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SMSL AO300 DAC / HeadAMP / Integrated Stereo Amplifier – Class D Back In Game

SMSL AO300 DAC / HeadAMP / Integrated Stereo Amplifier – Class D Back In Game

SMSL AO300 is a $289 USD DAC / Headphone Amplifier / Integrated Stereo Amplifier with a pre function, designed to run an entire speaker stereo system from just the amplifier, with everything else being a story of the past. This is literally the only unit you will ever need, as it even has optical input, bluetooth input, and can do so much more, being a complete solution, even compared to the AO200 MKII that I just reviewed and which I liked a lot. Given the pocket-friendly price point, we will be comparing it to other high-quality amplifiers / DACs including SMSL AO200 MKII (249 USD), Burson Funk (550 USD), Soundavo NSA-250 (300 USD), and Arylic A50+ (200 USD).  

 

Introduction

SMSL is not a new company in our review rooster, and we know they have been able to provide a really good performance for an entry-level selection of products, but lately they’ve been making more and more high-end products, trying to break into the flagship price segment, with interesting DACs AMPs, and more. The best part about AO300 is that it is sold and fulfilled by one of the best, most trustworthy shops that carries SMSL, Aoshida. With Aoshida, you’re bound to have fun, they have some of the fastest delivery times, exceptional pricing, and many products that are exclusively sold through them, helping bring the best audio to the western market. It is good to keep in mind that if you’re not comfortable using the Aoshida store to buy, they also sell and fulfill orders on Amazon, so you can have the extended return windows of Amazon but still take advantage of the exceptional Aoshida support. As an Amazon Influencer, I earn from qualifying purchases, and using the purchase links in my reviews helps me maintain this website and youtube channel.

I want to thank Aoshida for providing the sample for this review, in exchange for my honest opinion. We are not receiving any incentive for this review and Audiophile-Heaven has no affiliation with Aoshida or SMSL beyond this review. This review is a description of my personal experience.

 

Product Link

You can grab one from www.amazon.com here: https://amzn.to/3GaObBN

If you’re in the UK, you can grab one from www.amazon.co.uk here: https://amzn.to/3RabRMO

And if you’re from Europe, you can grab one from www.amazon.de here: https://amzn.to/3MRRjWD

 

Build Quality/Aesthetics

SMSL has a few good amplifiers, and with the new line, including SMSL DO400 they improved the design and sleekness of their amplifiers / DACs, but they improved the sound too, going from a flat-sounding company to a truly engaging, dynamic and punchy sound. The new AO300 is so versatile that it can be the last piece you will need for your system, as it has DACs, AMPs, and much more. Starting with the DAC chip, we have a CS43131 DAC from Cirrus Logic, paired with an Infineon MA5332MS Amplifier chip for the stereo amplifier. This is a powerful Class D amplifier that can have a power delivery of up to 165×2 W for a 4 OHM impedance, 85W x 2 for a 8 OHM impedance, and a THD+N of 0.003%. 

We have support for HDMI ARC, USB Type-C input, and RCA AUX inputs. We do not have balanced XLR inputs, as we had with SMSL AO200 MKII, but we do have the subwoofer output still, which I find to be really useful. The inputs also include Bluetooth, Coaxial and even Optical. There is a huge power input, and the power supply will switch automatically between 220V and 110V, which is nice, because as I was writing today’s review I just burned a fuse on a Tube Amp that arrived set to 110 Volts. The Bluetooth input now is at a whole new level compared to what we previously seen from SMSL, as AO300 has LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, SBC and AAC. As we have a SNR of 107dB and a channe separation of 98 dB, we could consider AO300 to be a TOTL integrated amplifier, at least measured spec wise. 

The package includes the AO300 unit, an AC Cable, a USB Cable, a HDMI cable, a remote control, and the Bluetooth antenna. The sampling rate for PCM goes as high as 768kHz, and it can also decode DSD and MQA. At normal volumes, AO300 consumes around 40W, and for a unit that weights 1.52 kG, you will have a good time cooling it off as the unit does not get very hot during usage. The best control for the volume is at low and medium listening volumes, although I wouldn’t say it has a high distortion at high volumes, but AO300 does get sharper, more V-Shaped at very high volumes. Still, it is respectable how nice it can still sound, how good the dynamics can be at next to maximum volume. 

The unit seems to struggle a bit with more complex setups, for example, while AO200 MKII has an easy time driving the Amphion Argon 3S and KLH Model Five with the Aperion RST SuperTweeters MK2, AO300 can struggle. Driving headphones, on the other hand, is something that AO200 couldn’t do at all, while AO300 is quite good at having a good driving power, decent sound and sonic presentation, and very good control for over-the-ear headphones. 

There are 8 EQ profiles which will change the sound quite drastically, and there are 5 filter options, so you can get your sound the way you want. The Speaker connectors are a standard size and style that you can easily use with most speakers, which is different from some entry-level stereo integrated amplifiers, which tend to have quirky connectors. Most companies do not expect you to use AO300 with pricey aftermarket cables, but the company used Edifier S2000 for their advertising, while those are active speakers. 

The headphone outputs include a large 6.3 mm and a 4.4mm headphone outputs, but there is no word on whether those two are different and whether the 4.4mm is balanced, but my best guess is that it has the 4.4mm output without being balanced or having a different circuit from the 6.3mm se output. The DAC inside of AO300 is quite good, and it actually has a lower noise level than when having an external DAC connected via the RCA AUX inputs. The USB input sounds the best, after which is the bluetooth input, then we have the Optical input, then the Coaxial input, and the AUX input tends to have the least interesting sound as it seems to inherit a bit more noise than the other inputs. 

For the outputs, the subwoofer output works well, while the headphone outputs are good for the price point, but I would keep this as a Stereo Integrated amplifier more, it has plenty of power, excellent dynamics, a wide soundstage, and a super clean and crisp sound. The new design line from Aoshida and SMSL looks so much better than the older SMSL line of products, and we still have everything we liked on the other SMSL products. 

 

Sound Quality

To test the SMSL AO300, I’ve paired and set it up in multiple listening scenarios. First off, we tried running it from its own internal DAC, but also tried using it with an external DAC and DAC/AMP, including FiiO K9 PRO, HIFIMAN EF600 together with Feliks Echo 2, Aune S9c, or Aune S9c and Aune S17 PRO as PREamplifiers. JDS Labs Element III MK2 Boosted has also been used as a DAC for AO300, and the most natural looking source for AO300 is SMSL DO400, which is one of the best midrange priced DACs there are. The speakers connected to it have been KLH Model Five, NHT C3, Amphion Argon 3S, and Buchardt S400. For the headphones, I’ve been driving HIFIMAN He1000SE, HarmonicDyne Zeus Elite, SIVGA Luan, Sennheiser HD 660S2, and Meze 109 PRO, to see how well AO300 can drive a pair of cans. Overall, it has strong driving power, but for headphones the sound is much softer, warmer, and smoother than for the speaker output. 

To sum it up, the headphone output is natural sounding, with a smooth treble, and a warm, super pleasing, slower bass. It creates the feeling of euphoria and romance, it sounds euphonic and well defined, but fluid. The distortion is slightly higher over the headphone output, compared to the speaker output, especially at louder volumes, and there is no volume difference between the 4.4mm and the 6.3mm headphone outputs, which makes me feel and think that those have the same circuit behind, and the only difference is the shape of the output. The headphone output is very good for 300 USD, but if you have to purchase a standalone headphone amplifier, or a headphone DAC/AMP, there are many competitors, yet none that does the speaker amplifier part quite as well. 

So the speaker amplifier part is clearly the best part of AO300, so we can start by describing it as a really clean, powerful and punchy output, with outstanding detail and dynamics. The speaker output is well defined, the bass is deep, clean and has a good control. The speed of the bass is somewhat slow edging on natural, which creates the same euphonic feeling that we’re getting with headphones, but while it still sounds quite smooth and romantic, even with bright headphones like HIFIMAN Arya Organic, the speaker output edges on being bright in tuning, there is a special warmth in the bass, but the midrange and treble especially are higher in quantity and impact than the bass. 

Speaking of the mids, AO300 is really wide sounding, holographic even, with exceptional instrument separation, although it handles well recorded music much better than music that is recorded poorly, so it is best for enjoying orchestral, classical and jazz, while rock and metal can be a bit too forward and aggressive with AO300. It is important to keep in mind that the midrange is super clean, punchy and the central element in the sonic design of SMSL, and also you can EQ things for a smoother, for a bassier or for a beefier sound easily. The Super Bass profile easily fits all of my speakers, giving them a stronger bottom end, more punchy, and more warmth, tilting the sound into a controlled, romantic and pleasing experience over the bright, and analytical sound it has on the default Direct profile. 

The treble is surprisingly good, it extends easily up to 20 kHz, but your speakers will be the limiting factor here. All of the speakers I am using seem to have a somewhat bright tuning and using the Super Bass profile helps tame the treble a bit. Since all speakers have a multi-way driver, with AO300 you hear the character of those drivers a bit, so the bass is usually slower, while the treble is usually more aggressive, more punchy, and speedier. All in all, it has a sparkly, clean, yet clean treble that has little distortion. You can hear every little detail in music, but at times, if your speakers struggle with treble, things can become a bit aggressive. Still, the overall signature works well for anything that was well recorded and produced. 

 

Comparisons

SMSL AO300 vs Soundavo NSA-250 (289 USD vs 300 USD) – NSA-250 is a nice little amplifier, and it does have full sized speaker connectors, but it doesn’t have as much versatility as AO300 does, and SMSL really knew how to make something that is well priced and which works well with their AO300. We have the USB input which is far more useful on AO300, but NSA250 has streaming, bluetooth and ever ethernet, so you have to give something to get something, and if you need streaming, NSA 250 is better, while if you can use Bluetooth and have a wired source in general, AO300 will sound more detailed, cleaner, more punchy, more dynamic and have better sonic control than NSA-250. 

SMSL AO300 vs SMSL AO200 MK2 (289 USD vs 249 USD) – This is a hard one for me, because while AO300 is more versatile, AO200 MKII is still not to be taken lightly. The device itself doesn’t do as much for AO200 MKII, AO300 has a good DAC inside, it sounds better from the Bluetooth input, and it is easier to implement in a setup, but AO200 MKII tends to have a more punchy sound, the deeper, and wider soundstage, and AO200 MKII tends to have a slightly lower distortion, better control, and more detail. At the same time, AO300 sounds more relaxed, has a more mellow sound, with less emphasis on details, but still being very sharp and contrasty with most speakers. At very loud volumes, AO200 MKII is more controlled, while at lower volumes, they are about equal, with AO300 being the far more versatile option, and having more inputs, being more easily connected to a system, and even having a headphone output which AO200 MKII lacks entirely. 

SMSL AO300 vs Arylic A50+ (289 USD vs 200 USD) – here, things are in the advantage of the AO300, as it has a lower distortion, better driving power, better clarity and detail and better resolution in every scenario you’d be likely to use it, versus the A50+. The appealing part about the A50+ is the really small size, but it has the drawback of not having standard speaker connectors, so if you’re not running naked wire, you’re out of luck and will have to get yourself a wire to run it between A50+ and the speakers. Otherwise, A50+ has some interesting streaming abilities, but it is not as good as Ao300, especially as Ao300 has a strong DAC inside, works with HDMI ARC, a pretty rare protocol still, and AO300 has a subwoofer output that is really handy, plus it can drive some large speakers much better than A50+. If you need light streaming, and can’t do with Bluetooth, then A50+ is still the better option, while if you have a PC, DAC, Computer, TV, or anything with an optical or coaxial output, AO300 will have the better sound, and the more proper cooling, volume control, and a better sounding EQ. 

SMSL AO300 vs Burson Funk (289 USD vs 550 USD) – Burson Funk is a larger device, but has way less inputs. This being said, it has a stronger headphone output, more driving power, and more control over the speaker output. It is easy to see why each would be really popular for its own crowd, and Funk is better for those who already have a pair of powerful speakers, while AO300 is better for those who have a more entry-level speaker setup and just want to get everything started, it has everything you need, and actually sounds better using its own DAC. With the Funk, not only do you have to invest more in the Amplifier, but you need a better DAC to feed it signal, so it all leads to a pricier overall setup compared to most setups AO300 would feasibly be run in. 

 

Value and Conclusion

SMSL AO300 has an even better value than most SMSL products, although if we are being honest, it is doing a lot of things at one time, and it does everything rather nicely. The speaker amplifier is powerful and controlled, the headphone amplifier is clean, warm and smooth, while the DAC is super clean and has low distortion, actually sounding better than the AUX input for once. It has HDMI ARC, Optical and Coaxial inputs, all of which work really well, and the Bluetooth input has LDAC and aptX HD, making AO300 one of the most versatile integrated amplifiers to exist in the whole world. 

At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a really powerful amplifier for your speakers, a central unit for your system, or a good DAC / headphone AMP / Integrated Stereo AMP for a secondary system, SMSL AO300 is one of the best I tested to date, and it should be plenty fun. 

 

Product Link

You can grab one from www.amazon.com here: https://amzn.to/3GaObBN

If you’re in the UK, you can grab one from www.amazon.co.uk here: https://amzn.to/3RabRMO

And if you’re from Europe, you can grab one from www.amazon.de here: https://amzn.to/3MRRjWD


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Full Playlist used for this review

We listened to more songs than those named in this playlist, but those are excellent for identifying a sonic signature.  I recommend trying most of the songs from this playlist, especially if you’re searching for new music! The playlists are different for Spotify, Tidal and Youtube, and based on the songs I enjoy and are available on each!

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_cjBXGmwSHSdGcwuc_bKbBDGHL4QvYBu

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5J3oloz8Riy9LxEGenOjQ0?si=979ba4f082414be7

https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/330fd544-8e5b-4839-bd35-676b2edbb3d5

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5 Comments

  1. Andrija

    I got my ao300 couple of months ago and paired it with pair of Klipsch RP-500M II. I listen to it daily mostly over HDMI ARC input and keep EQ to direct and filter to non.
    The music coming out from such combination is a pure joy !
    A hat off to SMSL for such well designed and finished device !

    1. George Dobrescu

      Woah, really glad to hear you’ve been having such a great experience!

  2. […] driving the Argon3S, I’ve been using a collection of amplifiers, including SMSL AO300, Cyrus One Cast, Burson Funk, and Keces S300+. All of them can drive the speakers and produce […]

  3. Kevin Pavy

    Thank you for a great review, I have a few SMSL products and have just ordered the AO 300.
    Aoshida are a great company.

    1. George Dobrescu

      Happy you enjoyed the review and I hope it will be lots of fun when it arrives!

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