My time with the $1400 entry edition Hegel HD12 DAC left me so impressed that I now own it. Conflated with the overwhelmingly positive reception of Hegel's amplifiers and integrated amplifiers, the announcement that they were introducing a new flagship DAC, the HD30 as reviewed here, had me more than just a little interested. Once I learned that I would be doing this review, I emailed my request for more in-depth information than was shared in the press release or at the Hegel Music Systems website directly to Anders Ertzeid, Hegel's VP Sales & Marketing. His rapid and enthusiastic response to my questions about the technical aspects of the Hegel HD30 was more than just a bit disappointing. Mr. Ertzeid wrote:
"As for the chip-set's etc. – it's been a "Hegel thing" not to talk so much about that in our marketing, but rather speak of the implementation (knowing that the web doesn't say too much about that either). But it's no secret either.
We are using the newest AKM 4490 chip-set in dual mono configuration. The biggest update, though is the clock. Using the absolutely best crystals available and matching them perfectly with power supplies and driver transistors have reduced phase noise to incredibly low levels. So low that we had to tweak our Audio Precision AP1 instruments to allow it.
Furthermore, there is a lot of effort put into the power supplies. Both all discrete local voltage regulators throughout, but also in the sense that there are separate toroidal transformers for the analog and the digital stage.
The noisy USB and Network sections (as well as the toroidal's) are totally separated from the low noise sections. Allowing a noise floor reaching towards -150dB."
As if those declarations weren't enough, in the HD30's owner's manual, Bent Holter, founder of the company, says, "The HD30 is, without a doubt, HEGEL's most advanced product to date. In my humble opinion, it's the finest product ever created by HEGEL." By any measure, that is a strong statement.
Wanting for more, I started doing my own research. Sadly, I was not able to uncover much more, either from their site or from general web searches. But, let's consider the AKM 4490, which is a 762kHz/32-Bit stereo DAC built by Asahi Kasei Microdevices, based in Tokyo, Japan. These devices are both very well thought of in high-end audio circles, and in heavy rotation with some key players. Companies like Astell & Kern, Cayin, Denon, Kenwood, Onkyo, Schiit, and Teac use them in a wide variety of products, from AV Surround Receivers to Optical disc players, DACs, and portable HD Music players. More to the point, this is the core chipset used in a number of exceptional Optical Disc players, including the likes of SACD Players from Esoteric Audio, including the K-05X, K-07X, and Bryston's BDA-2 and BDA-3 DACs. The next step up, the AKM 4495, populates some of Esoteric's flagship products, such as the $14,000 K-03X and the superb $22,000 Grandioso D1 monoblock D/A converters – yes, that means $44,000 for stereo.
One design approach that is discussed at the website, even as sketchily as it is, is their attempt at managing "skirting," a form of jitter that manifests as additional noise in the immediate frequencies around a main tone. The subjective effects of this type of phase-noise are generally perceived as a lack of precision; a blurring of fine detail. Here, part of what Mr. Ertzeid discussed in his email to me comes into play. By employing a redeveloped and redesigned clocking process they call Super-Clock, which entails extremely careful and close matching of transistors with the clock crystal, they've realized some extremely low jitter levels. Yet, that's all they say about it, other than to assert that it affords a significant reduction of "skirting."
Beyond a number of other such generalizations, Hegel doesn't have much else to say about this device, or any others in current production for that matter. They cite several of these "house" technologies (like the aforementioned Super-Clock), but as indicated by Mr. Ertzeid's direct response, they really don't go into how they do what they do. As such, I'm left to focus on the build-quality, feature set, and sonic results of this effort, rather than the design. But believe me, that leaves plenty enough to discuss!
While the anodized aluminum case of the HD30 is impeccable constructed and beautifully finished, its appearance may be seen as more utilitarian that posh to many. The faceplate itself is not flat, but rather, slightly rounded left to right and top to bottom; sort of a section of a sphere. Its layout is fully symmetrical, with a 5" wide by 1" tall display centered left to right, but slightly below the center line vertically, with the HEGEL logo centered just above it. When powered on, the blue lit display shows selected input (AES, BNC, CO1, OP1, OP2, OP3, USB, NET) in the left half, while the volume attenuation (1-100, with 101 displayed when set to volume bypass) is displayed to the right. An inch-and-a-half diameter knob, one each, immediately to the display's left and right, control input selection (left), and the volume (right).
Moving to the back, we see three distinct sections left to right, analog outputs, digital inputs, and AC. Outputs are grouped by right (XLR and RCA) and left (RCA and XLR), so the single-ended outputs are side by side, while the balanced outputs are outside each of the RCA jacks. The digital inputs are grouped as AES/EBU, BNC, Coax1, Optical 1, Optical 2, and Optical 3. Next is a 3.5 mm IR Input jack (for external control cable), an up/down USB Mode selector. When up, in the A position, you have the default plug & play mode, supporting up to 96kHz and 24-bit, while down, the B position, supports up to 192kHz and 24 bits resolution, and native DSD64/128. That is followed by the USB and RJ-45 network cable inputs. The final section to the right, includes the fuse block, the on/off toggle switch and the IEC socket.
The remote is much more serious that that included with the HD12; 6.25" long, 1.625" wide, and just under 0.75" thick, milled out of metal, and sporting 15 small, 1/8" diameter round buttons, arranged in five rows of three. The top row of three, Prev, Play, and Next, are set to work with your server, and they worked just fine with mine, a home brew Dell OptiPlex (Intel i5, 256 GB SSD HD, 8GB RAM, and all music libraries stored on external drives), using JRiver 21. The next 12 buttons include: DAC+, ECO, DISP, Prev, Play, Next, In+, Stop, Vol+, In-, Mute, Vol-, and control various aspects of the input selection, display functionality, and volume.
I tested connecting my HD30 to my wired network, which brought almost instant results. The unit is set up to work with DHCP on networks, and automatically received an IP-address from my router. A quick look in my connected devices now showed "Hegel HD30 XXXXXX, with the Xes being the last six digits of the HD30 MAC address. It was that simple. The Hegel HD30 supports Apple's AirPlay, and can function as a DLNA Digital Media Renderer, receiving and playing media files from a UPnP/DLNA compatible media player supporting PCM (WAV/AIFF), FLAC, Ogg and MP3.
As my music server set up is optimized for playback of files directly from a four terabyte storage drive, not a NAS, I didn't really spend any time testing any of the streaming functionality: I will leave that up to someone else to comment upon. Further, given Apple iTunes constrained ability to only playMP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC and Apple Lossless (.m4a) files natively, I'd say the convenience is overshadowed. You'd be forgoing much of the sonic quality this DAC can render using AirPlay.
It delivers an exciting and engaging sense of midrange bloom and body that is more shockingly reminiscent of really great analog than I had expected. This was very welcomed, as it created an incredibly realistic sense of physical size, location, and "space" as good as, or slightly better, than most any DAC I can recall hearing for nearly twice its asking price. One of the reasons I'm such a die-hard vinyl fan is that, by comparison, even "high-resolution" digital audio sounds hard, strained, glassy, congested, and flat. While the HD30 doesn't completely transcend this common digital barrier (like the spectacular Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series) if affords an exceptionally large measure of it.
This new Hegel further treated me to the most remarkable degree of extension, detail, and resolve in the uppermost octaves. Yet as rife with detail and sparkle as it is, this topmost frequency range is portrayed in an undisputedly relaxed fashion that is extremely captivating, again surprisingly reminiscent of a good analog playback system.
Listening to the DSD64 download of the Santana cover of the Fleetwood Mac song (written in 1968 by guitarist Peter Green), "Black Magic Woman" from Santana's 1971 jazz, Afro-Caribbean, blues influenced rock masterpiece Abraxas, was almost revelatory. Through the HD30, it so closely mimicked both the exposure of inner detail and overall resolution I hear when playing the Mobile Fidelity LP that I played both, head-to-head to confirm my astonishment. Michael Shrieve's grooving conga and timbale work (using licks he'd nicked from the obscure B.B. King Plays The Cha Cha album) was stunningly accentuated within the dense tapestry of the rest of this unique mix, affording astonishing imagery and a very lifelike sound.
You may have noticed how often I referred to the fact that the HD30 evoked a strong similarity to good analog as I worked through my evaluation – I know I sure did! So, as I tried to put my finger on just what it was that makes this new entrant from Norway so special, it became clear. In a single word, it comes down to resolution. While some struggle with that word, I want to be clear on what it means to me. Many use descriptors like fast, detailed, resolute, or even transparent to describe resolution, when in truth, what they are hearing is overly bright, super-detailed, incisive, and/or hyper-analytical. This "faux" resolution comes at expense of naturalness, that sense of organic-ness or musicality.
I feel it safe to say that most of us don't like bright, super-detailed, incisive, or hyper-analytical "sound." But then again, that isn't true resolution. Resolution does not mean bright or super-detailed. True resolution reveals and uncovers detail and nuance. This includes microdynamic subtitles like extremely fine transient detail, or rendering the subtleties of instrumental tone color and texture. It is indicative of an enhanced ability to follow a single instrumental line deep within dense and convoluted arrangements or a starker sense of the space around instrumental images within the soundstage. True resolution comes from elevated clarity realized by improvements and progressive design achievement that lead to lower distortion, all working to allow the unmasking of previously obscured information, not by enhancing or emphasizing any particular bandwidth or frequency range. In short, I would use the term unmasking to characterize resolution: never terms like bright or detailed, which, while those may be artifacts of less-effective design choices, do nothing to influence resolution.
But resolve is something at which the HD30 excels, and seemingly so effortlessly; in fact, at levels well above what I would expect in its price class. Honestly, based on its sonic performance alone, I would have put its price at $8000, or even $10,000! It is such an astonishing sonic over-achiever that I don't see this DAC leaving my system any time soon.
The new HD30 flagship DAC from Hegel of Norway is one exceptional device. After living with it in place for some extended time, I find myself in full concurrence with Hegel founder Bent Holter's statements as to the significance of this product release in the Hegel constellation of devices. Its combination of exquisitely rendered tone (from subterranean depths to stratospheric reaches), complex and exacting texture, dynamic expressiveness (micro and especially macro!), relaxed, natural yet detailed, vivid, and comprehensive presentation, class-exceeding resolution, and spacious, focused staging and imaging, make it an over-achieving super star. All I can say is that you should not buy a DAC, not even at twice the Hegel HD30's asking price, without auditioning it first! It's your money, and you've been warned!
If you are a die-hard analog hound like me, or have just eschewed using a digital playback system for whatever reason (as I did until about three years ago), this may be the perfect time, and most affordable device, to get you into remarkably satisfying, enjoyable digital playback. The Hegel HD30 has changed how I look at (and listen to) DACs under $8000. I can't imagine you could find anything to quibble with at its price... You will be one satisfied music lover.