Wouldn't it be nice if there was a pro‑quality D‑A converter on the market that was truly portable? Centrance aim to give us exactly that...
Well known for their co-developments with companies including Alesis, Benchmark and Line 6, Centrance have a long tradition of going further than others in their quest for audio perfection, whether that be in low-latency universal Firewire audio drivers, 24-bit/96kHz-capable bit-transparent USB audio driver technology, or, since 2007, handy, high-quality audio hardware gadgets. The first such product was the US‑built MicPort Pro, which was a tiny but superior-quality USB mono mic preamp, and it has proved very popular with both professional broadcasters and on‑the‑road musicians, interviewers and podcasters. This was followed by the mono AxePort Pro (reviewed in SOS April 2009), which allowed guitarists to join in the fun. Both of these bus-powered products are incredibly compact, given the audio quality on offer.
Centrance have now added an 'audiophile grade' stereo D‑A converter and Class-A headphone amp to their product line. Like the other two products in the range, the DACport is a seriously small device in a sturdy, brushed aluminium tube, just five inches long and an inch in diameter. It's supplied in a velvet pouch that can be slipped into your laptop bag or headphone case, and with a belt clip to keep it handy during use. Operation is simplicity itself: you just plug one end of the supplied USB lead into the DACport, the other into your computer, and then plug your headphones into the other end of the DACport and adjust their volume level using the rotary knob on the side of the tube.
Even better, the DACport is USB‑powered and can be plugged into a USB 1.1 or USB 2 port without requiring a power adaptor or Mac/PC drivers. Sure enough, when I plugged it into my Windows XP computer it was recognised automatically, and within seconds became available as an additional stereo playback device, supporting up to 24‑bit/96kHz audio. This makes it a very handy device to cart around with your laptop or plug into other people's computers — and it's ideal for the musician/engineer/producer on location who needs a totally repeatable monitoring chain.
Despite its tiny size, the DACport provides true bit‑transparency (Benchmark's renowned DAC1 USB model licenses the same technology from Centrance), and re‑clocks incoming audio with a seriously low one-picosecond jitter figure, to ensure a tight, focused sound, as well as a wide 120dB dynamic range that enables you to hear all the extra detail thus revealed, and an extended 20Hz-40kHz frequency response (±0.2dB). Along with a DC‑coupled design, to avoid using capacitors in the signal path (which minimises distortion, although I suspect this decision was also partly made so that the circuitry still fitted into the tube), its Class-A output can also go seriously loud, even with high-impedance headphones.
Moreover, while a line‑level output isn't suitable for powering headphones, a headphone output is certainly man enough for line‑level duties — so I also connected the DACport to my amp and loudspeakers, and compared it directly with various other DACs. It eclipsed my Emu 1820M budget interface 'benchmark' by a significant margin, offering a very detailed sound, and a wide, well-focused stereo image — although my rather more expensive Lavry DA10 stand-alone converter still offered much greater front-to-back depth and 'air'.
Centrance stress the convenience of the DACport for audiophile playback in a coffee shop, at work, or on a trip, but I doubt that you'd hear the finer points of any audiophile experience in such adverse settings. However, it's nevertheless a very handy playback system for anyone who needs to travel light without compromising audio quality — and it could also be a perfect replacement for an audio interface for the musician who prefers to work totally 'in the box'. Alternatively, if you're happy working with aggregate devices on a Mac, you could use this for superior D‑A conversion alongside another interface used for recording.
My only reservation is the cost. While the mono MicPort and AxePort Pro are viewed as expensive but very professional, the stereo DACport is about two-and-a-half times their price in the UK, which means that it costs significantly more than several good-quality stereo audio interfaces I could name that have built‑in headphone amps. However, the DACport arguably provides better audio quality than such interfaces, it offers more headphone drive than most, and its size makes it much more portable.
There are various USB DACs with headphone amplifiers available from hi-fi companies at cheaper prices, but I've yet to find one that supports 24-bit/96kHz or features bit-accurate USB playback like the DACport. However, if you don't need such a compact device, stereo audio interfaces with headphone outputs from companies such as Focusrite, Presonus and TC Electronic might fit the bill.