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CEntrance Wraps iPhone in Hi-fi Player & Headphone Amp!

02-20-2015 | By Michael Mercer | Issue 77

Centrance HiFi-Skyn

CEntrance has established itself as a leader in the personal audio community/industry over the last decade. They've managed to position themselves at the top through constant innovation in their own products, while providing USB and other digital solutions for other high-end audio audio industry leaders such as Playback Designs, McIntosh, Benchmark, Wadia, and Lavry, to name a few. They're equally respected in the pro audio world, having provided similar technological solutions for companies like Korg, M-Audio, Alesis, and Zoom. Sounds like an engineering powerhouse doesn't it?

Well, in 2011, it wasn't common to catch an $800 DAC/line-stage/headphone amplifier gracing the cover of Stereophile. That coveted spot was usually given to more exotic (and of course more expensive) kinds of equipment. The DACmini (CX) from CEntrance was a true giant-killer. Back then you could find DACmini's on the tables of fellow headphone culture pioneers like Audeze at meets and headphone shows. Their globally renowned DACport: A high power, 96k/24-bit USB DAC/headphone amp the size of a partially smoked cigar, and subsequent DACport LX—same DAC, no amp—have two of the lowest jitter measurements ever recorded by John Atkinson, Editor-in Chief of Stereophile magazine.

With their many accomplishments, it makes sense that CEntrance components don't seem to have a sonic signature of their own. If I had to pick one word to describe the CEntrance "house sound," it has to be neutral. Thankfully, the next word that comes to mind when I think about their products is power. These are two audible tenets of the pro/recording world: neutrality and power. I think, perhaps, the fact that Michael Goodman, the Lead-Designer for CEntrance, ran a studio for a decade and plays the bass has something do to with this. Pepper-in the fact that Goodman's a jazz musician, and you've got a magic recipe for great-sounding playback gear!

I was honored and humbled when Goodman approached me to take on the initial impressions of HiFi-Skyn via a working prototype. They're also running a crowd-funding campaign (I know, I know, everyone's hating on those right now) at IndieGogo for the HiFi-Skyn, and they've been funded! A heartfelt congratulations to CEntrance on that accomplishment. I got one coming, and there are actually a few $199 slots left (think it's Early Adopters). If this sounds like something you would use all the time, like I do—save 50%! Its MSRP is going to be $399. I haven't bought anything really expensive through any crowd-funding projects personally. CEntrance has what I would consider a reasonable buy-in price. I've even checked with them on some pending players from their first campaign. It's a technical issue and it seems they're on it. That's also why I'm willing to share about the campaign.

I love my Astell&Kern AK240 portable digital audio player, and my Glove Audio A1 (by CEntrance) DAC/amp for my Astell&Kern AK120. They're portable Hi-fi beasts. The toughest, inescapable drawback, however? All of us A&K devotees end up walking around with more stuff to deal with, and who needs that? The audible cure? I've been considering this since CEntrance introduced the Glove Audio A1 DAC/Amp for older A&K players AK120 & 100: Take something you're already walking around with, like an iPhone, and turn that into an audiophile digital audio player.

CEntrance has been workin' away in their mad lab in Chicago, as usual, while some of us eagerly awaited the perfect headphone product for running out the door. Sometimes we don't have time for little road-cases, Pelican cases, and backpacks. I know I'll get outta the house much quicker! The HiFi-Skyn from CEntrance is that other product. This one's for our iPhones. One of the coolest aspects of the HiFi-Skyn, IMHO: This thing also extends the battery-life of your phone. It charges it while the damn thing plays! For that alone, I'll deal with its ol' school lookin' battery-case. Remember those? The incompetence of the damn cell phone manufacturers birthed an entire industry of battery accessories.

That's what struck me about the HiFi-Skyn when I grabbed it out of Michael Goodman's hand (Chief Product Architect) at Canjam in late-2014. It felt like an accessory. It didn't feel like a high-end DAC and headphone amplifier. Sure: I have plenty of small amps, but the HiFi-Skyn doesn't behave, sonically, like anything small. I heard the final production amp section will be at a HiFi-M8 level: Their award-winning portable DAC/Amp that sounds like a great desktop amp! I'm having a hard time making that work in my head. So, time to plug into the Skyn and see what happens.

Centrance HiFi-Skyn

Associated Gear List:

Audeze EL-8 open-back, LCD-XC

Sennheiser Momentums

Double Helix Cables Molecule SE

Double Helix Cables Molecule Elite


"EXplore" (Recondite remix) – EX Club Mixes – Plastikman

(44.1k/24-bit AIFF files)

Live Impression

w/ Audeze LCD-XC + Double Helix Cables Molecule SE.

For my first listening sesh I used my beloved Audeze LCD-XCs and Double Helix Cables Molecule SE. These might not look-it, but these cans are pretty damn efficient. "EXplore" (Recondite Remix) by Plastikman is my favorite track of the four in this EP. I've been using these tracks often. Together they give me a fair idea of the system's bass and sub-bass capabilities, especially this remix by Recondite. If there's any smearing of the low-end, or even if it's barely compressed, this record, once you know it, will sound different on so many systems.

The HiFi-Skyn prototype ended up being a terrific pairing with the LCD-XCs. An amp's gotta have speed to drive the XCs to their full potential. When you find an amplifier with fast, sharp, and crisp transient response, pairing it with the XCs makes for some amazing imaging experiences. There've been times when I'm listening to this EP, and it was like hearing the soundtrack to many years of my life in four tracks! It all blends into one day really, as far the DJ life goes—when you're constantly traveling, barely home. This is the kinda music that keeps you movin'. Right now I'm rockin' in my office chair so loudly the cats and my wifey are goin' nuts…

And it's beautiful chaos all around me as the techno beats slam and the synths continue their ascent through an almost black sonic backdrop. HiFi-Skyn is doing what most of Michael Goodman's DAC/headphone amplifiers do: Get the hell outta the way of the music, as best they can, while doing their job: Processing the signal into an engaging audible experience, without imposing much of their own sonic signature onto the music.

If there's another word I often hear amongst CEntrance devotees: Balanced, or "well-balanced." That word holds true through all four tracks on this EP. The music's got balls, pardon my French. It's also got nuance and air. Many people overlook those qualities in this style of dance music. But it's just as important as the floor-shaking bass.

Centrance HiFi-Skyn

"High Hope" – Rhythm And Repose – Glen Hansard

(44.1k/24-bit AIFF files)

Live Impression

w/ Audeze LCD-XC + Double Helix Cables Molecule SE.

Audeze EL-8 open-back

I could watch the film Once over and over again.

Alexandra (the wifey) found out about the soulful indie film years ago, and we were exposed to the music of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, a.k.a The Swell Season. Hansard and Irglova play strangers that make an incredible connection through music and the recording process. It's a magical flick, and a perfect date movie: Take note.

Hansard is such a courageous singer/songwriter. His vocal tonality is unlike anyone—and he digs in, and brings the sheer rawness of his emotions to everything he sings. It's mesmerizing, even when the guy is screaming, which is pretty often, I just wanna reach out and hug the guy! That's the way I feel listening to Hansard strum his guitar and wale. HiFiSkin is doing an incredible job with the imaging throughout this song. The drum kit has this dimensional space I've never heard before. There's also some layering that sounds new to me.

How do you like that? The thing cost me $199 bucks and its resolving enough to reveal new elements in a recording I've heard hundreds of times. I'd say that's a serious feather in Hifi-Skyn's cap. I had to listen to the whole LP the sound has been so warm and spacious. Hey CEntrance: Get the record. Hansard's songs sound amazing through this lil' portable rig that adds mere inches to your iPhone.

"Your Company" – Anar – Marketa Irglova

Live Impression

w/ Sennheiser Momentum + Double Helix Cables Molecule Elite.

Audeze EL-8 open-back

After hearing Glen Hansard, I ended up with this song stuck in my head. Hansard and Irglova, as mentioned earlier, when they play together they're known as The Swell Season. Together they create some of the most beautiful and intimate pop ballads I've ever heard. I think a big part of that is we're the same age—we occupy the same generation. For her solo effort, Irglova seems to let herself go deeper into the ethereal. Without Hansard, she writes music that soars higher melodically, though she maintains that amazingly sultry vocal that she's come to be known for.

The HiFi-Skyn does a fair job of reproducing her voice. I've heard better—but it's not overly-colored. Irglova's piano has depth and magnificent timbre. Her vocals are soulfully rendered, and her vulnerability is captivating. I can't believe the dynamic contrasts that this lil' system is capable of creating. The sound is huge, while the amp and DAC, well, again, are the size of a zippo together—a bit smaller even! But that doesn't stop it from driving the new Audeze EL-8s beautifully.

Throughout all my time with the Skyn prototype I noticed a few sonic characteristics that carry over from one style of music to the next. These are all mentioned above: Balance and neutrality. Meaning: I still don't believe CEntrance has an actual "house sound," because the detail retrieval is so resolving. He and his and team seemingly focus strictly on building the best possible music playback machines. They're not interested in bells and whistles, just the straight dope when it comes to the music.

A big part of imaging and clarity is the need for a proper recreation of the 3-dimensional space. I mentioned it with every track here I think, because the HiFi-Skyn does such an unbelievably great job when it comes to throwing an image. It's the size of a Zippo attached to your iPhone, and snaps on with ease. If you're not accustomed to handling high-performance personal audio gear, the Skyn might feel a bit bulky. However, this isn't a mere waterproof case or just a battery-charger. The HiFi-Skyn literally transforms your iPhone 5 or 6 into a high-quality portable headphone rig, with state-of-the-art music processing and amplification for your favorite cans.

Centrance HiFi-Skyn

(Image courtesy of CEntrance)

And so…?

Even after the Hifi-Skyn campaign at Indiegogo ends, $399 is still a fair price, considering what you get in this package: No more additional gear to carry, just slide and snap HiFi-Skyn onto your iPhone, grab your cans, and you're ready to go.

Ain't that nice?

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