A Follow-up on
the HRT Music Streamer HD –
Now in Balanced
Mode, and on the Cheap!
Earlier this spring when I posted my original review of the HRT Streamer HD, I was waxing philosophically about desperately wanting to get back into balanced music playback, and how nice it was that the Streamer HD had balanced outputs. That would at least help to make the dream an eventual reality, right? I was also complaining that even though the HD was 24/192 capable, it had become painfully apparent to me that 24/192 playback via a PC-based music player was probably not going to happen either. At least, obviously not anytime soon. Well, the bad news is that HRT still hasn't come up with a USB Audio Class 2 driver that will make 24/192 playback a possibility on PCs—they're still working on it, however, so hope springs eternal on that front. The really, really good news is that I found an affordable balanced solution, and that, in combination with the Streamer HD has transformed—nay, let's go as far as transfigured—my listening experience!
When we last checked in, I'd just returned the Streamer HD review unit—at their request—and the relatively short time I had with the unit didn't allow me to the luxury to try and explore the balanced option. Of course, with a newly-introduced, flagship product like the HD, I fully understood their desire to get the unit in other hands as soon as possible. I thought about purchasing the review sample, and did take the time to express to them in an email that despite my love for the HD's musicality, I was truly hesitant to pull the trigger on a product that couldn't offer 24/192 playback via PC. Despite the fact that 16-bit and up to 24/96 files sounded incredible, still gotta look towards the future, right?
Anyway, the good folks at HRT obviously decided that I deserved more time with the unit, returning it to me pronto, allowing me to spend lots of leisurely time enjoying the magic. And then, something truly magical happened...
I generally read most everything on the pages of PFO from month to month, and a review by our own Dave Clark in issue 67 totally caught my eye. He raved about his experiences with the Luminous Audio Axiom II passive preamplifier—a fully balanced unit, no less, and only $299! While I had precious little experience with passive equipment, Dave's glowing review totally sold me, and I ultimately decided on the single input unit with the Caddock resistor upgrade for a total of $349. Such a bargain, and having just gotten back the Streamer HD, I now also needed some XLR cables. With the relatively short distance between all the equipment, I didn't need much in terms of length, so I decided to totally cheap out and ordered twenty bucks worth of cables from Monoprice.com. Yeah, yeah, I know, but everything I've bought from them in the past has been really well-constructed and exceptionally neutral-sounding—and you just can't beat the price. For an entry-level, balanced system, they totally fit the bill.
Tim Stinson of Luminous Audio was incredibly helpful and very accommodating, and with my order placed, I started patiently waiting for the Axiom to show up. After a couple of weeks went by, I started getting a little antsy, so I fired off an email to Tim and was greeted with the bad news—the Axiom was on back order, with no projected ship date in site. It seems they were having a serious issue with a batch of Alps volume pots and their supplier couldn't give them a firm date on when the replacements would ship. About six more weeks went by, and of course, I entertained all the classic, doom-and-gloom scenarios: a sign from God, etc.—maybe I should just cancel the order and blissfully live out my life as a single-ended guy. To my amazement, though, the Axiom finally shipped, and kudos to Luminous Audio and company—it's an incredibly well-made unit; the level of craftsmanship just oozes quality—totally remarkable at its relatively meager price point.
Wow – balanced again, and only after 16 years!
The Axiom had the option of an additional balanced input for an extra $50, but with 90 percent of my listening via computer-based sources, I decided the extra cash outlay was pretty unnecessary. I keep my Acurus RL-11 preamp hooked to the single-ended inputs of my Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier, and it's a pretty simple flip of a switch to go back-and-forth, so no big whoop on that front. I also found myself with a few other considerations I hadn't thought of, primarily that my current twin subwoofer setup would no longer work. My aging Definitive Technology Powerfield 1500 wouldn't work in a balanced configuration, and although I could connect my REL T1 with no problems, I'd been a little underwhelmed with it over the two years it was in the system. The REL was difficult to set up, difficult to position and pretty lackluster performance-wise, and had pretty much been relegated to background duty with the Def Tech doing all the heavy lifting. When I pulled out the REL manual to confirm the balanced connections, I was really interested to read some verbiage referring to the patience required by the user to “not attempt to overdrive the sub and allow it to run in at a leisurely pace.” Scratching my head, I started experimenting with placement of the diminutive REL and with level adjustments. To my great surprise, it integrates almost seamlessly with the Zu Audio Omens, and at a much higher output level than I'd previously thought possible. I've completely re-evaluated my opinion of the T1—it's one hell of a sub, and especially for the low, low 400 bucks I paid a couple of years ago.
I've had the Emotiva XPA-2 for a couple of years now, and the love affair goes on—but let me tell you, I had no true idea of the beauty of this amp until I started driving it in balanced mode—quite simply, wow! This amp is already muscular and powerful, but being driven via its balanced inputs its performance is elevated dramatically. I know that the XPA-2 is not a true dual-differential design, but I swear to you, it sounds so much better through the balanced inputs than ever before. The music coming forth from the Omens has greater weight and substance—the bass is tauter and more well-defined, and the mids and highs are more liquid with greater sweetness and warmth. It seems to run a bit hotter than through the single-ended inputs, but nothing to be overly concerned about—this amp actually sounds much better the hotter it gets.
While I had my concerns about the Axiom's ability to drive the XPA-2, it's the perfect foil, with volume to spare. At reference levels with full-on rock or orchestral music exceeding 100+ dBs, the volume level on the Axiom rarely approaches the 11-o'clock position. And that's with well-recorded music sources with exceptional dynamic range; with more modern recordings that have a higher level of compression, the volume setting rarely exceeds the 9-o'clock position. The Axiom is perhaps the finest preamplifier I've ever been privileged to enjoy, bar none—the complete lack of grain and the remarkable level of transparency it lends the music is staggeringly good! It never gets in the way of the music—it simply disappears and leaves no trace as it controls the signal level coming from the Streamer HD.
The real star of the show
Of course, the true star here is the Streamer HD, and via its balanced outputs it delivers a sound so intoxicating that it elevates the performance of anything that flows through it. CD rips sound astonishingly lifelike; I could list dozens of examples that to me just defy logic. Yes, yes, I hear everyone clamoring for DSD, but with so very much of so many personal libraries consisting of 16/44.1 files, why not enjoy the music that virtually surrounds us? A number of the individual titles from the 40th anniversary remastering of the Doors catalog have been turning up in $5 CD bins everywhere, and the rips of those sound pretty damned amazing through the HD. I've rarely experienced Jim Morrison's presence in the soundstage conveyed quite as accurately (outside of vinyl) as through my current system with the Streamer HD. At the March Axpona show in Chicago, several of the rooms were playing open reel tapes of LA Woman on megabuck systems, and yes, they sounded pretty darn great (especially in the MBL room!). But my memory serves me pretty well, and my relatively humble system is not embarrassed by systems from the likes of MBL, etc. when playing this seminal classic rock music. And most of the credit goes to the Streamer HD.
As enamored as I was with the HD's performance via its single-ended outputs, that level of admiration has grown exponentially when the music is coming from the balanced outputs. I still can't believe that this unit has gotten so very little respect from the mainstream trade journals, who have dismissed it pretty much out of hand as a Mac-only vehicle because of its lack of 24/192 PC playback. I only currently own a handful of 24/192 files, and I'd love to hear them all, but I'm getting so much enjoyment from CD rips and 24/96 downloads I already have to fret significantly over this. I've exchanged several emails with Kevin Halverson, trying to gauge their progress on the USB for PC driver, and it appears that it's taking some time to get it right. This is no trivial undertaking, and I fully understand their seeming lack of urgency on the matter. If my recent hair-pulling experience with trying to get another manufacturer's USB driver to work properly with their own equipment is any indication of the level of the challenge, then by all means, take your time!
These days, it's really easy for me to very quickly get lost in the music, and that is in no small part due to the superb performance of the Music Streamer HD. And the elevated level of performance via the balanced outputs is just short of remarkable. While this current system of mine is perhaps the least pretentious and least expensive semblance of a high-end system to ever grace my listening room, it's nonetheless the most musically satisfying I've ever owned. Here's to HRT for a job well done, and yes, I wasted no time buying the Streamer HD this time around! Tom Gibbs