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.
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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