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.