Centrance are a company whose origins are more pro audio scene with producing gear to DACs in their line up. As they have evolved their products really started to pride themselves in what they had to offer for headphones and that has clearly developed to where they are today. Right from the beginning the Centrance HiFi M8 had the makings of being something legendary. It was a product they had clear intentions with, they got the community involved and used their ideas and they even throw in bundles of options to make it more relevant to each individual user, which I thought was really cool. If I am honest it is a unit like no other, it has similar features to some others but on top of that it has a lot more, and functionality is also dependent on what version you get. To be simple it is a portable DAC and headphone amplifier but in reality it is a whole lot more. The price in the UK is set at £600.
It makes sense to clarify exactly what it is right off the bat. In total there are 8 versions, or two models which each have the same 4 options. The two models are the standard HiFi-M8 and the HiFi-M8 LX version, with the differences coming in the form of digital inputs. Both the HiFi-M8s only have digital inputs and they share a USB input that can be used with your computer or Android phone, but they differ in the second option they have. The standard M8 has an input for use with an iDevice, pretty much all of them be it, iPhone, iPod Classic or iPad. If you’re a user of one of these devices then it’s great but if you use something else for audio like I do, that’s when the LX comes in handy, as it swaps the iDevice input for an Optical input. The optical input is actually very handy on a portable unit with the awesome Astell & Kern units featuring an optical output making them a very useful transport with a lot of memory. So what else can you customize? Well that’s when we move onto the output options. I like the 4 options because it just allows for you to pick the one that is best-suited for your planned uses of it and the most compatible with what aftermarket cables you may already own. The first option is the XL4 and this gives you a total of 3 outputs, 1 balanced and 2 single ended. The first output is a 3.5mm combo jack that is both for headphones and works as an optical output, you then have a normal and robust ¼ inch jack and finally a balanced 4 pin XLR jack. The next option, RSA, keeps the same first two outputs but changes the balanced connector from the bulky 4 pin XLR to a Kobiconn jack, which is much smaller and used in ALO and Ray Samuels Audio portable amps, this is where I would put my money as it is more practical for on the go. You then have CMB, which is an option I think that is more practical if you plan on using this as a stationary only device. It gets rid of the 3.5mm combo jack and instead you have dual 3 pin XLR combo jacks, which can obviously be used balanced or as two ¼ inch single ended outputs. All three of these are really cool and it allows you to get the outputs you want from your headphone amp, which is so handy as so often I find myself wishing that my amp used a different type of output and I didn’t have to have loads of different cables made for different gear, if only everyone offered this customization. The last option is not so much for headphone users because it swaps all headphone outputs for a pair of balanced 3 pin XLR line level outputs, to use it as a pre-amp/DAC only. So this is all awesome, you can have it configured completely to your needs but the cool stuff going on doesn’t stop there because round the back of the device you have some sound tuning options, 4 to be precise. The first two are EQs, one for the treble and one for the bass and they have 3 steps, off, + and ++. The boosts are quite subtle and they just allow you to have a little more say in the sound you’re getting. The ++ bass setting is not turning an anemic sounding headphone bassy in the same way the treble settings are not making a dark earphone bright but they can just help balance things out a little and it’s fun to try the different combinations. You then have a switch to change the output impedance, allowing you to choose between, 1, 2 and 11 ohms. While with your lower impedance stuff and multi armature earphones you’re not going to want more than an ohm to keep dampening from happening, with full size headphones playing with output impedance can effect sound, as proven with my Sennheiser HD800s, I actually get the most complete sound when using 11 ohms output impedance. Lastly you have gain, which just allows for this to be more versatile, you have -2DBV, -10DBV and -22DBV so you get great control over volume even with my most sensitive IEMs.
The size of this is one thing that leaves me a little unsure because it’s pretty big, too big to fit in a pocket for example and I just don’t think it has a small enough footprint to get into the portable arena. Yes it is small and surprisingly light enough that you can just throw it in your bag and set it up where ever you like, but to actually use it while on the go would be fairly hard work, maybe a little man bag could hold it or something but a true portable rig in my eyes has to be able to fit in your pocket. It does limit its uses but still leaves plenty of uses for it, just don’t expect to hook it up and sling it in your pockets while you’re on the tube. The design I really like, it has slightly elevated sides and this lets it cradle my iPhone 4 perfectly (great for the iPhone version), the dimensions seem just right, and even fit my AK120 nicely to some extent. The all metal construction pleases me and all the jacks seem well crafted and of great quality but I do still have two nitpicks. The first is the volume pot, it is just underwhelming, this thing is quite big, it offers some big output connectors but then you have this teeny tiny volume control that is hard to grip. I know it’s space conscious but that doesn’t stop me wanting something a bit more substantial. The second thing is probably nothing for concern but when you look in all the switches on the back you can see into the green of the PCB and I wouldn’t want bits of dirt finding their way inside and would have my mind at rest with something a bit more protective on the switches but as I said, this one is probably a bit silly.
One of the biggest wow factors when it comes to this is the sheer versatility and power it packs for a device of its size. It has managed successfully with everything that I have thrown its way in terms of difficult headphones. It offered a very reference and dynamic sound with my HiFiMAN HE-500, a headphone that drinks Watts and it sounded spacious and oh so clear and detailed with the 300 ohms Sennheiser HD800, a headphone that might not be the hardest to get loud but one that is known for how amp picky it is. The only headphone I’m not sure it would manage is probably the HiFiMAN HE-6 that is notoriously inefficient but for the rest of them, this can probably do it and it does it well and this is the first time I have said it so confidently about something of this size. Now for some IEMs the power does just add a taint too the background. With some, like the Dunu DN-2000, I had no problem and the same goes for a low impedance can such as the Beyerdynamic T5p but, with some of the more sensitive IEMs I have the background just isn’t a dead black canvas for the music to be painted onto. It is also a bit more present from the balanced output, which is a shame because I still found it to sound better. Fortunately Centrance are developing a Mini-M8 that will not have all the sound crafting switches and be more focused on IEMs (as well as offering DSD) and the like so watch that space. The HiFi-M8 does seem to be something that has harder to drive headphones more in mind because it must have taken some serious development to get something so small putting out that much juice and if you want something small that you can easily take too the office, to demo headphones somewhere or to a meet, then this could be the ultimate transportable driving machine.
The sound that this outputs can only be looked at as a full package, there’s no looking at the DAC or amp section separately and what I can say about the sound is that it’s very neutral and balanced. I pick pretty much no hints of any colouration, it just gives your headphones the juice you need to be able to hear them. As I mentioned earlier it doesn’t matter what headphones you’re using or how demanding they are as this never seems to struggle. I get the same great sense of dynamics with my HiFiMAN HE-500 that I get with something on the other end of the driving scale, such as my Dunu DN-2000, it just doesn’t fall apart when things get tougher like some amps would do. It’s funny, at this sort of point I would normally talk about pairing with different headphones but this thing is going to pair well with pretty much anything, I’m not normally someone to use EQ, but I have always found hardware EQ to be much better and the slight differences the tone switches here offer allows you to get exactly what you want from your headphones, in the odd scenario where it isn’t delivering in its flat mode, which I love. Now delving into its sound even further and after comparing quite extensively to some other gear, I have come to find what I feel is just a bit of dryness in the upper midrange, not so much it being sucked out, just not having the upmost levels of clarity. I also find it to have quite a shallow soundstage, something that is much more noticeable when comparing to other products but that quality is not shared in its width, where it is much more impressive. I can talk about the individual frequency response but there is so much fiddling that can be done with the bass and treble switches and even the impedance can have a direct impact on how something sounds, so it would not be the best use of my time. That’s also a lot of the fun of the M8, playing around with these settings yourself, they work and it would be a shame to spoil them too much but what I can say is that everything has a good pace to it, the bass can deliver real body and nice depth and the treble can provide great air and sparkle.
It is on a technical front that other products start to get away from it and that’s only natural as all of these competitors that show up its flaws are more expensive products. I think the most relevant comparison is with my reference portable rig, which is a modified AK120 (by PWAudio in HK), where the DACs are replaced with the Wolfson flagship WM8741 and the amp section is thrown away so it only has line level outputs and with it I mainly use two amplifiers, the ALO RX MK3-B and Vorzuge Pure. Now instantly the Centrance has a one up because it is versatile enough to be used with any headphone you have while with the other rig the reason I have to use two amplifiers is because the Vorzuge doesn’t have enough power for the harder to driver stuff but has a dead black background for IEMs and low impedance cans and then the ALO RX MK3-B has the power but it can be very noisy with IEMs. It’s not just my choice of amps causing this problem either, I have used a lot of portable amps in my time and none have the versatility of the HiFi-M8. That being said the sound I get does just push things a little further, but obviously at a much more expensive price, the PWAK120-B with just one of the amps is a few times more than the HiFi-M8. For a start with the AK120 based rigs everything just seems to be on a grander scale, wider, deeper and more intense dynamics. It also makes the midrange on the Centrance to just seem to lack a bit of finesse and distinction. These are the biggest two and most obvious differences, I generally feel the AK120 rig sounds more natural, detailed and with a blacker background as well but these differences are nowhere near as apparent. This may look like me being negative about the HiFi-M8 but it’s the opposite, it is me being impressed by how it doesn’t get destroyed in every area, I mean bass weight, timing and extension is very on par for a quick example, it just takes something like that rig for me to find some weaknesses in the M8.
The Centrance HiFi-M8 is a very special device; it is a reference sounding DAC/Headphone amplifier combination that is made for individual needs with their choice of both inputs and outputs. It has great versatility and drives big headphones at such a small size like little others. Even though I have just mentioned the small size, it isn’t quite small enough for true portable use, which prevents it being a lot better buy than it already is. All in all though I think this device is fantastic, all the options you just know will come in handy, and the overall sound is just amazing for the price, it’s certainly a product that has left me very impressed and as first impressions go for a company, they don’t get much better.