The idea with the iStreamer is that you can have a great quality desktop system using the iPod as the source. Obviously when I say iPod I really mean all iDevices. The iStreamer takes on a similar concept that we find on the CypherLabs AlgoRhythm Solo (CLAS) and tweak it a little bit. Instead of having the ability to run on batteries (like the CLAS, making it a high quality portable source), the iStreamer runs on an external USB-class power supply. The output signal is sent through a pair of RCAs, making it more suitable for desktop systems.
For all practical purposes, we see that other than these two principal differences, the iStreamer does exactly the same function the CLAS does, for a much lesser price. Price differences aside, I see the CLAS as being functionally better as you can take the CLAS, plug it in to its AC adapter and it will do the same thing the iStreamer do: a 24/7 DAC (digital to analog) converter that works together with your iPod to provide a quality source signal. Of course, the opposite can’t be done with the iStreamer, as it carries no internal battery. We are all asking: why can’t they include an internal battery?
Alright, moving on. In the past high quality desktop systems were fed from a CD player. Then people got more sophisticated and they add in a separate DAC box. Lately, with the abundance of affordable USB DACs, a lot of people are using their laptops together with a USB DAC to feed signal to their headphone amplifiers. I have long ditched my CD player because I can get far better quality for much lower prices with USB DACs than I can with CD Players. So for almost a year now my desktop system mostly use a laptop, a USB DAC, and out to a headphone amplifier. Great sound even from $300 DACs. Try doing that with a $300 CD Player.
Now, the iStreamer’s value is in the fact that you can throw the laptop out of the system and instead play music from your iPod or iPad or iPhone. In my personal opinion, it’s a more elegant way of doing things since it gives me less clutter on my desktop set up desk. I recline on the sofa with the iPod on my hand, and I change tracks and albums from the iPod’s excellent UI. Personally, I like it better than using a laptop simply due to its simplicity.
However, I do realize that this whole proposition is based mostly on the factor of convenience. Some people enjoy browsing the web while listening to music on their headphones, and the laptop based system would be better in that sense. You can still browse the web using your iPad, but some people like me still prefer a laptop for multi-tasking like that. The point here is that the iStreamer gives people a choice. And personally there are moments where I don’t feel like touching my laptop, and I just want to listen to music with no distractions the way I did when I had my CD player, and the iPod + iStreamer based system is very nice for that.
The problem that I see with the iStreamer is that you are now limited to the choice of one DAC, whereas with a laptop + USB DAC set up you can have hundreds of DACs to choose from. So either I fall in love with the iStreamer’s DAC or I would be left feeling pretty unentusiastic about my music.
So, how enthusiastic am I about the iStreamer’s DAC? Roughly, the iStreamer’s DAC is quite close to the HeadStreamer with just some slight differences, the iStreamer being a little more less spacious than the HeadStreamer. Briefly comparing it to the CLAS, the iStreamer sounds grainier with a less black background and a smaller soundstage space. With a USB power supply the soundstage feels a little bit congested, but lucky me I happen to have KingRex’s UPower supply to push the iStreamer’s performance just a bit more. On the UPower set up, I enjoy the iStreamer’s sound a little bit more than the CLAS, as the HRT managed to present a more natural ambiance on the music. Still, technicalities are cleaner on the CLAS. Overall I would say that it’s a decent $200 DAC. Good for entry level systems, but not something I’d take to a DAC battle.
The bottom line is that for some reason, abandoning the laptop and moving to the iPod + iStreamer combo is a really enjoyable experience for me. I can’t multi-task the way I can with my laptop based set up, but that limitation enables me to relax and listen to the music better, with no distractions from the keyboard. I do feel that it would be better if the iStreamer can output a digital signal (the way the CLAS do) so I can hook it up to a bigger DAC (or even better, a USB DAC) because I really enjoy using the iStreamer on my big RSA Dark Star + HE-6 / HD800 set up and want to be able to use bigger DACs on that set up.
System used for review:
RSA Dark Star, Bottlehead Crack, Hifiman HE-6, Sennheiser HD800, Audio Technica W5000, ALO Salty Pepper HD800 cable (balanced), Sennheiser HD650 (balanced), Alessandro MS-Pro, Philips Fidelio L1, Ipod Classic, HRT iStreamer, HRT HeadStreamer, KingRex UPower, CypherLabs AlgoRhythm Solo, Macbook Air.