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This is the 31st in a series of reviews dedicated to the concept of 32Ohm Audio as embodied by the store of that name in downtown Portland/Oregon and described here - Ed.

Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Financial Interests: click here
Digital Source: MacBook laptop, Mhdt Laboratory Paradisea 3 (upgraded with 1940s era Mullard tube), Western Digital T2 Mirror Drive
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan], Thorens TD550/EMT Labs TSD15 cartridge with Super Fine-line Stylus [on loan]
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Power amp: Shindo Haut Brion
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Nines, DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3XLs [in for review]
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Shindo interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Shunyata Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; 3" studio treatment foam damping/ceiling-wall treatment, Large cotton rug on one wall
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup, suspended wood floor, 1-foot deep plaster-covered 2 x 4 walls, wood-beam 10' to 11' ceiling
Review component retail prices: Decware Z-DAC 1 $995; HRT Music Streamer Pro $499; Simaudio Moon 300D DAC; $1,600; Wyred4Sound DAC 1 $999

Returning to the world of USB DACs after a brief hiatus from reviewing, it took me a bit to get my listening/reviewing ears back in shape. The fun returned when I received the HRT Pro Streamer. Digital sound has improved immensely in the past few years. The tiny Streamer is one of the best selling—and best reviewed—USB DACs out there. And for good reason as it turns out. Self powered, almost as tiny as an iPod and with a full affecting sound out of the box, the Pro was just what the doctor and Srajan ordered to kick my cajones into the Johnsons.

Last time I reviewed a handful of budget-oriented USB DACs, namely the Keces DA-151 Mk2 ($250), the Styleaudio Carat-Topaz USB ($449), the Mhdt Laboratory Paradisea 3 ($569), the Music Hall DAC 25.2 ($595) and the non-budget Benchmark DAC1 USB ($1295). The Benchmark was the easy winner but then perhaps these comparisons were less than fair. Benchmark is a pro audio sound company, Music Hall a domestic brand as well aged and experienced as Roy Hall’s scotch. The others were hardy upstarts at best. Still there were surprises along the way - such as Mhdt not wanting their piece back when I requested a call tag. That either spoke to Mhdt’s fondness for my review or the relative cost of return shipping vs. cost of manufacture. Either way I popped a 1940’s era Mullard into its tube stage and the Mhdt became my reference in the USB DAC category. It’s held up pretty well too all things considered.

Let’s revisit the past to establish context. As I wrote last October, "…though a bit sharper in tone than the apt-to-editorialize Carat-Topaz, the Mhdt upped the ante with a greater sense of air between instruments, a bigger soundstage—if you care about such things (I do!)—greater attention to detail and a slightly more open and transparent presentation. Every disc was presented as tactile, intimate and stronger through the Mhdt.

"All in all," I continued, "the Mhdt offered a taste of tubes though it didn’t rely on them for all its appeal. Sure I heard more overall harmonic richness but there was nothing sappy or syrupy here. This was more like SET with a glowing revealing midrange beauty. Bass? Big on the Angela McCluskey trip-hop and Bebel Gilberto electronica, not so much with the old Beatles tracks. The Mhdt is an honest DAC which doesn’t add much overt character of its own and creates a wide and deep soundstage. Ultimately you'll have to weigh its price tag against that of the only slightly more expensive Music Hall 25.2, a very hot unit from a domestic importer with a serious track record."

Today we’re stepping up to bigger boyz. Preferring not to bore you with minutiae regarding tech details, specs, scabs, dimensions, DAC chips used and the like—I’d rather have a root canal than read tech details—you can find technical info for each of today’s contestants in the box below.

Deware Z-DAC 1 - $995 Digital inputs: 1 x coax, 1 x Toslink, 1 x USB
Analog ouputs: 1 x RCA
CS4398 24/192 DAC, 120dB dynamic range, -107dB TDH+Noise, CS8416 digital receiver with low-jitter clock, CS8421 upsampler, dual LT1361 output stage with BB followers, Nichicon MUSE caps, Wima and Rubycon caps, mil-spec 1% resistors, 1.8V out, 100Ω Zout 2.5 x 6 x 10", 7lb
HRT Pro - $499
Digital input: 1 x USB
Analog outputs: 1 x TinyQ XLR
24/96 async DAC, A-weighted noise floor from DC to 30kHz 9uVrms, S/N ratio 114dB, USB-to-output isolation 20MΩ, 4.5V out, 200Ω Zout, runs on USB power with 350mA 5.6 x 2.1 x 1.2", <1lb
Simaudio Moon 300D- $1.600

Digital inputs: 2 x coax, 1 x USB, 1 x Toslink
Analog outputs: 1 x RCA, 1 x XLR
BB PCM1793 digital filter, 24/352.8 upsampling, 16/48 USB, 24/192 coax & Toslink, 115dB S/N ratio, 115dB channel separation, 2V out, 100Ω Zout 7.5 x 3.25 x 11", 7lb
Wyred4Sound DAC 1 - $999

Digital inputs: 2 x coax, 2 x Toslink, 1 x USB
Analog outputs: 1 x RCA, 1 x XLR
Sabre ESS 9018 32-bit DAC, fully balanced circuitry, 24/96 USB, 24/192 coax, modular construction for future upgrades, remote control, THD+N <0.006%, >115dB S/N ratio, 2.6/5.2V out RCA/XLR, 100Ω Zout 8.5 x 4.125 x 13.5", 15lb

Let the dueling begin.

Evaluation recordings were:
  • Food’s Quiet Inlet [ECM], a stunning electronic/acoustic album that sounds like a band of Alien-playing percussionists cutting loose in the Black Forest;
  • the Metropole Orchestra with John Scofield’s 54 [ECM];
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Mojo [Reprise];
  • and Los Lobos Tin Can Trust [Shout Factory].