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December 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere!
Hegel SUPER USB DAC / Headphone Amplifier
A great sounding no muss, no fuss USB DAC for only $399!
Photos By Bartosz Łuczak / Piksel Studioy
Review By Wojciech Pacuła

 

Hegel SUPER USB DAC / Headphone Amplifier  Auditioning expensive audio components, surrounding oneself with high- and top high-end systems is the crème de la crème of audiophilism. That is what we are all aiming at, what we were all born for. Most all of us, anyway. Naturally, there are also so-called "lesser" milestones or turning points, every music-listener's breakthrough experiences when we have a kind of epiphany, which has nothing to do with the amount of money spent. It's just that as soon as we have taken in this new – for us – experience of the absolute, it turns out to have been an incomplete absolute, partial, so to speak. It is only now that we see what can be really done with the sound and how our recordings can really sound. If we are prepared go a little further, that is.

In retrospect, I see that the higher we climb the ladder firmly anchored up there to the never unattainable "live" sound, the longer the intervals between such epiphanies. I sincerely hope that they never end and that there will always be something new and interesting before me; maybe even better. Yet now I know one thing: in the stratosphere it's hard to generate adequate wing lift and to climb even an inch requires an enormous effort – both in the cognitive and financial sense.

What I have just described is, for me, the essence of my chosen way of life and the essence of our hobby, at which core is the pursuit of the most perfect reproduction of our beloved music. From this point of view, all that counts is what brings us closer to the ideal, what pushes us there. Nothing else matters; it is for… well, actually, for whom?

From the outside, most of our actions seem idiotic at best. They may even border on quackery from the perspective of people who are "out", not familiar with the reality and not knowing that what they listen to every day is garbage served in a garbage way. What I mean is special cables, anti-vibration boards or better power supplies, just to stay with those easiest to hit upon. The sad thing is that many people who can hear the difference during a well-prepared audition do not want to accept it in their consciousness, looking for easy excuses to their schizophrenia. On the other hand, it is encouraging that so many new, mostly young, music listeners recognize some value in audiophilism, giving themselves a chance to enter a whole different world.

Hegel SUPER USB DAC / Headphone AmplifierHowever, to make it possible the audio world must open up to them, lure them in with something. The things seem to primarily come into play: the ease of use and modern design. A third, unnamed, is seamless integration with computers. A good sound is a sine qua non condition. The latter, which is the main objective for classic audiophiles, should be initially somehow hidden and not as much exposed as we normally experience with such things. Straight up, it is actually off-putting. Audio manufactures don't usually handle that problem very well. Naturally, they do their best but sooner or later they seem to lack recognition of the two above conditions: an attractive modern design and the ease of use. Both result from misunderstanding the customers who need to be convinced to swap their computer sound cards for something better. The former condition was defined by Steve Jobs in the form of the iPod, then iPhone and iPad. Regardless of what has since been invented, they are the reference point. With the latter, the ease of use follows directly from the former. iWorld is a reality, even if it is primarily a virtual reality.

There was no indication that Norwegian Hegel would break away from the "hard core" audio. While a similar previous move by Arcam and its series of components initiated by the rDAC had largely been successful, Hegel was perceived as the mainstay of classic design approach – big black boxes and high-quality sound at the expense of attractive enclosure design. Even the components with the best chance to migrate from audio onto the desks of "normal" people, the HD series DACs, did not veer away from that. Their great advantage was a great sound and something at their core: they were very close to the computer world, the source of music for the vast majority of today listeners. That was the basis of Hegel engineers' idea for the Super. They couldn't come up with a more meaningful name. Even before seeing the unit, we know that the expectations were set high and knowing Norwegians' ambitions they did their best to not let the name be "empty".

 

A Few Word From....
Anders Ertzeid of Hegel

WojciechPacuła: How can I open the Super DAC?
Anders Ertzeid: You cannot open it. It is glued together. ;)

What's the difference from the HD11?
It is a completely new DAC and very different from the HD11. The SUPER is fully built as a headphone DAC.

What was your main objective with the Super?
The aim was to design a device that was extremely low noise, and one that put out a flat frequency response regardless of headphones connected.

Which headphones did you use to tune it?
We did not tune it. That is the key. Most manufacturers tune headphone amp their product is fit A Certain headphone. This is something the feel is a fundamentally wrong approach. With the SUPER you actually get to hear the headphones, not a combination of different EQ's. So a lot of the research was spent on designing the correct output stage.

What kind of software player did you use?
You can use whatever software you want with the SUPER. It has a generic USB driver.

Is this an asynchronous or synchronous DAC?
This runs adaptive. Asynchronous does not work and actually adds jitter. It is just marketing ;)

 

Description
The Super is a D/A converter with an USB input and headphone amplifier. The manufacturer calls it a "Headphone Amplifier", which is obviously only partly true, but is the first indication of Hegel engineers' intentions. If we were to ask a young person – say a friend of our child – if he or she wanted to listen to a "D/A converter with an USB input and headphone amplifier", they would take off from our house faster than we can say "Cowabunga!" They might be afraid we were harassing them. Headphones, on the other hand, is something everyone has heard about and most use them, either with portable players or computers. A "Headphone Amplifier" is therefore, I assume, much more palatable as it relates directly to everyday experience. It doesn't really matter that to hook up the Super we need a micro USB digital cable as it is familiar to everyone who – again – uses a computer or a cell phone charger with a mini USB. Hence, "Headphone Amplifier" is a user-friendly name and description. Equally user-friendly, or modern, is its exterior. It may come as a shock to every audiophile who expects a sizeable component with a classic look only to find within the line of sight a tiny rectangular aluminum box the size of a Zippo lighter, easily held in a clenched fist. The top panel sports a deeply etched company logo and it is the only "macho-like" element. On one short side we have a micro USB input while the other features a 3.5 mm headphone mini-jack output. That's it.

Hegel SUPER USB DAC / Headphone AmplifierHegel's installation is a snap – just hook it up to the computer using a USB to mini-USB cable and a native driver will be automatically loaded. It makes no difference if it's a Mac, which is visually a great fit for the Super, or a PC. The latter does not need a dedicated driver as the Norwegian DAC accepts audio signal up to 24 bits and 96 kHz and is USB audio Class 1 compliant. This was one of the two strategic decisions to be taken by the DAC's designer, Bent Holter. In the audiophile world but also in the world of computers the aim is to expand audio capabilities and 32-bit/384kHz DACs with DSD decoding are not uncommon. However, they require installing a dedicated driver, which contrasts with the idea of ​​a "user-friendly" component. The second design decision was not to include a built-in volume control. Playback volume can naturally be changed but only on the computer end, for example by moving the software player's volume bar. This kind of treatment is considered "non-kosher" as it means digital signal processing that decreases real signal resolution. Yet it seems to meet the requirements and expectations of people spending most of their time in front of computers. They would treat the Super as a kind of external sound card. It is up to Hegel's engineers to adjust the circuit gain so that only the upper section of volume control is used for the lowest possible loss of resolution.

 

Testing Methodology
The Super is a USB DAC that is powered by a USB cable, thus not requiring an external power supply. There are obvious drawbacks to that, which can of course be addressed but only when really necessary – giving up the simplicity of plug and play for a more extended system. During the review, the DAC/amplifier was connected to a HP Pavilion dv7 laptop with 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD and 520GB HDD, running Windows 8 and JPLAY/foobar2000 software players. The Super was compared to the ASUS Xonar Essence STU converter/headphone amplifier. The reference system consisted of the Bakoon HPA-21 headphone amplifier and the Mytek 192 DSD DAC. The computer was hooked up via the Acoustic Revive USB-1.0PLS cable and a classic USB cable included with Apple's devices. As I mentioned before, power supply can be upgraded. I used the BPM – Battery Powered Module from Elijah Audio. What about the headphones used? Here you go: the Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, the Beyerdynamic DT-770 Limited Edition, the Sennheiser HD800, the HiFiMAN HE-300, the AKG K701, the AKG K3003, the KEF M500 and the Harman Kardon CL. The last two cans were used to see how the amplifier works with the kind of headphones it is most likely to be paired with; the others were used to determine its current load capacity and what it is really capable of.

 

Sound
From the above selection of headphones, two pairs sounded clearly the best, one sounded poor and the others did fairly well, yet without evoking any special emotions in me. In this group, I treated differently the two pairs from KEF and Harman/Kardon, manufacturers specializing in other fields, as they are primarily lifestyle headphones. They actually sounded surprisingly good and fit the amplifier stylistically, and can be used to set up a great system. Only that the Norwegian baby is capable of much, much more.

The headphones that definitely sounded the best come from two seemingly different worlds: the Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro and the AKG K701. The former have the impedance of 600 Ohm and the latter 62 Ohm. Their sensitivity is, however, so different that playback volume seemed almost the same. With both I could set the foobar2000 volume bar at -5dB, which was the lowest attenuation in the whole group. The Beyerdynamic sounded brilliantly, despite their age (I have had them for some 15 years). Their resolution was not as good as that of the Sennheiser, and the bass extension not as low as that of the HiFiMAN, but their overall tonal balance, soundstage presentation and color were great. The Hegel surprised me with its gentleness of handling the music material. The treble with these headphones was clear and selective but at the same time vibrant. The cymbals had substantial thickness and were not just tings, which often happens with inexpensive amplifiers. Another surprise was the overall tonal balance, quite low with both pairs of cans, giving a sense of naturalness, dense midrange and nice bass. The latter did not extend too deep with any of the headphones. The HE-300 that sounded strongest in that range were capable of showing deep synthesizer growls on Depeche Mode's album "Delta Machine" in an attractive way, but there was no question of a clear focus and selectivity of bass. The 32-Ohm Beyerdynamic DT-770 turned out to be much better in this respect and sounded really interesting. They were very clean and had a great focus and punch. Their problem was that they required more volume attenuation which was reflected in the poorer dynamics of sound and foreground presentation, with slightly flattened vocals. The same was also true with the K3003.

With the two headphones that the Super came out really great, the sound was a lot like that from fully-sized headphone amplifiers and high-quality DACs. Coupling it with a good USB cable and the Bakoon battery power supply pushed it even further. By the end of audition it was not hard for me to imagine listening to this setup during my everyday writing, not only during this review.

Hegel SUPER USB DAC / Headphone AmplifierThe unit turns out excellent sound with 24 bit audio files, preferably with a 96 kHz sampling frequency. Of course it is also very good with 44.1 kHz. Somewhat surprising was the fact that the DAC did not accept 88.2 kHz files which I have plenty, for example from ECM and ACT. Naturally, there is a way to overcome this by simply using classic Windows drivers instead of JPLAY and ASIO control, and the computer will automatically convert the files to 96 kHz (if that's the value set in the audio properties window). That is, however, a step back in terms of sound quality. Returning to the subject – high resolution audio files sounded very well-balanced and deep. What's more, the DAC fantastically differentiated various recordings, showing changes of color and often also of dynamics. Resolution was good, although the larger components were significantly better in this particular respect.

Most important for me was the way the Super built tension and created (or re-created) something "beyond" music, which resulted in an enchantment, reflection and a gentle "entry" into another world. It was further aided by surprisingly good imaging of instruments on the soundstage. I often deal with the flattening of audio holography, ending up with 2D where 3D would seem absolutely natural. The Hegel does not do that. While neither the DT-990 Pro nor the K701 are the masters of localization and great soundstage separation, they are capable of conveying a sensible whole that appeals to our imagination. Based on that, we can build the "image" of the event in our mind.

 

Conclusion
There is no need to make a fuss where it makes absolutely no sense. The Hegel Super does not need such "support". It is small and looks terrific, is extremely easy to use and it sounds great! It is gentle in the treble and saturated in the midrange. The bass does not extend very deep, but with properly chosen headphones we will have a meaty mid-bass and lower midrange, which is more than sufficient to create a credible presentation. What is surprising is a combination of great differentiation and fullness, which is quite uncommon with USB DACs. All in all, it is an extremely successful unit.

 

 

Specifications
Type: 96kHz/24-bit USB DAC
Input: USB micro 
Outputs: 3.5mm mini-jack for analog and optical mini-jack for digital 
Noise floor: -140dB 
Output impedance: Below 1 Ohm 
Dimensions: 0.6" x 1.6" x 3.2" (HxWxD)
Price: $399

 

Company Information
Hegel Music Systems 
P.O. Box 2
Torshov 
NO-0412 Oslo
Norway

Voice: +47 22 60 56 60
Fax: +47 22 69 91 56 
E-mail: info@hegel.com
Website: www.Hegel.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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