Walking across the CES show floor earlier this year made one thing clear: more audiophile companies are (finally) realizing music listeners place portability on equal ground with audio performance. High Resolution Technologies took note of the trend, releasing the microStreamer, a tiny USB Headphone DAC unit designed to amplify and massage digital music for headphone listeners.
A mini USB cable and small drawstring bag are included for transporting the USB DAC designed to be carried any and everywhere.
Designed and manufactured in Southern California, the plainly designed HRT microStreamer is similar in shape to an oversized digital camera battery. But instead of powering up a camera, the rectangular microStreamer is amongst a new class of small digital-to-analog converters designed for headphone wearers looking to eke out the best sound from their digital format music files.
How-It-Works: This USB DAC offers an asynchronous design, where the microStreamer handles the digital files audio timing instead of the source device (a good explanation about synchronous and asynchronous DACs here). The computer becomes the music server, streaming digital audio over USB, and the microStreamer converts these digital files into clean analog audio for your headphones or stereo receiver (the analog vs. digital debate seems subjective). And, since this device is USB 1.0, it's truly plug-and-play, working with nearly any Windows or Mac device. I just opened the Audio/MIDI setup in OS X and selected the microStreamer as my sound output and was ready to get testing/listening.
The design is more utilitarian than other DACs we've tested recently; the microStreamer is basically a rectangular box with ports and LEDs.
Amber LED lights on the side indicate sample rates (up to 96Khz), and a separate LED light indicates mute. Made of two extruded aluminum pieces sandwich together, the microStreamer's solid and smooth metal finish counters its plain industrial design, feeling satisfyingly substantial in the hand despite the compact dimensions.
The volume is controlled by the computer's main volume controls with an internal analog control inside the microStreamer to set the volume requested. So, like the Meridian Explorer and the Audioquest Dragonfly, the HRT microStreamer also takes advantage of digitally controlled analog volume setting.
As you can see in the picture above, a mini USB input and 1/8 inch stereo outputs are offered on opposite ends of the microStreamer. It should be noted the 2 1/8 inch outputs offer optimized levels for headphones or stereo. Connecting the microStreamer to your stereo would require an 1/8 inch stereo jack to stereo RCA cable. In testing, the stereo output worked without a hiccup with my receiver.
Headphone Listening: Armed with a pair of Etymotic ER-4 earbuds (pictured above) in-ears and Sennheiser HD-600 headphones, I played a wide variety of music tracks on the microStreamer. These two headphones couldn't be more different, and I was curious to see how this mini USB DAC faired with different headphones/earbuds (Note: all music files were uncompressed 44.1 Khz or CD quality).
Although my Etymotics have less bass frequency information than the Sennheiser HD-600's, they still sounded clear and even had tighter sounding bass impact than the built-in soundcard on my MacBook Pro. A dynamic range was presented in spacious and very obvious clarity. Furthermore, this open dynamic sound lent itself to presenting the stereo image with a greater sense of left/right spread in my earbuds than without the aid of the microStreamer. In other words, this little device opened up the perceived range and soundstage of sounds when connected.
Moving onto the larger Sennheiser HD-600, I was in for an even bigger treat. I played a new release from electronic U.K. recording artist Vondelpark and was pulled into a rapturous sound that wrapped around my head. "Undistorted" and "capable of delivering micro and macro nuances" were traits that popped into my head while listening to music through the microStreamer.
Listening to classical music, the tiny USB DAC was able to expand orchestral performances with all the grace and ferocity equated with a live performance. Listening to Beethoven's Symphony #3 (conducted by Herbert Von Karajan), the clarity of great and small sounds were enhanced, from the individual staccato plucks all the way to the full gale of a string section playing together.
While more expensive mini USB headphone DACS have come through my test lab, the HRT microStreamer sonically performs very well in comparison. For improved headphone playback with dynamic punch and clear stereo fileds, this little USB DAC is a winner. If you find yourself using headphones around the computer for intimate listening sessions, then considering a little device like this could be your ticket to reconnecting with your favorite musical performances at a modest investment.
Pros: Compact, clean, and articulate music reproduction, well balanced, decent stereo separation, and clear dynamics, portable, solid construction.
Cons: Limited to 44.1, 88.2, and 96Khz sample rates. 176.4 and 192Khz Sample rates not supported; design is utilitarian.
(Images: Vahan Baladouni)
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.