When the D/A converters conquered the market, some saw it only as evolutionary dead end. For traditionalists, a DAC could only be a part of a CD player. However, people who ten years ago saw the future in combining the hi-fi with music files stored on a computer, were also not convinced that DACs are a final solution. Some time later, the servers playing music from built-in hard drive or external memory sticks were born, and then the first streamers appeared. Today, the situation is quite predictable. DACs are on the rise - they are better, bigger and more advanced. Hegel is one of the companies that knows the world of DACs very well. The Norwegians produced them when the market was not so big, and since then they have been constantly developing their products in this segment. I had a chance to review most of them - the HD2, HD11, HD 12, HD20 and HD25. Now the company has decided to reach even further with the new flagship model - the HD30.
Anders Ertzeid and Fredrik Johnsen from Hegel said that for at least a year, distributors, dealers and customers have been asking only for this product. Until recently, our friends from the north remained tight-lipped about the new flagship DAC. When they launched the HD25 model, they claimed that creating something better would be extremely difficult. But apparently they changed their mind and decided to discuss the problem in their typical manner - gathered around everyone in the office, grabbed some beer and talked things over. I can only guess that not much beer was needed before they decided to build a new, better DAC. The problems probably started later, because the engineers had to abandon many of the previously used solutions and try something new to beat the HD25.
The result? Thanks to the proper design, using separate power supplies for low-noise and high-noise areas, and maintaining adequate distance from transformers, they got truly excellent technical parameters, including signal-to-noise ratio of 150 dB. The Norwegians also faced the problem of phase noise. It's a form of jitter, which causes noise at frequencies located next to the main tone. The result is the lack of precision and blurring details. Phase noise reduction was made possible due to the development of a new clock, the precise choice of transistors, and the new crystal oscillator. Supposedly, when the first prototype was finished, engineers had to buy a new, more accurate measuring equipment, because the one used before wasn't even able to show all the exact parameters of the new flagship DAC. Additionally, HD30 has received a full-blown chassis and streaming functions as you get in H160 and H360 amplifiers.
Design and functionality
The first surprise for us was the color of the chassis. A long time ago Hegel stopped making silver units saying that the manufacturing costs are higher, mainly because of the storage and distribution of two different versions. Audiophiles can remember H100 or H200 amplifiers and CDP2A MK2 and CDP4A CD players in silver. I guess none of amps and DACs launched later was available in this version, which worried most owners of Hegel's silver devices. Maybe silver version was brought back with them in mind? Or perhaps we will see this option more often? We will see.
The color is not everything. The housing of the new DAC is also built like in the good old days. Instead of a box covered with the incised sheet of metal, we have a metal enclosure composed of a number of different profiles. The top cover is completely flat and very closely adjacent to the side panels. During the photo session, it turned out that even after removing all the screws, it's not so easy to remove it. This proves that the Norwegians are really serious when it comes to the build quality, which can be also confirmed by looking at the HD30 from the bottom. The DAC stands on three high feet equipped with rounded rubber pads. Audiophiles obsessed with anti-vibration spikes and platforms will probably improve it anyway, but the HD30 is already well insulated from vibrations.
The shape of the front panel is no surprise. In accordance with the style introduced by the company a long time ago, we have only what is necessary, with full symmetry. The left knob is used to select the source, the right is a volume control, and between them we have a big, blue display. The potentiometer in a DAC is quite interesting, although not a rare thing nowadays. More and more D/A converters have a built-in headphone amplifier, a preamplifier or simple Bluetooth receiver. In its latest model, Hegel used a volume control and a simple streamer module, that allows us to connect the source to the network and use it with a NAS drive or a computer, preferably one made by Apple. Norwegians really enjoy AirPlay connectivity and encourage their customers to do the same, although it's not the only possible solution.
On the back we have a clear division into three sections - the analog outputs (XLR and RCA), digital inputs (AES/EBU, BNC, coaxial and three optical) and - let's call it - computer jacks (USB type B and RJ-45). The three-pin power socket with a mains switch and a fuse is located on the right. I enjoy not only the presence of analog outputs in two standards, but also a little thing like the BNC socket. Many manufacturers believe that this is the best 'electrical' way to transmit digital signals, but it's still a rare thing to see. In the upper part of the rear panel, there is a row of ventilation holes, so there was no need to pierce the top cover.
As befits a hi-end converter, HD30 requires a bit of attention during the first connection and configuration. Drivers on the manufacturer's website are available in three versions - for computers running OS-X, those with Windows and separately for Windows 10. In addition, Hegel gives us step-by-step instructions for Apple and Ubuntu users, as well as separate manuals conducting us through the process of configuring a network drive or a computer for streaming. But to be honest, I would suggest treating the two sibling functionalities of HD30 - the streaming and the volume control - as nice gadgets. Yes, they can be useful, but they are not the crucial issues here. The users of Apple devices are the exception. For them the AirPlay will be one of the most valuable options. If someone has a large music library on the NAS drive, in my opinion they would look for a streamer, not a DAC which just happens to have a LAN input. They want to control their music through any convenient application for the iPad, and usually in a streamer they would have a USB type A socket to connect another hard disk or USB flash drive with a newly downloaded hi-res files. HD30 has no wireless (Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) connection or a headphone jack. It's interesting that we have a volume control here, but there is no output for the headphones. Some will say it would be unnecessary because the HD30 is not a desktop-type device. In my opinion, Hegel's engineers wanted to stick to the main point and they added only two functions, which probably did not require such a great - they could borrow the streamer from their latest amplifiers. They decided not to add more garnish to it, so that the HD30 will be a hi-end DAC, and not some all-in-one music system.
The big advantage and another detail that reminds me of the good old days is the RC2 remote control. Norwegians use two types of remote controls - one in the form of a plastic card with buttons, and the second being a very elegant lump of metal. It's actually included only with some of the most expensive models in the catalogue, which emphasizes the HD30's position among digital sources in the company's offer. I also like the fact that there are two knobs on the front panel, instead of the buttons or a touch screen. Thanks to this, the HD30 looks very well and not like most common DACs. Cons? Despite everything, I believe that the headphone jack and Bluetooth on board are not such stupid ideas. Norwegians have a very simple philosophy here, which actually I understand. They believe that the audio equipment should be an interface for managing the process of music playback. This is the role of computers, tablets, smartphones and whatever else comes after them. And it has the right to exist only in a situation where the HD30 works with those devices properly. I think there is some danger here, because for many people AirPlay is not an option, even for users of smartphones other than iPhone and tablets other than iPad. But there is much sense in this philosophy. In exchange for adapting to the requirements of the device, taking a moment to install the drivers and configuring your computer, you will get extremely high sound quality. But would you? Let's see!
The performance of HD30 did not surprise me at all - it was a success as usual. I was expecting a very good, mature, versatile sound, and I got it. Hegel is not one of the manufacturers who give us differently tuned equipment every time. Their vision of music reproduction is nothing but a realization of the pure idea of high fidelity. Furthermore, the Norwegian engineers carry out his plan with great firmness and consistency. When you buy any device from Hegel's offer, you can be sure you will hear a beautifully balanced, natural sound.
Doing so involves some danger, about which inexperienced listeners have to remember. HD30 sounds so evenly that at the beginning we wonder what in its performance is so interesting and insightful. The first conclusion is obvious - nothing. The only question is, whether the role of a DAC is the introduction of any highlights to a stereo system? For many audiophiles, music distortion leads to clutter. If the signal is colored and distorted at the stage of the source, how could you possibly fix it later? Not without reason one of the sacred audiophile truths is that the main task of the source is to extract the maximum amount of information from the recording and provide the output signal which is as close to the original as possible, in the clearest form. Then we can do whatever we like with it - connect a neutral amplifier and speakers, or a warm tube amp with horn speakers. But even enthusiasts of such systems usually believe that if the source messes something up, it will not end well.
HD30 does not trick us in any way. Let me be clear - I haven't heard such a neutral and reliable D/A converter for a long time. Deliberations on the tonal balance and realistic sound temperature can be just skipped. If you are one of those people who can spend hours reflecting whether the surface of a frozen lake is flat or not, then go ahead - you can check the neutrality of the HD30 in a million ways. I heard five songs and I already knew that I will not have anything to say against it. And since the issue of the tonal balance and sound temperature is closed, we can only go into some details such as dynamics, transparency and stereo imaging. Here Hegel also didn't disappoint, but to me the best feature of them all is the soundstage.
It is extremely wide, deep, just three-dimensional, with clearly outlined contours. Hegel not only increases the physical size of the audio image, but sharpens the boundaries between the successive layers of music. The soundstage the HD30 offers is in my opinion outstanding and brings us closer to the music even more than another portion of microscopic details. The HD30 is one of the few DACs, even at this price, that can actually convince listeners that the singer and the drummer are in front of us. And they are not 'somewhere out there', but in specific locations, with all the information about the acoustics of the recording. This is a huge advantage over the competition. In some ways, it's approaching the sound character and a certain realism known from good... Turntables. Vinyl fans could consider it an abuse, but I think that Hegel has something more than just a spectacular soundstage - the ability to convince us of the actual presence of musicians in our house.
If I had to compact my impressions to a few words, I would simply say - excellent D/A converter that meets all the requirements for high-end audio sources. With every hour of listening, I was more and more convinced to it, which proves the high class of a device. This quality includes everything - neutrality, dynamics, and faithfully reproduced sound temperature. The soundstage remains for me the sweet icing on the cake. But some still may think that the sound of the HD30 is so normal that there is nothing extraordinary in it. Well, if after the first listening you agree, I suggest an experiment. Take the HD30 home for one week, listen to it for a week as you would normally do, and then go back to the previous DAC you were using. I guarantee that at this moment you will have all the answers, and you'll be able to talk about the sound of the HD30 for at least fifteen minutes. That is, unless you have a DAC that costs ten or fifteen thousand dollars.
Build quality and technical parameters
Hegel's flagship DAC is the first device of this type in company's catalogue which has been wrapped in a full-size housing. And it's nothing strange if you consider HD30's internal architecture. The metal case is filled almost entirely with electronics divided into three sections. The biggest board contains the main D/A converter module with all analogue circuits. The second one supports two digital inputs - the USB and LAN, as well as HD30's streaming functionalities. The signal from all the other digital inputs - AES/EBU, BNC, coaxial and three optical, is passed directly to the main DAC board. The third section is the power supply - two toroidal transformers separated from the rest of the electronics by a thick slab of metal. The total capacity of the filtering capacitors is 54000 µF. Analogue signal can be received via XLR or RCA outputs. These are big and elegant sockets which will hold even some hi-end interconnects without any problems. Norwegian engineers used a pair of AK4490EQ DAC chips, one per channel, so the HD30 can play hi-res PCM and DSD files. Inside we will also find two AK4418AEQ digital signal receivers and a AK4137EQ asynchronous sample rate converter. Speaking about technical parameters, it's worth mentioning that the output voltage reaches 2,6 V with 22 ohm output impedance on unbalanced and 44 ohms on balanced outputs. However, the most impressive figures are THD of 0.0005% and 150 dB signal-to-noise ratio.
Equilibrium Ether Ceramique, Pylon Audio Sapphire 31 SLE, Marantz HD-DAC1, T+A E-Serie Music Player Balanced, T+A E-Serie Power Plant Balanced, Equilibrium Tune 33 Light, Enerr Tablette 6S, Enerr Symbol Hybrid, Solid Tech Radius Duo 3.
So many fans were waiting for the new flagship DAC that the Norwegians simply couldn't let them down. The HD30 is an excellent and versatile digital source. Music lovers moving with the times will be able to easily upgrade their systems to some truly hi-end level, and those who are still not convinced, will get the ticket to the world of digital music with some streaming options. In terms of sound, the HD30 gives, above all, outstanding balance, neutrality and spectacular soundstage, which is very close to what we can get from a very nice turntable. And don't forget that the HD30 can also improve the sound from your CD player or even a gaming console. I can only regret that I couldn't try it in DAC Loop configuration with the H360 for example. But that's something Hegel fans will happily do for me.
DAC type: 32-bit dual-mono
Output voltage: 2,6 V
Digital inputs: 3 x optical, coaxial, AES/EBU, BNC, USB, RJ-45
Analog outputs: RCA, XLR
Frequency response: 0 Hz - 50 kHz
Power consumption: 170 W
S/N ratio: 150 dB
Dimensions (H/W/D): 8/43/31 cm
Weight: 6,5 kg
Manufacturer: Hegel Music Systems
Mark Saturday, 02 January 2016 02:42
I am looking at a DAC upgrade and after hearing and being very impressed with a Primare DAC 30 in a friend's setup I was seriously considering purchasing that unit, particularly as current prices are heavily discounted from original retail pricing - making it a bargain.
The HD30 has piqued my interest, albeit at a considerably higher current price than the Primare. I have read both of the reviews but was wondering what you would summarise as the main differences sound-wise between the two?