First...a caveat or two. I'm a newish head-fi member with a mid-fi system. I have no idea what a $1200 DAC sounds like and my ears definitely aren't golden. That being said, I do have good ears and enjoy a wide variety of music from rock to jazz to folk and classical which I want reproduced as well as my budget can afford. I am also not a musician...so if my descriptions are technically incorrect, i apologize. Hopefully, my meaning will show through my use of terminology.
To begin with, here's my current system:
imac running fidelia playing 320kbps AAC and ALAC files ->> uDAC/HRT MS II ->> Little Dot Mk III headphone amp (EH gold-pin power tubes, sylvania 6AK5WB NOS driver tubes) ->> Senn HD600
The Nuforce uDAC doesn't need much introduction. It's small, cheap and it does a good job for the price. I had never heard of one until I read HA's review and once i took the plunge, I discovered just how much improvement can be had once you circumvent your computer's headphone jack.
Originally, I had planned to upgrade to the uDAC2, but reading through head-fi and headfonia, I found myself considering the Audinst MX1, the yulong u100, the GD-audio sparrow and the HRT music streamer II. I had no way to audition these units, so I read lots of reviews and asked as many senior members as I could to get their take on things. Ultimately, I decided that my old uDAC could serve if I needed a small solid-state headphone amp...and that I should take my small budget and try to maximize it by focusing solely on a DAC. Ultimately, I bought the HRT music streamer II and it arrived yesterday. at $150, it's only a few dollars more than the uDAC 2. This is the recently upgraded model with v1.7 firmware and the sample rate indicator on the side.
Plugging it in for the first time, my mac immediately recognized what it was, although it was a surprise to open the MIDI control panel and see the audio levels turned down to zero and greyed out. At first, I thought something was wrong because the uDAC didn't grey out these controls...but everything was fine. This is normal.
I set up a playlist and let the unit run for an hour or two before I took that first listen. I realize that more burn-in is required before the final sound settles into place, but off the bat....
1) The overall sound signature is cooler, punchier and clearer than the uDAC. Where the uDAC is warmer, smoother and more laid-back..the MSII feels more caffeinated...enthusiastic and eager.
2) Bass response has tightened up and definitely has more authority. There is more low-end punch that not only extends deeper but feels quicker with a faster attack and sharper resolve.
3) Highs are clear and well defined but at this stage still a bit harsh. Just as the low-end punches harder, you can feel more sizzle in cymbal crashes and string plucks. synth stabs feel more forward and occasionally a bit rough around the edges. I expect some additional mellowing as the DAC burns in.
4) Mids are one area of interesting contrast. It was definitely an area where the uDAC performed well... smooth, warm and easy. The mids on the HRT feel a bit sterile and the overall cooler tone of the DAC takes away a bit of the velvety quality of the uDAC. What you get instead is a very nice, but slightly dryer presentation that is more detailed, but slightly less sweet.
5) Soundstage with the MSII feels a bit wider overall, but a bit more congested in the midrange. Vocals seem a bit more forward with the MSII which depending on your preferences can either add a greater sense of space or perhaps injects a twinge of artificiality. One thing I cannot deny is that the MSII is more detailed and this detail is welcome...
I'm very happy with the MSII. As a pure DAC, I think it eclipses the uDAC in nearly every way and it will be interesting to see how the sound evolves over the next few weeks. I still enjoy the sound of my uDAC, especially its warm and buttery smooth delivery...but the additional clarity, punch and energy of the MSII puts a bigger smile on my face and in the end, that is my definition of success.
Edited by drandall - 4/2/11 at 8:43am