Hegel Music Systems HD30 DAC Review
My last experience with a Hegel component in my system was when I reviewed the HD12 DAC in February 2015. It was a nice DAC that has likely made many listeners very happy for $1,400. After the review I received an email from Hegel hinting that the company was working on something much better. Toward the end of 2015 Hegel Music Systems completed the design of what it considered a masterpiece. The company went all-in creating a new flagship DAC named the HD30. The improvement from the HD12 to the HD30 is both objectively and subjectively glorious. Designing its master clocks from the ground up and using such low noise components that the noise floor is near -150 dB, has paid off in spades. Hegel really nailed it with the HD30.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
The Hegel HD30 is a versatile DAC that should fit into any music aficionado's audio system without a problem. The DAC is loaded with digital inputs including coaxial S/PDIF, optical TosLink (x3), USB, Ethernet, BNC S/PDIF, and AES/EBU. (Norway must seriously like its optical inputs. Only kidding). Hegel specifies that all inputs are capable of PCM playback up through 24 bit / 192 kHz and the USB input is capable of DSD64 & DSD128. More on the topic of sample rate compatibility later. On the output side, the HD30 supports both single ended RCA and true balanced XLR analog outputs at 2.6 VRMS. Between the inputs and the outputs is an AKM AK4490EQ DAC chip for each channel. In addition the low noise power supplies and analog output stages have been improved tremendously over the HD12 DAC. Geeky members of the Computer Audiophile Community will be interested to learn Hegel uses a C-Media USB receiver chip and an Ethernet interface from Microchip. The C-Media chip / USB input operates without drivers for 24/192 PCM playback on operating systems that support USB Audio Class 2 (macOS and Linux). Playback of 24/96 audio is possible on Windows, without driver installation, by selecting Mode A using the switch on the rear of the chassis. Higher resolution PCM playback on Windows requires installation of a driver. DSD playback on any operating systems requires a driver a well, but as of this writing there is no Linux DSD driver. I was able to play DSD64 via USB from a Mac using Roon, JRiver Media Center, and Audirvana+, but was unable to play DSD128 or higher using the same applications. On a PC running Windows 10 and JRiver Media Center I was able to play all supported sample rates including DSD128, using the settings in this screenshot (link). Users of Windows 2012 and Audiophile Optimizer should note that the C-Media driver is not installable with this specific system. The Microchip Ethernet interface is configured to support UPnP audio (PCM only, up through 24/192). However, my testing revealed serious playback issues when sending 24/192 audio to the unit. Extended audible dropouts were experienced at least once every ten-seconds. This was the only supported sample rate with which the HD30 Ethernet interface had issues. Playback of 24/176.4 material was as smooth as 16/44.1 material. In addition, the HD30 supported gapless playback up through 24/96 without a problem (I don't currently have any 24/176.4 gapless content to test at this resolution, and testing 24/192 was a nonstarter).
The Hegel HD30 features a digital volume control that ranges from 0 to 100/101. The power-on volume level is automatically set to 20 unless this number is customized by the user. However, people using the HD30 with an external preamp will be happy to learn that setting the volume to 101 bypasses all digital attenuation and the HD30 retains this volume level after a power cycle. In other words, volume levels 100 and 101 are identical in that they bypassing all digital attenuation, but level 101 doesn't get reset to level 20 after power cycling the unit. One additional note about controlling the HD30's volume level. When using the unit as a UPnP renderer, remote control applications such as Linn's Kinsky and JRiver's JRemote are capable of adjusting the volume on the HD30. Thus, changing the volume on the HD30 using the Hegel traditional remote control or changing the volume via iOS apps such as JRemote and Kinsky is identical. A change on one device is also reflected immediately on the other unit. As soon as I changed the volume in JRemote the front panel of the HD30 instantly reflected this change and vice-versa.
Note: Hegel is currently investigating both RoonReady and MQA support for the HD30 and its other products.
My playback system during the review period enabled me to use the HD30 in several different configurations.
Serving my music was a Macbook Pro running Roon, JRiver Media Center, and Audirvana+, an SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition running Windows 2012R2 / Audiophile Optimizer and Roon, and UPnP server running JRiver Media Center, Asset UPnP, and Minimserver.
I used Constellation Audio Inspiration Series mono amps and preamp with the HD30 as well. Hegel recommended I test the DAC with and without a preamp, and I'm glad I followed the advice. The sonic differences were easily audible. One very nice feature of all Constellation Audio amplifiers is the different input options. There are two XLR inputs, one labeled BAL, the other labeled DIRECT. The BAL input is similar to most balanced amp inputs with a little Constellation Audio special sauce. The DIRECT input is perfectly balanced. The positive and negative-going halves of the signal exhibit near-zero difference except for their polarity. This input has 12 dB less gain compared to the BAL input, enabling use of less digital volume attenuation in the DAC because higher output is needed to reach desired volume levels. These two input options enabled me to use the HD30 in three different configurations, 1) HD30 > BAL input, 2) HD30 > DIRECT input, and 3) HD30 > Preamp > DIRECT input.
I also used the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB (USB to AES / S/PDIF converter) because according to Hegel, "We recommend using the BNC or Coax1 input [of the HD30] for the best performance, this because it has the best impedance and lowest jitter."
All combinations of the aforementioned components produced great sound quality. Most of the audible differences had more to do with personal taste than accurate/inaccurate reproduction. After several days of listening I settled on the following configuration as my personal favorite:
SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition > Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB > Hegel HD30 (BNC input) > Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono 1.0 amps (DIRECT input)
Sitting Back & Listening
The Hegel Music Systems HD30 DAC reproduces music masterfully, like one should expect from a product designed to be a masterpiece. The incredibly low level of measured noise in the HD30 enabled me to hear so much deeper into my music than many other DACs. More than anything else, this is a hallmark of the HD30 and the part that I enjoyed most about reviewing this DAC. For example, listening to The Doors' title track on L.A. Woman, I could hear Jerry Scheff's bass throughout the track as if it was brought up in the mix for student of the bass to learn. Yet at the same time all the other instruments and vocals sounded spectacular. I was just really thrilled with how much I could her into the recording and this was really evident with the bass. The exact same thing can be said for Richard Davis' bass throughout Van Morrison's entire Astral Weeks album. I remember walking out of my listening room and thinking to myself how crazy it was that I could hear so far into the bass. It was just so clear all the way down to the deepest notes on so many recordings. The different bass notes were delineated so well and so distinct from each other that I shook my head as I listened.
In addition to hearing incredible bass reproduction, I was completely surprised at what I heard when listening to Tim Ries' version of Wild Horses featuring Norah Jones. It goes without saying that Norah's vocal performance sounded spectacular and beyond silky smooth. The first surprise came between the notes. I couldn't believe how silent this recording sounded (or didn't sound). It was as if the recording engineer had a mute switch at his fingertips throughout the track. Yet, it didn't seem that this was the case because, unlike other recordings from Diana Krall and Leonard Cohen, there was no readily apparent fade-in/fade-out of the microphone channel just before and after each verse. I used to think this version of the track was a bit audiphile-esque and without substance. After hearing all of it, thanks to the Hegel HD30, I have a new found respect for, and enjoyment of, the track. The second surprise in this song was the fact that I could hear a bit of texture in Tim Ries' backing vocal. He can be heard off and on throughout the track, behind Norah. His vocal is usually too subtle to audibly pick up anything of substance, but throughout this review I kept going back to this track to listen to Tim's backing vocal. It's there and it isn't just filler.
As many readers of Computer Audiophile know, Glenn Frey, a founding member of the Eagles, passed away Monday, January 18, 2016. His death was the impetus for me to investigate his music. Of course I was familiar with the Eagles, but I honestly never spent time listening to the music. I was born in 1975, so I missed much of the airplay the band received on the radio in its salad days. Growing up there were a few girls I knew who were heavily into the Eagles, but other than that it was just another band to me. Then grunge hit and nobody I knew listened to anything that predated Nirvana (at least for several years). That said, I watched The History of the Eagles, two-part documentary last week and totally got into the band and its music (thanks Tidal). Heck, I thought Don Henley was just a singer that I saw win a Grammy and MTV Video Music Award for The End of the Innocence in 1990! Anyway, I've been addicted to the tracks Desperado and Hotel California for the last week. Desperado from the Greatest Hits album and Hotel California from the album of the same name, not from Hell Freezes Over. Listening to these tracks through the Hegel HD30 really makes me feel like I'm back in the 1970s. The clarity that's audible in these really good, but certainly not the best, recordings can peel away the years between today and back in the day. The HD30 is like a new prescription from the optometrist in that it enables this vision into the past by pushing all the audio into clear view. There's just so much going on in Hotel California that must be heard to really get the song. From the awesome sounding electric guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh toward the end to the realistic percussion throughout to the metallic and controlled cymbal work by Don Henley. The great harmonies go without saying, but the acoustic guitar intro is just a red herring stopping people from realizing the true greatness of this track. I can safely say there's no way I would have appreciated the Eagles music this much without a DAC as good as the Hegel HD30. This is what electronics are supposed to do, reproduce great music by .... wait for it ... getting out of the way. An objectively measured noise floor of nearly -150 dB and a subjective quality enabling the listener to enjoy every ounce of music on the recording, gives me license to use that overused phrase.
As noted, I tried several different configurations with the HD30 DAC. Sonic differences between the configs noticeable and even enjoyable in their own right. Foe example, sending the audio signal through the Constellation Audio Preamp 1.0 put a sonic spin on the music that was ever so slightly softer around the edges, but did provide a bit more grunt and immediacy to major transients compared to the HD30 going into the DIRECT amp input. On the other hand, connecting the HD30 into the more universal BAL input on the mono amps, gave me what could be perceived as additional detail by some or as a touch edgy by others. Ranking the different configurations, I like the HD30 > DIRECT input best, followed by the HD30 > Preamp > DIRECT input, and last the HD30 > BAL configuration. All were great, but some were more great than others. With respect to different digital inputs I concur with Hegel's assessment that BNC or coaxial S/PDIF is the best input on the HD30. It's possible my opinion could be different if I didn't have such a good USB to AES/BNC converter in the Alpha USB, but additional testing with other D-to-D converters is something for another time. I'm really not positive which interface I prefer when it comes to Ethernet or USB on the HD30. Once I found the Ethernet interface lacking support for trouble free 24/192 playback, I pretty much stopped using UPnP. One final note about the digital interfaces, one shouldn't read more into what I've written than what I've written. BNC is the best in my system in my room, and the others are great as well. I don't give out participation trophies for second and third place, but I believe most people will be equally as happy in the long run using any interface offered by the HD30.
In the year since I listened to a Hegel DAC in my system, much has changed. I switched amplification and Hegel created what it considers a masterpiece in the HD30 DAC. The company's new flagship component is all about low noise, enabling the listeners to hear further into their music. When combined with excellent amplification such as the Constellation Audio Inspiration Series and its DIRECT input, the HD30 really shines. It's safe to say this is both a music aficionado's DAC first and foremost and a specification aficionado's DAC second. Yes, the -150 dB noise floor is a great spec, but the HD30 doesn't support the check box worthy sample rates such as DSD256 or PCM at 384 kHz. However, the HD30 delivers the goods superbly to those more interested in music than minutiae. The Hegel Music Systems HD30 DAC is highly recommended for those who'd like to remove the barriers between good and great sound.
Where To Buy:
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- Source: SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition, MacBook Pro
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- UPnP Server Software: JRiver Media Center, Asset UPnP, MinimServer
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- 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, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
- Source: SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition, MacBook Pro