by Francis Morrin
When something sounds really good, so good that you think it would be hard to improve much on, 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 3 versions of his modified Hiface; an unboxed MK1 version; a boxed MK1 version; & a boxed MK2 version. The differences between them are that the unboxed version has external batteries & charger; the boxed version has the batteries contained within a box together with on/off switch, status LED which indicates power on & socket for external charger to plug into. The MK2 has all the above but the charger is now internal along with all power supplies for the Hiface – it no longer draws any power from the USB connection.
I had heard and lived with the Mk1 unboxed version for a while, and was impressed by that. There were some downsides to it though – primarily revolving around its use of external batteries and their consequential need for charging. John has rather neatly addressed that issue with the Mk2 – the unit now has its own charger. The Mk2 mods now come packaged in a neat glossy black plastic box. There is a USB connection for connection to your laptop/PC, a coax S/PDIF rca jack, DC input jack, on/off switch and blue LED to indicate power on status. The box doesn’t have the trappings of hi-end gear (i.e. massive case milled from aerospace aluminium) – but is very neat, not at all ugly and fits very easily alongside the PC/laptop. Construction looks to be good and durable. As I mentioned in my Mk1 review, don’t forget you still need a DAC, ideally able to take 24/192 files – but many will have that already I think.
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. In truth this is a much nicer solution than swapping connectors and connecting a battery charger, wondering how low are the batteries etc etc. that was required with the unboxed version. I found it easiest to connect the modded HiFace to my laptop via a USB extension lead – it made positioning it near my DAC easier and I could position it near the front of the rack so I could see if it was on or off. The only other connection is from the coax output to your DAC. Setup was the same as for the stock HiFace – download and install the appropriate drivers from the HiFace website, connect the device, select the device as your primary sound source in the control panel settings of your media player…. and away you go.
My laptop is Jurassic in nature – and at first I found playback stuttered a bit. As with any new piece of equipment, that had me running around checking my connections etc, but when I ran the task manager I saw the processor was running pretty hard. I ended up disabled a bunch of stuff, and the problem disappeared. I hesitate to say any old laptop will work with this unit, but in reality mine is as old as you are likely to find so chances are you’ll be Ok! I also used a external HDD as the media library – that gave me access to almost my full library. I said in my Mk1 review that a tablet PC or similar would be a nice way to go – and I stick by that. To be honest it has now become a long term goal of mine to go just that route.
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. Well, 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 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. Johns modded HiFace easily meets and greets it – and at far less cost I might add. I didn’t use the modded HiFace with hi-res recordings: the truth is I have few of these, but more importantly, my DACs only go to 16/48 at best. Does that not invalidate one of the great claims of the HiFace series, I hear you ask? Well, no I say – and here’s the reason why. I reckon very few people have hi-res recordings as yet. So the vast bulk of people’s music libraries right now are 16/44 tracks, at best ripped in a lossless codec such as FLAC, but just as likely to be lossy. In my opinion, this is the area where performance of the modded HiFace is critical: if it fails here, it fails for the majority of us. However, I’m glad to say it acquits itself excellently in this regard. It really does have to be heard to be appreciated. I feel comfortable in saying that the age of PC as source is here, and I think, here to stay. Just like vinyl, CDs will stay with us too, but both I think will share a niche market, with the majority listening from files ( I believe hi-res files will also be in that niche).
I can comfortably recommend Johns mods to the HiFace to anyone interested in getting the best sound from their computer-based source. In a word, it will change your perception of PC as source – and at a very reasonable price. Now there’s something you don’t often read!!
John Kenny may be contacted at https://sites.google.com/site/hifacemods/home
A variety of music files in WMA, FLAC, WAV and MP3 format, virtually all at 16/44 resolution.
“Shigaclone” DIY player based on the 47 labs Shigaraki transport
Pass D1 DIY dac
Twisted Pear Buffalo DAC with discrete output stages
Audiosector NOS DAC
BNC cabling for digital, Silver plated copper ICs and speaker cables
Pass DIY symmetrical B1 buffer (DCB1)
Aikido Valve preamp
Pass DIY F5 amp
EL84 PP DIY amplification
Quad ESL57 speakers
Sachiko horns with modded FE206e drivers.