HEGEL HD30 DAC 32/192 Dual-Mono Balanced + Volume ctrl

HL 03 DAC HD30
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Hegel Audio

Natural, Engaging, Dynamic musical experiance

Special
The HD30 is the ultimate digital control center. It does everything you can dream of, and does so with world-class quality. There is an abundance of inputs, ranging from balanced AES/EBU and BNC connectors, to Network and USB connections - with the latter also accepting DSD signals. The built-in volume attenuator allows you to connect directly to a power amplifier or a pair of active loudspeakers. Highly advanced power supplies and careful lay-out brings the noise floor down towards a mindblowing -150dB. In short... Do you even dare to try it?

AWESOME ENJOY THE MUSIC REVIEW RATING:

Tonality 4.5/5
Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz) - 4/5
Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz) - 4/5
Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz) - 4.5/5
High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up) - 4/5
Attack - 4.5/5
Decay - 4/5
Inner Resolution - 4.5/5
Soundscape Width Front - 4.5/5
Soundscape Width Rear - 4.5/5
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers - 4.5/5
Soundscape Extension Into Room - 5/5
Imaging - 4.5/5
Fit And Finish - 4/5
Self Noise - 4.5/5
Value For The Money - 5/5

When designing a digital-to-analog converter of world class, you are essentially making a masterpiece. One for others to try and copy. It is not enough to select the best components on the market and lay them out cleverly. When creating a masterpiece, you must question if you can make it better than the best. The HD30 was just such a masterpiece project. To reach goals that, up until now, was seen as unobtainable, we need to tweak the world’s best measuring equipment available. Just to be able to fine-tune our clock crystals and power supplies. We designed master clocks from the ground up and went to great lengths to design ultra low noise power supplies and shielding from outside interference. The results are stunning. The musicality of the HD30 is at a level never before heard. You can experience instruments and virtually feel the room they play in. You feel the smile widening in your face and the hair rising on your arms when the HD30 begins to play. The finger touching the string, a millisecond before the guitar starts to sound. The singer drawing that breath of anticipation right before he starts playing in front of a live crowd.

Whether you choose to use Apple AirPlay, a CD-player, a Music Server, a Computer or any other device, the HD30 will bring all the music and enthusiasm that exists in the recording.

Features

Specifications

Reviews

Specifications

DAC resolution: Dual mono 32 bit/192 kHz multilevel sigma-delta DAC
Line output: 2.6 VRMS
Digital inputs: 1 coaxial, 3 optical, 1 USB, 1 ethernet, 1 BNC, 1 AES/EBU
Analog outputs: 1 fixed line level (RCA), 1 fixed line level (Balanced XLR)
Distortion: Typical 0.0005%
Frequency response: 0 Hz - 50 kHz
Noise floor: Typically -150 dB
Power supply: Separate torodial transformers for analog/digital 54,000 uF capacitors
Output impedance: 22 ohms unbalanced and 44 ohms balanced
Control input: 1 IR-direct mini-jack
Dimensions/weight: 8cm (10cm w/feet) x 43cm x 31cm (HxWxD), 6,5 Kg

Reviews

To my ears, the HD30 is one of the best-sounding DACs you can buy today.
Doug Schneider

REVIEW SUMMARY: 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.

EXTENDED REVIEW: 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 aSoundStage! 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 USD $4800 (excl tax)

Description

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.

Connection options

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 PCMand 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.

Sound

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 (USD $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.

Get 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 hisPoetic 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.

Conclusions

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

A TRULY EXCEPTIONAL DAC....
Greg Weaver

REVIEW SUMMARY: The new HD30 flagship DAC from Hegel of Norway is one exceptional device. After living with it in place for some extended time, I find myself in full concurrence with Hegel founder Bent Holter's statements as to the significance of this product release in the Hegel constellation of devices. Its combination of exquisitely rendered tone (from subterranean depths to stratospheric reaches), complex and exacting texture, dynamic expressiveness (micro and especially macro!), relaxed, natural yet detailed, vivid, and comprehensive presentation, class-exceeding resolution, and spacious, focused staging and imaging, make it an over-achieving super star. All I can say is that you should not buy a DAC, not even at twice the Hegel HD30's asking price, without auditioning it first! It's your money, and you've been warned!

If you are a die-hard analog hound like me, or have just eschewed using a digital playback system for whatever reason (as I did until about three years ago), this may be the perfect time, and most affordable device, to get you into remarkably satisfying, enjoyable digital playback. The Hegel HD30 has changed how I look at (and listen to) DACs under US$8000. I can't imagine you could find anything to quibble with at its price... You will be one satisfied music lover.

EXTENDED REVIEW: My time with the entry edition Hegel HD12 DAC left me so impressed that I now own it. Conflated with the overwhelmingly positive reception of Hegel's amplifiers and integrated amplifiers, the announcement that they were introducing a new flagship DAC, the HD30 as reviewed here, had me more than just a little interested. Once I learned that I would be doing this review, I emailed my request for more in-depth information than was shared in the press release or at the Hegel Music Systems website directly to Anders Ertzeid, Hegel's VP Sales & Marketing. His rapid and enthusiastic response to my questions about the technical aspects of the Hegel HD30 was more than just a bit disappointing. Mr. Ertzeid wrote:
"As for the chip-set's etc. – it's been a "Hegel thing" not to talk so much about that in our marketing, but rather speak of the implementation (knowing that the web doesn't say too much about that either). But it's no secret either.

We are using the newest AKM 4490 chip-set in dual mono configuration. The biggest update, though is the clock. Using the absolutely best crystals available and matching them perfectly with power supplies and driver transistors have reduced phase noise to incredibly low levels. So low that we had to tweak our Audio Precision AP1 instruments to allow it.

Furthermore, there is a lot of effort put into the power supplies. Both all discrete local voltage regulators throughout, but also in the sense that there are separate toroidal transformers for the analog and the digital stage.

The noisy USB and Network sections (as well as the toroidal's) are totally separated from the low noise sections. Allowing a noise floor reaching towards -150dB."

As if those declarations weren't enough, in the HD30's owner's manual, Bent Holter, founder of the company, says, "The HD30 is, without a doubt, HEGEL's most advanced product to date. In my humble opinion, it's the finest product ever created by HEGEL." By any measure, that is a strong statement.

Wanting for more, I started doing my own research. Sadly, I was not able to uncover much more, either from their site or from general web searches. But, let's consider the AKM 4490, which is a 762kHz/32-Bit stereo DAC built by Asahi Kasei Microdevices, based in Tokyo, Japan. These devices are both very well thought of in high-end audio circles, and in heavy rotation with some key players. Companies like Astell & Kern, Cayin, Denon, Kenwood, Onkyo, Schiit, and Teac use them in a wide variety of products, from AV Surround Receivers to Optical disc players, DACs, and portable HD Music players. More to the point, this is the core chipset used in a number of exceptional Optical Disc players, including the likes of SACD Players from Esoteric Audio, including the K-05X, K-07X, and Bryston's BDA-2 and BDA-3 DACs. The next step up, the AKM 4495, populates some of Esoteric's flagship products, such as the $14,000 K-03X and the superb $22,000 Grandioso D1 monoblock D/A converters – yes, that means $44,000 for stereo.

One design approach that is discussed at the website, even as sketchily as it is, is their attempt at managing "skirting," a form of jitter that manifests as additional noise in the immediate frequencies around a main tone. The subjective effects of this type of phase-noise are generally perceived as a lack of precision; a blurring of fine detail. Here, part of what Mr. Ertzeid discussed in his email to me comes into play.  By employing a redeveloped and redesigned clocking process they call Super-Clock, which entails extremely careful and close matching of transistors with the clock crystal, they've realized some extremely low jitter levels. Yet, that's all they say about it, other than to assert that it affords a significant reduction of "skirting."

Beyond a number of other such generalizations, Hegel doesn't have much else to say about this device, or any others in current production for that matter. They cite several of these "house" technologies (like the aforementioned Super-Clock), but as indicated by Mr. Ertzeid's direct response, they really don't go into how they do what they do. As such, I'm left to focus on the build-quality, feature set, and sonic results of this effort, rather than the design. But believe me, that leaves plenty enough to discuss!

Package

At 17" wide, 12.25" deep, and just 3.14" (3.93" w/footers) tall, tipping the scales at just over 14.25 pounds, this new flagship DAC from Norway, while very typical of other manufacturer's entrants at this price point, it is over three times larger than, and more than twice as heavy as, the Hegel HD12 DAC I reviewed here. In fact, it is the first full-sized chassis DAC Hegel has brought to market.

Hegel HD30 DAC

While the anodized aluminum case of the HD30 is impeccable constructed and beautifully finished, its appearance may be seen as more utilitarian that posh to many. The faceplate itself is not flat, but rather, slightly rounded left to right and top to bottom; sort of a section of a sphere. Its layout is fully symmetrical, with a 5" wide by 1" tall display centered left to right, but slightly below the center line vertically, with the HEGEL logo centered just above it. When powered on, the blue lit display shows selected input (AES, BNC, CO1, OP1, OP2, OP3, USB, NET) in the left half, while the volume attenuation (1-100, with 101 displayed when set to volume bypass) is displayed to the right. An inch-and-a-half diameter knob, one each, immediately to the display's left and right, control input selection (left), and the volume (right).

Moving to the back, we see three distinct sections left to right, analog outputs, digital inputs, and AC. Outputs are grouped by right (XLR and RCA) and left (RCA and XLR), so the single-ended outputs are side by side, while the balanced outputs are outside each of the RCA jacks. The digital inputs are grouped as AES/EBU, BNC, Coax1, Optical 1, Optical 2, and Optical 3. Next is a 3.5 mm IR Input jack (for external control cable), an up/down USB Mode selector. When up, in the A position, you have the default plug & play mode, supporting up to 96kHz and 24-bit, while down, the B position, supports up to 192kHz and 24 bits resolution, and native DSD64/128. That is followed by the USB and RJ-45 network cable inputs. The final section to the right, includes the fuse block, the on/off toggle switch and the IEC socket.

The remote is much more serious that that included with the HD12; 6.25" long, 1.625" wide, and just under 0.75" thick, milled out of metal, and sporting 15 small, 1/8" diameter round buttons, arranged in five rows of three. The top row of three, Prev, Play, and Next, are set to work with your server, and they worked just fine with mine, a home brew Dell OptiPlex (Intel i5, 256 GB SSD HD, 8GB RAM, and all music libraries stored on external drives), using JRiver 21. The next 12 buttons include: DAC+, ECO, DISP, Prev, Play, Next, In+, Stop, Vol+, In-, Mute, Vol-, and control various aspects of the input selection, display functionality, and volume.

I tested connecting my HD30 to my wired network, which brought almost instant results. The unit is set up to work with DHCP on networks, and automatically received an IP-address from my router. A quick look in my connected devices now showed "Hegel HD30 XXXXXX, with the Xes being the last six digits of the HD30 MAC address. It was that simple. The Hegel HD30 supports Apple's AirPlay, and can function as a DLNA Digital Media Renderer, receiving and playing media files from a UPnP/DLNA compatible media player supporting PCM (WAV/AIFF), FLAC, Ogg and MP3.

As my music server set up is optimized for playback of files directly from a four terabyte storage drive, not a NAS, I didn't really spend any time testing any of the streaming functionality: I will leave that up to someone else to comment upon. Further, given Apple iTunes constrained ability to only playMP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC and Apple Lossless (.m4a) files natively, I'd say the convenience is overshadowed. You'd be forgoing much of the sonic quality this DAC can render using AirPlay.

Achievement

Bass is wonderfully articulate, even down into the lowest reaches. When the source is up to it, like with "She's Already Made Up Her Mind," from Lyle Lovett's superb Joshua Judges Ruth (Curb), or the 2nd movement of Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony (Reference Recordings), assuming your other electronics and speakers are up to the challenge of subsonic reproduction, the room pressurizes, with both a clear sense of speed and pitch solidity that is so accurate that you will be startled.I'm simply not used to hearing bass rendered this faithfully, effusively, or completely from a DAC, let alone one in this price range. It plays this portion of the audio spectrum accurately enough that it has the ability to trigger the "Fight or Flight" reptilian response. Because my analog system can create this sensation readily, I know it when I "feel" it. And feel it you do with the HD30!

It delivers an exciting and engaging sense of midrange bloom and body that is more shockingly reminiscent of really great analog than I had expected. This was very welcomed, as it created an incredibly realistic sense of physical size, location, and "space" as good as, or slightly better, than most any DAC I can recall hearing for nearly twice its asking price. One of the reasons I'm such a die-hard vinyl fan is that, by comparison, even "high-resolution" digital audio sounds hard, strained, glassy, congested, and flat. While the HD30 doesn't completely transcend this common digital barrier (like the spectacular Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series) if affords an exceptionally large measure of it.

This new Hegel further treated me to the most remarkable degree of extension, detail, and resolve in the uppermost octaves. Yet as rife with detail and sparkle as it is, this topmost frequency range is portrayed in an undisputedly relaxed fashion that is extremely captivating, again surprisingly reminiscent of a good analog playback system.

Listening to the DSD64 download of the Santana cover of the Fleetwood Mac song (written in 1968 by guitarist Peter Green), "Black Magic Woman" from Santana's 1971 jazz, Afro-Caribbean, blues influenced rock masterpiece Abraxas, was almost revelatory. Through the HD30, it so closely mimicked both the exposure of inner detail and overall resolution I hear when playing the Mobile Fidelity LP that I played both, head-to-head to confirm my astonishment. Michael Shrieve's grooving conga and timbale work (using licks he'd nicked from the obscure B.B. King Plays The Cha Cha album) was stunningly accentuated within the dense tapestry of the rest of this unique mix, affording astonishing imagery and a very lifelike sound.

You may have noticed how often I referred to the fact that the HD30 evoked a strong similarity to good analog as I worked through my evaluation – I know I sure did! So, as I tried to put my finger on just what it was that makes this new entrant from Norway so special, it became clear. In a single word, it comes down to resolution. While some struggle with that word, I want to be clear on what it means to me. Many use descriptors like fast, detailed, resolute, or even transparent to describe resolution, when in truth, what they are hearing is overly bright, super-detailed, incisive, and/or hyper-analytical. This "faux" resolution comes at expense of naturalness, that sense of organic-ness or musicality.

I feel it safe to say that most of us don't like bright, super-detailed, incisive, or hyper-analytical "sound." But then again, that isn't true resolution. Resolution does not mean bright or super-detailed. True resolution reveals and uncovers detail and nuance. This includes microdynamic subtitles like extremely fine transient detail, or rendering the subtleties of instrumental tone color and texture. It is indicative of an enhanced ability to follow a single instrumental line deep within dense and convoluted arrangements or a starker sense of the space around instrumental images within the soundstage. True resolution comes from elevated clarity realized by improvements and progressive design achievement that lead to lower distortion, all working to allow the unmasking of previously obscured information, not by enhancing or emphasizing any particular bandwidth or frequency range. In short, I would use the term unmasking to characterize resolution: never terms like bright or detailed, which, while those may be artifacts of less-effective design choices, do nothing to influence resolution.

But resolve is something at which the HD30 excels, and seemingly so effortlessly; in fact, at levels well above what I would expect in its price class. Honestly, based on its sonic performance alone, I would have put its price at US$8000, or even US$10,000! It is such an astonishing sonic over-achiever that I don't see this DAC leaving my system any time soon.

The new HD30 flagship DAC from Hegel of Norway is one exceptional device. After living with it in place for some extended time, I find myself in full concurrence with Hegel founder Bent Holter's statements as to the significance of this product release in the Hegel constellation of devices. Its combination of exquisitely rendered tone (from subterranean depths to stratospheric reaches), complex and exacting texture, dynamic expressiveness (micro and especially macro!), relaxed, natural yet detailed, vivid, and comprehensive presentation, class-exceeding resolution, and spacious, focused staging and imaging, make it an over-achieving super star. All I can say is that you should not buy a DAC, not even at twice the Hegel HD30's asking price, without auditioning it first! It's your money, and you've been warned!

If you are a die-hard analog hound like me, or have just eschewed using a digital playback system for whatever reason (as I did until about three years ago), this may be the perfect time, and most affordable device, to get you into remarkably satisfying, enjoyable digital playback. The Hegel HD30 has changed how I look at (and listen to) DACs under US$8000. I can't imagine you could find anything to quibble with at its price... You will be one satisfied music lover.
…….Greg Weaver

OUR RATING:
Tonality 4.5/5
Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz) - 4/5
Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz) - 4/5
Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz) - 4.5/5
High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up) - 4/5
Attack - 4.5/5
Decay - 4/5
Inner Resolution - 4.5/5
Soundscape Width Front - 4.5/5
Soundscape Width Rear - 4.5/5
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers - 4.5/5
Soundscape Extension Into Room - 5/5
Imaging - 4.5/5
Fit And Finish - 4/5
Self Noise - 4.5/5
Value For The Money - 5/5

......everything snaps into even sharper focus, and we’re discovering even more from the recordings. It’s totally addictive stuff.
Andrew Everard

HiFi NEWS VERDICT
Regardless, or perhaps because of its downsampling of very high rate media, Hegel’s HD30 begs to be auditioned by all serious digiphiles. By tweaking the sample rate of the DAC chips and using the low-noise technology developed for its amps, the Norwegian designers have come up with a product delivering a sound with remarkable presence, impact, subtlety and detail. It’s a wholly captivating listen.

ORGANIC SOUND:
Hegel’s design philosophy is embodied in what it loosely describes as ‘Organic Sound’ where ‘all parts of a dynamic recording are reproduced exactly like the original’. With no more specific detail provided on its website, Hegel leaves me wondering if this ethos was partially inspired by its choice of audio chip supplier Asahi Kasei and the ‘Velvet Sound’ promoted in its literature [see www. akm.com/akm/en/product/featured/velvetsound]. The sophisticated 32-bit architecture of this premium chip range is clearly aimed at high-end hi-fi brands requiring support for 768kHz LPCM and 11.2MHz DSD, offering ‘a balance between information and intensity... focusing on the original sound to achieve rich musicality and high performance’. Hegel has adopted a pair of these Velvet Sound AK4490 DACs with a matching AK4137 sample-rate converter for its HD30, although in practice, and evidenced by Hegel’s response specification of ‘50kHz’, all inputs are resampled to a frequency close to 96kHz. We’ve seen DACs from MBL and Métronome that downsample to precisely 96kHz, but Hegel’s HD30 brings its own, unique, twist [see Lab Report]. PM

EXTENDED REVIEW: This is the first time a product from the Norwegian Hegel brand has appeared in these pages: it makes its début with a DAC that proves the importance of silence... 

The boom in the availability of highend digital-to-analogue converters has raised an interesting possibility for the system-builder using solely digital sources: given that so many of these products have a variable-level analogue output, it’s possible to connect them straight into a power amp or even a pair of active speakers, bypassing the need for a conventional line-level preamplifier. The Hegel HD30, the flagship DAC from this Norwegian company, is one such ‘digital control centre’. 

The HD30 offers not just an array of conventional digital inputs, including asynchronous, DSD-compatible USB, but also the ability to function as a DLNA/ UPnP network client supporting the likes of Apple AirPlay. Yes, the network capability is somewhat limited – this is a client to which music needs to be ‘pushed’ using a third-party app – but it’s still a function well worth having, and makes the Hegel an interesting alternative to more conventional network music players.

so who is hegel? 

So, before we get ahead of ourselves, who exactly is Hegel? While the company may not be familiar to many readers, its roots go back the late 1980s, and a thesis on amplifier transistor design by student Bent Holter, then studying at the Technical University of Trondheim. Based on his research into harmonic distortion in amplifiers, he developed what is now called ‘SoundEngine’ technology, initially for use in amps for his band, The Hegel Band, with help from telecoms company Telenor. 

As well as amplifiers, Hegel added DACs and CD players, with the first converter in 1994 followed by a player in 1996. Over the subsequent couple of decades the company has refined and developed its range, and now has distribution in 32 countries. It handles its UK distribution from its Oslo HQ, and has a small number of dealers here, with a range now encompassing both integrated and pre/ power amplification, CD players and DACs, and a headphone amplifier. 

As is often the way with products from Scandinavian or Nordic companies, its products are distinguished by solid but simple design and construction, giving clean lines and fuss-free operation along with a ‘hewn from solid’ feel, as is the case with the HD30 here. 

There’s not much on show beside a large, clear blue-on-black display (of input source and sampling rate/output level) and two controls, for source and volume, but the whole thing exudes a feeling of cool quality – as you might hope for this kind of money. And yes, that front panel is milled from a solid piece of aluminium. 

The HD30 uses a pair of 32-bit DACs in a dual-mono implementation for optimal stereo separation, and a system its calls ‘SynchroDAC’ in place of the more common 44.1kHz to 176.4kHz and 48kHz to 192kHz up-sampling processes employed elsewhere [see PM’s boxout]. The combination of SynchroDAC and the balanced topology reduces odd-order distortions and improves the achievable dynamic range but the final frequency response is limited to about 50kHz. Similarly, the crystal clock is located hard up against the DAC section of the PCB to minimise jitter, while the analogue output stage draws on Hegel’s SoundEngine technology, employing ‘adaptive feedforward’ compensation, rather than global feedback, to manage distortion.

christmassy handbook 

The analogue output is available on both RCA phonos and balanced XLRs, with the level controlled by the right hand knob on the fascia and via the remote control handset supplied, which is another cool metal device. Setting the level to its fixed maximum, at which point the display will show ‘101’, gives a suitable output for use directly into a conventional integrated amplifier or preamplifier. 

The main digital inputs, selected by the left knob or the remote handset, are pretty conventional, encompassing S/PDIF coaxial (on RCA phono and BNC), three optical and an AES/EBU input, but the HD30 also has both a Type-B USB input for connection to a computer, and an Ethernet port. The USB has a dip-switch beside it to select either A or B: the former gives ‘plug and play’ operation with computers, but is limited to files of up to 96kHz/24-bit, while the latter extends compatibility to 192kHz/24-bit and DSD64/128 (using DSD over PCM frames), but requires the use of downloadable drivers for Windows, and (for DSD) Mac OSX. 

the A/B switch isn’t explained anywhere in the manual (which comes complete with a Nordic forest scene on the cover, making it look more like a Christmas card than an instruction book) – I had to turn to the ‘read me’ notes supplied with the driver download for my Mac computers. 

However, as Anders Ertzeid, Hegel’s VP Sales & Marketing, acknowledged during our research for this review, ‘the sound [in A and B modes] is exactly the same’. Hegel says the HD30 is best used with Audirvana as a computer music player, and the software and DAC worked together as smoothly as any such combination I have tried. However, the unusual streaming solution will take a bit more familiarisation for anyone more used to all-in-one network player devices

The usual UPnP control points, including PlugPlayer and the Kinsky open-source software distributed by Linn, work well with a NAS full of music and the Hegel, though they do require learning the concept of adding tracks or albums to a playlist before they can be output through the HD30. It’s not quite as intuitive as a player able to ‘pull’ music from the server for itself, but you soon get used to the ‘push’ method.

out of the silence… 

The most immediately apparent aspect of the sound of the Hegel is what isn’t there, as this must be one of the quietest hi-fi components I have ever auditioned. No, I’m not talking about level here – with a healthy 2.5V fixed output there’s no shortage of that – but rather the complete absence of noise, throwing the music being played into a sharp relief as soon as you start playing anything. It’s actually rather startling at first, leading to some suspicion that everything’s going to sound rather hyper-realistic – or perhaps just hyped-up – but after only a short period of acquaintance with the HD30 it soon becomes clear that this is not only going to be a thrilling ride, but also a highly enjoyable musical experience. 

Quite simply, the Hegel is almost the exemplar of ‘I was hearing things on recordings I never knew were there’. However, this is not purely a show of hi-fi ability to the point of distraction from the music, but rather all about startling the listener with its dynamics, its power, and the depth, focus and detailing of the sonic picture it creates.

It’s characterful in all the right ways, not imposing anything of itself on the music but rather bringing out the subtlest nuances of the sound of voices or instruments, and giving excellent insight into technique and performance, all the while developing an unfettered sound that might even have one thinking a heftier power amplifier had been transplanted into the system. And we’re not just talking about the very latest super-whizzo audiophile recordings here. 

With the eponymous first album from Dire Straits, here in DSD64 [Vertigo UIGY- 9634], I was immediately taken aback by the sheer impact of the instruments on the slow-burning ‘Six Blade Knife’, from the sharp, crisp guitar stabs to the fine detail of the patter of the percussion, and the laconic character of Mark Knopfler’s voice. 

In the same way, the Hegel dug deep into the layers of David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock set [96kHz/24-bit download, Columbia 88875123262]. OK, so that does make it sound even more Floyd-like for good or bad, but there’s no shortage of punch yet at the same time allowing the listener a fine impression of how well it’s been pieced together. 

One of the very good things about the Hegel is that it seems almost completely input-agnostic, such that one can’t say it’s best with USB or network or whatever, and switching back down to tried and tested CD quality revealed it’s also able to do a very fine job when playing the formats likely to make up the majority of potential buyers’ music collections. 

With the recent Duran Duran outing Paper Gods [Warner Bros 9362-49264-2] the Hegel gets its teeth into the driving bass-line of ‘Pressure Off’, while giving full rein to the guest guitar of co-producer Nile Rodgers and the vocals of Janelle Monáe, making this not only a return to form but a complete Duran Duran classic: big, multilayered and so classy.

captivated by live music 

I even gave it a workout with some vintage overproduction, in the form of ‘America’ from The Nice’s Autumn ’67 – Spring ’68 [DSD64, Virgin UIGY-9696], and while the age of the recording and its relative simplicity is inescapable, the Hegel brings out all the scale of the music and the beginnings of Keith Emerson’s career in keyboard abuse to exciting effect, as the notes can be heard clicking and banging away high in the mix. 

With Béla Fleck and Chick Corea’s Two live set [Concord Jazz CJA-37992-02], the Hegel does a beautiful job of keeping the unusual combination of banjo and piano crystal-clear while evoking an almost uncanny sense of the presence of the audience, and not just in the end-of-number applause! With the 2014 Martha Argerich And Friends Live From Lugano box [44.1kHz/24-bit, Warner Classics 0825646134601], the sheer detail of instruments and performance ensures a thrilling sound and total involvement too.

Oh, and it definitely handles DSD audio in an utterly compelling way. The 1-bit sampler compilation 8 Ensembles [DSD64, JL002] – a typically detailed recording by Channel Classics/NativeDSD-founder Jared Sacks – takes in everything from vocal ensembles to violin and piano. Via the HD30, it’s hard not to be awestruck by the sheer realism of the textures on offer, especially in the pizzicato attack of the Ravel sonata for violin and cello, where I swear you can almost hear the vibration of every string! 

And then you switch to the DSD128 version of the same album – its bandwidth fitting within the HD30’s 50kHz ‘window’ – and everything snaps into even sharper focus, and we’re discovering even more from the recordings. It’s totally addictive stuff. 
............ 
Andrew Everard

LAB REPORT:
In practice, Hegel asynchronously resamples all S/PDIF and USB inputs to realise an analogue frequency response that’s –0.06dB/20kHz (44.1/48kHz inputs) and –0.31dB/45kHz (or –3dB/47kHz with any incoming rate above 96kHz, including DSD128). Within this bandwidth, both USB and S/PDIF inputs yield the same excellent performance, with 110.2dB/110.7dB A-wtd S/N ratios, respectively, from a maximum 2545mV output and 22ohm source impedance (balanced XLR outs). Stereo separation stretches out to 130dB through the midrange while its L/R channel balance is good to ±0.04dB over the top 80 steps of its digitally-governed volume. 

Distortion is also very low indeed, and as much a function of the analogue output/filter stage as the pair of AK4490 DACs. THD drops as low as 0.0002% from 20Hz-20kHz at –10dBFs [see Graph 1, below] with a peak level maximum of just 0.00055% at 20kHz regardless of 48kHz, 96kHz or 192kHz input sample rate (many DACs show a change in high frequency distortion behaviour depending on the native sample rate – the HD30 does not). Low-level resolution is good to ±0.1dB over a full 100dB dynamic range and stopband rejection, from Hegel’s choice of AK’s ‘Traditional’ sharp roll-off filter, is >124dB. 

Most impressive of all are the ‘clean’ jitter spectra from both S/PDIF and USB inputs [see Graph 2, below], the mere 5-15psec achieved through a combination of Hegel’s discrete low phase noise clocks and the proprietary jitter reduction technology at the core of Asahi Kasei’s AK4137/4490 chipset. 
...........Paul Miller