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Coming soon: HiFi-Skÿn

IndieGoGo is all the rage, apparently, and perhaps for very good reason — it allows many smaller, boutique would-be vendors to get a real handle on their potential markets prior to actually building (and spending) anything. That’s a game-changer — and why we’ll probably be seeing a ton of it in high-end audio’s future.

Today’s focus? The HiFi-Skÿn.

Odd name aside, the company behind the HiFi-Skÿn is solid and absolutely real — they’re CEntrance, and they’ve been around the block a few dozen times. I’ve reviewed their Audiophile Desktop solution here at Part-Time Audiophile and they’ve been one of the major players behind the move to USB-based audio playback. Their HiFi-M8 portable DAC/headphone amplifier, also reviewed here by Michael Mercer, is an landmark product and one of my personal references.

Not really content to sit still, CEntrance has recently moved into the digital audio player segment, offering up the innovative Glove Audio A1 solution last fall. This nifty little gadget is a piggyback amp/DAC upgrade for folks with the older Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 digital players, and as Michael Mercer discovered, the upgrade is rather significant.

With HiFi-Skÿn, the CEntrance team has moved past the Astell&Kern platform to offer something a bit more inline with the commercial mainstream — a piggyback DAC/amp for the ubiquitous iPhone from Apple.

Why is this interesting? Good question. First, given the (relative) cornucopia of high-resolution audio-capable DAPs now on the market, with Astell&Kern on the high-end, a couple of new Walkmans from Sony, updated offerings from Fiio, HiFiMAN and, of course, the pilloried Pono, the market need for such an offering is becoming less clear. That said, all of those other offerings lack something that the HiFi-Skÿn has.

My iPhone.

I suppose you could argue that I have never really understood the mobility market. I mean, I see the photos on Head-Fi and elsewhere, with all the little bricks, bound together with bands, all to drive some headphones untethered to a computer for truly high-quality on-the-go playback. An iPod, with tons of storage. An external DAC, because the DAC on the iPod offers only average, at best, sound quality. An external amplifier, because the gigundous headphones need gobs and gobs of power before they do more than whisper. All interconnected with fat, brightly-colored and difficult to bend wires. All battery-powered, so all needing their own power bricks, which are all also specific and unique. The entire mess fits into a backpack, sure, but not a pocket — we’re talking 8-10 lbs of “portable” audio gear, banded together into a tower of awesome that’s almost 8″ high. Yeah, I don’t get that at all.

I understand the need for a headphone amplifier. No issues there — my favorite cans (some Audeze LCD-3 Fazors that not only blow my mind, but also let me pretend I’m Princess Leia) need a lot of juice before they light up like a Christmas tree. I also get the external DAC thing — “portable” and “DAC” don’t tend to go together than often. But adding all that to my iPod is more than a little absurd. Attempting to carry all that electronics through TSA security checkpoints is not exactly fun, and reassembling a disassembled-for-travel “stack” on the fold-down seat-back tray way back in Economy seating is going to do a lot more than just raise some eyebrows and draw curious looks — some wannabe hero is gonna come over the seats to “save everyone”. Good times, I’m sure, but I’ll pass.

So, I simplify. I will admit that I want more than what my iPod Classic could deliver. That thing had all the harddrive space I needed and was just fine for earbud-based playback. But for something resembling a real pair of headphones, it just sounded like ass. Comparatively, an Astell&Kern AK120 — and much better still, an AK240 — was revolutionary. I got to have my tunes, have them sound good, and have all that awesome tucked into a tidy package that actually could drive most non-absurd headphones. Scha-wing!

But … it’s not like I was exactly traveling light. I could carry the AK240, sure, no problem. It’s small, fits in my pocket, no issues whatever. But that pocket wasn’t precisely empty and the AK240 had to fight for space. I mean, even with all of that awesome tucked into a single package, there was (and is) absolutely no way in Hell I’m giving up my iPhone for that.

For better or worse, my iPhone is intrinsically embedded into my daily life. I talk on the phone regularly for my day job. I need my calendar in order to know where and when to be. I need my contact list. Having a high-quality GPS built-in used to be a nice-to-have feature, but with the driving that I do, it’s flipping critical. Oh, and having a high-speed web browser and all my email (and my Facebook and Twitter feeds) all under my thumb? How did I ever get anything done before this incredible super-computer t-boned my professional life? Some days, I seriously cannot remember. I’m sure I have that page bookmarked ….

Anyway, the point is this — all of these multi-part solutions are patently absurd. There’s no way I’m carting all that shit around unless I’m attempting to amuse myself or others. Quite frankly, given how good the AK240 is, I’m not sure that separates actually buy me enough in sound quality improvement to make the investment (in space, complexity, and tolerance if nothing else) worth it. But do I really want to cart around two devices?

Honestly? No. I don’t.

All of which is a long way to go to get back to the HiFi-Skÿn.

It’s not a separate device. It’s a sleeve. For your iPhone. It includes an upgraded amp to drive those he-man headphones. It includes an upgraded DAC, one that can play all those super-high-quality audio files that Apple cannot seem to be bothered with. It also recharges your iPhone! And best of all, it uses IOS as the front end.

One device to rule them all?

Which brings me to the IndieGoGo campaign.

Right now, the HiFi-Skÿn crowd-funding campaign is drawing to a close. You can still opt in, if you’re curious and interested, and get yourself your very own iPhone-wrapper for all your portable audio needs for $199, or about 50% off of suggested retail pricing. And yes, I did opt-in here — in fact, I was the very first backer of this project.

Why?

Honestly, it was a couple of things. One, I know the folks at CEntrance. I’ve met Michael Goodman several times. I’ve reviewed their products and actually own one. So, no, they’re not strangers. Two, I really like the idea of an all-in-one form-factor device — and I looooove my iPhone. This solution gives my iPhone serious audio legs. Of course, I might not always have my iPhone, but I may not hop to upgrade it quite so quickly now. Okay, I’m lying. I’ll be the first in line for the iPhone 7 when it comes out in 2017 (or whenever). And I’ll probably be re-Skÿnning it at that point, too. We’ll see ….

So, anyway, for those of you opting in — somethings to note.

First up — there’s really not a lot of options. Most of those have been embedded in the stretch goals. At this writing, the campaign is closing on $100k, which means that all backers have already seen their investment improved with a better amplifier and an industry-standard USB-charging jack. At $100k, backers get a much better DAC chip. You want more? $79 more gets you the one and only “perk” — a tweaked amplifier.

Earlier on in the product design cycle, we felt that 130 mW of output power would be sufficient to drive the majority of headphones, so we designed that into the product. But during the campaign we got a lot of useful customer feedback, and one of the more persistent requests was for hotter output.

So, we upgraded the Classic Amp to Super Amp, to deliver 210 mW of power. Yet, somehow that still didn’t feel like a breakthrough, so we pushed further and also upgraded the power supply to deliver a total of over 300 mW! This covers pretty much all headphones on the market, making HiFi-Skyn an extremely versatile DAC/Amp that gives you extra dynamic range, lowers the distortion and helps control the noise floor, so that music is the only thing reaching your ears.

This new amp plus power supply combo is called “Amp Extreme” and because of additional circuitry, we have to charge $79 for it. We encourage you to select that perk to have your amp upgraded to the best we can offer. Here are the main amp differences:

As I mentioned, the campaign ends soon. So, if you’re tempted, time is running out. They’re currently something like 700% over their goal, so as far as IGG is concerned, this dog is definitely gonna hunt.

If you want to wait it out and make sure it hits the shelves or otherwise husband your money prior to an investment — do that. No harm, no foul. Crowd-funding is a risky thing, though to be fair, there are risks and there are risks. Me? I figured I could live without the $199 — and that’s why I invested it. You can’t? Again, no judgment — do what ya gotta. But if you’re like me, you’ll see that this is a pretty sweet deal.

Okay, that’s enough. I’ve written way too much about this, but honestly, I’m pretty psyched about the offering as it solves some key portability and simplification issues for me. I’ll have more on this if and when I get mine, so, feel free to stay tuned. Better still, check out the campaign and lemme know what you think in the comments below.

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