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Comparison N°1: The Pro's small size, price and self-powered concept make it a natural for the cluttered desk top. Run off my MacBook Pro loaded with AIFF/WAV files—I gave up on WAV quickly when I learned that it makes album art association very marginal—I compared the HRT to the iDecco's built-in Sabre DAC. The Streamer's analog output thus connected to the iDecco's AUX input via mini-Q/RCA Furutechs. The comparison feed connected ALO Audio's USB leash directly from laptop to iDecco USB port. Either signal path thus saw the same 6922 preamp stage and Mosfet IC outputs of the integrated. Speakers were Dayens Tizo monitors from Serbia. While of limited bass reach—perfectly sufficient for this extreme nearfield application—they are admirably linear little boxes which behave more sealed than ported.

The Pro immediately exhibited apparent 'buffering' weirdness.The signal would interrupt and hang up every few seconds. Over the same cable, the iDecco processed the same signal without fault. Switching back and forth netted identical results - iDecco fine, Pro stuttering. Bad dog? I didn't suspect the USB cable but shoulda. Switching to a <1m Entreq netted eventual joy. It also eliminated Kevin Halverson's remote trouble-shooting guesstimate that data rate requirements for his Streamer Pro overtaxed my laptop's "root hub USB sub system". As a dedicated music machine, the MacBook only fed the Pro, only had iTunes launched. I did not require intercession by powered USB hub after all. Truth told, that would have disappointed and questioned the entire self-powered concept in my book. But all was peaches.

If the Pro starts to stutter on you, question the USB cable's length before you cry foul. My ALO Audio cable is shy of 2 meters. The Entreq is shy of one meter. The discrete AC-powered iDecco naturally had no problem with the ALO. The USB-powered Streamer did not like close to 2 meters. While my pea brain on PC audio matters didn't identify that length as problematic, it was. The Streamer Pro thus seems to redline what USB power can deliver. A short USB cable becomes critical. My pea brain graduated to bean brain. Yousa.

Once the MacBook had both iDecco and Streamer Pro in its sound device option menu, I could reseat the USB cable and simply switch the integrated from USB to AUX and back again. OSX 10.4.8 running my laptop was smart enough to switch USB devices on its own. Because the Tizo speaker's bass reach is limited, this comparative session focused on smaller acoustic ensembles - Marta Topferova, Dulce Pontes and Yannis Parios for vocals, 'Titi' Robin for solo oud, Vassili Tsabropolous with Anja Lechner for piano and cello, Hector Zazou & Swara for various ethnic stringed instruments recorded superbly like Uzbek lute, Indian slide guitar, Middle-Eastern violin and such.

Here's the thing. Audiophiles often fret over things that matter not. DAC chips are one source of constant concern and spec delusions. Properly conducted comparisons often reveal less differences—if any—than paper figures would promise. Op amps vs. fully discrete is a similar discussion. In the end veteran listeners admit that implementation is king while designer parts are primarily for modifiers incapable of authoring an original circuit from scratch. Like Kevin Halverson, amplifier legend Nelson Pass puts circuitry first. He prefers solid industrial parts that don't cater to exotic cred. The truth is, for a given sell price a well-executed circuit from a master gets you better sound than expensive boutique parts from a less gifted designer. This doesn't invalidate that in the same well-executed circuit, boutique parts couldn't sound better. The operative term is simply 'for a given sell price'. What's the core focus - solid engineering or brownie points for bragging rights?

This nicely qualifies my first comparison on the desk top, over the kind of speaker one likely encounters there. If you already own an iDecco, don't bother with the Pro. If the iDecco's popular Sabre chip had your attention but you don't need its non-DAC features, the Streamer Pro gets you to the same destination. In the iDecco's review I'd called that $3.000 worth of April Music CDA-500 level sound. The only low-key difference I could make out today occurred in the treble. The iDecco was marginally sparklier/wispier. This created bigger overtone halos—fire flies—around plucked strings.

However, this required a recording of rare House of Mirrors caliber to first identify. A popular image would be coppery vs. silvery upper harmonics. The former focus more on the instrument, the latter more on the surrounding space. Here it was a very small shift of subjective emphasis. In this near-field context, I thought it far too small to be called character. On vocals like Lila Down's Una Sangre whom I recently heard live in Geneva it didn't factor. If you knew where to focus, you'd have only heard it on the splashier plucks of the Mexican harp on "Cielo Rojo" for example. After running through the uncompressed music files I'd earmarked, I had nothing else to add and moved things into the big rig for the show-down between async USB/HRT and async Firewire/Weiss. I currently don't know of a DAC which offers Firewire and USB paths to even begin a meaningful discussion on the relative merits of either. It's important to preface the next comparison as not being focused on that issue. I viewed it as solely a comparison between two machines, not different transmission formats.

Comparison N°2: The system here was my usual front end of iMac, Weiss DAC2 and Esoteric C-03 preamplifier. The amplifier was a FirstWatt F5. Speakers were my reference ASI Tango R. All cabling was ASI LiveLine except for the RCA and XLR Furutech leads terminated with Tiny-Q sockets for the Pro, a LaCie 800 Firewire for the Weiss and an Entreq USB for the Streamer.

Using "Hush, be still my beating heart" from the Andreas Vollenweider disc Cosmopoly, the HRT over the RCA cable sounded significantly mellower and more distanced than the Weiss. The front line of the virtual stage moved back by a few feet, the powerful bass line of the electric harp reduced in impact, individual notes in rapid arpeggios were less distinctively articulated. In general, the audible benefits for the Weiss were—cough—what one would expect from rather beefier power supplies. In hindsight this seemed very sensible in fact. But I'd gone into this without specific expectations other than being mindful of the obvious price difference. What I heard now was a lighter, less robust/material presentation with a more farfield perspective—in both subjectively longer listener distance and mellowing action—than the more energetic and upfront Weiss.

Anna-Marie Jopek's Id is a fantastic Jazz vocal album with heavy-duty collaborators - ECM pianist Tord Gustavsen; oud/falsetto ace Dhafer Youssef; soprano sax man Branford Marsalis; bassists Richard Bona and Christian McBride; and percussionists Minu Cinelu and Manu Katché. The previous impression from the Vollenweider disc proved solid. Over the HRT, bass was less weighty, the soundstage shifted backwards, image pop reduced and there was a lower overall level of energy transmission from performers to listener. Where the Weiss projected energetically toward the listener—its soundstage still started well behind the speakers—the Streamer Pro demanded that I meet its troupe over yonder.

Sitting 80cm removed from the Tizo during the earlier desk-top sessions, these distinctions hadn't at all factored vis-à-vis the iDecco. Then the Pro was amongst solid equals. With the listening seat now 3.5-meter removed while facing the highly resolved truly full-range Tangos with nearly 9 meters of open space behind them to cast depth like fiends; and with a rather upscale converter like the Weiss Minerva/DAC2 in the loop; the Pro was outclassed. The setback in authority was quite obvious. Given the Pro's 1/6th sticker, that was hardly surprising. Some realistic profiling simply remains good form to cover all bases. Perhaps because my Esoteric preamp isn't dual-differential and adds XLR sockets for mere convenience, these findings proved consistent also when running the Pro via balanced cables. With the Streamer's ranking as virtual iDecco DAC stand-in established, I had one more comparison to make before describing the Pro's sound per se.