High Resolution Technologies (HRT) has built a series of affordable, high-performance USB DACs collectively called MusicStreamers, which have won critical acclaim from many high-end audio publications, including our sister magazines The Absolute Sound and Hi-Fi+. But with the release of its latest product, the $199.95 iStreamer, HRT has embarked on a new path by offering—you probably guessed this from the product’s name—a dedicated DAC created specifically for use with iPods, iPhones, and iPads.
Many of us embrace the idea that iPods, iPhones, and iPads are wonderfully convenient portable devices, but ones whose performance is—as a matter of practical necessity—limited (at least to some degree) by Apple’s inherently low-cost and relatively low-performance onboard DACs and analog audio sections. In short, music lovers who prize sound quality have long felt that a better sounding approach would be to pull digital audio data directly from the iPod/iPad/iPhone, and then to feed it to a higher quality outboard DAC fitted with superior analog audio electronics, which is precisely where the iStreamer comes in.
To be clear, the concept of extracting digital audio data from Apple’s portable devices for external processing is not a new idea. Several years back, Wadia’s Model 170 iTransport was the first digital audio dock for iPods, though the 170 required a separate, external DAC of the user’s choosing. Later, Peachtree upped the ante with its innovative iDecco integrated amp/DAC/dock, which not only extracts digital data from iPods, but also provides an excellent onboard DAC and integrated amp section. Other manufacturers, including Marantz, have built disc players with digital connections for Apple products.
But several things make the iStreamer unique in this product area. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the element of price. At $199.95, the iStreamer is the only Apple-compatible DAC that actually costs less than a modern-day Apple iPod Classic. In short, if you want a high performance DAC whose price is consistent with what you paid for your Apple portable, the iStreamer is—for now—pretty much the only game in town. Second, the iStreamer is noteworthy in that it doesn’t try to be all things to all people; it’s an Apple-specific DAC that handles all Apple-supported data formats, but that does not attempt to handle other formats not supported by Apple portable devices, which helps to hold costs down. Third, and this feature really constitutes the “special sauce” that I think helps this product sound unusually good, the iStreamer provides a host mode interface, meaning that the iStreamer takes complete control of the data exchange between the Apple device and the DAC for what HRT describes as “jitter free” performance (in other words, the data transaction is locked to the iStreamer’s—not the Apple device’s—clock).
The key idea is that the iStreamer is meant for owners of Apple portable audio devices who realize that better sound quality is out there, and who would like to access it without spending the proverbial arm and a leg. The iStreamer also caters to those who want a foolproof, plug-n-play, yet also quite high performance device that allows users to play content from their Apple devices through full-size stereo, home theater or desktop audio systems.
Is the iStreamer targeted toward Audiophiles with a capitol “A?” Yes and no. The iStreamer sounds very good for its price, but does not claim to be the best DAC available (HRT offers higher end models that go after that end of the spectrum). Instead, the iStreamer is for music lovers who love their Apple devices but want “something better” in the sound-quality department. On the other hand, the fact that the iStreamer provides a host mode interface gives it a sonic edge relative to most would-be competitors.
The iStreamer is extremely simple to use. You simply hook up the wall wart-type power supply, connect a left/right pair of RCA cables to your amp/receiver, and then hook up a traditional Apple-type docking/USB connector. Once you flip on your Apple device, one of the iStreamer’s three data rate lights (32k, 44.1k, or 48k) will start flashing—denoting that the iStreamer is synced to your Apple device—and you’re good to go.