HiFi Rose RS250 Network Streamer Review
James Michael Hughes thinks this flower in the hi-fi garden is blooming good…
RS250 Hi-Fi Network Streamer
Where do you start? I ask because the RS250 from HiFi Rose must well be one of the most versatile electronics devices ever offered to humankind. It’s a streamer for Qobuz, Tidal (MQA certified), Spotify Connect, and is Roon-ready. It’s a DAC and a line-level analogue preamp, with the option of internal storage.
You want more? The RS250 also offers access to iTunes podcasts plus YouTube, and 9,900 (count ‘em) internet radio stations. It will function as a CD player (or let you rip from CDs) if you add a USB disc drive. It also plays music and Ultra-HD 4K video files from your storage media (USB/SSD).
Most people will probably buy the RS250 just for streaming purposes, but clearly, this streaming DAC preamp does a lot more. It’s built around an ESS ES9038QZM two-channel DAC chip with low jitter Femto clock and can process PCM signals to 32-bit and 768kHz, plus DSD up to DSD512.
The compact RS250 has much in common with the company’s full-width flagship RS150 at roughly twice the price. In creating both units, HiFi Rose aimed for a one-stop-shop product that could handle just about any source, digital or analogue. Only a phono stage for vinyl LPs seems to be missing. Dang!
For RS250 users not owning a CD player, just adding an affordable USB CD drive will deliver an excellent sounding CD player that compares favourably with dedicated silver disc spinners costing substantially more. With many CDs pressed after about 1993, you’ll even see the album cover displayed on the RX250’s screen, and the screen on your phone or tablet. How many ‘proper’ CD players do that? So using the RS250 as your silver disc spinner has much to commend it.
Everything that comes from South Korea-based HiFi Rose is decently screwed together, but the flagship RS150 offers a better build than the RS250, and an even bigger display. It also has balanced analogue outputs using XLR connectors, whereas this RS250 just has unbalanced outputs. Balanced will give you a better sound and is well-worth having – but you pay double for it. Other differences include an ESS ES9038PRO DAC in the RS150 rather than the ESS ES9038QZM found in the RS250. The RS150 also offers users a wider range of connectivity options. That said, it looks like the RS250 gives you about eighty percent of the flagship streamer at half the price.
A key feature of the RS250 is its large 8.8in-wide touch-screen display, which covers most of the front panel. This allows you to operate it directly if desired, though many will prefer to control it using the Rose app from their phone or tablet. As well as displaying album covers, the display can simulate a vintage clock/radio, the front panel of a nineteen seventies FM tuner, or a pair of classic VU meters – lovely, fun, retro features. The FM tuner even produces simulated white noise between radio stations as you tune!
Inputs include USB Audio, USB 3, optical and coaxial digital, plus line level analogue. Output options include optical and coaxial, USB Audio, HDMI, and line-level unbalanced analogue. The latter are switchable fixed/variable with a maximum output of 2.2V. Given the huge range of features on offer, the unit itself is very compact and light, measuring 280x210x80mm and weighing just 3.2kg. The case is made from aluminium and is nicely finished. Okay, it hasn’t the sheer heft of some premium streamers, but it’s well made.
The Rose app works well enough once you get the hang of it. I used it with an Android phone and an Apple iPad. It seems the app was developed primarily for Android systems, and while it works with iOS, there may be some issues. For example, when streaming classical music releases using an iPad, the app does not always identify separate individual works within a group. Instead, you’re simply presented with a list of individual tracks that run consecutively.
I tried streaming the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, and chose Alfred Brendel’s recording on Decca. On the iPad, I just got 113 tracks in sequence with tempo indications – i.e. Allegro, Adagio, etc. – as though these were song titles. Important details like sonata number, key, opus number, and nickname (i.e. Pathetique or Moonlight) were not given. However, the same set accessed via the Rose app on my Android phone included all this information. So there’s clearly an app issue with iOS. I am told this should change once Apple rolls out the next update, so hopefully the problem will soon be eliminated.
While I mostly streamed using Qobuz or Tidal, it was good to be able to stream from YouTube. I can do this via my phone or computer but have never bothered to create a connection to allow playback via my hi-fi. Having internet radio was useful too. Nowadays, we have so much to listen to!
I was pleased the RS250 can read the file names given to the music I’d stored on an external hard drive. These files have the composer’s surname placed first, so things come up alphabetically. Alas, some streamers order files semi-randomly using hidden metadata, which is annoying. So, while some albums are listed in correct alphabetical order, many are not. It can order the files according to the hidden metadata too, if this is desired. So you haven’t lost that feature if it’s wanted.
For those interested in tweaking the sound, the RS250 allows several options. There are seven anti-aliasing filter settings, and it’s possible to resample the original sampling frequency from a choice of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz and 192kHz. To equalise relative loudness when going between different digital sources, you can alter levels individually by +/- 5dB. The phase of the analogue output can be inverted, and it’s possible to set the fixed analogue output between 100mV and 2.2V in preset steps of about 2dB or 3dB.
For serious headphone geeks seeking a perfect match, it’s possible to change the impedance of the headphone output socket between 16, 32, 50, and 100 ohms to achieve optimum matching. The RS250’s headphone output is very good quality too. While it can be used as a preamp to drive a power amp, the maximum output of 2.2V may be slightly on the low side for optimum results. Much depends on the sensitivity of the power amp and the efficiency of the loudspeakers. For this purpose, the RS150’s 4.5V output is better.
The RS250 sounds quite superb with a surprisingly clean and detailed presentation, given its middling price. Bass is taut, midband open with fine stereo imaging, and treble is crisp but devoid of glare. Indeed I would almost put it on a par with Auralic’s flagship Altair G2 DAC/streamer, which costs over twice as much. It seemed just a tad less dynamic and full sounding, very slightly thinner and less voluminous.
For example, trying the complete set of Beethoven violin sonatas with Isabelle Faust on Harmonia Mundi via Qobuz, and the violin sounded warmer, sweeter, and fuller on the Auralic, while piano was slightly richer and weightier. Yet it wasn’t a massive difference. While just about noticeable on a direct comparison, it hardly seems important after you’ve listened for an hour or so. Rather than a qualitative thing, it was more akin to the slight changes you hear when going between different digital anti-aliasing filters.
Speaking of which, the RS250 offers seven digital filter options. I tried comparing them, but sonically any differences seemed very small, and the changes weren’t that obvious. For whatever reason, the filter options on the Auralic Altair G2 made more of a difference to the sound. The latter offers four filter options. Most listeners seem to prefer the Smooth filter. The other variants tend to make the sound sharper and more incisive – like the RS250. So, while I slightly preferred the sound of the Altair G2, it wasn’t hugely better than the excellent RS250.
Playing The Beatles’ Abbey Road via Tidal MQA, I compared the Rose and Auralic streamers. Auralic doesn’t support MQA but seems to have its own way of unpacking MQA files. Playing these, the two streamers didn’t sound identical, but it was hard to say one was definitely better than the other. I felt the 24-bit/96kHz transfer of Abbey Road on Qobuz sounded a shade better than Tidal’s MQA version. But once again, the differences weren’t night and day. Only when going to the 16-bit/44.kHz CD-quality version was a loss of presence and dynamics really apparent.
Other than contrasting the extra sharpness of the RS250 against the sweeter and fuller sounding Altair G2, I couldn’t really home in on anything significant that would incline me to choose one over the other – that’s how good the HiFi Rose is. It would be better to base your choice on features, facilities, user interface, and price. Being a premium flagship product, the Auralic is more comparable to HiFi Rose’s premium-priced RS150. Yet, its much cheaper RS250 stands its ground sonically and beats it comfortably for extra features and facilities. As such, it has to be judged as excellent value.
I was quite taken aback with this bit of kit. The HiFi Rose RS250 is a hugely versatile device that does everything other streamers do and then some more. It is compact, stylish and very keenly priced given what you get. It sounds excellent too. I really loved it and could happily live with one.
An avid audiophile for many decades, Jimmy has been writing about hi-fi since 1980 in a host of British magazines, from What Hi-Fi to Hi-Fi Choice. Based in London, England, he’s one of the UK’s most prolific record and CD collectors – no streaming service can yet match his amazing music collection!
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