CEntrance DACport 24/96 USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier (Playback 34)

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CEntrance DACport
 CEntrance DACport 24/96 USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier (Playback 34)

CEntrance may not yet be a household word among audiophiles, but behind the scenes it is known as a key mover and shaker in the world of USB audio. Among other things, the firm’s custom AdaptiWave code, which helps pave the way for 24/96 USB solutions, has been licensed by some of the most serious players in the USB audio universe, including Bel Canto Design, Benchmark Media, Empirical Audio, Lavry and others. But now CEntrance has brought out a range of direct-marketed products of its own, one of the most impressive of which is the DACport ($399.95)—a product I encountered firsthand when I visited the CEntrance booth at Can Jam Chicago-2010 earlier this summer.

Exactly what is the DACport? In simple terms, it is the combination of a self-proclaimed “reference quality” 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC plus a class A solid-state headphone amplifier, but with two very significant twists. First, the DACport is portable (as in, well and truly pocket-sized), and second, it is entirely USB-powered (meaning it requires no batteries whatsoever). If you’re skeptical, as I am, you might expect that USB power limitations would surely limit the DACport’s output capabilities, but the clever CEntrance have found a way to step up normal USB voltages to provide the DACport with an 18 Volt (± 9V) power supply, so that in fact it can gracefully drive quite difficult headphone loads to satisfying levels.

Importantly, CEntrance has worked hard to make the DACport a so-called “class-compliant” USB device (supporting 24/96 resolution levels via both USB 1.1 and 2.0), meaning that it requires no device drivers at all and is a true plug’n’play audio component for Mac, Windows, and Linux systems. Installation doesn’t get much simpler than this.

The result is a tiny little cigar-shaped component that is beautifully made and that offers extremely high sound quality, yet that is portable and that allows you to take top-tier, full-size headphones along with you wherever you want to go. Whether you’re off for a trip to the coffee shop or across the country, the DACport puts true high-end sound at your fingertips as long as you have access to digital audio files via USB.

OVERVIEW

Consider this DAC/Amp if: you like the idea of getting an extremely high quality, high-resolution USB DAC developed by a firm whose core USB audio technologies have been embraced by some of the top players in the industry. Also consider the DACport for its class A, USB-powered headphone amp that offers the terrific combination excellent of top-to-bottom detail, smooth and very fine-grained highs, and awesome bass pitch definition and control. Above all, understand that the DACport’s is incredibly convenient and offers exceptional value for money. So far as we are aware, there is nothing else quite like it on today’s market.

Look further if: you require a headphone amp that offers excellent bass “slam” or that provides very high levels of gain. From a texture and control standpoint, the DACport’s bass is superb, but in terms of bass weight and impact the DACport can (at least on some headphones) sound just slightly lightly balanced. Also, while the DACport can drive even problematic headphone loads to satisfying levels, it cannot always enable them to play loudly (which I personally wouldn’t recommend, though to each his own).

You can find headphones amps (e.g., the HiFiMAN EF5) at about the same price as the DACport that will deliver both bass slam and all the gain you might wish for, but the tradeoff is that they typically aren’t portable products, aren’t USB-powered, don’t incorporate high-end 24/96 DACs, and (in most cases) aren’t made in the U.S.—which the DACport is.

Ratings (relative to comparably priced DAC/Amps)

• Design & Features: 10
• Tonal Balance: 9.5
• Timbral Purity: 10
• Detail & Resolution: 10
• Imaging/Soundstaging: 10
• Dynamics: 9
• Value: 10

FEATURES

Digital Section
• Supported sample sates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz.
• Supported resolution levels: 16- and 24-bit. CEntrance emphasizes that, “Because DACport is a 24-bit device, Windows sends it audio with no changes, ‘bit-for-bit’, at all supported sample rates.”
• Input connections: USB 1.1 or USB 2.0, driverless. CEntrance explains that that “the real challenge was to fit two channels of 24/96 audio into the ‘thin’ USB1.1 pipe, where very little bandwidth is available,” adding that the firm, “employed advanced code optimization techniques to push a lot of digital traffic through a very small data pipe.”
• Communication: Proprietary CEntrance AdaptiWave USB technology.
• Local clock: Uses CEntrance JitterGuard technology—a proprietary two-stage clock management system” to control a “Mil spec clock oscillator with 10 ppm precision.”
• Jitter: A very low 1 ps.
• OS Compatibility: The DACport is a plug’n’play audio device with any Mac, PC or Linux computer.

Amplifier Section:
• The DACport headphone amp uses a direct coupled (capacitor free) class A amplifier circuit said to maintain “audiophile quality all the way to the headphones.”
• Output power: 1.5 watts, said to be capable of driving even 600-Ohm headphones.
• Output impedance: 10 Ohms (which may cause interactions with some headphones that explain the sometimes slightly light bass balance we observed in some cases).
• Noise: The DACport is extremely quiet. Its noise floor tracks close to -130dB across most of the audio spectrum, gradually rising in the region from about 300Hz on down toe 20Hz, where noise climbs to approximately -112 dB—still a very low figure.
• 18V power supply: The DACport amplifier is fed by what CEntrance describes as “super-clean 18V rails (±9V, bipolar supply).”

About the DACport power supply:
CEntrance’s chief product architect Michael Goodman kept a development blog as the DACport was under design, and in the blog excerpts below he explains the unit’s distinctive USB-fed power supply in some detail.”

“…when you first plug it in, DACport starts in ‘low power’ mode and takes only about 60 mA of current on the 5V supply. In this startup mode it performs initial USB handshaking and then requests additional power…”

“Having performed initial USB handshaking, DACport requests full power, which is granted by the OS. That starts up the main switch-mode power supply that ramps up the 5V to +/-9V for the audio circuitry, +3.3V for the digital circuitry and clean +5V for the converter circuitry. In total, DACport has 5 (five) separate internal power supplies! That’s how we ensure that clean power is supplied to all circuitry to maintain the ultra-low distortion.”

“When designing the DACport we took a close look at the amount of power available from the USB jack. Typically it’s 5V x 500 mA, which results in 2.5 Watts of power. Not all of it is available for Audio however – in fact about 1 W is taken up by the digital and converter circuitry, so 1.5 Watts is the real Audio output power. In most cases, that’s plenty, since even the low-impedance headphones are very loud at 500 mW. DACport makes 1.5W available for audio.”

Physical:
• The DACport is housed in a handsomely finished tube-like extruded aluminum enclosure fitted with a flat-plate end cap on the input side (the plate provides a USB jack and power-on status light) and with a semi-conical metal plug on the output side that holds the ¼-inch output jack. Completing the pictures is a side-mounted soft-rubber volume control knob.
• The DACport is shaped (and roughly sized) like a high-tech, machine age, aluminum “cigar.” It is extremely compact, weighs just 72 grams, and would fit easily in a pocket, handbag, or computer case.
• Accessories include a low-EMI USB cable, a belt clip, and a felt carrying pouch.

SONIC CHARACTER

During my tests I used the DACport in its primary intended capacity; namely, as a combination DAC/headphone amp. For this reason, my comments on the DAC and amp sections of the DACport are, of course, intrinsically linked. Early on, I found that the DACport, like many other class A amplification devices, needs to be fully warmed up to sound its best. My comments, then, refer to a unit that has warmed up for between 15 – 30 minutes, or even more.

First off, let me say that the DACport is highly detailed and offers plenty of resolving power—more than do many of the standalone DACs that I’ve heard at or even well above its price point. If you enjoy components that can dig deep into digital recordings to extract very fine, low-level content and transient and/or textural details, the DACport will not disappoint. Also note—again, once fully warmed up—that the DACport exhibits virtually none of the upper midrange/treble shrillness or edginess you might encounter with some USB DACs. On the contrary, the DACport sounds as if it is ready, willing, and able to go toe-to-toe in competition with DACs that offer coaxial or TOSLINK S/PDIF interfaces. This, I suspect, is a quality attributable to CEntrance’s sophisticated USB interface and clock management technologies.

Upper mids and highs are very clean and clear sounding, and they exhibit a remarkable ability to resolve subtle echoes, reverb tails, or the leading edges of transient sounds (which can, for some DACs/amps, be very hard to get right). Upper mids and highs are also generally smooth, though warm-up certainly helps in this regard. You might find, however, that the upper end of the DACport’s response range sounds just a smidgeon brighter than the equivalent ranges as played through DACs/amps with tube output stages.

Bass is extremely taut, well controlled, and offers exceptional pitch definition. There’s just no low-end looseness or murkiness to be found anywhere in this little amp/DAC, which is a good thing. Through the DACport, plucked instruments such as cellos and electric or acoustic basses have clear and distinctive sonic signatures, as they should, and on low percussion you can easily discern skin sounds as drums are struck. Even very low pedal notes on pipe organs maintain an almost crystalline purity and clarity. The only drawback I could find was that the DACport’s mid and low bass ranges sound just slightly lightly balanced relative to other good DACs or headphone amps you might audition. The problem isn’t that the DACport can’t go low, because in fact it can and does, nor is it that low frequencies are “rolled off,” because they aren’t. Rather the situation is that the DACport’s mid and low-bass sound as if they are—at least on some headphones—shelved downward by just a dB or two. This isn’t a damning flaw by any stretch of the imagination, and it is a characteristic that can work to your advantage on some headphones, but it is one way in which headphone amps with bigger, beefier power supplies may differentiate themselves from the DACport.

Amazingly, the DACport offers sufficient power and gain to drive almost any type of headphone you might throw at it, and to satisfying volume levels. Note, however, that to get adequate output with really difficult-to-drive ‘phones, you may need to run the DACport at close to its maximum gain settings, which—for the record—CEntrance advises is fine for you to do should the need arise. As a message on the CEntrance Web site states, “There is no danger in setting DACport’s volume level to maximum—the internal amplifier has plenty of headroom and is guaranteed to never overload, even during the loudest musical passages.”

During my tests I used the DACport to drive a very wide range of headphones including the Shure SRH840 (44 Ohms), the Beyerdynamic DT-990 Edition (600 Ohms), the Sennheiser HD800 (300 Ohms) and the notoriously difficult-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-5LE (37 Ohms). To my surprise and delight, the DACport drove them all without apparent distress, though the HiFiMAN ‘phones did require very high volume control settings in order to really “sing.”

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

To appreciate the cleanliness, purity and extension of the DACport's mid and low bass regions, listen to the descending organ pedal note progression in the “Pie Jesu” section of the John Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings]. As the chorus floats high above, the organ drops lower and lower in pitch, eventually getting down into frequencies that most loudspeakers cannot adequately reproduce. Yet the DACport never flinched, tracking the descent of the pipe organ’s pitch until the sound hovered in that deepest of deep regions where pitch seems to morph into something akin to a physical sensation where you feel as if you are being shaken by huge, shuddering columns of air. Where some DACs or amps would make the pipe organ in the Rutter piece sound amorphous or ill-defined, the DACport maintained near-perfect pitch control even as it plumbed the depths of the lowest notes.

At the opposite end of the frequency spectrum, the DACport made veritable child’s play of the complex cornucopia of high-frequency percussion sounds presented in “Talking Wind”, from Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM]. This particular track has become a favorite upper midrange and treble test of mine, in that it shows a very wide range of high-pitched percussion instruments—each with distinctive timbres and, especially, varying dynamic envelopes—all in play at once. It’s not easy to capture the character of each individual instrumental voice, given the diverse combination of gongs, cymbals, chimes and bells used in this track, and it is harder still to convey the realistic sound and elusive “feel” of actual metallic objects being struck and left to ring out in the open air. Yet the DACport did a more than creditable job with the track, effortlessly delineating the variegated voices of the instruments and capturing the penetrating yet also shimmering sound associated with metal percussion instruments at play.

Finally, the DACport does a beautiful job with voices, as in the title track from Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On [SBME Special Markets]. For me, one of the most appealing aspects of this track is the way that, on the chorus lines from which the song’s title is derived, the singer transitions from full voice to lines sung just barely above a whisper level. Thus, you hear Carpenter sing, “(full voice) Come on, Come on/(whispered) It’s getting late now/(full voice) Come on, Come on/(barely above a whisper) Take my hand…” The DACport handles these transitions with real polish and finesse, conveying not only the sound of Carpenter’s voice, but of reverb tails lingering on the air.

In ways like these and many more, the DACport manages to sound like a much more expensive product than it actually is. If I had to pick one adjective with which to describe the DACport’s sound, the word I think fits best might be “sophisticated.” One hopes, of course, that a roughly four-hundred-dollar DAC/amp will sound “good for the money,” but the DACport does more than that. It sounds just plain good. Period. With no equivocal ifs, ands, or buts.

The only areas where the DACport’s minor limitations become apparent involve bass-oriented track where the material requires a degree of low frequency richness and weight that the DACport cannot quite deliver. One example might be Merlo Podlewski’s rubbery, full-bodied, reggae-inflected bass line in “Wasting Time” from Jack Johnson’s On and On [Universal]. The DACport does, as expected, a fine job with the almost elastic textures and overall “feel” of the bass line, but it just misses achieving the big, room-filling, reggae bass sound that the track demands.

COMPETITIVE COMPARISONS

As mentioned above, we know of few if any products that do precisely what the DACport does and of none that provide USB-fed power supplies. Nevertheless, we think readers may want to know how the DACport stacks up A) versus good—albeit non-portable—USB DAC/headphone amps we’ve heard, and B) versus comparably priced high-quality headphone amps we’ve tried. To this end, we’ll compare the DACport to the critically acclaimed Peachtree Audio iDecco USB DAC/headphone amp/integrated amp (click here to read the Playback review) and to HiFiMAN’s tube-powered EF5 headphone amp (Playback review pending).

DACport vs. Peachtree iDecco ($999)
• The DACport costs roughly 40% of what the Peachtree iDecco does, though in fairness the Peachtree incorporates both tube and solid-state output stages, features four digital audio and one analog input, a digital iPod dock, and a 40 Wpc power amp. In short, both products give a lot of versatility for the money.
• The DACport is portable, whereas the iDecco is a desktop unit.
• The DACport provides a true 24/96 DAC, while the Peachtree DAC upsamples to 24/96 levels.
• Comparing just the DAC/headphone sections of the two products (apples to apples, as they say), the Peachtree offer a slightly warmer, smoother, darker, sound and exhibits a slightly more softly focused character than the DACport. In contrast, the DACport exhibits marginally brighter upper mids and highs, a more fine-grained and sharply focused sound, and somewhat more lightly balanced mid and low bass (but bass that, while it may be shelved downward by a dB or two, is by no means rolled off). In general, the DACport offers a bit tighter, more precise control over timbres and textures.
• Both products do a great job of dispensing with potential USB upper midrange/treble edginess and glare.

DACport vs. HiFiMAN EF5 ($399)
• The products are the same price, but the DACport is both a DAC and a headphone amp, where the EF5 is a two-piece, tube-powered headphone amplifier only.
• The DACport and HiFiMAN EF5 are roughly comparable in overall levels of transparency, though the HiFiMAN provides the desirable qualities of harmonic richness and “bloom” that are part and parcel of its tube-powered circuit. The DACport, in contrast, offers the effortless delineation of details for which fine solid-state class A amplifiers are known.
• Both units are extremely quiet, but the HiFiMAN EF5 offers dramatically more gain, should the need arise. This characteristic comes to the foreground with either unit is asked to power a truly difficult to drive headphone such as HiFiMAN’s HE-5LE planar magnetic headphone. The tiny DACport can actually drive the HE-5LE ‘phones surprisingly well, but it requires near maximum gain settings to do so. In contrast, the EF5 drive the HE-5LE with ease, while still keeping plenty of additional gain in reserve.
• Both units offer very good levels of bass tautness, pitch definition and control, but the EF5 offers significantly more bass “slam” and more natural (and thus more powerful) bass weighting overall.
• The EF5 is arguably the superior headphone amplifier overall, offering greater versatility and a somewhat more compelling sound. Still, the DACport’s class A amp offers sonic refinement that is a gift that keeps on giving, delivering a precise, suave and sophisticated sound that will appeal to many listeners.
• Again, the DACport is portable and incorporates a very high performance DAC, while the like-priced EF5 is a tabletop headphone amplifier only.

BOTTOM LINE

It is tempting to acknowledge CEntrance’s DACport as a great value-priced computer audio product, since it certainly is that. But it is also something more—a product with much higher-end performance aspirations. The reality is that the DACport not only provides an almost shockingly sophisticated 24/96 DAC and class A headphone amp at a bargain price, but also offers an essentially self-contained high-performance computer audio system that is —thanks to its compact size, driverless configuration, and clever USB power supply—incredibly easy and inviting to use. With the DACport, serious high-end sound goes mobile at last.

SPECS & PRICING

CEntrance DACport 24/96 USB DAC/Class A Headphone Amplifier
Inputs: one USB mini-jack (compatible with USB 1.1 and 2.0, driverless)
Outputs: one ¼-inch phone jack
Supported sampling rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz
Supported resolution levels: 16- and 24-bit
Clock: Mil spec, 10ppm precision
Jitter: 1ps
Amplifier type: solid state, direct coupled (capacitor free) class A headphone amplifier.
Amplifier power output: 1.5 Watts total, capable of driving up to 600-Ohm headphone loads.
Amplifier output impedance: 10 Ohms
Amplifier frequency response: 20Hz – 40kHz, +/- 0.2dB
Dimensions (H x W x D): 1” x 1” x 4.5”
Weight: 72 grams/2.5 ounces
Accessories: Low-EMI USB cable, belt clip, felt carrying pouch.
Warranty: 1 year + 30-day Money-back guarantee
Price: $399.95

Manufacturer
CEntrance, Inc.
(847) 581-0500
www.centrance.com

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