I’m pleased to see a number of high-end audio manufacturers designing equipment for computer audio use. Even more encouraging is watching a brand hitherto unavailable make its entry. Hegel (www.hegel.com) is a Norwegian hi-fi company whose products have recently been introduced into the United States thanks to the efforts of national sales manager Ben Gosvig, who runs the American operation from Fairfield, Iowa. Gosvig was kind enough to send two of the latest Hegel products for review: the HD10 DAC and H100 integrated amplifier (review coming soon).
I think most audio hobbyists can see the benefits of an outboard DAC – a stand-alone unit can handle error correction, jitter reduction and the digital-to-analog conversion better than most digital players that house a transport and DAC under the same roof. Bring such refinement to computer audio and the opportunities for sound improvement become even pronounced. Though Hegel’s HD10 is compatible with CD and other players sporting digital outputs, the big news is the DAC’s USB input, which allows users to connect directly to a computer hard drive and have the HD10 serve as sound card.
Features & Setup
The HD10 ($1,200) is much more than just a high-end sound card, though. It is a serious piece of kit, as the Brits would say: a stout, 6-pound-plus anodized aluminum box with a linear phase analog filter, built-in toroidal transformer and synchronous upsampling DAC. It’s balanced on three hard rubber feet – three is better than four as it describes a plane and makes true leveling easier. In short, the HD10 is an audiophile-grade digital-to-analog converter at home in about any setting you can devise. Whether you play or stream music from a computer, listen to Internet radio via a Squeezebox or Sonos system or want to boost a digital player’s performance, the HD10 can make nearly any signal sound better.
Is it easy to operate? Absolutely. Setup is a breeze with the HD10. There are no downloads, drivers or software to install. Simply connect the DAC to your computer with a USB cable and you’re nearly ready. All that’s left is to select the DAC as the sound output from your system preferences/sound output option. On my Mac, the Hegel shows up as a second option, under the default output internal speakers, as “USB Audio DAC.” Once the USB option is selected, sound from games, movies, music, Internet radio, Youtube videos – basically any sound source that your computer can play – will be converted to a 24-bit/96kHz signal. If you connect the DAC to a CD player, it will upsample audio signals further, to 24-bit/192kHz. Using the HD10 is certainly easy, with one central button on the front panel controlling the unit. Push the button to select the desired input – indicated by a blue light – and that’s the extent of operations. The HD10 also sports a pair digital inputs – one coaxial and one optical – and a pair of gold-plated RCA outputs and XLR balanced outputs. If connecting to an amplifier or other digital output, Hegel recommends using the balanced XLR outputs for best performance.
Like most components, the HD10 gets better after some break-in, and it’s suggested to let the unit warm up for 30 minutes before active use. I played music through the DAC for about 3 days before critical listening. Turning first to computer audio, I connected the HD10 to my Mac mini via USB; then connected the DAC to Hegel’s H100 integrated amplifier with XLR cables. Role Audio’s Sampan loudspeakers and speaker and interconnects from Better Cables completed the system.
I went straight into iTunes and selected music from my library that I had imported without compression. “Trouble,” from The Jayhawks’ Sound Of Lies, features a delicate acoustic guitar intro that sounds good through about component, but it was the newfound presence of Karen Grotberg’s piano and Marc Perlman’s bass and the snap of Tim O’Reagan’s snare drum that got my attention. The HD10 simultaneously brought out the low and high end in a shimmering balance.
Long before the Scorpions rocked you or anyone else like a hurricane in the early 1980s, they released several solid albums that have continued to fly under the radar. My favorite among them is Fly To The Rainbow, a bluesy, soulful hard-rock platter from 1974 featuring the guitar genius of Uli Jon Roth, who had joined the band after fellow guitar god Michael Schenker flew off with UFO. What struck me most about hearing tunes such as “Fly People Fly” and “This Is My Song” was the depth and roundness of Roth’s guitar sound and, again, the presence of Francis Buchholz’s bass in the mix. Think of any Scorpions’ song and it’s unlikely the bass line will come to mind – probably because you rarely hear it. Not so with the Hegel. Check out Roth’s blistering psychedelic lines as the last 90 seconds of the title track fades, and you’ll believe.
To hear new music, I frequently turn to Lala.com – an online music library of some 8 million songs. I particularly like Lala because it allows users to listen to a complete track or album all the way through one time, instead of offering 30-second samples. Lala’s digital files are MP3s of variable bit-rates, so compression is inevitable, but I was impressed by how much the music filled out through the HD10. It’s not CD quality sound but certainly far closer to the real thing. Think of the USB input as a sound card that blows away existing computer sound cards. The HD10 effectively turns a computer’s hard drive into a high-end digital player. If you’ve got a desktop or laptop computer loaded with music, it’s going to sound much better through the Hegel.
I was curious, however, to hear what the HD10 could do with two records whose music I like but whose recordings are so compressed and dry to be nearly unlistenable: Metallica’s And Justice For All and Rush’s Vapor Trails. On top of the original studio compression, the Hegel had to deal with the MP3 compression – a tale of two compressions, so to speak. I wasn’t expecting much, but tracks such as “Blackened,” “Eye Of The Beholder” and “The Shortened Straw” retained their grit but had far less of the “hollow” character of the original digital mix. Alas, though, not even the HD10 could save Vapor Trails, one of the most curiously over-compressed and noisy recordings I’ve heard. The opening track “One Little Victory” sounded even worse, with the echo-laden drums and vocals made further wretched by accuracy. Oh well…
Next, I ran a Squeezebox Duet through the HD10. The Duet features its own 24/192 DAC, but after running the signal through the Hegel it’s quickly evident that not all 24/192 DACs are equal. Whether streaming Internet radio or music from iTunes, the Hegel made for better listening every time. Obviously the HD10 is a more robust unit than the Duet, but I was still blown away by the improvement.
Lastly, I connected the HD10 to my Yamaha DV-S5770 – a universal player that’s served me well over the years for forays into SACD and DVD-Audio. I chose Neil Young’s Live At Massey Hall for a test, going with the DVD side that contains 24-bit/96kHz PCM stereo tracks. With the HD10 in place, the sound improvement was startling – cleaner, more open, better soundstage. Young’s voice and guitar had such convincing in-room presence to make me look back at the speakers to center myself.
Revisiting the Black Crowes’ 2005 concert film, Freak ” Roll …Into The Fog, again brought out the “live” in this performance. It’s not just great stage footage but a fantastic live recording. It would be difficult to go back to my non-HD10 days. Hearing both DVDs through the Hegel made me realize how stodgy the Yamaha sounds on its own – or, rather, how much better it can sound.
The HD10 is a first-rate digital-to-analog converter whose versatility makes it a multi-tool component. Pair it with a CD, DVD or Blu-ray player; network it and stream the best music you’ve ever heard. Neutral, quiet and superb tonal balance, the HD10 doesn’t impart its personality on the music; instead, it draws out the music’s own personality. Sounds good to me.
Apple Mac mini
Hegel HD10 DAC
Hegel H100 integrated amplifier
Role Audio Sampan mini-tower loudspeakers
Marantz SR 6004 A/V receiver
Yamaha DV-S5770 SACD/DVD-Audio player
Logitech Squeezebox Duet
Axiom Audio M80 v2 loudspeakers
Better Cables Silver Serpent Anniversary Edition Interconnects
Better Cables Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables (3 meter/bananas)