CEntrance HiFi-M8: A Revolution in Portable Fidelity
By Michael Mercer
I’m addicted to the CEntrance HiFi-M8. I haven’t used my reference desktop headphone rig since I received my M8 three weeks ago. That reference rig that’s been lying dormant? My E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amp and MYTEK Stereo-192 DSD DAC. I’m not saying the HiFi-M8 outperforms the E.A.R & MYTEK combination by any means, but it gets in the ballpark. For $699 that’s just ridiculous! The E.A.R & MYTEK together total out around $7,500! That’s a heavy statement to make, but I’m not afraid to say it. One of the reasons is that despite how much I like my man toys and gadgets, it’s the music that fuels my audio addiction. The gear is merely the vehicle. So I don’t care if it costs fifty bucks or four thousand. As a matter of fact, the gear I love the most connects me to the music on such a deep emotional and spiritual level that I forget about the delivery mechanism altogether and get lost in early morning listening sessions, even when I have to work the following day. The CEntrance HiFi-M8 has been the driving force behind many sunrise sessions lately! I love it when a new audio component binds you to your music collection so deeply you find yourself digging for stuff you haven’t listened to in ages.
A great stereo component almost makes your music sound new again. It’s such a wonderful sensation when your system is sounding great and you don’t wanna stop listening! Like I said, since I got the HiFi-M8, I listened to music through my desktop reference rig only in order to help me gauge the magical musical performance of the M8. I’d been having such a wonderful time listening, I figured, why screw that up by geeking out too much? But speaking of geeking out, I suppose I should explain what the HiFi-M8 is …. Well, my version (the XL4) is a battery-powered, portable headphone amplifier and iDevice/computer USB DAC. It plays well with Mac and PC (a free driver is available for PC users courtesy of CEntrance) and is a Made for iPod, iPhone, iPad product, meeting Apple’s approval. In order to meet the differing demands of their pro and consumer-level users, CEntrance currently offers eight different variations of the HiFi-M8 (you can find them all HERE). For the purposes of this review I’ll be focusing on my version, the XL4, which has headphone outputs via 3.5mm (stereo mini), 1/4”, and the now widely implemented 4-pin XLR. On the back panel there is a female USB A connector for accessing the asynchronous USB DAC, a female USB B connector for all iDevices, the power input for charging and desktop playback if you wish (a beefy power supply for a portable, by the way) and the various sound-shaping switches.
The front panel is a little less crowded with the three headphone outputs (the 3.5mm headphone jack is also a dual-mode optical TOSLINK output, that is, they share the same hole), the gain control knob, and that’s it. Seeing all these options can seem a bit overwhelming. The sonic integrity of the HiFi-M8 out-shines it’s dizzying feature set however, meaning that when I’m listening to music through it I don’t think about the coolness factor of the various controls like bass and treble. I set the gain on the proper input, depending on the type of headphone I’m using at the time and I do the same with the impedance selector (1, 2, or 11 ohms). Admittedly, the only headphones that enabled me to detect a difference thus far with the different impedance settings were my Audeze LCD3’s, Sennheiser HD800’s, and Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs. The other options? Sure, it’s nice to have a bass boost for some of my compressed files. It’s also nice not being locked into a particular sonic signature all the time. But perhaps the best compliment I can pay the HiFi-M8 with regard to its varied feature set is that it sounds terrific with all sound-shaping switches set to nominal. Again: The only time I found myself messing with the bass control was if I had a file/source that was overly compressed and I wanted more bottom-end impact. When the source material was alive and dynamic I didn’t touch anything. There was no need. Head-Fi founder Jude Mansilla hit the nail on the head in his video review of the HiFi-M8 when he said the best thing about the bass and treble controls are that they don’t seem to impact the midrange at all! He’s right: When I boost the bass or take the treble back a notch for example, it doesn’t muck up the rest of the frequency spectrum. I’m not sure how Michael Goodman; Lead Designer for CEntrance, managed to do this, but he’s designed and built superb EQing into the M8. They’re not merely an after-thought.
Actually, nothing on the HiFi-M8 is an after-thought. CEntrance went about designing and building this product through direct communication with members of the Head-Fi.org community! Michael Goodman even started a dedicated HiFi-M8 blog, which brought all of us end users on the technical ride with him. He wrote about everything from getting the most out of the battery to the reasoning behind his choice of volume knobs! He not only kept us abreast of every step in the product development phase through the blog, but he and the CEntrance team went about asking Head-Fiers for their input on features they were interested in via those threads on Head-Fi. This is where we’re headed in consumer culture: Gathering data directly from the demographic in order to deliver a product they’re actually looking for. He made this whole adventure interactive, and the resulting product (or in this case, products) are something that CEntrance can be proud of, as well as the contributing members of Head-Fi.org. In a very real way, the users helped create the product and CEntrance was apparently more than happy to oblige their ideas. Essentially, this product belongs to the collective that sought it. That’s a wonderful story, and kudos to CEntrance for putting themselves out there like that. I certainly want to see many products designed and built this way, and I totally believe our industry will be the better for it.
All hi-fi geekery and industry commentary aside: This thing is so damn exciting to listen to. I’m glued to it! It’s a breakthrough product, though the M8 is not the first in its category. There are other high quality headphone amp/DAC combos out there for iDevices, Android phones, and computers. But none of the ones I’ve tried (and bought) equal the HiFiM8 in both dynamic slam and clarity, including my beloved Sony PHA-1: A headphone amp/DAC which has perhaps the quietest noise-floor I’ve experienced. The HiFi-M8 is so engrossing I haven’t left the house without it since it arrived. Hell, I couldn’t even goto a doctor’s appointment this week without taking it with me.
The cool story behind that? When my doctor saw me he asked “what are we listening to today Michael?” He’s seen me wearing headphones in the waiting room before. I told him I got a new product in for review and I can’t stop listening to it. During our session he asked me if he could take a crack at it. I was eager to hear what he thought. He’s a fellow music addict, and I told him he probably never had a headphone experience like he was about to embark on. I threw my Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs over his head, picked “Can’t Stand Losing You” by the Police (uncompressed) via my iPod Classic sitting atop the HiFi-M8, and showed him the volume control. As I watched him listening I could see his eyes closing slowly, he was getting into it. Next thing you know I had to poke him in the shoulder to bring him back from whatever bliss he was experiencing. I asked him what he thought, and he said “wow, it sounded like I was right there in the recording studio with them.” That’s the golden response! I love watching people’s reactions when they experience high fidelity through personal audio for the first time. Usually, they just don’t know there’s anything better out there for ‘em. But once you expose them to the magic of portable fidelity, it gets harder and harder for them to go back to their compressed files and earbuds.
I’m experiencing a similar “problem” with the HiFi-M8. I can’t pull myself away from it! Another mark of a great audio component is that it inspires you to listen to all sorts of music you haven’t heard it years, or explore new music. It enhances your thirst for musical discovery. The M8 has certainly done so for me. I’ve been listening to everything from Alix Perez’s hard-hitting Chroma Chords LP (reviewed HERE in Part-Time Audiophile) to the intense vulnerability in Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” – one of my all-time favorites, to the unique sound signature of singer-songwriter Glen Hansard’s voice on the Once soundtrack. From the new and electronically charged Hesitation Marks from Nine Inch Nails to the spaced-out sounds of Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, the HiFi-M8 didn’t so much as shudder. I’ve thrown nearly everything I’ve got at the M8 and it handled it all with authority, control, and finesse. This isn’t easy for an audio component: Reproducing impact with great velocity while handling the subtle nuances of the music with grace. No such problem here. The HiFi-M8 is a splendid music-making machine, whether on the go or on a desktop, it delivers the sonic goods in spades.
And that’s what sets the HiFi-M8 apart from its contemporaries. Sure, it’s spectacular on the go. My Audeze LCD3’s sounded effortless while running on battery with the M8, as did my Sennheiser HD800’s: Certainly not an easy feat for any headphone amplifier, let alone a portable one! But the HiFi-M8 is not merely a portable audio solution. Sure, that is its primary function, but it’s far more than that. I hold my listening experience with the HiFi-M8 akin to experiencing far more exotic, expensive, reference-quality desktop rigs! Like my E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amp & MYTEK Stereo-192 DSD DAC! Now this may sound completely insane. I recognize that. But like I said above: I am in no way proclaiming the performance of the HiFi-M8 to be on par with the E.A.R and MYTEK, but it gets you so much closer than its $699 price tag would indicate. I’m simply floored by it, if you haven’t already figured that out! And the number one reason? The music.
Listening to Shigeto’s new record No Better Time Than Now was extraordinary. The spaciousness, the wide-open air that surrounded the instruments was simply sublime. The record, a smattering of atmospheric synths and minimal instrumentation, was so seductive I listened to it over and over again. I realize I’m gushing more like a school kid than speaking audiophile, but tough shit. This is how this product, when mated with all the various gear above, makes me feel. It’s an uninhibited conduit to my music. I’m not consumed with the features or how it looks while I’m listening. It is a little big for a portable, but that’s the price you pay for power I guess. Though powerful, the headphone amp and DAC are more than capable when it comes to playing softer tunes. Crankin’ Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay”, with its whispy sway and Smith’s ethereal vocals was an awesome experience with the M8. The song just floated, effortlessly, like a hummingbird, and that’s what a killer Smith song does. It’s like a salve for the mellow soul. The M8 isn’t afraid of techno or dubstep either. The low-end in Shlohmo’s “Naps” off his Camping EP knocked like crazy, the pounding had gestalt yet control, these liquid bass notes coming at me like ripples on a pond. It was infectious. I also played that track over and over a few times. I couldn’t get enough of it. Radiohead’s “Everything’s In Its Right Place” just washed over me. The sound was silky smooth and rounded. Yorke’s vocals levitated in the middle of the soundstage. It was breathtaking.
Not long after I received the HiFi-M8, the new Depeche Mode record, Delta Machine, which I happen to have in 24-bit, beckoned me. It’s another dark and deep masterpiece from Martin Gore and when I got that album I couldn’t stop listening to it for months! Well, the M8 came through that test unscathed. The album was as stunning as I’ve ever heard it. “Long Time Lie” just pulsed through me. Gore’s letter to the do-nothing “entitlement generation” grabbed a hold of me like it did the first time I heard it. I was enraptured. I experienced the same feeling when listening to James Blake’s Overgrown. For that sesh, I used my Audeze LCD3’s, and MacBook/Amarra rig as the source. Even though I reviewed that record, it was like hearing it anew.
I realize now that I’m starting to sound like a broken record. So, perhaps HiFi-M8’s greatest attribute is that it doesn’t impart enough of itself onto the music to be detected and dissected by me. Perhaps it’s merely doing its job, and doing it well enough where the technology removes itself from the experience and what’s left is a spiritual connection to the music. I know, things are getting pretty heavy, but something tells me you get the idea by now.
I also realized how much I loved having bass and treble controls the more I listened. Sure, I understand the purist view: Why screw up the original producer and engineers work by messing with your own EQ at playback? Well, as I discovered long ago: Sometimes, I don’t love the original producer or engineers choices in the mix! So, if I wanna have a little more bass in a track and that makes me happy, that’s what I’m doing. We’re supposed to be having fun while listening to our music. That’s easy for me using the M8.
The bottom line is the CEntrance HiFi-M8 is a beast. A beast of power and musical engagement. And at $699, this may end up being a beast of burden for some, but when you consider what you’re getting for that price, it’s actually a steal. Especially compared to some of the over-priced, high-end tweaky gear floating around. I can’t find anything wrong with it, and that’s a rarity. If taking your music collection with you is a priority, and you have a decent DAP (digital audio player) then I highly recommend checking out the HiFi-M8. I can’t offer a higher recommendation in a portable headphone amp/DAC solution. It has become my most cherished portable listening companion, and if close friends and family ask me to recommend something like this, HiFi-M8 is the product I’ll steer their way. That might be a better way to express my appreciation for this product. I mean, after all, you want your friends and family to have the best experiences possible don’t you? Well, in the area of portable headphone amps/DACs the HiFi-M8 stands alone. I can’t wait to see what CEntrance does next!
Take a bow gents: Bravo!
- Audeze LCD3
- Sennheiser HD800
- Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs
- JH Audio JH-13 Freqphase IEMs
- iPod Classic
- iPod Touch 2nd generation
- iPhone 4S
- MacBook Pro Retina running Amarra software
- CEntrance 30-pin Apple connector-to-USB (for use with all iDevices)
- Light Harmonic Lightspeed USB cable (for use between HiFi-M8 & MacBook Pro)
- WyWires Satori prototype 2.0 headphone cables for Audeze LCD3 and Sennheiser HD800
- Stock cable on Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs
About the Author
Michael Mercer is an Audio Evangelist, and a reviewer of music and audio components. He got his start at The Absolute Sound in 1994. After his tenure there, he joined Atlantic Records where, under the tutelage of legendary Grammy award-winning producer Arif Mardin, he worked with multi-platinum selling artists Jewel, Sugar Ray, The Corrs, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler and others.
In his career as a music writer and audio reviewer, Michael has contributed to industry bibles such as The Absolute Sound and HiFi+. He is currently a managing partner at Audio360.org and writes for Part-Time Audiophile, Positive Feedback, The Daily Swarm, The High Fidelity Report, and Enjoy the Music where his “Sonic Satori” column is featured.
Michael is a long-time industry veteran with many past engagements with various companies, including HRT, Elite AV Distribution, Soundscape AV and others. He does sales and marketing for headphone-related showcases at various regional audio shows, including the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach, and others. He is also a brand-building and social media consultant for leading Hi-Fi brands including Beatport, Audioengine and Nordost, as well as media outlets Positive Feedback and The Daily Swarm. He also owns the Learjet we use to tour the audio show circuit and a villa in California wine country we all call “The Airport”.
Editor’s Note: Financial Interests Statement
At the end of 2012, Michael was a paid marketing consultant for CEntrance, the company under review here. This review was arranged many months after that relationship ceased. Given Michael’s history and familiarity with the company and past product line, the pairing made sense from an editorial perspective. However, in the spirit of “full disclosure”, it is worth mentioning that a historical relationship between them did exist.