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Published on May 11th, 2012 | by Greg

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CEntrance Audiophile Desktop: Amp, DAC, And Speakers In One Tight Package

One of the in­ter­est­ing things about portable au­dio sys­tems is the set of short­cuts they of­ten are forced to take, com­pro­mis­es that they make. Great au­dio re­quires space and weight- there are sim­ply phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions are re­quire­ments to get sol­id, boom­ing bass. We’ve tried out dozens of sys­tems, from high-end au­dio­phile head­phones to book­shelf sys­tems, and all-in-one sound­bars. And two con­sis­tent fact holds true: you gen­er­al­ly get what you pay for, at least from com­pa­nies that don’t spend a for­tune on mar­ket­ing, and you al­so get what you’re will­ing to al­lo­cate space for- the big­ger the unit, the bet­ter the sound (on av­er­age).

We’ve fi­nal­ly found a book­shelf sys­tem that doesn’t com­pro­mise so much as aim for the lim­its. We weren’t too fa­mil­iar with CEn­trance, a com­pa­ny based in Chica­go and found­ed in 2000- but we were pret­ty ex­cit­ed from the first mo­ment we laid eyes on the CEn­trance Au­dio­phileDesk­top sys­tem, which pairs their DACmi­ni PX DAC/Am­pli­fi­er as well as a pair of the Mas­ter­Class 2504 speak­ers. Un­like ev­ery oth­er au­dio sys­tem we’ve seen, the pack­ag­ing is com­plete­ly func­tion­al- they ship ev­ery sys­tem in a Pel­i­can case, like you’ve seen pho­tog­ra­phers use. No fan­cy la­bels or box, just a su­per-stur­dy, cus­tom-formed so­lu­tion that trav­els well and packs up eas­i­ly. For those who don’t plan to trav­el with the sys­tem, you can treat the Pel­i­can case as a nice bonus, but we de­light­ed in be­ing able to put ev­ery­thing away in un­der 5 min­utes. And we nev­er need­ed to wor­ry if we shipped the gear, end­ed up drop­ping it, or want­ed to fit it on a plane (it’s air­plane-friend­ly and car­ry-on sized).

So, yes, we’ve talked about the case. But what’s in­side is wor­thy of the pro­tec­tion (and the price, which was ad­mit­ted­ly eye­brow-rais­ing). A lot of au­dio gear lists in­tim­i­dat­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions and tech­ni­cal de­tails, and some folks cer­tain­ly sali­vate over them, so we’ll sim­ply use their lan­guage: “The unique trans­duc­er de­sign in our Mas­ter­Class™ 2504 speak­ers en­sures wide fre­quen­cy re­sponse and ex­tra low phase dis­tor­tion due to copla­nar driv­er de­sign. The low noise and trans­par­ent son­ic char­ac­ter of the DACmi­ni™ PX DAC/Am­pli­fi­er is pre­cise­ly matched to the speak­ers, [which of­fer] full-range, two-way 4′ trans­duc­ers, a care­ful­ly tuned bass-re­flex cav­i­ty, a mu­si­cal cross-over cir­cuit with cus­tom fre­quen­cy-shap­ing com­po­nents, 50Hz…20kHz fre­quen­cy range and 25 watts of pow­er-han­dling ca­pa­bil­i­ty.”

Some of that is mar­ket­ing speak, but there are de­tails worth pay­ing at­ten­tion to. Match­ing speak­ers to an amp is im­por­tant, and though folks will ar­gue wild­ly about which head­phones go well with a par­tic­u­lar amp, it’s great when a com­pa­ny can han­dle this for you and en­sure that ev­ery­thing works (and sounds) great to­geth­er. The pow­er rat­ing might seem low to folks who on­ly pay at­ten­tion to that num­ber, but it’s like buy­ing a cam­era for the megapix­els- it’s not very ac­cu­rate past a cer­tain thresh­old, and you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to no­tice a dif­fer­ence if you’re us­ing it as in­tend­ed. In oth­er words, this isn’t a par­ty sys­tem for a whole house, and it’s not meant to rock the club- it’s got tons of pow­er for a book­shelf sys­tem, fear not, and you’ll nev­er need to crank it up to 10 or wor­ry about dis­tor­tion.

The DACmi­ni PX is the first thing we’ll fo­cus on. We’ve seen a va­ri­ety of DACs and amps, in­clud­ing some won­der­ful tube mod­els and some ul­tra-portable ones. You can buy CEn­trance gear sep­a­rate­ly if you don’t need the bun­dle, but we should note that these are hand-made, in lim­it­ed sup­ply, and made to or­der. They do of­fer a CX mod­el, which is much less ex­pen­sive, but doesn’t of­fer the built-in pow­ered amp, which is cru­cial for use with good speak­ers. As we’ve men­tioned be­fore, a DAC (or dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­ver­tor) is what trans­lates mu­sic from your iPod, MP3 play­er, lap­top or desk­top com­put­er for use with a high-qual­i­ty ana­log sound sys­tem. DACs vary wide­ly, though all han­dle the ba­sic task read­i­ly, mean­ing that even a cheap DAC is about 75% as good as the next. It’s that ex­tra 25% that costs ex­tra, no­tice­able on­ly if you’ve al­so spent the mon­ey to have great speak­ers, and are us­ing pret­ty good source au­dio files as well (FLAC, for in­stance). Your 92kbps streams will cer­tain­ly sound more clear with this sys­tem, but that’s ar­guably not a good thing, as the er­rors and ar­ti­facts are more au­di­ble as well. DACs in this price range tout an­ti-jit­ter tech­nol­o­gy, are ma­chined out of alu­minum, and we loved that this stacks nice­ly with a Mac Mi­ni- no co­in­ci­dence, since they make a great au­dio source. The black fin­ish is sleek and ev­ery­thing feels well-made, and sol­id. Driver­less USB tech­nol­o­gy means it’s tru­ly plug-and-play, and we liked hav­ing var­i­ous in­put op­tions (USB, op­ti­cal, ana­log, and co-ax) avail­able as well. The on­ly is­sue we ev­er had was need­ing to re­set the DAC once while source-switch­ing, af­ter dis­abling an au­dio source.

Set­up is sim­ple- in­clud­ed were ba­sic speak­er wires, and the pow­er ca­ble. The speak­ers are un­pow­ered them­selves (like most good speak­ers), hence the need for a pow­ered amp. The pow­er sup­ply is iso­lat­ed, a ne­ces­si­ty for good sound, and one of the things you’ll no­tice here is that si­lence = si­lence. In many sys­tems, you’ll hear a hum or noise when your sound source is ab­sent or qui­et, which isn’t the case here. As you can see from the pic­tures, we test­ed the DAC with head­phones as well as the in­clud­ed speak­ers, throw­ing on our re­cent­ly-re­viewed bey­er­dy­nam­ic T70p and T50p and en­joy­ing the rich, full sound. We rave about these head­phones re­gard­less of source, but it was def­i­nite­ly a dis­tinct and pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence hear­ing them through the CEn­trance DAC. “Blind” tests with our staff had three-quar­ters strong­ly pre­fer the sound through the DAC mi­ni on a sam­ple of mu­sic and au­dio, with the same head­phones and dig­i­tal au­dio source. This is a de­tailed, ac­cu­rate sys­tem, not a tube amp that is try­ing to warm up and change your sound, but avoid­ed feel­ing clin­i­cal or cold- in­stru­ments were dis­tinct and es­pe­cial­ly so on elec­tron­ic mu­sic. Acous­tic tracks of­fered a great sound­stage, with plen­ty of pres­ence, per­haps the re­al dif­fer­ence be­tween low­er-qual­i­ty DACs and bet­ter ones.

This many words in an we haven’t ad­dressed the speak­ers them­selves! We’ve tried a few oth­er book­shelf sys­tems, and for the mon­ey, we def­i­nite­ly like the Au­dio­engine A2s- they’re small­er and of­fered a bit less of a ful­ly round sound, no­tice­able pri­mar­i­ly on tracks with deep bass and in­ten­tion­al vi­bra­tions or sharp­er, high­er vo­cals. The A2s al­so looked a lit­tle sharp­er, more mod­ern, which may suit some tastes and rooms but work less well in oth­ers. We set­up the sys­tem in three lo­ca­tions- a mid-size li­brary, a large kitchen, and a small bed­room- to test out how it worked in var­i­ous spaces, and tried some dif­fer­ent po­si­tions and dis­tances as well. It’s rea­son­ably flex­i­ble in terms of space, but we did no­tice that it sound­ed best with the speak­ers slight­ly tilt­ed to­wards the lis­ten­er- not un­usu­al, but some­thing to pay at­ten­tion to when plac­ing your au­dio gear. We al­so tried us­ing the sys­tem as our pri­ma­ry com­put­er desk au­dio sys­tem, and though we didn’t find it as bass-heavy as a 2.1 sys­tem and gam­ing didn’t of­fer the pin­point di­rec­tion­al­i­ty you need, it was eas­i­ly the best op­tion if you have space on your desk and want pre­mi­um, au­dio­phile sound from your desk­top. For movies and TV, di­a­logue is rich and clear, and whether you’re lis­ten­ing to the lat­est from Mi­ike Snow or old-school Ni­na Si­mone, vo­cals were rich, im­pres­sive, and well-bal­anced.

CEn­trance gear isn’t in­ex­pen­sive, and this is a sys­tem aimed at those will­ing to pay a pre­mi­um for great­ness.Ex­pect to spend around $2000 for the com­plete kit, keep­ing in mind that ev­ery­thing is cus­tom-built, tai­lor-made, and a tru­ly be­spoke so­lu­tion for amaz­ing au­dio in a pret­ty small pack­age. It’s the best all-in-one sys­tem we’ve seen, paired as well as any amp/speak­er sys­tem we’ve seen, and of­fer­ing the best over­all DAC that we’ve tried. Avail­able now, and high­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.



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