidity with instrumental music, there is more air traveling around and there is more depth information. D1SE impressed me right away with headphones and loudspeakers alike, even with just a few hours of burn-in and it makes me even more curious about their top-of-the-line VMV D2 DAC.
II. Using D1SE in a loudspeaker setup
While D1SE doesn’t use analog relays for a perfect volume matching and it doesn’t use actual line-amplifier circuits, SMSL left a lower impedance on both its RCA and XLR outputs, so it can work directly with a power amplifier, without the need of a dedicated preamplifier. SMSL made sure that its power supply would be over-engineered enough, so that noise floor wouldn’t be an issue, dropping it to inaudible levels, so that a power amplifier wouldn’t pick that up and plant it in the upstream equipment. SMSL didn’t specify in the user manual or on their website its voltage output, but after some careful volume matching and comparisons with other converters, it seems that it stays at exactly 4V via XLR, which is an industry standard.
My Benchmark AHB2 power amplifiers are working better on low / medium gain, suggesting using a 2V or a 4V source with them, never going above those numbers for a better measured performance. Long story short, D1SE performed excellent in my loudspeaker setup, noise floor was nowhere to be spotted even at close to maximum volume with the KEF Reference 3 that were swallowing around 380 Watts of power. I’ve felt its warmer and smoother character immediately, there was slightly more bass traveling around, midrange sounded very close to what I’m getting from an R2R DAC, music just felt fuller and weightier in a way. I was surround by music and not by mere sounds anymore, everything just glued together nicely, delivering sweeter harmonics and a complete relaxation of my body. It makes sense now why there’s a VMV A1 power amplifier that is being recommended for the D1SE, as it seems to work nicely with headphone based systems and with stereo setups alike.
III. Detail Retrieval & Transparency
Telling you that D1SE is an extremely detailed and completely transparent sounding unit, without staying the way of the music is like saying that a Ferrari F8 Spider is a speedy car. There is as much inner-detail with D1SE, it can show the smallest nuances in your tracks and the only limiting factors would be your upstream equipment, your music collection and of course your hearing abilities.
More important than ever is how those micro-details are being provided to the listener. D1SE brings them forward in a natural way, appearing out of thin air and being pushed forward gently and softly. In my opinion, D1SE doesn’t offer very strong and outlined leading edges, like how most ESS-Sabre converters are doing. D1SE appears clean and detailed, but it’s never offensive, it never grabs your attention and it never shouts: Hey look, there’s another micro-detail hiding in there! It’s much gentler in here, mirroring a bit the sound of R2R converters by adding liquidity and a peace of mind so to speak. While there is indeed a delta-sigma modulator and it’s of-course an over-sampling DAC, it doesn’t sound like one. It was never aggressive when delivering musical information, offering softer leading edges and putting a higher accent on the whole musical experience. Hell, even ultra linear amplifiers and treble-oriented headphones worked outstanding with it, never being stressful or clinical sounding. Although there is as much treble information and it easily goes sky high past 16 kHz, there is no listening fatigue and no brightness whatsoever and it never appeared as boring and lifeless sounding to me.
I don’t know why, but I had an urgent desire of listening to some music from my university years. When mid ’20-ties alternative rock made an appearance on my playlist…a huge dose of dopamine rushed into my blood stream, unlocking some positive vibes for the rest of the day. Those raw drums hits and juicy guitar solos made me move to the rhythm of the music, sing and hum along those lines. It didn’t sound like my good-old alternative that I’ve used to hear out of my Sennheiser PX100 and Koss Porta Pro back then. It teleported me back, awaking some distant memories and not a lot of units are capable of doing that. That’s why there is more to technicalities, SINAD, distortion and what not, as making music and awaking emotions should be a lot more important and D1SE does that impressively well.
IV. Soundstage & Depth
Sounding big and wide is not the job of the amplifier that is driving your headphones or loudspeakers, first and foremost it’s the job of the source that stays at the inception of the musical signal. Soundstage is one of those things that cannot be measured by world’s best audio analyzers, but our sophisticated minds can detect if it’s small or a huge one in less than a minute. When people are asking me what converters they should get for a bigger soundstage in their room paired with some bookshelf loudspeakers, I would probably suggest going with big R-2R converts that wouldn’t limit the air travel in any way. Of course, there are a few exceptions from that rule, as even delta-sigma modulation converters can wrap your body entirely with music. Gustard X26 PRO, Matrix X-Sabre Pro and Element X are coming to mind, always trying to bring more air in between those musical notes and it seems that the little D1SE wants to hang out with the cool boys that I’ve mentioned before. While it didn’t outperform said converters, it easily outclassed any other SMSL converter that I’ve tried up to this day. Putting it back in the living room and going through a longer playlist consisting of jazz and blues, made me realize that it’s pushing those notes far and wide without stressing itself too much. Followed by two AHB2 power amplifiers, I needed to lower the SPL, since there was too much music traveling around the apartment. This is not your typical medium-sized soundstage that I describing most ESS-Sabre converters, as D1SE is bigger, taller, adding a few layers of air in between my tunes. There were more layers in the bass, hitting my body in waves, there was order even in crowded tracks and I never felt claustrophobia even with closed-back headphones on my head. Inserting it in a fully balanced system, lowers its channel crosstalk, increases its dynamic range, unlocking the third eye in terms of scale and openness. It was easily increasing or decreasing the stage size depending on the music that was being played. My older gangster blues sounded up close and personal as if I was sharing a cigar with the lead singer, while live-recordings sounded if I had no walls in the apartment.
All their past doings that were tested around here as SU-8S, SU-9, M200 and M500 were decent to quite good, but D1SE presents its performance in a different light, as everything comes and goes away in a very effortless way. After digging a bit more and detaching a few ribbon cables, it seems that SMSL combined a few OPA op-amps with discrete components…how interesting. This isn’t exactly an op-amp based output stage, it’s more like a hybrid and it all comes together now. I get it why there is more air, why there’s more weight and fullness in my music, while completely bypassing all the listening fatigue. Those discrete components can be usually spotted in upper-class equipment and I’m glad we’re getting those at such an affordable price point.
V. Transient Response
Generally speaking, we are dealing here with a good transient response that could deliver speedy dynamics and a decent impact in the chest. However, due to less than perfect leading edges that aren’t sharp and super powerful, it didn’t slam my body as hard as I’m used to. It smooths out the leading edges, making them softer, so I can listen even to bright tilted headphones and loudspeakers all day long. Going through a vast music collection, it was clear to me that it doesn’t have that need for speed, it doesn’t want to go super-fast, nor does it want to pound my body with an incredible force. This is probably the biggest con of most R-2R converters and weirdly enough, D1SE follows the same path. Don’t get me wrong, I still head-banged with my rock and electronica albums, I still smiled carried away by that music, but it didn’t steal my attention, never strapping me still in the listening spot. It is still expansive sounding and fully covers the frequency response, but it didn’t want to brawl in the octagon with some other converters as X26 PRO by Gustard for example.
Honestly, there wasn’t an SMSL DAC that would impress me right away in this department, not even SU-9 that was fighting in the lightweight category, delivering speedy jabs, but never painful uppercuts. Obviously, you can counterbalance this issue by adding a meaner sounding Class-A/AB amplifier and some energetic loudspeakers and headphones.
VI. Noise Floor
This will be a much shorter chapter as pretty much all the newest DACs are already very impressive when it comes to repelling mains noise or any other type of noise. Connecting it to a clean sounding headphone amplifier as Benchmark HPA4 while driving a pair of ultra-sensitive IEMs didn’t elevate the noise floor, as FiiO FA9 sounded as if both units were turned off completely. Forget about a noise floor, as those were dead silent even at close to maximum power. Using it in my loudspeaker setup as a DAC and preamplifier combo, driving directly two AHB2 power amplifiers didn’t add grayness or hiss into the mix. KEF’s UNI-Q drivers are notorious for being sensitive to noise coming from downstream equipment, but again nothing could be heard even after approaching them closely. I’m glad that a passive or active power conditioner wasn’t even needed with such a unit, I’ve tried a Plixir Elite BAC400 and then a BAC1500 and it sounded absolutely the same with or without them.
Considering its well-made power supply and all the extra care that went into its regulation and filtering stages, I would be surprised hearing anything less than an immaculate performance in terms of noise rejection. Adding a cell phone on top, didn’t add hum or hiss and all I’ve heard was a clean, undistorted sound that didn’t stay in front of the musical signal. Background noises were nowhere to be spotted and there weren’t nasty gremlins playing at higher volumes and no matter if I would be using headphones or loudspeakers, I knew that I can rely on its noiseless performance any time of the day.
VII. Frequency Response
D1SE is fully covers the frequency response while preserving a richer and a fuller tonality…something that their past converters didn’t do that well. For this chapter alone, I moved back to high-end planar-magnetic headphones, as they can show me a little bit more, even compared to high-end loudspeakers.
When it comes to bass, from the entire SMSL army of DACs I’ve listened to, D1SE is the strongest candidate, presenting a detailed low-end that easily reaches the lowest octaves. There is more oomph compared to anything they’ve done before; there is more substance to be felt down low and it’s bolder and juicier sounding too. There is more presence, more warmth and even texture compared to their SU-8S and SU-9. Be it sub or mid-bass, it was effortless and quite layered, without raising those distortion numbers. All in all, it feels like a big departure to anything they’ve done before starting with the bass. On the flip side, I wish it could go faster so it would keep up with the most demanding tracks and I wish it could pound me harder in the chest, for a better transient response delivery.
Midrange had a natural and a life-like timbre, something that is highly usual for ESS-Sabre based converters. Male and female voices carried just the right amount of weight with them. It was somewhat warmer and denser sounding in here to a point of becoming soul grabbing with some particular music. SMSL tuned it very differently this time around, tilting it towards naturalness and fullness. Its midrange performance is very reminiscent of own Matrix Element X that is far from being thin, harsh or bright sounding. This is actually one of the nicest Sabre DACs that has some meat on the bone and it certainly grabbed my attention with its midrange presence. SMSL traded some linearity with warmth and tonal density. Everything happening in this region just feels more energetic, like there is a higher dynamic range in my music that I know for a lifetime.
I’m not sure what’s making it so different in here compared to the rest of the SMSL flock. Maybe those discrete components are adding some organic textures, maybe that Noratel transformer relaxes the upper octaves, maybe those ELNA caps are adding silky smoothness or maybe all of the above combined made it so easy-going in here. While there is as much treble information presented in a very clean way, it never becomes a burden in long listening sessions. My treble infused rock music sounded raw and unpolished – exactly as it should, faster cymbals unleashed tremors in the top octave, but I didn’t need to lower my volumes, as I never found them ear-piercing even past 90 dB. In all fairness, D1SE is one of the most relaxed sounding units in the treble, it’s gentler even compared to several AKM based converters. If I’m engaging its Rich or Tube presets, then it becomes smooth as butter, blazing through brighter recordings by rolling-off parts of the upper-treble. With their past converters, sound presets did little to nothing, but on D1SE it’s a very different story, making it a super versatile unit in the long run.
VIII. Bluetooth Performance
I really don’t get it why SMSL didn’t use a time-tested Qualcomm CSR8675 receiver that sits in their mid-level converts as SU-9, going instead with an inferior chipset. While their affordable SU-9 DAC supports all the nicest codecs, including AptX-HD, LDAC and UAT, D1SE is limited to AptX only, which is good enough, but definitely not on par with LDAC and UAT codecs, which can sound indistinguishable to a wired connection if 16-bit 44.1 kHz lossless files are being played. I’ve tried multiple desktop DACs that offered Bluetooth capabilities and of course those that had a Bluetooth antenna and used BT version 5.0 had the best coverage and luckily, D1SE seems to use the same winning formula.
You’ll need to enable the BT input on the DAC, search for VMV D1se with your smart device, connect to it and you’re ready to rock! When it comes to Bluetooth coverage, after putting it in the middle of our HQ, no matter how far I went with my smartphone in a 4-room apartment, I couldn’t lose that BT connection. It was going strong even with 2 concrete walls between us, never skipping a beat! Only when I was at the farthest balcony (some ~15 meters away), my speakers started losing some beats, adding pops and crackles in between. In an open space, it performed admirable and even past 20 meters, the signal was still going strong.
Sending music from my smartphone that was playing tunes from streaming services as Qobuz and Tidal worked as a charm and AptX codec sounded decent enough, losing some definition, leading edge and resolution compared to a wired connection. You can easily use the D1SE as a Bluetooth receiver in your daily tasks, but you should never consider its Bluetooth connection as an alternative to all other digital inputs that are offering a higher detail retrieval and a much faster presentation.
IX. A Comparison
In my view, the one and only competitor for the SMSL D1SE is undeniably the Topping D90SE that I’ve reviewed not too long ago. Their makers had different philosophies while crafting them, but still, there are plenty of things in common, so let’s get ready to rumble!
SMSL D1SE ($720) VS Topping D90SE ($899)
In terms of build quality, both are carved on CNC machines with very tight tolerance numbers, sharing a similar footprint, they look great and I find their build quality top-notch. Although I’ll give an edge to the D1SE, thanks to its metallic remote control, metal spikes and absorption pads that are way nicer to the plastic ones found on D90SE.
In terms of features, on one hand Topping added an additional digital input (AES), D90SE offers a much better Bluetooth codec support (AptX-HD and LDAC) and you can even choose between a 4V or a 5V output via XLR, on the other hand SMSL offers a much nicer user interface and lots of sound presets that can literally transform it from a linear sounding unit, into to a rich or overly smooth sounding unit. Those presets made a substantial difference, while digital filters found on both devices did little to nothing at all. Although I appreciate seeing extra features on D90SE, those sound presets that are working on a hardware level on D1SE can help you a lot with a better system matching, choosing a sound signature that suits your needs.
While their digital sections might look similar as both are using the ES9038 PRO, everything that is surrounding them is very different. Topping went with 8 op-amps at its I/V conversion and LPF stages, while SMSL used a combination of op-amps and discrete components. Their power supplies are also quite different, Topping went switching mode power supplies, followed by an overkill regulation stage, while SMSL went with a top-class toroidal transformer, followed by a less impressive regulation stage. SMSL used fatter and higher-grade capacitors, while Topping adopted a better clock-management system and better noise suppression mechanics. Topping D90SE digital and analog section is unlike anything I’ve seen before, using new-school techniques providing world-class measurements as SINAD, SNR and THD. On the other hand, SMSL went with an old-school tuning, using a toroidal transformer and discrete components, they obviously care less for measurements and a lot more for subjective sound quality.
After selecting a 4V output on D90SE, my MiniDSP E.A.R.S. system recorder a very similar SPL, both were set at a listening level of 85 dB with the Hifiman HE1000SE. I’ve used the same power, interconnects and USB cables. All my tests were done blindly with the help of my beloved that was switching the inputs on the HPA4.
After warming them up at least for 30 minutes, I sat down with a simple 6 track playlist that covered all technicalities that are so important for me. First are foremost, both units are extremely clean and detailed sounding, unearthing huge quantities of micro-details from those tracks. In both cases, I didn’t need to stress myself as the tiniest nuances came towards me in a very effortless way. The more I was swapping between them, it was clear that D90SE had a slight edge in terms of transparency and detail-retrieval. D90SE sounded so incredibly clean and I don’t recall hearing a higher resolution with any other converter, sometimes it was too much information, to a point of becoming an issue with less than perfect recordings and mind you, I have a lot of them. All my reference tracks have a background noise that feels like a gentle hiss, which became way too obvious on the D90SE. Topping unit provided an almost robotic performance, as it was super-fast, hyper-detailed and extremely transparent that I’ve forgot that I’m listening to music in the first place.
D1SE had a different approach to music reproduction, technicalities were great, but not exactly spectacular…pointing me out towards the big picture. It was making me move to the rhythm of the music, I was feeling it with my body, it was more organic and more real sounding to me. With D90SE, I knew that there is a digital to analog conversion happening in real-time, while with D1SE I was just listening to artists crafting music in front of me. Maybe D1SE wasn’t as hyper-detailed and extremely correct in its math, but it was more pleasing to my ears. It was gluing musical notes with an invisible silk thread, it added more weight in the midrange, while gently rolling off the upper treble. With this particular headphone, D1SE shinned brighter, delivering an unforgettable experience. When I switched to a warmer sounding headphone like Audeze LCD-4, then D90SE was wining lost grounds, since it made those more coherent, pushing them closer to my linearity curve. While their frequency response was very similar without experiencing drops or rises, D1SE was inserting me in the middle of the action, I wanted to be part of that, I wanted to listen to more music and experience it from a different point of view.
While D90SE had a slight ringing in the treble, D1SE discarded all those nasty vibrations, pulling glare and putting more textures. Music went smoother, it poured naturally on D1SE, while all that was less impressive on the Topping creation. On the other hand, D90SE had a nicer driver control, leading edges were clearer and, on few occasions, it felt more resolving and transparent.
When it comes to soundstage and depth, I couldn’t differentiate them in my headphone setup. Only when I moved to a loudspeaker setup and changed the voltage to 5V on D90SE, it felt like having a better grip over the low-end. It had faster decays and an iron grip over the sub-bass territory, which wasn’t as tightly controlled on the D1SE.
In the end, I find them more or less on the same level. If you care a lot more for technicalities and measurements, then D90SE would be a better unit for you. If you care less for measurements, but you really enjoy your music, you like tapping your feet, you head-bang at rock gigs and air guitar at home while listening to the same live album, you like tinkering with sound presets and you cannot live without getting goose bumps once in a while, then D1SE is definitely a better device. Which one is more to my liking isn’t that important, which one is more to your liking? That a lot more important question that only you can answer.
Truth to be told, I liked most SMSL DACs that were tested around here, but I was never moved by their neutral tuning. Sure enough, they were clean, transparent to their core, fast and big sounding, but they weren’t singing music the way I like it. I’m surprised and quite shocked seeing a very different thinking behind their D1SE. I liked its different approach to music reproduction so much, that I’m wondering even more about their higher-end VMV D2.
SMSL put plenty of soul into this one and it’s not that often when you see audio-grade transformers and discrete components in a unit that costs less than $1000. SMSL left me plenty of signs, I followed them with curiosity and it indeed delivered on all its promises. It managed to impress me, scoring a top spot in my DAC rankings.
Considering its outstanding build quality, feature set, top-class internal components and its different approach to music reproduction, SMSL D1SE fully justified our highest Gold Award! Congratulations to the team and I’m looking forward to what’s coming next!
SMSL D1SE was kindly provided by the fine gents of Apos Audio, it can be purchased from their web-store by following this link (They offer free shipping in the USA and Canada, free 45-day returns in case you don’t like it, an extra year of warranty and lowest price guarantee). In case you get one, please come back and leave some feedback. I’m curious to know how it performs in your headphone or loudspeaker setup.
- The nicest looking SMSL DAC that I’ve put in my hands on
- A lot of care was put into its unboxing experience, fit and finish
- Impressive selection of internal components
- Easy to use graphical user interface, lots of options to choose from
- Its sound color presets are adding a lot of value, tune it to your liking
- Holographic and expansive sounding on all axes
- Offers an extended frequency response
- Clean, detailed and transparent sounding
- Offers a back as night background
- Much fuller, denser and more organic sounding to usual ESS-Sabre designs
- Impressive when it comes to dynamics
- Rhythmic and highly engaging sounding
- Forget about listening fatigue or treble glare
- A good selection of digital inputs and analog outputs
- An Outstanding Value!
- Not as grand, open and wide sounding to the best ESS-Sabre designs.
- Lacks some punch and impact down low
- DACs: SMSL D1SE, Audiobyte HydraVox & HydraZap, Matrix Audio Element X, Gold Note DS-10 Plus & PSU-10 Evo, Gustard X26 PRO, Topping D90SE, Musician Aquarius
- DAPs: FiiO M11 Plus LTD, M15, Shanling M8, M6 V21
- Headphone Amps: Flux Lab Acoustics Volot, Benchmark HPA4, Burson Soloist 3X, Musician Andromeda, SMSL SP400, Topping A90, Gustard H16
- Preamps: Musician Monoceros, Benchmark HPA4, Topping PRE90
- Power Amps: Benchmark AHB2 (x2), KECES S300, SMSL SA400, Burson Timekeeper 3i
- Loudspeakers: KEF Reference 3, Sound of Eden Crescendo UNO, Natural Sound NS-17
- IEMs: FiiO FD7, FA9, FH7, FH5S, Meze Rai Penta, Rai Solo, LittleDot Cu KIS, Hiby Crystal 6 & others
- Portable headphones: Sennheiser Momentum 2, Meze 99 Classics, Sony WH1000-XM4
- Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Susvara, HE1000SE, Arya, HE400SE, Audeze LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos 2021, Erzetich Mania, Kennerton Wodan, Magni, Gjallarhorn, Vali, M12S, Ollo S4X Reference, Apos Caspian, Sendy Peacock & Aiva
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Topping TCX1 (x2)
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC1500 (stereo setup), Elite BAC400 (headphone setup)