For the last year or so, if you were looking for a powerful, yet affordable headphone amp for your desktop, the $499 Topping A90 is the one most people would recommend.
The A90 is fully balanced with XLR input/output, a 4.4mm jack, a pre-out, a 3 step gain setting, plus a smooth volume control knob and easy-to-use dipswitches. It’s also powerful enough to run any headphones on the market (think about 6 watts max from the balanced output at 32ohms).
But what if you don’t need that much power? Would you buy an amp with similar features and slightly less juice if you could save a hundred bucks?
Well, that seems to be the proposition behind the headphone amp we’re looking at today, the $399 SMSL HO200 Headphone Amplifier. It pretty much has all same stuff as the A90, save a bit of output power (max output 3 watts). It even looks a little bit like the A90.
Disclaimer: The SMSL HO200 Headphone Amplifier was sent to us by Aoshida Audio in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to them for the opportunity! Check out their Amazon Store for the HO200 and a bunch of other Audio Gear!
As soon as I took the H0200 out of the box, I was pleasantly surprised at the heft of this amplifier. The aluminum casing and faceplate are quite thick, as is the rear panel. I would say on par with the Topping A90 amplifier, it actually may be a little heftier.
The front panel is laid out nicely, with the three headphone jacks (XLR Balanced, 1/4” Single-Ended, 4.4mm Balanced) on the left, the volume knob in the middle, then four dip switches on the right for Input, Mode selection, Gain, and Power.
On the back, there’s a balanced XLR input and pre-out alongside the Single-Ended RCA input/pre-out, then there’s a master power switch and a plug for the detachable power cable.
The volume knob turns smoothly, and the front switches all operate smoothly as well. One switch allows you to select either the XLR or RCA input, the next allows you to select the XLR or RCA pre-out, then you have the 3 step Gain, which lets you pick Low, Medium, or High gain, so you can match the output to the sensitivity of your headphones or IEMs, and lastly, you have the front power/standby switch.
All controls seem well made and built to last, and I like the 3-step gain as it gives you a lot more control over the volume than a 2-step gain.
Overall, the functionality and design are so similar to the Topping A90 that I find it hard to believe it’s an accident. But as someone who loves the A90’s design, that is a good thing. You get a lot of what makes that amp good at a lower price.
Listening To The SMSL HO200 Headphone Amplifier
For my listening tests, I hooked up the HO200 to the Denafrips Ares II R2R DAC which I just finished reviewing to the RCA input on the back of the SMSL amp. Then I hooked up a pair of Mr. Speakers (now Dan Clark Audio) Aeon Flow Closed Planar Magnetic headphones to the single-ended 1/4” jack on the front of the HO200.
I like to use the AFC headphones for my sound tests, because they need a quality amp with abundant and clean power to shine. If an amp sucks, the AFC’s will expose it in a second. They are both revealing and somewhat hard to drive properly, so if an amp can give them life, I know it’s got something.
When I turned on the HO200, the first thing I noticed was I needed to change the gain to the “Medium” setting to get the AEON Flow Closed headphones going without turning up the volume past halfway. On medium gain, I was able to get them to a comfortable listening volume at about 8 o’clock on the volume knob, and I usually got to an uncomfortable listening level slightly past 12 o’clock.
This told me the HO200 is a relatively powerful amp as the output power specs suggests. I never needed to use the “high” gain setting for any source material.
After listening for awhile, I came to like the HO200’s astounding detail and tonal balance. This amp doesn’t aim to put too much of a stamp on the music besides a slight elevation in the high mids/treble which brought out the AFC’s edges on some songs.
That said, I loved this amps articulation from top to bottom. If you have a revealing source/speakers/headphones this amps low noise floor will let you hear everything on a good recording.
When listening to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album, I was able to hear everything, from a singer’s breath to the lightest hand pat on a conga drum.
Compared to the Topping A90, I found it to be a tad bit cleaner and more detailed from top to bottom. That said, the A90 was less forward on the top end, and it had a little more weight on the low end. If you have a flatter sounding headphone, you may like the A90’s warmth better.
However, because of the top end and upper mids extension, the HO200 seemed to have more “air” and openness than the A90, which made the AFC headphones sound a little less congested thru the midrange.
When it came to power, the A90 had just a bit more headroom than the HO200 for the least sensitive headphones. But to be honest, with most headphones, you won’t miss the extra juice.
I also tried the $349 Hifiman SUNDARA with the HO200, and it was actually my favorite headphone with that amp. It didn’t sound quite as edgy with it as the AFC, and it also had more punch which made the SMSL sound more lively overall. It just didn’t have quite the resolution as the Mr. Speakers headphone, but it had enough to make the combo enjoyable.
The Wrap Up
At the end of the day, the $399 SMSL HO200 headphone amp is a worthy competitor to the Topping A90 if you need the same complement of connections and settings. It has just a little less power than the Topping amp, but in most use cases, you won’t miss the A90s additional headroom. It’s also built like a tank, which I love.
During listening tests, I actually found the HO200 to be more detailed/revealing than the A90, but it also had a little bit of peakiness/forwardness in the treble/high mids that may be too much of a good thing with certain headphones. The A90 was sweeter in the highs, and had more weight on the bottom end.
Basically, if you like an amp that plays neutral with a little bit of added sparkle up top, then you will probably like the HO200.
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.