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Michele Surdi

All audiophiles are cheap.
They splurge on fuses and then make a mission of dissing megabuck items and hyping dimestore miracles. I’m no exception. Thus when I read about the fifteen-day free trial on the Pure Music app for iTunes I went for it. What with being a boomer, dummy and insensitive  Redbook user I am not sold on computer audio but I did buy the HRT Streamer II as a supremely cost-effective complement to my current (cheap) white 2010 Macbook. I wanted to hear if them newfangled apps made a difference to iTunes.

Also the Streamer quite appropriately invalidates the bareboned iTunes digital volume control, which is sonically just as it should be but does mandate the use of a preamplifier, in my case the not inconsiderable Nagra PLL. For the usual audiophile reasons I own a lot of components. Some days I’m simply not so hot about connecting them. That’s why I generally use the preamp options on my Nagra CDC player (which boasts a variable output by the way, not that you’d know from the Nagra manual).
When I found out from the exemplary online presentation about Puremusic’s dithered and variable output control (and about the free  trial), I punched the download button. First things first. Download of the 1.6.3 version was hassle free and most importantly, the app merged seamlessly with Mac OS 10.6.4. Just as vitally the app immediately recognized the Streamer II by name and automatically did all the right things, making this in my experience at least a true plug’n’play proposition.

I was interested in the dithered output volume control as I said but two other facilities caught my attention (there are plenty more but I’m a dummy, remember). The first is the memory play option. This buffers a helluva lot of tracks on the Mac’s memory (the standard 2GB supply in my case). Yes I know CD players buffer too but generally two seconds’ worth of bits, not a whole CD and more as Puremusic does. The second option—and I’m getting nerdy here—is the variable upsampling capability. As a rule I avoid upsampling like skin disease but in this case it’s switchable. Besides being free, that makes for interesting comparisons.

That said I’ll invoke my amateur privileges and categorically state that this is not an evaluation of the Puremusic application as such—a task best left to the wise and good folks here for instance—but an appraisal of the Puremusic and Streamer II combo from a musical and value perspective (that cheap angle again). For ease of referral, software ripped to iTunes was the same as used for my Streamer II review - plus any quantity of MP3 files the cat brought in. Besides my usual Van den Hul loom and Tannoy Yorkminster coaxials, components employed were the stellar Harbeth HP3ESR shoeboxes on quite pricey Music Tools dedicated stands and Firstwatt F5 and Manley Mahi amps for solid and vacuum state amplification.

The white Macbook lacks IR remote facilities so I activated FrontRow using the free AppleRemote app downloaded on an 8MB iPod Touch (the use of a Macbook Pro and its IR remote would have enabled me to switch the WiFi off—nicer—but this was a maximum economy effort). Finally no direct comparisons were made to other components, namely the aforementioned Nagra preamp and CD player.

Now for results sweet and short. Secondary disc players and/or preamps are definitely off my list, goodbye and good luck. The memory play dithered volume hi-lo output combination enabled me to drive to perfection both the highly sensitive mutating internal impedance variable feedback triode and push/pull incarnations of the Manley monos and the obdurately low gain high linearity class A FirstWatt. This with loudspeakers varying from 86 to 94dB efficiency with AIFF-encoded software ranging from  tonally complex baroque philology to geezers in the mind indestructible (Ed. please note: that’s a quotation). In all instances reproduction was tonally flawless and musically engaging. Further characterization is highly problematic given the several combinations of equipment employed. A certain solidity of tone possibly derived from the Streamer given previous experiences may be considered something more than a subjective listening quirk. Easily accomplished upsampling of the same files to 88.2kHz as suggested by the Puremusic manual brought no great variation to these ears but revelation came from the traditionally blow-your-lunch MP3 downloads.

In this case the upsampling-derived improvements were for the most part so marked that I found myself in possession of a whole new  jukebox (including Puff the Magic Dragon and Ballad of the Green Berets so there). Considering the musical—as distinct from sentimental—value of the originals, I call this free money. Also all of the above was achieved by the use of a single pair of admittedly uncheap audio cables connecting the Streamer II to the amps and a four bucks Belkin USB link to the battery-driven Mac. Not a bespoke power cord to be seen anywhere and a one-minute total setup time.

Does this make for absolute fidelity? I really don’t care. That’s why I very deliberately avoided a shootout with the available reference components. Lest this sound mealy-mouthed, I will affirm that fidelity obtained by this indisputably affordable hardware and software front end was in big-ticket  territory not more than ten years ago. Ease of use particularly with the Apple Remote is superior while the value ratio of  the Puremusic app—even if a hundred euros for a few lines of code instead of a gold-plated IEC stick in the audiophile gullet—is simply in another class. It’s all right though. The high end isn't dead, it’s only dying. The Puremusic website is clear, instructive and exhaustive. Dumb queries were handled very promptly and courteously as were all contacts with the still Spartan High Resolution Technologies site.