[UPDATE August 2014: The Cypher Labs Theorem 720 DAC is reviewed here.]
T.H.E Show Newport Beach, June 2013. At the CEntrance stand in The Headphonium, former CEntrance and HRT employee Michael Mercer plonked his Sony PHA-1 (US$599) next to the then soon-to-be-launched CEntrance HiFi-M8 (US$699) for a photo opportunity. Each sports a DAC and headphone amplifier housed in a single chassis and is designed to be chained to an iDevice or Android phone from which it extracts audio in the digital domain, completely bypassing Apple’s own less-than-stelllar internal DAC chip.
The Sony intercedes with Woflson WM8740 decoding silicon feeding a TI TPA6120 headphone amplifier for up to 5 hours of playback time when paired with an iPhone. Balanced outputs are not an option here but the PHA-1 can decode up to 24bit/96kHz streams and there’s a switch on the side for ‘high’ and ‘low’ gain.
CEntrance’s HiFi-M8 is available in various configurations, offers balanced output(s), decodes up to 24bit/192kHz and can run for around 5 hours on a full charge. The headphone amplifications is Class A design and is far more powerful than that offered by Sony (700 mW/ch vs 175 mW/ch). The HiFi-M8 also sports more user options: bass- and treble-shaping switches, three levels of headphone gain and three levels of output impedance (for more accurate headphone matching).
I didn’t get the opportunity to compare the CEntrance and Sony units on the day but what I heard from the HiFi-M8, even with a MOG download, was seriously impressive. Far, far better than an iPhone 4 running solo into the same Beyerdynamic cans.
A two horse race? Not quite.
Oregon, September 2013. Cypher Labs introduce a fresh runner: the Theorem 720 DAC. At US$899, it’s pricier than both the CEntrance and the Sony. The Theorem too offers balanced connectivity but audio decoding ability isn’t as straight up as the 24bit/192kHz specification might suggest. The Theorem extracts digital audio from Apple devices up to a glass ceiling of 16bit/48kHz . You need a PC/Mac or Android phone (with USB Audio Recorder Pro app) to get that 24bit/192kHz hi-res buzz happening. It plays the same way with the HiFi-M8 – iDevice extraction is limited to 16bit/48kHz. Apparently “CEntrance is working to extend HiFi-M8 to support 24-bit/96kHz audio on newer iDevices.” according to their website*.
With Cypher Labs at least, such a compromise is more than outweighed by the Theorem 720’s killer feature: battery life. With a fully-charged iDevice in tow, you’ll get up to 18 hours. With an Android phone you’ll get even more. Holy smokes. The Theorem doubles as an iPod/iPhone juicer so wave goodbye to that ‘just in case’ portable battery.
In choosing an all-in-one solution – DAC plus headphone amplifier – you’ll need to ask yourself: now much do you prioritise battery life? That question alone might determine whether you spring for the CEntrance HiFi-M8 or the Cypher Labs Theorem 720.
Further information: Cypher Labs | CEntrance
In Australia? Both Cypher Labs and CEntrance are distributed/sold by Addicted To Audio
UPDATE 17th September 2013: Goodman tells me: “We have the hardware capability to do 24/96, but we have not enabled it yet. We are planning to push that out to users as part of a firmware update in a matter of weeks.”