Pros: Balanced, slightly warm sound with incredible bass performance, dynamics, midrange clarity, super smooth and extended treble
Cons: Sometimes a touch too warm and intimate, but never intrusively so
I've been listening to a sample unit of HRT's new flagship DAC, the Music Streamer HD, for about a month now, and have been comparing it pretty extensively to the microStreamer. I began my demo by listening to the HD as soon as I got it, and I loved the sound right off the bat, but unfortunately I had a few things come up in my life and didn’t get to use the HD much in the following weeks due to travel and general lack of time. I kept using the microStreamer, as it is literally attached to my laptop, and used it for essentially all of my listening over the next 2 weeks.
I noticed something, though, about the uS that I had not felt before: it seemed to be lacking a bit of bass, and wasn’t as dynamic as I felt like I was used to. At first I thought it was because I was using it unamped, mostly with my HD650s, but even with the punch and body added with my Asgard, I caught myself cranking the volume knob and fiddling with EQ to get a bit of extra something. After two weeks of wondering what was wrong, life cooled down, and I was able to use the HD again. Presto! Everything I felt like I had been missing from the micro was there.
So, in a breath, if you have the microStreamer, and feel that it is lacking in body and dynamics, get the MS HD! Review over, right? ;)
Realistically, the two have noticeably different flavors, and are definitely worth an in-depth comparison. The microStreamer is a ridiculous value at $180, but the MS HD offers more features and definitely takes the sound up a notch in more than one way. However the two are close enough in terms of overall SQ that I think a comparison is warranted to justify the differences, and help others decide which one is best for them.
My general listening configurations that I'll be comparing in this review are as follows:
Source material: foobar2000 with WASAPI event output, all FLAC files @800kbps+, 16/44.1k or better.
foobar -> microStreamer -> HD650 / DT770 LE
foobar -> microStreamer -> Schiit Asgard I -> HD650 / DT770 LE
foobar -> Music Streamer HD -. Schiit Asgard I -> HD650 / DT770 LE
Tool - Ænema
Steppenwolf - Magic Carpet Ride
Rush - Spirit of the Radio
Amon Tobin - Horsefish
Akara - The Crystal Palace
Note: Unless otherwise noted, most impressions are made with the HD650; I mostly limited my use of the Beyers to electronic music for this comparison, as I felt they couldn’t quite keep up with the soundstage and general sophistication that both devices are capable of delivering well enough to aid in this kind of comparison for music that is actually recorded as opposed to produced by computer.
Tool - Ænema
The uS does a great job here. Tool’s music is just as dark as the HD650, with lots of up-front basslines and double bass overlapping, and vocals that almost fade into the background only to come right to the forefront of the song. The uS does this capably, rendering Maynard’s voice clearly in at least three consistently presented depths and everywhere in between, bringing it in front of all that bass and then letting it fade into the background as needed. Again I don’t find the bass quite deep enough to be really satisfying, but it does a very acceptable job, and definitely doesn’t muddy anything up. The extra bit of treble sparkle the uS boasts is really welcome here; high-hats show some distance and keep the track from sounding congested, which I would say is generally an issue with this recording that the uS helps alleviate.
The HD definitely adds a bit of crunch to the guitars, and makes the bass pop a bit more with added depth and tightness compared to the uS. The overall tone is darker, which actually makes some of the bass guitar sound a smidge muddier than the uS, but vocal dynamism is on a different level, with a more intimate sound when necessary and generally more present mids. If I had to compare the differences between the two, I would say it’s like switching between an Ety HF5 (uS) and the Earsonics SM3 (HD): there is no huge gap in the level of details, maybe a 9 vs 9.5 out of 10, but the spacial realism, low-end extension, and midrange weight of the HD really combine to give a much more realistic and present sound that really has to be heard to be fully understood. The HD definitely gives noticeably more presence to the sound here, most notably in the guitars and vocals.
Steppenwolf - Magic Carpet Ride
A really funky, toe-tapping track here, and the uS does it justice. The sound is very analog and fun, giving John Kay’s voice real grit and texture, bringing drums and guitar front-and-center, leaving the Hammond organ clear and appropriately distant. The cymbal is nice and clear, with a fun shimmer. Separation and placement are really well-showcased here compared to Tool, which I feel is recorded more intimately: every instrument has its own distinct place, vocals are forward without being intimate, and nothing overlaps.
The HD once again improves on bass depth and gives a warmer, even more analog sound. Midrange tonality is more natural, giving the cymbal a more brassy, less artificially shimmery sound; maybe not as fun sounding, but definitely less colored and more accurate. Those plucked guitar notes towards the end of the bridge REALLY pop and have a much more real feeling to them, almost like bassy water drops. The Hammond organ has a bit more air and presence; it was perhaps a little recessed on the uS in retrospect, because it feels livelier here. Midrange presence and weight is the biggest overall improvement with this track, and while the vocals are not any more impressive technically speaking, as with Tool they feel more forwards and more present, helping to remedy a bit of the HD650's tendency to sound distant.
Rush - Spirit of the Radio
The HD...wow. Everything sounds so live. I can really tell what a great recording this is coming through the HD; the uS does it justice, sure, but the HD makes it feel almost live in comparison. The guitar caught me up right off the bat and when the transition comes at 0:34, the HD650 just takes off. That extra smidge of bass depth vs. the uS, along with the more sophisticated presentation and more accurate imagery, really bring a good recording to life. The chimes don’t just shimmer; they have an impact and weight of their own. With the uS, I never forget that I am wearing headphones, and I am never tempted to compare the sound to live sound or speakers subconsiously; the HD makes me do all of these. The decay and crunch on guitars is really great, the best I’ve heard out of my HD650 yet: it can make guitars and vocals feel real without making them overly intimate or detracting from the rest of the instruments or overall presentation.
I have one major problem with this combo: it gets close enough to making me forget that I’m wearing headphones to make me wish I was at the show.
The uS, by comparison, adds a bit of treble energy, which gives the track a nice open feel at first impression, but on closer inspection, as I’ve come to expect, the soundstage depth and dynamics fall short of the HD. Guitars have a little more energy, but also sound slightly hollow coming from the HD and just aren’t as forward; the emphasis here is definitely on the vocals. The bass still punches nicely, but bass guitar lacks the extra bit of body that made them so real, and drums don’t have the same immediacy. Chimes sound nice with added sparkle, but don’t have the same realism and weight as the HD. The transitions at 3:35 and 3:48 feel noticeably less dynamic, with less power in the tom strikes, and the “concert hall” has a bit more air to it, with more zing to the whistle and slightly crisper claps, but also feels flatter and doesn’t sound as truly convincing, an almost more electronic sound compared to the real analog feel of the HD.
I chose this track to throw in a comparison using the amped headphone-out of the microStreamer, since I felt like it was the track that most obviously showcased the difference between the two as sources, just to see how close the uS got on its own to a hifi-worthy setup.
I have to say, it holds its ground. There is nothing wrong with the sound from the hp-out, it stills drives the HD650 adequately to give them their signature presentation. Seperation is still great, and of the details are there.I would say the differences vs. the amped HD are essentially the same as the amped uS, but to a greater extent. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with the way it sounds: there is still great detail, very minimal distortion, and a respectably black background. But the treble has a bit more tiz, to the point where it stands out to my ears and detracts slightly from realism. Vocals are a little lackluster after the HD, still detailed but without the weight, immediacy and texture that give the HD its realism. The Asgard helps, more than anything, with the bass impact delivered by the uS, which, for my tastes, is a bit light without the full-sized amp; bass guitar lacks the same pluck and twang, and drums sound a little shy. Dynamics are also slightly lacking; it hardly sounds compressed, but layers just aren’t as distinct and there isn’t the same amount of open space to the sound. That said, considering it’s about the size of 10 sticks of gum stacked on each other vs. the hardback-novel-sized Asgard, this little guy does its job, and I think it definitely takes an obsessive ear to really isolate the differences.
Amon Tobin - Horsefish
The HD's bass response is tactile and supple, with an almost elastic quality in responding to and isolating more delicate notes. The brief background vocal near the beginning is fully out of head, and the treble renders the harp strings with incredible delicacy that is smooth, immediate, and yet without sibilance on both my DT770 LEs and HD650s. Dynamics with the HD650 are exceptional, clearly spacing vocals, synthesized tones, and instruments, and making intimacy very, very apparent in contrast to more distant sounds, lending a much more immediate texture to close sounds, while presenting distant cues in a smoother fashion; it's a pretty shockingly realistic effect. DT770s bring out the power of the HD’s bass, which is really impressive with some of AT’s rumbling tones, and while the sound is a bit echo-y for this track, the dynamism of this combo really shows off the track’s quality production.
The microStreamer's sound with this track is more delicate; the uS has more treble energy than the HD, which gives things a tiny bit of zing, even with the HD650s. This is actually one of my favorite aspects of the uS when paired with my HD650: even with a darker headphone, the uS's energy shines through when it needs to. The uS does not present intimacy with quite the same presence and realism; this is where the HD really earns its price, IMO. The uS is no slouch though; when guitars enter the mix, there is still very distinct spacing and separation, but not to the same degree; the midrange clarity also isn't on par with the HD, and the bass doesn't have quite the same supple feel. Liquid sounds later in the track just don't have quite the same realism; the treble colors the midrange just a smidge with the uS, which is really nice for the HD650s in general, but does take away from the true realism and immediacy offered by the HD. The uS performs really well on this track, but I can't quite FEEL the sound the same way I can with the HD.
Akara - The Crystal Palace
The microStreamer performs well here: it keeps the strings well-spaced, gives plenty of air to the woodwinds, and gives a nice full-body feeling with the HD650. Overall the sound is very liquid and vivid, words I would generally use to describe the combination which, if you hadn’t deduced it on your own, I will confess that I quite like :) The character of this track is best described as laid back, slightly euphoric, and seductive. The only complaint I have is that the bass isn't extremely tight and sounds a bit wooly. This (minor) problem persists with my DT770, although it is more boomy than wooly. Vocals are present but clearly not in the front seat compared to instruments and bass, which is not surprising given the DT770’s laid-back mids. The sound is a tad cold after the HD650, but I know some will prefer the added clarity and treble energy; lovers of a good zing will really enjoy the uS paired with the DT770, with or without an amp. I use the unamped combo for gaming, and it’s really a lot of fun.
With the HD feeding the HD650s, the sound really comes to life. Again there is much more fullness and immediacy to the vocals and synthesized tones, and the whole sound is more forward than the uS, without losing any soundstage depth. While the uS may actually have the edge on width with this combo, the HD’s soundstage is noticeably more coherent, with less “empty” space, and positioning is improved. Switching to the DT770, the woodwinds are given surprising weightiness; they still get overshadowed by strings in some places, which I attribute to the DT770’s scooped midrange, but all things considered the mids don’t really lose out much here thanks to great separation and a bit of extra warmth. Vocals are very nice, almost intimate and able to portray surprising delicacy, which is an impressive feat for the DT770.
When I started here at Head-Fi, my source was probably the last thing I thought or cared about when it comes to getting good sound. I owned mutiple $300+ IEMs and a few nice cans, and used them with half-decent portable sources and a FiiO E11 for two years before I stepped into a better source and started noticing the real difference it makes; upgrading my source from phones to external USB DACs was the step that prompted me to look seriously into open headphones. I have come to see that, when it comes to absolute sound quality and the ability to reproduce details and spacial presentation, a source is just as important as headphones and, contrary to what seems to be the most popular approach given what generates the most talk here on Head-Fi, seems to have more overall impact on sound than amps; after all, amps don't really interpret or reproduce the sound on either end, and ultimately their purpose is to give juice to headphones and stay out of the way as much as possible. If we’re honest from a technical perspective, an amp that affects the sound fed from a DAC can really only do so in a negative way.
I really enjoy my microStreamer. It’s the first DAC that makes me feel like I’ve stepped into true reference sound with my full-sized cans, and has enough juice to make my HD650 sound great even without an amp. It has a fun, energetic, and realistic sound that I view as a very worthy companion to my Senns and DT770s
But the MS HD is definitely another level that I had not experienced yet. The laws of diminishing returns are apparent: the HD improves on my uS about as much as the uS improved on my $45 HiFiMeDIY Sabre DAC, maybe a bit more. So is it worth it? Well, it’s not 4x the price of the uS like the uS was vs. the Sabre DAC, so that’s a start. If you can afford it, and you have cans that are good enough to show the difference, I think the MS HD is absolutely worth the asking price. I’ve given a few movies a run with the HD, and I have to say, I noticed even more improvement over the uS with film scores and live-action sound than with regular old music; the soundstage is really well-showcased in action movies like the one I watched (Tomorrow Never Dies, one of my favorite Bond movies...yeah yeah I know, Brosnan isn’t as good an actor as the others, but the guy has a modern sleezy cool that Moore and Connery can’t touch). Unfortunately I don’t have the kit to take advantage of the HD’s balanced outputs, but I can only imagine that using them would take its sound to yet another level.
So, if you have the other equipment to support it, the MS HD is definitely a great buy. It is a true hi-fi source that has made me reassess what my HD650s are capable of. I still think the microStreamer is a better value at less than half the price, maybe the best standalone solution out there for getting a serious improvement over onboard sound cards, but those who can afford the HD will definitely get a noticeable upgrade from the uS.
Thanks again to HRT for the extended loan!