I did sense while listening to a wide variety of material that the DACmini sometimes comes across as dynamically reserved. Some of this, I think, relates to the sweetness in the highs noted above. Some of it may also be due to outright output limitations. But, because the HE-5LEs sounded so clean even at high levels, I don’t think the amp was clipping. In any event, there are more dynamically spectacular amps, but very few at this price level that let you hear so much detail presented in such a musically coherent way. (Note, too, that CEntrance offers customers the option of custom ordering a higher gain version of the DACmini, which could potential help with driving low-sensitivity headphones. –Editor).
On Shelby Lynne’s "I Cry Every Day" from Suit Yourself [Capitol], the cymbals are rendered with unusually accurate detail, smoothness and shimmer. The recording space’s echoes and depth is also nicely preserved. The bass guitar on this track is solid and yet the upper bass detail not blurred. Dynamics, especially with the power-hungry HiFiMAN HE-5LE headphones, seemed a little reserved.
On the track "Sanctuary" from Red Horse’s eponymous album [Red House], the instrumental and vocal layers are clear and the space is well represented. There is a general bias toward warm midrange and very slightly sweet treble, which sounds a little rolled off. This is about as euphonic as the DACmini ever gets, though it still consistently manages to sound lifelike—sort of a "tubes without the fog" sound.
Turning to Norah Jones’ album The Fall [Blue Note], the cut "Youngblood" has great instrumental separation and the frequency balance is pleasantly warm. The DACmini tames the treble spike of HE-5LE, which usually distracts from this track, though the resulting dynamics are slightly reserved.
On the Eleventh Dream Day album, El Moodio [Atlantic/WEA], listening to "Figure It Out" shows off the drums with impressive clarity, but some dynamic softness. Even so, the DACmini does an amazing job of uncluttering a very thick mix.
On the title track of the Decembrists’ The Crane Wife [Capitol], I heard an accurate acoustic guitar sound and excellent deep bass, combined with a good sense of rhythm (which is a useful test of low-mid balance). This track shows a bit of grain with theDACmini powering the Ultimate Ear IERMs. When driving the Sennheiser HD 800s, the DACmini makes the headphones’ characteristic upper mid dip just barely noticeable. Still, I would say the DACmini tis probably not the ideal amp for correcting midrange-reticent headphones; it’s far too honest for that sort of thing.
If you think of this as a $399 DAC and a $399 headphone amp, then the value package becomes clear. There are relatively few DACs that are this clean and artifact-free at that price point. In addition, you will usually pay more (maybe much more) for a seductive, slightly romantic, yet clear and detailed sound in a headphone amp. That these two products are combined in such a compact and usable package is simply icing on the value cake.
CEntrance’s DACmini delivers a rare combination of clarity and warmth, plus the ability to drive a wide range of headphones successfully. This DAC/Amp will especially appeal to lovers of complex, acoustic music.
CEntrance DACmini CX DAC/Headphone Amplifier
Resolution: 24-bit (supports 16-bit
Sample Rate: USB, up to 96kHz; S/PDIF, up to 192 kHz
Interface: USB 1.1 or 2.0, S/PDIF
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 40kHz, +0.0/- 0.1 dB
Signal/Noise Ratio: 144 db
THD + Noise: .001%
Output Impedance: 10 Ohms, headphone; 25 Ohms line out
Output Power: 1.5W
Weight: 3.75 lbs.
Dimensions (H x W x D): 1.7” x 6.5” x 6.5”
Price: $795 as tested