Quick Thoughts: CEntrance HiFi-M8 LX

These are quick, serendipitous thoughts about the much-hailed CEntrance HiFi-M8. As these thoughts were penned within the span of a week, they’re relatively reactive and unprocessed musings, and as such should be taken lightly and with a grain of salt (Mr. T tends to be overly critical of items at the onset).

Note: Unless otherwise specified, all direct comparisons to the Resonessence Labs Concero HP were performed at the 2 ohm ouput impedance setting, to provide equivalent source damping. Both units were run through the iFi Audio iUSBPower (reviewed here) to maintain clean source power.

Tests were performed with an Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, ACS T15 IEM (w/HiFiMAN biflange tips), and a Sennheiser HD600.

Let’s jump into it. I won’t go over the features of the HiFI-M8, as Head-Fi’s own Jude Mansilla has done a superb job of highlighting the broad feature set of the CEntrance HiFi-M8:

Even if you don’t watch the video, the long and the short of it is that the HiFi-M8 has variable output impedance (1/2/10 Ω), variable gain (low/medium/high), two-stage bass boost, and equivalent treble boost. The different faceplate options also offer a variety of single-ended (3.5/6.3mm) and balanced options in both 3- and 4-pin XLR, as well as Kobiconn (championed by RSA) connections.

Front of the Centrance HiFi-M8 with the 4-pin XLR faceplate.
Front of the CEntrance HiFi-M8 with the XL4 (4-pin XLR) faceplate.

Build, Feel & Ergonomics

To be honest, I’m slightly underwhelmed by the build quality of the HiFi-M8. It’s not so much that it’s poor (on the contrary, the fit and finish is quite nice), but more so that I remember their own DACPort looking and feeling absolutely bulletproof. The DACPort had a feeling of solidity, but the HiFi-M8 feels comparatively hollow. Tap the rolled aluminum casing on both the HiFi-M8 and a Resonessence Labs Concero, compare the sounds, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Of course, in CEntrance‘s defense, the HiFi-M8 is meant to be a portable, on-the-go device, and needs to be light enough to take around. At 4 lbs, it’s not light, but the hollow, thin chassis lends to a feeling of nimbleness. Still, I would not elect to carry the HIFi-M8 in my hands. Personally, it’s just not my thing. I’d rather just take a single high-resolution DAP, such as the upcoming Sony Walkman NW-ZX1.

A good portion of the weight of the HiFi-M8 is allocated to the massive lithium polymer battery within its guts. It’s said to provide over 6½ of battery life, good for coast-to-coast flights in the US (but won’t survive a transatlantic or transpacific flight). In real world testing, I found that the unit gets close to this stated battery life, which is great for this level of driving power (typical power delivery is 1000 mW RMS).

Unfortunately, charging is quite slow via USB; despite a whole night’s charge, the battery only indicated a single bar of power out of three, so I’d advocate charging with a power brick, which appears to charge the HiFi-M8 much more quickly. When the battery runs out, the HiFi-M8‘s amplifier stage will cease to function, but the USB receiver stage will stay running, resulting in no error messages from the computer.

The rubberized volume pot, carried over from the DACPort, is still a pleasure to use, though I envision some folks complaining about its small size. The rear toggles also impart a robust feel and click tightly and positively — perhaps a bit too positively. I’d either advocate for a slightly smoother slide that requires a bit fewer pounds of force to move.

I’m using the HiFi-M8 LX version which has the S/PDIF optical output, but I’m glad CEntrance put in an iPhone/Android compatible USB-A plug for the normal version of the HiFi-M8. This, along with the multiple selection of output faceplates, makes the HiFi-M8 invariably versatile. The build of the connections of the faceplate is immense — it might not be the most aesthetically fetching facade to an amplifier, but as a professional device, the HiFi-M8 appears as utilitarian as it gets.

Sound

If you were expecting family resemblance to the rest of the CEntrance family, you should know that, to me, the HiFi-M8 doesn’t sound all that similar to the DACPort. The HiFi-M8 is neutral to the point of being quite plainly honest. Detail levels are very good, and bass texture is palpable, just not quite rich.

The overall quality of the sound is that it is thinner than it is thick. As mentioned, it is quite detailed, so the midrange has a tendency to feel slightly coarse. Comparatively, the Concero HP has a quality of a polished sheen.

Bass

Bass is perhaps the most “disappointing” aspect of the HiFi-M8‘s sound presentation. While it doesn’t lack bass, it’s too polite and doesn’t present layer and texture in a way fulfilling for most audiophiles. While I personally feel that the Resonessence Labs Concero HP has boosted bass (which is not actually my preference for sources), it presents bass texture, layering, and space far better than the HiFi-M8. While the bass is still detailed and not smoothed over like that of my old (budget-minded) iBasso D7, I can’t help but think that most listeners would yearn for some more texture in the low end.

So what about adding some bass boost with the bass cleft toggle? Well, it does a great job with frequency response equalization and not encroaching into the midrange, but it doesn’t seem to enhance the texturing and layering of the bass. Thus, I’m inclined to believe that CEntrance perhaps didn’t quite get it just right with respect to the spectral decay qualities of the bass response in the HiFi-M8. There are aspects of the bass response that are pulled back a bit too much and don’t have proper decay energy.

Midrange

The midrange presentation of the HiFi-M8 is very detailed.

Unfortunately, it can feel a little coarse. Comparatively, the Concero HP feels silkier and more polished, while retaining a similar level of detail. There’s also more black space around the vocals, and voices are thicker and richer. Thus, the HiFi-M8 can feel comparatively shallow with respect to soundstage depth.

To counteract the coarseness, I paired the HiFi-M8 with the HiFiMAN RE-262. The smooth, mid-forward signature of the RE-262 really helped to bring out the best in the HiFi-M8.

Treble

When it comes to the top end of the HiFi-M8, smoothness is the word. It’s airy and gently sparkly, never harsh or brittle sounding — in my view, treble is the best aspect of the HiFi-M8.

Presentation

With respect to soundstage, the HiFi-M8 is as matter-of-fact as it gets. It takes no special care to concentrate vocals to the center, and no special consideration in spreading instruments out. Despite this honesty, instrumental separation is very good. The Concero HP is decidedly more editorialized in this regard (though I personally prefer its presentation).

Back of the CEntrance HiFi-M8 LX (with S/PDIF optical output, instead of iDevice/Android OTG compatibility)
Back of the CEntrance HiFi-M8 LX (with S/PDIF optical input, instead of iDevice compatibility)
Gain

Even though I would almost never advocate to drive IEMs on anything other than low gain settings, I actually find that medium gain on the HiFi-M8 is most pleasant to me, sonically. It’s free from the thin-bodied, slightly sharp presentation of the low gain setting, but doesn’t totally ruin the noise floor like high gain does. Interestingly enough, medium gain is the true line-level RMS voltage of the HiFi-M8, so that may have to do with my preference for medium gain.

On medium gain, I find that using the volume pot is still quite manageable with all but the most sensitive of IEMs, so at least volume control is not a massive issue. Low gain is still the best setting for sensitive, fine volume adjustments with IEMs, so regardless of sound quality, if I know I’ll be listening at low volumes for a long period of time, I’ll be using the low gain setting.

Driving power is absolutely immense with the HiFi-M8. Full-sized headphones won’t tax it — at all. I tried the HD600 in both single-ended and balanced output, with zero problems in either mode. But what about with current-hungry? No problems here either.

Unfortunately, hiss with IEMs is audible, even on low gain. With sensitive IEMs, the power management routines are quite audible, though I doubt anyone would have a problem with them during playback or with full-sized cans.

Output Impedance

The output impedance toggle is also quite useful; with multi-driver IEMs, the requisite OI setting would be the 1 ohm setting, but depending on the flavor desired out of a single balanced armature earphone, the OI can be set to whatever is desired. I personally find that the 2 ohm setting is most pleasant with the ACS T15, for example.

Quick Conclusion

So, thus far, it seems like I don’t like the CEntrance HiFi-M8 all that much, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps not to the level that this unit was hyped —however, I do think the HiFi-M8 is a landmark accomplishment in terms of versatility and performance. It is a true Swiss Army knife in the world of portable hi-fi. CEntrance really took the time to make sure that the desires of many were met, and the input from the online community really paid off.

However, I don’t personally need a lot of its features, and prefer the sound of the Resonessence Concero HP. To me, the Concero HP is simply a more mature and refined sounding unit, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of on CEntrance‘s part, as the Concero HP commands over a hundred dollar premium over the HiFi-M8 and doesn’t provide nearly the same amount of functionality.

In that sense, the CEntrance HiFi-M8 can even be seen as an immense value proposition. It isn’t “cheap” by any means, but what it gives you for those $699, is incredible. Is it the final word in a portable rig? No, but I don’t think anyone cares about really getting there. This hobby is about inching forward with infinitesimal gains, and if something happens to help us speed forward just a little bit, it can be seen as a masterpiece.

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