Product name: M2Tech HiFace Two
Manufacturer: M2Tech - Italy
Cost: 180 USD (140 euros). (Currency conversion)
Product name: Elijah Audio BPM USB cable
Manufacturer: Elijah Audio.
Cost: 105 USD.
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: March, 2013
A few years back I was sent the original HiFace USB interface to review but unfortunately whenever it was connected to my PC it caused the PC to freeze. I was rather disappointed having read the almost universal rave reviews for the HiFace, but life goes on as they say. Recently I've been reviewing the JK SPDIF Mk3, and Human Audio Table, both USB interfaces (converters) that are based on the HiFace, and I was interested in finding out how much different they sounded to the stock item. M2-Tech kindly agreed to supply a HiFace Two (the latest version) so the comparison was on. Actually, the Two is not so much a new version of the original HiFace, but a completely new design. As supplied, the unit is attractively enclosed in a red satin bag, and shipped in a cardboard box protected by ample bubble wrap to prevent any possible damage.
Connections Input 1 x USB A type male
Output 1 x RCA or BNC female
I/O Standard Input USB 2.0 Audio Format
Output S/PDIF Stereo Digital Audio Format
44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4khZ, 192kHz
Resolution 16 up to 24 bit
Dimensions 10.2(d) x 2.2(h) x 2(w) cm
Power Supply 5V DC from USB bus
Temperature from 0°C to 70°C
Weight 50gr approx
The HiFace two is a very small device that simply plugs into a USB socket on a computer, and has a connection at its other end to connect to a DAC. There is a choice of RCA, or BNC connector, and I requested my favoured BNC type on the review sample. Power is drawn from the 5 volt rail of the USB supply so there is no need for a separate power supply. And apart from downloading, and installing the appropriate drivers (if you are running Windows), the HiFace is ready to play music. I was very pleased to see that the HiFace Two will work with Linux and Mac systems without a driver. Using an oldish computer/laptop for the music server, running something like Ubuntu, is a low-cost way to get into computer audio, and can produce very reasonable results. However, for my initial auditioning of the HiFace Two, I plugged it into a laptop running W8 and Foobar/JPlay. I was a little surprised that it didn't play music straight off as I had drivers installed that worked with the other HiFace based converters, and it required installation of a different driver.
My usual habit with review items is to power them up and leave them playing for hours on end (but with the speakers disconnected) in order to let them burn in. With the HiFace Two I actually started listening straight way and noticed clearly how it improved over a couple of hours of initial use. It went from sounding rather dry, compressed almost, with a smallish sound stage, and lacking PRaT, to sounding more open, more tuneful, and with a larger, foot-tapping presentation.
After a few hours I could easily hear why the HiFace has proved such a popular choice for computer audio. It 'digs' deep into the recordings to bring out masses of detail, and there's great transparency. The sound stage is thus well-defined, large, and deep as well as wide. Clarity is very good, lyrics of songs easily discernable, and the Q-sound effects on the 'Amused to Death' (Roger Waters) album clearly portrayed around the listening room. The presentation was easy to listen to with no 'nasties' in the top end, just nice clean, well portrayed notes. As with the more expensive SPDIF Mk3 and Tabla, the sound reminded me a lot of how some of my albums sounded on vinyl! I like 'strong' vocals, where the performer is rendered life-like in the sound stage. The HiFace Two did this well, and as with the SPDIF Mk3/Tabla, there were occasions when I thought that I could 'feel' the presence of the singer in my room. The main area where I would slightly mark the HiFace Two down is in the bass. It was slightly less defined than the other converters, not quite as focussed.
Comparing the HiFace Two to the SPDIF Mk3 and Tabla, I would say that apart from the bass definition, it very slightly lacks a bit of polish in the mid range and top frequencies, something that may be expected when the latter pair are running on isolated battery supplies. I've no idea what else John Kenny and Human Audio do to their audio converters, but it is possible to try and even the playing field with the HiFace Two.
First off I tried the Odyssey Audio TOD2. This device connects between the computer and HiFace Two, and is claimed to reconstruct the 5 volt power supply coming from the computer, turning it into a 'virtual battery supply'. With the TOD2 in place (always remember that the computer must be powered down when connecting the TOD2 to the computer) the presentation was a little larger, rather as if it was coming from a 'blacker' background. Overall the sound was very slightly better to listen to but I didn't find that it made a huge improvement with the bass definition. That said, I am being very critical because I am judging the HiFace Two against the more expensive converters. If I am quite honest, I could live with the stock HiFace Two, and certainly would be happy to with the TOD2 in place.
Enter the Elijah Audio BPM USB cable; BPM standing for 'Battery Powered Module'. Elijah Audio offer a range of up-market USB cables and one in particular caught my attention as it allowed the use of a separate battery (or other 5 volt) supply with the HiFace Two. The BPM plugs into the computer, and has a type A female socket on the other end of the 8 cm lead that the HiFace plugs into. Another lead comes out from the female socket and connects to the separate power supply. The battery pack that I had to hand didn't have a USB socket to fit the USB plug on the BPM so I made up an adaptor. The batteries I used were four AA Energizer brand NiMH rechargeables. Please note. If you use a HiFace with an external 5 volt supply, it is strongly recommended to make sure that you power the HiFace up before turning on the computer, and turn off the computer, before powering down the HiFace. With the battery power to the HiFace switched on, I rebooted the laptop, started Foobar/JPlay, and sat back to listen.
The first impression with this combination was of a slightly softer presentation, but not as soft as I have found using batteries for a power amp. In fact the softer presentation in this case could also be said to be less harsh, and was very pleasant to listen to. Being hyper-critical, the bass could have been a bit firmer, but after a few tracks I had forgotten the softer bass because everything else sounded so good. It wasn't better than the JK SPDIF Mk3 or Human Audio Tabla in a hi-fi sense, but there was a magic about the sound that had me riveted to my listening chair. Perhaps it was the synergy with the Human Audio Muto-X DAC (which I had been using for the HiFace auditioning) but the music was noticeably more enjoyable than when using the HiFace as it comes, or with the TOD2. It was one of those occasions when it was hard to write down what the improvement actually was. I wouldn't say more clarity, I wouldn't say more bass, or a more sparkling top end. Timing was one possible reason, not that the PRaT with the other combinations had been poor. 'Naturalness' was another comment that I wrote down at the time. What ever it was, something was hitting the sweet spot.
With some genres of music though, the Battery powered HiFace with the battery powered Muto-X sounded a bit too 'relaxed'. So I swapped the Muto for the (mains powered) MHDT Havana DAC and found that brought back the 'oomph' that I had been looking for. However, that magic was also gone, not that this combination didn't sound very good, but on acoustic music in particular, there wasn't the purity of tone that was there with the battery powered combination. Oh - if only we could get the best of both these powers supplies together!
With both combinations, and with the best will in the world, I couldn't attribute all the improvement to the BPM, and it was almost certainly, the clean, and isolated, battery power that I was liking. But the BPM was certainly working as intended too. I've always tried (though not always been successful) to avoid the controversial debate about hi-fi cables. But from what I have found through my own experiments, USB cables can and do make a difference. Obviously with the BPM, the biggest difference that it makes is in isolating the HiFace from the 'dirtier' 5 volt supply from the computer, and allowing the connection of the cleaner external supply. I suppose that a better test of the Elijah Audio cables would be a straight comparison of a 'standard' printer type USB cable with a similar Elijah Audio cable but for this particular review, I wanted to try the battery supply so had asked for the BPM.
What I will say about the Elijah Audio products is that they are reasonably priced, well made, and presented professionally. And if you want something custom-made, they can do that for you too.
While on the subject of cables, the HiFace Two (like the original HiFace) is designed to plug straight into the computers USB socket. This is good in that it eliminates the need for a USB cable, but in my opinion, not so good because it directly couples the diminutive unit to the much larger computer, and it's mechanical vibrations. So I suspect that some of the improvement that I noticed with both the BPM cable, and the TOD2 (which has a short flexible lead) is due to the (mechanical) decoupling of the HiFace from the computer.
While I had the BPM cable attached to the HiFace Two, I also tried the Paul Hynes SR3-05 power supply. I was amazed at how different the sound was using this supply to the batteries. PRaT was improved, it sounded 'faster'. And the bottom end was firmer too. As good as the SR3-05 is, it lacked the purity of the battery supply but if I had to make the choice, I would just keep the SR3-05. I would have liked to have tried some LiFeP04 batteries, and intended to knock up a supply using two 3.2v cells, and a low dropout regulator. But adding in the cost of the charger, I just couldn't justify the outlay.
One of the best features of the HiFace Two is that it can be used with Linux without a driver. So I loaded up Linux Puppy Slacko, and after selecting the HiFace Two as the audio device, I was able to play music straight away. The results were very impressive, great clarity, great PRaT, and musical, although it didn't quite satisfy me completely. I didn't feel that it quite dug as 'deep' into the recordings as JPlay does, and micro details that reveal themselves in sounds like the echo in a voice, background tape hiss, singer's breathing, etc were not quite so prominent. I found out afterwards, that without some tweaking, Slacko isn't bit-perfect, and no doubt that was why. But considering that the operating and playback software is totally free, it does a remarkably good job (more so if you have the know how to configure it to be bit perfect), and shows real potential. Puppy Slacko runs on the very minimum of equipment too. I was actually running it in memory (RAM) having booted it from a CD but it's not difficult these days to find a PC that would run this software that is being 'thrown away' by a more demanding owner. What I am getting at is that for the price of the HiFace Two, a freebie computer running a Linux operating system, you can have an audio source that would have cost thousands only a few years ago.
I was gutted to have had to return the Human Audio Tabla and JK SPDIF Mk 3 after reviewing them but to be very honest, after a week or so of using the HiFace Two, I didn't miss them as much as I thought that I would. In fact, the HiFace Two with the battery or SR-5 supply, and feeding an MHDT DAC provided sounds good enough to have me enjoying the music again without thinking about the equipment I have or haven't got. Admittedly, adding in the cost of a good external power supply, and the BPM cable takes the total cost into the price range of something like the JK SPDIF Mk3, but even on its own, the HiFace Two performs well enough to be considered something of a hi-fi bargain. The fact that we can try different power supplies with it makes it a tweaker's dream, and even in stock configuration, it can offer very good quality playback when used with something like JPlay or Puppy Linux Slacko. For DIYers, my advice would be to buy the HiFace, knock up a suitable USB cable, and try the 4 AA battery supply that I used. Four good quality AA NiMH batteries and a suitable charger cost less than 20 UK pounds, and IMHO will show the HiFace Two at its best, at least with acoustic type music. The choice of DAC will also affect the final sound quality but by having the option to switch the type of power supply, the HiFace Two can be tailored to get the sound you prefer. All in all, a great piece of kit, and highly recommended. A thumbs-up for Elijah Audio cables too!
© Copyright 2013 Nick Whetstone - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com