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Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
PC-based Music Server with the High-Resolution Technologies Music Streamer II
I've pretty much prided myself that I've been able over the last ten years or so—and despite a few significant bumps in the road—to put together a stereo system that's almost exclusively American-made and with some semblance of high-end credibility—and all essentially acquired at close to bargain-basement prices. At the start of this project, my amp and preamp (both Acurus), phono pre (Bellari), sub (Definitive Tech) and main speakers (Magnepan) were all US-made, with the only exceptions being SACD/Red Book CD playback (Sony) and my turntable/cartridge combo (Rega/Michell/Ortofon). That did, unfortunately, change during the process—more about that later. I spend most of my time listening to a lot of LPs; I haven't really owned what I'd consider a reference Red Book CD/transport/DAC system in over ten years, although the Sony does acquit itself pretty admirably with most material (especially SACDs). So needless to say, I really only listen to CDs when the LP just isn't available, and I spend a whole lot of time in pursuit of used and collectible LPs. I don't really consider myself an analogue snob, although I do pretty much universally espouse the superiority of the LP musically— warts and all—to just about anyone who'll listen for more than a minute or two!
So when my brother told me he was putting together a Media Server a couple of years ago, I paid only the barest attention—after all, digital music playback—pretty ho-hum, right? The direction he seemed headed in just didn't engage my interest too much—and why on earth would anyone want a noisy computer corrupting the infinitely quiet, inner sanctum of the listening room environment? The whole concept struck me as almost heretical. So over the next couple of years, I essentially carried on the status quo, searching for multiple copies of desirable LPs—a pristine jacket here, a really clean-looking pressing there—systematically working towards rebuilding a respectable LP collection. My only real involvement with any form of digital music was the vast collection of MP3s that I'd amassed over a five year period that are strictly for playback in my car.
That's not to say that I didn't maintain any kind of peripheral awareness of digital music; via continued subscriptions to publications like TAS and Stereophile, I was bombarded with all the latest advancements in digital music playback. And I also started noticing the availability of high-res music downloads, via sources such as HDTracks, 2L Music, Linn, iTrax, etc. And my constant explorations of web-based blogs such as Audio Asylum kept my awareness level pretty up-to-date as well. One of the names I kept hearing really good things about was HRT (high-resolution Techologies) and their series of Music Streamer products. And unlike so many currently available USB DACs, HRT's Music Streamers are all made in the US and are pretty reasonably priced—their entry level Music Streamer II retails for a paltry $149! That's a real steal compared to most competing products that retail anywhere from $500 to well over $1000 (and are made who knows where)!
Building A Music Server
Almost fortuitously, my brother once again entered into the picture—it seems that during a visit with some Ohio in-laws during the 2010 holiday season, he was given a really nice little compact HP Slimline PC with a dead hard drive. Having just upgraded one of his own PCs to the multiple terrabyte level, he'd installed an available 300 gig hard drive in the HP unit, and it was mine for the asking if I wanted it to explore creating my own Media/Music Server. While I'd not really given the idea any serious consideration—I decided, what the heck; of course, I'd need a DAC, and since most of my equipment acquisitions of late had been very cost-conscious decisions, that made an effort to acquire an HRT Music Streamer II an almost no-brainer. I first fired off an email to HRT seeking a review sample, which was promptly responded to by Kevin Halverson, HRT's CTO. He immediately forwarded my request to Elite Audio A/V Distribution (HRT's distributor), which resulted in an almost instantaneous reply from Elite's Marketing Manager. Surprisingly, this turned out to be none other than Michael Mercer, a fellow writer over at Positive Feedback Online, who then forwarded my request to Scott Markwell, Elite A/V's General Manager. As a longtime reader of The Absolute Sound, Scott Markwell's name was infinitely familiar to me; come to find out, he and Michael Mercer were associates at TAS—it really is a small world! Anyway, a few short emails later and the Music Streamer II was on its way.
The week that it took the Music Streamer II to arrive gave me plenty of time to get familiar with the HP Pavilion s7210n Slimline PC. In the current PC environment, memory and hard drive space are both just about dirt cheap; however, I decided that I'd go with the currently installed 300 gig hard drive. And if this whole endeavor turned out to be a complete fiasco, well, at least I wouldn't have wasted the additional $60 or so bucks for an unnecessary 500 gig to 1TB hard drive, and the 300 gigs seemed to offer sufficient disc space for the experiment. I did feel that a memory upgrade would probably enhance the little machine's overall performance, so a $32 investment raised the RAM level to 2 gigs. The HP's Intel Celeron processor is a single-core, 1.4 GHz; however, an upgrade at the time of this machine's release (in 2006) to a dual-core 2.2 GHz processor was available, and I've seen this chipset on eBay for as little as $15, and that might be a worthy later upgrade as well. The factory-installed CD/DVD drive didn't offer any burning options, and while I didn't really see that as particularly necessary with this experiment, I picked up a really nice Pioneer multi-drive at Fry's for less than $30 and installed it—it just seemed like the prudent thing to do. One of the things I really like about this machine is its relatively small footprint, and it only has one fan inside the compact case—so it's really quiet! Early in this process, a typical PC horror experience (I'm really a long-time Mac guy) scared me into purchasing a 1TB Seagate USB external hard drive ($59!) for back up and additional storage space—I turned on the PC one afternoon, an unfamiliar startup screen appeared, and all my files appeared to be gone! A system restore solved everything, but I definitely beat a path to Microcenter for some pretty cheap peace of mind!
I also spent some time researching PC music players and music servers online, and ended up downloading several of the music players and testing their functionality. One thing I noted right away was that almost all of the online retailers of digital music downloads offered their higher resolution files in the FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format, ranging anywhere from 24 bit/192 kHz to 24 bit/96 kHz, as well as 16 bit/44.1 kHz (Red Book CD quality) resolution. FLAC doesn't really compress the files, it just repacks the digits into a more compact format—the average FLAC file is just a little more than half the size of the original—which really saves on hard disk space. The players I tested included Foobar2000, Songbird, Winamp and Media Monkey; they were all chosen mainly for their ability to playback 24 bit music files, but also because they're all free—there are some really good music/media players out there that can run upwards of one-to-two hundred dollars. I actually liked the looks of the Songbird and Media Monkey GUIs best, but the overall user-friendliness, relative intuitiveness and infinite customization of Foobar2000 eventually prevailed. I also downloaded the ripping program Exact Audio Copy for use in converting my CD collection to FLACs.
I also spent a pretty protracted period (quite literally days and days!) experimenting with control panel settings on both the HP machine and in Foobar—the goal here is to get bit-perfect playback, and that can be a somewhat daunting task to the Digital Music Newbie (yours truly)! It seems that Windows just really wants to mix or otherwise resample your digital music stream in a nasty variety of ways, so it's a really good idea to spend some time researching this on the internet (where there's a wealth of information available)—otherwise, your 24 bit playback will be downsampled to 16 bits, and that will be resampled or mixed prior to ouput. I'm currently running Windows Vista on the HP, in combination with an application called ASIO4ALL, which works in combination with your music player to guarantee bit perfect output. ASIO is a protocol that works to bypass any of the mixing or resampling functions that Windows strives to introduce into the music stream by connecting the output of you music player directly to your DAC; however, it's predominantly aimed at professional users, and there's quite a healthy licensing fee. ASIO4ALL was developed to help offer the benefits of ASIO to the more casual user—and it's a free download, to boot. Foobar has an online download page which allows the user to customize the music player in an almost infinite variety of ways, and one of the components allows the use of ASIO. Downloading ASIO4ALL adds an ASIO control panel to Foobar's preference panel, which allows you to configure the music player and your device to output bit-perfect sound. Let me assure you, there's a huge difference in the sound quality! From what I can tell, attempting to get bit perfect playback from Windows XP and under can be a real challenge.
At this point, I started really looking at the various online Music retailers offering high-res downloads; my first stop was at HDTracks. A new venture of the Chesky brothers, David and Norman, HDTracks occupies a pretty unique position at this juncture in the download wars—they're just about the only downloader that offers anything other than their own label titles or strictly classical music, and they're building an impressive library of high-resolution mainstream titles. Their site offers a free download sampler in the resolution of you choosing; since the Music Streamer II caps at 24/96 playback, I naturally chose that resolution. I then contacted them and outlined the goals of my project, and they generously responded with a selection of mainstream titles of my choice, as well as additional titles from the Chesky library. Here was where I reached the first real snag—when I tried to load the 24/96 files into any of the music player libraries, I couldn't get any of them to recognize the files. After considerable consternation, I realized that without a 24 bit capable device installed (the Music Streamer II hadn't arrived yet), none of the music players were going to allow me to load the files. Fortunately, the MS II showed up in just a few short days, and after some very positive initial listens to the HDTracks 24/96 material, I started contacting other online download distributors, who all seemed very interested in offering at least a sampling of their high-res files. 2L Music (from Norway—they've made a recent splash with their music-only BluRay discs) was particularly generous—only one email resulted in thirteen full-length album downloads!
Installing The Music Streamer
Installing the Music Streamer II is about as simple as it gets—it's definitely plug-and-play. I already had a decent quality USB cable on hand I'd been reserving for the MS II, and I also decided to use high quality Audioquest interconnects. Those are the only two connections that need to be made (the MS II derives its power from the USB connection), and I plugged the Audioquest cables into the D/A input on my Acurus RL-11 preamp. During some online explorations of PC-based music servers, I noted that quite a few respondents suggested defeating the output of your PC's sound card—I did this, and when I plugged the USB cable into the HP unit, the Music Streamer II showed up as the only sound output option. At this point, I also went into the HP's control panel and double-checked the MS II's preferences to guarantee that they were set to 24 bit playback. So far, so good!
I also had a couple of questions for HRT regarding performance aspects of the MS II, and an email to Kevin Halverson resulted in very quick answers. First of all, my PC had an available PCI port, and I was somewhat inclined to perhaps get a USB 3.0 PCI card and install it if it would enhance the MS II's streaming performance. Kevin responded that the MS II was not USB 3.0 compatible, and that the 3.0 transfer rate wasn't supported (or necessary) by any current audio applications, and that USB 2.0 would work perfectly with the Music Streamer. Also, much of the praise that I'd read online and elsewhere regarding the MS II focused on the fact that it was an "asynchronous" DAC, and what a marvelous achievement it was at such a low price point. I asked Kevin Halverson to give me a "layman's" explanation of the importance of asynchronous DACs; he told me that the process allows the MS II to use it's own high quality timing clock during the D/A conversion, rather than the generally low quality clock of the host computer, which results in an almost complete elimination of jitter from the digital signal. Pretty impressive for $149!
For my initial listen through the Music Streamer II, I decided to go the Red Book CD route; this was, in all honesty, the aspect of its performance that had really piqued my curiosity and interest in the first place. To christen the MS II, I chose Diana Krall's All For You, her first mainstream album and one filled with incredibly good musicianship and toe-tappingly good songs. This is the Diana Krall that millions came to know and love, long before her handlers tried to transform her from a great jazz musician into a style icon, and seemingly light years from her recent vocal affectations that have marred the last couple of albums. The Red Book CD always sounded pretty good, although a bit lacking in vocal presence and "air"—the presentation was a bit flat and somewhat two-dimensional. The first notes of "I'm An Errand Girl For Rhythm" came as an absolute shock to me—after having acquired the excellent ORG LP of this album a couple of years ago, I'd virtually stopped listening to the CD, because it just didn't offer the same level of clarity and realism that the LP showed in spades. Via the MS II, as DK belted out tune after tune, her voice just hung in the air midway into my listening room, really bringing my Magneplanars to life in a way the CD never could. And the instrumental accompaniment was just staggeringly good—the piano, bass and Russell Malone's remarkable guitar occupied the room in a palpable, believably dimensional presentation that just about defied belief. In no time, I had the LP cued up for some comparison listening, and I (almost begrudgingly) have to admi—the similarities between the two were surprisingly (and somewhat scarily) more obvious than the differences. Is the CD as good as the LP? No, the LP trumps the CD in just about every area. But could I sit for hours on end in sheer amazement at the remarkably good sounds coming from the loudspeakers through the Music Streamer II? Absolutely!
Of course, this started a cavalcade of CD listening over the next few days; in instances where I had either the LP or an SACD available for comparison purposes, I was almost universally stunned by how well the Music Streamer II acquitted itself with anything thrown at it. And even in instances where all I had on hand (or was even available) was the Red Book CD of some of the oldest titles from the first few years of CD's existence—which are generally considered by many to be the worst of the worst—they often played with a stunning clarity and presence that flat-out boggled me! A favorite early CD of mine is the Private Music compilation Piano One, which features some pretty impressive and musically entertaining piano solos from the likes of Eddie Jobson and Ryuichi Sakamoto—but has always, in my opinion, suffered from a less than optimal presentation via Red Book CD. Via the MS II, this disc came to life with an image specificity that I'd never have thought possible – a really palpable presentation of a piano, right in your listening room, with excellent spatial characteristics and loads of ambience. One of the few knocks on the Music Streamer II (from the mainstream media) is that its depth-of-image presentation is somewhat lacking compared to its more pedigreed (and more expensive) siblings. Personally, that was not my experience with the MS II—just about everything I played through this lovable little gizmo gained a weight and depth that truly enhanced the image presentation almost exponentially! Of course, hearing would probably be believing, but at $149, I'd be hard pressed to justify the extra cost ratio based on the satisfaction I've gotten from the Music Streamer II. Over the next few days, I listened to disc after disc and was rarely disappointed by what I heard coming from the MS II.
Mother Nature Intervenes
About the time I was getting ready to start checking out some of the high-resolution downloads, mother nature intervened, and in a really big way. A series of heavy-duty thunderstorms were moving through the metro Atlanta area, and my wife and I were watching the weather coverage on television, when a bolt of lightning either hit or hit near to my house. A loud "KA-WHAM!" was followed by a brilliant flash of lightning inside the room from behind the equipment cabinet that shot almost across the room—and suddenly all went dark (and deathly silent). The lightning bolt had apparently come in through the electrical panel and exited via my Monster Powerline surge protector. After recovering my senses (from a near heart-attack!), I grabbed a flashlight and went straight to the breaker panel—to no avail—all the basement circuits were dead. After verifying that my house had not been struck, I started checking out all the electronic equipment, and the news was extremely bad. The casualty list included: an InFocus overhead projector, my main PC upstairs, two televisions, my Acurus A-250 amplifier, every cable box in the house, a Samsung Blu-Ray player, my Sony SACD unit, the Monster Powerline surge protector, the network wireless gateway and router, an HDMI switcher, a Playstation 3, my garage door opener and a basement dehumidifier. Also, the electrical service to my entire basement (where my listening/home theater room is) was out of service. The HP Slimline PC appeared to be functioning OK, but four days later, when my phone, cable and internet service were finally restored, I was able to determine that the Ethernet card on the PC was blown out. Fortunately I was able to get a $10 wireless adapter at Microcenter that works swimmingly, so at least the Music Server is still alive!
The news has not been so good for my beloved Acurus A-250—it's been in the shop for five weeks now, with still no word on whether it's even salvageable. I've been on Audiogon and Craigslist almost daily looking for a possible replacement, but until I can either get the insurance claim resolved, or determine the repair status of my amp—I'm definitely in limbo. When the Acurus amp went into the shop, I had a crazy idea—my fifteen-plus year old Sony ES 5-channel receiver has a jumpered stereo pre/main output—what if I routed the signal from my Acurus RL-11 pre through the stereo amp section of the Sony to the Magneplanars? I knew it would work, but would the Magneplanars sound like total crap being driven by such a decidedly mid-fi receiver, especially after the incredible synergy they'd been experiencing for the last two years with the A-250? Around the first of this year I had completed a rebuild of the crossovers on the Magneplanar MMGs, a project which has elevated their performance in just about every imaginable way. The rebuild also increased their efficiency by about 6dB—now upwards of 90 db/W—and has made them a much easier load to drive. Amazingly enough—and to my utter disbelief, the Magneplanars actually sounded pretty darn good—especially after the the Sony had warmed up for a few hours (though in all honesty, the Sony could never touch the Acurus). But these are desperate times, and desperate times often require desperate measures!
At the very least, anyway, I could now determine if there was any additional collateral damage to the system; I didn't even know if the Music Streamer II—which was six inches from the Monster Powerline unit—was even functional. Amazingly, after about a day of intensive testing, the Acurus amp, the Blu-ray and SACD players and the HDMI switcher were the only apparent total casualties among the equipment located in the rack, and the HP Slimline PC was only slightly maimed. Pretty astonishing, especially considering the magnitude of the lightning event—I guess the now dead Monster unit pretty much did its job; unfortunately, it's about ten years old and I don't really have an extensive enough paper trail to be able to establish a claim through them at this point. So despite the fact that my once pristine listening room/home theater environment is now hopelessly cluttered with heaps of cables and carcasses of dead (and near-dead) audio-visual and computer equipment alongside countless other nuisances, we can at least proceed to some extent with the review process. Just as I was prepared to forge ahead using the Sony receiver's amp output, I received the settlement check from my insurance company, and the news that my Acurus A-250 was indeed DOA. While a sad day, I'd been kind of jonesing to review one of the Emotiva amps for quite some time—more out of curiosity than anything, because they really pack a lot of American-designed (although Chinese made) watts for the buck into really heavy-duty, cool-looking chassis. A call to Emotiva (outside of Nashville, Tennessee) got the ball rolling, and an XPA-2 amplifier was on its way—it arrived (with free shipping!) in just one day!
16 and 24 bit FLAC Playback
Having been seriously enthralled with Red Book CD playback via the Music Streamer II, I decided to create 16 bit/44.1kHz FLAC files of the CDs I'd listened to for storage on the music server and for comparison to the CDs. A quick trip to EAC's preference panel, and all the necessary adjustments were made to produce the highest resolution 16 bit FLACs possible. And while this started out as more of a "based-on-mild-curiosity" sort of scenario, in no time at all it had become an obsession. When I compared the playback of the FLAC files to the CDs, I could detect no discernable difference. The FLAC files of any given CD sounded every bit as engaging as the discs from which they were born and were indistinguishable from the originals. During the aftermath of the lightning incident, I'd been going through bouts of sleeplessness due to a compressed disc in my lower neck (one more aggravation to deal with!), so for weeks I was up at any given hour of the night on any given night, and often for extended periods of time. So to pass the time, I basically started ripping my entire pop/rock and jazz collection from CDs to FLACs—when I say this became a serious obsession, I'm not kidding—I even renewed a ten-year dormant library card and started combing through stacks of CDs at local branches, trying to fill holes in my collection! Within a couple of weeks, I'd ripped about 60 gigs worth of music! I haven't been this obsessed with CDs since they were first released in the 80's, but it's only because they sound so great through the MS II!
My experience with 24 bit FLACs has been equally exciting. HDTracks offers a free sampler download, and it's not just awful filler—there's actually some pretty good music there. Of course, several of the selections are from the Chesky library, but there's also music from 2L and Reference Recordings. Right away, I noticed that vocals in 24 bit files have an uber-realism that almost defies description—as good as the 16 bit files sound via the Music Streamer II, 24 bit files take that realism exponentially to the next level. And massed strings also sound amazing; the 2L selection was from a disc of Mozart Violin Concertos—the string tone via the MS II was intoxicatingly sweet! I did a pretty intensive scan of HDTracks offerings to try and find selections that I'd have either the LP or SACD on hand for some comparison listening, and between the gratis files they authorized and several purchases I made on my own, I ended up with 24/96 files for music by Diana Krall, Bill Evans, Rush, Ana Caram, David Chesky, McCoy Tyner and Rebecca Pidgeon. Diana Krall's From This Moment On has her shifting gears from the small combo and orchestral albums that were her early bread and butter into more of a big-band setting, and to really good effect. For comparison I had the Classic Records 200 gram LP on hand, as well as the Red Book CD. Through the Music Streamer II, I felt the 24 bit FLAC files were every bit the equal of the 200 gram LP; heck, even the CD gave the LP a serious challenge. Another excellent 24 bit/88.2 kHz file is Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven, a seriously good collection of Celtic and folk-ish songs on the Chesky label that are delivered by Ms. Pidgeon in her sensuously sweet and inimitable soprano; I also had an SACD on hand for comparison, and could virtually tell no difference between the files. During my almost daily trips to HDTracks to scour through their selections, I came across another 24 bit guilty pleasure, the classic Rush album Moving Pictures, which had me lunging for my credit card. Of course, the album was delivered in quite possibly the finest fidelity I've ever heard; tunes such as "Red Barchetta," "YYZ" and "Witch Hunt" were offered with effortless dynamics and heart-pounding bass—very surprising to me, considering that Mobile Fidelity discontinued their Rush reissue series because the master tapes were supposedly in such "poor shape."
Among the files that came from 2L Music there were numerous standouts. Several of the 24 bit albums featured the phenomenal Norwegian string ensemble, Trondheim Solistene (the Trondheim Soloists), and one of my favorites was Divertimenti, a collection of twentieth century works for string orchestra. The piece I immediately gravitated to was Bartok's classic "Divertimento For Orchestra;" my personal reference is Barshai's classic 60's recording featuring the Moscow Chamber Orchestra on the London imprint, but after hearing this incredible digital music file from 2L, I think I have a new reference! The harrowing second movement "molto adagio" was delivered with such remarkable precision, and in such sumptuously supple sound that I kept cranking the volume to almost the point of sheer ridiculousness! At no point did my system show any signs of strain, and the realism was almost beyond belief—this listening experience quickly transcended the review process and went from merely an audition to an event! Another 2L standout was the album of Mozart Violin Concertos, also featuring the Trondheim Soloists and the exceptional virtuosity of soloist Marianne Thorsen. The digital file contains perhaps some of the finest violin string tone that I've ever heard, and as with the Bartok selection, the realism of the digital performance was remarkable. Another winner was pianist Signe Bakke's disc Crystalline, a collection of the piano works of Japanese composer Karen Tanaka, which also featured brilliant performances and seriously good piano sound.
A New Obsession
In the couple of months that have passed since acquiring the Music Streamer II, I've spent countless hours researching and refining the sound coming from my music server. I've begged and borrowed CDs from friends and libraries (haven't resorted to thievery yet!), and I've continued to acquire new high-res digital files. And I've figured out that it's really important to disable as many functions as possible on my PC to reduce CPU usage—this is especially important with a single core processor such as mine, and greatly enhances glitchless playback. More up-to-date processors will likely experience fewer issues, but I've discovered that even a basement level machine such as mine can deliver remarkable realism and fidelity. I'm over the moon right now—trust me, I won't be driving just down the street to Meridian's US headquarters to fork out the almost $30,000 their highly touted Sooloos (also capable of 24/96 resolution) system sells for. My PC brand new sold for less than $400; with memory and hard drive upgrades and a new combo drive add in an extra hundred or so bucks, and a 1TB external drive for backups and additional storage added another $60. And, oh yes, $99 for a 19 inch widescreen monitor. That, in combination with the $149 cost of the Music Streamer II brings the total cost of a respectable entry level music server to less than $850; my actual investment was less than $350!
The one thing I've hardly done during this period is play any LPs, although I will admit that I christened the purchase of the Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier by playing one of my favorite records, Michael Hedges brilliant Breakfast In The Field. LPs are still my medium of choice—warts and all—and are capable of sometimes stunning fidelity, despite the LP's many technical shortcomings, lack of convenience and general nuisances required for reasonably good playback. My experiences playing CDs and higher resolution and CD quality FLACs was not like the LP experience; while there were no meticulous cleanings, surprisingly, there were some ticks and pops! It took quite some time to get preferences properly set for the PC, Foobar and the MS II, and while the CD quality files were less susceptible, the 24 bit files proved to be rather finicky, especially once bit-perfect playback had been achieved. However, it was easily well worth the weeks of effort, and I can't begin to tell you how gratifying it is to not only hear these files in all their glory, but to also see on the Music Streamer's display that they're playing in their respective (and proper) resolutions. But the real treat has been rediscovering gems from my CD collection, which not only sound better than ever—they've truly pushed the boundaries of my expectations for digital sound in general.
At $149, the Music Streamer II is one of the great bargains in audio today. In a carefully considered system, it makes it possible for one to achieve a remarkable level of truly enjoyable fidelity from digital music files, and at an almost laughably low cash outlay. While some audiophiles may scoff at the low price, possibly equating it with equally low performance, nothing could be further from reality. I honestly can't imagine going forward without it! Very highly recommended!
Distributed by Elite AV Distribution