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a short diary of some part of my life.

Posts tagged CEntrance

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When you buy a car, what are the parts that you will be looking into seriously? One of them is the engine, right?

I don’t get ALO’s latest offering, The Island. Actually, I don’t get ALO’s lineup. They have never really showed anything inside their products. They have never really explained the engineering marvels. They only throw a couple of chips here and there and that’s it. It’s like they are selling audio jewelries.

To be honest, I am never a fan of ALO. Looking back at their history… cables… Let’s just leave it at that. But I don’t hate them. I was ecstatic when they opened their first brick-mortar store in Portland, Oregon. But I guess old habits die hard. They were still at that point selling audio jewelries. Nothing to see in the store. I’d rather visit and support a local hi-fi dealer that I have known well that they only sell high-performance audio equipments.

Recently, they venture into desktop amp/dac and portable amp/dac. The products look pretty decent to me. And I have heard several, they sound pretty decent too but again, nothing that I would consider buying. The Island is just released today, I’m confused. I really like the design. Huge volume knob on top, someone should have done this a long time ago with portable amp/dac. Making a portable amp knob to look like a miniaturized desktop amp knob is just silly. They put USB input and audio output on each opposite end, those moves make sense. The box shape of the enclosure is a big plus too. But there is little else to see before I even consider buying one.

Maybe it’s just me or a few others, but I would want to see what’s inside and why it cost the same as DACport. CEntrance went a great length to make the DACport the way it is. There are the USB handshake thing that requests 9V, driverless proprietary 24/96 USB input, Class A amp, AKM4396 DAC, and capacitor-free headphone out. The Island has no sign of having any of engineering breakthrough. Yes, it offers balanced in/out and hi-res 24/192 USB DAC, but I don’t need balanced in/out as I don’t want to have a balanced headphone and hi-res 24/192 USB DAC is hardly an engineering marvel as there are now several easy-to-get solutions in the market.

This makes me wonder whether I should buy it or not. Maybe I should. I can always tear it down after purchase. But they could have saved all the troubles by explaining a bit more about the thing. What is it that ALO trying to avoid? …

Photo by adiputraryan

Reviews of Sennheiser HD650 have probably been written thousand times. That speaks a lot about its popularity. It’s one of the most well regarded audiophile headphones and it’s been around since many years ago in the form of HD580. Since the introduction of planar phones, its popularity as one of the best performing is waning. But I feel like it’s not waning at all in term of overall sound quality.

This headphone was my first audiophile headphone and is certainly one of my long time favorites along with my Grado RS1i. They complement each other. Even if compared with the HD800, I still choose HD650. Why?

  • HD800 is astronomically expensive, considering very little performance gains you are getting with HD800.
  • HD800 is not a comfortable-sounding headphone. I prefer listening to RS1i. A lot of people consider Grado uncomfortable but the HD800 is more uncomfortable. I feel more comfortable listening to HD650 for hours.

I don’t know what Sennheiser is thinking about pricing the HD800 that high. Maybe that has something to do with it being assembled in Germany where labors are more expensive than in Ireland where HD650 is made.

Comfort-wise, HD800 is more comfortable than HD650 but it’s not a huge improvement. The look itself will attract people asking about it, especially spouses who will definitely ask what kind of headphone that is. Build quality-wise, HD800 is entirely made of plastic. It feels cheap for a very expensive dynamic headphone.

Since my exposure to speakers, I have significantly reduced my investment in headphone. I don’t feel the need of having a balanced headphone setup or a very high performance headphone setup. The fund for those setups will likely eat my budget for my speakers. It’s not going to be fun as well as I won’t be able to share headphone with my wife. So the priority is to get the best sounding speakers setup. Headphone is not going away, but the priority needs to be set right. I want a headphone that sounds like speakers. I want a headphone amp that is reasonably priced, made in the USA, and high performance. I got the amp and I have reviewed it.

HD650 is the only headphone that I find sound like speakers. It does not have all the speakers superiorities over headphone. What it has, is the the trait of imaging of speakers. No headphone does it as well as HD650. I understand now why people who owned HD800, go back to HD650.

The sound is also surprisingly well balanced for a headphone. It has a few weaknesses but the imaging alone worth considering over other headphones. Since I’m concentrating my budget more on speakers and less on headphone, I consider the price to be also one of the most crucial factors. At US$500, it’s almost a no brainer. You will be hard pressed or in fact next to impossible to find similar headphones at this price. A headphone setup does not have to be super expensive to be enjoyable.

Office Headphone Setup

CEntrance is one of the few companies who offers driverless USB audio. They are not some companies who commission someone to make a product for them and label it as their own or a company who sells mostly overly hyped products that do not perform anywhere close to the high price tag, typically found on boutique brands. They are a design-engineering-driven company.

USB DAC

A lot of geekery trends were made mainstream by geeks and nerds. Geeks tend to be curious at new techs. Some of the techs are not necessarily ready for consumers but they still buy them. Thankfully, early adopters are now becoming public-beta-testers for those techs. A lot of bugs will be fixed, revised or even redesigned by the time the tech reaches mass-market.

In the early days of USB DAC, everybody did not seem to mind installing, maintaining, and updating drivers. Now, we want driverless solution. USB DAC solutions have matured to the point where we no longer have to tinker to use them. It’s now plug and play (on Macs).

DACport

Ever since I saw DACport for the first time, shortly after it is announced, I immediately felt this is the gear that I should try (partly because CEntrance is the maker). Normally, I don’t buy the first runs, I want to buy a gear that has been publicly tested. So, I purchased it. Long story short, it performs like a champ since day one. It’s been what? 3 years since its introduction and I hardly found anyone having problem with it.

Design Philosophy

Unlike many audio gear makers, CEntrance tries to keep much of the heavy-lifting to the gears they are making. Things like clean power, the need of isolated ground, ’boutique cables’, superb S/PDIF signal are not issues users must provide. They are actually helping us not worrying about those things and let us enjoy what really matters, which is good music, really. They are also not some random companies (some of them are quite famous) who sell half-baked gears.

As NwAvGuy wrote:
I completely agree some products are hastily thrown together using trendy components, made to look high-end, and rushed to market in search of quick profits. Other companies, like Centrance, take a much more holistic approach and put genuine high-end performance ahead of aesthetics and time-to-market. The quality of such products is more than skin deep and they pay a lot more attention to getting the normally hidden details correct.

Sound Quality

As what I have written about NuForce uDAC-2, the DACport is the better product. But not by a wide margin. It’s definitely better in every area. Compared to the uDAC-2, I can immediately hear a sense of speed, space, precision, and airiness. You don’t feel constrained with little guy. I’m accustomed to great bass slams (quality, not quantity), DACport will give you that.

It’s a refinement of what the uDAC-2 should have been. I think it’s either Nuforce got lucky or improvements in audio is really that small. Either way, this is the benchmark of a USB powered USB-DAC. This will be a classic or it already is.

Compared to a desktop amp, say a Schiit Lyr (w/ stock tubes), DACport excels in a few areas like speed and airiness. When I’m out of the house, without my desktop amp, I don’t feel I need of anything more than the DACport. It doesn’t make me miss my Lyr. I’m perfectly fine without the Schiit amp. It is that good. And when I use it as a DAC, it performs even better. A friend of mine who also owns a DACport run it as a DAC for his speaker setup claimed that he couldn’t differentiate his desktop DAC and his DACport. Too good? Maybe. But I have heard quite a few people whose experiences match my friend’s findings.

For IEM, the gain is too high for my taste. I like to listen in low volume range and it barely allows me to do that. Fortunately, unlike many portable DAC/amp, this one does not suffer from channel imbalance. There is zero detectable hiss at high volume range. I would like to have a bit more wiggle room to fine tune the volume for IEM. That’s the only con that I can think of.

For full size headphone, like my Grado RS1i, it’s a great match. Grado is notoriously known for its ‘smallish’ soundstage. Well, DACport fixes that. It doesn’t sound like many artificial soundstage inferior amps produce. Its sound placement and precision are just right where I want them to be. All the great traits about Grado house sound are retained and refined. Bass is deep and articulate. Micro-details are presented in a manner that does not pierce my ears.

I think this is the best portable DAC/amp in the market.

Build Quality

I consider my HeadAmp Pico to be the best in class in term of build quality in portable amp/dac world. That remains true with the intro of DACport. There are slight misalignments here and there on the DACport but nothing worries me. The finish is also better on the Pico. But Pico is the best, to be fair without a comparison with Pico, DACport is still miles better than the rest of the competitors. Have you ever seen any iBasso amps? If you haven’t seen one, if DACport gets 10-point, iBasso gets 6-point. Don’t even think about looking inside, iBasso gets an even lower score. Pico and DACport are engineering marvel. Look now, my uDAC-2 is already dead and it’s only been 3 years. I expect DACport to last for a long time, maybe not as long as my home gears due to the stress it often gets from frequent travels.

The Highest Recommendation

This is it, look no further. You don’t need to follow the trend. New products will keep coming but DACport will still be one of the best. There are not many companies out there who have the resource and expertise to compete directly with CEntrance. This is purely them outmuscling the competitors. They set a benchmark of what a portable amp/DAC should be.

Why?

Like everything else, a journey may end at some point. I just didn’t expect this would end so soon. I was an advocate Head-Fi reader – not a frequent poster. I have gradually but surely, walking away from Head-Fi. It has become a place where I buy and sell my headphone gear. There are only very few respected Head-Fi members whose comments/replies are worth reading. To make it even worse, most if not all of them are Head-Case members (they provides better users’ impressions due to their vast knowledge about audio electronics in general and anti-hype approach). Head-Fi user interface has also become dreadful (did I mention that Head-Case interface is MUCH better than Head-Fi’s?). A prominent Head-Fi member have summed up the problems, he too decided to leave.

Head-Fi’s Major Issues

There are many other major (disturbing) issues that prompted me to say good-bye. Issues like their over-protective approach over their site sponsors, post deleted without any notice (I have seen this myself, several times. I refreshed the page after 5 minutes and some posts were gone), users’ idiocies (of defending their purchases, users’ incompetencies… make the forum very uninformative, unfriendly, and useless. There is another issue (another issue and another issue?) about sponsors trying to make easy money. Head-Fi is going to be a much worse place for those who cheer good sound if the admins decide not to do anything about those issues. Many have left, many have not posted useful posts for some time.

Head-Fi DGAF about Regular Folks

Even after issues after issues are exposed, Head-Fi still do not give a crap about us regular folks who spend countless hours on honest jobs. If I were to run a forum, read by millions of unique visitors per month like Head-Fi, I would make sure that the vendors are always kept in check, especially after vendors are caught lying or making very questionable products at extraorbitant price. They could have made the forum much safer for users with a bit more effort but they don’t.

It’s not fair to leave without saying anything, so here is a few bits of my story:
During my time searching for the right headphone, amps, and sources, I have learnt a lot. This headphone journey led me to speakers system which I think sounds superior to any headphone systems on the planet. I’m grateful for my experiences on Head-Fi. Without it, I would not know how to start looking for the right system. For those who have the funds, the space, and the time to set up a speaker system, but you are still using headphones, I urge you to try a good speaker system. It will blow you away!

I figured, it will be fair to list what headphones and amps that I have owned and tried. So, you’ll know how far I have gone. Here are the lists:

Headphones:

  • JH Audio JH16 Pro
  • Sennheiser HD650
  • Sennheiser HD800
  • Grado RS2i
  • Grado HF2
  • Audeze LCD-2 Rev.1
  • Beyerdynamic T1
  • HiFiMan HE-5
  • HiFiMan HE-6
  • Shure SE535
  • Grado HP2
  • Sennheiser HD600

Amps:

I think I have had a few more amps but I can’t remember the names.

Which headphone and headphone amp are the best and the worst?

From the owned lists above, I consider Audeze’s LCD-2 and AMB B22 as the best headphone and the best amp. The worst are Sennheiser HD800 and Audio-gd Phoenix. Although I did not own them all at the same time, I can definately tell you that HD800 and Phoenix are my least favorite headphone and headphone amp.

I dislike HD800 due to its’ artificial-like sound signature. Anything that comes out from HD800 do not sound right to me. Audio-gd Phoenix sounds too smooth, is not as transparent as other top-tier amps, and has its’ own sound signature. My only requirement for a good amp is complete transparency. Its’ sound signature masks almost everything and changes my source’s sound signature. A reference amp must be transparent to the source, otherwise, you are better off settled with a tube amp like I once did with a Woo Audio 6 SE. AMB B22 and HeadAmp GS-X are much better amps than Audio-gd Phoenix, they are much more dynamic and transparent. I can easily do DBT on what source is used with AMB B22 and HeadAmp GS-X but with Audio-gd Phoenix, the differences between sources are very subtle. Even with ACSS, the Phoenix sounds soft and dull compared to AMB B22. I’m beginning to think, Audio-gd is not good at designing headphone amps. I have also briefly auditioned their Compass and C-2C and found them to be mediocre at best. A small headphone amp like AMB M^3 and HeadAmp Gilmore Lite are also much better alternatives than the big honking space heater Phoenix. Audez’e LCD-2 should pair well with any top tier amps like the GS-X. It is a very transparent headphone, I think it’s a better headphone than HiFiMan HE-6 which is quite piecing on the ears. I sold the LCD-2 because I simply wanted a retro headphone and I was also disappointed with LCD-2 build quality. It’s gone now and I don’t miss it at all.

Portable Amp (w/ DAC)

There are a few things that I want to talk about portable amps. If you really need portability and you are using a notebook computer, look no further, get a CEntrance DACport. It has a superb DAC and a superb Class A amp for its size. Don’t bother buying portable DAC/amp from various unproven manufacturers, they are all inferior. Most general DAC/amp combo use battery and they need to be recharged. This is not the case with DACport, DACport only needs a USB cable to connect it to your laptop or your iPad because it does not have a battery. It draws its power from your computer’s USB port. You don’t even need to install any driver. It’s that easy. Oh yes, you can use a DACport with an iPad. If you are using a portable music player, don’t bother buying a portable amp. It adds bulk and weight. You may also end up spending too much money on LODs, interconnects… Look at this set-up: Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo. Honestly, I think it looks rather stupid. If I have to use a portable music player like an iPod, I greatly prefer to use my old trusty iPod Mini (that’s right, iPod Mini) without an external amp or DAC. Sometimes, audiophiles may turn into audiphools. They are willing to sacrifice everything for one thing called sound quality. I bet CEntrance DACport offers much better SQ than that bulky set. That bulky set is NOT a portable setup. Instead of wasting your hard-earned money for silly things like LODs for an external amp or DAC, get yourself a nice pair of headphone. You will be much more satisfied in the long run.

Do I keep any headphone and headphone amp?

Now, I’m settled with Schiit Asgard (3/16 /11 – oops, got a Lyr now, purely for the tubes) and Grado RS1i. I consider both of them to be the best in their price ranges. Surprisingly, I find Asgard superior to Audio-gd Phoenix (yep, a $250 made in USA amp Vs. $1200 made in China amp). Grado RS1i is a very fun pair of headphone. It excels with rocks. Guitar strings sound superb. It’s just magical with rock genre. The RS1i fits better on my head, LCD-2? not as good and very heavy. You may question why I decided to scale back a bit. Well, the reasons are:

  1. I no longer listen to headphone that much. I listen to headphone ± 1 hour a day.
  2. I don’t feel comfortable wearing headphone for hours.
  3. My fear of hearing impaired.
  4. Speakers are superior in every way. Headphone cannot resolve the same level of resolution and imaging as a good pair of speakers.
  5. I could have splashed a chunk more for a GS-1 which had always been my number one preference for a single ended solid state amp. It’s been well known that GS-1 and GS-X are the most transparent headphone amps in the market. My reason is simple, sometimes, good enough is good enough. Asgard Lyr is good enough. 😀

Now, I’m obviously a headphone lover, but the truth is, as much as I love headphones, they will always be secondary to speakers in my life, because speakers are just that much more dimensional, natural, and convenient to listen to; there’s nothing on your noggin that could fall off, or prevent you from hearing important audio cues like phones, doorbell, neighbor screaming for help, and it’s much easier to share music with others.

Schiit Asgard Lyr and Grado RS1i are my last headphone system. I will likely not going to add a headphone, unless it is broken. That Schiit amp will likely outlast me, so there you go, a long-lasting headphones system. And this is where I stopped: A Happy Ending (Hi-Fi) ~ [I also explained a bit about how you should spend your money, where to spend it on, and various issues about audiophile in general]

Head-Fi users’ impressions and reviews…
I think it will be wise for those of you who are reading reviews to make sure that the reviewer has considerable knowledge about various amps in the market. A review like this is pointless IMHO… The reviewer did not compare his gear with top-tier amps and DACs or even worse, the reviewer has little to no experience with top-tier amps and DACs. I imagine the reviewer will be completely floored with an AMB M^3 or a HeadAmp Gilmore Lite .

From those many reasons above: Head-Fi is no longer a useful place and headphones are inferior to speakers, I decided to leave Head-Fi world. It’s been a fun experience. Thank you Head-Fi!

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Update (3/19/2011): ~ read links on the top of this page: https://ravenda.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/nuforce-udac2/
Looks like Head-Fi has become extremely hostile towards NwAvguy, links to his blog have been deleted. Let’s wait and see what will be deleted next… This is not the first time I have seen this happened on Head-Fi. I just didn’t expect them to be super protective of their sponsors. I have all the print screens and PDFs of the deleted posts if anyone wants to read them. No wonder there are more and more bad guys roaming free on Head-Fi. 😦 I guess, a farewell to Head-Fi is a good thing after all…