CEntrance is a renown creator of professional audio solutions, but they’ve dipped their toes into the consumer market more than once. There’s always been some crossover between the musician who needs a clean, crisp, detailed sound from his headphone amp in the studio and the audiophile who wants the same thing in his living room. CEntrance’s Hi-Fi M8 V2 sits in the center of that crossover.
Build and Design
At first glance, HiFi-M8 is basically a metal brick covered in knobs, switches, jacks, and indicators. The device is sturdy and could easily survive being on stage with The Who – or being dropped out of plane, for that matter – without looking much worse for the wear. The knobs and switches are designed to both prevent being accidentally moved and to avoid damage or breakage from mishandling of the device.
For inputs you have USB or Bluetooth (aptX, AAC, or SBC), with the outputs being divided into two sections. High level output is on the front with a 6.3mm and balanced 4-pin XLR designed for over-ear headphones – there’s even a warning “Caution: No IEM.” The back features 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm and is more friendly for sensitive headphones and IEMs.
The top of the HiFi-M8 features a light-up VU meter that measures the input volume. It certainly looks cool, and it’s also useful for troubleshooting. At a glance you can see if the DAC is receiving input when you press play on the player, potentially saving your ears from that game where you turn the volume up all the way and then are suddenly deafened when the sound actually kicks in. If you find the lights distracting you can dim or turn them off completely with a dial on the back of the unit. There’s also a LED battery life indicator on the back of the unit.
HiFi-M8 comes in a fairly small package, with a charge cable (USB-C), USB-C to USB-A adapter, a carrying pouch, and a tool for adjusting the various switches (more on that in a moment). There’s also a card with basic instructions and pictures explaining the different functions of the device. The overall design ethos leans towards a stage/professional design, with a definite skew towards function over form.
HiFi-M8 doesn’t have an OLED screen or many other modern accoutrements, but it has a lot of switches and knobs that control various aspects of the device. All of said switches and knobs are recessed into the unit to prevent accidentally toggling, say switching from low to high gain in the middle of a listening session. While there are some benefits to this design, it also means that you won’t be able to easily manage controls without the provided tool – or a paperclip, safety pin, or some other similar household item.
What functions can you control with said tool? In terms of the musical aspect, there’s a high/low gain setting, a bass boost, and a treble boost. It also provides options for Stamina and Charge mode. Stamina mode increases the battery life by disabling the “Hot” outputs (6.3mm and XLR) and the LED meter. Charge mode determines whether the USB audio input port also serves to charge the device. There’s a separate charge port in the front of the device so that you can still charge and play at the same time with Charge mode off. Turning it off will reduce any potential noise and give you a blacker background on the input, while turning it on provides the added convenience of not needing two separate cables to charge and listen at the same time.
There are two input options: USB and Bluetooth. The Bluetooth supports aptX, AAC, and SBC, and is very well executed. A/B-ing USB and Bluetooth reveals some compression in the Bluetooth sound that’s noticeable in lessened bass texture and some veiling in the upper highs, but for background listening, lower resolution files, or use on the go (like on a walk with IEMs) there wasn’t an appreciable drop in quality. The USB input was perfectly compatible with everything I could find to plug into it, and provided absolute top notch audio quality.
This is an interface that’s bound to be somewhat polarizing. In the end, it’s straightforward, and all of the controls have a simple, easily discernible purpose. While there are plenty of portable DACs out there which either look like a piece of alien technology or some kind of vintage studio gear shrunk down to be pocket sized, HiFi-M8 simply looks and functions like modern studio gear, with just a few tweaks for the audiophile lifestyle.
HiFi-M8’s sound is a crisp, transparent reference sound, with an impressive delivery of a broad 3D image. The bass is deep, colorful, and textured, the mids deliver exquisite detail, and the treble gives you definition, presence, and every ounce of resolution your headphones can deliver. The 3D image is immaculately constructed, and quality headphones will have every bit of information they need to deliver width, depth, and positioning that stands very tall in the under $1000 price bracket.
The various knobs and switches do their job quite well. In high gain mode this thing absolutely screams. HiFi-M8 proves to be one of the handful of portable units I’d dare to recommend for a hard to drive headphone like the HIFIMAN Susvara. In low gain, with the 3.5mm or 2.5mm outputs on the back, you get a pitch black background with even the most sensitive IEMs (Note: I did experience some “interference” type sounds with the Campfire Solstice via 3.5mm, but not with 2.5mm, or other IEMs I tested. Otherwise the signal was crystal clear and hiss free).
The bass and treble boost are tasteful, and allow the listener to add a touch of color or reinforce the missing piece in their headphones. The bass boost adds some depth and enhances the impact, but doesn’t create any noticeable bleed up into the mids. The treble boost adds some air and strengthens the already excellent definition. Personally, I wouldn’t use the treble boost without the bass boost, but for a more classic oriented listener, or with a darker headphone, it could tip the scales in the right direction.
I had a wide array of headphones plugged into the HiFi-M8 at least briefly, if not for longer sessions, with some highlights including the Audeze LCD-5, HIFIMAN Susvara, Campfire Solstice, and 64 Audio Duo. If you’re looking for a portable solution that can genuinely provide sufficient power and the sort of detail that can match up with a flagship level headphone, HiFi-M8 delivers.
Comparison: iFi xDSD Gryphon
On paper, CEntrance HiFi-M8 V2 and iFi xDSD Gryphon are very similar products. They’re both portable DAC/Amps with Bluetooth, and a number of configuration options. In actual use, the two are quite a bit different. Gryphon handles most functions through two buttons and an OLED display, instead of the many switches of the HiFi-M8. Gryphon is smaller with a smooth futuristic look, while HiFi-M8 leans into the “black metal brick” aesthetic. In terms of size, Gryphon is a bit smaller and more pocketable, while HiFi-M8 is going to be more at home in a roomier sweatshirt pocket or possibly a backpack side pocket. The weight of the two units is about the same.
With the exception of the Bass/Presence switch on the back, Gryphon’s controls are entirely digital, while HiFi-M8 controls everything with switches and analog knobs. In general, I imagine two camps on the design decisions. On one side, you’ll have those who prefer the old-fashioned simplicity of HiFi-M8’s decisive on/off switches, and on the other side, those who prefer the modern controls of Gryphon. The key point here is that both units do what they’re trying to do very well and are generally easy to use.
While both units support Bluetooth, and HiFi-M8’s Bluetooth implementation is generally good, Gryphon’s focus on more modern design and technology wins here. Gryphon supports a wider range of codecs, and in my tests in the office, it had more range and less noticeable drop in quality between USB and Bluetooth input. And while HiFi-M8 seems like a Swiss Army knife at first, Gryphon has the longer laundry list of features. It has a larger range of input options, as well as the ability to accept analog input, and a dedicated line out making it very strong for more complicated setups.
In terms of sound, Gryphon has a nice character to the sound, but HiFi-M8’s cleaner, more reference sound feels more complete. In the mids, Gryphon doesn’t have the same thickness as the HiFi-M8, with the sound signature presenting somewhat v-shaped (note: since your only options with the rear switch are Bass, Presence, and Bass+Presence, it ends up just shifting the emphasis of the V). Highs are certainly crisp and well defined on Gryphon, but without the XBass, the bass doesn’t have the richness or depth of the HiFi-M8. With the XBass, you get closer, but the Gryphon with XBass doesn’t match the combination of extension and slam you get with HiFi-M8 with the Bass boost.
The soundstage and imaging provide a similar comparison. HiFi-M8 has a larger, more 3D dimensional soundstage without flipping any switches, and while Gryphon’s XSpace catches it up a bit, it can’t catch up to HiFi-M8’s natural spatial characteristics.
In the end, these are two incredible portable DAC/Amps that showcase the amazing tech that goes into delivering this level of sound, with this many options, in such small packages. If you need the best connectivity, the most options, and the most modern design available, Gryphon provides all that in a nice package. But, if you’re a purist who wants the cleanest, most transparent possible sound in a portable device at this price point, HiFi-M8 has what you need.
The Bottom Line
With its pro audio design and an interface that might be more familiar to studio engineers than audiophiles, HiFi-M8 might not look like everyone’s cup of tea. But its feature set is solid and its performance is some of the best in a portable unit under $1000. HiFi-M8 bridges the gap between studio and audiophile with a powerful, transparent, reference sound.