High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer HD DACSRP: $449
Published on July 7, 2014
Specs:Dimensions: 3.8” x 6.0” x 3.0” Inputs: 1 USB “B” Outputs: 1 pair XLR balanced, 1 pair coaxial stereo RCAs Full Scale Output: via XLR, 4.5 Volts RMS; via RCA, 2.25 Volts RMS S/N Ratio: via XLR, 114dB; via RCA, 113dB A-Weighted S/N Ratio: via XLR, 122dB, via RCA, 119dB THD + Noise, 1 kHz full scale: .002% Jitter: 144dB below full scale Bit Depth: Up to 24 bit Sample Rate: Up to 192 kHz Power Requirements: 480 mA via USB buss Weight: 2 lbs.
I have a good working relationship with the folks over at High Resolution Technologies, and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several models in their line of moderately-priced DACs. I really like their design approach to digital-to-analogue conversion, and I’ve experienced really excellent results thus far with every model that’s graced my system. The Music Streamer HD is their flagship model and shows the culmination of HRT’s efforts over the last few years; CTO and designer Kevin Halverson has given us a new DAC with excellent PCM capabilities up to 24/192, and at a really good price point of $449. The DAC features fully balanced outputs and is also fully functional with either Mac or PC via the USB Audio 2.0 spec with HRT’s new universal USB driver. About the only thing it doesn’t offer is DSD playback, but let’s not be too quick to judge on that point – I’m a firm believer in the possibility of getting excellent sound quality from PCM sources. [The photo shows both the front and back of the unit; there are not two parts to it.]
I am also fully vested in the Windows operating system as my delivery vehicle for computer-based music playback, which is rapidly and increasingly becoming my preferred and almost sole source for music. The convenience factor presented by computer-based audio is nothing short of amazing – I can sit in my listening chair for literally hours on end with nothing more than my Android tablet in hand, which accesses my current media player, a JRiver Media Center. There’s an available app for the tablet called Gizmo, and it gives me complete control of my music library and basic control of necessary system functions – a $40 entry-level, no-name tablet has become for me a very elegant system remote. My current system is about as ungimmicked as any I’ve ever had the pleasure to own or experience; my computer’s USB output plugs into the Streamer HD, and its balanced outputs then feed the balanced inputs of my Luminous Audio Axiom passive preamp. The Axiom feeds my Emotiva XPA-2 Amplifier a fully-balanced signal that in turn shoots to the also excellent Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers. This combination has been truly reeking havoc on my exercise schedule (and my waistline proportions), not to mention my need for occasional sleep – when you’ve never experienced music playback at this very high level day in and out, it’s truly intoxicating, and hard to pull yourself away from! Achieving all this with a Windows-based system is compellingly affordable compared to an entry-level Mac system, and with the Intel processors currently found in all Macs, the differences are much less pronounced between the two operating systems than would have been the case five or so years ago. And this is coming from someone who works on Macs at my day job – you’d think, if anything, I’d be much more biased towards the Mac side.
The Streamer HD was a snap to install in my system; installing the HRT USB driver was trouble-free and JRiver Media Center walked me through their setup process seamlessly. Mac owners can simply plug and play, as current Intel-based Macs already support USB Audio Class 2, but PC users will need to install HRT’s USB driver to get ultimate performance (Windows has yet to embrace the USB Audio Class 2 standard, choosing to remain on the fence). The USB driver also installs a control panel on your desktop that allows you to select settings for Latency and Buffering, and I was able with my system to set a minimum Latency setting with a very low Buffer setting. If you’re experiencing any ticks or pops in your particular setup, you may need to play about with the settings to achieve satisfactory results. There’s a small toggle switch on the front panel that allows you to select between USB Audio Class 1 or 2, and I see no reason for anyone to select anything other than the Class 2 setting which allows you to play back files at resolutions up to 24/192. Through this unit, 24/192 files sound magnificent, and the Streamer HD is a joy to operate – it’s dead silent and introduces no outward artifacts of any kind. The music simply plays perfectly and effortlessly, and in my current system, the HD is driving a balanced cable run of 25 feet without a tick – pretty remarkable!
When CDs and digital playback first started appearing three decades ago, audiophiles took a hard listen and pretty much universally denounced the new format, and at the time, I did agree with them – so many of the music discs that I loved and revered in an analogue format often sounded pretty terrible and/or lifeless on CD. Yes, there were serious issues with many of the remastering jobs, but an undercurrent I noted at the time (that didn’t get anywhere nearly the press generated by the outcries from the record-buying public) came from audio professionals on the recording industry side; their contention was that the medium and technology wasn’t necessarily seriously flawed, the problem was that consumer-based playback equipment just wasn’t robust enough to offer the music at studio-quality resolution. I’ve heard variations of these arguments floating about for seemingly forever, and honestly, only until the last year or so have I had the technology in my system to offer truly, astonishingly good Red Book CD playback. The current crop of digital-to-analogue converters finally offer playback that approaches perfection from PCM-based sources, and the HRT Music Streamer HD sets an impressively high bar for DACs in the under $500 market – it really reaches deep into the encoded bits.
John Atkinson of Stereophile seems to think that Red Book CD is dead, and the area of real excitement is DSD, but I have to disagree. We’re now at a point when affordable equipment is finally available for many of us to enjoy CD-quality music at something approaching full resolution, and there’s so very much music available on CD that will probably never be made available (anytime soon) in higher-resolution digital formats. I’m not dissing higher-resolution music formats, but I’m convinced that there’s a lot of people out there that share my new-found enthusiasm for CD sound reproduced over a good DAC. I’ve always felt that HRT devices have done an exemplary job of extracting the most music from less than pristine CD transfers, but the Streamer HD takes that legacy into overdrive. I can’t cite a specific instance of any CD in my collection that I’d ripped to one of my storage drives that didn’t sound markedly better through the HD than through anything else I’ve recently tried.
The original Red Book CD issue of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a great example: through traditional playback, the music often sounds hard and homogenous, with a great deal of blurring of voices and details – the original CD transfer is, in short, awful. Not so fast – let’s examine one of the disc’s seminal tracks, “The Chain,” which led off side 2 of the original LP. Via the HD, there’s a huge increase in the amount of air and delicacy in the acoustic instruments; you can easily pick out the individual guitar positions, and the interplay between Lindsay and Stevie’s voices is much more well-defined – shockingly so, to say the least. Mick Fleetwood’s kick drum, which previously sounded hard and indistinct now plays with an incredible realism and acoustic power that rhythmically propels the track. Crescendos that previously were just homogenous blurrings of loud sounds are just as loud, but you can actually identify the individual parties and their instruments, and shockingly absent is anything remotely resembling the digital fatigue that I’d previously always identified with this disc. I probably hadn’t listened to this disc more than a couple of times over the last twenty years, and I’ve recently listened to it with sheer pleasure repeatedly.
I recently came across a copy of Jennifer Warnes’ 2001 release The Well, a disc that I’d heard a couple of tracks from a few years earlier but didn’t really dig too deeply into. I’d signed up for a trial membership to an MP3 download site that came with 50 free downloads, and among the ones I chose were a couple of songs from both The Well and Famous Blue Raincoat, her disc of Leonard Cohen songs. Those MP3s ended up on the flash drive that I use with my car stereo and usually turn up in the rotation every couple of months or so over the last few years, but for whatever reason never really sparked enough interest in me to pursue the full discs. And besides, I usually stay away from records that have been typified as “audiophile” recordings – I mean, just about every issue of TAS or Stereophile you pick up has an ad from Acoustic Sounds or Elusive Disc featuring either or both albums in expensive LP or Japanese CD versions.
One listen to my rip of the title track “The Well” really grabbed me, and I sat in almost utter disbelief while the entire album played through – I just couldn’t fathom how my peripheral involvement with this music in the car did nothing for me, but inside the house through the Music Streamer HD, I was really touched by the excellent performances, and this disc is just brimming with them. Of course, at that moment, I realized that I had to get a copy of Famous Blue Raincoat, which is – just my luck – out of print! Trips to Ebay and Amazon revealed sealed and used copies of the 2007 Twentieth Anniversary reissue priced anywhere from around $100 – way too rich for my blood. I finally found a vendor in Cincinnati – Used Kids Records – that had a $12 copy of the original 1989 CD issue in “good” condition that took about two weeks to arrive. A quick listen to the CD revealed that the disc sounded dynamically constricted with screechy vocals – this one might prove a real challenge for the HD. No worries – the HD offered my rip of the Private Music original with body, depth of soundstage and liquid vocals and midrange all perfectly intact. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s searing guitar turn on “First We Take Manhattan” totally rocks the house, and Leonard Cohen’s guest appearance on “Joan of Arc” finds him in incredibly excellent voice. The tom-tom beat that opens “Bird On A Wire” shakes the house – Judy Collins’ 1975 steel guitar-laced, countrified version seems rather tame by comparison. I’ll have to eat some serious crow and back off my posturing with regards to so called “audiophile” records – Jennifer Warnes is without a doubt one of the great interpreters of Leonard Cohen’s music. This is an album you can sit and listen to repeatedly with no wear for the worse!
I’ve always had a deep connection with prog-rock, and one of my all-time favorite albums is Yes’ classic Close To The Edge, which was recently made available on HD Tracks in 24/96 and 24/192 downloads. Woo hoo! I decided with a certain amount of trepidation to go for the 24/192 version, despite the high price. The good news is that Close To The Edge sounds impressively good; it’s easily the best sounding digital version of this music I’ve yet heard – it possesses an ease and clarity that really rivals the analog original. A lot of folks have probably been thinking the same thing – here we go again – now the record companies are basically sucking us in by dangling hi-res versions of all our favorites that we’ll be powerless to resist springing for, regardless of cost. Yes, there are high-res versions of albums out there that I find really tempting, but honestly, the CD rips I’ve made from so many of my classic favorites sound magnificent to me through the Streamer HD.
And those experiences are emblematic of my complete experience with the Music Streamer HD – through it, everything just sounds more like music – heck, 16/44.1 might just be enough! I really can appreciate why they chose to name this device the HD – HD for High Definition, of course – because I’ve been getting the musical equivalent of crisp and clear 1080p with everything I listen to. The HD takes a serious leap forward in performance from the lower line model Streamer II+ for a mere hundred dollars more. I did some intensive A/B-ing between the II+ and the HD, and I’m still greatly impressed with what the II+ brings to the table for only $349, offering the kind of warmth and retrieval of detail I’d never have believed possible at that price level. The HD shares a similar sonic signature with the II+, but takes you even more deeply into the music, casting a larger, more convincing soundstage, with exemplary detail retrieval – I could live with this unit from now on and be perfectly happy for the foreseeable future. The Music Streamer HD is, at this point, HRT’s magnum opus – the true culmination of their art. And operating in balanced mode, the sound quality takes an exponential leap over single-ended output.
The HD doesn’t do DSD, but let’s face it – the average Joe isn’t going to spring for the comparatively elevated cost of DSD downloads. DSD is quite probably always going to be a niche market. Contrast that with the vast availability of PCM-based Red Book CDs out there and the growing number of reasonably affordable 16- and 24-bit digital downloads. Does PCM sound as great as DSD? That is being hotly debated. But in a well-implemented PCM-based system, the differences are becoming shockingly much less obvious, with music resulting that is much more difficult to distinguish from the analogue originals. And with a really great, affordable DAC like the Music Streamer HD, more of us can actually embrace sound that approaches the absolute.