Today, we review the SMSL M500 MKII is an ES9038PRO equipped DAC and headphone desktop amplifier offering up to 1W of output power. It is priced at $439.99
Disclaimer: This was sent to us as a sample for our honest opinion. Headfonics is an independent website with no affiliate links or services. We thank Shenzhen Audio and SMSL for giving us this opportunity.
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Note, this article follows our latest scoring guidelines which you can read up on here.
It has been a little under 2 years since SMSL released the M400, previously reviewed by Mike. This was one of the last few product lines rolled out by SMSL using the now-discontinued AK4499EQ DAC chipset.
Since then, as with quite a few companies, SMSL has slowly transferred to competing chipsets such as Sabre. The new M500 MKII is one such example, which was just launched in Dec 2021.
Priced in the mid-range and a little lower than the M400, this is one of SMSL’s shoebox-styled offerings but with a heavy-duty DAC implementation.
The M500 MKII uses a single flagship ESS9038 Pro DAC chip implementation. It also has some distinct features that include an ultra-low noise power supply using the ES9311 power supply chip, which allows the M500 MKII to have a noise rating as low as 1µV.
Aside from this, the M500 MKII has an XMOS XU216 USB controller that allows the M500 MKII to decode PCM streams up to 32bit/768kHz, DSD512, and decode MQA streams. MQA decoding is also enabled through the coaxial and optical inputs, which allows the M500 MKII to decode MQA-CDs using similarly enabled CD players or streamers.
The M500 MKII also has a built-in headphone amplifier that uses SMSL’s proprietary PLFC circuitry, which has a measured THD of 0.0001%. While the DAC section on the M500 MKII has a measured distortion of just 0.00006%.
One of the unique things with the M500 MKII is the form factor, where it’s essentially a square when you look at it in front. However, this is not purely for aesthetic purposes, instead, it allows the M500 MKII to have separate boards for the power, digital and analog sections that can prevent noise from jumping from 1 board to another.
The boxy narrow form factor of the M500 MKII means it takes up a lot less desk space than other DACs, but it is a fairly tall unit as a consequence. Since the M500 MKII is an all-in-one unit, it doesn’t necessarily need an amplifier stacked on top of it, but if an external amplifier is needed, the M500 MKII would typically have to go on top or to the side instead.
Given everything is internalized including the PSU, the M500 MKII only needs a standard IEC power cable for power input. Aside from the plug, the rear of the M500 MKII has the standard digital inputs and the pre-amp outputs.
The front of the unit is pretty simple, with a headphone output, a screen, and a volume knob that can be used for menu navigation. The 1.9” TFT screen in front of the M500 MKII is what I’ve become used to with the other SMSL DACs including the SU-9, SU-8s, etc. Menu navigation is done using the volume knob, and it’s a bit difficult since the knob itself is on the smaller side.
The M500 MKII has a fairly comprehensive list of available input options. There’s USB, coaxial, optical, and even an option for Bluetooth 5.0.
For outputs, there are both single-ended and balanced rear connections, that can either be configured to output full line-level outputs or attenuated using the preamp function. On the front panel, there is a single-ended 6.35mm headphone output, but there is no balanced output for headphones.
There are 2 options for controlling the M500 MKII, the first is using the volume knob in front of the device. This allows full control of the options that are available in the menu, which has become common among most other SMSL DACs.
The second option is the new RC-8C remote control, which can be used to navigate through the menu, which can be cumbersome particularly if you’re doing it from a distance. Fortunately, SMSL also included some shortcut buttons on the new remote control, which allows for volume control, input selection, output control, and a mute button.
There are 2 volume settings on the M500 MKII, the first is for the headphone output section, and the other one is for the DAC section.
This allows the user to set each one independently so that when you switch from either output, you won’t be surprised by how loud the M500 MKII was set. Although this is a simple feature, it’s an intelligent feature that’s implemented well to prevent accidents.
In the menu, there are options for input selection, output mode selection, PCM filters, DSD filters, headphone amp gain, SPDIF mode, sound color, pre mode, and function key assignment, DPLL, auto-dimming, brightness, and reset. All these functions can be accessed both using the volume knob as well.
Packaging & Accessories
The standard packaging for SMSL products is fairly standardized and nothing out of the ordinary if you have used their products before. This is an outer cardboard box with the SMSL logo and a picture of the product in front in black and white, in this case, the M500 MKII.
This is a practical choice though since the box and the foam inserts inside the box provide adequate protection for both transport and storage.
Aside from the DAC itself, the package also comes with a standard IEC power cord, the remote control, the Bluetooth antenna, a USB cable, and of course a user manual and warranty information. Although on the simpler side, what comes with the M500 MKII is what I have become used to with most other DACs in the market.
It seems SMSL packed in the Bluetooth options on the M500 MKII, as it has a suite of the latest available Bluetooth codecs. This includes aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC which allows for 24bit/96kHz streaming. Of course, standard codecs like SBC and AAC are also available.
Although the M500 MKII is only limited to working as a Bluetooth receiver, the latency, particularly with LDAC is very low. When I do a latency test, I have to strain and look at the test to eke out a delay of 5mS, which means that you can expect a fairly seamless experience when watching movies or playing games.
Sound impressions are based on the DAC section of the M500 MKII using the XLR outputs.
Tonally, the M500 MKII stays on the safer side ensuring that it won’t get offensive regardless of the music that is played through it. There is some energy though, allowing the underlying bass notes to convey a sense of rhythm while giving the midrange a warmer timbre and presence.
Having a thicker presentation allows the M500 MKII to create a more palpable bass region. Drum hits have a heavy-handed but loose bass presentation. Bass grooves take on a similarly thicker presentation, giving it a sense of presence and heft.
Sub-bass on the M500 MKII extends well into the sub-bass but takes on less of that full-bodied quality from the mid-bass. Instead, the sub-bass has a more dispersed airy presentation that allows me to believe that there is a well-paced sub-woofer in the room.
The more heavy-handed presentation seamlessly translates into the vocal presentation allowing the vocalists to have a more planted fundamental. Vocalists have good power and focus behind their voices. While the M500 MKII doesn’t introduce any artificial euphony, the vocal timbre on the M500 MKII remains natural while presenting an overall detailed vocal presentation.
Instrument timbre is on the warmer side of things, which makes pianos and guitars sound thicker than what I’ve come to expect. The textures with each instrument are also similarly fleshed out making it easy to hear single guitar strings or even the subtle pulling of cello bows.
With the treble presentation, the M500 MKII errs on the side of caution by rolling off the treble response. Cymbal hits still peek through when called for, while horns still have a sharp quality to them. However, there is a lack of body in the treble presentation making it seem like these instruments don’t take up much space.
Staging & Dynamics
Most of the time, when I look at DACs with diminishingly low distortion numbers, I am led to believe that they should correlate with the soundstage width. And with the M500 MKII, there is a correlation between these factors, as the soundstage remains faithful to the track.
Elements in the soundstage tend to be larger than I expect them to be, and this leads to the elements within the soundstage overlapping at times. Despite this, there is a sense of layering within the soundstage, while easily creating a coherent center image. This makes the M500 MKII easy to listen to, as it doesn’t force the music on you and instead lets it breathe around you.
With piano recordings, there is a gentle wispy quality to it with tracks that call for it. Interestingly, the M500 MKII remains faithful to the sense of scale that an orchestral recording can bring when they have these large crescendos.
Much of the tonal balance is preserved with the RCA outputs, as they sound similar to how the balanced XLR outputs are. There is a difference in the volume level of the 2 outputs, where the RCA outputs need a bit more from the volume knob of the downstream amp.
Another difference with the RCA outputs is that it has softer edges comparatively, with leading edges of notes being less prominent. Bass notes have the same amount of texture but have a smidge less control making bass notes comparatively more scattered. Images also tend to be less vivid.
While the DAC section of the M500 MKII can be characterized as thick and safe, the amp section works as the perfect complement to this sound signature. This allows the headphone output of the M500 MKII to have a more crisp and snappy presentation.
The bass on the headphone amplifier section is thinned out bringing the bass to a more controlled level. This also gives it natural decay while having a more extended sense of attack.
Midrange instruments have a similarly thinned-out timbre making pianos have a less colored presentation. Treble is well extended and there is a welcome uptick in the treble presentation that gives it a bit more energy and air.
Although the soundstage isn’t much wider, the imaging presentation becomes sharper and more precise. Which in turn allows the images to have a more precise location without having to overlap with each other. This also makes layering a bit more apparent.
Despite the efforts to ensure that the M500 MKII is capable of the highest available standard codecs, there is still a marked difference between the Bluetooth and wired connections. This is most prominent with the way textural information is presented, as Bluetooth has a comparatively more glossed-over presentation.
Also, imaging ends up being more compressed, making it more difficult to differentiate between the layers within the soundstage.
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