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Headphone Sessions 4/27/11

At this weeks’ Headphone Session, we auditioned two DAC/headphone amps recently in from CEntrance. The DACport ($399) is a small USB-powered portable DAC, and the DACmini ($799) is an 'all-in-one' desktop listening station. We compared the DACport against the HeadRoom Total BitHead ($149), because they are both USB-powered. (This was not a true 'apples-to-apples' comparison since the BitHead only supports 16-bit/44kHz while the DACport supports 24-bit/96kHz, and is well over twice the price of the BitHead.) In our second test we put the DACmini up against the HeadRoom Desktop Amp ($849), our own all-in-one desktop listening station at the same pricepoint, making for true 'A/B' shoot-out between those two products.

DACport

[caption id="attachment_2035" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="CEntrance DACport"] CEntrance DACport[/caption] The DACport is a USB-fed DAC/headphone amp that offers 24-bit/96kHz resolution via USB, a previously unattainable feature in portable DACs. It has a cylindrical, cigar-like shape with a full-size ¼” headphone output on one end, USB connection and LED power light on the other, and a small rubberized volume control dial on the top side. The cylindrical design of the DACport got mixed reviews. Its ease of connectivity and small size make it easily transportable for computer listening both at home and at the office, sliding unnoticed into a shirt pocket for the commute. Others found it too small to stay in place on their desk and the shape a bit odd. We found the DACport sound signature to be slightly forward and nicely analytical without harshness, providing good audio synergy with darker, more 'laid-back' headphones like the Sennheiser HD650. It’s also got plenty of power to drive high-impedance cans like the HD650 or HD800 to very loud listening levels, where the Total BitHead struggles to push either past medium-to-average listening volumes. [caption id="attachment_2036" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="DACport and Total BitHead"] DACport and Total BitHead[/caption] We did a couple of comparisons between the Total BitHead and DACport. The first involved the DACport connected via USB to a PC running Windows XP and Windows Media Player, playing 320kbps mp3 files, and the Total BitHead connected to a newer Dell laptop running Windows 7 and the same player and files. We used two AKG Q701’s, plugging one into each amp/DAC for quick switching. The second was a blind comparison of the DACport playing 24/96 music files via foobar2000 on the newer Dell laptop and the Total BitHead connected to a Dell Netbook playing WAV files via iTunes. In the second comparison we were able to flip a switch to A-B between both sources while listening to the same headphones, a pair of Denon AH-D2000’s. In both comparisons it was unanimous that the BitHead’s presentation was smoother and warmer with slightly deeper, richer bass, while the DACport was more detailed and tonally accurate. In the first test, all of our very loyal (and somewhat biased when it comes to amps/DACs!) HeadRoom testing team felt that the BitHead was somewhat "easier" to listen to versus the surgical precision of the DACport, and the added benefits of the Crossfeed circuit and analog input, -- along with the significantly lower price -- made the BitHead the better value, unless you needed the extra drive power. But, realizing our internal bias and that the test was not utilizing the full capabilities of the DACport, we continued testing. The second (blind) test confirmed for most of us what we already thought.....we know the sound signature or our amps. There’s that loyalty again! But wait! What really became apparent with the DACport was a broad soundstage with excellent musical separation and tonal accuracy. While the low bass may lack warmth, its texture is clearly apparent while the mids and highs maintain a strong clarity that stays silky and without edge. At this point the question arises whether the added soundstage and accuracy was a result of the higher resolution or the differences in the amplifier topologies. This will be addressed in a future post dedicated strictly to hi-res 24/96 music via USB (...and how easy it is to ruin your high-res chain). We all agreed that the DACport holds a solid spot in headphone.com’s offerings for its portability, precise detail, broad soundstage, 24-bit/96kHz capabilities and versatility of headphones it will drive. We think it pairs great with any set of cans tending towards a warm tonality, and the DACport really brings them alive. With more neutral cans like the K701, K702, or HD 800, you get a nicely detailed, albeit slightly stringent presentation.

DACmini

[caption id="attachment_2037" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="CEntrance DACmini"] CEntrance DACmini[/caption] The DACmini is a great-looking amp/DAC combo with three digital inputs (optical and coax [both 24-bit/192kHz capable], and 24-bit/96kHz capable USB), one analog input and a volume controlled analog output. Built with an identical footprint to the Mac Mini with a similarly sharp- looking brushed aluminum sheen (not to be confused with a brushed Charlie Sheen!), it’s a great all-in-one desktop audio control station. Listen to the cans of your choice or powered monitor speakers from your computer or iPod without connecting or disconnecting anything. [caption id="attachment_2038" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Desktop Amp and DACmini"] Desktop Amp and DACmini[/caption] For our comparison between the DACmini and Desktop Amp we used the same A/B test rig as the DACport/BitHead blind test so we could also do this test "blind" and switch between amps without changing headphones (Denon AH-D2000). We fed an optical signal from a Macbook Pro to a splitter, then to each DAC/amp. We were listening to 320kbps mp3 files playing on iTunes. There are subtle differences between these two amps, but none that really leap out at the listener. These two different amps sound almost identical with the biggest distinction being cosmetic. Pros for the DACmini: 24-bit/96kHz via USB and 24-bit/192 via SPDIF inputs, rear analog output for your powered speakers that cuts off when you plug in headphones, and it’s neat stack-ability with the Mac Mini. Pros for the HeadRoom Desktop: Crossfeed switch, brightness filters, two analog inputs, switchable analog output, two headphone jacks and adjustable 3-position gain control. In conclusion, we were all impressed with the sound and build quality of the CEntrance DAC/amps and we're excited to offer them alongside our own HeadRoom amps and DACs. For more information on how CEntrance was able to get higher resolution via USB, along with some design notes, click here. For more information about HeadRoom amps and DACs visit www.headphone.com or call 1-800-828-8184. A headphone geek is standing by!

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