CEntrance Audiophile Desktop System
Input: USB (24/96), Coax & Toslink S/PDIF (24/192), (1) pair analog RCAs
Output: (1) pair fixed RCA line level outputs*, (2) pair speaker output, headphone out
Dimensions (W x D x H): DACmini - 164 mm x 164 mm x 42 mm, MasterClass™ 2504 speakers - L: 207cm; W: 145mm; H: 230mm, each speaker
Weight: DACmini PX - 1.7 kg, MasterClass™ 2504 speakers - 2.48kg/each
* Note: CEntrance offers a number of modifications to the DACmini PX including changing the fixed output RCAs to variable output. See the complete list of mods here.
Smoke and a pancake? Flapjack and a cigarette? No? Cigar and a waffle? No? Pipe and a crepe? Bong and a blintz? No? Amp and a DAC? The CEntrance Audiophile Desktop System combines the CEntrance DACmini™ PX DAC/Amplifier ($1,475) with their MasterClass 2504 speakers ($700) and throws in a USB cable, speaker cables and perhaps most surprising and unusual of all, a Pelican 1550 Carry Case with component-hugging padded inserts to keep your Audiophile Desktop put while in transit. This attention to practical portability kinda begs you to take the Audiophile Desktop on the road.
Let's take a look at the DACmini™ PX DAC/Amplifier first. The DAC-portion has three inputs; a pair of S/PDIF (Coax and Toslink) and a single USB. The former can handle up to 24/192 while the USB maxes out at 24/96. This USB limit makes it a plug & play device even for Windows, no drivers needed (although CEntrance recommends loading their custom Asio drivers to avoid Windows messing with your music [footnote 1]). The USB circuit is of the adaptive-mode variety and while some theorists may gasp at thoughts of jitter, CEntrance feels the actual sum of parts and implementation mean more than USB mode (my language but I think their message). The DACmini incorporates what CEntrance calls JitterGuard Technology, "a proprietary two-stage clock management system that cleans up the digital audio signals so that they are virtually jitter-free at the D/A conversion point".
The Class D amplifier puts out 25W/ch and the Class A headphone amp puts out 1.5W with an output impedance of 10 Ohms. The audio signal path and main PCB employ galvanic isolation to keep computer noise out of the audio signal. All of this is wrapped up in a stealthy black aluminum enclosure that feels solid and well made. When I initially unpacked and set up the Audiophile Desktop, a process that took all of a few minutes, I thought, "hmm this amp is going to slide all over the place. They should have included little rubber feet" (LRF Support as we called it back in the day). When I opened the package containing the manual, the LRF fell out. Nice.
The aluminum volume knob is also nice and solid feeling with a pleasant amount of resistance and the only thing I'd ask for is a little white dot so I could more easily see where I was on the dial. I suppose I could look closer to find the subtle indented dot or just listen but I tend to find a volume level that works so an easy-to-spot spot allows for a quick set. Minor quibbling, I know. The source selection switch is also controlled with an aluminum knob and the associated source has an LED that lights up to let you know where you are. Although not indicated, if your click that knob to the right of "USB" it shuts the DACmini off. The 1/4" headphone jack is all business and doesn't need to tell you anything other than empty or full.
The MasterClass 2504 speakers employ coax drivers meaning the tweeter sits smack dab in the middle of the woofer. While this is nothing new, as a matter of fact its old school technology in hi-fi years, the benefits of a single point source in a near-field monitor certainly makes sense in theory. How better to integrate two drivers than to physically integrate them? The 2504s employ a front reflex port which also strikes me as a wise approach for a desktop-bound speaker since there's a good chance they'll be backed up fairly close to a wall. Around back each speaker gets pair of binding posts where you screw down the included speaker wire. Frequency response is a claimed 50Hz...20kHz +/-1dB.
The DACmini™ PX DAC/Amplifier and MasterClass 2504 speakers come in your choice of black and the Pellican 1550 carry case fits everything snugly inside its black waterproof shell. By offering a complete system, CEntrance is saving you the trouble of system-matching. By offering USB and S/PDIF inputs and not offering a mini jack input, CEntrance is saving you from your computer's internal noise and less than stellar DAC. I get the feeling that CEntrance tries to think of everything so you don't have to and I'd have to say that as a package the Audiophile Desktop sure makes a lot of sense.
[Note: CEntrance is coming out with CEntrance-branded & designed speaker cables that will be included with The Audiophile Desktop System and I should be receiving them within a week or so. I will provide a brief follow-up sometime after they arrive]
When a manufacturer offers a complete system they are also offering a voice. You get their idea of what the music coming out of the speakers should sound like to a large degree since they've handed you each piece of the Hi-Fi puzzle. Of course with computer-based audio there are loads of other variables, enough to keep the rabid tweaker content for a lifetime. But the other nice thing about computer-based audio is it can also be as simple as you'd like. I mainly used the Audiophile Desktop with my iMac running the Audirvana free player. This is my standard desktop setup since this stuff sits on my desktop.
The first thing I recall thinking when I played music through the Audiophile Desktop System (ADS) was—night and day (day and night). No, I wasn't listening to Cole Porter I was reacting to the difference in presentation between the ADS system and the Paradigm A2s that just vacated this real estate. Where the A2s are mainly interested in hard-edged slam and precision micro-stuff, the Audiophile Desktop appears to prefer sitting in the fatter part of the groove. I'd imagine some might describe these differences as light (A2) and dark (ADS) but that seems to involve a value judgement and I'm of the opinion that some people will prefer one over the other.
As with the A2s and every other desktop speaker, I preferred the 2504s up off the desktop and pointed pretty much directly at me so's I couldn't see much of their inner sides. Because of their front port I was able to sit them way back on my desk about 40"s from my ears where I thought they sounded best. I also feel the MasterClass 2504 speakers sound their best when jacked up to what for me is louder than low level listening. The full integration of coaxially-mounted tweeter, woofer and reflex port seem to come together beginning some time after 11:00 on the volume dial in my space and for my taste.
I mention this for those people looking for a low-level desktop setup in which case I'm not so sure I'd send you to the Audiophile Desktop. Of course things like comfortable volume levels are listener-dependent so if you're younger than I am, and somehow the number of people who fall into this category seems to increase each year, and/or enjoy your music louder than I do you can disregard this paragraph.
Just for fun I popped the MasterClass 2504 speakers into my main system (please don't call it the "big rig" unless you yourself are a little tike) and played some tunes with the Leben CS-300SX integrated amp handling driving duties. And in this quickie setup with the 2504s sitting on top of my DeVore The Nines they did a respectable job up to the point where their size (or lack thereof) mattered (sorry). But perhaps of greater interest is their overall character remained—namely that tilt toward the less lit, meatier middle presentation. I would not say that the MasterClass 2504 speakers sparkle with shimmery highs (both because they don't and for other more personal reasons).
I also connected up the Audiophile Desktop System and put it on my equipment rack where it had much more room to breath and everything improved, most notably bass response evened out. My desk partly sits in a small space where the walls are roughly 6' apart on one side while the other side is open to the larger room. The 2504's could overload this small space which helps explain why volume levels were fairly finicky (the more bass-heavy the music, the more finicky). Put them in a larger and more typically-sized space and these problems go away.
Back to the Audiophile Desktop on my desktop, I also listened to the DACmini™ PX's headphone amp using my trusty Audio-Technica ATH-W1000s and here I realized that little Mac mini-sized DACmini was damn-near surgical in its precision. Upper frequencies sparkled, and where called for had that hard-edged snap and sheen I missed when using the entire Audiophile Desktop System. I also realized that using the headphone amp auto-mutes the speaker output which was no surprise and makes perfect sense. Overall I'd rate the headphone output of the Audiophile Desktop as being highly enjoyable.
I know what some of you are thinking. I'll never use that waterproof Pelican 1550 Carry Case so why should I pay for it? You could buy the DACmini™ PX DAC/Amplifier and MasterClass 2504 speakers individually, which will cost you $125 more than the Audiophile Desktop but then you won't have to feel as if you paid for something you weren't going to use. You even get to buy your own cables!
The Audiophile Traveler
In case you're curious, I mostly enjoyed the Audiophile Desktop System especially when given room to strut their stuff. While on my desktop it took some fidgeting with placement (front/back, up/down) and volume level to feel as if I came to roost in their sweet spot. I also appreciate the packaged approach and feel that CEntrance is offering an appealing bundle with the important stipulation that you are being handed a system that largely comes with its own voice. Whether or not this voice will speak to your inner Audiophile or music lover is up to your ears.
What I can say is this voice strikes me as leaning toward a heavy, weighty, and richer sound as opposed to the nimble, highly resolute and quick. I don't think anyone would call the Audiophile Desktop lit up, etched or overly hyped. If you like music that has a groove, and you enjoy being in it, and taking it on the road no matter the weather, CEntrance may have a package deal for your inner traveler.
Footnote 1: I received this followup from CEntrance and thought it worth including:
It's well-known that Windows is not designed as a multimedia OS --it excels at office tasks but doesn't deal well with audiophile sound quality. In fact, Windows is known to change the format of digital data on a whim to fit soundcard requirements. The only way to ensure true, bit-for-bit playback in Windows is by not using its built-in audio subsystem and bypassing it altogether. The Pro audio industry has come up with the ASIO protocol years ago, which requires a custom driver to go around the audio processing occurring within the Windows kernel. CEntrance has a lot of experience in developing Windows and Mac drivers. CEntrance offers a custom ASIO driver that if installed and used with an ASIO-compatible playback application will ensure that no digital >>> distortion will be introduced by Windows during playback. This driver is not absolutely necessary for correct operation of the DACmini PX. In fact, DACmini was designed to work with any drivers, including the Windows built-in drivers. Only those seeking absolute audio purity may need to go the ASIO route. For everyone else, the quality of D/A conversion inside DACmini will represent the single largest factor in improving the sound quality of computer playback. ASIO is simply the icing on the cake.
Also on hand and in use during the Audiophile Desktop review: Paradigm Shift A2, Audioengine 5+, Audioengine 2s