Are we late to the game? You bet.
Many have asked me to do a review on the pencil-DAC aka CEntrance DACport, perhaps the single USB DAC that makes the biggest name in 2010 and puts CEntrance on the map. Do you even need an introduction of the DACport? It’s a pencil shaped DAC that takes USB input on one end, headphone out on the other, and does 24/96 over USB. There is a class-A headphone amp built in on the DACport, powered straight from the USB bus’ 5V supply. Requiring no external power supply, the DACport is as plug and play as it gets, and that’s what makes it so popular. Building on the success of the DACport, CEntrance continued with releasing the DACmini, a Mac-mini shaped DAC/Amp box with better DAC and amplifier section promised to give an added level of detail and resolution. The DACmini requires its own 15V power supply to run and in that sense is less convenient than the DACport. But it’s also a more versatile box as it takes analog RCA input, S/PDIF digital inputs in Toslink and Coaxial, and USB input as well. It also come with a pair of RCA outs to send analog output from the DAC into a separate amplifier.
Now that we have both CEntrance DACs in the house, courtesy of Alvon from Jaben Networks Indonesia, it’s comparison time.
DACPORT VS DACMINI
Whenever you have two products from the same manufacturer, one priced higher than the other, the result is easy to guess. The DACmini obviously is going to be the better performing product, and it is. Less coloration, more detail, better frequency extension, cleaner sound (less noise), blacker background, cleaner separation, better articulation. Overall, the DACmini is a more precise DAC than the DACport, and it doesn’t take long to see that. The DACport, however, scores a few extra points in my ears, such as being the warmer sounding unit with more body on the midrange. The soundstage is slightly narrower, but with better depth in the sound. The sound on the DACport is more smeared (imagine taking a drawing charcoal, draw a line and then smear it with your thumbs), and more blurry on the edges of the highs and lows. But somehow, my ears were more welcoming of the DACport’s less precise sound. It had warmth, and the less black background was more analog sounding than the DACmini’s. Add to the fact that the DACport is cheaper and is simpler to use, and takes the same 24/96 over USB, I think this is going to be the one that I choose for my personal use. After all, who uses S/PDIF inputs these days? Well, I still do, but USB is much more convenient. In all, I’m not totally missing the added detail I get on the DACmini, but perhaps the only compromise that I care about is the less articulate bass and the bass roll off on the DACport when compared to the DACmini.
Having thrown that out of the way, I begin to look for other competitions for these two. Since, I have the Burson HA-160D, let’s pitch it against the the DACmini.
BURSON HA-160D VS DACMINI
Both are DAC/Amp boxes and so it should be legal to compare them. The Burson is a little more limited in digital inputs with only USB and Coaxial, but with all the bad things being said about the Toslink connection, no self respecting audiophile guy is going to be using Toslink anyway. The Burson prides itself in an all-discrete approach, a contrast from CEntrance’s claims on their expertise in USB data transfer, jitter management, and their background as chip designer for the big IC vendors such as Texas Instruments and Analog Devices.
I don’t know for sure what D/A chip the DACmini uses but the voicing of the Burson can be said to be quite in the same range as the DACmini. The two are quite colorless, in contrast to some of the warmer sounding DACs I’ve heard. The Burson is a tad warmer and with more body in the bass, the DACmini is flatter and is less colored. The difference in character is bigger though. The Burson has an edge in the articulation of the individual notes, shorter decay, more noticeable impact on each notes. The DACmini has a more coherent sound where different notes blend together more to produce the music. The DACmini also has better extension on the top and bottom, slightly longer decay, and slightly better ambiance.
What I want to emphasize here is that if you do an A-B between the two, they would sound fairly similar (say in comparison to a warm sounding DAC like the HRT). During longer listening time, however, even when I’m not doing critical listening (say while web browsing or typing), I definitely know that I want to listen to the DACmini when the music is less demanding on PRaT and bass, and on the other hand I would grab the Burson if I am listening to Rock or something else with beats and percussion (even Piano). Imagine two cars, both painted in white color, but one is a luxury sedan with soft suspension while the other is a sports sedan with very stiff suspension. Briefly they may look similar, but when you go and take them for a ride, you’ll realize that the character is very different. I think what happens here is that the brain sub-consciously picks up the little details, and it’s one of those things that makes some people go for Pepsi rather than Coca Cola, even if they don’t have pro-grade taste buds.
If you are using the DAC section only and is pairing them with a separate amp, you can choose the DAC that will help cover your amplifier’s weaknesses better. For instance, the Zana is a bit weak in bass articulation and PRaT, and so I’ll use the Burson DAC with it. With the Graham Slee amps, however, I would opt for the DACmini’s DAC section as it gives me a more open sound than the Burson.
DACMINI VS MEIER STAGE DAC
The Meier Stage DAC has a more or less similar voicing to the DACmini: both being fairly colorless, slightly bright, transparent DACs that strives for clarity and precision. Between the two, the Meier Stage DAC was slightly more detailed than the DACmini. I did prefer the DACmini’s more natural presentation of the details, where the Meier DAC had a sensation of the details being forcefully pushed out, leaving a slight unnatural decay. On the other hand, the DACmini’s transients were faster, but it has a more natural decay than the Meier, another area that I prefer the DACmini’s presentation. Lastly, while the Meier Stage DAC has a wider soundstage, depth was not as good as the DACmini, and I would give the DACmini the upper hand in the overall soundstage three dimensionality. I need to also mention that while the DACmini is totally capable of 24/96 resolution over USB (and likewise all the other DACs in this article), the Meier Stage DAC is the only one being limited to 16/48 over USB.
DACMINI, DACPORT VS HRT MUSIC STREAMER II+
The HRT Music Streamer II+ (and likewise the Music Streamer II non +) noticeably has a different sound signature, and one that is warmer, darker, and more analog. The DACmini stood out in the comparison as being the cleaner sounding and more precise DAC. Details also stood out more with the DACmini, transients are clearer cut, the background blacker, and articulation from top to bottom better on the DACmini. In terms of technicalities, the DACmini is definitely superior over the HRT Music Streamer II+, except in the way the two portray soundstage. The HRT Music Streamer II+ had a wider and deeper soundstage that also positions you more in the middle of the music where the DACmini’s not only narrower but also takes on a more backseat, more spectator-like view of the soundstage. While the DACmini would be a better DAC for spotting out details in the music, or helping push an extra level of clarity on veiled systems, the looser sounding HRT was more pleasing to the ears as it offers warmth, mids and low end body, and an overall more analog sound reproduction.
A lot of people have also asked me how the DACport compares to the HRT Music Streamer II+. Primarily, the same differences that I listed between the DACmini and the HRT MS II+ also applies here. Less grainy sound on the CEntrance devices, wider and more enveloping soundstage on the HRT MS II+ are among some of the principal differences. Then you can also add in the fact that the DACmini is very colorless while the DACport has a warmer and fuller mids, but slightly less precise sound. The HRT is wamer, slightly darker, and the presence of the grain seems to enhance the feeling of a more analog reproduction from the HRT. These should give you a good idea of the different voicing of the HRT and the CEntrance devices. Personally I think they are all good DACs, and I would base my choice more on the sound signature factor, i.e HRT for a more Sennheiser like sound and the DACmini for a more Beyerdynamic sound.
DACPORT VS AUDINST HUD-MX1
This is where the comparison gets a bit upsetting. The DACport is listed for $399.00. The Audinst is $189.00. What’s the basis of this comparison? Well, first I want to put things in a better frame of context. What kind of a performance jump are we looking at here? Second, the Audinst has been my favorite USB DAC/Amp box (I know I called the Yulong as the “New Recommendation”, but its software and driver is buggy especially with a Mac, and so I kinda withdraw it from the recommendation list.). Like the DACport, the Audinst likewise runs solely on USB power, provides a simple compact solution where you can plug in the USB cable at the back, and plug in your headphone at the front, and have a nice sounding set up. Both also does 24/96 over USB. The Audinst comes with extra features such as two headphone outs, rollable op-amp, digital out, and a pair of analog RCA outs. Of course the DACport has a better build quality and is smaller in dimension. But if you are tight on budget and don’t mind the dimension of the Audinst (it’s still pretty tiny), I think the comparison can be valid. So let’s see how the two compares.
Sound signature wise, the Audinst is more laid back and is darker. The DACport is more mid centric and has a fuller mids while the Audinst has fuller lows. Sound quality wise, the Audinst is grainier while the DACport is cleaner from top to bottom. However, the amount of detail extraction is roughly the same, and the Audinst has an edge in soundstage creation as it gives a wider and deeper soundstage, where the DACport sounds more tunneled in comparison. On first listen, the smoother and less grainy sound of the DACport strikes me as being the “better” sound. But after longer listening time, I begin to put extra weight on the Audinst’s soundstage, as the DACport “tunnel-vision” soundstage is quite bothersome. Voltage swing seems roughly equal as well, as I find myself listening to both DAC’s headphone out at maximum volume with the HD800 when the recording level is quite low.
Overall, I would put the DACport as the better DAC mainly from the cleaner and less grainy sound. But when you start to take a longer time listening to both DACs, it becomes more noticeable that the DACport didn’t score a clear win over the Audinst. The things I mentioned on the previous paragraph shows that on certain things I do prefer the Audinst over the DACport. There is also the difference in sound signature as the Audinst has a fuller lows and the DACport fuller mids. The Audinst is also slightly darker and warmer than the DACport. So in this case it becomes a choice of system synergy.
Although the comparison was done on a stock set up Audinst, I know that op-amp rolling won’t quite change the result of the comparison. The grainier sound of the Audinst seems to be a part of its D/A converter and PSU section design, and an op-amp change is not going to erase it.
GEAR USED FOR REVIEW
- Transport: Powerbook G4, CEC TL51XZ, Onkyo ND-S1
- Amplifiers: Burson HA-160D, DACmini, DACport, Schiit Asgard, Valhalla, Meier Concerto, Graham Slee Solo SRG II, Solo Ultralinear, Zana Deux
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, HD598, Audio Technica M-50 among others
- You can contact Jaben Indonesia for either the DACmini or the DACport.
- Amazon.com also has the CEntrance DACmini for $795.00 and the DACport for $399.95.