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Comparison N°3: NuForce ain't telling what silicon they use and they strategically erased tell-tale markings. Still, quad-paralleled descriptions of their DAC with 24/96 USB input inside the $449 Icon HDP hint strongly at the 8-channel Sabre chip. As its review detailed, the HDP's triple functionality of DAC, preamp and headphone amp, on a stepped good/better/best scale, plays out in that sequence exactly. This small black or silver box is strongest as a can amp. This begged for my presently favorite top-class headphone—Ken Ball rewired beyerdynamic Ts—while comparing the HDP's own USB input to entering analog via the HRT.

Here the Pro's async superiority—or more sophisticated converter implementation—asserted itself noticeably. The NuForce DAC was harder, drier and sharper. Newbie listeners on their first more serious hifi foray would initially mistake that type of glossier presentation for greater resolution and vigor. Even a little experience however should quickly determine that the HRT played it more natural. Its lack of etch didn't mean lack of edge. It simply meant more realistic transients. Its reduced brightness didn't mean less treble. It simply meant better timing. This nearly invariably sweetens the top end and renders rhythm more relaxed but also endowed with a looser better swing. Swing rather than military bearing was in fact on the menu, this compliments of Eddie Daniels and Gary Burton revisiting Benny Goodman standards on GRP's Benny Rides Again.

Particularly in the clarinet's register above C3 and on blatty staccato did the Streamer's greater elegance pay very obvious dividends. But ride and crash cymbals too weren't as Electric Avenue splashy as over the NuForce. A very good analogy is the so-called Theater setting on our Sony Bravia television. It's simply a factory-calibrated lock on specific brightness, contrast and saturation values to mimic film in a good movie theater. One could achieve the same results by manually manipulating the various menus to well below their max values. Getting there in one remote click is simply far more convenient - and likely nets more masterful results too.

Just so, the HRT Streamer Pro was that Theater setting for the HDP. Going direct into the NuForce pumped up the contrast and sharpness controls. Parallel experiences with Anthony Gallo's highly time-tweaked Strada monitors and warmer if no less precise Reference 3.5 floorstanders have me think that key to the HRT's clear lead over the HDP converter was its superior time-domain accuracy. That's of course the core argument for asynchronous USB in the first place. Until one actually hears it however, such arguments are mere techno posturing. Because our industry regularly attempts to win customers with go-faster claims from snazzy specs, I tend to view such specs and associated claims as often quite irrelevant. I can't even be sure that lower jitter here was the lynch pin. It simply sounded like it based on how I expect superior timing to manifest.

While I'd long since returned the original Streamer+ review loaner, my recollection of it—warm, dense, organic—didn't prompt much of a déjà-vu with the Pro. Even though I quite distrust aural memory save for a general fix on a particular flavor profile, the Pro appeared to me more dialed for resolution than the older non-async unit. So-called warmth is often a function of timing blur so that would make sense. Lesser warmth isn't synonymous with lack of body though. It can simply mean that as fine detail comes to the fore, our perception of mass diminishes.

Take a Venice Beach bodybuilder during regular training and at competition. Many years ago I lived just off the L.A. board walk to see these hulks with far less striated definition than muscle mags would have predicted. Apparently a special dietary regimen in the week/s prior to show time affects water retention and other physiologcial aspects. That's what suddenly gives competitors that highly ripped chiseled hard profile judges award. The competition look certainly lacks nothing by way of body mass compared to the normal pre/post competition beef-cake look. In the same way, higher resolution doesn't imply less body mass. Higher definition simply focuses attention on smaller details. If my assessment of the Pro vs. original Streamer+ is correct, the primarily intended usage for the Pro in recording environs makes higher resolution the obvious choice.

Remembering how my Weiss DAC mellowed from lean and lit up to as organic as my prior Yamamoto YDA-01 converter, I can categorically state that the HRT Streamer Pro did not exhibit the Weiss' early sonics. It in fact maintained somewhat copperish high overtones which gave a degree of weightiness rather than extreme air to the treble. That aside, the general presentation seemed more resolved and 'quicker' than I recall the Gen I Streamer+. Given the Pro's cable requirements and non-standard (for home hifi) output voltage, I do think that prospective punters should also eye the new Streamer+ II. Without knowing what its asynchronous makeover has accomplished versus what I reviewed previously; and without being able to compare it to the pricier Pro - I don't know which of the three current Streamer models is the hottest deal for our kind. I suspect the one in the middle.

How about 24/192? iTunes and FLAC/WMA files ain't on speaking terms. Yet those formats are what Linn Records, 2L, HDtracks & Co. support exclusively. As Linn Records recommends, I dutifully downloaded Switch to convert their files to something Apple approves, then a 24/88.2 'Studio Master' WMA file of Vibraciones del alma. Once I tried to actually convert my shiny new €20 WMA file, I was prompted to add a Quicktime plug-in to Switch. After I downloaded the plug-in, all subsequent attempts at converting WMA to AIFF crashed Switch. Devolution back to pea brain?

Being a Windows man who only very recently embraced OSX—and then only for Apple's hardware and just for audio—I was still very low on the learning curve. To live more comfortably on the high rezervation, I probably shoulda stuck to Windows. Ever hopeful, I threw another 23 euros at a 24/192 FLAC download of the same Vibraciones del Alma album. Perhaps I'd have more luck converting that to AIFF? This time Switch behaved. Conversion happened as advertised. The new problem was, the converted files did not show up as playable anywhere inside the iTunes interface. Checking in the iTunes music folder directory to verify I had imported them to the proper destination folder, there they sat, albeit displayed faded and pale rather than crisp and vibrant. Clearly something wasn't quite right yet. The 'help' menu in Switch duly failed to load and merely generated an error message. Take five. With a full backup disc of Switch and a hopefully loaded owner's manual from the US in the mail, I might get the hang of this soon. For now, my silly question is how hi-rez files are supposed to become popular with the iTunes nation when we require Fluke, Switch or other intermediary software and file conversion rituals to make 'em work? Dumb isn't the word.

Clearly superior to the quad-paralleled but otherwise unidentified converter chip of NuForce's $449 HDP, the $499 asynchronous HRT Pro competes directly against the $1.000 iDecco integrated amplifier from Peachtree Audio. The latter's DAC implementation is a tad more silvery on top, the American somewhat more burnished but that's mostly it. I consider both equals in the same club. Once you're invested to the tune of €3.000 like my Weiss DAC2/Minerva, you obviously get more substance and realism as you should. HRT already has heavier ammo in the fire to compete more upstream.

Far more relevant is that the async Pro bested the clearly high-value NuForce in exactly the areas one would expect with lower jtter. Spot-lit splashy effects with their harder Neon edges transformed into a more natural sun-lit scenery with natural transients. Attacks softened yet sacrificed no definition. This type of softening wasn't due to THD, excess warmth or a loss of resolution. I rather think it was better timing. Like with speakers, that makes for more relaxed long-term listening without pixilation efforts but easy resolution.

The real and still unanswered question is how the HRT Streamer Pro advances over the Streamer+ II. Should civilians rather than recording engineers spend more green and commit to custom cables with Tiny-Q ends or Cardas adapters? In either case, getting into asynchronous USB at these prices wasn't possible until recently. While my exposure to the async USB genre is still limited, I already believe there's something to it. Kudos to Kevin Halverson & Co. for making it happen at prices the multitudes can afford.

Quality of packing:
Perfectly adequate.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A cinch.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Human interactions: Very good.
Pricing: Good value.
Final comments & suggestions: Tiny-Q XLR outputs lack channel identifiers. This should get fixed with basic color coding like a red washer for 'right'.

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