I'm starting this review from a unique point of view. I purposely learned very little about the product under review before I started my listening sessions. I know the product is a DAC manufactured by Hegel and it says HD12 DSD on the front panel. I skimmed through the user manual to find out how to enable 24 bit / 192 kHz PCM and DSD playback and at the same time learned it's recommended to use the balanced analog outputs. Other than this information I have no clue how much this product costs, what DAC chip (if any) it uses, or where Hegel positions the DAC in its lineup of products. I don't know if I have an entry level or a flagship DAC. I even disabled the LED display on the unit while listening so I was looking at a small black box that gave me no visual cues that could sway my sonic impressions. Sure, I could have hired an assistant to unbox the DAC and place it behind a curtain until I wrote this review but life is about balance and I think I found a good balance between knowing everything about a product and not knowing anything, including how to use the product. I'm not a fan of blind testing audio components, rather I just wanted to have a little fun while reviewing this component and try writing from a different perspective. In a way I feel like a consumer entering an audio store without too much knowledge and looking for a DAC. The person at the store has told me to have a listen to this product from Hegel and we'll discuss the details after I'm done listening. With this in mind here are my sonic impressions of the Hegel HD12 DAC, followed by some information about the product (that I must look up after writing about my sonic impressions).
Listening Impressions of the Hegel HD12 DAC
The Hegel HD12 was connected via USB to an Auralic Aries streaming both local content from a NAS and cloud content from TIDAL HIFI for the entire review. The HD12 was connected directly to Pass Labs XA160.5 amplifiers without the use of a preamplifier. The loudspeakers used were my reference TAD CR1. Cabling was Wire World Platinum throughout the system. In order to provide a description of the sonic characteristics of a product one must have a reference by which to compare the product. My current reference is the sound I get using the identical audio system with a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS and Alpha USB (USB to AES converter). In my assessment of the Hegel HD12 I am not comparing the two DACs rather I am providing my sonic impression as compared to the sound I get with my reference system. Without a reference it's impossible to describe the sonic characteristics of any product. Suggesting a product is bright or dark without providing a point of reference doesn't tell the reader anything about the product under review.
I've been on a Natalie Merchant kick lately. My two favorite albums from Natalie are Motherland and Tigerlily. Listening to the track Motherland from the album of the same name, the Hegel HD12 delivers Natalie's rich voice very well with delicacy yet power when required. The overall sound of the entire track is a bit less three dimensional or a touch flatter than my reference sound. Switching to the Tigerlily album and the track River, I again heard Natalie's vocal as a very rich and lush sound. This was similar to my reference. The major difference between my reference and the HD12 on this track could be heard in the amount of separation between instruments in space. The HD12 reproduced the vocals, drums, and piano very well but with a little less dimensionality that would enable the listener to pick out individual instruments perfectly. This could be heard as a flatter presentation.
One of my favorite albums that really enables the listener hear into the recording space, and visualize where this recording was made, is Doug MacLeod's There's A Time. This was recorded by Keith Johnson for Reference Recordings at 24 bit / 176.4 kHz. The entire album sounds really good through the Hegel HD12. Doug's vocals have a nice texture to them and his acoustic guitar has an incredibly realistic sound. In addition to Doug's vocals, the drums and cymbals on the track Black Nights really help reproduce a sense of space around the members of the band and the room. Compared to my reference Berkeley DAC I believe the Hegel is a bit more closed down with a slightly smaller soundstage.
A lessor known singer songwriter that I've been really in to for the last couple years is A.A. Bondy. Former Rancid drummer Brett Reed turned me on to Bondy by calling him a modern day Bob Dylan. I have to say I've been listening to much more Bondy than I have Dylan. Bondy's album American Hearts really resonates with me. The track World Without End has a really raw sound when reproduced through the Hegel HD12. As an audiophile seeking the most accurate reproduction this raw sound is exactly what I want because the track is supposed to sound raw. The HD12 overall sounds a bit colder on this album than my reference and brings out slightly less emotion in the music. This is probably not a DAC for lovers of tube bloom. However, if one prefers a more accurate solid state sound this DAC will be more one's liking.
One album that really matched up well with the Hegel HD12 was Boys For Pele from Tori Amos. This is a fairly dark sounding album that can sound borderline cold. That's just the way the album sounds. If a system reproduces this recording as an airy and bloomy album, then something is seriously wrong with the system. Through the Hegel DAC Boys For Pele sounded just as it should sound, dark and cold. Due to very close microphone recording technics there is a ton of detail to be heard on this album. From the sound of piano pedals to Tori's breathing, it's all available on this recording. For the most part the Hegel HD12 reproduces all of it. Listening to this album through my reference DAC I can hear a bit more detail and nuance at the same matched volume levels. To get the same level of detail on the Hegel DAC I had to increase the volume just bit.
On almost everything I listened to throughout the review period the Hegel HD12 sounded really good. The only album I listened to that I didn't like through this DAC was Britten's Orchestra by the Kansas City Symphony. This is another one of Keith Johnson's great recordings for Reference Recordings at 24/176.4. I listen to this album on every piece of audio gear that enters my listening room, thus I am very familiar with how different components reproduce the album with their own sonic characteristics. Through the Hegel HD12 this album sounded more like a studio recording rather than a live performance. There was a real lack of air around the individual instruments. I had a difficult time hearing the Community of Christ Auditorium recording space on this album as well. Don't get me wrong, this album sounds good through the Hegel HD12. What I'm saying is I believe this album should sound more live with more air around the instruments than what I heard through the HD12.
Hegel HD12 DAC Details
Now that my listening impressions have been committed to "paper" it't time to do some research into the Hegel HD12. The HD12 isn't the most basic DAC ever made but it isn't the most feature rich either. The build quality is good, although the remote control build quality leaves a bit to be desired. The price is $1,400. When I first read this price I was pretty surprised. My guess was the price would be somewhere between $2,500 and $3,500 for the HD12 because it's made in Oslo, Norway, is a true balanced design, and it delivers good sound quality.
The HD12 features a single electrical coaxial digital input (RCA), two optical TosLink digital inputs, and a single asynchronous USB input. The DAC has both RCA and XLR analog outputs, but Hegel recommends using the XLR outputs as this is a true balanced DAC design. The HD12 incorporates a Cmedia CM6632A USB 2.0 high-speed audio processor. The USB input has an A and B mode of operation. In the A mode this input supports up through 24 bit / 96 kHz PCM audio. The advantage of using this mode is that Windows PCs don't require any driver installation in order to use the DAC. In B mode the USB interface supports up through 24 bit / 192 kHz PCM and DSD64 audio. Above 96 kHz and DSD playback on Windows requires installation of a supplied ASIO driver. Readers should note DSD playback is native DSD only, not DoP. On Mac OS X all high resolution PCM up through 192 kHz will play without a driver, but DSD64 material requires a driver available from the Hegel HD12 support page. The HD12 also works with Linux distributions including Ubuntu and embedded platforms such as that running on the Auralic Aries.
Hegel has selected the Asahi Kasei Microdevices AK4399EQ DAC ship for the HD12. This chip is also used in components such as the Total DAC and those from Esoteric. The HD12 features digital volume attenuation in steps from 0 to 100 (visible on the front panel display). Speaking of front panel display, this one is no frills. It's possible to view the different input names and the volume level on the display. That's it. I do a lot of listening in with my listening room lights off, so I really liked the ability to turn off the front panel display completely. It's a very digital-esque display in that it's either on or off, no dimming allowed. Also on the front panel is a 3.5mm headphone output. I didn't use this output during the review and can't comment on its quality.
The Hegel HD12 digital to analog converter certainly won't win any awards in the audio bling / aesthetics category. This simplistic looking DAC has enough features to satisfy most computer audiophiles. A small array of digital inputs including asynchronous USB (up through 24/192 PCM and DSD64) and digital volume control are the most sought after features today and the HD12 checks these boxes. The sonic characteristics of the Hegel HD12 lean to the colder side of the continuum, as opposed to the warm inaccurate bloom of some tube based DACs. The HD12's soundstage is a bit smaller than my current reference $16,000 DAC, but that's to be expected from a $1,400 product. Audiophiles in love with detailed recordings will find the HD12 can reproduce much of these details, but may require a slight volume bump to satisfy all listeners. The Hegel HD12 is definitely worth a listen for music lovers seeking solid sound reproduction for a reasonable price.
- Product - Hegel Music Systems HD12 DAC
- Price - $1,400
- Product Page - Link
- User Manual - Link
- Drivers - Link
- Source: Auralic Aries
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifier: Pass Labs XA160.5 Monoblocks
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: Auralic Lightning DS
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 6+, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Balanced Interconnects, Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service