Got a computer and hi-fi system with a decent digital-to-analogue converter? The M2Tech HiFace is the missing link you've been looking for
Great sound is available from personal-computer audio these days. It’s no longer impossible to find 24-bit audio files to buy online, at studio-master quality. Problem is, how to get that sonic goodness out of the computer without adulteration along the way?
Sound cards are less popular than they used to be, in part because so many computers are either portable laptops or small form-factor PCs that don’t accept traditional PCI cards. So USB has stepped forward as an easy interface to stream digital audio out.
The HiFace device from Italian specialist M2Tech is a little different, in two important respects. Firstly, it’s not quite a digital-to-analogue converter, as its purpose is only to convert between digital datastreams.
It takes USB digital audio from computers and generates S/PDIF (Sony/Philips digital interconnect format), a popular system routinely used in studios and hi-fi equipment since the 1980s.
Secondly, the M2Tech Hi-Face uses the more recent and more accurate asynchronous-mode USB protocol to interface with your computer. This allows high-precision data clocks to be sited in the converter, and control the ebb and flow of data - rather than rely on the less predictable timing signals from your average PC. The result ought to be more natural sound with less timing distortions (jitter).
The body of the M2Tech Hi-Face device is only 75mm long, making it resemble an oversized USB memory stick, and it weighs just 28g. A standard USB type A plug on one end connects to the PC or laptop, while the other end sports a coaxial digital output.
As standard, it comes with an RCA-style phono socket, or if you prefer you can specify a locking BNC socket – better-suited for perfectionist audiophiles and their high-end audio equipment.
The M2Tech HiFace turns a laptop or desktop PC into a high-end digital sound source
Its output is still essentially 0s and 1s, and you will still need to connect it to a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) unit, rather than directly into an audio system’s analogue input.
But that universal S/PDIF output means the sky’s the limit when it comes to finding your preferred DAC.
Unlike a similar asynchronous-mode USB DAC unit we tried from High Resolution Audio, the Music Streamer II, the Hi-Face M2Tech requires that you install M2Tech’s proprietary drivers on the computer. These are available for Windows and Mac platforms, and are comparable to the ASIO driver often required with earlier computer audio devices.
For Windows users, you can try Direct Sound mode from the PC, which confusingly is not direct at all and may suffer degradations from the way Windows resamples and routes the signal; or Kernel Streaming Mode with the Foobar music player app, which should provide a bit-accurate transfer of the audio data.
For the Mac, providing the output bit depth and sample frequency are set the same as the source (in Audio MIDI setup), you should also get a clean data feed. We did find that bit-depth here was locked to 24-bit however.
We tried the M2Tech HiFace in our reference stereo system – with entrancing results.
Source was an Apple Mac mini, playing various FLAC, MP3, WAV and ALAC audio files, through the M2Tech HiFace, into a dCS Delius DAC. We also tried going via dCS Purcell upsampler, to create a 24/192 datastream over dual-AES connection. Playback chain comprised Music First Audio pre-amp, Chord SPM 1200C power amp and B&W 802D loudspeakers.
While one-stop computer audio DACs have reached very good standards, we found the sound of music could really be set free by taking what sounded like, to our ears, a particularly clean and low-jitter digital source, and feeding it into the dedicated DAC.
With the HiFace M2Tech acting as translator between computer and hi-fi system, we heard even 16-bit CD audio files played with rare precision and smoothness.
Compared to the same music played from a dedicated high-end CD transport, the HiFace M2Tech allowed a sound as rounded and almost analogue-like in its rendition. Often CD playback can sound glassy and vaguely metallic.
Another point of reference: we found internet radio and live streams of BBC Radio from Freeview could be heard with a naturalness and freedom from ‘digital edge’ that we hadn’t experienced before from those sources.
There’s one caveat about the M2Tech HiFace, though, that will frustratingly keep you from using it full-time on a Mac at least - and that’s latency.
M2Tech’s Mac OS X driver for the HiFace introduces a fraction of a second of delay between the source and output, which means that when you’re watching film or TV video, lipsync will be lost, with voices playing behind the pictures.
The M2Tech HiFace's designer Marco Manunta explained that the Mac driver works differently than the Windows driver: the Mac version doesn't work with fixed-size packets, so a large buffer is needed to avoid 'flux distruption' when several small data packets are sent, instead of one regular size packet.
That’s a shame, as it means you have to configure your media-centre Mac so that music sources can be routed through the M2Tech HiFace, while AV media must make use of a less compelling audio conversion stage.
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