A new sensation. Digital audio players like those from Astell&Kern, Sony and – to a lesser extent when used in balanced mode – Pono all come with the disadvantage that they don’t have enough go juice to do proper justice to some of the more difficult-to-drive headphones on the market: I’m looking at you Sennheiser HD800 and you Beyerdynamic T1. Even headphones with more agreeable impedances and sensitivities won’t sound as good as when fed by a wall-powered, desktop headphone amplifier.
Then there’s the issue of carrying around a secondary device just for music. It isn’t what most people want to deal with. Your average Joe has his music collections sitting on his phone. For him, another device is one too many.
Finally, there’s streaming. Only the Sony NWZ-ZX1/2 can tap Tidal or Spotify out of the box. Chalk another one up for smartphones being the playback device of choice for our friend Joe.
The problem? The sound coming out of your smartphone kinda sucks. A cheap-as-chips internal D/A converter and headphone output has music sounding lacklustre and washed out. As good as it is, even the iPhone lacks tonal colour, detail and weight when compared to the likes of the PonoPlayer (reviewed here) or AK120 II (reviewed here).
The CEntrance HiFi-M8 and, more recently, the slimmer Mini-M8 have been available for some time now. Both M8s work as outboard DAC and headphone amplifier to which your smartphone only supplies the digital signal.
The downsides are bulk and the extraneous cable loop that connects phone to M8. And as a colleague said to me just the other day, “There has to be a more elegant way of attaching a DAC/amplifier to a smartphone than using a pair of elastic bands?”.
Enter the CEntrance Skÿn (pronounced “Skin”). It’s an iPhone case that will protect your phone, charge its battery and make it sound a heck of a lot better. Keen observers will recall that we saw their iPhone5-only prototype from CEntrance at last year’s CanJam (covered here) and the side-branded Glove A1 (reviewed here) does a sound job of improving sonic satisfaction from first generation Astell&Kern units (reviewed here and here).
The Skÿn has been successfully running as a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo for some time – it reached its target goal in the first 24 hours.
CEntrance will be manufacturing Skÿn versions to suit the iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus and iPod Touch 5th Generation now on the table. Some Samsung models will also be covered but you’ll need to contact CEntrance for specifics on those.
Given the ubiquity of crowd-funding in the hi-fi sector I’ve become increasingly leery of covering campaigns that front with only CAD drawings and promises. It’s all too easy for manufacturers to force backers to endure endless delays and apologies. Having bumped into CEO Michael Goodman’s CEntrance stand at CES 2015 I can confirm that this product is 100% real.
The Skÿn reportedly contains the same DAC design as found in CEntrance’s DacMiniCX and its amplification stage has been borrowed from the Mini-M8. That itself promises sufficient power for your favourite cans, even the aforementioned T1 and HD800.
Goodman is now offering a ‘stretch goal’ if the total dollars raised clicks past the US$65K marker, at which time the Skÿn will have its amplifier upgraded to that of the original HiFi-M8, lifting output power from 1.4V to 5V.
At time of writing the campaign is at US$54K with 23 days left to run so I’d say the amplifier upgrade is highly likely, especially when you consider the Skÿn is still available for US$199 (half of its store-bound RRP).
The implications here are significant. No more rubber bands, no more OTG or CCK. But take a picture of this: the iPod Touch 5G sells for US$199. Snap it into a Skÿn case and you have yourself a DAP that’ll seriously challenge the Astell&Kern for the same outlay as a PonoPlayer: US$400.
Not only that – and this is the REAL kicker for this reviewer – but an iPod Touch/Skÿn combo will see you right with Spotify, Pandora and Tidal lossless listening. CEntrance have partnered with the latter to offer “4 months for the price of 1” as a campaign perk.
Listeners keen on hi-res audio will need to install an app like Onkyo’s HF Player; the Skÿn’s internal DAC will decode up to 24bit/192kHz PCM and DSD streams.
The only compromise that I can see is that a Skÿn’d iPod/iPhone will measure quite a bit longer than an Apple device running solo. It might not be suitable for all pockets. The Skÿn measures 172 mm x 64 mm x 20 mm and will reportedly run for 10 hours between charges.
The CEntrance Skÿn is available in a range of colours (TBC).
Oh – for those wondering about the name (as I did): this isn’t Goodman’s oddball sense of humour at play. Skÿn is a Scandinavian word for “sensation”.
Further information: Skÿn on Indiegogo | CEntrance