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Last year I was shopping around for a new DAC that would compliment my little Chinese eBay DAC. After dozens of disappointing experiments with several DACs, I pretty much decided to get something that is based on the ESS Sabre ES9018 chipset which is known to offer superior resolution.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any affordable solution for 500 Euros or less. Yes, I could have gone DIY but I wanted something that I can just plug right in and it works out of the box.
After some digging, I found a pretty nice kit on www.diyinhk.com featuring the 9018K2m (mobile) chipset but that was nearly 200 Euros for the components only. And that’s without a case plus a suitable transformer.
My other candidates included the Audiolab M-DAC which is still among the best in its price range for about 800 Euros. But it is a little too big for my desk and I simply don’t need a headphone amplifier. Rumors say that there should be a new M-DAC coming out in 2016 with “premium” components. Let’s see how well this fares.
After some thorough research, I stumbled upon the Chinese-made SMSL M8 (advertisement) which had all the features I wanted:
Sabre Reference 32-bit ES9018K2M DAC chip (slightly worse specs than ESS9018 but probably inaudible anyway)
XMOS USB Receiver (I only use computer audio these days)
Support for high-resolution audio (DSDx64 and DSDx128) up to 384kHz
Selectable Digital Filters
Selectable Inputs (1x Coaxial, 1x Toslink, 1x USB)
I got my SMSL M8 for about 250 Euros from Amazon (advertisement) and it was by far one of the best audio purchases I made in 2015.
When my package arrived, I was shocked how tiny this thing is! Man, it literally fits inside the palms of your hands. It is spectacularly well made out of a unibody alumimum shell. I wasn’t expecting this build quality anywhere near this price.
On top of that, the Chinese engineers even managed to include a small bud readable OLED display. Upon opening the DAC itself I was even more surprised to find premium components such as top notch OPamps, low noise resistors tightly packed. The board layout looks absolutely fantastic and well thought out.
SMSL did skimp however on the power supply part. A basic wallwart 9VDC switching supply is included. This one supports voltages from 110V to 230V so you are pretty much covered wherever you may be living.
The M8 needs to derive all voltages internally from that power source. But you can massively enhance the performance by getting an aftermarket linear power supply or SMSL’s very own P1. But that is going to cost you over 100 Euros.
I had absolutely no problems getting the M8 to play Apple Lossless or native DSD files from Audirvana Plus over USB. My Mac detected the M8 without additional drivers. However, a small driver disc is included for Windows users. Optical and coaxial inputs also worked without a hitch. Linux apparently works without drivers, too although I haven’t tested it.
The M8 is a dream match with my Raspberry PI music server setup! It was detected on the fly by Runeaudio. Everything works from PCM to DSD and I had zero dropouts or problems!
Some users have complained that left and right channels are reversed in DSD mode but I haven’t found this to be the case. Maybe this bug has been ironed out in my firmware revision? Annoyingly, the DAC turns itself off after a few minutes of inactivity. But not a big deal when I’m actually playing music.
How many of you have skipped to this part immediately? ;) I must say that I was absolutely floored when I first heard the M8 playing from my Raspberry PI. The sound quality was crystal clear and super crisp. It felt like a veil has been removed. Much better than my highly tweaked Chinese WM8740 DAC and I would say comparable to units costing 1000 Euros or more.
It matches perfectly with my newly purchased STAX Omega 2 SR-007 earspeaker which needs a revealing source.
But little did I know how good the M8 actually was until I had a chance to compare it side by side to an Ayre QB-9 DSD DAC (a unit costing 3000+ Euros) at a friends house. To my own ears, I would rate the M8 DAC 95% as good as the Ayre DAC!
On some tracks we both felt that the Ayre had the edge with an airier presentation and a very slightly larger soundstage but at this level it required absolutely focused listening. It could have been our imagination as well.
Both of us could have lived with the cheaper M8 DAC. Just to make it clear, we listened to both DACs from a pair of STAX SR-009 reference headphones powered by a KGSSHV Mini amplifier by Mjolnir Audio in Iceland. So not exactly your el-cheapo headphones from a local retailer.
Does this prove that sound quality differences between DACs don’t exist? I’m not sure but we are talking about very subtle differences for sure. Price is not always indicative of performance as this M8 proves once more. I’d rather invest money in proper headphones or speakers.
I recently built a linear 9V DC power supply for the DAC from leftover components. I have yet to compare my power supply versus the M8 stock power supply. But even if you are not skilled in electronics and don’t want to invest in the external SMSL P1 power supply, you can get a perfectly adequate replacement for about 50 Euros from eBay.
Don’t forget to specify 9V 1.6A when you place your order. Also observe the correct polarity of the plug so you won’t destroy your M8 DAC!
Verdict and Recommendations
If you’re in the market for a new DAC and don’t want to spend a fortune on 5-star sound quality, you ABSOLUTELY MUST at least consider the SMSL M8 DAC. It is my highest recommendation for 2016 and I will include it in my DAC ranking.
Updates as of April 21st, 2017
The SMSL M8 responds very well to a better USB to SP/DIF converter such as the Singxer SU-1. Not a night and day difference in my opinion but I can hear more details from the background of a good recording. Then again, the Singxer costs more than the M8 DAC so I’m not sure whether that’s a good investment. In this case I’d rather save up for a Gustard X20u which is mind blowing and a step ahead of the M8 (although we are talking about really minor differences in the grand scheme of things…).
I noticed SMSL has updated their M8 (now called the M8a) and bumped up the specs a bit. It now uses the newer ESS9028Q2M DAC chipset which is still the mobile version but no major changes in the design otherwise. And they did add a newer XMOS receiver which is capable of DSD512. Crazy value! I haven’t looked under the hood yet, though. That means you might be able to find the “old” M8 at discounted prices if you shop around. As of today, Amazon sells the M8 for less than 200 Euros (advertisement). Newer M8a DACs are sold in similar price ranges as the predecessor.
Great review and I am still VERY happy indeed with my SMSL M8 + VA2 + P1 + W6 setup, which cost me £229.50 in English Pounds, which according to Google is $432 US Dollars at today’s prices. I bought mine from the Ebay seller pericross http://www.ebay.co.uk/usr/pericross?_trksid=p2047675.l2559
I’m not sure how my AKG K712 PRO headphones compare with your STAX model, but again I am VERY satisfied with these as well and I have heard some good headphones down the years, although nothing in the STAX price range! Despite all of the different formats I have played through the M8 DAC, I was surprised to find that apart from some genuine SACD releases, I was actually preferring high quality vinyl rips of the same album mixes time after time. However I think it might be more due to the high end digital formats not being properly utilised, because in theory at least SACD should always win out over other formats, well apart from a top quality studio reel to reel setup that is which most SACDs will be sourced from.
One thing to note is that the SMSL P1 PSU gets very hot, and so I position the M8 and VA2 further back so they do not sit directly on top of the P1. I have placed suitably sized objects under the M8 and VA2, to support their weight and avoid damaging the cables underneath. Apart from that there is very little to complain about at this price, apart from maybe some surround sound support. The volume control on the M8 is slightly crackly when moved from the zero position, but nothing that affects the sound during playback over long periods. So at long last I have a fantastic computer based audio solution; IBM Thinkpad Z61p laptop with foobar2000 + ASIO setup –> SMSL M8 + P1 –> VA2 or Mackie 402VLZ4 mixer –> Quested S7 active studio reference monitors. My AKG K712 PRO headphones are connected to the VA2 headphone amp. I have a simple passive selector box to switch between the VA2 and the Mackie. All controls on the Mackie inputs are set to unity gain and totally flat EQ, with only the output channels boosted to correctly drive the Quested S7 studio reference monitors, which can deliver 400W RMS as a setup. I chose not to bother with an additional sub speaker, as the bass these deliver are more than enough!
Interestingly I have played the same music album mixes and formats on my friend’s Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD, which is based on the Mediatek MTK8520/MTK8575 chipset. He has this going through a Yamaha amplifier the model of which I do not know, but if is meant for modern media centre use. This is connected to a pair of KEFF speakers mounted on tall integrated stands / pillars, and they perform very well. Anyway I immediately noticed that the music I mentioned earlier, sounded thin and not at all lush, and lacked depth. Now to be fair my own setup is probably nearly double the price, with my Quested monitors being £1500 RRP (they were approx £1200 RRP when I bought mine in 2005). Before I had bought the SMSL setup, I had previously heard my friend’s and quite liked it but had nothing to compare it to DAC-wise, plus I had only heard whatever my friend chose to play to me, which on the whole sounded very impressive if a little cold and clinical. So I was shocked to hear how in my opinion, the SMSL M8 completely blew away his Cambridge Audio DAC. However I cannot vouch for how correctly he has it all setup, and whether he is correctly driving his amp and speakers for best results.