HRT HeadStreamer Review

hrt_headstreamer_03

Being a big supporter of the HRT Music Streamer USB DACs, I was quite excited to find out that they have released a semi entry level USB DAC with a built in headphone out. It’s a similar concept to the Fiio E10, which we’ve reviewed last year and found to be a hugely successful product. The reasoning behind products in this category is simple. Small size, relatively affordable, yet it does a much better job at driving headphones than a typical laptop headphone jack. You plug in the USB side to the laptop, and your headphone goes to the output side, and you’re done. No interconnects, no separate power supply, just make sure you don’t leave your USB cable at home. I think Nuforce was the first one with a successful product on this market (the uDAC). Soon after that, other companies entered the market with their own solutions, including Fiio with their E10 and their E17. HRT’s HeadStreamer is quite a late player, but I can imagine that having the same team behind the Music Streamer USB DACs would should make the Head Streamer an extremely solid entry in the market.

Impressions on Build and Design

When I received the Head Streamer, one of the impressions that I have they have improved on the build and finish quality of the Music Streamer DACs that I reviewed previously. It’s slightly larger than the Fiio E10, but overall the size is quite compact. The matte paint finish with orange peel texture is a different look from the slick black anodized finish of the Fiio, but in all it’s quite a nice look.

I enjoy having the sample rate indicator lights that tells me what sample rate the DAC is currently running at. Little details, but I almost never see them on low-end DACs. I was quite surprised to find the lack of volume knob, as most DACs with a headphone out I know come with a volume knob. No big issue there, as you can control the volume from your computer just as conveniently, and better yet, there is no loss of signal quality due to the analog volume control mechanism. Although less common, I do think that more manufacturers should look into this approach as not only do you get no degradation from the analog pot, but you also have no issue with channel imbalances on sensitive IEMs.

Perhaps the only “inconvenience” I see is the fact that the USB cable input is at the front panel, together with the headphone output. Again no big deal, but it would be cleaner if I can have the USB cable input port at the back side.

DAC Section

The two products in this segment that I’ve been recommending to the readers that compete with the HeadStreamer are the Fiio E10 and the E17, so I’ll be making a comparison mostly to the Fiios. There are other entry level DAC/amps in the market like the popular uDAC 2 and the Headstage USB DAC Cable, but I think their DAC performance have been surpassed by the Fiio E10. Now we all know that Fiio is a sponsor to Headfonia, and this puts me in a difficult position as I’m mostly going to be comparing two products from our site sponsor to a non-sponsor product. Ignoring the skeptic crowd for a while, the only thing I can say is that I’ve been recommending HRT DACs to my readers far before anybody else on the internet does.

Having the HRT name in the HeadStreamer lends a lot of credibility into this little DAC/Amp unit, as the HRT Music Streamer II and II+ have been two DACs that I recommend a lot to the readers here. After some listening to the HeadStreamer, I can see how it relates to the bigger Music Streamer DACs, but it wasn’t as clear of a knock out that I had expected it to be in comparison to the Fiios.

By itself, the HeadStreamer is certainly a solid product. It has a slightly grainy sound, but the soundstage is spacious, and the detail retrieval is good, especially detail in the bass areas. The HeadStreamer’s bass detail is one of the strongest point I find in the HeadStreamer, as it is extremely good compared to other products in this level. It’s quite a technical achievement, considering the quality of the USB hub as the power supply, and something that the Fiios don’t even come close to matching.I still give a lot of credit to the Fiio’s blacker background, superior soundstage depth and width (E17 only), better layering, and a much cleaner soundscape that is free of any grain.

 

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  • Thomas Tsai

    According to Kevin Halverston, the HeadStreamer does have an analog volume control, but it is somehow modulated by the computer’s volume slider. I don’t know how he implemented that, but he has mentioned that fact (and stressed it) several times in other venues.

    • sygyzy

      I am not an electronics guy but is this really a mystery? If you plug headphones (with no volume control) into your computer, you can adjust the volume with the volume slider as well. This is a shortcut and a way to save money by HeadStreamer. It’s not a feature.

      • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

        Most DACS disable the onboard volume control

        • http://twitter.com/OmarCCX JC Arroyo

          It’s also OS dependant, because I could control de audio of my DAC on both Windows and Ubuntu, but not on OS X.

          • http://www.facebook.com/kayser.wong Kayser Wong

            I can control it on OS X.

      • Kevin Halverson

        Sorry, but this comment is completely missing my point. The volume function in the HeadStreamer is Analog in nature (it is after the DAC) but is under control of the computer via its (the computer’s interface) not via a ‘knob’. This is VERY different and a VERY important distinction and yes, it is absolutely a feature.

        Kevin Halverson
        CTO
        High Resolution Technologies, LLC

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Thanks for chiming in, Kevin.

          Can you explain more about the volume control?

          • http://twitter.com/Original_Ken Ken Stuart

            Kevin states elsewhere:
            “The ‘digitally controlled’ part is a repurposing of the UI (user interface) of the host computer. We take over the system volume function and map it to the HeadStreamer’s analog attenuator. This gives us multiple advantages over the other two types of volume controls that a product such as the HeadStreamer could use.
            Compared to a digital attenuator, we don’t sacrifice resolution by multiplying the sample by a value less than unity. This avoids the resolution loss that happens in any digital attenuator.
            Compared to an analog volume control such as a potentiometer (POT), we don’t have the inter channel mistracking that is common to all but very expensive (more than the retail cost of the HeadStreamer) implementation. We also have the convenience of a computer based UI so things like keyboard short cuts can be used.
            We find our approach is the best of both worlds with the downsides of neither of the other approaches.”

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              Interesting. I wonder where this “analog attenuator” is located. Don’t think I have ever read about this sort of volume control anywhere else.

              • David Winarso

                If I’m not wrong… that is on U202 chip

                • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                  @google-52e8f1ce36c1abe986070bdd2fac7d2c:disqus The general layout is quite simple. After the USB input port, you have the TAS 1020 USB streaming chip with the “C AA0X” chip just like on the big HRT (http://a.headfonia.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/hrt_streamer_IIplus_08.jpg).
                  Then the PCM1793 chip.

                  Then two op-amps for the analog stage.

                  And one black chip that I can’t find out what. It says: BSG T1 06W.

                  Then the headphone out.

                  • Kevin Halverson

                    The image that David Winarso included isn’t for a HeadStreamer. This is an image of a very old Music Streamer II+ (long outdated). No relevance for this discussion at all.

                    Rather than speculate, feel free to ask. We will provide any information that we don’t consider to be proprietary or privileged.

                    Kevin HalversonCTOHigh Resolution Technologies, LLC

                    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                      I did ask, Kevin. Just wasn’t sure if you were going back here to reply.

                • Kevin Halverson

                  You are correct it is U202 that is the amplifier and analog attenuator. This device operates entirely in the analog domain after the DAC and reconstruction filters and analog amplifiers. The “chip” is a differential (balanced) input device with an integrated charge pump so we are not limited to 5V that a USB driven amplifier would be. Instead, we have +/- 5 Volts (10 volts total) and this allows us to eliminate any output coupling capacitors. This provides a considerable improvement for low frequency performance particularly with low impedance loads.

                  Kevin Halverson
                  CTO
                  High Resolution Technologies, LLC

                  • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                    Thanks Kevin, Thanks David.

              • David Winarso

                If I’m not wrong… that is on U202 chip

  • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

    Very nice review, Mike. Interesting to note that the HD650s practically lose that “sleepy” factor with this little device. Can this amp be compared to the Asgard?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Well this is a DAC and not an amp, primarily, but the HeadStreamer does a better job of waking up the HD650 than the Asgard.

      • Pkrdlr

        Greetings Mike, Audinst mx-1 or Headstreamer for Senn 600 for classical / rock. Thanks, Rick

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Rick, the Audinst is more spacious and tonally is better to me, but the HeadStreamer is better with bass punch, impact, speed.

          It depends. I think you can enjoy classical and Rock both ways. If you feel that the 600 is a bit slow, then HeadStreamer.

          • Pkrdlr

            Mike, Thanks for your reply, your time and effort with advice and reviews are appreciated by this newbie. Rick

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              You’re welcome, Rick.

      • http://www.facebook.com/donunus Don Vittorio Sierra

        That is waking up the 650 tonalitywise right? I can’t imagine this thing being able to make the hd650s really boogey volume and dynamicswise with just USB power though. Correct me if I’m wrong.

        • dalethorn

          I was wondering that myself. I’ll find out more tomorrow when the UPS guy delivers it. It needs a burn-in they say so I’ll put some heavy hours on it first. I’ll try the Philips L1, the ATH M50, and the Shure 1840 which should be good examples for detecting clipping and distortion.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          A bit on the tonal, but the faster pace and the bass punch do improve dynamics as well. I don’t know how they do it from USB power, but they did.

          I think 5V from USB is enough for the HD650′s 300Ω driver, it’s just a matter of designing a good implementation.

          I mean the part about the bass detail alone, it still puzzles me how they were able to pull that off from USB power which is never considered as clean power.

          • http://www.facebook.com/donunus Don Vittorio Sierra

            Well lets say compared to an O2, Is it even close in power?

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              What do you mean by power here?

              • http://www.facebook.com/donunus Don Vittorio Sierra

                volume without distortion

                • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                  @facebook-592879899:disqus Oh I think it’s plenty. With the HD650, I can get it louder than my ears can handle.

          • http://twitter.com/Original_Ken Ken Stuart

            The HRT MS2 includes a circuit that is a regulated power supply for the DAC, that only uses the USB power as a raw source. It’s certainly possible that the Headstreamer has the same circuit.

      • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

        How would this amp do when paired with the HE-300? Being that the HE-300 (I believe) can be compared to the HD650.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          It’s a really nice pairing, Chris. I even tried the HE-500 with the HeadStreamer and it has enough power for the 500.

          • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

            Really? Must try it then! Thanks, Mike! :)

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              I like it better with the HE-300, but it had enough power for the HE-500 as well.

  • http://twitter.com/OmarCCX JC Arroyo

    Can you control the volume with this on OS X through the volume slider?
    Because I just got a Mac and I can’t do that with my Audioengine D1, which annoys me, a lot.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Yes you can, JC.

  • http://www.theideate.com/ Gorboman

    Know any seller in Indonesia who carry this, Mike?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Nope, sorry

  • dalethorn

    Pretty darn good review. I was waffling on this but now I ordered it. Worst case, it should be useful for a few tasks.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Good, dale, perhaps you should write a review too.

      • dalethorn

        I’m really curious how this will compare to my iStreamer, but apparently the HeadStreamer can’t output the DAC only, so the comparison will be really weird – iPhone DAC to PC-based USB DAC on that end, then the HeadStreamer amp to whichever amp I use with the iStreamer on that end. Don’t you just love these choices?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          I’ve been listening to the iStreamer powered by KingRex’s UPower supply. With the stock USB PSU, I don’t really like the iStreamer, even with the RSA Dark Star amp, I don’t get the feeling of space with the iStreamer.

          With the KingRex’s UPower, it’s quite different. Space improves a lot, and while it’s no big DAC slayer, it’s quite an enjoyable system to listen to.

          • dalethorn

            Good tip – thanks.

          • dalethorn

            I’m running the iStreamer now from a Mophie Juice Pack – the $80 version, 5v at 2.1 amps – seems to be doing the job – dynamics, weight are OK – sound is clean. Be interesting to see how it holds up, although the battery life will be limited.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              @dalethorn:disqus I need to try one of those battery packs as well. See how it compares to the KingRex UPower.

              • dalethorn

                My test today might not be the last word, but I’m going to play straight through and see how long it lasts, and try to determine whether there’s a loss of signal quality when the charge level drops but there’s still plenty of time left on the pack. I noted with a certain battery-powered amp that the distortion level increases when there’s still a significant charge available, but maybe the lithium-ion battery will be better in that respect.

          • http://twitter.com/Original_Ken Ken Stuart

            HRT’s web site now shows an “iStreamer 12V” but no details other than a small low-res picture of an additional white object, which might be a separate 12V DC power supply. So, it is possible that HRT noticed that difference if the power supply is upgraded. (For historical reasons, I don’t own any Apple products, so this is as far as I can go on this subject :) )

            • dalethorn

              That’s the one for the car, yes?

              • http://twitter.com/Original_Ken Ken Stuart

                HRT’s new web site just launched hirestech.com and one of the improvements is – shock – actual description of the difference between the iStreamer and iStrreamer 12V – and you are right, the new clear picture and description shows that it is the car version.
                So, never mind my previous comment about them noticing power supply improvements. :)

                • dalethorn

                  So I guess they intended that for use in a *very* quiet car? It would be difficult to hear those very fine differences in most cars I know of.

          • dalethorn

            http://www.stereophile.com/content/mophie-4000mah-battery-powering-iphone-dac-lieu-ac-dc-wall-adapter
            Here’s where I posted my test review. I didn’t try to compare any fine details of the sound, but I would guess it achieves the same basic effect as the UPower battery.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              @dalethorn:disqus Looks good, dale.

  • http://twitter.com/JoetheArachnid Benedict Brown

    Nice review, good to see that the E10 still measures up to these new-fangled devices. Even though I mostly use my E10 as a pure DAC feeding better amps, I can’t help feeling that the lack of a volume control on the HeadStreamer would annoy me. Earlier on in my headphone career I had a DAC I could only control through my computer volume control and I hated it. There’s just no tactility, and I’ve never found a decent potentiometer (like FiiO uses) to degrade the sound at all.

    Plus I can control a volume pot in the dark with my eyes closed, can’t do that with a computer volume control!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Yes plus and minuses, I think it’s nice to be able to turn a knob. We’re just so used to having a knob to adjust a volume from.

  • dalethorn

    HeadStreamer arrived a bit late. Nobody is going to believe that they can drive a mid-efficiency dynamic like the Senn 600/650 etc. with this little box, especially when they see how little – about half the size of a pack of Camel regulars. Compared to using the sound card on the desktop the difference is most obvious on a recording such as Emily Palen’s Inevitability of Water – a violin solo I picked up from the Stereophile site. Desktop: slight distortion in loud parts, Headstreamer: turns distortion into actual tone, rosin and bow. In comparison to the iStreamer with O2 (no way to separate the effect of the amps here from the DAC’s) I hear a better or larger soundstage and more sense of air with the Headstreamer, and I first I thought there might be a difference in bass, but if there is it’s not that much. For the price and convenience (no config required on Win7-64 at all) it seems like a good deal.

    • dalethorn

      A lengthier listen to the Headstreamer on a desktop PC compared to the iPhone-iStreamer-O2 amp confirms my impressions – the Headstreamer sounds better – bigger, more air, more alive. My only cable liability with the Headstreamer is the supplied 18 inch USB cable, and with the iStreamer a 15 inch $80 cable I got by ‘StraightWire’. So I don’t think my StraightWire cable is losing enough to cause that much difference. Given that the Headstreamer costs less than half the price of the iStreamer plus O2, it’s quite a deal. Judged on its own I think the Headstreamer matches up to the review here, although I think your impressions of the bass would depend on the headphone you use. A little more bass than neutral would be best I think. And BTW, the volume selection for Foobar didn’t appear right away on the Volume window, but it got there after a bit – it confused me for awhile.

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        Good impressions. If you read my comments somewhere else on this site, the HeadStreamer was able to drive Hifiman’s HE-500 so it’s certainly very powerful.

        Now I’ve been listening to the iStreamer and while I’m not such a big fan of it stock, out of the KingRex UPower I would consider it to be better than the HeadStreamer. The soundstage has more depth and width, the sound smoother warmer and fuller.

        I’m using the RSA DarkStar to evaluate them both, but in this case I also take the output of the HeadStreamer and feeds it to the Dark Star.

        • dalethorn

          Don was asking about the relative volume of the Headstreamer compared to the O2, and although I don’t know if my PC can play louder with some additional tweaking, it plays well more than loud with 99 percent of my tracks. But my O2 plays much louder on low gain if that means anything.

          • http://www.facebook.com/donunus Don Vittorio Sierra

            ahh there you go. I listen loud so this would be of no use to me. Thanks Dale. With my dt250-250, my average volume is full on the low gain on the o2 using the FiiO e10 as the DAC. With movies or very quiet old recordings, even full volume on the low gain setting on the o2 is not close to being enough with the dt250-250 due to its low sensitivity so the headstreamer may just be not for me at all. I think the MusicStreamer standalone DAC or the ODAC would be better for me.

            • dalethorn

              Something else I thought about too, Don. I still have some question about what kind of magic they are using to get the bass, the dynàmics and decent volume for the less-efficient headphones. And they do *seem* to be doing that. So I’m wondering if they have some kind of soft-clipping or very subtle compression going on that would be hard to detect in normal listening. I don’t have any indication of that, but maybe HRT can go into that with more depth at some point.

        • dalethorn

          Oh, and with this latest comparison of iStreamer and Headstreamer I did not use the battery, so there you go.

    • dalethorn

      Here’s my review of the Headstreamer – no surprises here, just a different perspective for less-experienced users:
      http://www.stereophile.com/content/hrt-headstreamer-dac-plus-headphone-amp-review-dale

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        Thanks, dale.

  • Trent_D

    How does the sound here compare to the MS2 with a cMoy?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I don’t have the MS2 around, unfortunately, but I would put my money on the MS2+Cmoy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.ma.7 Mark Ma

    for the sennheiser hd 595 which would be better- The headstreamer or the fiio E10?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Mark, I would lean toward the E10 with the 595.

  • Joakim Foxegård

    Hi! Great test again of you!
    What is best for electro music, (like house,hardstyle)
    This one Or the fiio E10/E11,e17? Or some other?
    Will use with My sony XB1000 for music and films,games

    // Joakim!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Electro music. I think either the E17 or the HeadStreamer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hendy.widjaja Hendy Widjaja

    @headfonia:disqus I am currently using Sennheiser HD25-II paired with Ibasso D12 as DAC/AMP and i kinda like it. However i am looking for an upgrade to a portable combo that will give a noticable upgrade to the current setup.
    Any recommendation? I am currently looking at the HRT Headstreamer and the headstage arrow 4G since they fall somewhere between my price bracket.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I’d recommend a high quality portable DAC to improve the source quality. Amping is not very important with the 25-1.

  • http://gorboman.wordpress.com/ Gorboman

    I saw a Headstreamer Mobile on HRT website. Feature & spec seems the same with the Headstreamer. Even I can’t find the difference between both products’ pictures. Any info on what is it that make the two different?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Sorry, I haven’t had the chance to read more about the HS Mobile.

    • dalethorn

      The mobile includes adapters for ipads and Samsung etc. phones, ‘Surface’ tablet…

      • http://gorboman.wordpress.com/ Gorboman

        So the unit itself is the same, is it?

        • dalethorn

          It sure looks the same. I compared the specs page and features page for both and they’re identical.

          • http://gorboman.wordpress.com/ Gorboman

            Thanks, Dale! :)

  • roval suco

    Hi Mike. From Spain. Hrt head streamer or Fiio E10. music house .pop. dance. thaks.

    • dalethorn

      The Headstreamer I had sounded much better than the FiiO E17 I have when the E17 is used as a computer DAC. So maybe FiiO would have a better DAC in the E10, even though the E10 is much cheaper than the E17? Don’t know.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Fiio E10 would be more fitting.

      Or the upcoming E07K (review coming)

      • Rova Suco

        Nice all reviews.
        I listen to music from my laptop with a Creative Aurvana Live and soon with some AT ES55.
        thanks again.

  • Bruno

    Hy, how would you compare this product to Audinst HUD-MX1. i listem mainly U2, Metallica, Rock music

  • Ivan

    Hi Mike! I know this review was long time ago, but I just got AKG K550, I already have FiiO E10, and I am thinking of upgrading that part a bit.. So will the Headstreamer be a step up compared to FiiO E10 with AKG K550 or not so? Or if you have any better proposal up to $300 for combo or separate amp and dac, I would really like to hear your opinion.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I don’t think the Headstreamer is an upgrade but I think it may live up the slow-paced K550 sound better than the Fiio.

      • Ivan

        Thanks Mike, I really appreciate that. Probably I will go with Headstreamer, also I think that I will get Aune X1 MK2 to see what that little guy can do. Its really shame that they are not interested in having their review here.

        • dalethorn

          Do you mean HRT isn’t interested?

          • Ivan

            no, Aune.. They have couple quite good (as others say) amps and dacs in budget range, but they are not answering on headfonia calls.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              Yeah, if they’re already making good sales they probably wouldn’t bother. Who knows, a review that doesn’t turn out to be positive may actually hurt their sales.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              I even tried to reach out to the local Aune importer but he keeps on postponing things.