Downloaded music, mostly lossy mp3s, is easily enjoyed on portable
devices and PCs, but these will be found wanting when it comes
to high-resolution audio files. The latter, typically 24bit/96kHz
but sometimes 24/192, are beyond the capability of off-the-shelf
players and computers. However, if you listen to music on your
PC a suitable sound card - such as the ASUS Xonar Essence ST
or STX - is one option. I use the ST on a Windows 7 PC and I
can vouch for its audio credentials. Indeed, in their original
review Stereophile magazine described it as a true audiophile
product. At around £140 from Amazon it really is a steal,
especially as it can handle 24/192 files.
But if you don’t want to go that route there are a number
of portable digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) that will
do just as well. Perhaps the best known is the Cambridge
Audio DacMagic Plus, which can be linked to your Mac/PC
in a number of ways. It also offers a headphone socket and volume
control, so that should broaden its appeal. And then there’s
the much cheaper HRT HeadStreamer, a USB-only device that’s
small, light and capable of handling 24/96 files. As it’s
an asynchronous USB design it bypasses the Mac or PC’s
sound card and requires no special drivers. It’s also
bus powered, so it dispenses with fiddly power cords; that makes
it ideal for music on the move.
The HeadStreamer may be small, but don’t be fooled by
its size. It arrives in a plain box with a drawstring pouch
and a short standard USB to mini-USB connector. The front plate
has a series of LEDs that indicate the selected resolution,
from 32k to 96k, and whether the device has been muted. There’s
a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right and a mini-USB jack on the
left. I would have preferred the latter to be on the back, but
it’s hardly a deal breaker. And if you’re so minded
you can upgrade to a better USB cable, although not everyone
would agree that’s a change worth making.
I plugged the HeadStreamer into my iMac and using the Audio
MIDI Setup pane set the default audio output to 24/96. Immediately
the 96k LED lit up, indicating the device was primed and ready
to go. Now since iTunes doesn’t support flacs - the chosen
file format for most high-res downloads - you’ll need
to install a media player such as Songbird, which does. That
said, Chandos and Linn are two labels that offer files in other
formats, so iTunes should cope with them easily enough. I’m
sure it’s just as straightforward if you’re using
a PC and Windows Media Player.
So how does it sound? Rather good is the short answer. It’s
certainly streets ahead of the iMac’s very basic audio
card. That said, your choice of headphones will be crucial.
I experimented with my trusty Sennheiser HD600s (impedance 600
ohms) and, not surprisingly, the HeadStreamer struggled to drive
them. That changed with a pair of ‘phones designed for
portable use - in this case the foldable Sennheiser PX 100s.
Already a surprisingly accomplished set of cans the little Senns
really sing with the HeadStreamer; bass is firm and reasonably
extended, the mids are expressive and the treble is free of
hardness or glare.
As always, it all comes down to the quality of the incoming
data. Lossy mp3s sound okay, but feed this little gem with a
24/96 Studio Master from Linn/Universal - I’ve reviewed
several of them for Download Roundup - and the big, broad soundstage
is astonishing. I used this setup when I auditioned Wigglesworth’s
new Shostakovich recording - downloaded from eclassical.com
- and was impressed with the results (review).
That said, the HeadStreamer/PCX 100 combination is a little
overstretched by the huge dynamic swings of Fuga’s organ
CDs, played via iTunes. But as I write I’m listening to
something more intimate - Fischer-Dieskau’s Schöne
Müllerin - and it’s effortlessly detailed and
fatigue-free. In fact, just about everything sounds good on
this Goliath of a gadget; Noseda’s new CD of Britten’s
War Requiem (LSO Live) has plenty of impact and, where
appropriate, great subtlety.
The HeadStreamer’s quirky design won’t please everyone,
but it’s very well screwed together and it excels where
it matters - with its sound. Portable DACs are getting better
all the time - and cheaper - but for now the HRT HeadStreamer
is a cracking performer, ideal for headphone listeners who want
high-res music from their home PCs or on the move.