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"Feel free to be brutal in your comparative testing." Having never before been so goaded by the maker of a very affordable product—come to think of it, not by anyone making very expensive ones either—"yes, Sir!" was the only acceptable ramrod reply. As synchronicity would have it, I had a number of devices with USB inputs to compare to: The Peachtree Audio Nova, the April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC, the Aura Note Premier and the April Music Ai500 integrated. True, none were standalone converters like the Streamer+. But being all of the more ambitious high-value sort, relative brutality was certainly at hand. With the gloves off and the MacBook Pro with Entreq Crossword Discover USB cable on, here's how the referee called them.

Quoting from my own review of the $2,595 Aura Note Premier CD receiver with USB, "the self-powered $299 Kevin Halverson-designed box turned out to be rather more dynamic and hot blooded. Particularly on premium recordings like 21 Strings by the Al-Andalus Ensemble, this created richer tone colors. Grounding was more profound and so was emotive expressiveness. This clearly peeled out the ebb and flow of emphatic shadings to a greater extent.

"Albeit to a reduced extent, this distinction remained when I compared the Streamer+ to the same CD played back over the Premier's transport. The MacBook output through the Streamer+ had more color intensity and attack power than RedBook direct. In this way, PC audio was actually better than traditional laser playback. Compared to itself however —USB vs. CD, no Streamer—those differences on the Aura Note Premier diluted too far to be relevant."

In other words, Streamer+ into an analog input outperformed tapping the Premier's built-in USB DAC. Meanwhile the latter, receiving streaming data imported from the same CD which its transport then spun for comparison, was virtually indistinguishable from laser-based playback. In this instance, streaming lossless files outperformed traditional playback when taking the Halverson exit. Many audiophiles spend more on a power cord than this upgrade would have cost. Not a bad start for the American upstart going against a Korean machine.

Next up was the $895 Stello DA100 Signature DAC with selectable no/96/192 upsampling. I left the latter defeated. This become a rerun of the Aura Note Premier in exactly the same areas. The Streamer+ was fleshier, denser, fuller and dynamically more active. As before, this was well beyond cleaving hairs to hear. Rounds 1 and 2 thus clearly had the upstart victorious, i.e. unambiguously better, not just different.

The Peachtree Audio Nova's claim to fame is its Sabre DAC, albeit not the full-Monty 32-bit version. As a Swiss army knife component, the Nova's different utilities don't cut equally sharp however. It's best as a DAC, second best as a preamp and third best as an integrated. Relatively speaking, the amp stage is weakest. More relevant considering its asking price, the DAC implementation plays outside its league to render the amp function unexceptional by comparison but actually, perfectly fine considering. Connecting the Nova to the above system as a preamp in place of the Esoteric C-03, I simply switched between inputs USB and AUX 1 while resocketing the Entreq USB cable's receive end while the MacBook Pro kept pumping out the digits.

This ended the Streamer+'s reign of superiority. Now we had a meeting of equals, albeit not identical twins exactly. One area where the Streamer retained a small advantage was on overcooked Pop of the Arabian kind I enjoy spinning since I can't understand the likely soggy lyrics to be left alone with soaring vocals. The Sabre DAC was sharper and more sibilant, the Streamer+ more organic. This was a minor matter. A consistent difference was a shift in perspective, of soundstage relative to listener. The Nova's was a row closer. That aside, A/Bs proved pretty meaningless if the aim was to consistently lock onto other differences. In the end, I gave the Streamer+ a slight nod. To my ears, it would even better serve those listeners who don't buy albums for audiophile-approved production values but the music. Not all of it benefited from white-glove treatment but the Streamer+ comes that one small step closer to let you be omnivorous in your musical appetites.

This left April Music's—shy of the Eximus line—most ambitious current product, the new $2,995 Ai500 integrated with comprehensive socketry and 150/300wpc into 8/4 ohms power. Here even the tiny differences above evaporated and I could not reliably tell apart USB feeds between direct-to-amp and Streamer+. Considering that the Streamer+ requires an extra analog interconnect cable which standard thinking would view as a disadvantage, this was a brilliant showing I thought.

In short, Kevin Halverson's claim of having authored a cheap DAC whose quality equals what's in machines 10 times its price isn't advertorial poppycock. It's simple fact. Considering that April Music's components stem from Korea (or China as one European importer believes) and the Nova is openly manufactured in the People's Republic for that cheap labor advantage, the US-made Streamer+ has added reason to stand tall. It puts the maloik on impossible excuses whenever the subject of being competitive while manufacturing domestically crawls in from the cold for EU and US hifi brands.

Naturally, anyone with half a brain and slide ruler can predict that more money eventually has to cross the line to buy more performance than the puny Halverson/Hobson mini can deliver without a proper power supply. It's no longer a secret that magnetic playback from hard drive or USB stick is a far more economical form of data retrieval than traditional laser pickups. On wallet pain, MacBook (or equivalent PC) plus Streamer+ merely compound their advantage.

I can't be sure exactly what the magic dollar figure is that would purchase superior performance from a one-box CD player. But I'll say that I wouldn't be surprised if it fell somewhere between $3000 and $5000. Should you find a better player for $1,895, a MacMini with Streamer+ and FrontRow remote still would be cheaper and light years more convenient. Hence it takes even less than half a brain to pronounce the High Resolution Technologies Streamer+ a sure-fire winner. It also sinks computer-based noise to a new low. I'm not sure how it was done but if there was such a thing as a brick-wall filter for noise, the Streamer+ seems to have one built in.

So, what's this winner sound like? After all, the above mainly focused on where in the hierarchy of performance the Streamer+ belongs. Knowing that it easily competes at 10 times its sticker says nothing yet about its sonic signature. In my book, the major attraction of this device is that it pushes thin hard lean flat digital a good way toward organic, dense, fleshy analog. That's quite the antithesis of what PC Audio might suggest to most audiophiles who regard the entire proposition with suspicion, certainly at the level of expense we talked of today.

This trend can be faked by cloying transients in cotton. It can be faked by excess warmth and not fully developed treble. It can be faked with bass prominence to inject more black into the color palette for deeper hues. On balance, the Streamer+ could be slightly guilty of the last trick. However, the sense of being able to enter the soundstage and see well ahead and to the sides isn't significantly affected. But it's certainly true that if we took the Streamer+ by its company name, it does not pursue high resolution at the expense of getting remotely relentless, zippily detail obsessed, abstract and removed.

Rather, it's about rich tone colors and the ability to deliver sudden shifts in dynamics with conviction. It's about dense, not dried-out textures. It's about what happens in my system when moving from the brilliant FirstWatt F5 transistor amp to the equally brilliant but different Yamamoto A-09S 300B SET with EML 300B-XLS. While ultimate resolution steps down a bit and with it decay trails and hall sound, those areas are filled out by minor voluptuousness of fluidity, by bel canto over staccato, by integration versus separation.

I think of it as day-time versus night-time listening - sex with the lights on or off. One is more about seeing, the other more about feeling. Both address our senses but different aspects for a different experience. That a $299 USB DAC should belong into the second class is quite the surprise. It speaks volumes—once again—that everything else being equal, implementation is king and experience the power behind its throne. Kudos to Kevin Halverson for distilling his into so affordable a machine and getting this far.

High Resolution Technologies website