First Look & Listen: CEntrance DACmini CX DAC/Headphone Amplifier

Headphone amps and amp/DACs
CEntrance DACmini CX DAC/Headphone Amp
First Look & Listen: CEntrance DACmini CX DAC/Headphone Amplifier

The name CEntrance may not be the first that comes to mind when thinking about acquiring a high-performance DAC or headphone amplifier, but if there’s any justice in this world that could soon change. I suppose the reason for CEntrance’s relative anonymity is that the firm was not at first focused on making audio components of its own, but rather on developing advanced interface, driver, and other digital audio technologies for high-end manufacturers in both the consumer audio and pro-sound worlds. I’ve only ever seen a partial CEntrance client list, but on that list are impressive names such as Benchmark Media Systems, Empirical Audio, Lavry, and many more, along with a veritable "Who’s Who" among DAC device makers. My point: the CEntrance team has most definitely got game—and I mean high-level game (these are the guys the experts turn to when they need, um, even more expertise).

I first learned of the firm through its way cool DACport, which I reviewed favorably in Playback some time ago. The DACport, for those of you who missed the review, looks something like a small but relatively thick, machined aluminum, aerospace-grade “cigar” that turns out to house—no, I am not making this up—an entirely USB-powered 24/96 USB DAC (complete with an ultra high-tech jitter correction system), plus a pure class A solid-state headphone amp. It’s amazing that CEntrance could figure out a way to pack so much functionality into such a compact enclosure, but what’s even more impressive is how very sophisticated the tiny device sounds. Its only limit, really, is that there is but so much power that it is humanly possible to pull from a USB port (and believe me when I tell you that CEntrance knows every trick in the book—and a few that aren’t in the book—when it comes to making the most of USB interfaces).

This, in turn, brings us to the CEntrance DACmini CX, which is one of Playback’s next review projects. The DACmini provides: a 192/24-bit DAC with coaxial SP/DIF and Toslink inputs, a 24/96 USB DAC complete with self-installing drivers (the DACs are supported by CEntrance’s proprietary two-stage JitterGuard circuit), a line level analog audio input, a pure class A headphone amplifier, and variable-level analog audio outputs. In short, the DACmini is set up to serve as a killer DAC, headphone amp, and/or as a high-quality minimalist preamp. It sells for $795.

As the DACmini’s name semi-implies (by way of rhyming), this CEntrance unit could be interpreted as the perfect digital audio companion to an Apple Mac Mini used as a music server. Reinforcing this idea, the outer case of the DACmini is precisely the same shape and size as the chassis of the Mac Mini, so that the two components look absolutely perfect when stacked on top of one another. Just as with most Apple products, CEntrance’s DACmini telegraphs with its industrial design the fact that a lot of careful thought has gone into the product’s construction, both inside and out. There is a certain fineness of fit and finish here that is commonly seen only in high-end components carry hefty four-figure price tags, though the CEntrance is of course much more affordable than that. But to be perfectly frank, the exterior of the DACmini is so clever that I am concerned some high-enders might miss (or even dismiss) the very serious audio circuitry within.

In a excellent white paper on the DACmini (click here to visit CEntrance's DACmini home page), CEntrance chief product architect Michael Goodman details the thinking that went into this product, which on one level could be construed as a much higher-powered, more flexible, and even more sonically refined version of the tiny DACport. I won’t try to recreate that white paper here, but suffice it to say the Goodman and the CEntrance team focused on several key design goals in developing the DACmini. Among these are:

Freedom from external noise sources: inputs are galvanically isolated and painstakingly isolated from any possible noise-bearing connections to the DACmini’s chassis. The entire chassis, in turn, features elaborate tongue-in-groove panel construction so that the entire DACmini case serves as a noise shield.

Freedom from internal noise sources: on the inside, the DACmini chassis is essentially divided left-to-right, and front-to-back, which each “quadrant” housing specific blocks of circuitry (e.g., the class A headphone module, the DAC module, the line-level preamp module, etc.) that are effectively isolated from one another.

Freedom from mechanically-induced noise: the DACmini may look Apple-playful on the outside, but it’s built like a fighter plane on the inside. The chassis walls, for example, are surprisingly thick and fitted with tongue-and-groove panel connection. In the center of the chassis, and running from left-to-right, is a massive vibration control/noise suppression “fence.” The apparent front plate of the chassis is backed by a second, even thicker plate (offset from the outer plate by a few millimeters) that is designed to minimize internal vibration and to act as a “roll cage” of sorts should the DACmini (heaven forbid) ever fall faceplate first on the floor.

Freedom from jitter: the DACmini uses one of the crown jewels in the CEntrance technology arsenal--a two-stage jitter-reduction circuit that yields, says Goodman, jitter levels so low that they are virtually immeasurable, plus clocking so precise that it is specified to be accurate to within 10 parts per million.

Audiophile grade analog circuits: very low noise, pure class A designs throughout.

Home-grown device drivers: CEntrance doesn’t buy other people’s drivers; it writes its own (as well as those used by many, many other manufacturers, by the way). As an added bonus, the DACmini comes with authorization for a free download of CEntrance’s cool UD (universal driver) ASIO driver, which the company provides for users whose music software programs will allow use of an ASIO driver. Cool, no?

One more point not specifically addressed by Goodman’s white paper is that the DACmini is flexible. If you visit the CEntrance DACmini homepage, you’ll discover a small button marked “Mods”. What unfolds is a surprisingly extensive and very carefully explained list of customization options you can specify for a DACmini if you so desire—a very thoughtful and forward-looking touch.

So how does it sound? I'm still very much in the "getting to know you" phase of things, but already the DAC sections of the DACmini sounds superb (I've been listening to it through the remarkably revealing Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire headphone amp). I won't get ahead of myself by trying to characterize the sound of the DACmini in detail on the basis of not yet enough data, but I will say my first impression is that the sound of the DACmini is reminiscent to that of certain great pieces of Pass Labs equipment. Take this to mean that--again, on the basis of a first listen--the DACmini DAC section produces a highly detailed sound presented against an extremely quiet background, while also managing to sound natural, hearty, and reasonably "organic."

For me, at least, the jury is still out on the headphone amplifier section, largely because the DACmini in its standard configuration simply does not have adequate gain to drive my preferred reference headphones (the HiFiMAN HE-6’s); but note, there is an available CEntrance gain mod that (I think) would address that problem. So, I’ll likely use either a set of Sennheiser HD800’s or perhaps the new (and somewhat easier to drive) HiFiMAN HE-500’s to evaluate the headphone amp further.

Stay tuned for the coming Playback review. This is going to be a good one (the product, I mean, though we’ll of course do our best with the review, too).

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