CEntrance is a small audio company with roots in the pro world. Like others, they have recognized the market share gains made by Apple in consumer music software and hardware, and so they have developed several products that integrate visually with Apple devices. The DACmini CX, which we tested recently, fits nicely on top of an Apple Mac Mini, although electrically there is no reason that you couldn’t use it with any PC or Mac, laptop or desktop, as long as your computer has USB or S/PDIF outputs.
Apart from visual integration, the idea of the DACmini is straightforward: desktop computer users would often like to have a small device to A) do D/A conversion for audio files on the computer and B) power headphones. That’s what the DACmini does. It also has line outputs so that it can be used to drive powered speakers or an amp/speaker setup (though the latter somewhat defeats the goal of space-saving). Interestingly, CEntrance offers customers the option of ordering the DACmini with either fixed or variable-level line outputs; if the latter option is chosen, the DACmini can basically serve as a preamplifier to drive a power amp or active speakers.
Priced at $795, the technical features of the DACmini are impressive. The D/A input accepts up to 192kHz/24-bit signals over SPDIF and 96kHz/24-bit data over USB. A proprietary two-stage clock management system is used to clean up the digital audio data to reduce jitter before the D/A conversion. The DACmini comes with self-installing USB drivers for both the Mac and Windows environments, making initial installation a snap.
The headphone amplifier uses a Class-A design that is capable of driving difficult loads. In addition, the galvanically isolated design attempts to minimize digital noise from computer sources. Coupled with a low-noise amplifier design, the DACmini is also capable of working with high sensitivity headphones or earphones.
The DACmini design also features a rotary volume control and input selector switch. These make day-to-day usage simple and repeatable.
Consider this DAC/headphone amp if: you use or want to use a variety of headphones, and you want an even tonal balance and purity of sound (while avoiding a bright or edgy sound that can accompany more artificially “transparent” designs).
Look elsewhere if: macro-dynamic slam is at the top of your list of sonic desires or you really need maximum output with very tough loads (e.g., today’s great-sound but extremely power-hungry planar magnetic headphones).
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced DAC/amps)
• Tonal Balance: 9.5
• Clarity: 9.5
• Dynamics: 8.5
• Output Flexibility: 9.5
• Value: 9.5
The DACmini sounds so good on so much musical material that it creates a problem for the reviewer because you end up focusing on the music rather than the DACmini itself. When pressed to characterize it, the standout sonic quality is a basic sweetness, coupled with a superb rendition of instrumental layers within recordings. This ability to be clear and detailed, without being etched or bright is the hallmark of low distortion and is a signature aspect of the DACmini.
To deliver so much information about the instrumental textures in a recording requires excellent micro-dynamic performance as well as low noise, both of which are areas where the DACmini excels. To complement these qualities, the DACmini also sounds very fine grained—each instrument sounds continuous, rather than leaving the impression that the sound is made up of bits, or overlaid with some fog.
The sweet, very slightly smoothed out treble that I heard gives the impression that this is a tube-based amplifier. What then makes it special is that the veil created by so many tube amps is missing. If you are familiar with different tube amplifiers, you will know that this description often fits both low-end and high-end tube-powered models alike, and thus the DACmini’s freedom from veiling represents quite an accomplishment at this price point.
That said, the tube reference only stretches so far. Some tube amps are desired because they significantly alter the frequency balance of the music (and compensate for headphone frequency response deviations). The DACmini isn’t that kind of amp, so you will want to be basically pleased with the core sound of your cans if you choose this DAC/amp.
I tried the Ultimate Ear IERM earphones, the Sennheiser HD 800 headphones and the Hi-Fi Man HE-5LE headphones with the DACmini. The amp had no problem driving any of these. You may know that the HE-5LEs, in particular, need a stout amplifier, so this is a tough challenge.