By Mark Kondracki
Trust-worthy monitoring is the most critical and, perhaps the most challenging component in the mastering process. If the sound, frequencies, and dynamics don’t translate to your ears, your decisions will be crippled.
When I was presented with the opportunity to listen to the CEntrance DACport, I initially had my reservations. How could a USB headphone DAC provide the critical DAC (Digital to Analog Conversion) and amplification to properly drive and voice a set of headphones? I was skeptical.
PLUG IN THAT USB…AND….THAT’S IT!!
Getting started is almost too easy. Simply plug the unit into your USB port – in my case, a Mac Book Pro, and the DACport shows up as a choice in your sound settings in system preferences. Then, plug in a pair of your best headphones with a ¼” plug.
I love that the unit is driverless. It just works – nothing to download or install, no power cord, nothing. The unit is not tiny, but it’s small enough to consider bringing along with your laptop and a great set of headphones – it’s about 4 inches long and about 1 inch in circumference. The distance from the unit to the laptop is determined by the USB cable.
The manufacturer says that the DACport supports bit rates from 16-24 and sample rates to 96kHz. The noise floor is rated at 7 µV RMS (A-weight), max gain with a frequency range of 20Hz…40kHz +/-0.2dB. It is a Class A device, so be forewarned that it doubles as a hand warmer.
HOW DOES IT SOUND?
My favorite mix engineer is Andy Wallace. In particular, I love his production and mix of Jeff Buckley’s album Grace. It is a constant benchmark for me and since I have listened to it for years and used it for comparison during mixing and mastering sessions on countless recordings, I used some of the 16/44.1 tracks to rate my listening experience with the DACport.
I was literally floored when I put on my Sony MDR-7509’s and listened to a track. Detail, depth, space. For fun, I plugged into the stock headphone out of the Mac Pro and switched the sound settings. Let’s say the difference was about 70% loss in dimensional sound when not using the DACport. Amazing.
I plugged the headphones back in to the DACport and listened some more. There were all the details I loved in the music, down to instrument string noise and vocal rasp at the end of some of the words and the tails on the reverbs that lasted until they decayed. But how could this unit compare with my multi-thousand dollar DAC, my Cranesong Avocet, which I have used for years? I am a huge fan of the Avocet. Prior to obtaining it, I had used the Pro Tools HD DAC through a Digidesign Pro Control console. The advent of the Avocet changed my ability to mix dramatically. Its conversion and incredible sound reproduction are arguably the best out there.
Cuing up the same track and switching between the Avocet and DACport, via headphones, once they were volume matched, made my jaw drop. They were almost indistinguishable.
I then listened to another file I use for comparison – Ben Harper. And then to some 24/96k samples of instruments that can reveal poor DAC including cymbals, acoustic guitar and piano. Again, the DACport was indistinguishable from my Avocet, using the same headphones.
It’s important to note that the Avocet is a full mastering monitor controlling unit with a headphone amp, and while the DACport could not replace all of its functionality — if pressed to mix and/or master with headphones alone — I feel confident that the results would be the same for me using the DACport versus the Avocet DAC through its headphone monitor.
WOULD I BUY IT?
For music listening alone, this is a huge leap up. If you listen mostly on your laptop and through headphones, and price is no concern, I would say unreservedly, buy this and match it with your best headphones and retire to a dark room to listen in bliss. The unit retails for $399.95 on their website, so it is not for the casual listener.
If you mix or master on headphones exclusively, I give it another “must-have” rating. At almost $400, it’s not cheap, but if you figure in the quality which matches a 4-figure mastering grade D/A + amplifier, it’s a downright steal. Especially figuring in portability and ease of use.