HRT Music Streamer HD USB D/A processor Page 2
The very first thing I noticed about the Music Streamer HD's sound was its good sense of scale. I began my serious listening with "Lover, You Should Have Come Over," from Jeff Buckley's Grace (ripped from CD, Columbia CK 57528), and was impressed that the harmonium that opens the song had seemingly doubled in size compared to when I heard it through my reference affordable DAC, the Halide DAC HD. (In fact, my listening notes say "tripled," but passing time has eroded my exceedingly slight tendency to exaggerate.) Yes, the HRT processor had higher apparent output, yet even after I'd compensated for same, it was obvious that the new processor offered a much larger and altogether grander sense of scalewhich didn't hurt the musical presentation one little bit. (Like John Bonham's drumming, a harmonium should never sound small.)
The HD's reproduction of this track was notable for other qualities, not the least being levels of openness and clarity that put it at least a rung or two above its predecessors in the HRT line. Electric guitars also had more color and body than I expectedthat aspect of the HD's performance was very much on a par with the Halide'sand the player's ability, overall, to get out of the music's way and to avoid impeding momentum and flow was admirable and, dare I say, downright analog-like. Vocal sibilants were a little overcooked, but because Grace sounds just a little bit hot through virtually any playback gear, I didn't let that trouble me.
Ricky Skaggs's fine version of Bill Monroe's "Mighty Dark to Travel," from Ancient Tones (ripped from CD, Skaggs Family SKFR-CD 1001), also showed the HD at its best: big, open, clear, explicit, and very involving. Of special note was the way the HD handled Mark Fain's upright bass: That instrument, working with the mandolin chop on the downbeat, drives this song like mad, and the HRT processor again stayed out of the music's way. Timbral balance was okay on this numbermy listening notes remind me that I wouldn't have wanted "a molecule more of treble"but in the loudest peaks in the harmony vocals of the chorus of "Walls of Time" there was, indeed, just a bit too much bite. By comparison, my Wavelength Proton DAC, while not sounding nearly as big or open as the HRT, was thoroughly free of that top-end aggressiveness, as was the Halide. Virtually the same could be said of the HRT's performance with the 24/192 HDTracks file of "Marrakesh Express," from Crosby, Stills & Nashalbeit with even greater emphasis on the player's wealth of detail and its temporal grip on both melody and backing vocals: the sound was explicit and engaging, but the vocal sibilants were a bit much.
I remade the HRT/Wavelength comparisons with a number of recordings, and things almost always shook out the same way. With the very moving "Ellis County," from Buddy and Julie Miller's Written in Chalk (ripped from CD, New West NW6158)a remarkably good, clear, direct recordingboth players were musically engaging, the HD perhaps a little more so. Still, there was a bit too much wheeze in the voices through the HRT, and a little too much scrape in the fiddle. And in "Take Five," ripped as a 24/192 file using an Ayre QA9 A/D converter, from a recent reissue of Dave Brubeck's Time Out (45rpm LP, Columbia/Analogue Productions AAPJ 8192-45), Joe Morello's ride cymbal was just a shade more ringy than usual, despite occupying the background of the recording, and Paul Desmond's alto saxophone was slightly more piquant than real. On the other hand, the size and scale of the sound through the HRT was superior, and the generously realistic decays in the sounds of the ride and floor toms were qualities at which my Proton didn't hint. For its part, the Halide DAC HD gave a similarly good account of the timbres and note decays in this great recording, but it fell a little short of the HD's amazing openness and clarity.
Not long before the HD's arrival, I'd reimmersed myself in the very moving Symphony 4 of Franz Schmidt, especially the recording by Martin Sieghart and the Bruckner Orchestra Linz (ripped from CD, Chesky CD143). The Music Streamer HD gave, in many ways, a fine accounting, with the same excellent scale heard in the Jeff Buckley recordingit was amazing to hear how the orchestra "bloomed" spatially during the third minute of the first movement, when the entire ensemble is headed into its first crescendowith almost peerless openness and an abundance of musical detail. But I was again distracted by a bit of upper-frequency hardness during the loudest climaxes, of which there's no shortage in the first movementespecially soon before the transition to the cello theme of the second movement, where the unison violins reach for a very high E-flat.
Using the aforementioned Ayre integrated amplifier, in which balanced outnumber single-ended inputs two to one (I take that as a sign), I tried the HRT's balanced outputs, hoping for more moderate trebles. Yet in the Juilliard String Quartet's recording of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet (ripped from CD, Sony S2K 66285), there was a little too much glare in the high notes played by clarinetist Charles Neidich, and too much bite in the violins. Similarly, in "Do You Want to Dance," from Lee Feldman's Album No.4: Trying to Put the Things Together that Never Been Together Before (ripped from CD, Bonafide UM-130-2), the HRT gave greater insight into the wonderful sound of Byron Isaacs's electric bass as played through a tremolo pedal, but there was still too much sibilance in the vocala disappointment.
I can count on two hands the products I've heard that are without apparent flaw. The world seems to abhor such things, leaving us to pick through the soil of commerce for those combinations of qualities we find most tolerable. So it goes here, in a corner of the perfectionist-audio marketplace where drastic differences aren't supposed to exist at all, yet nonetheless endure and even thrive. The HRT Music Streamer HD is governed by the same chaos, and while its sonic and musical strengths far outnumber its flaws, I still, at the end of the day, have to pass.
Notwithstanding the HD's nominally higher resolution, not to mention its superior openness and wealth of sonic and musical detail, I found myself preferring the similarly priced (and named) Halide DAC HD, with its richer and more colorful timbres and textures, and its altogether tamer top end.