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Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
Sonic Satori -
Levels the Field with the MicroStreamer
I love the feeling of an original moment when exploring an art form you love; when you discover something that strikes you so deep in your gut, in your soul, you're swallowed up. Dissecting moments like that to death would end all our jobs as scribes! But, it’s also excitement like that that keeps us hunting for different sounds. I always look forward to checking out a new piece of kit. Admittedly, when you follow the evolution of a company, and you were once a part of its machine, your expectations can get unreasonably high after investing a piece of yourself in that company. I feel obligated to say that so any seeming conflict of interest can be laid bare for all to interpret. I would never try to hide the fact that I worked for HRT. I carry that with great pride.
So when the microStreamer arrived I was excited because of my history with the company. I worked my ass off for them because I truly loved their products. They are true pioneers. I still remember walking into CES at least two years or so before the proliferation of affordable high end USB asynchronous DACs. I can't remember which year precisely, 2008 maybe. Michael Hobson, then CEO of Classic Records (now part of the amazing RTI label) was showing me the original HRT Music Streamer. He had partnered with Kevin Halverson, head of Muse Electronics, for the design work. It looked like a small Toblerone stack of chocolate: USB on one end, RCA analog outputs on the other. It was truly plug-n-play, and was simple in form and function. HRT helped usher in the age of affordable asynchronous USB DACS. I always loved Kevin's designs; his aesthetic has always been modern without seeming cold and lifeless. That's not an easy balance to achieve. I specifically liked his Muse universal disc player and any Muse amp I ever heard. But it seems HRT is taking up all of Kevin's time these days. He keeps pushing things forward.
Halverson may have built his engineering Opus with the microStreamer head-amp/DAC. How he managed to squeeze so much performance into this tiny, aluminum shell, rectangular in shape, approximately the same length as the Audioquest Dragonfly (and slightly under half an inch wider), is beyond me. It's got all the quintessential audiophile buzz-options as usual with HRT, USB transfer protocol is asynchronous, and like the Headstreamer before it (even before the Dragonfly) it’s got an analog gain stage that's digitally controlled and is 96k/24-bit capable. I'm sure this was a crazy design challenge, and Halverson's hit it out of the park. The unit has a USB mini-B input and two outputs via 1/8" jacks. One is for headphones, the other line-level. Each is marked with icons. There are sample-rate indicators on the lower half of the chassis. The aluminum is one piece, with a smartly designed score in the middle of the extrusion which splits the design, making for a wonderfully modern aesthetic.
As of these words, I've pumped signal through the unit for four days straight. I'm enjoying myself so much I don't want to write about this damn thing. I just wanna listen. Mating it with my Audeze LCD3's (thinking the microStreamer may not drive them well enough for me) was one of the best seemingly insane ideas I've had in a long time, well maybe not so long; but I can't remember the last time I had this much fun just kicking back, listening to music! I'm not trying to say I've grown bored of my reference systems. I love them dearly. They excite me every day. There's just something magical about this particular sonic pairing I guess, and so I want to give it my full attention! I'd rather be listening (there's a bumper sticker for you) right now without any disturbance. I'm not exaggerating for effect...
OK, I'm back.
I'm so psyched to report that the microStreamer has given me such a seductively musical listening experience I'm finding it difficult to keep up with my thoughts as I type this article. I'm sorry I can't put my finger on its precise magic powers, but remember that intense feeling of experiencing something wholly new I spoke about in the beginning of this article? It occurred for me while listening to music and taking notes, an act I've been doing for fifteen years. A precious rarity when your hobby is also a part of your job and your own art. You fall in love with a component, and another is always going to come along and replace it. For example, I'll say later in this article that I love my Audioquest Dragonfly and I do! But HRT has delivered a product that I've been dreaming about. Sure, that doesn't sound too good. It sounds like I need to get out more. But I can try to offer up an explanation.
We went to Hualalai in Kona, Hawai'i a few weeks ago, and I brought my MacBook Pro, Audeze LCD3's, Audioquest Dragonfly and ALO RxMK3-B headphone amp. I used the combination this way most of the time: MacBook Pro running latest Amarra software as source, Dragonfly as DAC, RxMK3-B as headphone amp, and of course the Audeze LCD3 headphones. The listening sessions I had beach and poolside were some of the most relaxing and feel-good sessions I've experienced in a very long time. Sure, who wouldn't be relaxed in that situation right? Me. Unfortunately my OCD gets the better of me sometimes, so I don't care if I'm in the Caribbean sipping Pina Coladas, it's going to take a bit for me to settle down. It took me three days to learn how to relax on our recent voyage, and my portable hifi rig grounded me.
I may be talking crazy hippie here, but words like meditative, transcendence, and soothing sensations of inner peace (please, how people say some of this shit without laughing their asses is just plain wrong) are terrible clichés that unfortunately fit. Those listening sessions were magical, some of the best I've experienced during my fifteen year search for an amazing system, and my reference stereo kicks serious ass. I was simply lost in the music, and it wasn't all condensed in the middle of my skull either, like with most headphones. That little hifi system not only captivated my imagination, through fantastic reproduction of realistic-sounding timbre, but it also created a great sense of depth in my sense of field as well. That's something I've never experienced before when listening to any headphone rig, and much of that is due to the Audeze LCD3's no doubt. What matters most here is that I'm comparing listening on a headphone system that costs around five grand, including a MacBook Pro with Retina display and solid state hard-drive, to home systems costing ten to fifty, even two-hundred grand! I'm sorry if you're a non-believer. I'm having an absolute blast! Now, why did I waste your time reading about two other products during a review of the HRT microStreamer?
The whole time I was in Kona, the only thing that consistently bugged me was: what if I had the musical performance of the Audioquest Dragonfly, with its small, sleek stylings, and the dynamic punch of the ALO RxMK3-B in one small product? If anybody thinks I'm making this up to glorify the microStreamer all they'll need to do is ask my wife at an audio show. I kept bugging her about it. I've been eagerly awaiting these new portable computer and iDevice head-amp/DAC combos (like the soon-to-be-release CEntrance HiFiM8, or Sony PHA-1—already on the market). The concept: have everything necessary for convincing and engaging portable playback all in one tiny box minus the speakers. Sounds like the stuff of dreams, doesn't it?
Well, the microStreamer doesn't work with iDevices, and that's the only negative thing I have to say about it. This little powerhouse is the most exciting portable hifi product I've heard since I experienced the Audeze LCD2 magnetic planar headphones and JH Audio JH-13 Pro IEMS at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest/CanJam 2009!
I was so blown-away when I first plugged my MacBook Pro and Audeze cans into the microStreamer I stayed up all night listening to that combination. I went seven hours straight. The music was my drug. When I think about the feelings I experienced that night listening to Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit's Secret Rhythms, watching the sun come up, it brings a smile to my face. Not only does that express how insanely captivated I was, it also gives you a glimpse of how truly seductive this little sucker can be. Obviously it's still breaking in, and it's only getting better. Here's what I can report in terms of breaking my experience down sonically; bearing in mind my system used for evaluation:
Source: MacBook Pro running latest Amarra
software with solid state hard-drive
I will never stop writing this, as we're reaching new people every day: we all interpret things differently. I can't tell you what is "best." My best will differ from yours on many levels. We are at best guides, but I've been listening to high end audio since I was sixteen (38 now) and I've also worked for one of the greatest record labels on the planet: Atlantic Records. I've given everything I have to the advancement of the audio arts. With all that BS over with, I'm listening to Eskmo's "Soul Music" off his newest EP (review HERE in PFO) as I type, and suddenly I had an unstoppable urge to pause for a second, stomp my fuckin' feet, and give a few Will Arnet-style air snaps to the insane hard-hitting kick drum and wildly transient synths. I dare say there's a trance element (meaning the genre) in this track that borders on cheese, but Eskmo's brilliance managed to keep the underground vibe alive. That's something difficult to quantify, and if you're not a house music fan I apologize for the obscure reference. Hearing what the microStreamer is capable of with this system, I think a jazz fan could love it too. I can't offer any impressions of whether classical music fans may like it or not, as I rarely listen to classical.
I need to say this: driving my Audeze LCD3's with the microStreamer (not the easiest headphones to drive well enough to truly show their magic) had me talking to myself when I first heard the magnificent combination! My wifey would hear me saying things like, "this can't be fuckin' happening," and "this is unreal". Sorry for the vulgarities, but I have to stay faithful to the stories I share here. It got to a point where she gave me the old "bring your hifi geekery into the media room." After all, one of the coolest things about the microStreamer is, like the Audioquest Dragonfly: it’s so small, when its connected to a MacBook (fortunately HRT is shipping them with short USB cables too, equipped with ferrite rings) it just feels like a tiny on-line amplifier or something similar in the headphone cable chain. I had to keep adjusting my position last night (back issues) while listening on our couch, with all three cats and wifey on with me, using my Logitech LapDesk to hold my computer. The LapDesk is just a small board with a soft polymer casing and a slide-out shelf, designed for a mouse but I use it for my external hard-drive. It was a sincere pleasure to move around with the microStreamer installed and my Audeze cans on my head. I didn't have to bother moving a larger, heavier headphone amp/DAC combo and deal with my MacBook sitting atop the LapDesk. I'm sure this sounds like the peak of laziness, but it's the little things that mean the most to some people. It's a luxury we don't think about much: moving freely about with a serious hifi system in your backpack!
I'm interested in reading about products like this: tiny external headphone amplifier/DACs that can drive my large Audeze magnetic planar cans all day, and sound like music. All this is far beyond what the power ratings would usually indicate to me. I say this because I just had a listening session with this system, and while listening to "Rhein Rauf" by Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit, a track I've listened to hundreds of times alone, and on a few large-scale systems that I love, including Dave Clark's and Dan Meinwald's. The first is my fearless PFO editor, the second the importer for E.A.R and other fine audio. Both are dear friends whose systems reach further into the lower octaves than my own, regarding our main reference systems. Well I've heard that track on all our systems more than once. This is going to sound insane: but I enjoyed the enchanting sound of the microStreamer and Audeze's, using Moon Audio's Blue Dragon USB cable, just as much as all the other systems!
I need to point out that the moment I wrote that, I hit "Apple-S" and went straight to Amarra to be sure I hadn't lost my mind. I do acknowledge the distinct possibility at least. I hit play and listened to Four Tet's remix of Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace" off his Eraser album. This is one of my favorite tracks; it gives me a glimpse of a system's capabilities, both resolving and musical. It’s a minimal blend of tribal beats with echoing synths; some of them sounding like clock bells and xylophones, wavy bass lines circling Yorke's vocals, and a wickedly slamming kick drum. The first thing this track tells me is whether or not the system has balls. The crazy answer is, with a pair of two thousand dollar headphones and a computer headphone amp/DAC combo costing less than two hundred bucks: it's got more than I need! But it also has finesse when reproducing nuance. I'm intoxicated by Brian Eno's latest ambient masterpiece, the LUX EP. The soundscapes are lush, subtle, and airy. Piano/synthesizer keys sound like audible drops into a liquid sonic pond, rippling out, surrounding by spacey ambient sounds. There's such a magnificent sense of wide-open space. If your system sounds congested, this album will show you so. With the microStreamer and Audezes I was enthralled. I experienced the same sonic wonderment listening to everything from Rage Against the Machine's new 20th Anniversary Special Edition set, The Fratellis Costello Music, Hall & Oates Abandoned Luncheonette, Burial's first two LPs, and James Blake. You can't ask for more than that.
As for using the microStreamer as a DAC/line-level output feeding my CEntrance Audiophile Desktop System: another extraordinary combination. Why did I choose the ADS for evaluation of the microStreamer's line-level output? I use it every day in my office, and I listen in there more than any other place in the world. I'd call that a reference. Plus the CEntrance system reflects what many users looking for something like the HRT microStreamer may have at home already. At two-thousand bucks the ADS is one of the very best desktop audiophile solutions out there. It's an audible Leatherman: with three digital inputs (SPDIF, TosLink and USB), analog input and output (something missing on many small-scale systems today), and a killer headphone amplifier—the same in their critically acclaimed DACmini. Check out Dean Seislove's review of the system HERE in PFO. If you need more information about the system, Dean did a fantastic job covering that.
This is going to seem like I'm giving the MicroStreamer's line-level output evaluation the short end of the stick here, but my observations about the sound quality there are on-par with the components' headphone amp output. I think breaking things down here sonically as well would be redundant. Though I will say this about the microStreamer driving the system: the CEntrance ADS is a superb small-scale reference tool. It will tell you right away what your source is doing, which is why I keep it around for reference in the office. I would confidently recommend the pairing of the HRT microStreamer & ADS to my family. As a matter of fact, I'm going to recommend that my cousin, Ken Gould (mentioned in my RMAF coverage last year HERE) buy this combo for his nephew's first year at college! Ken is a fellow music addict who handles special projects for Stevie Wonder, and is an audio enthusiast as well. He also owns Audeze LCD3's and a Centrance Audiophile Desktop System! We speak often and have been sharing our love of music and great sound since I was a kid. I think that speaks volumes, perhaps more than my words do, about my beliefs regarding this product.
The Audioquest Dragonfly still carries a very special place in my heart because it was truly revolutionary: a dream cross-over product this industry needed. I mean, who can't relate to a small electronics component that looks like an expensive, sexy thumb-drive? No USB cable needed!! Shit, I can't believe I just used the word sexy to describe a thumb-drive. I need help. Anyway, having no USB cable to mess with may seem like an insignificant detail, but it's not to me. When I consider this, both of these products have to be plugged into something to play anyway (cans or sound system). I just love everything about the Dragonfly, even the way it feels in my hand: the polymer they chose, and the tiny suede carrying bag with the Dragonfly icon. Everything about the product was executed meticulously. I suppose HRT could raise their game in the packaging department. For example: the cardboard boxes got to go. Their packaging for the also revolutionary iStreamer is what they should be using with all their products. The carry-bag for the microStreamer is twice the size it needs to be, but who gives a shit about those particulars when the product's performance rocks, right?
The HRT microStreamer has raised the bar so high in its category I hope it gets all the accolades it deserves. In uber-portable headphone amp/DAC combo solutions for the computer I can't think of another component outside the Audioquest Dragonfly, which to my ears doesn't have quite the dynamic punch of the microStreamer that even approaches the sonic performance of this miraculous little aluminum brick. It's like an audiophile’s reference-system-in-a-box. You have to hear it to believe it.
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