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.