Cheaper, Better: The CEntrance DACport LX
Despite the superb little system-in-a-stick that the original DACport is, some people don’t want simplicity as they happen to like big messy desktop amplifiers with garden hose power cords. So, why not offer the same product sans the amplifier? This is exactly what the LX is all about. A DACport minus the integrated amplifier inside. Now that the amplifier is gone (and so is the small potentiometer inside), certainly there would be more hifi to be heard from the DAC section. And indeed it is. The DACport LX is priced at $50 lower than the original version, and as you will see in a bit, I would go on and on how the LX sounds better than the original! I wish more manufacturers would follow suit. Cheaper products that sound better is just what our wallets want.
Loosing the amplifier section has improved the sound considerably, putting it ahead of the Fostex HP-A3 (the original DACport is less transparent than the Fostex) and roughly on par with the HRT Music Streamer II+. The Fostex HP-A3 and the DACport LX shares a very similar sound character, both very smooth and clean sounding, deep soundstage and roughly the same detail extraction level. The Fostex HP-A3 is leaner on the bass and is less punchy, and is also inferior in terms of instrument separation and instrument body.
Compared to my favorite $300 USB DAC, the HRT Music Streamer II+, the DACport LX has a slightly different sound signature: the LX is cleaner sounding, blacker background, and separation of instruments being clearer, while the HRT has a more enveloping analog sound, two inches wider but less deep on the soundstage, though being 10% more grainy sounding. The HRT Music Streamer II+ is warmer and like ten percent darker, with more bass body, though less detail on the bass. The DACport LX lets an ounce more top treble out, resulting in an airier yet a tad more sibilant sound, and an extra bit of micro details extraction. Indeed a very close fight there, but put it simply, the HRT gives you a warmer and more analog sound, while the DACport a cleaner and clearer sound. Still confused on which is better? Well, the DACport is better looking.
So you no longer get the convenience of being able to plug headphones and IEMs straight into the DACport LX the way you do with the original DACport. But testing the unit reveals that things still sound good, even as I try plugging anything from a Hifiman RE-272 IEM to an Audez’e LCD-2 headphone (Yes! the big Orthodynamic!) to the LX’s output socket. Volume control is done on the digital domain via iTunes. No breaking up of sound, no distortions, no frequency rolls off, only a noticeably weaker bass punch compared to the DACport’s output jack since we’re running the headphone straight from the DAC’s analog stage. This is what Michael Goodman says about it:
“The output stage is buffered, but you may be maxing out the buffer that way. We recommend that LX is followed by amp with a higher input impedance. But it won’t get damaged the way you are using it, so it’s ok.”
I’m not suggesting that you run on that configuration, but you can get away with it as long as you can bear that bass punch is not as punchy as it’s supposed to be (though bass levels are not an issue with the LCD-2).
The point is that taking off the amplifier section has given the DACport a fresh boost in sound quality, and now you don’t have to feel bad for having that unwanted amplifier being stuck on your audio chain and fearing that you’re not getting every last bit of the sound quality you deserve from the DACport. The sound signature is actually very nice, deep and spacious with less of a focus in miss as in the original DACport, and also less dry than the DACmini. You can pair it with say a desktop amp like the Schiit Asgard, or even a portable amp like the JDSLabs Cmoy and you’re good to go.
On heat issues, the DACport LX still runs very hot like the original. I didn’t measure the temperatures, but I’m pretty sure that the LX, for practical purposes, runs just as hot as the original DACport. That’s significantly hotter than the HRT Music Streamer II+ or the Fostex HP-A3. But hey, it’s a desktop USB DAC and nobody is going to be carrying it around and so I really wouldn’t make too big of an issue of the heat, as long as it sounds good (which it is).
The choice of 1/4″ TRS jack for the output of the LX is objectionable, and it’s understandable why. I need to make my own 1/4″ to RCA interconnect cable to hook up the LX to a typical desktop amp. Hooking up the LX to a portable is less messy though, since portable amp more often uses 1/8″ TRS input jacks, and so all you need is a mini-to-mini (which you probably already have) and a 1/8″ to 1/4″ converter on top of that. Bottom line is that the 1/4″ TRS jack was not the best choice for this otherwise superb DAC, but it’s understandable given the need to preserve the same housing design. Now the good news is that CEntrance is already working into this and newer shipments of the LX should include a high quality 1/4″ to RCA interconnect cable, so you should have no issues when you decide to order one for yourself.
The DACport LX is such a great product all around and is really strong on becoming my favorite $300 DAC. Even considering to add it to the Recommendations page.
GEARS USED FOR REVIEW
Sennheiser HD800, Audez’e LCD-2, Apex Peak, Hifiman RE-272, Superlux HD661, ALO Continental, HRT Music Streamer II+, CEntrance DACport, Fostex HP-A3.