Michael Hobson of Classic Records and Kevin Halverson of Muse Electronics officially launched High Resolution Technologies at the 2009 CES. Their stated goal was to produce budget-priced high-performance specialty products for the digital music age. Their first offering, called the Music Streamer, is a USB DAC with a list price of $99. Can ten sawbucks actually get you a satisfying DAC? Oh yes, it can.
The Music Streamer doesn’t look like much. It’s a small, 4"-long, red, hexagonal box with a USB connection on one end and a pair of RCA analog outputs on the other. Inside you’ll find a small USB input board suspended on top of a larger circuit board with the surface-mounted RCA outputs. It is powered by the USB connection with no provisions for an outboard power supply.
I picked up a Music Streamer DAC at HRT’s official press conference at CES. It took me a couple of weeks to clear the decks of prior commitments before I could install it in my desktop-computer music system. At first I couldn’t believe I was listening to the $99 Music Streamer—I immediately dove under my desk to check all my cable connections and opened the sound settings in my Mac’s System set-up panel to ensure I was listening to the Music Streamer rather than the April Music Stello DA100 that was also in my system. But I was listening to the Music Streamer! Even cold and unbroken-in the Music Streamer sounded startlingly good.
Unlike many inexpensive DACs, which may sound clean but lack the “juice” that makes recorded music sound right, the Music Streamer retains music’s essential harmonic richness. Instead of a mechanical facsimile of music, the Music Streamer delivers that special spark that our brains immediately identify as the real thing. Even 320kbps MP3 music files played through the Music Streamer have a musical rightness that very few DACs, regardless of price, manage to convey.
Even the most hard-core detail freak will smile when he hears the low-level resolution the Music Streamer delivers. On the flute introduction of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s tune “Humours Of Whisky” from Daybreak: Fainne anLae it was easy to separate out the flutist’s breath from the harmonics of the flute itself. This particular cut was a 320kbps MP3! On another MP3 file, Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why,” each back-up singer’s voice had its own unique spatial envelope. The electric and acoustic guitars also retained their individuality even when they played the same melody lines. A final example of the Music Streamer’s ability to retain and delineate musical subtleties, on my MP3 copy of Bryan Sutton’s album Ready To Go mandolinist Sam Bush’s right-hand attack comes through with his rhythmic pulse fully intact.
So what doesn’t the Music Streamer do well? When I compared it with the Stello DA100 D/A I noticed the Stello has slightly better back-to-front depth and three-dimensionality. On my own live concert recordings I was more conscious of the spatial separation between the individual players through the Stello than through the Music Streamer. Harmonically these two units were scarily similar, which means either they were both wrong or they were both right. I strongly suspect the latter.
For under $100 the Music Streamer qualifies as the biggest bargain I’ve heard in a long time. Try it and prepare to be amazed.
Any TV viewer who’s found himself or herself face to face with a late night infomercial has probably heard this phrase, “But wait, there’s more!” This bit of infomercial jargon rattled around in my brain when I first installed the Music Streamer+ in my system. But unlike overly hyped late-night trash hawked over the airwaves, the Music Streamer+ delivers as promised. It provides all the performance of the basic Music Streamer plus an additional dollop of depth, inner detail, and musical finesse.
Physically the Music Streamer+ closely resembles the basic Music Streamer. It’s a similarly shaped hexagonal box, but the box is a satin-finished gray and slightly bigger. Inside is the same circuit-board layout. The upper USB-interface board appears to be identical to that of the original unit. The front half of the lower board is also very similar to the standard Music Streamer, but the back half of the board, closer to the RCA analog outputs, is very different. The Music Streamer+ has a PCM 1794 D/A chip instead of the PCM 1744 on the standard Music Streamer. Also the Music Streamer+ has a far more sophisticated and robust analog-output topology with four individual op-amp ICs.