The HRT HeadStreamer portable headphone DAC
High Resolution Technologies
Product specifications here.
UK distributor: Audiofreaks
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.
Very well screwed together and it excels where it matters - with its sound.