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On the road: KEF M500 headphones and HRT microStreamer

  • Whilst on this portable audio jag – kick-started by the stunning Astell&Kern duo – I’ve been contemplating (again) the pragmatists choice for a portable head-fi rig: headphones and DAC/head-amp to take on holiday or on a business trip. In this context, portability and durability are just as important as holding fast to an audiophile mandate.  As is keeping the budget on a super-tight leash.

    This time last year I was rockin’ a CEntrance DACport with AKG K-520 headphones. That combo took me from hotel room to hotel room during a 10-day blast around the western United States. This year it’s gonna be HRT’s microStreamer (US$199/AU$219) and a pair of KEF M500 headphones (US$299/AU$499).

    Here’s why:

    First and foremost: the HRT device sounds truckloads better than the $0.05 headphone output on a MacBook Air. Ditto the CEntrance DACport.  However, the microStreamer sounds crisper and more dynamically adept than the CEntrance tube. Opting for the HRT also saves you/me $100. It’s smaller and lighter too; I can slip it into my jeans’ back pocket and not notice it’s there; something that’s not quite possible with the DACport. The HRT microStreamer is itsy-bisty-teeny-weeny-lose-it-in-the-bottom-of-your-bag small.


    Neither the DACport nor the microStreamer handle anything above 24/96 but I care not one jot when out on the road – 99% of my library is Redbook and the transient discombobulation of hotel rooms don’t lend themselves to chin a stroke through a 24/192 of Unknown Pleasures or a DSD (SACD rip) of Bossanova. For such higher-resolution listening, I’d opt for the bigger, heavier, better-sounding and 4x more expensive Resonessence Labs Concero HP.

    The M500 is KEF’s first shot at the full-size headphone market and they’ve hit the bullseye. Durable and comfortable, they offer superb midrange clarity that neatly exposes the treble delicacy and intricacy brought by increasingly better source hardware – but no need to go overboard when on the road, hence the HRT DAC/headphone amplifier. Back home, the KEFs see juice from a Burson HA-160 that furnishes them with greater fullness and organic bloom, compared to which the HRT sounds a little wire-y in the treble.


    Lastly, the outgoing AKG K-520 don’t fold up into a carry case for protected portability. The M500’s sturdy aluminium backbone and Smart-Hinge tech will keep transit damage at bay.

    Issue 57 of TONEAudio is an all-headphone affair.  There you can read my FULL review of the KEF M500 ‘phones. Dig in – Page 174.

    Further information: KEF / Advance Audio Australia | HRT

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. I just finished reading the article on the KEF headphones and it didn’t tweak that you were the author. That was a great article and I also enjoyed the photos in this edition. Not bad for a free download.

      • TONE’s a great mag, yes. I only wrote the words though – the photo credit belongs to Jeff Dorgay.

    2. I’ve owned the HRT microStreamer for about 6 months and I hardly use it.

      It’s more powerful than the standard iPad/MacBook Air port and fairly refined but has a slight edge to it that can’t compare to the smoothness of the standard output (I think Apple have done a reasonably good job in striking a pleasing balance). I actually drive my Senn HD 650 directly off the iPad 3! It is mostly okay, and the HRT microStreamer isn’t sufficiently better plus adds some unpleasantness. I don’t have any other DACs to compare with but did try the HeadRoom BitHead several years ago and also found it had a hard sound that didn’t compare with the PowerBook G4 output at the time.

      Any recommendations for a step up from the HRT microStreamer but still relatively portable and works with the iPad 3?

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