CEntrance DACport USB headphone amplifier Erick Lichte, October 2010

Erick Lichte wrote about the CEntrance DACport in October 2010 (Vol.33 No.10):

The package arrived, marked with a familiar scrawl and Brooklyn return address. I sat down on my couch, poked a hole in the new arrival, and, trying my best to avoid a nasty paper cut, opened the padded envelope. Into my lap dropped a small, black velvet pouch cinched shut with two drawstrings. My wife looked over at me from the dining-room table.

"What is that?" she asked casually.

"I don't know. John Atkinson sent it to me."

I loosened the pouch's drawstrings and pulled out a handsome cylinder of metal. The device was about 5" long, slightly tapered at one end, with a small control knob that rotated between settings marked Min and Max.

"What . . . is . . . that?" my wife asked again.

I looked closer. "Oh. It's the CEntrance DACport. You plug it into your computer and it powers your headphones. John really liked it and wants me to try it out on my big stereo. It has a volume control, so you can also run it straight into your amps."

"Good," she said, looking strangely relieved. She mumbled something and, with one cleansing exhalation, went back to her work, leaving me to play with my new toy.

The arrival of the CEntrance DACport at my house could not have been better timed. In late February, water began mysteriously appearing in my listening room. After some detective work we figured out that snowmelt backed up behind an ice dam on our neighbor's roof (we live in a townhouse) was leaking into the subfloor of our second story and dripping into the house's lower level. From February through June, my listening room and much of our home was offline as contractors removed damaged walls, ceilings, and floors, then rebuilt a good chunk of our house.

During those months, the DACport and my Sennheiser HD600 headphones were, together, virtually my only link to music. Like JA, I, too, fell in love with the DACport's size, ease of use, sound quality, and price ($399). Through my Sennheisers, the DACport offered a lovely, wide soundstage, a laid-back, grain-free, very sweet treble, and a tube-like midrange. The DACport didn't drive low bass through my HD600s with the utmost authority or slam, but it lent musicality to every sort of recording I listened to. I also was impressed with the DACport's ability to drive my 'phones in such a musical way with only USB power. For use with headphones, the DACport's size and price make it a no-brainer for a portable DAC and amplifier. It's too bad you can't hook it up to an iPod or iPad. That would be a killer combo.

For the past six years I have eschewed using a preamplifier, instead running my Benchmark DAC1 straight into my amplifiers. Because I listen only to CDs, and use outboard devices by MAudio to listen to files from my laptop computer, this simple setup has worked well for me, and has saved me a lot of money. The preamp section of the Benchmark DAC has been able to drive every amp I've used, even the low-gain Pass Labs Aleph Three that has lived here for a while.

However, like many people, I have recently turned more and more often to my laptop as a digital source. During my recent stint with the Benchmark DAC1 HDR (see my Follow-Up in the September issue), I very much enjoyed being able to play all of my laptop's audio programs through the Benchmark via USB. Once my listening room had been rebuilt and my big rig reassembled, I was ready to find out if the Centrance DACport could be used in a similar fashion to provide a bridge of high quality and even lower cost between computer and amp.

Using a cheapo RadioShack Y-cord to convert the DACport's ¼" output to two female RCA jacks, I connected the DACport directly to a pair of Rogue M180 monoblock amps. After giving the class-A–biased DACport some time to warm up (and it does run warm), I booted up iTunes and played a special playlist of WAV files I'd created especially for the DACport.

First came "Hidden Place," from Björk's delicate Vespertine (ripped from CD, Elektra 62653-2). The DACport offered up this music in a big, easy way. The images of the electronic effects, choir, and Björk's own voice were large, round, and supple. The DACport brought out this track's sensual sweep in a way that left no aspect of the music highlighted or emphasized. For pop music, the DACport had plenty of gain to power my Rogues: the DACport's tiny volume control didn't need to go much beyond the 10 o'clock position to give me a reasonably loud listening level.

Next I wanted to hear how the DACport might handle classical recordings mastered at much lower levels. I recently acquired (also via JA) Sure on This Shining Night, a new CD from the vocal group Voce of works by Morten Lauridsen (ripped from CD, Voce). As the sopranos hesitate a moment in singing "C'est ton intérieur / qui sans cesse se caresse" in Lauridsen's setting of Dirait-on, the DACport beautifully captured that moment's slight trepidation, as well as the wet acoustic in which this performance was recorded. Turning to Arleen Augér singing Richard Strauss's "Ständchen" on her Love Songs (ripped from CD, Delos 3029), the DACport sounded much the same as it did through headphones, presenting a large soundstage, a slightly rolled-off but grain-free treble, and a blossoming midrange. Through speakers, the DACport tended to slightly blend individual instruments and images together, reducing the soundstage's front-to-back layering and the delineation of each sound. However, the overall effect was always musical, and in some ways more like what a person might hear sitting farther back in a concert hall.

One area where the DACport fell down a bit was in handling the large dynamic swings of classical music. At realistically loud concert levels, the DACport limited Augér's outpourings in Frank Bridge's "Love Went A-Riding." Though this dynamic limiting was always politely done, when the DACport ran out of steam, I could hear the sounds of piano and voice being smooshed together, timbrally and spatially.

Because the Benchmark DAC1 HDR uses USB receiver code written by CEntrance, I thought a shoot-out between the two might be interesting, if possibly unfair—you can buy almost five DACports for the cost of one Benchmark DAC1 HDR ($1895). Playing Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop," from She's So Unusual (ripped from CD, Epic/Legacy EK 62169), the Benchmark offered better weight and drive in the bass, as well as more crystalline bite to the analog synthesizer solo in the song's bridge. The DACport's sound was pleasant, with an even tonal balance and no digititis, but it lacked the Benchmark's more engaging sound. Lady Gaga's "So Happy I Could Die," from The Fame Monster (ripped from CD, Interscope B0013535-72), came through the DACport like a big, wonderful wall of sound. The Benchmark HDR threw up that same wall, but also let me see each individual brick in it, and even the texture of the mortar.

Wondering if the Benchmark's ability to throw an extremely well-delineated soundstage was the major difference between the two DACs, I compared them using recordings in glorious mono. Listening to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," from Smiley Smile/Wild Honey (ripped from CD, Capitol B00005ABX0), I was again taken with how similar the DACs' tonal balances were. However, even in mono, the Benchmark was able to deliver more information than the CEntrance. Through the Benchmark, I could more easily hear the theremin when it's near the back of the mix, as well as Mike Love's vocal bass line in the chorus. Both DACs made nice music with this track, but the Benchmark was clearly more resolving and engaging—unsurprising, at almost five times the DACport's price.

From the moment it arrived at my home until the time I pulled it out of my big rig, the CEntrance DACport gave me a lot of pleasure. Its sleek design, portable size, and ability to be powered by USB make it a sure thing for anyone on the go. The DACport was not only able to power the hungriest cans with great finesse and a gentle touch, it also proved a satisfying tool when strapped into a big system. Though not the last word in resolution, the DACport consistently put out musical, balanced sound that stood up to gear costing three to five times its modest price. I highly recommend it to any young lady or man looking to have a good time with a high-quality, low-cost USB DAC.—Erick Lichte

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