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CEntrance Audiophile Desktop: Amp, DAC, And Speakers In One Tight Package

One of the in­ter­est­ing things about portable au­dio sys­tems is the set of short­cuts they of­ten are forced to take, com­pro­mis­es that they make. Great au­dio re­quires space and weight- there are sim­ply phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions are re­quire­ments to get sol­id, boom­ing bass.

We’ve tried out dozens of sys­tems, from high-end au­dio­phile head­phones to book­shelf sys­tems, and all-in-one sound­bars. And two con­sis­tent fact holds true: you gen­er­al­ly get what you pay for, at least from com­pa­nies that don’t spend a for­tune on mar­ket­ing, and you al­so get what you’re will­ing to al­lo­cate space for- the big­ger the unit, the bet­ter the sound (on av­er­age).

We’ve fi­nal­ly found a book­shelf sys­tem that doesn’t com­pro­mise so much as aim for the lim­its.

We weren’t too fa­mil­iar with CEn­trance, a com­pa­ny based in Chica­go and found­ed in 2000- but we were pret­ty ex­cit­ed from the first mo­ment we laid eyes on the CEn­trance Au­dio­phileDesk­top sys­tem, which pairs their DACmi­ni PX DAC/Am­pli­fi­er as well as a pair of the Mas­ter­Class 2504 speak­ers.

Un­like ev­ery oth­er au­dio sys­tem we’ve seen, the pack­ag­ing is com­plete­ly func­tion­al- they ship ev­ery sys­tem in a Pel­i­can case like you’ve seen pho­tog­ra­phers use. No fan­cy la­bels or box, just a su­per-stur­dy, cus­tom-formed so­lu­tion that trav­els well and packs up eas­i­ly.

For those who don’t plan to trav­el with the sys­tem, you can treat the Pel­i­can case as a nice bonus, but we de­light­ed in be­ing able to put ev­ery­thing away in un­der 5 min­utes. And we nev­er need­ed to wor­ry if we shipped the gear, end­ed up drop­ping it, or want­ed to fit it on a plane (it’s air­plane-friend­ly and car­ry-on sized).

So, yes, we’ve talked about the case. But what’s in­side is wor­thy of the pro­tec­tion (and the price, which was ad­mit­ted­ly eye­brow-rais­ing).

A lot of au­dio gear lists in­tim­i­dat­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions and tech­ni­cal de­tails, and some folks cer­tain­ly sali­vate over them, so we’ll sim­ply use their lan­guage: “The unique trans­duc­er de­sign in our Mas­ter­Class™ 2504 speak­ers en­sures wide fre­quen­cy re­sponse and ex­tra low phase dis­tor­tion due to copla­nar driv­er de­sign.

The low noise and trans­par­ent son­ic char­ac­ter of the DACmi­ni™ PX DAC/Am­pli­fi­er is pre­cise­ly matched to the speak­ers, [which of­fer] full-range, two-way 4′ trans­duc­ers, a care­ful­ly tuned bass-re­flex cav­i­ty, a mu­si­cal cross-over cir­cuit with cus­tom fre­quen­cy-shap­ing com­po­nents, 50Hz…20kHz fre­quen­cy range and 25 watts of pow­er-han­dling ca­pa­bil­i­ty.”

Some of that is mar­ket­ing speak, but there are de­tails worth pay­ing at­ten­tion to. Match­ing speak­ers to an amp is im­por­tant, and though folks will ar­gue wild­ly about which head­phones go well with a par­tic­u­lar amp, it’s great when a com­pa­ny can han­dle this for you and en­sure that ev­ery­thing works (and sounds) great to­geth­er.

The pow­er rat­ing might seem low to folks who on­ly pay at­ten­tion to that num­ber, but it’s like buy­ing a cam­era for the megapix­els- it’s not very ac­cu­rate past a cer­tain thresh­old, and you’re prob­a­bly, not go­ing to no­tice a dif­fer­ence if you’re us­ing it as in­tend­ed. In oth­er words, this isn’t a par­ty sys­tem for a whole house, and it’s not meant to rock the club- it’s got tons of pow­er for a book­shelf sys­tem, fear not, and you’ll nev­er need to crank it up to 10 or wor­ry about dis­tor­tion.

The DACmi­ni PX is the first thing we’ll fo­cus on. We’ve seen a va­ri­ety of DACs and amps, in­clud­ing some won­der­ful tube mod­els and some ul­tra-portable ones.

You can buy CEn­trance gear sep­a­rate­ly if you don’t need the bun­dle, but we should note that these are hand-made, in lim­it­ed sup­ply, and made to or­der. They do of­fer a CX mod­el, which is much less ex­pen­sive but doesn’t of­fer the built-in pow­ered amp, which is cru­cial for use with good speak­ers.

As we’ve men­tioned be­fore, a DAC (or dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­ver­tor) is what trans­lates mu­sic from your iPod, MP3 play­er, lap­top or desk­top com­put­er for use with a high-qual­i­ty ana­log sound sys­tem. DACs vary wide­ly, though all han­dle the ba­sic task read­i­ly, mean­ing that even a cheap DAC is about 75% as good as the next. It’s that ex­tra 25% that costs ex­tra, no­tice­able on­ly if you’ve al­so spent the mon­ey to have great speak­ers, and are us­ing pret­ty good source au­dio files as well (FLAC, for in­stance).

Your 92kbps streams will cer­tain­ly sound more clear with this sys­tem, but that’s ar­guably not a good thing, as the er­rors and ar­ti­facts are more au­di­ble as well. DACs in this price range tout an­ti-jit­ter tech­nol­o­gy, are ma­chined out of alu­minum, and we loved that this stacks nice­ly with a Mac Mi­ni- no co­in­ci­dence since they make a great au­dio source.

The black fin­ish is sleek and ev­ery­thing feels well-made and sol­id. Driver­less USB tech­nol­o­gy means it’s tru­ly plug-and-play, and we liked hav­ing var­i­ous in­put op­tions (USB, op­ti­cal, ana­log, and co-ax) avail­able as well. The on­ly is­sue we ev­er had was need­ing to re­set the DAC once while source-switch­ing, af­ter dis­abling an au­dio source.

Set­up is sim­ple- in­clud­ed were ba­sic speak­er wires, and the pow­er ca­ble. The speak­ers are un­pow­ered them­selves (like most good speak­ers), hence the need for a pow­ered amp.

The pow­er sup­ply is iso­lat­ed, a ne­ces­si­ty for good sound, and one of the things you’ll no­tice here is that si­lence = si­lence. In many sys­tems, you’ll hear a hum or noise when your sound source is ab­sent or qui­et, which isn’t the case here.

As you can see from the pic­tures, we test­ed the DAC with head­phones as well as the in­clud­ed speak­ers, throw­ing on our re­cent­ly-re­viewed bey­er­dy­nam­ic T70p and T50p and en­joy­ing the rich, full sound. We rave about these head­phones re­gard­less of source, but it was def­i­nite­ly a dis­tinct and pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence hear­ing them through the CEn­trance DAC. “Blind” tests with our staff had three-quar­ters strong­ly pre­fer the sound through the DAC mi­ni on a sam­ple of mu­sic and au­dio, with the same head­phones and dig­i­tal au­dio source.

This is a de­tailed, ac­cu­rate sys­tem, not a tube amp that is try­ing to warm up and change your sound, but avoid­ed feel­ing clin­i­cal or cold- in­stru­ments were dis­tinct and es­pe­cial­ly so on elec­tron­ic mu­sic. Acous­tic tracks of­fered a great sound­stage, with plen­ty of pres­ence, per­haps the re­al dif­fer­ence be­tween low­er-qual­i­ty DACs and bet­ter ones.

This many words in we haven’t ad­dressed the speak­ers them­selves! We’ve tried a few oth­er book­shelf sys­tems, and for the mon­ey, we def­i­nite­ly like the Au­dio­engine A2s- they’re small­er and of­fered a bit less of a ful­ly round sound, no­tice­able pri­mar­i­ly on tracks with deep bass and in­ten­tion­al vi­bra­tions or sharp­er, high­er vo­cals.

The A2s al­so looked a lit­tle sharp­er, more mod­ern, which may suit some tastes and rooms but work less well in oth­ers. We set­up the sys­tem in three lo­ca­tions- a mid-size li­brary, a large kitchen, and a small bed­room- to test out how it worked in var­i­ous spaces and tried some dif­fer­ent po­si­tions and dis­tances as well.

It’s rea­son­ably flex­i­ble in terms of space, but we did no­tice that it sound­ed best with the speak­ers slight­ly tilt­ed to­wards the lis­ten­er- not un­usu­al, but some­thing to pay at­ten­tion to when plac­ing your au­dio gear.

We al­so tried us­ing the sys­tem as our pri­ma­ry com­put­er desk au­dio sys­tem, and though we didn’t find it as bass-heavy as a 2.1 sys­tem and gam­ing didn’t of­fer the pin­point di­rec­tion­al­i­ty you need, it was eas­i­ly the best op­tion if you have space on your desk and want pre­mi­um, au­dio­phile sound from your desk­top. For movies and TV, di­a­logue is rich and clear, and whether you’re lis­ten­ing to the lat­est from Mi­ike Snow or old-school Ni­na Si­mone, vo­cals were rich, im­pres­sive, and well-bal­anced.

CEn­trance gear isn’t in­ex­pen­sive, and this is a sys­tem aimed at those will­ing to pay a pre­mi­um for great­ness.Ex­pect to spend around $2000 for the com­plete kit, keep­ing in mind that ev­ery­thing is cus­tom-built, tai­lor-made, and a tru­ly be­spoke so­lu­tion for amaz­ing au­dio in a pret­ty small pack­age.

It’s the best all-in-one sys­tem we’ve seen, paired as well as any amp/speak­er sys­tem we’ve seen, and of­fer­ing the best over­all DAC that we’ve tried. Avail­able now, and high­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

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