DACs

CEntrance DACMini USB DAC

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CEntrance DACMini In Use

The first CD I tried with the DACMini was Lida Husik's Faith In Space, a lovely bit of textured electronic from the 1990's that loved the DACmini (or vice versa). The interesting thing with electronic music is that a high fidelity playback system will make it exponentially better than mass market equipment would because a good hifi will reveal hidden textures to the synth sounds. With the DACMini those textures were rich. The highs had terrific detail, Lida Husik's voice was sweet as it should be and the bass was chunky which is how I expect this recording to sound.

I tried a crude jitter test by first feeding the DACMini from my vintage Marantz CD-63 and then from the new Emotiva ERC-2. I had its predecessor the ERC-1 in my system for a few months and so ended up using it with a variety of DACs, I discovered that it was a superior digital transport compared to the Marantz. I now have the ERC-2 in for review so after a time using the Marantz as a transport I switched the optical toslink (the highly recommended Ixos Xotica) over to the Emotiva. Going back to Lida Husik's Faith in Space, with the DACmini's line-outs connected my Simaudio system driving my Daedalus speakers, the electronic instruments emerged from a blacker background with more detail when I used the ERC-2. Similar with Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her voice was sweeter and I heard more of it – more breathiness, more accents, more twang when she twanged. Also when using the Emotiva to drive the DACMini, I was reluctant to remove a disk to switch to another, I just kept listening. Note that this test presumes that the ancient Marantz doesn't commit some even more base sins than merely jitter. It's possible that it has outright errors in its output bit stream. Wouldn't be surprising at all.

Comparing the Emotiva as a CD player (i.e., using the DAC inside the ERC-2) the sound was a bit warmer than the DACMini but the background not as black. I need some more time with the ERC-2 but as I listen now I have a slight preference for the DACmini. The DACmini costs about 2x what the Emotiva does so there is some order in the audiophile universe. Both of these products are swinging way above their weight class however.

The chassis of the DACMini never seemed to vary much from room temperature even with extended listening but I wonder if the class-A amplifier inside liked to be warmed up because I kept finding that the sound was better the longer I listened. The sound was impressive enough at the start of whatever CD I put in first but by the end I would inevitably be enrapt. With Hector Zazou's Songs from the Cold Seas this was exactly my experience as I was unable to stop listening all the way through the record, even as I was thinking – man I should go back to the beginning and see if it sounds even better than when I first put it in because it's really rockin' now. But I couldn't stop listening to the track I was on. When I did finally get to the end I restarted the disc and I do think that the backgrounds were slightly blacker but that's not the kind of difference I can clearly recall after 60 minutes of listening. I recommend an extended listening session with the DACMini if you're trying it out.

I quoted from the extensive DACMini design blog above: ". It's actually "pitch black" in the headphones when you crank the volume knob all the way up". I can verify that this is true, and impressive. The 'black background' that us crazy audiophile reviewers are always going on about though is a combination of this quiet noise floor and dynamics (micro and macro). That is, how well do the instruments emerge from the background and distinguish themselves? The most challenging reproductive challenge I know of in this regard is the piano. All the various sounds that a piano makes – the hammers hitting the strings, the strings themselves, the sounding board – not to mention the variable decay controlled by the player via the foot petals – add up to several closely related 'instruments' for an audio system to sort out. I've heard a couple of (crazy expensive) systems reproducing jazz or rock music well enough that it seemed like if I could be fooled into thinking the band was there in the room. Not so with piano though. I've never thought 'jeez it sounds like there's a piano over there'. An aside – one trick that helps with this is to have speakers with a large sidewall that is not well damped, even if it is MDF, it seems to mimic the sounding board of pianos. Still, it gets you closer but not all the way there.

So, for eight hundred bucks plus headphones, can the DACMini do what even the most high end systems can't do? Well no. On track two of Songs from the Cold Seas, a track sought after by Bjork fans, she sings a haunting traditional Icelandic song, 'Visur Vatnsenda-Rosu' accompanied by piano amongst other things. At various time some piano is added to an already long list of instruments. On the highest-end systems of the audiophile world this piano kicks in with impressive force and the overtones and harmonics of this complex instrument are preserved, to some degree anyway. The DACMini did an impressive job with the overtone bit, but the initial slam seemed contained within the space allotted. That's an important thing to note – in the space allotted – the overall sound of the DACmini always sounded right, whatever music I was listening to, the sound was right. This means not only reproducing the highs and lows but also the dynamics. Large scale dynamics is when the volume on a recording jumps, perhaps because a new instrument is introduced. With this recording, I got more if it when I switched the toslink back to my Naim DAC. A DAC which costs four times as much not counting the outboard power supply and with that power supply ends up occupying about 20x as much shelf space. At one fourth the cost, and with a headphone amp built in, the DACmini came ridiculously close to the Naim in overall musical satisfaction and non-fatiguing enjoyment.

But the DACMini was born to be paired with a computer, specifically a MACmini. I don't have a MACmini but I do have a Dell laptop (running Windows7) and another desktop system running XP. There was a driver issue with the Dell that seemed to lock the DACMini onto the USB connection (did I say it's not a MAC?). I put the blame squarely on the Dell laptop which has some sort of a home theater package that seems to prevent all kinds of things from working. With my home-built XP system there was no such hiccup. In both cases though the sound through the USB connection was lovely. I sometimes thought maybe the sound was a little smoother, more liquid, through USB than S/PDIF but it wasn't enough to make me try to do extensive A/B comparisons.

While using the USB connection I was able to listen to some 88.2kHz recordings I had made from the vinyl version of Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me. With this high res recording there was not much to complain about and a lot to enjoy. I could still hear a slight loss in micro dynamics (and not in macro) as compared to my Naim but the differences just became less and less important. I've had similar results with high res recordings from other DACs which shows us once again that the unfortunate constraints of the CD standard have really cost us all.

I did have one other nit during my otherwise completely enjoyable time with the DACMini – the USB and power connectors both don't seem to insert all the way to the chassis, leaving about an eighth of an inch of the outer conductor exposed. I pushed as hard as I dared, it wasn't that they weren't in enough, it just seemed like they weren't in 'all the way'. A small thing soon forgotten once you've set the unit down and started listening.