The Idea Dude

CONNECTING THE DOTS ONE AT A TIME

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hearing is believing

Logic never comes into the equation when it comes to buying the things we desire the most. Those decadent objects are never bought because you need them but rather because you want them. Think Porsche sports cars, Coach handbags, Apple iPhones, Centrance headphone amplifiers. Wait... did someone say headphone amplifier? Yup, I sure did.

Most people in the world listen to music as if we're driving a car with a muddy windshield. We buy an expensive music player and proceed to use $20 headphones listening to music ripped as MP3s. Like drinking cheap wine, if that's all you drink, you'd be happy for a long time. Until of course one day someone offers you a great Chardonnay or a 10 year old Cabernet. After the first sip, you savor what would seem like liquid heaven... and then you damn the person who offered it to you because life will never be the same again.

The only thing I never loved about my MacBook was the sound. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great either. My Thinkpad of old had Intel High Definition audio. It spoilt me to a point, I never really listened to music on my Mac for long periods of time. The sound was flat, boring and unimaginative. Finally, I relented and purchased a headphone amplifier, the DacPort from Centrance. Computers are not meant to be hi-fi devices so they put components that are generally decent and good enough but not stellar. The DacPort was designed to be a high end audio device that takes raw digital output and converts it to analog signals to drive headphones and preamps.

If you're expecting sound that's immediately a 100x better, you would be disappointed. It's not that immediately obvious. But like a good bottle of wine, take a little time and all the goodness is revealed in its own time. Here's why it shines:

  • You have to pick the right music and performances. The garbage in / garbage out principle applies. Pick a live performance with great voices and acoustic instruments, you'll hear the rasp of a sultry voice, the squeal of fingers on the nylon strings. Details you only thought you could hear if you sat next to a live performance.
  • Audiophiles like to talk about the soundstage. That's another way to say, the music sounds three dimensional, not flat but has depth. Instruments and artists are every distinct from each other giving you the impression that are in different places around you. The DacPort gives you that soundstage.
  • Here's the shocking thing. I have a pair of Shure, Grado and Sony Studio Monitors. In the past, they sounded pretty close to each other, presumably because the audio quality was vague enough to mask their differences. With DacPort giving very clean and distinct sounds, each headphone had an entirely different character. I was aware of the differences before but never to that extent.
  • Unlike many headphone amplifiers, the DacPort works great with in-ear headphones like the Shure. No hiss, no noise, just clean, clean sound.
  • The mark of a good amplifier is how much detail you hear in low volumes. I was able to turn it pretty low (while programming) and still enjoy a lot of detail in the music.


Warning: some of your favorite music you listen to will invariably sound bad, either because they were ripped with too much loss or the recording wasn't great. The DacPort isn't discriminate when it comes to revealing your music to as close to its original form as you can get. It's like watching the beach form a distance. They all look beautiful until you get really close, not everyone is made equal (unfortunately).

I don't normally do product reviews and I paid full price for this baby, so it's not some shameless endorsement here. At close to 400 big ones, you could get a netbook. But as far as audiophile equipment goes, it's a steal. It isn't rational. At the end of the day, as you step into your Porsche and turn the key, or sling that Burberry handbag over your shoulder, the price is irrelevant, it's how it makes you feel. Right now that's the way I feel when I crank up the volume.

BTW: When the CEO takes the time to answer your many emails very patiently, you realize there is a passionate team of people who really care about what they do and the quality of their products. Thank you Michael.

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