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Review: Jkeny's modified Hiface - A battery powered USB transport

Posted by Amine Slimani on April 18, 2010 at 12:08 PM

Preamble:

 

A few months ago I started a thread (the usb to spdif shoot review) where I compared 4 usb to spdif converters. Up until recently, I had tried in my system 6 different usb converters and the stock M2tech Hiface was still my favourite.

 


A few weeks ago, jkeny told us about the mods he performed on the Hiface. He offered to send me for review his modded Hiface which I gladly accepted. So after listening for it for a week, I decided it was time to write a little bit more about it.

 

For the details about the mod, here is the link to John’s webpage: https:/sites.google.com/site/hifacemods/home

 

 

 

System used for the review:

 

System Used:

 

Main Chain used for this review:

Foobar v1.0 --> Kernel Streaming --> Jkeny’s modified hiface--> Oyaide DB-510 --> Audio-gd DAC19 DSP --> Artisan Cables"Ultimate Silver Dream" RCA / Sharkwire ACSS --> Audio-GD C2 (OpaEarth and Moon) --> Artisan Silver Cables  --> Sennheiser HD-650

 

Power related accessories:

Hi-Fi Cables & Cie PowertransPlus Power Cords (x2)

Hi-Fi Cables & Cie SimplePower

Bada LB-5600 Power Filter Plant

Essential Audio Tools Noise Eater Parallel Filter

 

Vibration Control:

E&T Spider Rack, Maple platforms, Sandboxes, Brass cones, Acrylicand Fiber carbon sheets, Yamamoto footers, Herbie's Audio Lab Tenderfoot,SuperSonic Component Stabilizer

 

Headphone cables: Artisan Silver Cables Mark1, Artisan Silver CablesMark2, Revelation Audio Labs Cryo Silver Sennheiser Cable

 

Other equipment:

Transports: Emu 0404 usb, Musiland Monitor 01 usd, Teralink X, M2techHiface (stock), Purepiper usb to spdif, Teralink X2

DACs: Emu 0404 usb, Zero DAC, Audio-gd DAC 100, Audio-gd FUN, PurepiperDAC A-1

Headphone amps: Audio-gd ST-3, Little Dot MKIII, Audio-gd FUN.

 

 

Some of the reference tracks used for this review:

 

Natalie Dessay - Italian Opera Arias - Emi Classics

Mahler - Symphony n 5 - Decca

Puccini - La Boheme– Decca

Mozart Violin Concertos - Marianne Thorsen - 2L - 24/96

Sol Gabetta - Schostakowitsch Cellokonzert Nr. 2/Cello

Vivaldi - Concerto for 2 violins - Carmignola/Mullova

Keith Jarrett - Paris / London - Testament - 24/96

Glenn Gould - The Goldberg Variations 1981

Hans Zimmer - Gladiator Soundtrack

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five

Diana Krall - Live in Paris

The World's Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings - Chesky - 24/96

Norah Jones - Come Away With Me

Patricia Barber - Companion

Soundrama - "The Pulse" Test CD

Head-fi/Chesky Sampler - Open Your Ears - 24/96

 


The Review:

 

Part 1: Preliminary findings

 

Timber & Tonal balance:

 

While there is no shift in tonal balance per se, there are however differences between the stock Hiface and the modified one in the way theyaffect the DACs.

The most striking feature of the modded Hiface is a better extension at the frequency extremes: the bass extends deeper and the highs extend higher and in a cleaner fashion than the Hiface.

 

In comparison to each other, the sound of the modded Hiface is fuller. But this is different from the false warmth injected by some jittery converters. While theTeralink X2, for instance, is indeed warmer than the stock Hiface, it achieves so by adding the same extra warmth and haze to all the sounds, which reduces the overall resolution.

 

So what to expect from the modified Hiface? With well designed andneutral DACs, the sound gain in tonal density and realism. The instruments aremore easily recognized and … they gain in realism.

 

Another strength of the modded Hiface is the way it renders the specifictimber of very close sounding instruments.

Listening for instance to the Concerto for 2 violins - Vivaldi, you can clearly hear that Carmignola and Mullova are playing 2 different violins(Stradivarius and Guadagnini if my memory serves me well). The violins are notonly beautifully rendered but they also have distinct tonal signatures. While some warmer converters can make this album tolerable to listen to, they rob the inner details of the instruments and make everything sound the same.

 

Of course, this won’t be the case with every DAC, the better and the more transparent the DAC, the more subtleties you will be able to enjoy.

 

 

Soundstage & Imaging:

 

Here, the modified Hiface achieves something really interesting. It can throw a huge soundstage (if the components downstream are up to the task) while retaining a superb imaging capability.

 

If we take the Teralink X2 for example, it can throw a pretty big soundstagebut it lacks depth and is fuzzy and blurry. After listening for a while to themodified Hiface I understood that part of what it was doing is to push thesoundstage further back which is good for headphone listening and with entrylevel DACs. However, by doing so, there is a blurring of the layering lines andlack of depth.

The Hiface on the other hand throws a smaller soundstage in comparison to theTeralink X2 but it is a lot more defined a layered.

 

What the modified Hiface does is to throw a bigger soundstage than any otherconverter. To be more specific, the soundstaging is upfront like the stockHiface but it has a tremendous depth which makes a lot bigger overall. Whilelistening to the modified Hiface, you just feel like having a open window intothe representation.

 

I have previously described the stock Hiface as having a holographicimaging. Here the modified Hiface goes a little bit further. Thanks to its greater tonal density and to its more accurate timber, you get not only a holographic imaging of the performers, but you get a greater sense of realism. You feel there are real persons breathing and performing in front of you.

From a technical point of view, the stock Hiface was already very goodin that regard. But whatever, the modified Hiface is doing, it seems to be more convincing emotionally speaking.

 

Overall, the modified Hiface makes it a lot easier to mentally “reconstruct” the place where the recorded event took place. It just makes more sense.

 

 

Dynamics:

 

I first thought that I wouldn’t have much to write about in this section of the review. When listening to the modified everything was fine, I had huge macro-dynamics and beautifully rendered micro-dynamics but I assumed that was coming from the rest of the chain. It was until I reverted back to the TeralinkX2 and Stock Hiface that I noticed the difference.

When trying new gear, we get accustomed sometimes too quickly to the benefits and it is only until we revert back to the old gear that we realizehow far we have come from.

 

Here, the modified Hiface was actually a pretty big step up in dynamics.In fact, reverting back to the stock Hiface (or worse to the Teralink X2), thesound become duller, with slowed transients.

Once again, since the modified Hiface is only a usb to spdif converter,the limiting factor in most situation will probably be the DAC itself. But incomparison to other converters, the modified Hiface gave the most dynamic results regardless of the Hiface. So my bet is that is this characteristic will be audible in all DACs.

 

 

Transparency & Definition:

 

The Hiface has an excellent analyzing capability. It can dig very deep in the recordings but renders the information in a very natural way. While the stock Hiface is slightly more upfront with the details, the modified Hiface has a lot more low level details. With the right associated DAC, you can get a very detailed and relaxed representation.

Personally, I have never heard in my system a converter as detailed and at the same time as analog like as the modified Hiface.

 

On interesting thing I also mentioned in my review about the dac19dsp is that with the modified Hiface it is the first time I can clearly hear a bigimprovement on 24/96 files.

Before that, I used to have a hard time distinguishing properly upsampled 16/44data to 24/96 from the native 24/96 ones. In fact what I had realized is thatmost differences we hear going from 16/44 to 24/96 are due to the poorfiltering at 44.1. Even with my entry level dacs (emu 0404 usb, audio-gddac100, audio-gd FUN, Purepiper DAC A-1, Zero DAC), I can hear the differences between 16/44 and 24/96 but simply because their digital filters are relatively poor at 16/44.

With the modified Hiface associated to the dac19dsp, it was something else. I really heard an increase in resolution by going to 24/96.

 

 

Preliminary conclusion:

 

Contrary to what I am used to, I have made very few musical examplessimply because it is very dependent on the associated DAC.

The modified Hiface is a very transparent device. It doesn’t have asonic signature of its own. As far as I could tell, the overall sonic signature will depend more on the associated equipment and the recording itself than on the modified Hiface itself.

For more details about musical examples, I invite you to read my review of the DAC19DSP for which I used the modified Hiface as a transport.

 

While the modified version that jkeny sent me is still a prototype, Ican say that it by far the best converter I have listened to in my system. Iwas expecting a small improvement (since I considered the stock one beingexcellent) but I was totally surprised by the level of performance of themodified Hiface. Its effect on the sound was not subtle at all.

 

jkeny described the sound of the modified Hiface as similar to that ofexpensive analog and I couldn’t agree more: his modified Hiface make the otherconverters sound broken.

 

Personally, I have already asked jkeny if I could send him my stockHiface to have a similar mod done to it.

 

 

Part 2: using the modifiedHiface with different DACs

 

Work in progress

 


Part 3: Jkeny’s special usb cable

 

Work in progress

 

 

Part 4: The ESS DAC

 

Work in progress

 

 


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