Mission Impossible: An audiophile-worthy Bluetooth portable headphone amp

Mission Impossible: An audiophile-worthy Bluetooth portable headphone amp

The CEntrance BlueDAC, left, shown with Audeze iSine 20 in-ear headphones

CEntrance

As regular Audiophiliac readers may have noticed, I rarely cover Bluetooth products. This new portable BlueDAC ($399) from CEntrance is an exception simply because it sounds great and can drive power hungry audiophile headphones that make phones cry uncle.

Since phones with 3.5mm headphone jacks are fast becoming extinct, the question is raised: What are folks with high-end wired headphones to do? The BlueDAC might be the solution they've been waiting for.

Wired connectivity runs to a Micro-USB input and 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm headphone jacks -- more on that 2.5mm jack later in this review. Over the USB input the BlueDAC supports up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD high resolution file playback. If you prefer wireless operation, the BlueDAC features aptX Bluetooth, but with iPad's and iPhones Bluetooth, it's limited to AAC audio. When the BlueDAC is in Bluetooth mode, it powers down its USB circuitry, and CEntrance claims you get 20 hours of playtime; in USB mode, eight hours.

While the BlueDAC is designed and assembled in the US, its overall feel isn't up to the build quality standards I expect from $400 components. Far from it. The BlueDAC looks like a cheap plastic gizmo. I'm certainly not making any judgment calls about the internal bits, just that the BlueDAC looks cheap. If you can get past that, this little guy's sound is mighty impressive, and it worked flawlessly. It's nice and tiny, just 4.3x2.2x0.7 inches.

The CEntrance BlueDAC with Audeze Sine headphones.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I started listening with my old, high-impedance (300 ohm) Sennheiser HD580 over-the-ear headphones, which have humbled many a phone. Plugged straight into my iPhone 6S, the sound was boring and uninvolving, and the '6S couldn't play the HD580 at all loud. It's a tough headphone to drive. The same can be said for the popular Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 'phones, which thrive only with decent amplification. The BlueDAC was just what the HD580 needed: The sound was so good I almost forgot I'm listening over Bluetooth!

Since the BlueDAC is a balanced amplifier, I was curious to see if balanced operation made any difference. I swapped out the HD580's standard cable for a $80 balanced cable with a 2.5mm plug. Then the BlueDAC sounded more powerful, and the soundstage was deeper and more spacious, and the HD580's sound was a little better.

I next brought out a set of Audeze EL8 over-the-ear headphones, and they sounded spectacular plugged in with the standard cable. Upgrading to a set of Audeze balanced cables produced similar gains in sound quality as I experienced with the HD580 running balanced.

Of course, not all headphones can be used with balanced cables. Check with the manufacturer to see if yours does. Even then, I'm not sure most BlueDAC buyers will opt to buy extra cost cables, and I found the sound with the standard cables truly excellent.

As for the Bluetooth feature, it's nice not to be tethered to a computer or phone. Or if you own a recent iPhone that lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack, and have a set of expensive wired headphones, the BlueDAC would be a wise investment.

I also used the BlueDAC as a desktop digital converter plugged in via USB to my Mac mini computer, driving my full-size Audeze LCD-XC headphones. The sight of the wee BlueDAC driving the big and bold LCD XC looked incongruous. The sound, on the other hand, was very decent.

To finish up, I played the BlueDAC wired up to my iPhone 6S with an Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter. Of course, the wired connection sound was a little clearer than Bluetooth, but the bulky Camera Adapter is hardly an elegant solution.

As you can see the CEntrance BlueDAC is a rather versatile device, and a worthy partner with some of the better high-end headphones on the market. If you have a decent wired headphone, the BlueDAC will likely make it sound better than you've heard it sound before.

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