Published on July 25th, 2012 | by Greg0
CEntrance DACport: World-Class Headphone Amp
A lot of work has gone into making the digital world work cheaply and efficiently, effectively and co-operatively. For the most part, components are made in great bulk, assembled abroad by machines, and tuned to a generally-pleasing middle ground, balanced for durability. This is why listening to music through regular computer speakers, using compressed MP3 files, can sometimes seem like eating a hothouse tomato- it can look and feel pretty good but can often taste or sound a bit empty.
Analog is touchy. Sound is subjective. Hand-assembling units in the United States means that each is a little bit different, and more expensive. But if you really want to appreciate your music, and still exist in the modern world of digital recordings, you’ll need a DAC. LPs are not very easy to travel with, sadly, and we do enjoy having access to the vast bulk of music on hard drives and through highly adjustable and customizable laptops and desktops. We’ve talked about DACs in the past, and recently checked out a wonderful set of gear from CEntrance, their speaker and amp combination that is one of the best pieces of audio gear that we’ve seen, from packaging to output.
Today’s kit is the CEntrance DACport, a Class A headphone amp and 24-bit 96 kHz USB digital-to-analog converter. No external power or batteries are needed, and it works equally well in Mac, Windows, and Linux environments. This is a dense, lovely, totally portable unit that doesn’t need drivers and works equally well at home or on the go. In fact, if price were taken out of the equation, this would be our top choice for portable DACs. Of course, while at home, and especially if you have larger cans or want deeper and more powerful bass, you may want to check out a larger unit with a dedicated power supply, like those from Music Hall. And if you’re looking for the richest sound and a little more warmth, tube amps offer a lot of options and classic feel, but aren’t portable in the least.
For everyone else, this is a dead-simple option, without any complicated features. There’s only a pair of jacks- one for USB and one for your 1/4″ headphones, and the listed specs offer 120 dB of dynamic range, 1.5W of power, and 10 ohm of output impedance, all in a package weighing quite a bit less than three ounces. We connected the DACport to a few of our headphones for comparison listening tests from our Macbook Air running the latest version iTunes and primarily using FLAC files and MP3s encoded at several bitrates to simulate an average collection.
As with every DAC, there is a definite and immediately noticeable difference, with almost any set of decent headphones. You won’t notice it much with earbuds, for example, which is why we always suggest spending money on headphones first and a DAC or amp second. Once you’ve gotten a pair of headphones over $300, you’ll be amazed at the difference. For tracks like Florence + The Machine’s cover of ‘Addicted to Love’, you’ll hear the echoes and very subtle production surround you, without the sibilance and edge that comes without a good DAC. There’s no jitter to annoy or irritate you over time, and the details are impeccable- like in Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’, where it’s easy for the old analog sound to feel a bit hollow or sharp, but was softer and rounder here, and far more expansive. The soundstage from the DACport is excellent, and our only mild issue with sound was an occasional lack of oomph from heavy bass hits when compared to other, beefier units, largely when listening to hip-hop or dance music.
The sound boost is significant, and real- it works for other audio sources as well, such as movies and TV, which can be nice when throwing on videos during plane rides, for example. Everything is clean, noise free (even at low or no volumes, a sign of quality components and real care in the creation of audio gear). Mids are balanced, rich, and forward. One note: the unit does get a bit warm, even hot. Not enough to be worrisome, but certainly noticeable over time. Also, we did burn ours in over about forty hours of playback, but didn’t notice any significant changes- but you might want to let it settle with a few hours of playback before really making up your mind.
Our mind is made up: we’re listening through the DACport. At $400, it’s not inexpensive, and there are cheaper options out there that will do the job if you need to save a bit for other parts of your audio ecosystem. But none will do the job as effectively, and the difference in price is clear- the pricing is fair, especially when considering the design and local assembly. Available now, online and in stores.