I recall a time back in 2009 while working as a sound engineer for a local music label studio, I was privy to a new device called the Centrance MicPort. It was something that made life a lot less stressful and I recall being very impressed by the technology. Recently, Centrance released a new product called the Mini M8: a $699 Dac that seems to be intended for portable headphone usage.
It wasn’t long ago that company released their slightly larger and much more powerful M8, which boasted claims of being able to drive any headphone on the planet, both with style and authority. They have always made good on their claims and I chased a review sample of the Mini M8 ever since the first press release of the product. Over the various audio meets in the past few years, I have seen the original M8 toted by a few audio enthusiasts. I thought the original M8 was something worth investing time into talking about and properly reviewing. Thankfully, I was able to snag a new Mini M8 for review and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.
Where the original M8 offered incredible full-size headphone driving capability, the new Mini M8 seems to be offering the flip side of the coin, gifting a more subtle approach to both the sonic qualities as well as the driving force behind the internal circuitry. This time around, Centrance made sure to cover the portable applications and needs of their on the go customers.
The Mini M8 features a B-style printer USB cable input, allowing for 24-bit/192 kHz asynchronous USB audio, also something specifically catering to the Apple fan boy device crowd with 30 pin/lightning-based input capability. The Mini M8 also offers an SPDIF optical and coaxial input. This may seem well and good, however this is clearly a specialized product intended for a small market, as I encountered a great deal of issues finding ways to connect this product to various other musical sources and even amplifiers correctly. It seems that the Mini M8 was explicitly designed with Apple in mind.
The unit is quite large and nearly double the length of my SR71B from Ray Samuels, but roughly equal in thickness. It is not pocket friendly. Clearly, this type of product that was set up to be carried inside of a larger bag or backpack, something to sit near your laptop if you were on the go. Not that that is a bad thing, though certainly prefer the device to be smaller than this, as it makes very little sense that a product of this size is branded as a great iem Dac. I certainly agree with that in terms of sonic qualities that this product is capable of, but more on this later. For now I’d like to stick to the exterior qualities the Mini M8 offers. It seems extremely durable, a high quality exterior shell adorns both sides of the unit, each input seems to be well-crafted and made the tough aluminum type of material with a shiny finish. Definitely a heavy duty design in all areas of physical design and materials used. One thing that really bugs me about it is the texturing choice: it is very glittery and exudes a very strange visual appeal. It is a damned nightmare to photograph, as it looks like it’s constantly covered in dust particles. Very odd choice for a paint job/texture finish, but to each their own I suppose. I would very much prefer the look of it to be flat black matte, something that doesn’t catch the light so easily, something that doesn’t put off a such a sparkly vibe. It says nothing about the quality of the Mini M8 though, as the serial material used as mentioned seems very durable and solid, I just desperately want a less flashy design.
The company also claims it is future proof and am going to have to disagree with that statement. As mentioned it seems like this product was specifically designed for Apple product pairing. You cannot use this product with RCA cables nor a 3.5 mm input, nor a balanced input. Your only options are to use this product via a computer USB, coaxial/spdif and lightning, get the various outputs are only 3.5 mm and a four pin balanced hirose typical of Ray Samuels amplifiers. If I were to call this product future proof, I’d want a number of different inputs other than lightning. Without a standard headphone input, you cannot classify this product is fully future proof. I cannot connect the Mini M8 to any normal portable music player, as it is not compatible with 3.5 mm outputs in common audio devices.
24-bit 192 kHz is fantastic on the go, and certainly becoming a standard in products like this, however the company designed this dac to be only compatible with ASIO output. That means if you are a Foobar2000 user who enjoys the extremely high quality and near unbeatable level of high fidelity in the Wasapi output, you are in for a world of hurt. When selecting music output in your software on your computer, you’ll have to download ASIO. You cannot use the Mini M8 with any other type of sound codec. This becomes a real nightmare when your source track is coded in 16-bit, as the stock default for the mandatory Centrance software is 24-bit, you will not be able to listen to his 16-bit track without first selecting either 16-bit mode on that third-party software provided by the company. The company insists that you use their own proprietary audio software output in conjunction with your various other music programs. Basically, their software is a third-party router. If the mode is set to 24-bit for example, and you try running the track that is 16-bit, you will not be able to track and Foobar will give you an error message saying it cannot play the file. Summed up, if you use this third-party software without ASIO active as your primary output format, you cannot listen to playlists that contain both 24-bit and 16-bit files together. You’ll have to manually select one at a time depending on the format of your track currently playing.
ASIO vs Wasapi comparisons during my review proof that Wasapi is capable of being more friendly with lossless files. It is not severely inferior codec, but it is in fact less quality, less hi-fi than what I’m used to. I have almost no experience with ASIO, it is a format output that hardly anybody uses so I am baffled as to why Centrance made it mandatory is codec to be used with the Mini M8. I do not want use this codec and I’m not technically adept enough to fully understand why it is the only codec that works with the Mini M8. I find it to be severely limiting, but thankfully the sound quality despite that is very good through this type of codec, but again it is not something I would use with lossless files if I had the option of choosing what type of output to select. It is a very strange output codec that hardly anybody supports and widely uses. It is certainly not future proof if ASIO is the only codec I am able to use with my computer. Most other DACs would allow me to use almost any type of output within the realm of reason, yet this one locks me with ASIO and does not allow me to use much else for output type. The Mini M8 does not have any analog input capability.
I am positively livid over the idea that this Dac has a rounded optical input instead of a common place squared version, which forces you to purchase an adapter to go from optical squared to optical rounded, just to be able to plug into the device. If that isn’t stressful enough, it is the only input on the front panel near all the outputs. The front plate offers the balanced 4-pin out, 3.5mm out, gain switch, volume and optical/coax input, where as the backside offers the USB, lightning, DC 19v charging and lastly the toggle switch between computer USB and Lightning input. In my humbled opinion, as great as the output selection and customization is on the M8 model, the Mini M8 is so oddly setup and forces you into a corner with extremely weird input and output selection. Can’t we just drop the Lightning and Coax all together since most audio enthusiasts use 3.5mm, Balanced or a USB? Why did the USB have to be the largest type in the B-printer style? Why not save some space with a micro usb that is 1/4 the size instead? There really is no way of saying it differently: The Centrance Mini M8 is really oddly designed and it will cause stress if you don’t have the exact, specialized gear this device was intended to be used for.
Truthfully, I’d originally thought that the Mini M8 would be customizable just like it’s big brother the M8, but it seems anyone who buys it is stuck with a non-friendly input selection. This Mini M8 seems very confused as to what it is trying to be, tossing random inputs and outputs around the rear and front plates without much logic to it. If it wanted to be a Dac, then just be a dac with a USB input and various headphone outputs. If it wanted to be a portable amplifier, then give us the normal analog input capabilities as well as outputs of various types. Meshing those two together in this manner is extremely confusing and incredibly annoying when you try to actually use this on the go. Due to it’s size, you can’t use it as a portable amp anyway, so those analog inputs would not mean much if they were offered, but the unit itself is geared for stationary portability with rigs that are not computer based, right? Your portable rig will have to be from Apple or something that has a optical/coax output. If that is the case, you need another adapter, which is not included. How many Hifi Daps out there have coax/optical outputs? The answer is less than I can count on my fingers that actually have sound quality that would logically pair with the Mini M8.
If you are planning to use this with only your computer as a Dac, then you are good to go. I recommend it 9/10 times, but you will be stuck with that ASIO output. If you want to use this portably with a music player, you need an Apple product or something with the lightning output, or something with Coax/Optical output + an extra adapter. This $699 Mini M8 doesn’t come with any of the cables you need to use the device on the go, so good luck finding a custom optical cable maker, you’ll have to shelve all your custom 3.5mm or balanced input interconnects if you buy this Mini M8, none of them are supported for input needs.
The Mini M8 is also not capable of charging your iDevice off it’s internal battery power. The Mini M8 will charge it’s battery via the USB connection though. The selection switch also is confusing, the manual nor the website explains this fully: the center mode switch position lights up the Lightning symbol, but the website manual says the SPDIF/Coax can be in either left or right position. A bit confusing, but the left mode is USB Dac mode, the center is for battery charging, the right is for Lightning. When you plug in the device, it will not charge via USB unless the center mode is selected on the switch. If the battery is drained, you cannot use it as a USB dac. The USB cable does not provide power to the unit when USB is selected, so this Mini M8 is in fact a Dac unlike any other Dac I’ve encountered in a very long time: reliant on battery power to be used through a computer. Yikes. It also is not a plug and play device with your computer, you’ll need to download the driver from Centrance directly…and it is very sluggish with Foobar2000. All my music is on a fast solid state drive and I have a monster pc rig…unlike Wasapi that lets me cycle through large .flac 32bit files almost as fast as I can click my shuffle hotkey, ASIO cycles at a snails pace and lingers for a second at it’s fastest between each track if I were to tap Shuffle quickly. This is why I hate ASIO…is just isn’t close to the quality and user friendliness of Wasapi. My music collection is stupidly large and I often sit in my chair cycling through Shuffle mode on Foobar2000’s interface, trying to do that with ASIO’s slowness is like getting stuck behind one of those giant crawling pace-rigs that haul the NASA rockets in the middle of the highway.
Page 2: Sound Impressions