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Positive Feedback ISSUE 51
hiFace USB converter
as reviewed by Larry Cox
My back yard has a really steep hill. It's in southern California. It gets hot without much rain. I needed sprinklers. I had an idea about what to do about them, but I'd never installed them. So, I asked my dad what he thought. He's done sprinklers for several houses, some of which I'd dug the holes for, including his great house of the past fifty years. He's knowledgeable about a lot of things. He designed some of the electronics that went on three NASA trips to the moon; not necessarily relevant experience for sprinklers, but he's a guy who thinks things through with extraordinary care. I figured he would know how to design sprinklers. As my dad started to explain his ideas over the course of fifteen or so minutes, he dug into high level thinking mode, like this was really complicated. Asphyxiating in the complexity of his elaborate plans, my eyes wandered 250,000 miles to the moon. I thought to myself, is installing sprinklers rocket science or is it simpler than that?
I laid out my idea, to which he replied, "I suppose you could do that," and I did. My sprinklers work fine. I parted from my dad's thinking for a few simple reasons. My dad's lawn is sizeable, nearly a quarter acre. Getting full coverage is harder to accomplish than on my smaller lot. His house is in a great neighborhood with excellent schools, terrific weather and mature vegetation in the house and neighborhood. It's a place to stay for fifty years.
The patch of land I need to water is quite small. If the sprinklers miss a few inches of space, I can hand water on occasion and the yard will still look fine. While the sprinklers in my dad's house might have benefited from the planning it takes for something to operate on the moon, the sprinklers to my house are not. And, most importantly there is no way I will be staying in this house for fifty years, so if the sprinklers aren't perfectly placed, I'll let the next owners figure out a better way. This job doesn't require the planning to last a 250,000 mile trip or for fifty years of longevity.
If you're buying into the computer audio model, are you buying for a 250,000 mile trip, or are you buying for this iteration of digital audio music, say one year or four? Or are you going to make this purchase last? Personally, I don't see spending big bucks on an digital converter that is changing rapidly. Do I know something you don't? Probably not. Reference Moore's law—Intel's CEO who projected that a computer will double in power every two years. Digital is not computer chips, but the parallel is apparent to me. That's what I'm planning on, though this solution is good for much longer than that.
If you have a Thorens 124 from the late 1960s, excepting the cartridge, you're probably still in good shape. How about a CD player from the 1990s? Can you say, "Receding gums," you know, quite long in the tooth. Who knows what's going to happen with the digital architecture you choose now, whether it's Redbook, SACD, or BluRay audio?
Digital delivery of audio will be changing sooner than analog is. Perhaps it's only changing subtly in the near future, but it will likely change more dramatically in another few years. Spend a lot of money on it? Again, not for me. I expect continued maturation into something else soon enough. Moreover, inexpensive digital is getting good these days and you needn't scoff at everything inexpensive.
These various considerations led me to feeling low tech about a technical innovation here, the M2Tech hiFace 24/192 USB adapter. So, rather than go into excruciating technical detail laid out elsewhere, let me tell you what I think you'd want to know. If you want a little bit more about this, glance at Dave Clark's Ramblings in this issue on USB converters for a little background. And, of course, you can Google more on this, too.
The hiFace originates from Italy. It allows you to connect your computer straight to the digital part of your stereo with a digital input, either an RCA connection ($150) or BNC ($165). The hiFace is an adapter that allows your computer to output a music file (FLAC, MP3, WAV or one of the dozens of other formats out there) to your DAC or CD player—to its digital in (RCA or BNC depending on the HiFace model you purchased). For purposes of getting the most from the hiFace, however, the formats you're most likely to be interested in are the ones that are of the higher resolution variety as the hiFace will let you send your digital data at a higher resolution than many other USB converters.
By higher resolution, I mean at a greater bit word (not 16 bit as standard Redbook CD, but up to 24 bit words) and instead of 44.1kHz or 96kHz, the hiFace will transmit a 192kHz sample rate. There are, in fairness, higher sampling rates like 24/384 or 24/768 outputs, but the hiFace won't go there. For what it's worth, my experience with an unsampling Cary CD player several years ago was that the 24/384 and 24/768 sample rates were brighter, thinner and with a false airiness compared to 24/192 which I thought was the Goldilocks setting. Some people like the higher rates, I didn't, so look for yourself.
To get the fullest benefit out of the hiFace you'll need USB2.0 with at least a gig of RAM, with less of either I understand you'll not be sending 24/192 to your DAC. Though the hiFace is quite inexpensive, it's not really indicated for those DOS users, like my dad, who get by on an ancient machine. Probably any computer built in the last five years will work. If you're a MAC user, you'll need Snow Leopard or higher to get full (24/192) performance on the hiFace.
Installation is almost beyond impossibly easy. Insert the M2Tech into a USB port on your computer; connect a coaxial RCA or BNC terminated digital cable from your DAC to the M2Tech, and then it gets really difficult, you must load the software. Heavens! Can it get more complicated? Not really. And, the M2Tech gets you in the computer audio world with good results at an easy price with audiophile results.
For those tip-toeing toward using a computer with their stereo, there are some things to think about. My primary interest in getting my music on my computer is that I wanted to remove all those CDs from my living room—who wants all that clutter, right? That's what I say out of one side of my mouth, and out of the other side, I must acknowledge that I have about 150 LPs in said same room, oops! LPs = cool, CDs jewel cases ≠ cool. 'Nuf said?
There's the convenience issue, too. Some people are really hot for having all of their music on a single hard drive. Dave Clark likens ripping all of your music onto a hard drive to creating your own radio station on your hard drive, playing only music you like. That's true, but I like to be surprised by music, too. I tend to be too much a creature of habit and like being poked inside my self-made cage. Of course, that's more about my neurosis than about music on computers.
The other thing about computer music I've found is that after forty plus years of listening to albums, I'm trained to listen to an album, all the way through. I prefer to listen to one album at a time and hear the music from the album; I'm also less a fan of "greatest hits" compilations. With the hiFace in place, I find the music I like untethered from its album origin; seems different. There seems to be a special sort of musical or lyrical consciousness to music from a single album. Remove the adjacent tracks and it seems to denude the zeitgeist or connected background of the compositions' underpinnings of an album's or an artist's consciousness that makes the various songs work together to create something more than the component songs.
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is an example where hearing the song "Time" unleashed from the rest of the album makes the song seem cheaper, less engaging and more of a novelty song. So, yeah, you can have your own radio station, guaranteed to only play music you like, but if you're like me, you may find your music shaken if the order is stirred. So, on some levels computer audio is overrated to me. I will, however, say that I like having my CDs out of my room and all of my music on a MacBook.
Sonically, the M2Tech is good as part of a Redbook CD conduit, i.e. 16/44.1K recordings. In some respects, it might be unnoticeable. Grain-less and clear, it is not dark sounding. If you weren't looking for nits, I doubt you'd notice the hiFace in your system, which is not to say the hiFace is a nit, but that it performs really well. It may well be a sonically invisible transition from a CD transport to computer audio.
However, compared to the CEC TL-1 to my Twisted Pear Audio Buffalo 32s (with ESSTech 9018 / 32 Bit DAC), the sound was less rich and warm sounding and missed some of the texture that makes music seem more like "live." My conclusion here is probably more about the excellence of the TL-1 than a critique of the hiFace. The CEC players are rightly praised as exceptional transports of extraordinary musicality. With the "wrong cable" the TL-1 can be a hair too relaxed and perhaps a bit dull sounding, but it never sounded anything less than musical. Overall, the TL-1 is just exceptional.
The M2Tech hiFace lacked the TL-1's texture on drum skins, the next level of reediness on saxophone and woodiness on stand up bass were simply better, more invisibly conjuring up their magic. With the TL-1 in my system (it has since been returned to its owner and sold), there was more of a feeling of the palpability of sound than palpability of "seeing" sound, if you will.
Dave Clark had the hiFace and found ..."the 'tinkly' things had a bit more 'tinkle' to them… more sparkle and glint, but with less decay along with a reduction in space or air. So while being a bit less organic and somewhat more analytical overall, the M2Tech is clearly from the upfront and incisive (aggressive?) perspective than laidback-relaxed and natural side of things." I didn't hear the hiFace in his system and haven't heard Dave Clark's system in too long to comment how I think his system played in getting the sound he described.
There are myriad differences in our systems, including the extremely expensive USB cables he's using, which no doubt are good and also no doubt have a sound. Ever heard an audio component without a sound, however pleasing? So, no comment on Dave's conclusions, but just an observation that there are so many variables to consider that, for me, certainty is hard to come by..
What I will say is that the qualities Dave describes might be present in my system, but I didn't hear that, but I also didn't have the United Nations catalog of forty USB converters with which to compare. However, in my listening sessions, I didn't hear Dave's conclusions. Remember, different systems yield different synergies. A "glint" to the sound, if it exists, is quite slight and lies more in the realm of texture than in the realm of tone—that's about as fine a distinction as I can make in audio. What you should take away from my comments here is that whether the hiFace is lean or not, it's a very subtle distinction to call it that. Expect the hiFace to maintain the sound you already have.
Now, using the hiFace with high resolution recordings is a different beast. The hiFace will not receive DSD/SACD or DVD-A audio, so I'm not commenting on that format. I have only a half dozen high resolution recordings, including some Reference Recordings HRX 24 bit 176 kHz tracks that are stellar, From the Ashes by Larry Coryell and Dr. L. Subramaniam (a 24 Bit / 88.2kHz recording) and 2L's Grieg's Piano Concerto No. 1. In A Minor both of which are available at hdtracks.com, and AIX Records' A High Resolution Experience which features very well recorded tracks of mostly anonymous sounding music.
Before I talk about the sound of these recordings, it warrants comment that I have so few of these recordings. There just aren't that many recordings of music that I want. To me, the hiFace is well situated in its market. It's inexpensive to accommodate what is currently more of an audio niche. Since there aren't a lot of non-SACD/DVD-A high resolution recordings you probably shouldn't allocate silly money to play back a handful of recordings. Of course, if you have downloaded hundreds of such recordings, I withdraw my suggestion. I'm not one to buy copies of the tinkling sounds of tea cups doilies or other such sonic extravaganzas. Personally, I'd rather have lower resolution recordings of music I like. I bought a copy of Jazz at the Pawn Shop twenty years ago. I haven't listened to it in about 19 years. I learned my lesson.
Admittedly I'm writing about a small sampling of high resolution music, and only one batch was higher than 24/96 (Reference Recordings) but the quality of the reproduction was exceptional. From the Ashes was vinyl-like in its qualities, and frankly a little hard to listen to as it was emotionally wrenching. The Reference Recordings' sound and musicality was just exceptional. There was a naturalness and lightness to the touch of attack, decay and the more delicate instrumentation, though it retained the bull-like impact and tone of lower frequency information. My wife, who likes music and can appreciate good sound, but often doesn't give it attention, remarked how good the recordings were sonically.
My experience of the high resolution recordings through the hiFace conjured up wonderment that Sony and Philips really made a fidelity mistake in choosing lower resolution formats at the get-go. With the hiFace, if there was a "thinness" to the sound, it led to a lighter touch on Subramaniam's violin and Coryell's guitar and made the "ode" to the violinist's wife's passing all the more touching reproduction, rather than a bleaching of the sound. The opening of Grieg's Piano Concerto was nearly as impactful and emotional as I've heard from my LPs, played back from a vinyl setup that dwarfs the cost of my digital setup.
I also had an opportunity to compare the hiFace in my system to the Ayre QB-9 USB DAC. Dave brought the QB-9 over for a listen along with a $2800+ USB cable from Lotus Designs. The QB-9's sound was really good, and it's easy to see why there is an internet roar in support of it. The difference in sound between the hiFace and my DAC and the QB-9 was not much, with the QB-9 having a slightly more forward soundstage, either with the Lotus USB cable, or without. I don't remember. The sonic comparison seemed absurd when money was factored in, without factoring in money, the comparison got harder.
Lest you think I'm recommending that you build DIY DAC and get a hiFace to compete with the QB-9, keep in mind that the parts on my DAC were about $750 PLUS the time, sweat and difficulty of soldering at least four PC boards, which was a considerable effort on my part. If you're an experienced DIY guy or gal, you can think about that project more lightly than I could.
I will say, having completed the soldering that I'm really proud of its sound and all, and I had an enormous experience of triumph in getting the thing to work, so it's very good sound is quite pleasing to me. But, keep in mind, when Dave and I compared the two setups, we had essentially the same experience.
The hiFace connects via a USB port to your computer. No problem there. However, the hiFace then is connected to a digital interconnect. An issue I anticipate as a problem rather than have experienced as a problem is that the USB connectors on my MacBook and PC (I used both) are not built to resist the exertion of force. I expect with the occasional jostling that might occur in connecting, unconnecting or just inadvertently jiggling the cable over time will affect the electrical and mechanical integrity of the computer's USB connection. Again, I did not experience that, but it's a concern on my part.
If you're looking at a $150 audiophile device, you're probably looking for value. The hiFace represents silly good value. Sonically, it's an audiophile caliber device. The hiFace is sounds good enough to keep around for quite a while, if not fifty years, and is built well enough that it will last that long. It's a much better executed plan than my sprinklers, doesn't require additional "hand watering" of digital sources to sound great and that makes it an easy recommendation. It's really inexpensive, does its job, sounds good and you don't have to make plans for a 250,000 mile trip to get good digital out of your computer. Larry Cox