Published on April 15th, 2011 | by Greg0
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.