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Small print. Reviewer-style. It's a swell time to be a DAC. During the ongoing transition from material to virtual media—hard-disc/cloud stored files versus silver discs—the USB-enabled converter category has gone warp drive. The reason is plain. You need such a DAC to do computer audio properly. Where loudspeakers are grossly bedeviled by nonlinearities and room interactions to exhibit readily describable personalities, nobody can listen to a digital signal prior to conversion. Hence the D in DAC is exclusively designed on the bench. Competently engineered it will exhibit distortion as vanishingly low as its direct competitor. Listening can (but doesn't have to) re-enter the A side of this equation. Daniel Weiss for example signs off on a digital design without listening. But there's more.

Unlike preamps, amps and speakers, this component category deals directly with the recorded signal. This too tends to make for fewer personality traits. Most designers simply agree that voicing doesn't belong here. Nobody can recover what's been lost at the source. There are exceptions of course. Peachtree Audio's defeatable tube exists for the express purpose to make compressed recordings more pleasing. Eastern Electric offers solid-state and tube outputs plus rollable opamps for clear flavoring. That choice also relates to its variable outputs for amp-direct connection. This crosses over into preamp terrain. There voicing traditionally plays a bigger role.

Having reviewed contemporary converters from April Music to Wyred4Sound, Burson to Weiss, Eastern Electric to Resonessence, Antelope Audio to Metrum Acoustics without exceeding the €4.000 barrier, I've arrived at a general observation. Differences are smaller. Better power supplies will telegraph like a more powerful amplifier would. There'll be minor offsets between timing/accuracy and body/warmth/fluidity. There'll be differences in raw detail retrieval. But there won't be pronounced tonal balance shifts or personalities anywhere near as distinctive as loudspeakers.

Now add to this boiler-plate stuff the fact that CEntrance is active in pro audio where accuracy is king. All this aligns expectations. It's been a long time since I reviewed the original Benchmark Media DAC. But my first reaction to the DACmini was déjà-vu. Of course I knew going in about the licensing connection. This could have subconsciously caused this flash. Even so it does properly reflect my very quick assessment that here we have a highly accurate facts-focused machine with a very low noise floor and very high contrast ratio.

To lock in this characterization further I would add the slogan seeing is believing. That's opposed to 'feeling is'. Hifi jargon is filled with visual references relative to soundstaging, imaging, depth of field, performer outlines, localization sharpness and focus. All of these sight-based aspects apply to the DACmini. It's virtual sight to be sure. It substitutes for the obvious fact that hifi subtracts actual visual cues. Open-eyed listening amounts to a massive sensory conflict best called mind fuck. The ears say there are instruments in the room, the eyes say there aren't. Strongly pseudo-visual qualities simply enhance the desired illusion of in-room presences whilst undermining the inherent conflict of the entire setup. That's where the CEntrance scores highly. It's a very visual performer. Its excellent handling of micro detail would seem to put a lie to the notion that isochronous USB protocol is inherently plagued by high jitter. That myth would simply seem convenient for those who make money from licensing asynchronous firmware code.

Now consider the subjective difference between 'there are instruments here' versus 'there are people here playing them'. Hifi jargon is also full of attempts to differentiate between objectified quantifiable attributes—more or less bass, treble, soundstage size or distance—and quite intangible attributes or reasons which might explain why the one presentation is more compelling, believable and goosebumpy than the other. Here writers talk of musical intent and meaning. This points at aspects which humanize the experience from sounds to performers. The goal after all is to have performers making these sounds, in a private concert just for us and in ways which transcend mere sounds/noise into heartfelt music.

In my review of the Eximus DP-1 I said that a friend found the CEntrance very matter of fact. Indeed. And it really should be about the facts and nothing but. With upscale hifi the facts simply often turn out to have multiple layers or hidden meanings which give them greater context and completeness. Take these sentences. Mary walks her dog. Mary walks her nervous dog. Mary walks her nervous dog under an ominous sky. The first sentence has all the facts relevant for a police statement. The last paints a more complete moody picture for a psychologist looking for meaning. Music and mood are inextricably intertwined. The pure music facts are just tones in proper amplitude and time. The mood facts need more subliminal tertiary data.

On feeling is believing the DACmini for this listener thus scored rather lower than the thrice-plus priced DP-1. What exactly makes it so would be of keen interest to any engineer with a measurably 'perfect' piece of kit as I expect the CEntrance is. Here we confront limitations of not just language but understanding which measurements—if indeed we have them at present—correlate with the feeling dimension. Reviewers are nearly forced to get poetic to successfully navigate this aspect of their commentary. Sadly that's just as invariably zero help to those engineers who'd love nothing better than imbue their kit with 'more feeling'.