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Contributing 6moons reader:
Michele Surdi

Source: Nagra CDC
Preamp: Nagra PLL
Amps: Nagra VPA
Speakers: Tannoy Yorkminster
Cables: Van den Hul The Second XLR and unbalanced, Van den Hul Inspiration biwire
Power: Cablerie d’Eupen Volga and Blacknoise 4 distributor
Stand: Guizu SRW 2-A
Review Component Retail: $149

Though I am on record for despising midget vs. monster shootouts as cheap freak shows, my experiences with the Trends Audio UD-10 Lite had left me impressed with the price/performance ratio of computer audio.

After reading Srajan’s introductory notes on the proprietary asynchronous protocol employed by the commendably cheap HRT Streamer II (€149 list), I decided on a comparison with my scarily expensive Nagra CDC disc player (€14.500 list) which had duly whacked the unfortunate if feisty Trends USB DAC.

The idea here was to match a technologically ambitious entry-level item against a bona fide legacy product. My rig has been with me in its present configuration for more than three years. Speakers and amplification have remained unchanged for some six years altogether. It should be noted that the only real upgrade in this period involved replacing the deservedly hallowed Meridian 508-24 CD player with the Nagra.

I had the good fortune of matching the 508 in my own setup with a number of prospective challengers including  the Meridian 808 in its first iteration as a gussied up DVD-A spinner; the all too cutting-edge Esoteric X-03; and the now extinct three-box YBA CD1 behemoth. All bettered the 508 in some respects but not to the extent of justifying the considerable sums involved in a part exchange. Having heard the Nagra, I decided that it simply played in a different league but that I could not possibly afford it. Predictably can’t afford somehow faded mysteriously. I eventually splurged on the passive-pre-included version of the Nagra as the better value. That’s audiophile economics for you.

Boring as they may be, these details are useful in explaining that today's death match was intended not as a bare-knuckle brawl between two wildly different price points—the traditional freak show as it were—but as an informed evaluation of the changes introduced in my personal reference by an alternate source of computer audio.

To this end the solidly built if austere Streamer was painlessly plugged via a freebie USB cable into my white Intel Macbook which automatically invalidates the latter’s master volume by setting it to the max. This connected to a Nagra PLL line input via a pair of Van den Hul The Second cables. To keep things honest, the same type of cables connected the CDC’s unbalanced output to a second PLL input though usually I wire the whole system in  fully balanced mode. Music was ripped from CD to iTunes at x 2 speed, a very notional tweak.

As to content, I must say that encroaching age has made me ever more impatient of reviewers evaluating state-of-the-art components with juvenile schlock (witness a well-known expat rating a blue-blood British turntable by the way it plays the first bars of a Brill Building tune). This is not to underrate the equation of audiophilia and nostalgia. To cover all bases then, I included in my trial selection Joan Baez’s historical Farewell Angelina and Dylan’s recent and unreconstructed Together Through Life along with Helene Schmitt’s Bach Violin Sonatas and Beethoven’s N°4 and N°5 Concertos in Arthur Schoonderwoerd’s remarkable period instrument version. No Judas Priest this time around.

Component warm up, Streamer included, was as per usual. The Mac ran off the grid and all CDs and files were played in no particular order, avoiding direct comparisons and equalizing output only when absolutely necessary.

Now for the results. The CDC won.

Suspense over, some details are in order. The Nagra was ultimately superior to the Streamer II  in soundstage extension, bass definition and transparency particularly in the classical selections. But—and this is a very big but—the humble Streamer provided an equal amount of musical satisfaction. While tonal density (Srajan’s term) was superb so much so that I actually preferred Dylan on the Streamer, image height was impressive and the less articulated but still wall-wide soundstage perfectly proportioned. Midbass was clearly better served by the CDC but the HRT nevertheless laid down an unsmeared and convincingly timed foundation to the music.

Tellingly dog’s dinner MP3 downloads revealed startling differences between the compressed recordings, ranging from the unlistenable to the enjoyable. The overall experience with Redbook files was unreservedly high-end, meaning that the sheer quality of musical reproduction, while arguably more sensual than intellectual, was in no way diminished. Or to put it another way, I feel confident saying that as as source in my rig, the Streamer II proved quite as rewarding as the aforementioned Meridian 508-24. That’s considerable praise. And though the Nagra remains unconquered, if I ever set up a secondary system, I won’t be buying a conventional CD player. One last thought on price/performance ratios. Prices for computer audio should be based on the inescapable fact that computer accessories are by definition not obsolescence proof and that a top-line laptop is currently priced at well under €2000. By that reasoning the Streamer II is not a giant-killing bargain but a supremely competitive product.

PS: Since Srajan craftily put a flea in my ear about the possible effects of a 180cm freebie USB cable on the Streamer II's ultimate performance (check out this link for Gordon Rankin's more than informed opinion), I took the plunge and invested some €4 on a 90cm Belkin. I  will say that on the whole the improvement was notable not only in the usual soundstage depth and bass definition areas but also—and more importantly—in low-level reproduction ability, which to me is a hallmark of quality. To be more specific or just plain boring, midbass harmonics were better detailed, the soundstage was deeper and the whole just sounded  more right. Was it worth the investment then? You betcha! Am I going to upgrade further? Not a chance. As I see it, price/ratio value is the name of this game and I just played my ace.

Quality of packing: Small parcel of value.
Instructions: Bare bone adequate.
Website: Sorry, not good enough for a computer-based product particularly when compared to Gordon Rankin’s exemplary

High Resolution Technologies website