I have built up a large collection of CDs since the medium's launch more than a quarter century ago, along with a modest number of SACDs and a small number of DVD-As. But I find these days that, unless I'm getting down to some serious listening and can give the music my uninterrupted attention, I use iTunes to feed computer files to my high-end rig (footnote 1). I've mostly been using the superb-sounding combination of dCS Puccini U-Clock and Puccini player/DAC that I reviewed last December to take a USB feed from a Mac mini, but I've also been using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and Stello U2 USB-S/PDIF converters, particularly for headphone listening, when I use one of those two format converters with a Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier.
Most folks don't even know they exist, but the Channel Islands are a chain of eight moderately sized mountains poking through the Pacific Ocean along the coast of southern California, between Santa Barbara and San Diego. The most famous of these is Catalina Island and its city, Avalon, which sit opposite San Clemente. The other Channel Islands are relatively wild and have been preserved mostly uninhabited.
There's home cooking on one side of the hedge and fast food on the other, and the world moves farther from the former and nearer to the latter with each passing day. So it goes in domestic audio, where virtually every new milestone of the past quarter-century has pointed far more toward convenience than toward quality.
Depressed? Don't be. Those of us in the perfectionist community have a history of dealing with such things, howsoever slowly and inefficiently. (footnote 1). We're getting better at it, too, year by year. An example: Chord Electronics, of sunny southern England, has now brought to market their Chordette Gem D/A converter ($799) which they offer as an affordable means of getting perfectionist-quality sound from computer-music files.
Don't have $80,000 to drop on dCS's four-component Scarlatti SACD stack that I reviewed in August 2009, or $17,999 for their Puccini SACD/CD player that John Atkinson raved about in December 2009? Even if you do, the new Debussy D/A processor ($10,999) might be a better fit for your 21st-century audio system. Sure, you don't get an SACD transportor any kind of disc play, for that matterbut the odds today are that you already have a player you like that's got an S/PDIF output that can feed the Debussy.
Convergence. There, I've said it. I swore I wasn't going to use the "C" word, but when you're faced with writing about a product that smashes the boundaries between component categories as completely as the CardDeluxe does, you have little choice.
The integration of computers into high-end audio is contentious. A reader poll last spring on our website indicated that a significant proportion of audiophiles—a quarter—is dead set against the idea, yet both Microsoft, with Windows Media Player 9, and Apple, with iTunes, seem convinced that the future of domestic music reproduction involves computers. To support that idea, both Apple- and Windows-based computers (the latter with Intel's about-to-be-launched HD Audio technology) are promoting hi-rez audio playback.
If an audiophile visiting an audio show in 1991 were to have been transported two decades into the future, at first he would not be aware of any difference: A two-channel system would be playing in a hotel room. But on closer inspection, he would notice that the CD player, the ubiquitous source 20 years ago, would be conspicuous by its absence. Yes, there might be a turntable"Good to see that people are playing LPs in the future," he would thinkbut why is there a PC in the room?
When it comes to getting audio from a PC via its USB port, the buzzword du jour is asynchronous. This cryptic term refers to which device has control over the timing of the audio data being streamed from the computer: the computer itself, or the device receiving the data. It might seem logical to have the computer control the timing, but this is not so. When digital audio data are converted to analog by a D/A converter, control over exactly when each dataword is converted is critical for the best quality of sound. Any uncertainty in that timing manifests itself as analog distortion, aka jitter.
The weekly Vote! Page is one of the most popular features of the Stereophile website, and the August 22 question, "Should Stereophile review more or fewer computer-audio products?", generated a record number of responses. No less than 88% of those responding asked for more coverage of products that allow a computer to be a legitimate source of music in a high-end context. Just 7% of readers wanted less coverage.
No history of the computer-audio marketplace could be complete without some mention of High Resolution Technologies, the California company whose Music Streamer was, in 2009, the first perfectionist-quality USB digital-to-analog converter to sell for as little as $99. One could argue that HRT's entire business model has contributed to shaping our attitudes toward the hobby: Because digital-audio technology continues to evolve at such a rapid pace, HRT has introduced a succession of newer and ever more effective Music Streamers, occasionally to the obsolescence of their predecessors; yet because those products have all been so affordableremarkably and laudably so, given their thoroughly American provenancewe tend not to mind.
Art Dudley and others have covered the first products released by HRT, and now the company has added to its product line a Pro version of its Music Streamer, which sports balanced circuit design from tip to tail.
Housed in the same simple, functional, six-sided case of extruded aluminum as HRT's other products, the Pro is painted a bright blue to distinguish it from the Music Streamer II (red) and Music Streamer II+ (gray). At 5.6" it is also a tad longer than the others, and includes a single B-type USB 1.1 jack centered on one end, and two small, fully balanced TiniQ output jacks on the other. More about these special mini sockets later.
My favorite moment in the Zack Snyder film Watchmenapart from the Dylan-fueled title sequence, which itself contains some of the most memorable scenes in recent cinemacomes when retired crimefighter Daniel "Nite Owl II" Dreiberg arrives home to find the doctrinaire and mildly crazy Walter "Rorschach" Kovacs in his kitchen, eating beans straight from the can. The startled Dreiberg asks his visitor, "Would you like me to heat those up for you?"
Every now and then an affordable product comes along that's so good, even wealthy shoppers want it. Past examples in domestic audio include the Rega RB300 tonearm, the original Quicksilver Mono amplifier, the Grace F9E phono cartridgeeven Sony's unwitting CD player, the original PlayStation. Based on word of mouth alone, one might add the HRT Music Streamer+ to that lauded list.
Bratty, mollycoddled, and altogether spoiled consumers such as you and I have inflicted on computer audio the same injustice that laparoscopic surgery, antilock brakes, mobile telephones, word processors, e-mail, microwave ovens, and over-the-counter proton-pump inhibitors have suffered at our hands in recent years: In less time than it takes to say "ho-hum," we've knocked it from the pedestal to which all such breakthroughs are entitled and begun taking it for granted.
As someone who wrestled endlessly with the nine-pin serial ports and the RS-232 protocol with which early PCs came fitted (footnote 1), I welcomed the Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface when I first encountered it a decade ago, on the original Apple iMac. Plug it in. Don't worry. Be happy. The computer peripherals work as they should, which was often not the case with RS-232. It was a given, therefore, that the then-new USB port would be seen as a natural means of exporting audio data from a PC (footnote 2), but the first generation of USB-connected audio devices offered disappointing performance.