Norwegian audio manufacturer Hegel has established itself as a serious player in the high performance audio world with its remarkable lineup of integrated, pre, and power amplifiers. When I learned that they were introducing a new DAC, to bridge the performance between their $1200 entry-level HD11 DAC and their engaging $2500 flagship DAC, the HD25 at $1400 would be warmly welcomed. Another eye-opener is the Hegel HD25 is their first DAC to accommodate DSD files. Naturally I was more than just a little curious to give it a spin.
The USB mode selector switch offers two
positions; A (up), for plug & play mode up to 96kHz/24-bit playback, and
position B (down), allows for 192kHz/24-bit and
native DSD64. Position B requires the installation of the ASIO drivers
(downloadable from the Hegel HD12 Support website) to allow for this more
versatile playback. Further, position B permits truly native DSD64 playback, not
DSD over PCM (DoP). DSD over PCM packs the DSD file into a PCM-like signal for
bit streaming. This works in a similar way to how AC3 is packed into a PCM-like
signal for S/PDIF surround sound output. This is a real advantage for a DAC in
this surprisingly affordable price range.
Included is a smallish, flat, bubble-button type
remote, measuring 1.5" wide by 3 3/8" tall and 0,.25" thick, with six rows of
three buttons each, and is a multi-function remote that can control other Hegel
gear as well. As such, the top four rows of buttons have no effect on the HD12
whatsoever. Row five offers a Skip Back, Pause, and Skip Forward button that
work with many media players or computers; in fact, they were functional with my
HAL MS-2 Music Server running JRiver Media Center 20. The very bottom row (row
six) controls the input selection (cycle only, no direct selection) and the
volume (+ or -) on the HD12.
To say that the HD12 is sparsely featured would
be the severest of understatements. As I've mentioned, other than being able to
cycle through inputs (on power up the HD12 auto defers to the last used input)
and control the volume from the remote, you are pretty much a bystander with
this DAC. It has no provisions for displaying the word size or bit depth of the
actively streaming files, no polarity inversion function, no display settings,
no active streaming indicator, literally nothing else. In fact, the only
feedback you get from the large blue digital display on the front panel is the
input selection (USB, CO.1, OP.1, or OP.2), or the volume setting (0 to 100).
Not being a company to follow anyone else's lead, the Chipset at the heart of
the HD12 is the AKM4399 from Asahi Kasei Microdevices. While the ESS Sabre and
Burr-Brown chipsets are enjoying their day in the sun, AKM devices are what you
find under the hood of many pricier DACs from the likes of Esoteric Audio and is
a favorite of DIY'ers and Modder's the world 'round.
Mids are richly vibrant, fairly replete in tonal color and texture, and are created with a bloom and body that is, again, somewhat above and beyond what I've come to expect from a DAC in this price range. The result is that you get voices (human and instrumental) that are rendered with nice body, yet have a large helping of tonal purity, while being rich in their timber. The palpability of Johnny Cash's distinctive and brooding voice from "Bird on a Wire" from his 1994 American Recordings (American) was downright spooky real! The vibrancy of his voice is closely matched by the body and lucidity of his solo guitar from that same piece. In this regard, the HD12 really seems to knock on the doors of some rather exceptional gear from the $3000 to $5000 range.
High frequency reproduction is an unexpected treat. The bandwidth above 3.5 kHz is presented with surprisingly analog-like ease and a sense of air, affording an atypical effortlessness. While the characteristic hardness and unwelcomed artifacts that routinely accompany digital playback are present, they are significantly diminished when compared to other DACs in this price range. The inability to present the upper-most registers in a truly natural manner, and with no vestige of grain or glare, is typically one of the biggest failings of DACs in general, and of those in the sub $2500 price range in particular. It is often an obstacle that is quite challenging for such affordable digital equipment to transcend. Yet here the HD12 makes remarkable progress over its competition.
To get an idea of just how articulate the Hegel
is, I listened to "Sultan's of Swing" from the Dire Straits 1978 freshman
eponymous outing. With the HD12 in place, the clarity and articulation of the
ride cymbal work was refreshingly audible, with little of the typical "whitish"
character one normally has to accept from DACs in this price range. I honestly
cannot name another DAC at anywhere near this price that can come this close to
what that ride cymbal sounds like when playing my original vinyl pressing.
Another area where the HD12 truly excels is in its ability to resolve inner
detail and microdynamic shading. I'm not describing those take-your-head-off,
etched or shrill high frequency artifacts some mistake for resolution, but
rather, I'm talking about its uncanny ability to differentiate and clearly
present the subtleties of fingering on key or fret boards, valving on a trumpet
or sax, or the finesse applied to lightly and adroitly brushed drum skins. This
heightened degree of resolve allows for clearer, more direct communication of
the artist's intent when creating the music, and therefore leads to augmented
involvement and greater emotional impact for us, the listener.
Subtle noises, things like an audience member cough or the house air conditioning, are rendered so clearly that the subconscious is not distracted by them, allowing for a much more engaging and mentally unencumbered musical experience. The mind easily identifies such sounds as what they are and is not sidetracked trying to decipher them. Without this remarkable ability to clearly present such cues, these sounds are not readily discernible, forcing the brain to try to identify them, thereby drawing undue and undesirable attention to itself, distracting from the flow and message of the musical composition. This combination of overachieving musical resolution and bloom for its class allow for a remarkably earnest soundstage size, left to right and front to back, slightly more so than vertically, as well as surprisingly solid image specificity and size. I was repeatedly surprised by how successfully this DAC accomplished the illusion of recreating a live event in my room, pulling me completely into the performance.
Let The Music Sing!
As I've highlighted, the copious feature deficit of the Hegel HD12 is more than offset by its remarkable sonic acumen. While the chassis and feature set are austere, the music this little DAC recreates is consistently absorbing and vibrant. It successfully combines an unexpectedly smooth broadband presentation, atypical resolution and focus, remarkably open and effortless high frequency performance, fast and deep low frequency response, surprisingly honest tonal color and body, and a pulse elevating sense of pace, rhythm, and timing. I don't know about you, but I've heard hundreds of DACs under the $2500 price range. In my experience, this level of musical engagement is virtually impossible to find in any other DAC I've heard for this low an investment. Hegel has elevated the bar here as this is one exceedingly musical DAC for the asking price.
Hegel has constructed an exceptional gift for the audiophile who prizes performance above cosmetics or bells and whistles. While I love a sexy, classically sculpted machine whose looks alone can instill a sense of pride of ownership as much as the next audiophile, as a music lover, I have no problem accepting a solid, modest looking device that places exemplary performance above mere cosmetics and a myriad of buttons. This unpretentious little DAC punches well above its weight-class, making it a clear contender in the middle-lightweight division. While you clearly won't mistake this splendid performer for an über-DAC from the likes of Esoteric or Berkeley, you just may find, as I did, that it runs quite comfortably with some much bigger dogs... Hegel, my check is on its way. I'm buyin' this one!