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Remembering another obvious but still vital small-print item—that of ancillary context and personal taste and how these complex factors influence all hifi reviews—let's move to the bigger picture of competitors. On resolution and lucidness the small CEntrance performs in a higher league than either Burson HA-160D or DA-160. On those counts it's actually quite similar to the Weiss DAC2. This is where that $795 sticker rears its bullish but very pretty head. If magnification power of very tiny stuff is a function of low distortion, low noise and 'fast' wide bandwidth circuitry, this DACmini is surprisingly advanced. It fires up lights at the rear of the soundstage to illuminate it from behind for great visibility and clarity whilst nearly backlighting the actors for strong front-to-back contrast. Depth of field and layering are very developed. The Zodiac Gold goes farther still but these become very shrunken gains.

Burson's voicing is clearly warmer, denser and bloomier. It's fuzzier or less distinct around the edges both as transients and as performer outlines. On the flip side the bass-anchored treble-soft Aussie presentation majors on robustness and physicality like a more affordable valve amp. The CEntrance keys in on space and the spatial relations that occur between and behind the speakers' projections. Because it's more lit up and detail-centric, the DACmini struck me as cooler and more factual. Whether the intangibles discussed earlier were beyond its price or simply not the focus of the design team is immaterial. That said I suspect that the engineering approach tackled the project primarily from the measurement rather than listening end.

With a small valve amp of Trafomatic Audio €2.200 Aries caliber—single-ended EL34—I'd reach for the CEntrance over the Burson twins any day of the week. The Serbian integrated's handling of body, fluidity and inherent attractive softness is complemented better by the DACmini's virtues than for example the hyper-fast FirstWatt S2 SETransistor amp. That Nelson Pass effort with the exclusive output devices would make for a more like+like proposition. Throw the equivalent Voxativ Ampeggio speaker into that mix and some could wish to hit the brakes a bit whilst turning the steering wheel in a slightly different direction.

With ModWright LS-100 valve preamp, FirstWatt S2 prototype, Aries Cerat Gladius speakers, all Zu Event wiring loom

A very good and recently reviewed DAC still on hand was Cees Ruijtenberg's Dutch Octave. Without USB port that needs something like April Music's Stello U3 interface. I also had in-house Xuanqian and Yuan Wang's AURALiC ARC MX+ from Hong Kong. That runs on 4399 Asahi Kasei silicon for some overlap with the CEntrance. The steeper $1.995 sticker buys clearly stronger incarnation factor of bass-grounded heft and concomitant color saturation. The DACmini's fighting weight was lower. Yet much of the general gestalt tracked to invite calling the CEntrance an ARC MX+ lite of sorts.

Left to right, top to bottom: Metrum Acoustics NOS Mini DAC Octave,
CEntrance DACmini, April Music Stello U3, AURALiC ARC MX+

The Octave overshadowed the DACmini on the same attributes. Its color temperatures were higher too. This shifted the subjective milieu to sunnier richer and more multi-hued turf. Though extricating raw resolution from the overall musical package would seem more fit for a machine than subjective listener, I could not earnestly say that the CEntrance resolved less per se. It thus did not sound like stepping down in a speaker maker's catalogue to a range that makes do with cheaper drive units. It sounded far more akin to a less potent amplifier with a smaller power supply and less grip over the speakers. The sense of inside-out pressurization filling out the skin like a body pumped up after a workout was lower.

If to digital we arbitrarily assign the ability to extract all the recorded information, it would give analog the job of rendering this extraction believably embodied and fleshy. We now retrieve an earlier statement. This DAC's digital circuitry is surprisingly advanced. Where its low-ish price reflects more proportionally is what this division of labor calls the analog half. Though purely a conversation ploy, it's still a useful ploy. Using it we can see that Burson's design team approached the project from the other end. While they clearly leave micro detail and insight under the table—one has to go no further than the CEntrance for proof—they serve up the meat and potatoes. The basic question thus becomes, what does one want first if money is limited: resolution or gravitas?

Playing in the sub €4k terrain of this component category, I'm quite comfortable suggesting that on raw resolution the DACmini pretty much lays out the full spread. More money in this range mostly buys more substance, intensity and robustness. Systems that are tuned for curves and comfort rather than speed could well find that a DAC as modestly priced as this one can already cross off the essentials. It's owners of inherently lean lit-up systems that could prefer more meat like Burson whilst knowingly trading down on spaciousness and sheer information (or spending more). Headfiers would find that HifiMan's HE-500, Sennheiser's HD800, AKG's K-702 and Audez'e LCD-2 will all sit between 12:30 and 2:00 on the dial. There's plenty of drive and gain on hand—more in fact than in big-rig mode—which combines with lucidity that with headphones seems nearly more developed yet. Put differently, if Michael Goodman followed Igor Levin's lead who authored the optional Voltikus power supply to upgrade his external SMPS across the Zodiac range, I'm certain the li'l DACmini would turn into a mature maxi also on grunt and solidity.

Let's keep it real though. With 4 inputs, headphone socket with analog volume and one analog input, CEntrance's pricing is ultra competitive against other newcomers. While I did prefer the €699 Metrum Octave, one must add $495/579 for a Stello U3/Audiophilleo 2 + $123 for a Black Cat Veloce S/PDIF cable or equivalent to even do USB. And that still wouldn't accommodate headphones or an analog source. In fact the DACmini plus $99 Pure I-20 digital-direct iPod dock plus Veloce makes for a very fine headfi system if—as one should—the necessary iSource is already owned. No matter how I slice it, this DAC has high value written all over it. I call that realsization. It's downsizing expense and box count to do more with less whilst getting very high return on performance. It's a good thing we have just the right award for that.

CEntrance website