In this feature, we review the SMSL SU-10 which is a high-end dual ES9038PRO desktop DAC with Bluetooth and MQA decoding capability. It is priced at $899.99.
Disclaimer: This sample was sent to us for our honest opinion. Headfonics is an independent website with no affiliate links or partnerships. We thank Shenzhen Audio and SMSL for their support.
Click here to learn more about SMSL products that we have previously featured on Headfonics.
Note, that this article follows our latest scoring guidelines which you can find in more detail here.
Breaking the mold in performance figures, the SMSL SU-10 may be a safe-looking DAC that follows the footsteps of other neutral SMSL DACs but it turns this into an asset in becoming a steadfast foundation of any system.
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Well-balanced tonality for easy pairing
Separate linear power supply for digital and analog
From entry-level to high-end, SMSL has been hard at work ensuring every enthusiast’s wish is covered. And with several successful series in its belt, the SU line being one of them, the game SMSL is playing seems to be paying off.
Apart from the SU-10, the SU line has maintained an affordable price tag. For example, the SU-9 Pro comes in just shy of $500 down to the $170 SU-6 DAC. The jump to the sub-thousand-dollar category is huge bearing in mind the market it is playing at.
This isn’t surprising though since as mentioned, SMSL does have the strength in research and development for more serious clientele. In their DAC repertoire alone, they have already come up with the VMV D3 DAC, a $3,000 worth of expensive equipment.
What’s curious though is the missing amplifier combo for the SU-10 seeing that the clean and low-profile look of the DAC would benefit from a matching setup. But this won’t be a deterrent for us to understand what the price increase is all about.
In trying to find the area where the SU-10 got its full numeral upgrade over the SU-9, it’s not unexpected that there are similarities as well. I won’t dwell on this though since aside from featuring the same ESS chip and some overlapping specs in audio playback, the SU-10 is packing some serious heat proving its worth.
Doubling up for its internal DAC, the two ES9038PRO inside the SU-10 with a total of 16 channels are all being kept busy churning out a balanced signal for the analog section. Making its appearance as well, is the CK-03, a self-developed clock design of SMSL that assures that the jitter is kept at the minimum.
With the installed XMOS XU-316 USB chip, the two DAC chips will be well fed with its compatibility with DSD 512 and 32bit/768kHz signal. What’s more, MQA files are out of the box and ready with MQA-CD reserved for the optical, coaxial, and AES/EBU input.
On the analog side of things, the SU-10 is not just a straight-up DAC, as it can also act as a preamplifier by using the volume knob or the provided remote. Talking about its mechanical aspect, there is a total of 21 OPA1612A op-amps scattered inside for a notable upgrade over the ones found in the SU-9.
Pushing the envelope further, SMSL decided that for the SU-10, they will not just slap in any regular power supply and call it a day. Inside the chassis, are two sets of linear power supplies with separate assignments for the digital and analog parts of the circuit.
Although sharing a familiar SMSL design language the SU-10 is a bigger desktop unit than the rest of the lineup. The areas SMSL adopted to differentiate the SU-10 from the rest include the reassuringly wide gold feet trim, which, to be honest plays well with the plain black chassis.
What’s touching the surface though are the white rubber inserts screwed in the middle of each of the four feet. And for those not a fan of gold, I find that it easily hides away depending on table placement or when seen from a higher angle.
Lifting the chunky 1.86kg chassis, you will immediately notice the heft on one side where I’m guessing the linear power supply is. It’s a minor observation, but you can feel the amount of tech stuffed inside the SU-10.
The IR receiver and LED display are both located underneath the protective tempered glass. I like how smooth the display is but, in my opinion, using four different colors at the same time detracts a bit from its classy image.
The volume wheel’s fluid articulation with just the right amount of feedback is a huge plus. Not only is it solidly built with only very little wobble, but how it smoothly and readily glides even with just a finger turning the volume makes me want to use it more than the remote.
Being a balanced DAC and preamplifier, the SU-10 offers analog RCA connections and a pair of XLR outputs for amplifiers and powered speakers that can utilize this feature. Do note when pairing the SU-10 that the RCA is rated to 2.6Vrms and the XLR with 5.1Vrms.
To the right of the power inlet and taking up almost half of the rear is the digital input section. With two USB inputs, the SU-10 beefs up its capacity to pair as well using optical, coaxial, I2S, AES/EBU, and Bluetooth.
The built-in low-noise power supply is already rated for 100V to 240V wall sockets bringing it closer to a wider audience without worry about regional power demands. Just plug in the supplied cable and it’s good to go.
There’s no physical switch stopping the SU-10 from powering on once plugged into the wall. Even when put on standby, the next time the unit receives power, it will still immediately wake up the display and be ready to use.
Set in variable output from the factory, the volume was at its maximum +2dB at the beginning which can be reduced down to -99dB before entering mute. To remove any amplification shift, the SU-10 can be easily configured to provide a fixed-level line output in the settings menu.
Since the volume wheel is digital, it perpetually rotates in either direction. And sweeping the range between the lowest and highest setting will take at least 9 to 10 full turns, which is still faster to do compared to the slower steps when using the remote.
The display’s UI may be simple but it is thankfully responsive. What is more, with the multifunction volume knob being the same press-and-turn controller as its peers, I also didn’t have to read the manual anymore to be comfortable with the SU-10.
Packaging & Accessories
The SMSL SU-10 came in an upscale package than the usual white boxes from their cheaper lineup. Replacing the usual graphics, the carton used here is tastefully wrapped in a black textured material with a bold SMSL script in the center.
Internal protection for carriage is good with SMSL’s usual segmented foam with cutouts for both unit and accessories.
With the paper works on top, the SU-10 is carefully protected by a black cloth as it rests on the left portion of the container. All the other accessories such as the power cable, remote, antenna, and USB cables are presented and mixed on the right.
Surprisingly, SMSL decided to embrace both the more common USB-B and a lower-profile USB-C in the SU-10 I/O. As a result, there are two USB cables provided for each.
I would characterize the SU-10 as an insightful sound signature with a temperate critical performance that does not oversaturate the presentation. I find it quite transparent as it can almost disappear in the chain except for some areas of roundedness that shaves off some detail.
The speed and balance of the bass area aren’t exaggerated or lacking nor does the SU-10 force the subtleties in a dynamic setting letting instruments sparkle without sounding overly etched.
I find that the asking price of the SU-10 is more than reasonable. When matched to an equally revealing set of gears, expect an absorbing listening experience thanks to its skill in delivery and composure.
SMSL usually sticks to ruler flat measuring equipment but the SU-10 is anything but lifeless. I was glad to find out that it can be both a reliable pillar and at the same time be a symphonic instrument.
The SU-10 underlines the low end gently reminding you of its firm and punchy nature before it lets go into a mellow dispersion. With a clean and honest character, its strength is in its speed when it comes to more isolated attacks like the pounding of the kick drums.
Strings have a clear and tight image placement. It may be free of low-end coloration for added excitement and volume but the SU-10’s ability to return a convincing twang and nuance brings the action to life.
With a focus on delivery rather than detail, the breathiness and complexity of a female artist are sacrificed a bit especially in the softer parts of a song. There’s still a lot to like about the SU-10 here owing to the full-bodied weight of the smooth and well-isolated vocals.
Shifting to the melancholic playing of the piano, I couldn’t help but enjoy the depth the SU-10 has infused with each note which is further enhanced by the clean low-end reverb.
On more dynamic passages, the SU-10 can exhibit some signs of shout but in the end, it never got to a point that is quite fatiguing. Even when I was listening to a brass band, animated passages are sparkling yet the edges aren’t hurried or gritty.
Staging & Dynamics
Casting a well-proportionate stage, the staging size the SU-10 is working with is both tall and wide. All of that space though will go to waste if not utilized correctly.
With the exercise of layering and separating objects apart, the SU-10 accomplished its task easily. With a challenging mix that shows when a piece of equipment is weak in this area, not only did its timbre help build a believable scene, but it also showed skill in allowing the probing and dispersion of each object.
Imaging is above average but I think it could still use a touch more finesse. While the SU-10 strongly represents a note in a well-defined region and direction, it does have a slightly far staging quality that leaves some vacant room toward the center.
As expected from the smooth UI of the SU-10, the process of connecting to Bluetooth was fast and I encountered no connection issues. It will not pair automatically with your device unless the setting is selected, but once synced up, the connection remained strong even up to 10 meters with two walls in between.
Coming from a wired connection, the switch to Bluetooth increased the volume significantly. I ended up dropping the volume of the paired amplifier a couple of notches to match the two modes.
As much as I was hoping that the Bluetooth mode of the SU-10 will be closer to its full potential, it’s not surprising that the wireless mode was leagues apart in quality.
Immediately, the stage lost its scale making the DAC sound more intimate as a result. What’s adding to this is the softer mid-bass hump that is not as tight and refined going down to the sub-bass.
The clarity and bite of a bass string are weakened as each pluck’s bigger presence and weight loses the original definition in exchange for some coloration. This is in contrast to the thinner and brittle-sounding midrange that makes vocals less dominant.
Another observation is that the treble region has been tamed more than the wired mode. It however continues the lifeless timbre to dynamic instruments such as horns and electric guitars.