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.
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....
WojciechPacuła: How can I open the Super DAC?
What's the difference from the HD11?
What was your main objective with the Super?
Which headphones did you use to tune it?
What kind of software player did you use?
Is this an asynchronous or synchronous DAC?
Hegel'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.
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.
The 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.