HRT Music Streamer Pro USB D/A converter Page 2
. . . then finding balance
Next I had to contend with setting up the hardware. The Pro has balanced outputs that can also run unbalanced, so I had plenty of options. My plan was to compare the Pro to my reference Benchmark DAC1 USB, which can also run balanced or unbalanced, and send them both through an Integra DTC-9.8 preamplifier-processor (which also sports both balanced and unbalanced inputs/outputs), and via the direct balanced inputs of a Mackie mixing board in my recording studio.
I first noticed that there are no left or right markings on the Pro's outputs. So, facing the jacks, I put the right-channel cable in the right socket and the left in the left. Makes sense, yes? No. You need to look at the jacks from the USB input's perspective.
Next, it was back and forth between balanced and un- with both consumer and pro gear. To facilitate all these options, HRT offered to make me whatever custom cables I would need to connect via the Pro's somewhat nonstandard TiniQ jacks. I'd been wanting to try Furutech cables for a while, and spotted my chance. In the end, HRT supplied four pairs of cables and two sets of adapters, all Furutech's Alpha Series Balanced Audio Cable, and terminated with Furutech balanced and unbalanced connectors of various sorts. I also discovered that several HRT dealers offer to make TiniQ-compatible cables out of products from a variety of cable manufacturers, so these odd little jacks HRT uses to save space shouldn't pose a problem. In fact, I came to really like the solid snap each time I plugged a cable into the Pro and it locked into place. A small button on top of the connector releases it.
It was tough to put my finger on any striking sonic advantages either way, whether between balanced and un- or consumer and pro. Maybe I sensed a bit more presence with the balanced interconnects . . . I don't know. My cables were each only 1m long; as balanced systems are designed to reject noise better over long distances, there might have been bigger differences with longer cables. Maybe a different preamp would have yielded more noticeable differences, but I didn't hear any. So, to be sure, I compared the HRT and Benchmark using both sets of cables. And once I had the proper adapters, I had no problems at all running the HRT Pro into my consumer preamp.
ECM (Equipment-Challenging Music)
I started out with a series of old favorites that ECM has recently packaged into a three-disc boxed set, Colours (ECM 2133-35): Eberhard Weber's Yellow Fields (1975), Silent Feet (1977), and Little Movements (1980). Weber is an acoustic bassist who works in both traditional jazz and experimental settings, using a wide variety of instrumental combinations. This provides a wonderful sonic palette ideal for testing the often elusive differences between DACs.
Producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Martin Wieland are experts at creating a space in which musical subtleties come alive, perfectly lit and with sonic lushness. Microphones are obviously carefully positioned, and levels are set as a photographer would perfectly light a subject, to reveal all the fine details. This can work only with confident musicians, since any flaws in the music are easily apparent.
The result is that I've found ECM recordings to be ideal test discs for DACs: there is such riches of fine texture that the better DAC will always reveal something more. And over a half-dozen Weber compositions, the Music Streamer Pro's character began to reveal itself: a wonderfully rich midrange lacking any obvious glare or electronic colorations, and an ever-so-slightly-soft top end.
Next up was percussionist Pierre Favre and his ensemble, also an ECM favorite, who unfortunately has released only four discs on the label. His Fleuve (ECM 1977) contains a rich soundscape of sound, and reinforced my earlier perceptions of the Pro: wonderful percussive detail, but maybe a tad limited at the extremes of the audioband, with, consequently, a slightly compressed sense of sonic space. To be sure of this perception, it was time to bring in the Benchmark, which is known for its top-end detail and extension.
With Steve Tibbetts' latest release, Natural Causes (ECM 1951), recorded and mixed by him, that extra detail in the Benchmark's top end meant that I could hear the noise gates closing on Tibbetts' guitar tracks just a tad better. But this is a technical thing; the HRT's ever-so-slightly-softer top end didn't detract from the music a bit, and I would guess would be seen by many as a plus.
I cranked it up. This Tibbetts album is another great demo: around his multitracked Martin 12-string acoustic guitar and various washes of other stringed instruments, seemingly random percussion and subterranean bass sounds appear and vanishit's a study in sumptuous sound and digital manipulation. Again, what the HRT revealed was warm and honest, though the Benchmark's very slight extra soundstage depth and detail remained apparent.
Fair and balanced?
Considering that, for the most part, the HRT Music Streamer Pro could hold its own against a DAC costing almost two-and-a-half times as much says a lot. (To be fair, the Benchmark has many options not found on the Pro.) The differences were musically minimal enough that, for under $1000, I would easily choose the Pro for a system that could take advantage of a balanced signal. Yes, the precision of space and detail may have been a tad lacking compared to the Benchmark, and especially compared to the king of the hill, Ayre Acoustics' QB-9 ($2500), but let's be real about the HRT's $449.95 list price.
Considering its ability to run either balanced or unbalanced, I consider the Music Streamer Pro an easy short-list contender, if not the downright winner. It exhibits a finesse and ease lacked by the other DACs in its price range that I've heard. Because its products are USB-only, HRT has been able to focus its efforts on doing one thing quite well. And if you need that one thing done for not much money, you need to hear the Music Streamer Pro.