I don’t know if I’m going to get a review unit from Centrance and when Headfonia Store’s M8 order will arrive, but a good friend and a customer to the store brought me the M8 that he received from the pre-order for me to play around with and I felt excited about the new device from Centrance I decided to go ahead with a brief impression article.
ABOUT THE M8 LX
The M8 comes with several input/output configurations. The one I am using at the moment is the LX version which is the version without the i-Device compatibility (which is actually one of the big selling point about the M8). I had some listening time to the i-Devices compatible version in Tokyo and I thought that the LX version shared mostly the same sound signature with the non-LX.
For this impression, I’m feeding the M8 LX from my MacBook through the USB connection using Oyaide’s fancy Continental S5 USB cable. This version also comes with a Toslink input though it doesn’t seem to be working with the Astell & Kern AK100 and the Fostex HP-A7 DAC (via its digital optical out). I think this particular unit may have a faulty toslink connection.
Earlier this week I was writing in the Q & A session about the fact that all i-Devices DAC/Amp units lack the proper “oompf” to drive a full size. That includes the Fostex HP-P1, ADL X1 (from my brief impression in Japan), VentureCraft’s GoDapX, and the Sony PHA-1. Most of them can produce sufficient loudness levels, but not quite with the dynamics that you can get with a separate portable amp unit. Well I have to make an exception to that statement, since the M8 is extremely powerful and easily drives either the Sennheiser HD600 and the Audez’e LCD-3 that I’m using for this impression. Testing the 4-pin balanced out with the AKG K1000, I get a moderately good volume level that’s usable in a quiet room at maximum volume and maximum gain. What I didn’t expect was when I plugged the K1000 on the 1/4″ out (using an XLR to TRS adapter), I get the same volume level as directly to the 4-pin out. I don’t know how the balanced out is wired but it looks like the gain is set to be the same on the TRS and the XLR out. It’s just that the sound is more spacious and less forward with the balanced out.
The M8 thing is a beast as I discovered it was able to drive both the LCD-3 and AKG K1000 simultaneously without a noticeable drop in sonics, with a good level of impact and dynamics too. At the more sensitive side of the spectrum is the Sennheiser IE800 and the Sony EX1000 that the M8 drives nicely at low gain with good volume control range and extremely low noise floor (the IE800 is 16Ω, EX1000 32Ω).
Regarding the controls at the back, aside from the self-explanatory gain setting, I explored the treble and bass controls as well as the output impedance settings. Treble control adds very little treble quantity in contrast to the bass boost which makes quite a boom-boom at maximum setting. I didn’t quite like the effect produced by both the treble and bass boost toggles. The boost created an unnatural bump in bass and spike in treble that doesn’t blend well with the rest of the frequency curve.
The impedance setting changes the frequency response depending on the headphones attached between the 1Ω, 2Ω, and 11Ω settings. Starting with the LCD-3, I find that the 1Ω impedance setting gives the cleanest sound (for some reason) while the 11Ω boost a tiny bit of the bass quantity perhaps around 1dB. With the 300Ω Senn, I don’t think I hear any difference between the impedance settings. With the IE800, the 1Ω impedance setting lowers the volume output compared to the 11Ω, gives a cleaner sound, and again is less bassy than the 11Ω.
I tested the USB input to take files up to 24/176.4 without a problem. I believe the M8 should be able to take in files up to 192kHz but I don’t have one around at the moment.
Since the M8 LX that I have here doesn’t support i-Devices playback, I had some difficulty trying to find another DAC to compare it to. After all I’m not going to compare the M8 to a full desktop DAC, and the other i-Devices DAC I have around (Solo -R, Solo Original, Fostex HP-P1 doesn’t support USB DACs). The Solo -dB works as a USB DAC and would make for a good comparison, but I don’t have the -dB version at the moment. One i-Devices that I have that support USB DAC functions is the Sony PHA-1 and just for old times’ sake I threw in the original Dacport CX (with the headphone amp built in, not the LX). Lastly I threw in Fostex’s HP-A3 just to have another frame of reference.
The Sony possessing a slightly smaller width but much better depth for a much more spacious sound stage around and better three dimensionality. Clean grainless sound, better midrange bloom. The M8 is more linear with less midrange bloom but also less coloration. Better low bass performance, better articulation. More grain and less smooth.
The Dacport, like the Sony, has a much better sound stage depth and also a slightly smaller sound stage width than the M8 (and also the PHA-1). Like the Sony, the Dacport is cleaner and has less grain, better three dimensionality. More mid-centric, weakest in the low bass among the four compared here. Some congestion in the midrange.
The HP-A3 is the superior DAC in the comparison here possessing the blackest background, most spacious sound and three dimensionality and also being the smoothest sounding DAC of the four compared.
My sound impressions reminded me of my listening session in Japan when I met Michael Goodman at the Headphone Festival. The set up then was using the M8 with an Ipod and a Beyerdynamic T1. The M8 certainly has a monster of an amp but I didn’t really get a good chance to evaluate the sound, simply because the T1 was an open back and the backdrop of the headphone show has a fairly high noise level. It was the same linear, moderately dark sound with good instrument separation and articulation. I missed some factors like flow and coherence, and most importantly sound stage depth. The grain in the sound is also quite bothersome even with headphones like the LCD-3 that by itself is one of the most grain-free headphones around. I thought that the sound, though more articulate than the Dacport CX, didn’t quite have the coherence and three dimensionality of the Dacport CX.
Centrance definitely has put a lot of time into the M8, and the long delays from when the M8 was first announced (some 1+ year ago?) definitely shows as it come out to be a well designed and well engineered product. You have some six different configurations to choose from, all encased in a well-built enclosure with practically all the interfaces you may need. This product is definitely an enthusiast’s first in terms of design (who else would provide an option for a 4-pin XLR and 2×3-pin XLRs?). The sound, however, while technically very proficient, seems to lack a certain flow, midrange bloom, depth, and coherence that somehow I didn’t quite enjoy with the different headphones and IEMs I used for this impression. It may just be my ears. I definitely see a lot of reason to why the M8 would be a successful product in the market.
The Headfonia Store has placed an order for the M8 through a local Centrance distributor and so I’ll be expecting to be selling a few of these in the next few months. At the same time we’re also waiting for the ADL X1 to arrive so when the two arrive then I can have a better comparison of the two. And who knows, maybe Fostex has an HP-P2 in the works as well.
Some photos from the Japan festival: