Both my sons and even my wife were ahead of me when it came to listening to music from hard drives instead of little silver discs. Of course, I listen to most of my music from twelve-inch black disc called LPs. Still, I have a hold system upstairs that is totally digital, and in our home office we have a computer based system. Then, after a few years of listening to SACDs I finally gave up on there ever being enough SACD software and made a decision to try to put together a high-end, hard drive-based digital system. You have to admit that such systems offer some real benefits; you don’t have to have thousands of silver discs in jewel cases taking up space, it gives you music almost on demand, and heck, it’s even possible to make easy playlist without getting out a recorder and playing the disc while they record. I shared all this to say even this vinyl devotee has some experience and understanding of the “in” way of listening to music. Of course, the excitement I saw from two twenty year-olds at Half-Price Books the other day, when the two guys discovered the store sell used vinyl, says maybe I was already listening to music the “in” way.
There’s another question that should be asked, “Why would someone who has recently reviewed a couple of digital systems that cost over $40,000 take time to review a couple that cost $100 and $300 respectively? Well that’s simple, it’s because I asked Constantine for an inexpensive USB DAC to review. Now admittedly $100 was a little less expensive than I had expected, but I didn’t know what it cost when I got it. I’ll tell you right now I would have never guessed it cost only $100. I wanted to review a USB DAC because my son and I had put together a rather nice two-channel computer based video system, but at the moment it was limited by the fact that the audio was only coming from a sound card, albeit a very good sound card according to my son. Still, I wondered what it would sound like with a DAC, but there was no space or money in this system for some big DAC, so I thought it needed to be a USB DAC. This brings us to the little Music Streamer DACs; so let’s get started.
The little Music Streamer DACs are made by High Resolution Technologies, and High Resolution Technologies is brought to you by Kevin Halverson of Muse Electronics and Mike Hobson of Classic Records. They don’t refer to the Music Streamers as DACs, but as “a high-performance music interface that allows a computer and a home-entertainment system to become perfect partners.” Kevin Halverson of Muse Electronics is the chief technology officer for High Resolution Technologies. He has been designing well-respected high-end digital players and power amplifiers since 1989. It’s nice to know these little DACs have such a nice pedigree, and it shows in their performance.
The Music Streamer and Music Streamer+
Both of these little DACs hook up in the same easy manner. They have a USB input on one end and a pair of analog outputs on the other and, best of all, they are very small; you can hold them both in one hand. They derive their power from the USB port, so you don’t even have to plug them in. The basic unit uses a 16 bit Texas Instruments PCM1744 digital-to-analog converter, quite impressive for the price. The Streamer+ uses a Burr Brown PCM1794.
Hooking it up was straightforward, you just plug them into any USB port on your computer and the Music Streamers will install and be ready for use in a matter of moments. Connect the other end to any analog input and you are ready to play music. They provide full support for any application I could find. The MusicStreamer was designed as a mass market device while the MusicStreamer+ was aimed more at those in the audiophile community looking for something that was a significant step up from most sound cards and still didn’t cost a lot.
I started by listening to the Music Streamer in my main system with a generic USB cable and a run of Teresonic Clarion interconnect going to my Shindo Masseto. How did it sound? A lot better than the similarly priced little wireless connector that plugs into the computer’s USB port and the little receiver that plugs into your preamp. In fact it sounded OK; I guess good for only $100. The Music Streamer’s top-end was a little soft, and lacked air. The midrange was nice, not the last word in transparency or detail, and it never let you forget it was digital. I have to admit: vocals were better than I expected. The bass went fairly deep, but was a little less defined than most high-end DACs. The little DAC actually had a soundstage with nice width, though very little depth.
The Music Streamer was better than I expected for the most inexpensive product I’ve ever used in my reference system. Its shortcomings were mostly subtractive, but still it has no place in my reference system, and it wasn’t made to go in such a system.
When placed in my video system it was still not quite up to the task, but when I placed it in my computer system the Music Streamer seemed to have found its home. It was a significant improvement over the sound card in my iMac, and was much clearer, quicker, and had better frequency extremes. It also had a much more natural tonal balance than the audio outs of the iMac or iPhone. The tonal balance may be a touch rich sounding, but at this level I found that to be a big plus. It was such a plus that I found the Music Streamer actually was the best choice I had heard for listening to standard MP3s.
While I think the Music Streamer will meet the needs of a lot of people, I feel most readers of Dagogo will move right on to the Music Streamer+, because even thought the specifications look very similar, the Streamer+ significantly raises the auditory bar. The Streamer+ has a measurably lower noise floor and signal-to-noise ratio. This results in a less digital sound, with quieter backgrounds, and a more relaxed sound. It also has better frequency extension at both the top and bottom of the frequency range.
As long as you are listening to CDs, Lossless, or Wave files you will find the Music Streamer+ a significant step up from the basic Music Streamer. If you listen to mostly MP3s though, I would stick with the basic unit, but in all other cases the Music Streamer+ is a big improvement. I think these are a couple of significant products to have come from people who are part of the audiophile high-end community. They can easily be loaned to friends and family members who can then actually hear a difference. For me I’m thrilled with how much the Music Streamer+ improved the sound of movies and videos on my TV system and how the Music Streamer has found a place in my office system.
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