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Published on April 15th, 2011 | by Greg

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HRT Music Streamer 2: Sounding Out The Analog Soup

When you start push­ing be­yond your ba­sic sound equip­ment, in­to the au­dio­phile world, you be­gin learn­ing a new vo­cab­u­lary. The ba­sic goals of most sound equip­ment are straight for­ward- iso­la­tion, pow­er, try­ing to stay true to a source. But of­ten, these things work against each oth­er- ad­di­tion­al vol­ume re­quires ad­di­tion­al pow­er of course, but with pow­er comes noise. Size is al­so a fac­tor- ev­ery­one wants a small box, but that leads to se­ri­ous com­pro­mis­es. Take your lap­top as an ex­am­ple- on­ly a few make any at­tempt to iso­late the on­board au­dio for use in mix­ing or DJing or just send­ing sound out­bound. Ex­ter­nal sound cards are of­ten mediocre, but the ba­sic func­tion is the same- take a dig­i­tal file, like an MP3, and con­vert it for use in the ana­log world of speak­ers.

The HRT Mu­sic Stream­er 2 is one of sev­er­al friend­ly DACs start­ing to at­tract at­ten­tion from non-au­dio­philes. These DACs, or dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­vert­ers, serve as a re­place­ment for on­board sound, and of­ten plug in via USB. You can then con­nect your head­phones, or home au­dio sys­tem, and will im­me­di­ate­ly hear a dif­fer­ence. Of course, there are a bunch of oth­er ways to im­prove sound- iTunes plug-ins can tweak out­put in a va­ri­ety of ways, and sim­ply re-rip­ping your CDs or down­load­ing high­er bi­trate or loss­less files will make a big dif­fer­ence (up to a point, per­haps 192kbps, above which most peo­ple can­not hear a dif­fer­ence ex­cept on spe­cial­ized gear). These type of DACs are easy to use- we sim­ply plugged the Mu­sic Stream­er 2 in via USB to our com­put­er, start­ed up iTunes, and hooked the box up to our De­non re­ceiv­er and Orb Au­dio speak­ers and sub, then the Au­dio­engine book­shelf sys­tem. No ex­tra pow­er sup­ply is re­quired- the USB ca­ble pro­vides it.

The nit­ty grit­ty: up un­til re­cent­ly, most USB DACs were not asyn­chronous- that is, they sup­port­ed on­ly adap­tive mode, which is prone to jit­ter. The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of the Mu­sic Stream­er us­es some fan­cy cir­cuit­ry to elim­i­nate the is­sue. Al­so, many pre­vi­ous con­tenders were lim­it­ed to 16-bit sound and 44KHz- good enough, but a no­tice­able change from the sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter 24-bit/96 KHz, es­pe­cial­ly when us­ing com­pressed files. We could ac­tu­al­ly test this out by mod­i­fy­ing our sound set­tings. Highs are vast­ly im­proved, with bet­ter sep­a­ra­tion and much less mud­di­ness on well-pro­duced tracks, while the mid-range didn’t show as much im­prove­ment. Bass was rich­er, and clean­er. Au­dio is still fair­ly cold and clin­i­cal ver­sus, say, a high-end LP, but much bet­ter than straight out of a com­put­er. We didn’t get a chance to use the de­vice much past the rec­om­mend­ed 50 hours of “burn in” time, but were sat­is­fied nonethe­less.

The bot­tom line: it’s worth car­ry­ing around an­oth­er box and shelling out the dough, if you plan on play­ing high bi­trate files through fair­ly ex­pen­sive head­phones or speak­ers. Most ear­buds and cheap­er speak­ers prob­a­bly won’t ex­press the dif­fer­ence- you’d be bet­ter off up­grad­ing them first. We were a bit dis­ap­point­ed in their web­site, and though the au­dio drivers au­to­mat­i­cal­ly in­stall, the soft­ware is very bare­bones. Some man­u­al con­fig­u­ra­tion changes were re­quired for bet­ter per­for­mance, set­ting the au­dio prop­er­ties in the op­er­at­ing sys­tem. The sys­tem is still sim­ple enough for any­one to use, as long as you have an ana­log RCA-type in­put to your au­dio source (no S/PDIF op­ti­cal or mi­ni-jack is pro­vid­ed). At $150, it’s a well-made, fair­ly com­pact way to vast­ly im­prove the au­dio out­put from your lap­top or desk­top. If you’re in the mar­ket for a DAC, stop be­fore spend­ing big bucks, and try out this lit­tle guy- you’ll prob­a­bly be sur­prised.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.



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