Pros: Fabulous sound from top to bottom
Paired with M8V2, might be all you need, desktop or otherwise
Power for all but the hardest headphones
Evny from mates who don’t have one
Cons: Not the most stackable
Limited connectivity (who cares…)
CEtrance Ampersand ($750)…&?!
CEntrance has a rich history, even in the scant 22 years, in the music field, with many well-known producers, artists and engineers using the company wares since 2000. Everyone who works for the company also has a tie to music somehow. Founder Michael Goodman had the goal of “working with every audio company in the world.” He has largely succeeded as his products are used on stages, in recording sessions and finishing studios around the globe.
Roughly speaking, in 2009 the decision was made to enter the portable market, with the help of Head-Fi founder Jude Mansilla. Making a portable DAC/Amp in the DACport, the company pretty much rewrote the market on what a portable should sound like. 2013 saw the original M8 come to fruition, and it was of course a hit. The V2 is an updated model, even though the first gen is still available. 2021 saw the Ampersand, a high-powered portable amplifier follow suit. The combination will be reviewed separately but will of course be used together as well. The CEntrance was used across many sources and with various headphones/IEM’s ranging from the Fir Audio Frontier Series (all three), the E-Prototype Flare, the Kennerton Rognir, and DDHiFi Janus 2 w/Air Nyx cable. The Ampersand was also paired with the excellent M8 V2. Impressions of the pairing are noted below as well.
I noted in the M8 V2 review how a comparison between the Ray Samuels Intruder and the M8 V2 was warranted due to the sheer veracity with which the Intruder performed. The comparison between the intruder and the Ampersand might have been more apropos, since both are portable amplifiers. The Ampersand connects to pretty much every type of cable connection you have or would need. Plus, with adaptors you can utilize the ones not on the unit (2.5bal & 3.5se). No BT connection is had, but you can hook up either a single ended source or 4.4 balanced source, which is nice for those units, which have a 4.4 balanced jack such as my Shanling M6 Pro. No optical or USB-C connections to be hard, but no bother. This is can still be hooked to your desktop system via the connections above.
|Freq. Response||20 Hz…20 kHz ±0.2 dB|
|THD+N||0.0089% (6W / 48 Ohm, 1kHz)|
|Nominal Input||2 V rms, unbalanced|
|Output Power, 13 Ω||2.3 W (total)|
|Output Power, 16 Ω||3 W (total)|
|Output Power, 22 Ω||4.4 W (total)|
|Output Power, 48Ω||6 W (total)|
|Max Level, XLR||12 V rms|
|Output Impedance||1 Ohm|
|Supported Headphones||8…600 Ohm, practically any headphone made|
|Gain Switch||0 dB, -10 dB, -20 dB pad|
|Var/Fix Switch||Lets you control Volume with either the local knob or at the connected DAP|
|Number of Outputs||3 total — 2 Balanced (XLR and 4.4 mm) and 1 Unbalanced (1/4″)|
|Number of Inputs||2 total — 1 Balanced (4.4 mm) and 1 unbalanced (3.5 mm)|
|Headphone Amp||Custom, Class A, AmpExtreme™ technology with bipolar power supplies|
|Battery Run time||5 HRS average. Highly dependent on headphones, output power and program material.|
|Charge time||~4.5 hours using a 2.4A USB charger|
|DC Charging||+5 V from USB adapter, such as iPad charger. 2 A or more recommended|
|Power Supplies||Battery-isolated, ±12 V analog power supply rails with microsecond transient response time|
|LED Level Meter||Full-wave rectified, precision-calibrated, Professional LED Meter with brightness control|
|Chassis Material||Aircraft-grade aluminum, hard-anodized for scratch resistance, black|
|Rechargeable Battery||Li-Polymer with Japanese chemical formulation for long lasting power|
|Unit Dimensions||121 mm (4.76″) (L), 70 mm (2.76″) (W), 36 mm (1.42″) (H)|
|Unit Weight||250 grams (8.9 ounces)|
|Box Dimensions||161 mm (6.33″) (L), 111 mm (4.37″) (W), 42 mm (1.65″) (H)|
|Box Weight||455 grams (1 lb)|
|Included accessories||Quick Start Guide, Velvet pouch, rubber feet, SIM card tool for switches, USB-C Cable for charging or USB audio.|
Coming in with 2.3-6 watts of power (13-48 ohms) is quite fierce for a device this small. Many manufacturers inflate their power “outputs” to the point of unbelievability. Here though, the 1.2 watts might be conservative. The USE of that power is more important than the actual OUTPUT of said power. I often think of late 60’s, early 70’s US muscle cars. Promoting 550bhp was the norm, yet the cars were constantly being dusted by little Euro boxes with much less power. Why? Because it was the use of that power, not the mere fact it had that much. The Ampersand is plenty powerful. Period.
The Ampersand is the company’s second 20th anniversary model, following the M8 V2, and is touted as the world’s most powerful portable amp. Also “built like a tank,” the Ampersand is said to withstand the rigors of abusive use quite nicely. Using a purely balanced Class-A amplifier certainly helps along with audiophile grade OpAmps (something Burson took to another level…) and a smooth volume wheel allows the user to judge how much or how little they can stand inside their ears.
A three-position gain switch (mainly seen on DAP’s at various price points such as the excellent Dethonray dtr1+ (and dtr1) and many Cayin DAP’s further allows the user to adjust to genre or musical taste the amount of power guided to your cranial matter. You can also run the volume as variable or fixed (Var/Fix) for use with a dedicated source such as a DAP, or a DAC like the M8 V2. Having a line out feature is a nice addition to the repertoire.
All of this power can be channeled to drive such headphones as the HiFiMan HE6se, a notoriously hard headphone to drive or your everyday mount from Fir Audio or others. With an average run time of 5hrs unplugged (verified once, more coming) and the three gain switch positions adding up to 20dB of volume level makes this critter at just as at home on your work desktop as with your portable stash.
With the plethora of adapters out there (I have my favorite brand) you may not need all of the headphone jack options, but it is certainly nice to have. Especially when we change headphones or IEM’s at a whim. Plus knowing you can just as easily run your XLR-cabled headphone as you commuting IEM makes this inclusion very valuable. Charging does take a longer than normal 4.5hrs, though. But with the smart USB-C charging option, you can leave it plugged in at work and the unit will only charge when needed, stopping the excess flow of electrons when not needed.
Having the same familiar LED lights pumping out as the sound emanates from within can also be tailored to low light or off, saving more battery. That said, on both models, the use of the LED “VU” meters took minimal amounts of battery charge. To me this is more about a privacy issue, as someone may not care to see those flashing lights constantly. The unit is light as well as lit. Pairing both the M8 V2 and the Ampersand makes for a lightweight powerhouse option when portability is needed. Gone it seems are the days of portable amplifiers being called “bricks.” That said, I do have another in house, which could be used as a doorstop…
Coming from the M8 V2, expectations were very high. As of right now, with price and performance put together, the M8 V2 is my go-to DAC/Amp on the market right now, so the Ampersand has high expectations to hit. I will evaluate it purely as a headphone amplifier first, then the pairing together with the M8 V2.
And, just like the M8 V2 from the off, I was impressed. Mighty impressed. Strong, vibrant, deep and rich coming through my Empire Ears Legend X & Eletech Socrates, the pair sounded phenomenal on Tuesday’s Gone. I was immediately reminded of the M8 V2 and the sound, but with a bit more down low and a good guttural grunt, which did not over-flavor the rest of the signature. Moving the gain switch up afforded more of what I hear, but with the volume increase associated with that quick jolt. I left the gain on high, and used the volume wheel, but found the incremental volume increases had become sharper and quicker; so I moved the gain back to medium, then low for the most part.
Running the 4.4bal input and a balanced IEM/headphone yielded the best signature, with excellent detail & clarity. Air between the notes, even with a “heavier” sound, was quite good, allowing easy separation. This of course lent itself towards the wonderful detail wrought from the balanced duo. The same was had with a balanced source in and the XLR, but with a bit more vibrancy than the 4.4bal. Just a bit to me. The 6.35se provided a good blend of detail and separation, but not like a balanced set up could. If I had my choice it would be a balanced source in through the 4.4bal and either the 4.4bal or XLR outputs.
On Peter Frampton’s wonderful Isn’t It A Pity, from the equally superb Frampton Forgets The Words, I raise the volume to account for my mood. Staring at the icy cold waters of Lake Superior in front of me, I let my self be enveloped by the song, the music and the scenery. Migrating raptors, songbirds and larger such as Sandhill Cranes grace me with a look. I smile knowing this is the place of our choosing, and the music is just a perfect pretense to our life. Listening first on low gain, the volume knob creeps ever clockwise until I reach satiation point. Distinct clarity, with excellent air between the melancholic notes exude from within and I gain a deeper understanding of the passion CEntrance puts into their wares. There is a reason they are one of the most highly sought-after studio and live stage additions. It goes well beyond that they are damn fine pieces of kit. They get it. They know that a musician’s craft is best when they can forget about the equipment at hand. They can forget about it because the kit becomes one with them. One with the music they are passionately purveying our way. Much like the riffs from Frampton’s guitar. Like a seasoned veteran, his version of whiskey or scotch betters with age. And the Ampersand is the device, which whispers those inner thoughts across my ears. Such fine music. Such fine kit. Such fine scenery. Is this heaven? No, it’s Michigan!
I repeat the song on medium gain, and the result is the same. Pure unadulterated pleasure and passion. This is beyond good stuff. This is magnificent kit.
Switching to a 4.4bal connection from the Shanling M6 Pro yields better results. Having a fully balanced source run through allows for more air yet between the notes. I would not call it a thinning, but rather more distinct character. On Los Lobo’s excellent Chuco’s Cumbria (Live) the sound of staccato notes is succinct and distinct. Almost precise to a point like a fine Swiss time piece, there is still an emotive response from within, as witnessed on Tears Of Gold from the same album. A certain sensuousness comes across with that distinct character, but not enough to drown out the overall sound. Almost walking a fine line between too tight and orderly versus emotive richness, the Ampersand carries the notes as intended as good as any device I have heard.
Paired w/ CEntrance M8 V2:
I will admit, that I am probably not the best judge of small differences in sound. But if I do hear something, I note that and do my best to explain the differences. Running each CEntrance alone, the major difference is the better DAC in the M8 V2. That makes perfect sense, since it is a DAC first, with a very nice headphone amplifier second. The Ampersand is a pure Class-A headphone amplifier. Period. Running Class-A means it promotes a certain clean crispness to the sound, as witnessed above. So, I am not sure how that can be improved, other than to clean the sound up even more before entering the Ampersand. That really is the point of a good DAC. Improve where there is a deficiency.
Rolling back to Frampton’s Isn’t It A Pity, the addition of the M8 V2 in the change becomes immediately apparent (as it should). Replacing the DAC from my MBP with the excellent one inside, the duo garnered even better detail and clarity. That airiness of which I spoke in the M8 V2 review is there with certainty. Paired with the excellent Class-A sound of the Ampersand, this makes for a top notch set up. And for less than I paid for one of my ifi Pro series DAC/Amps. Even less than the vaunted Cayin C9 (which is astoundingly good). Had I less of a need to tinker like I do on the iFi Pro duo, this pairing of CEntrance items would satiate my need. It even has almost enough settings to differentiate your sound, which could replace equalizations or “bass boost” switches such as the iFi duo have. What I am trying to say, is that for the price of a worthy upper-mid-fi IEM or headphone, you could have this pairing, which would do more for the quality of your sound than another headphone/IEM. The portability only adds shine to the already showroom finish.
I will also admit, that it took me a fair bit to hook the pair up in a proper set up, and with the proper gains/functions. One could easily blow your headphones/IEM’s up tinkering; but thankfully I took it slow. Running the volume pot on the M8 V2 at less than full afforded me a certain levity with the Ampersand, allowing me to trifle at that kit for the finer moments. Once reached, the pair was superb. Period.
So all of those musings above come to this. Many skip right to this after the intro. I think with either of the CEntrance devices, you are doing a disservice to each. Held to their own volition, you could easily justify either purchase. If you want power, the Ampersand is the clear winner. A better sourced sound? Then the M8 V2 wins, hands down. If you want the best COMBO of the finer points from CEntrance, then I would lean towards the M8 V2. Its versatility from the DAC/Amp standpoint put it slightly above the immense power of the Ampersand. But, if you have hard to drive headphones, the choice is easy. The Ampersand will drive all coming its way. And do so without struggle coming in with superb Class-A sound. And for that alone, the purchase may be an easy one. Truth be told, though; had I the need (hint, hint) I’d purchase both and be done for a good long retirement up north. The ability to carry both easily and with many different sources makes the duo an easy recommendation. Either way you will easily see and hear what musicians around the globe already know. These products from CEntrance are at the top of their game for a reason. The sound is superb. Pouring another hot cup of locally roasted joe, I turn the volume up once more and look over Superior. It is a grand experiment and excursion I wouldn’t miss for the world.