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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 December 2015 15 December 2015
In typical Norwegian fashion, Hegel Music Systems’ claims about their products are usually reserved. When one of their products is flat-out fantastic and deserves some sort of rave, they might say something like “We think it’s pretty good.” From what I’ve heard, bragging is bad form in Norway. Likewise, their products’ looks are simple and understated. Anders Ertzeid, Hegel’s director of sales and marketing, summed up the company’s design philosophy in a SoundStage! InSight video we posted online in April: “We don’t have a lot of nonsense knobs and lights. We don’t have any nonsense in the sound. It is what it is.”
So when I caught wind of a new digital-to-analog converter that Hegel was actually boasting about -- that it’s a true “reference” component that can be held up against the best anywhere -- my ears perked up. It seemed so . . . un-Hegelian, even un-Norwegian. Immediately, I sent off an e-mail to Hegel that basically said, Send one over. And they did: the new HD30, priced at $4800 USD.
Past Hegel DACs have come in small cases typically about half the width of a typical audio component, and sometimes smaller. The HD30 is their first standard-size DAC, measuring 16.75”W x 3.9”H (including feet) x 12.1”D (including knobs and connectors) -- about the same dimensions as their H80 DAC-integrated amplifier, and with looks just as spare: all that’s on the front panel are Source and Volume knobs flanking a blue LED display. The case is all aluminum, anodized black or silver. Not surprisingly, given its larger size, the HD30 is heavier than its sibling DACs, at 14.3 pounds; the next DAC down in Hegel’s line, the HD25 ($2500), weighs just 7 pounds.
The build quality of my review sample looked very good, with excellent fit’n’finish -- the anodizing of the aluminum panels looked flawless. To many, its appearance will be fine, particularly if sound quality is the No.1 goal, as it usually is for audiophiles. But I could see some who prefer a component with serious bulk and bling (see Jeff Fritz’s SoundStage! Ultra editorial this month, “High-End Audio and Well-Made Things”) finding the HD30 too understated and lightweight, particularly as there are DACs on the market that cost less but look like more -- and weigh a lot more, too. A perfect example is the Wadia di322, which is bigger and quite a bit heavier (25 pounds) than the HD30, but costs $1300 less. Jeff just reviewed the di322, and praised its build quality, styling, and weight almost as much as he did its sound. (I’ve seen the di322 and admire its beautiful casework, but haven’t yet heard it.) You’ll have to decide if Hegel’s simpler, more understated approach better suits you.
Hegel says that the HD30 uses two AK4490 DAC chips made by Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM) in a dual-mono configuration, and that they’ve designed a new master clock to improve timing accuracy and reduce phase noise. This, Hegel claims, heightens detail and enhances imaging, and improves the HD30’s streaming abilities over those of their first streaming product, the H160 DAC-integrated.
Then there’s the size of the case itself, which doesn’t exist simply so the Hegel folks can brag about this DAC coming in a bigger box, but so the designers could improve the HD30’s sound with refinements in the selection and arrangement of parts: “With careful layout, separate power supplies for the ‘noisy’ and ‘not noisy’ areas, and careful distancing to the transformers, we have achieved a noise floor approaching -150dB.” A noise floor of -150dB is incredibly low -- lower than any power amplifier or preamplifier I know of, and even lower than the self-noise of most test equipment -- which is why Hegel claims that they had to improve their measuring system before they could accurately measure the HD30. The DAC’s total harmonic distortion is specified at a very low 0.0005%, though this figure does not specify the bandwidth or output conditions.
Nor is the HD30 stingy in terms of connectivity. On its rear panel are balanced and single-ended analog outputs, an Ethernet jack for AirPlay and DLNA streaming, an IR input, and seven digital inputs: RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, USB, and three optical. The feature-rich remote control not only controls things like volume level, input selection, and the HD30’s display, but can also control some features of compatible playback softwares on your computer, such as play, pause, stop, track skip, etc.
As Apple AirPlay is inherently limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM playback, Hegel couldn’t do anything to make it handle high-resolution recordings. However, the HD30’s DLNA support will handle up to 24/192. I don’t use AirPlay -- I’m Windows- and Android-based -- but I was able to easily test the HD30’s DLNA capabilities: I already had a UPnP-compatible network-attached storage (NAS) device on my system that houses a large part of my music collection in the forms of FLAC and WAV files. (DLNA and UPnP, though not exactly the same, are closely related. Many articles online explain both, and how they’re similar.)
I attached an Ethernet cable to the HD30, which showed up on my network a few seconds later. Next, on my Samsung S5 smartphone, I opened the controller app BubbleUPnP (many such apps are available, but this one is popular and works well) and, under the Library option, selected my NAS device, which allowed me to see my albums and songs. After that, I selected the HD30 as the Renderer. Finally, I highlighted a song and pushed the Play icon. Presto -- in less than a minute I was streaming music from my NAS device directly to the HD30 without having to involve my computer -- super handy!
Provided my network drive was already spinning, songs began playing quickly and without glitches. Sometimes, if my drive was stopped (most drives park themselves after a certain number of minutes of no use, to reduce wear), it would take a few seconds to get up to speed before the song began -- in those cases, I occasionally heard static-like clicks until the stream was fully locked on. But those were problems with the drive, not the HD30. In the HD30’s manual, Hegel recommends using the fastest drives possible -- and my NAS device is slow. I tested music files of every resolution from 16/44.1 to 24/192, FLAC and WAV. All worked fine.
Next to the HD30’s USB input is a switch with two positions, labeled A and B. In the A position, the factory default, the HD30 will connect to an Apple computer and stream PCM up to 24/192, or to a Windows-based computer and stream PCM up to 24/96, without needing extra software -- true plug’n’play. The B position, which I tried after listening to A for a while, adds DSD64/128 capability (Apple), and PCM up to 24/192 and DSD64/128 (Windows) -- provided you’ve downloaded and installed the appropriate driver for your operating system from Hegel’s website. Which I had.
The HD30’s six other inputs all support PCM up to 24/192, but I didn’t use them. All of the listening described below was via Ethernet or USB -- and I heard no difference between them.
A bit about DSD playback, which some audiophiles feel is superior to PCM: Doing an apples-with-apples comparison of PCM and DSD is difficult because of the differences in the masterings for the two formats of the same recordings. For example, on my server I have the Holly Cole Trio’s Girl Talk (Alert) as 16/44.1 FLAC files and as DSD64 DSF files; it was easy enough to switch between them using JRiver Media Center 20 and determine that, indeed, they did sound quite different from each other through the HD30. The thing is, I know Peter J. Moore, who recorded, mixed, and mastered the 16/44.1 version; and I know René Laflamme, who remastered Moore’s original recording for DSD. I’ve talked to both about this release, and have learned that the masters for each format sound very different because they were created on different equipment. It’s impossible to use an album like this to judge the relative qualities of PCM and DSD playback. I believe that’s true of many, if not most, albums available in both formats. Therefore, all I’ll say here is that I’m glad that the HD30 handles PCM and DSD; I’ll withhold judgment on this latest format war until I can compare apples with apples.
Finally, the HD30’s digital volume control has 101 increments, numbered “1” to “101.” The topmost position, “101,” actually bypasses the volume control completely, and is where you’d set the HD30 when using it with a traditional preamplifier, which you’d then use to control the system’s volume. Once you’ve set the HD30’s volume control to “101,” it will still be set to “101” every time you turn the HD30 back on after powering it off. Other handy things you can do with the HD30’s volume control include being able to set a custom startup level and a maximum volume level. The former can prevent your speakers from being blown up if someone turns up the volume very high, then doesn’t turn it down before powering off the HD30.
But with the HD30 including both volume control and input switching, it’s possible to forgo a traditional preamp altogether and plug the Hegel straight into a power amp. That’s what I did after I got my first impressions of the HD30’s sound with Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 740P preamplifier -- and the sound improved (more about this below). Because I use balanced interconnects throughout my system, running a long interconnect from the HD30 to my amp wasn’t a problem.
In 1982, Sony briefly used the slogan “Perfect Sound Forever” to market the Compact Disc. Like many back then, I thought the CDs I was buying were as good as CDs would ever get, and that they’d last, if not forever, then damn close to it. As many of us learned, all of this was far from the truth. Most CDs released in the 1980s sounded awful, which in hindsight shouldn’t have been all that surprising -- after all, the technology was in its infancy. And although the reliability of CDs was very good from the start, nothing lasts forever, even with meticulous care. I’ve had some CDs that just stopped playing after several years, for no apparent reason. I’ve replaced some of the discs I bought back then, either because much-better-sounding versions had since been released, or because my first copies no longer played at all. However, I still have some early CDs that I rely on for reviewing purposes.
One CD from back then has never stopped working, and as far as I know, no better-sounding version of it was ever released: the soundtrack album for the film The Mission (CD, Virgin CDV 2402), released in 1986. I bought the CD in 1987 and consistently used it for 25 years. Then, a few years ago, I ripped it to my NAS device as 16/44.1 FLAC files for safekeeping, and to use for computer playback. That CD -- it still works, by the way -- has been a valuable reviewing tool: I’ve listened to it with almost every digital source component I’ve owned or reviewed in all those years, and time and again I’ve marveled at how much more musical information I can hear from it today than when I first bought it.
Although I listen for various things in all of the tracks, I most often turn to track 3, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” mainly for the timpani at the beginning. When I first bought the disc, I had trouble hearing the subtlest notes and rolls, or any sort of ambience around these instruments, unless I turned the volume way up. Even then, those details never shone through. It was also difficult to judge just how far back on the stage the timpani were placed -- I could tell they were behind all of the other instruments in the orchestra, but how far wasn’t clear -- room cues seemed to be getting lost. But as the quality of digital sources improved, the subtlest mallet strokes became far easier to hear even at very low volume levels, and with a degree of presence I hadn’t known was there. I also found that the ambience surrounding the drums became more readily apparent, their position on the soundstage was more precisely audible, and the stage deepened substantially. The resolution capabilities of digital sources were obviously improving.
When Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport came along ($8000 when I reviewed it in 2012, now $9000), I thought it revealed every detail on this recording -- the 650D was a champ at turning an aural microscope on recordings. But time has marched on, and the HD30 has upped the ante -- those subtle timpani strokes and rolls are even more individually apparent, with even greater ambience around the instruments, which heightens the strokes’ palpability, and more accurately indicates the drums’ position on the stage. The HD30 also surprised me by delivering an even deeper stage overall: soundstage depth was one of the 650D’s strengths -- I never thought it would be beat. What’s more, this was all with Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 740P preamp in the chain. When I removed the 740P and its interconnects and drove the HD30 straight into the Moon Evolution 870A or the Audio Research GS150 power amplifier, the palpability, clarity, detail, soundstage depth, and imaging precision all increased by tiny bits more.
I heard similar improvements with “Percussive Piano,” from Blue Rodeo’s Diamond Mine (16/44.1 FLAC, WEA) -- which, like two other parts of this album, does not appear in the track list; it’s hidden as part of track 9. This 1989 album was remastered and reissued on CD in 2012, and sounds much better and more detailed than the original version, which I also have on CD. Yet despite owning the remaster, I still use the original CD (and, now, the files ripped from it) for reviews; like The Mission, it’s been a constant through the long parade of digital source components that has marched through my various listening rooms -- and, as with The Mission, today I can hear more from Diamond Mine than I could 26 years ago.
Similar to the timpani in “Gabriel’s Oboe,” Bob Wiseman’s subtle keystrokes and hand taps on the case of his piano can be very difficult to hear even at high listening levels; in fact, I’ve often wondered if some might think this section is just 1:07 of dead air between “Now and Forever” and “House of Dreams.” But once again, the HD30 revealed more of everything in “Percussive Piano” than I’d heard before, even through the 650D -- there was greater clarity to Wiseman’s keystrokes and the sounds of his hands striking the piano, longer trails on the notes’ echoes, firmer placement of Wiseman and his piano on the soundstage, and greater overall depth of that stage. Again, I heard those improvements with the 740P in the loop; when I then removed the 740P and plugged the HD30 directly into an amp, I heard them all a bit more. Suffice it to say that the HD30’s ability to reveal detail was as noteworthy as its ability to lay out a vast soundstage with high accuracy on that stage.
Yet high resolution, vast soundstages, and precise imaging weren’t all that impressed me about the HD30. The Hegel produced a very lively, spirited, and incisive sound that also sounded amazingly pure, entirely devoid of digital harshness, and of artifacts that could induce listening fatigue. It presented ultra-high-resolution digital sound -- and even 16/44.1 recordings -- without edge or brightness. For instance, at the 16-second mark of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” when the oboe enters, it’s accompanied by what sounds like a brashly metallic harpsichord far in the background. The latter sounded very prominent through the HD30 -- and, at the same time, cleaner, more detailed, and more listenable than I’d ever heard it. Van Morrison’s alto saxophone in “Spanish Steps,” from his Poetic Champions Compose (16/44.1 FLAC, Mercury), from 1987, soared with force from my speakers, sounding powerful, visceral, and highly present -- but still with the utmost clarity and refinement, and never sounding hard, edgy, or coarse, as I’ve heard it sound in the past.
The Moon Evolution 650D has always sounded as clean as the HD30, but never with the Hegel’s liveliness and incisiveness -- the Simaudio always presented music in a slightly subdued, laid-back manner. That’s also how the original Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DAC ($2500, now replaced by the QB-9DSD at $3495) sounded when I had it here. Conversely, the Eximus DP1 ($2995 in 2011, now discontinued) was a very good 24/192-capable DAC with some preamp functionality and a headphone amp, and its sound had a power, punch, incisiveness, and liveliness that were similar to the HD30’s -- but without the refinement, cleanness, and purity that the Hegel consistently displayed, most noticeably in the highs. The HD30 got it all right, and compromised on nothing.
Newer recordings, such as Don Henley’s recent Cass Country (16/44.1 FLAC, Capitol), which I’ve been listening to via Tidal, sounded nothing short of spectacular. “She Sings Hymns Out of Tune” really stood out -- Henley’s voice hung in space with state-of-the-art transparency that left me spellbound at how cleanly and authentically it was reproduced. Leonard Cohen’s voice drips with an ideal combination of detail and presence in “Slow,” from his Popular Problems (24/96 WAV, Columbia), released in 2014 on CD and as a hi-rez download. There’s also great bass in this track -- punchy, tight, and deep. I have both versions, but tend to listen to the hi-rez version most often because it sounds a touch warmer and fuller -- and nowhere was this difference more clear than through the HD30, which hung Cohen’s voice at center stage with so much weight that I could swear it had its own gravitational pull, and with such force and impact in the bass that it seemed as if it could blow out the floor. The HD30 might have a spritely, lively sound, but it also has power and heft when it needs to.
Enya’s latest, Dark Sky Island (16/44.1 FLAC, Reprise), also streamed from Tidal, sounds a lot like some of her previous albums, but there’s enough fresh about this one to warrant repeated hearings and enjoy in its own right. Beginning with track 1, “The Humming . . . ,” I was totally captivated by the extreme level of detail presented, as well as the overall cleanness and clarity of all the sounds. Mostly, though, I was taken aback by the great soundstage, which spread not only from front to back but from left to right. If you value resolution, clarity, and the re-creation of space, the HD30 ups the digital-source game for what any audiophile would consider a very reasonable price.
Audiophiles who put as much stock in how something looks and feels as in how it sounds might find the understated and unassuming-looking Hegel HD30 unimpressive, particularly as other DACs costing less can impress more on look and feel alone. Likewise, the HD30’s features, no matter how plentiful or useful (particularly its streaming capabilities), won’t be what attract buyers -- they’re just nice to have.
The HD30’s big selling point is its sound -- and what a sound it is: Its world-class resolution, extreme clarity, and superb refinement let you listen very deeply into recordings, to hear precisely what the musicians and engineers laid down there. And it does so while adding no ill artifacts -- the HD30 sounded incredibly clean in my system, never bright, edgy, or off-putting. I was also astounded that the HD30 not only unveiled more detail than did my Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, and presented even larger soundstages, but did so with a livelier, more spirited sound that helped make it even more exciting to listen to. To my ears, the HD30 is one of the best-sounding DACs you can buy today.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- KEF Blade Two, PSB Imagine T3, Vivid Audio B1 Decade
- Preamplifiers -- Moon by Simaudio Evolution 740P
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research GS150, Moon by Simaudio Evolution 870A
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Moon by Simaudio Evolution 650D
- Computer -- Samsung laptop running Windows 10 and JRiver Media Center 20
- Digital interconnect -- AudioQuest Carbon USB
- Analog interconnects -- Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L
- Power cords -- Shunyata Research Venom HC
- Power distributors/conditioners -- Shunyata Research Venom PS8 with Defender (2)
Hegel Music Systems HD30 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $4800 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems AS
PO Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56
CP 8, 1217 Greene Avenue
Montreal, Quebec H3Z 2T1
Phone: (541) 931-1880
Fax: (541) 931-8891