JOHN KENNY MODIFIED HiFace
USB 24/192 COMPUTER INTERFACE
List Price: 270 Euros (About $350)
If there ever was a perfect stocking stuffer for Christmas 2010, it's this! We've been telling you that computer based audio playback is not a a thing of the future, but a thing of right now. There are many ways to get audio off a computer via various DACs and, of course, there are systems like the Qsonix we reviewed that are playback systems unto themselves with incredible graphical interfaces that rip and store music on their huge hard drives and pull complete info about each album and track from the net and allow you to choose, sort and playback in hundreds of ways. But they cost several thousands of dollars, not in range of everyone's wallet.
If all you want to do is play mp3 files or standard CD quality tracks, Itunes or WinAmp suffices. But the trend is towards much higher rez files up to 24 bit and 192 Hz that those software packages are limited by their USB interfaces that usually squash resolution to 24/96, so you don't get all the quality that's really there. In addition, their jitter rates are rather high, further degrading the sound quality.
So how does one get the full resolution of the latest music files without breaking the bank? M2Tech has the solution. The Italian company makes a hiFace 24-bit/192kHz USB interface that looks like an everyday USB memory stick, but it uses special software and drivers that allow it to transmit the state of the art Hi-Rez audio files with reduced jitter from your computer to a DAC that's capable of 24/192 . The standard audio drivers available on the market (e.g. Microsoft Windows operating system) dictated constraints can be overcome thanks to HiFace proprietary drivers: they allow for transferring audio data, maintaining the original file quality without any loss of resolution quality; also, sampling frequency constraints are overcome, while Microsoft and ASIO drivers oblige to operate at no more than 96kHz. When HiFace is used together with a player application such as FooBar (available for free on Internet), you can transfer S/PDIF stream music files to a D/A converter at 192kHz/24bits maximum frequency/resolution, avoiding undesired PC or MAC audio mixer data processing during the data transfer from hard disk to interface. Presently, Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 drivers are available, as well as Mac drivers for 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6.
The little stick plugs right into your USB port - you don't even need a special cable. Included software makes your Mac or PC see it as a USB audio device, no muss, no fuss, and the HiFace takes all the processing out of your nasty, noise infested computer and moves it outside, also reducing the load on your CPU so other things run faster. Genius, right? Just make note that the HiFace is NOT a DAC - you still need your own 24/192 capable DAC. But there are actually THREE options open to you, depending on what you already have: The first one is using a DAC like the Eastern Electric MiniDac at $750 we recently fell in love with. The second option requires the use of a digital input provided CD player. Generally, CD players are provided with a digital output to allow for the use of an external DAC; very few of them have an input. Those who have it can be used as a DAC, too. We renew the caveat: check the maximum allowed input sampling frequency. The third option relates to the use of an audio/video amplifier provided with digital audio inputs. While more or less all multichannel amplifiers/processors for audio/video are provided with digital audio inputs, not all of them are capable to deal with 192kHz. The compatibility is generally more easy to find on most recent models. The standard HiFace with SPDIF connector goes for $150, though you can get a BNC for a little more.
When something sounds really good, so good that you think it would be hard to improve much, its a big boast when a maker claims to do just that. I'm quite certain the law of diminishing returns applies to making audio gear just as much as buying it, so to reap any improvements from an already well harvested field is nothing to be sneezed at. And yet, that's just what John Kenny has claimed with the MK2 modifications he carries out on the HiFace USB to S/PDIF adaptor.
There are now 3 versions of his modified Hiface; a boxed MK1 version; a boxed MK2 version & a I2S output Hiface in boxed or module form. The "box" refers to whether or not there is a chassis included. The differences between them are that the Mk1 & MK2 output SPDIF signals for connecting to a DAC whereas the I2S version uses I2S signalling ( a superior digital signalling system & better than SPDIF) for connecting to a DAC. Nearly all DAC chips accept I2S but there are only a few DACs that have an external I2S connectors (see footnote). So the I2s Hiface also comes in a DIY option to allow DIY types to use it. In all the boxed versions, the on-board 3.3V & 1.8V regulators are replaced with ultra low-noise regulators. The battery charger is now inside the box along with all power supplies for the Hiface – it no longer draws any power from the USB connection. A Lithium NanoPhosphate battery supplies independent, clean, low noise power to the critical clocks.
So the Mk2 now needs a wallwart type 9 to 12V DC power source. John tells me that the wallwart supply has 2 functions: 1; When the unit is turned off, it supplies the internal charger that keeps the batteries topped up and 2; When the unit is turned on, it supplies some not-sonically-critical parts of the circuit. The wallwart can be left plugged in all the time for convenience.
The Mk1 modded HiFace didn't just give good performance for PC based sound - it gave good performance, period. I was lucky enough for John to also loan me a Mk1 again with the Mk2 so I could directly compare one to the other. Well, when I tried the Mk1, I remembered quite well the original sound - clear highs, tight lows and a really good clarity. I listened like that for a few days. Then I swapped in the Mk2. Now I could see why John was excited about the new mods: yes, there is a definite improvement with the Mk2. So what changed? Well, the space and resolution around individual instruments and singers was improved, which led to a much better appreciation of the soundstage. Better depth, width and height were readily apparent. I could detect no downsides to this: there was no trace of any kind of glare or harshness, listening fatigue never set it. In fact this unit was responsible for more than a few late nights chez Morrin. A curious thing: I found myself not needing to turn up the volume to hear small details in the recordings. These improvements, coupled with the neat box it’s now housed in, and the built in charger, all make this a significant step up from the Mk1.
I used the modded HiFace in both my primary and secondary systems, and although both systems are quite different (one mainly valve & electrostatic, the other low power solid state and horns), the observations were the same. So how does this compare to other digital sources? Well the best source I have is a modified transport similar to the 47 labs Shigaraki transport. John's modded HiFace easily meets and greets it - and at far less cost, I might add.
If you are anxious or just curious to venture into the wild world of PC or Mac based audio, well, you should be. The future of audio playback, whether hi-end or low-end, involves a computer and the internet and therefore, digital audio. The future of audio, and remember you heard it here first, internet "Cloud" based. If you don't know what the "cloud" is, you're way behind, Bucko. CD players as we know them today are going the way of VHS tapes. If you've been to your local Barnes & Noble, Walmart or any other music seller, you will notice that CD shelf space is getting smaller and smaller and so is the selection. There's a reason for that.
The stock HiFace is great product on its own, but John Kenny's upgrade takes it to a new level of USB connected audio. Just remember you still need a DAC that plays back hi-rez 24/192 files natively. And for its price of about $350, it's definitely a candidate for cheap bastards like us!
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