Amp upgrade conundrum - Where to go from SP200?

As the topic states, I’ve been sitting on a SMSL SP200 since about the time it came out. I’ve been pairing it with the Harmony Design DA9 and later the SMSL Su-8. I quite enjoy the sound it produces, but over time I’ve come to be annoyed by its shortcomings.

I love the power it pushes, I like the ease of use with the flip switches and I’m okay with the overall design, even if the form factor is a bit lopsided. I love how it makes my LCD-2 CB, HD700 and Starfields sound.

I dislike the volume knob, a lot. The way it doesn’t give any volume increase whatsoever after 2 o’clock drives me mad on some headphones. The absurdly steep gain for some headphones. This makes swapping between HD700, LCD-2 and Starfield an annoyance as I either have to change gain, DAC output etc. Which also screws with my speaker volume as they are run via the Su-8.

So I’m sort of at a loss at what to do and where to go from here. I kind of miss my old Harmony Design EAR90 in how good that volume knob was (I think it was the top of the line ELMA controller of the time of purchase in 2006/7). I miss that tactile feel and the smooth increments in volume. But overall that amp can’t drive my IEM’s without driving me insane with the hiss.

So what do I want?

  • Improvement over SP200
  • Balanced XLR / 4.4 (latter not requirement, but preferred)
  • Better gain steps?
  • Be able to drive IEM’s / Low noise (not an absolute must, but nice bonus)
  • Good volume knob / response

What is it being paired with?

  • SMSL Su-8 DAC
  • Klipsch R-41PM
  • Sennheiser HD700
  • Audeze LCD-2 Closed Back
  • Fostex T60rp
  • Moondrop Starfield

Use case is everything from music listening and gaming to amateur recording / streaming / video production.

On a side-note, I’m using a Yamaha AG03 Interface that I originally bought to patch into my amp or via the DAC in some Frankenstein setup, but ended up getting horrible screeching noise on it. Although I’m not sure what the cause is, but I suspsect USB noise or overlapping cables causing it. Either way that’s probably another topic for another time.

Budget is not set, but I would prefer to keep it sane, no $2000+ pieces. This is more going to be a project over the coming year, so I don’t particularly mind saving up for something. But if I can stay at a relatively sane level then I’m very happy.

EDIT: On the note of IEM’s, it would be a nice bonus since I have quite a few and like using them from time to time at the desktop, but they are mainly used on the go for me. Main use for the desktop rig is primarily full sized headphones.


The Geshelli Erish is very good balanced xlr only amplifier for only 200 USD. It’s rated for 1 WPC at 32ohms but it uses a different design that makes it easy to drive higher impedance headphones.

Never been much of a fan of Geshelli even though I see where people are coming from with it. It would make sense if I made a stack with Geshelli only gear. But currently it’s near impossible for me to import Geshelli components, nor am I sure if it’s something I want. They don’t click with me on an aesthetic level. Thanks for the suggestion though.

To give some pointers as to what brands I’ve been looking at or potentially interested in buying.

  • Violectric (the 220 is pure sex)
  • Topping (A90?)
  • Monolith (Liquid Gold / Platinum?)
  • Schiit (Magnius?)

I welcome any recommendation that people have tried, open to trying something new as well. I just want something that is a straight up improvement on the SP200 and a more satisfying user experience.


Phew yes I don’t know why people don’t choose one type of headphones and why it always has to be the same.

Let’s start with the Sp 200.
I had it too and went back quickly.
Apparently there was a problem with the volume control that was supposedly fixed in a revision.
That was exactly my problem and the second was the sound.

To get back to my initial comment.
Iem’s are for me more for on the road,On ear,Overear,semi Open more for home.
So if you use Iem’s at home what you can do then it would be better to use something that is not allergic to distortion.
The drivers are just sensitive so less power is more.
A Schiit Magni 3+ or Jds labs Atom would be enough for the spectacle.

For your Overear headphones I would use something like an Asgard 3 or Lake people G103S.
The Lake People is guaranteed to have a very good volume pot.
You might be interested in the Rebel amp which is said to be able to drive both Iem’s and Overears.
Except for the Rebel amp they would not blow up the bench.

Alternatively the Questyle cma400i as a dac amp would be interesting if it should be musical, as well as the Rme Adi 2 Fs which tends to go more analytical.
The Rme Adi 2 would cover your whole spectrum of headphones because it has two separate connectors.
One for Iem’s and the other for Overears.
You might even like it, check it out.
But it’s not cheap, and it has a remote control that can be programmed as well.

The 3rd point of your Yamaha Ag03 if you don’t need it, put it away.
It may be that it causes more interference due to the many connectors, but it doesn’t have to be.
I have recently made the experience to connect a dac to a pc via a separate usb port.
I bought the Matrix Audio Element H card and I have gained even more by this separation and the technical construction of the card.
What I really want to say is get a cheap USB card that you can plug into your pc and your dac and pc will thank you for it.
This way you can guarantee a secure channel without any incidents, especially if you plug in so much in parallel.
And it also relieves your pc of some of the workload, which will surely be a good thing for you.

Here the Link from the Rme:

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Thanks for the suggestions, yeah I know it’s a bit annoying with the whole mixing of headphones and IEM’s. I’ve updated the post a bit. It doesn’t have to support IEM’s as I mainly use full size headphones at the desktop. But it is indeed a nice bonus as I like using them from time to time if I just want to block out the world completely.

The Questyle looks very nice. I wasn’t originally planning to replace my DAC, but I can always reconsider. I’ll have to look it up.

Rebel Amp kind of escaped my mind, which is weird as that was one of the reasons I started looking at other amps once I saw Zeos’ review of it lol.

I originally looked at the RME Adi 2 when building my current setup, but decided that it wasn’t worth the step up in price and thus ended up getting the Su-8. I haven’t done any A/B testing between them so I can’t say how much of a difference there would be. I could of course order it to test and then return, but that’s going to have to wait for now. It is an interesting one, and I like the features it brings. But at the time of purchase I thought I would do better with a separate clean DAC and then a more powerful amp.

As for the AG03. I do need it as I use it every day. If anything I might just swap to another interface, but it’s a necessary piece in my setup. I need to look into the USB card though, that’s something I haven’t actually thought of. Do you have any recommendations or experience with other cards than the Matrix Audio Element H?

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Yes, I only installed the Matrix Audio Element H since Friday and also supplied it with a linear power supply.

With this one from Audiophonics:

Has everything it takes.
The increase is quite nice.
The bass comes earlier and lasts longer, it gets a little blacker and deeper.
The instruments fade out longer and come earlier.
And all around again stronger.
The reproduction comes across as more authentic.
And has also eliminated the hum over the hi-fi system.

But at least it was 350 € whether it is worth it, everyone has to decide for themselves in the end.
I can only say for me personally it was worth it, even if the jump tends to be mediocre. I think that I notice it now, it will be forgotten later. If you were to expand or reposition it, I would probably miss something.
The positive thing about the card is that I can supply it with power separately to ensure that it works.
And I’m not dependent on the power supply from the PC, where mine is already 11 years old.
In your case I would try the cheap solution first with a good usb card via pcie.
Otherwise you can still buy the Matrix Audio.

Yes, the Rme was rather a suggestion for the future.
Because I was of the opinion that it would cover their needs completely without back and forth.
Otherwise I would stick with the opinion that the Asgard 3 is not a bad choice.
The Lake People G 103S would tend to be the better choice.
Because the potentiometer is better and the power supply is better structured.
And would support Iems even better.
In any case, they would still be affordable.

Topping A90, opinions are divided again.
The Hpa V 220 is certainly not wrong, but rather the Rme tend to be the better choice due to your needs.
In terms of sound, it is very close to the Thx, more lively than the Thx in my opinion.
I didn’t think it was bad, the menu navigation was a bit complicated and a bit too unmusical for me.
I think the Singxer Sda 2 C is much more musical compared to the one I’ve been Happy with for months.

If you really need the Yamaha I would make sure that the wiring fits better. As I said, interference can occur with such devices, especially with less good cables.

Even if it takes time, I would start with small steps.
Then it may not cost a lot of money.
I would start with the Lake People or Jds labs first and the USB card for a maximum of 50 € / $.
Would be at least a beginning that remains manageable.

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I swear it’s NOT $2000. :wink:


I really like the Cayin iDAC/iHA stack for this type of solution to power IEMs and full size headphones. The high sensitivity output is great for IEMs (single ended).

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Oh you, haha. I mean if I want to scratch that itch I can just stroll into the store in Gothenburg if I ever pass by.

I believe my issue is probably a combined one. The most notable one being EMI over USB due to all the stuff I need to use with my PC. I do not have the same issue with the laptop for example. This could also be due to my motherboard on the desktop not being the best in terms of shielding (ASRock X470 Taichi). I’ve done a bit of experimenting with this in the past (read: 15 years ago) where I’ve installed EMI shielding on my old Creative X-Fi and that did a lot.

Cables are going to be replaced, I’m running some cables now that don’t have the best shielding. Probably going to get some Mogami cables. But my main issue is most likely the internal noise, not so much external, but it’s on the to-do list.

Indeed, that’s why I’ve been sort of wary on it. It’s a good unit, provided you don’t get any issues. I’ve had experience with other Topping amps and DAC’s, so I do like what they can deliver. It would certainly be a good fit in my balanced setup. I haven’t heard many comparisons to other equipment though.

The HPA V220 and other Violectric amps are just pure beauties to me. I was awestruck when I first saw them posted on here as I had never seen them anywhere before. So it would be interesting to hear how they compare against other alternatives like the THX amps, the A90, Rebel Amp, Magnius etc.

The RME makes my fingers itch at the amount of customization available there, the inner nerd wants to play around with it. Although I think I would be the happiest where I just got something that was more fire and forget. I think it would be an absolute dream for an IEM only setup though, at least from what I’ve gathered.

Definitely going to try the USB card option. As for amps, Isn’t this more of a side-grade though? Starting fresh I would totally agree with your recommendations, but I lose both functionality and I/O with this. If I didn’t have a Topping MX3 for my laptop, I would totally go for something like this for that setup. It is by far a lower cost option though and that’s certainly commendable, but hypothetically speaking it doesn’t seem like an upgrade.

Ooh, interesting. They’re even available in Sweden. I haven’t read anything about their amps in a long time, so I’ll have to read up on this one.



With the cables it does not have to be a high end.
It is enough if you have a shielding and a good plug connection.
Anything that goes beyond that would be too much of a good thing and ends up under the heading of voodoo and cable sound again.

The Audioquest is not bad, or the one from Thomann the Cordia cable.
That would be enough, they are reasonable in price and performance.

The Usb card, the Matrix Element H has definitely eliminated all interference that went through it, I don’t think I really mentioned it and it certainly explains the increase in sound.
But I don’t want to go into this in detail.
Because there are also other views from users.
What I can say is that the increase is good and also the problems with interference, coil whine ect eliminated and it is justified.
And it is worth it for those who have an older PC where many things are not fresh anymore and where a lot of audio equipment is connected, if the conditions are there.

The other side is that maybe a power supply exchange with a separate usb card can be cheaper and the effect can be just as great or similar.

The Violectectric is one of those things, it will surely top everything that lies ahead.
It beats the cheap and Cihifi devices by lengths.
I have hardly found any bad reviews about this monster.
Crazy people have also connected it to a Rme or higher.
The construction of the circuit and the components is in a completely different league and not a mass product.
The other side is what you have to say about it, it will also show the quality of the Dac’s.
In other words it can and will probably reveal the deficits of the Su 8 then it is a personal matter whether one holds on to it or continues to invest in a better Dac.

Therefore, if you have a limited budget, it would be wise to invest in such a way that it still works together.

The Mx 3 that you have covers the needs for the requirements, but in the long run it is one of those things.
I think there is the Ps Audio Sproud which is quite qualitative and affordable.
Or maybe you’re thinking about going to the aftermarket and looking for a more powerful amplifier.

Personally, I’ve moved away from cheap dac/amps because they tend to distort faster due to the low power supply you need.
As soon as you turn it up, it’s quite obvious and will spoil your music enjoyment in the end.
That’s why I prefer units that have a power supply where you can run the power without buckling.

I’m actually using Cordia cables together with the AG03. But let’s leave the interface for now. I have a rough idea of how to fix it. Thanks for the tips though.

Indeed, I’ve seen the internals of it and it’s so damn good looking. Looking at their lineup and prices, I think the HPA 280 is as far as I can stretch it budget wise and have it be somewhat justifiable. It certainly ticks the same boxes as my old Harmony Design setup. I bought that one more or less to be an absolute end-game setup. It has lasted me nearly 15 years and both the Amp and DAC are still kicking, it was mainly curiosity that led me down this spiral abyss of gear upgrades. It’s a fun but expensive ride for sure :sweat_smile:

Definitely looking for something that has enough power to drive planar headphones.

I guess my goal is partly to just find a be-all end-all setup that I can forget for 10+ years and just sit down and enjoy music without being annoyed by something. I was contemplating just upgrading my Harmony Design gear, but that’s going to cost anything between 1600-3500€ last time I sent them an email. This is why I started looking at what was in the cheaper segments, to see how far the industry had advanced from where I was before. I might just go that route since I can send in my old gear for upgrade / trade, but it’s fun experimenting with other brands too, not to mention being able to find something better that is also cheaper.

Does @M0N have any input or ideas? I know you’ve tested pretty much everything upon the planet, or at least half of it :joy:

Some yay / nay input over alternate paths or comparisons to my current setup. Would it be a sane choice to go down the route of a Violectric HPA 280 or something in the similar price category. That one is not much of a stretch from the Harmony Design Ear 903 or D90 which are in my upgrade path from current equipment, were I to send them in.

What makes me hesitate is that these items are double or almost quadruple the cost of some healthy alternatives, like the A90, Rebel Amp, RNHP etc. Ultimately I would want to avoid spending that much money if I can. At bare minimum I just want something that is an improvement over the SP200.

So looking at this thread, do you have any future plans to upgrade your headphones? And if so, what headphones would you be shooting for? I think you could get a decent upgrade for fairly cheap, or you could make that higher end step, but I would question if that higher end step would be worthwhile if you didn’t plan to get higher end headphones that could really take advantage. Almost all the headphones you have now are somewhat amp insensitive besides needing a bit more power than normal to get going, but getting a nicer amp and dac can be worthwhile. Also what type of sound are you looking to move to btw? As in how do you want to tilt your current system?

I most probably will change my headphones down the line. I just want solid ground to stand on as far as equipment goes. I’m happy with what I have for now as I enjoy the headphones and IEM’s a lot, but that won’t stop me from trying new things out or finding bargains.

On the amp side I’ve been running the whole analytical game for a couple of years now. My old Ear90 was tuned as a sort of inbetween, it had a really analytical side to it but with enough oompfh to lift the low end. I know that sounds vague as hell probably. I guess the best comparison is taking a THX amp and adding a bith of warmth to that, and I’ve always preferred an emphasis on female vocals.

This is what has me wondering if I should take the hit on Harmony Design once more. It’s a more barebones design, but it has a sound signature I like and have enjoyed for well over a decade. It’s just that the nerd inside of me kind of wants to fiddle with more extra features (without going full RME ADI-2).


I quite like the design in its simplicity. Also the volume knob is the best one I’ve tried on any single unit throughout my life. So the tactile feel is :ok_hand: My main gripe with the old design is that all of the headphone outputs were at the back of it, but this is fixed on the new units.

Let’s say I don’t drop down the far end immediately. What would you say is a worthwhile upgrade that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg? Something that is just a step up from the SP200. Balanced preferred, IEM capable not necessary but a nice bonus. I like my DAC at the moment and will probably keep it around, but I don’t mind taking advice and tips there either if there’s something else that pairs better with a potential amp upgrade.

Gotcha, just something to think about as when you go higher things get more and more picky, and you want to make sure your source gear matches well with your headphones

Gotcha, if you wanted something neutral but with some oomph and a bit of smoothness, the violectric + soekris combo is very good for that, generally a really nice combo overall, something like a v281/v280 along with a 1541 (or 2541 but I haven’t heard that yet) would be pretty great there, but that is somewhat expensive there

I mean if you have liked the harmony designs stuff nothing wrong with going there again. Regarding the adi-2, while it’s features are pretty cool, imo it’s not the most appealing to me sound wise, it’s clean and clear, but isn’t really that impressive overall and I would only suggest one if you planned to really take advantage of the features it has to offer imo

Hm. Let’s assume around 500 for amp similar or slightly higher for dac. For what you have, you could swing a g111 with a soekris dac (perhaps like a used 1421 or 1321) or you could stick with your smsl and that would be a more studio neutral flat but enjoyable combo, although no balanced output. The Harmony designs used to be pretty solid, I haven’t really kept up with what they have done recently, but it would be a pretty solid known option there. I do think you can make fairly substantial gains from upgrading your dac, but it would be in that 700+ range for it to be worthwhile imo.

For the sound you are after, admittedly most of the amps I would rec would end up being in that 1k+ range as I think other options in that 500 range wouldn’t be what you are looking for (monolith liquid platinum might be enjoyable but too colored most likely, also not the best with iems and pot is ok, rnhp is solid but not the best with the lcd 2 classic, gilmore lite mk2 isn’t balanced and is most likely a bit too brighter leaning than you are after, flux fa-10 or fa-12s most likely isn’t going to do well with iems and might be a bit warmer smoother leaning to where it might not work well, I just wouldn’t recommend the a90 for the most part as I don’t think it really preforms for the price but it does handle iems well and is built well enough). I think exploring the used market sub 1k could yield some interesting picks but I can’t really advise there since I really only know what is aval in the us used market.

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I have gone through quite a few amps in the last year and a half but settled on a few in your list.
First off, the A90 does look very impressive. Lots of power, decent price, cool gadgets (4.4mm), etc. I’d look for more feedback from actual users.

Can’t really speak to Schiit amps. Asgard 2 was underwhelming to me and apparently the Asgard 3 is awesome.

I have been watching the Liquid Platinum since it came out. I love the Cavalli sound. I have the Liquid Spark and had the LCX.
I kept waiting and hoping for a sale. Went from $779.00 to $599.00 and I bought. Deal of the century I thought. :smile: and of course the price kept falling. I think now it is $399.00. THAT is a killer deal!
I love the sound and balanced out is recommended. To me this amp is awesome with one caveat: High gain. With very efficient headphones it is almost unusable (8:00-9:00 max.)and I would think it is unusable with IEM’s. I LOVE this amp with my Focal Elex’s, HiFiman Sundara’s, Senn HD660’s and am very curious about my incoming LCD-2 Classic’s.

At Mon’s recommendation I bought a Violectric V220. I was dubious. I bought it used and paid the same as I had just paid for a brand new LP. It is awesome! Tons of power and the dip switches for gain mean it will power anything I have.
At -12 Db’s it makes my Grado GH2’s sound amazing and even gives them a bit of bass.
Change it to +6 Db’s and my Beyer 600 Ohm DT880’s sound VERY good.
Put the gain on 0 and the HD660’s even have bass and rock away.

I love the LP and V220 for a 1-2 punch, but if I had to pick one, I would choose the V220, due to it’s flexibility.

Not sure where you’re located, but if you could get the V280 from Drop, that could be the ultimate all rounder. I may explore that down the road to see if it could replace both of my current big boys.

Good luck and feel free to ask any questions.

PS: I had the SP200 and used it with my SMSL SU-8. I did not find the combo worked well with bright or brightish headphones at all.

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Sweden. Why oh why did you ask me to check Drop. The v280 is down at 1199$ or 1348$ with DAC. Meanwhile it’s priced at 1700€ here. :cold_sweat:

Speaking of the V280. Does anyone know how the DAC is on that?

Agreed, it’s a bit smoother than my HiBy R5 for the Fostex T60rp, but they’re still somewhat bright on it. I do like the filters / EQ settings on the DAC though, adds a bit of flavour and I quite like the warm settings.

Liquid Platinum was on sale the other day at, but it seems they sold out all stock and now it’s back up at 1199€.

It’s aight, it does the job but you would really want better, I would only say it’s on a similar slightly higher level than the su8, still fairly inadequate in comparison to the amp though (this goes for both the 281 or 280)

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Fair enough, I’ll look for other DAC alternatives then. Makes the amp cheaper too if I decide to pull the trigger and import it. I’ll have to think it over since it’s not money I planned to spend this soon.

Generally I would say with the violectric amps, you want a cleaner source, if you get an overly smooth or warmer source it can sometimes feel a bit bloated or lacking sparkle on the top end

If neutral warm is the goal and it’s available in Sweden, what do you think about the Cayin stack I mentioned before, @M0N? Not quite the level of my Soekris 1541/Vio V281 level, but it’ll drive about anything pretty competently from my experience.