mercredi 18 avril 2012

M2Tech hiFace Two (english version)

This week I offer you to get back on M2Tech, this italian company I am following the activity for 2 years. M2Tech is an inovative company who has a good worlwide coverage in manu countries through its distribution network. 


This new version of the USB stick is having the same external shape than the previous one; a USB 2.0 Type A male plug, a (black this time) plastic body and a gold plated RCA female plug. If the external aspect does not reveal any special information, what about the inside?

A little bit of story:

So far… when M2Tech offered the first compact adapters with a USB plug and a very good integrated S/PDIF section, we had to admit that it was a winning strategy. The rest of the market walked quickly in their footprints; nevertheless the other actors did not apply a so good penetrating go to market strategy. 

A few moments after, some of them got the benefits of embracing the challenge like notably John Kenny who today offers a very nice packaged version, as well as Teddy Pardo who offers external power supplies for the EVO version. In parallel XMOS was growing, driven forward by large industry actors equities, into producing highly integrated processors specialized with some in USB Audio Class 2.0. The underlying technical and financial stakes consequences were that XMOs soon began to play a key role in offering a wide and powerful range of components (SU1, L2, L1 and G) scaled in terms of power, features ingeniously shaped to match business market need. 

Today:


M2Tech today aligns on the new manufacturer standards provided by XMOS, most probably to answer to a need of optimizing their R&D costs and develop a standard USB connection. 

On a Mac or Linux system, the stick does not require any specific pilot to work, relying on the embedded operating system one. On a Microsoft Windows platform, things remain unchanged as Audio Class 2.0 is not implemented and the Redmond firm does not plan, neither communicates any roadmap concerning this support on Windows 8. So, it stills require a driver, which by the way integrates DS, KS, WASAPI support but also (it is new) an ASIO implementation. 

At the end of the day, it does not matter, whichever pilot DS or ASIO is used, what matters for us is performance and quality of pilot programming, especially talking about Kernel Streaming mode. Today we will not test any M2Tech driver, but an OEM of XMOS asynchronous driver developed by their partner, a German company called Thesycon. This element seems to me sufficiently interesting so that we make a stop on it, especially on the settings to adjust on the Windows platform to get the best in class result in playback: 

The Windows integration is very poor from my point of view. Recalling me about 90’s drivers, settings have to be adjusted in a startup group application that remains in the tray and thus consume resources… With the native M2Tech drivers of version 1, the integration was better and settings were seamlessly integrated in the sound control panel. 

Let’s give a bad point to Thesycon for this very nasty control panel integration. 

Installing the M2Tech hiFace 2 Thesycon pilot: 

Run the installation file, then press on Next



If like I did, you try to install the pilot before you plugged the stick, then you will have an error message displayed without any possibility to get back with a button such as

Previous. You will have to close the application and run it again.



If your hiFace was plugged in, it will be detected and the setup will offer to install the files in a standard destination folder, click on Next:




Files will be copied to the destination folder:




Then, at the end of the installation process, check that the following message is being displayed: Preinstallation was successfull, then click on Next:




Click on Finish, installation is done:




From the startup menu, in the startup group, you will notice that there is a new item. You will find it and have a new system tray icon for the USB 2.0 driver.




Thesycon control panel allows adjusting of fundamental parameters such as internal memory buffer for asynchronous transfer. A 6 values scale is available. I recommend to directly setting it to the lowest value : Minimum latency; if it works fine this way, no need to make any step down to adjust this value anymore and generate unnecessary jitter.




Another important parameter that has to be adjusted is streaming. By default the pilot selects Power Saving mode, you have to select Always On.




Finally, let’s finish on a good point to balance the previous bad point. M2Tech hiFace EVO or Young driver does not conflict with hiFace 2’s one. Both are working fine in parallel on the same system.

We also noticed that the streaming section also offers under certain conditions and certain XMOS processors to manage 5.1 audio flows as well.

Build:


Having a look at the elements delivered by the manufacturer, we discover that, in addition to the USB section, first, a new output stage has been used and second, switching regulators have been replaced by linear versions. M2Tech offers us a product where the name is close to the previous one, where the look is also close, but inside, everything is totally different! It is thereofore perfectly legitimate to ask ourselves question on the fact that if comparing those two devices has really a sense or not? In my opinion no and listening has to be done as it was a totally new product.




Face view (XMOS US1002L1, 22.5792 clock, 24.576 clock, 13MHz clock)

On this very reduced space are installed plenty of components. The 13MHz clock close to the USB input is dedicated at the XMOS processor; the two others close to the RCA plug are used to generate frequency multipliers of regular 44,1KHz and 48KHz frequencies. It should be noted that the reduced size of the XMOS component, its powerful 500 MIPS (millions of instructions per second) and its power consumption optimization (an average of 112mA) allows to plan a good reserve of current to draw for the rest of the key, taking in consideration  what a regular USB port is allowed to offer.



Back view (atmel 1108)

At last, it should be noted that the manufacturer states that this new architecture prevents clicks and especially during gapless playback. This apparently insignificant detail is, in fact important because our speakers can suffer from this, like our ears! My tests confirm that this new version  after long hours of playback do not output any clicks.





System used for the review: 

Especially built for digital music playback:
  • Apple Extreme switc with Full Duplex GB ports
  • Ethernet Cat 6 shielded and braided cables, plugs are also shielded
  • Laptop with an external switched power supply based on Core 2 Duo with 6 MB RAM, SSD disk of 80 GB. PC is liked to network at 1GB/s Full Duplex.
  • Operating System is Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1, tuned for audiophileoutput conforms to the PC Audiophile.
  • A Phonic FireFly DAC powered on battery and linked to the hiFace using a regular S/PDIF digital cable.
  • A NAS of 2 TB  linked to the network at 100MB/s Full Duplex
  • An iPhone 4 to be used as remote control paired to wi-fi network on the Apple Extreme access point
  • Software to play tracks is foobar linked with JPlay V4 (Beach + Hibernation/Fullscale) or JPlay mini in mode Hibernation/Fullscale
The rest of the output chain is at iso perimeter to compare the elements:
YBA Diamond, Pre/Amplifier based on DIY Vecteur I6.2, ProAc D28.

Listening:

An immediate review based on return of listening was difficult for me as the hiFace was new and never burned in. It was necessary for it to run for a few hours so that the electronic components get ready. For this purpose, I use a loop of tracks based on Densen disk for 10 hours, then ran it for an additional 8 hours on a specific playlist. Nevertheless, at first sight, even without burning it in, we can guess the overall benefit and defects of this key.

At start, the main feeling is transparency, with a little bit more color that it should be on the medium range of my test equipment. Voices are splendid, crystal clear, without offering any excess of details such as we can observe on monitoring oriented products. Feeling is at relaxing, softness, without any tension or digital hardness especially on high definition tracks. Regarding this last point, without reaching the brio of more expensive products such as EVO or Stello U3, I find that hiFace two is a success and, let's say, most probably more achieved than the first version.

Because we shall speculate at comparing, tonal color seems to be less achieved, music less fleshly in a general manner than on EVO; at the opposite, compared to hiFace One, musical message seems to be “better”, being at the same time different. So let’s ask ourselves if this is all about sound signature? I think so; I think that hiFace two does not reproduce music with the same tones, signature than the previous version 1.

Another good point is applause reproduction. It is very well reproduced and really feeling like natural. Planes separation is also excellent. Apparent bandwidth seems to be perfectly coherent, without any feeling of holes or lack at the start or end of the audio range. Extinctions of notes do not give any feeling of lack as well. When the hiFace two is used on too high quality electronics, we can see that the lowest part of the bass range outputs as a bit slowed, something that happens to be logical to me. As the signature of music appears as soft, without any excess of expression, attenuation of lowest bass is aligned with it. Brass section seems to be lacking of natural on classical music, woodwinds are better such as chords as forte are reproduced with adequate generosity. I think that one will more especially appreciate hiFace Two with modern music such as electronic, lounge or studio recordings.

In front of Internet radio flow, hiFace two reacts a very traditional way. I mean that you can feel compression and excess of color that some of the channels are adding to please teenagers. Listening to high definition channels (256 or 320Kbits/s) brings a feeling close to the Lounge way: good point!

In terms of listening experience, at first place, this accessory offers a very good surprise on electronic tracks, pop, rock, where its signal processing depicts an obvious efficiency. Vocal performance is unique, Cecilia Bartoli makes us cry on Sposa, as Katie Melua makes us vibe on her « cudling music » ; we willingly forget about microdetails offered by products of the upper classes. Target is then perfectly reached ; Similarly, with Cranberries or Sade performing live, both are offering a wide stage filled of true artistic emotion, isn’t it the main point? Let’s add that smoothness is really adapted to a long listening experience of many hours without any feeling of tiredness.

In a second step, I stayed for a long time examining classical music and acoustic jazz recordings. These two are requiring a very special brio to allow the audiophile emotion to be entirely fulfilled. If in the overall the result is excellent and will match to numerous middle class systems, music appeared as limited to pretend at coupling with high end systems to my ear.
In that regard, I think that one should choose the EVO box from the same manufacturer for upper class electronics. Even if in the overall, the points and counterpoints are well reproduced, the acoustic performance of Capuçon brothers (two part inventions) was letting a slightly misled, let’s risk, artificial soulless feeling on violin and cello. Let’s point out that on the first version of hiFace the results were the same, nevertheless at the advantage of the new version two, which brings a more coherent global picture, more details without caricature and especially without tension on the higher range part.

Conclusion: 

At a strictly technical point of view, usage of accessories such as hiFace two remains always touchy. It is necessary to pair the right pieces of electronics to get the expected result. This is in this way, that I think, that this new USB connection will be of good marriage with middle class product such as the one of 1K€ range. I think more precisely about Marantz, Atoll, Rega or Cambridge. These ones are not especially equipped with best of breed USB sections even if some have XMOS chips inside. For a little bit more than a hundred euros, the M2Tech solution has a real credibility. 

In terms of challengers, we can also find seducing opportunities with other products. Every one of them bring its own signature, such as Musical Fidelity VLink 192 or Audiophileo 1. Naturally, these products are much more expensive (close to 1.5), but the sound they bring could seduce. 

Should we thank M2Tech for this new type of swiss knife? I think yes, for many reasons: 

At first, it is a "tour de force" to offer a piece of electronics at this very competitive price in its range. At less than 150€, M2Tech offers a concentrate of technology able to transport music with a remarkable fidelity. It is taking advantage of actual technologies at the maximum, not only external DACs without XMOS chipsets will benefit of it, but also those that do not have a so good s/pdif converter section.
In second, M2Tech offers in this way a real evolution of its “mobile” range. If the hiFace One does not have to blush of its performance in the overall, taking the actual technology market improvement situation in consideration, hiFace two appears like a successful implementation regarding what the audiophile consumer expect in terms of digital / mobile music. Size, weight and simplicity of the product target at a young and mobile population, equipped of multi-usages laptops. Time where the driver will automatically Tweet current track information is not so far, isn’t it? 

Last thing, around product, once again, we demonstrate that despite the brio of the device, despite the care brought to the implementation of USB 2.0 Audio Class 2.0, quality of the S/PDIF cable seems to be as sensitive as before. One must be very careful to use a good digital cable as USB link is not enough by itself. 

Specifications:

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

Sampling Frequency
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

Link to manufacturer site: http://www.m2tech.biz/hiface2.html#

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