Centrance has a fairly deep relationship with the audiophile community. Pushing back even just a few quick years reveals an interesting selection of DACs and headphone-centric options including early market items like the DACmini. The company initially assumed a compact desktop design for some of their products, but in recent years has really made strides into truly portable options. The Centrance Hifi-M8 ($699) reaches deep into the head-fi community and emerges with a strong showing of audiophile-conscious elements and versatility.
First and foremost the Hifi M8 has connections, lots of connections. A quick visit to the company site shows you that nearly any headphone jack you desire is available for purchase within the different device configurations. The review unit we received was the standard XL4 package which includes a single-ended combo SPDIF/SE 1/8” headphone, ¼” SE headphone and a 4-pin full size balanced XLR which complements the Audeze LCD-3 standard cable very well. Whatever your weapon of choice, the M8 can accommodate. In the end this can very much be admired as a substantial value proposition as adapters and cables within the field tend to be quite a substantial cost, ranging from $50 to more than $400+ for custom solutions. The value allure is all there. No additional connections or adapters in the signal path to connect to, just a straight input to match with your favorite pair of headphones and you are ready to roll. The comparative overall size of the device to others portables currently on the market is a bit larger, but those more compact amplifiers cannot directly accommodate a full size XLR plug. The curved design of the sides is surprisingly useful, providing both a protective ridge to lay the device on as well as a small pocket in which to lay your phone or iPod (R.I.P.). The durability of the casing feels substantially adequate for a night out on the town or a quick trip to the coffee shop down the road.
Unlike many of the current portable prospects on the market, the M8 offers a fairly wide selection of adjustment switches on the back panel that include bass, treble, gain and even impedance. The bass boost manages to avoid the pitfalls of many that have come before it. It provides a substation increase in the lower regions without sounding overtly overpowering, but I found playback on the lowest setting to be my preference. The same held true for the treble. The augmentation offered a nice influx of high end presence, but the lowest setting felt the most true to my ears. A few booth-side show chats with Cetrance’s Michael Goodman revealed some of the thought behind all the inclusion. The adjustments are by no means a requirement for a traditional audiophile experiment, but rather a “nice-to-have” feature set that can have wider appeal to the head fi masses. While the gain switch is nearly mandatory by todays standard the impedance adjustment is far more rare. In my travels to audio shows I have even engaged in conversations with a manufacture (that was new to the personal audio space from the analog loudspeaker market) that implied that the impedance adjustment was enough to act as the separate gain levels for varying headphones. While it is true that there is a small bump in the output between the different impedance levels on the HiFi-M8, I think Michael’s implementation here is much better route to go. The gain is well executed and appropriate for a wide variety of headphones including planer magnetic and dynamic driver technologies alike.
The sound of the Centrance HiFi-M8 can really be summed up at the intersection of two pretty fantastic attributes. On one hand you have a fidelity that is up to par with the competition in its price range, if not outpacing the center of the pack. On the other you have a pleasing, full tonal texture – which is not necessarily a given, even at price points higher than this. The center of that Venn diagram offers up quite the tasty treat. Soundstaging and imaging stood out with test tracks ranging from Radiohead to classic audiophile demos like Norah Jones or the Eagles. Doug Mcloud’s vocals on Lost like the Wind at Night presented itself as both warm and welcoming. The well-placed vocals on the track were both dimensional and sonically robust. Switching gears to Van Morrison, his incoherent ramblings throughout his free-floating jam sessions on Astral Weeks really showcased a sense of life and freedom that is best amplified between the multiplication of a focused sonic field and agreeable tonal canvas. The former being of the utmost importance for course correcting the drawbacks of the headphone listening and the latter for elevated acoustic entertainment.
The standard frequency layout from bass to treble was sound. No irregularity plagued the little box throughout the DAC to amp, a welcome and expected outcome but also not always a standard for personal audio products. Those in the purist crowd will be happy to know that the lowest settings for each of the frequency adjustors did seems to land in a finely tuned target of perceived flatness. Even more important to the final output sum, the extra toggles in the signal path seemed to have little to no impact on the overall fidelity of the device.
Michael Goodman and the Centrance team really reached out to the Head-Fi community for feedback on this project, including both responses on the website and incorporating a progress blog on the device as it was being developed. The end result with that much input could have gone either way. The good news is that the device emerged from the experience with both a robust feature set and a fidelity that should appeal immensely to its audience. The Centrance HiFi-M8 is one of the best sounding Centrance products to date. Michael must be keen to this as he has quickly followed up the device with another, more compact product called the Mini-M8 which is currently up on the site for pre-order ($699). Overall the Hifi-M8 is a well-executed product that holds it own against the growing competition in the burgeoning portables sector. Its diverse pairing, inputs and outputs make it fine fit for almost every headphone on the market.
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00GRZAWQE/