A Trusted Traveling Companion: The CEntrance HiFi M8 Portable Headphone Amp/DAC Page 2

CEntrance_HiFiM8_Photo_Inside

CEntrance HiFi-M8 internals. Notice how the front panel module can be easily replaced.

Sound Quality
In a word (or two): rock solid. With every headphone I've ever attached to the M8 I've always felt the cans were being driven with great authority and control. There is always plenty of gain for those difficult to drive cans, and at the other end of the spectrum, the noise is very low and never apparent even with the most sensitive in-ear monitors. I use the M8 with my Astell&Kern AK120 with a Toslink optical digital connection and the sound just reeks of competence. Without referring to other amps directly in comparison, the fundamental impression I get is simply a wire with gain. Music is clear, articulate, dynamic, and superbly controlled. I'm of the opinion a headphone amp is the least important thing in the chain between the source and your ears, and the best thing it can do is amplify the signal without flaw and get out of the way otherwise. The M8 does that as well, or better, with virtually any headphone than any portable amp I've heard.

Well, that's all well and good, but how does it compare to a killer home unit? I spent some time comparing the HiFi-M8 with my reference stack of AURLiC Vega DAC and Taurus Mk2 headphone amp using the AK120 Toslink connection as source for both. It became clear pretty quickly the M8 just didn't have the finesse and slam of the AURALiC gear. All the micro-textural stuff that us audiophiles love to experience was there in spades with the Vega and Taurus...the M8 just didn't have this magic sauce. It remains a mystery and wonder to me that what must be rather small differences are so readily apparent in this comparison. Listening to the M8 in isolation I hear absolutely nothing "wrong" with the sound at all. Switching over from the M8 to AURAiC stack, however, one is struck—an deeply pleased—in going from "right" to "righter". So no, the M8 isn't a reference level home unit, though I would characterize it as a reference level portable amp.

I mentioned this in the tone controls section, but it bares some further discussion: I find it greatly useful to have the rear panel tone, gain, and output impedance controls. It's not like I use them a lot, and the changes are (very thankfully) quite subtle, but the feeling I get when I carry this rig around is that the M8 is a portable audio Swiss Army Knife. When I'm listening with my Westone ES5 I'll tip the treble up a bit; with my Audeze LCD-2 I'll tip it up more; with my Sennheiser HD 800 I'll put the output impedance up all the way for a bit smoother sound. Again, all of these changes are subtle, and very welcome to my somewhat fanatic and critical ears. The CEntrance HiFi-M8 gives me a great sense of control to my mobile listening experience.

Summary
The CEntrance HiFi-M8 portable headphone amp/DAC is rather pricy and large, but boy you get bang for your buck with this gem. Input and output options are abundant; iOS users (30-pin cable only with current units, a Lightning cable version is in the works and will be available sometime in the future) should get the standard model; Android users might prefer the "XL" version with Toslink input. Output options are available for a variety of balanced and unbalanced connections; please see the body of this review for details.

The M8 is a spectacularly competent amp and sounds...well, like a wire with gain. CEntrance is famous for high gain, low distortion and noise designs, and the M8 clearly possesses these genes. The amp simply delivers the goods with any and all headphones I've tested on it. In addition, numerous controls for tone shaping, gain, and output impedance gives enthusiasts subtle and suitable control for fine tuning the match between amp and headphones.

The CEntrance HiFi-M8 is going up on InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame" as the best hard core headphone enthusiast portable headphone amp. I certainly won't go to a trade show where I have to audition numerous headphones without it, and when I'm in need of a movable music feast the M8 is the first thing I grab. Highly recommended!

Video

Resources
CEntrance home page and HiFi-M8 product page.
CEntrance HiFi-M8 Developement blog.
Head-Fi threads here and here.

COMPANY INFO
CEntrance, Inc.
8817 Mango Ave
Morton Grove, IL 60053
info@centrance.com
847-581-0500
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
johnjen's picture

It's good to see measurements for electronics appearing. :thumb

A long awaited 1st for headphone gear. :thumb

 

JJ

gjcsima's picture

Would be interested to find out where some of the top in-ear phones compare to some of the top over ear phones?  Maybe have a shoot out of overall sound quality for all types of phones and then value...

lithium's picture

I am personally not a big fan of carrying huge rigs outside home. So how is its performance relative to a home use unit (in the same price range) say something like the ALO Panam or the modi+magni? Like you mentioned before note in power but in nuance and ability in the small stuff

vickibee's picture

I'd happen to agree with you, I find it hard to carry around an amp, in addition to some bulky headphones.. I currently use the Sennheiser HD 600's (a headphone amp really is needed though). I've been using the Magni 2 amp I found here http://www.pricenfees.com/best-portable-headphone-amp.html . It is pretty small, doesnt usually overheat like some other amps I've been lucky enough to try (even getting burned, lol). Although it probably can't compete with the CEntrance HiFi M8 - it does the trick when I'm out and about!

Long time listener's picture

After reading about the implementation of tone controls here, I've changed my mind and decided this isn't something I want to buy. Shelving filters of the kind Tyll mentioned he would like to see have long been successfully used in integrated amplifiers and elsewhere. They usually slope gradually up until about 100 Hz in the bass, or 10 Khz in the treble, and then begin to level off. They work great and sound wonderful. (For a classic example see the Sterophile measurements of the NAD M3 integrated amplifier: by 100 Hz and 10 Khz the slopes are nearing their plateau.) But lately people have this idea that they need to keep the bass and treble controls "out of the midrange," and those two points are moved respectively much lower and much higher. In my experience, the midrange was never seriously affected by traditional tone controls, and with this new type, all I get is some serious hiss in the high treble and some dull thudding at the very bottom of the bass range--but no real perceived change in bass or treble levels. It's only when you include at least part of the mid-bass and the mid-treble that the ear will hear much of a change in the bass or treble regions. Certainly the midrange is very important. But if the midrange runs from about 250 Hz to 2-3 Khz, any tone controls that slope down from 100 Hz and 10 Khz are already well away from the midrange; their gradual slopes may enter part of the midrange at their shallowest points, but that just provides a necessary transition. Get some sense, people, and stop ruining our audio experience with weird tone controls. The ones shown here don't look useful to me at all.

Dan S's picture

And why do these tone controls on the M8 only boost either the treble or bass? I would prefer the option to boost or cut. For headphones that are too bright, nudging down the treble is often preferable to jacking up the bass. I really like how the FiiO E17 Alpen actually has tone controls like this. They're so hard to find on headphone amps!

Willakan's picture

As per the title, it is great to see the amplifier measurement program producing its first set of measurements in a review - your hard work on it is paying off! A couple of observations:

1) There seem to be some missing curves in the THD+N graph.

2) With a quick glance at the relevant masking curves, it seems extremely unlikely that the second harmonic, being about 80dB down, would contribute anything to the sound, IMHO. These thresholds were arrived at with test tones: I would expect things to be considerably harder to hear with real music.

3) I realise that I'm really looking a much awaited gift-horse in the mouth at this point, but to my mind some THD vs Frequency sweeps at the same output level you produce the 500Hz spectrum would make an extremely valuable addition to the datasheet. Most amplifiers do not offer frequency-invariant distortion performance, especially into low impedance loads.

Anyway, to reiterate, it's great to see an amp review with a measurement section :D

nnotis's picture

Thanks for comparing this to your reference desktop system.  It's good to know where portable gear stands relatively.  I wonder though, was it the M8's amp or DAC that served as the limiting factor?  What headphones did you use for this comparison?  With HD800s & LCD2s, I'd expect the amp to be a factor.  But what about with IEMs?  I've found portable amps to be completely up to the task of driving them.  It's the portable DACs that can't match the focus of my desktop one, thus becoming the weak link in my portable chain.

HeadphoneAddict's picture

Hey Tyll,

I enjoyed your review. I did want to mention that I received one of the first units, and it has worked with the lightning cable with my iPhone and iPad out of the gate. Also if you get the Apple USB camera connection kit, it can be plugged into the other USB port to do 24/96 with an iDevice.

Someone else asked whether the DAC or the amp is the weak link. I think the DAC is fantastic, and the amp is pretty darn close. I do prefer using an external amp with my Sennheiser HD800's, but the built-in amp is very acceptable with everything I've tried. The HD800s can be picky & seem to work better with a very warm sounding amplifier, and my HD 800s have not been modified like Tyll's. Less than half my desktop amps at home do justice to the HD800, and only two of them make them sound their best, but none of them sound terrible with them. I do like +3dB bass and 10ohm output impedance, with my balanced black dragon cable when I use the HiFi-M8 with the HD800.

Cheers,

Larry

PS: Nick, it's great with my JH16Pro, ES5, Westone 4, and Primo 8 IEM - all very different sounding IEM.  Primo 8 do better with 10 ohm output impedance and +3dB bass, and I like to add treble with the W4.  The customs need no EQ or impedance increases.

Alberto Martinez's picture

Looking at HiFi-M8 specs on Centrance website it says iDevice jack only supports 16-bit/48kHz and my music source is my iPad with FLAC files on 24/96 and 24/192? I have Apple CCK cable and normal ligthing. How do I get at least 24/96?

Looking at specs iFi micro iDSD seems higher device, what do (any of) you think? I will pair with Senn HD600 300ohm impedance.

I am looking for a portable DAC/Amp additional to my desktop Schiit Asgard 2 Amp, that I love the sound.

Thanks for your answers/comments.

HeadphoneAddict's picture

You can use the CCK with a USB adapter cable to connect the HiFi-M8's Computer USB port to the iDevice, and then use a FLAC player on the iDevice to play 24/96 through the Computer input - the iDevice input doesn't go over 16/48 yet.

AGB's picture

You can't make up your mind about how the M8's "tone controls" work unless you heard them yourself. You cannot imagine how they'll sound either. They happen to work well, but not as well as let's say Fidelia Advanced music player's parametric EQs will. But then you won't have to lug a computer around either. I use the EQs built into the iPod Classic in stead...but 95% of the time I use the M8 at home with my Mac anyway.

For home use I leave the EQ for USB on the M8 off at both lows and highs and use Fidelia's parametrics for whatever headset I am using - and yes, they ALL need EQ, every single one of them.

The impedance switch is what makes this man stand apart from the boys. The lowest with both headsets I am using makes a large audible difference. The low gain setting another audible difference, as it allows the volume pot to rotate at the settings where resolution/loss of bits will be least impacted.

Lastly Tyll, it's a great review and about time. The M8 may be the best of the the breed regardless of cost. I am curious however if you used the same source going to the M8 as you used for the Aurilic. Again, we are speaking about comparing  a $5000 Aurilic DAC and Amp vs $700 for the M8.

Perhaps a little tweaking of the EQ will level the playing field in such comparisons?

I think it'll make things close enough and that'll be telling about how good the M8 really is...it is really, as Tyll says, that good.

I wish it were smaller yet. I wish it would dispense cappuccino, I wish....

sgibson389's picture

What are the black bands holding your amp & player together? Thanks

Long time listener's picture

"You can't make up your mind about how the M8's "tone controls" work unless you heard them yourself. You cannot imagine how they'll sound either."

Well, if I've heard two pieces of equipment that use tone controls similar to the M8, and I didn't like the tone controls on either of them (and that is the case), I can in fact be quite certain I won't like them on the M8 either. That's the beauty of having measurements to let you know whether something is behaving in a similar way to another familiar piece of equipment or not.

Having said that, the bass on the M8 is different than what I described above. But I've found Tyll to be a very honest and trustable reviewer, and if he would have preferred shelving controls ...

ricks0me's picture

Tyll: I have to disagree with you on this one. No bass or treble tone shaping for me. Other than this, you are usually right on target. Best Regards / Rick

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...of the off position of the switches.

spyder1's picture

Tyll,

Where did you obtain your short Toslink patch cable, for this Astell&Kern AK120, CEntrance HiFi M8 combo.I have a AK120, and would like to mirror your set up.

Paul Novitt

AGB's picture

Mikel Mercer informed me that the balanced out does not respond to the impedance switch - perhaps understandable as it may be already at a very low impedance...one reason why it sounds so good using balanced Moon Silver Dragons.

I do have reservations about making comparisons with a separate DAC-headphone amp, as it is impossible to separate the DAC from its hadphone amp in the M8. As stated earlier, i believe a judicious adjustment with a parametric EQ will make most, if not all, differences one might hear in such comparisons vanish.

Another reservation apart from testing methadology is battery life, with some competing units providing substantially longer play time.

The plus end is that the M8 is strikingly good sounding with CD's, to the point one may not care that much about going higher rez...even of one can hear a bit more naturalness with hi rez on some, not all, material. I compared CDs with HD Tracks downloads on both the M8 and a $2500 DAC of high repute and the M8 wiped the floor with it with CDs. I just wanted a portable DAC, not a home model. So....

To my chagrin, as I had to resell the other DAC, as much as I liked it.

AndrewG's picture

Your comments are great. Very helpful in giving some additional context. Thank you!

mgoodman's picture

Michael Goodman from CEntrance here. Wanted to say thanks to everyone who contributed. We enjoy the discussion.

Regarding EQ, I understand and agree that HiFi-M8 (pronounced "mate") does not follow the 70's tradition of a "smiley face" EQ found on most consumer amps. That's on purpose. I've spent years in recording studios, working with anything, from classical, to rock, to jazz and can tell you with confidence that certain frequencies are less desirable to the ear than others. One such area is "midbase", which is frequently referred to as "mud" by experienced recording engineers. It's too easy to make the sound lose calrity if you boost that region, so we decided to "not go there" with the EQ on the M8. Instead, we chose to boost a very specific area of the lower bass range, which plays well with modern music styles and favors electric bass instruments (stringed and synthesized). Many of our listeners are of the younger generation and therefore experience more synth bass than acoustic contrabass in the course of their day. I guess you can say that we caved in and made a slight nod towards popular music :) But turth told, classical sounds as great on the HiFi-M8 since all the fundamentals of good design are preserved.

Let us know if you have amy other questions, either here or by sending us email. We love to talk this stuff.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Thanks for posting up, Michael.  (Sorry you had some trouble getting logged in.) I appreciate your philosophy...even if it differs from mine...and I definately appreciate your overall approach with the M8. You've really done a great job creating a product that is extremely versitile and well suited to a wide variety of users. Great stuff!

SBranson's picture

I bought this based on this review but it does not drive the new HiFiMan HE560s very well at all.
There's just not enough gain. I have this on max gain setting and the dial at 2 or 3 o'clock and with some quieter recordings I can turn it the volume all the way up and it's still just starting to get loud but not even too loud to listen. I hate the sound of setting an amp on high gain anyway but this is beyond that..
The HE560s are supposed to be easier to drive than the HE-6s and even the HE-500s.

These certainly don't "drive anything".

SBranson's picture

Just to qualify my earlier comment... Not all recordings are that bad. Some work fine but there are several that this will barely render loud enough.

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