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First Look: CEntrance HiFi-M8 balanced-output portable headphone amp/DAC

This blog is to give you some first impressions of a very significant new product that will be coming up for a full review in Hi-Fi+ within the next several issues. The product is the CEntrance HiFi-M8 (pronounced “Hi-Fi Mate”) balanced output portable headphone amp/DAC, which sells in the US for $699. For those of you unfamiliar with CEntrance, here are a few basics you may want to know.

In the beginning, CEntrance started out not as a manufacturer of audio products but rather has powerful consulting company whose areas of expertise included USB interface design, DAC design, and high-performance/low power-consumption amplifier design. Amongst CEntrance’s clients there have been some of the leading player’s in the Pro Audio and Computer Audio worlds, including Benchmark media Systems, Empirical Audio, Lavry Engineering, and many more. In short, as some might state things in the vernacular, “CEntrance has got serious game!”

Over time, however, CEntrance elected to build a range of products of its own, some targeted toward the Pro Audio world, but others aimed specifically toward a new generation of audiophiles who fancy either desktop-based systems or—in many instances—portable high-end systems. The HiFi-M8 will appeal directly to that latter group, though there is no reason it could not also be used in a desktop audio environment (or for that matter, in a full-size home audio system).

What’s a HiFi-M8? Well, I would argue that it perhaps the most ambitious portable amp/DAC ever made and one that fearlessly tackles performance goals that would make many a larger or more costly desktop amp/DAC whimper and beg for mercy.

Let me give you a quick overview so that you can capture the full vision of this impressive product.

 

DAC Section

The HiFi-M8 is a 192/24-capable, asynchronous USB, Apple iDevice/Mac and Android/PC-compatible DAC offering a local clock with 10 ppm accuracy and what CEntrance terms “unmeasurable jitter.” As you can picture from this description, the HiFi-M8 will work and play well with whatever playback source device you’d care to use (iPod, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Android phone or tablet, PC, etc.), since it’s pretty much compatible with everything. Very few other DACS offer this level of flexibility. Interestingly, the HiFi-M8 also offers a 1/8-inch combo jack that provides both a headphone output and an optical SPDIF digital output. Clever.

AMP Section

Unlike most portable amps, the HiFi-M8 was designed from the ground up to be able to power absolutely any kind of headphone or earphone (save for electrostatic ‘phones of course), whether your preferences lean toward ultra high-sensitivity in-ear monitors or toward hyper power-hungry full-size headphones, or perhaps something in between those two extremes. To this end HiFi-M8’s class A amp offers:

·      Wide-bandwidth (20 Hz – 50kHz, flat),

·      Low distortion (0.002%),

·      A low signal to noise ratio (-113dB),

·      Three switch-selectable output impedance settings (1, 2, or 10 Ohms),

·      Three switch-selectable master gain settings (-2dBV for maximum gain, -10dBV for medium gain, or -22dBV for minimum gain), and

·      Is compatible with a very broad range of headphone/earphone impedances (16 Ohms to 600 Ohms).

But the most impressive part of all is that this compact portable amp offers both balanced and single-ended outputs and can deliver maximum output of a whopping 1.4 watts (we’re not talking about mW, here, but rather honest-to-gosh, manly WATTs of power). To the best of our knowledge, this makes the HiFi-M8 the most powerful portable headphone amp on the planet.

 

Flexibility and other Fine Points

Recognising that the HiFi-M8 is, if anything, flexible to a fault, CEntrance has wisely refrained from trying to give its amp/DAC a “one-configuration-fits-all” output panel. Instead, four different I/O panel options are offered, as below:

·      HiFi-M8 XL4: 1/8-inch combo jack output, ¼-inch TRS headphone jack, 4-pin XLR balanced output jack (this is the version Hi-Fi+ is testing).

·      HiFi-M8 RSA: 1/8-inch combo jack output, ¼-inch TRS headphone jack, 4-pin XLR balanced output, 4-pin Ray Samuels Audio-tip mini-balanced output jack..

·      HiFi-M8 CMB: dual 3-pin XLR balanced output jacks with embedding dual ¼-incch TRS headphone jacks, and

·      HiFi-M8 PRO: dual male 3-pin XLR balanced connector (for Pro Audio applications).

In this way, you are free to choose whichever of the four options best fits your personal application scenario. What happens if you change your mind later on? I don’t know for sure, but based on CEntrance’s past practices with earlier products, my educated guess is that—for a reasonable fee—they might be willing to modify your original HiFi-M8 to install an alternate I/O panel (after-the-fact, that is).

Finally, the HiFi-M8 incorporates a set of three-position treble and bass tone-shaping controls with flat settings for each along with two subtle boost settings, giving you quite a bit of control over perceived amplifier voicing. Last but not least, the HiFi-M8 offers two digital input jacks: a laptop/USB jack and an iDevice jack along with a three-position combination power/input selector switch with settings marked, “Laptop – OFF – iDevice.”

What is it like to use?

I’ll save my in-depth sonic comments for our full Hi-Fi+ review, but let me say that on the basis of first impressions the HiFi-M8 experience could probably be summed up in three words: refinement, muscle, and freedom.

The word “refinement” captures the suave, sonic subtlety of the HiFi-M8, which really does come across more like an upscale tabletop product than something that fits in your pocket.

The word “muscle” captures the fact that this little amp fears no headphone load that I know of—including the notoriously difficult-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-6. It has simply got, as the expression goes, “power to burn.”

Finally, the word “freedom” captures the fact that, except for decoding native DSD files, there is nothing this beautiful little amp/DAC can’t do. ‘Got hypersensitive in-ear monitors and an iPhone: no problem. ‘Got a Windows-type tablet PC and a pair of ultra-power-hungry planar magnetic headphones: also no problem. Want a portable amp/DAC that’s sounds like an accomplished tabletop rig: still no problem.

So, based on impressions thus far, let me offer a bold suggestion. If you can afford one and only one headphone amp/DAC that absolutely, positively has to meet every headphone/earphone playback requirement you have now or might have in the foreseeable future, then let it be this one (or at the very least, give it a long, hard look).

__________

One final note for our numerous UK and Euro readers: yep, this baby is fully CE-approved. Cool, no? 

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