The first "outboard" DAC I ever heard was one built onboard a Bryston B100 integrated amplifier that I was reviewing. I’d just plugged the B100 in and was in awe of its sound, which was more transparent and natural than anything I’d heard in my system up till then. I was listening to the opening track of Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele and decided to switch from the DAC of the NAD C 542 CD player I’d been using to the Bryston’s DAC, to understand why the latter came as a $1000 option. I couldn’t believe my ears. As impressive as the B100 was on its own, its sound through its built-in DAC was phenomenal. As if a curtain between me and the music had been raised, the sound became even clearer, even more revealing, and even more intimate. At that moment, I realized I’d probably never buy another CD player.
That was six years ago. Five years ago I bought the Bryston B100 with DAC. (I have yet to replace my NAD C 542 -- as a CD transport, that workhorse has never failed me.) Today DACs are everywhere, and sales of CD players are in drastic decline. With many people listening to music stored on computer-based hard drives connected to state-of-the-art outboard DACs that perform just as well as (or better than) CD players, one has to wonder why anyone would ever buy a reference CD player again. A product that further begs that question is Hegel Music Systems’ flagship DAC, the HD20.
Based in Oslo, Norway, Hegel Music Systems was founded in the late 1980s, but has begun to distribute their products in North America only in the past few years. Currently they offer a full range of electronics: CD players, DACs, preamps, stereo power amplifiers, and integrated amps.
Below the HD20 ($2000 USD) in the hierarchy of Hegel DACs are the HD2 ($350) and HD11 ($1200). The HD20 comes equipped with one optical and two coaxial inputs, all of which can accept incoming digital data with word lengths of up to 24 bits and sampling frequencies to 192kHz. A USB input accepts up to 24/96 resolution. A number of DACs now on the market can accept up to 24/192 resolution via USB, but the HD20’s coaxial or optical inputs will require a USB-to-S/PDIF converter to take advantage of sample rates that high. The manual states that, of the HD20’s four digital inputs, Coax 1 offers the best sound quality. No reason was provided for this, and I was disappointed that, for $2000, Hegel can’t offer the same sound quality for all its inputs. The HD20 has unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) analog outputs; for best sound, Hegel recommends balanced output.
Although the HD20’s primary function is as a DAC, its built-in digital volume control allows it to serve as a preamplifier when plugged directly into a power amplifier. This is nice to have if you want a relatively simple system that forgoes the expense of a separate preamp. The Hegel’s volume ranges from 0 (mute) to 100 (maximum output); when used with a preamplifier or integrated amplifier that has its own volume control, the HD20’s volume should be set to 100.
The HD20 comes supplied with Hegel’s RC3 remote control. With this, the user can not only switch between inputs and adjust the volume, but also control the volume, input, and track selection of other Hegel models, including their CD players and preamps.
I used the HD20 only to listen to CDs, but those who partner it with a computer via USB will find that it automatically installs itself as a USB soundcard, provided the computer is running the most recent version of Windows, Mac, or Linux. (Warning: With Mac and Linux, you might have to go into System Preferences and select the USB audio DAC as an output device.) The HD20’s plug-and-play connectivity is a good feature for those intimidated by computer audio.
Housed in a minimalist-looking black aluminum enclosure measuring 8.3"W x 2.4"H x 10.2"D and weighing 7.7 pounds, the HD20 was very easy to live with, and basically disappeared on my equipment rack. Its most distinctive feature is the large blue LCD display at the center of its front panel, which shows the selected input as well as the volume setting. If you’d rather not see this, it can be turned off.
I inserted Hegel’s HD20 DAC into a system featuring Simaudio’s flagship integrated amplifier, the Moon Evolution 700i, and the matching Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport. The 650D’s transport fed the outgoing digital signal to the HD20’s Coax 1 input using an i2Digital X-60 digital coaxial cable; Nordost MoonGlo RCA cables carried the Hegel’s analog output to the 700i. Nordost Quattro Fil balanced interconnects linked the 700i and 650D, and AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables terminated in banana plugs connected the 700i to Amphion Argon3L loudspeakers. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator.
Except for a bit of midrange forwardness, the HD20 sounded neutral. The sound was never in my face, and didn’t try to impress with sonic colorations that might be alluring, but only until you tire of owning a component that imposes its own character on your music. The HD20 managed to shine by not calling attention to itself.
The Hegel’s reproduction of the midrange was clear and open, and it did a fantastic job of portraying inner detail without spotlighting it in any way that seemed unnatural. Listening to "Louis Collins," from Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s Shady Grove (CD, Acoustic Disc ACD-21), I heard a wide stage across which the pluckings of the various stringed instruments in this bluegrass ensemble were crisp and distinct. The track was so clearly rendered that it was easy to envision outlines of the musicians at the front of the room, their pre-song banter making it seem as if they were actually sitting there in my listening room, only a few feet away.
The HD20’s ability to convey the clarity and musicality of Shady Grove was duplicated with the Hot Club of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Bounce (CD, Reference RR-109). The fiddle in "Mystery Pacific" sounded rich and vibrant, its distinct tone exquisitely rendered by the Hegel. The rhythm of this piece was infectious, and, as with the Garcia-Grisman disc, it was easy to sort out the musical event unfolding on the stage.
The more time I spent with the HD20, the more I came to appreciate the balance it struck between sounding precise and focused while retaining enough fullness and body that it never sounded dry or analytical. It consistently got things right; I was unable to think of anything I wanted it to do differently.
It was in human voices that I consistently heard the HD20’s slight prominence in the midrange. In "Guaranteed," from his soundtrack for Into the Wild (CD, J-Records 88697-15944-2), Eddie Vedder’s baritone was just a touch forward, a point accentuated by the reverb added to this track, which creates a sense of openness and emptiness that serves to further emphasize his voice. The backing vocals were lucidly rendered, enhancing the depth and space of the soundstage, as the dark acoustic backdrop conferred by the Hegel produced an intimate, involving sound.
Down low, the Hegel performed as admirably as up high, producing bass that was full and fleshed out while maintaining excellent clarity and control. The beats in "Youlogy," from Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up (CD, Sub Pop 98787 09002), had heft and impact, flooding the room with powerful low end that never detracted from the rest of the song. The same was true of the rhythmic bass thumps in "Endeavor for Never," which also had suitable weight and punch with no added bloat. The HD20 didn’t sound warm, but managed a balance of producing enough volume and impact while sounding quick and articulate. Again, the HD20 provided little target for criticism; I found I spent most of my time simply enjoying music rather than trying to dissect it.
Since the HD20 was already connected to the digital output of the Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, it was easy to compare their sounds with the press of a button. The 650D ($9000), a reference DAC-transport, was reviewed on SoundStage! Hi-Fi earlier this year. Like the Hegel, the 650D’s DAC section offers four digital inputs: USB, TosLink, coaxial, and balanced XLR (the Hegel has two coaxial but no balanced inputs). The 650D is built like a tank; its sturdy metal casework was apparently designed to withstand a nuclear Armageddon.
The sounds of the HD20 and 650D had a couple of things in common. Each DAC presented music against a black backdrop that showcased its clean, revealing sound. Both created lifelike soundstages with realistic scaling of images, which were always presented with clear outlines. From their smooth highs to their stout bottom ends, the Norwegian and Canadian DACs both offered sound that can be considered the state of the art.
Where their sounds differed was in fullness and presence. Relative to the 650D, the HD20 brought music farther out into the room, exhibiting an upfront character. This gave the impression of a bigger sound that inevitably felt more immersive because it seemed closer. Singers always sounded as if they’d stepped toward me a bit; the more laid-back 650D made the music seem more distant.
With Shabazz Palaces’ "Youlogy" the Hegel HD20 sounded forward, something I especially noted in the voices, which seemed closer but also spread more widely across the front of the room -- something else that made the sound seem bigger. For its part, the Simaudio 650D offered more tightly focused vocal images, which it carved out with amazing precision between my speakers. The bass in "Endeavor for Never" was a bit fatter through the Hegel; through the Simaudio it was slightly leaner but still weighty.
The story with Into the Wild was much the same. Vedder’s voice consistently sounded more forward and full through the HD20. Both DACs imaged very clearly, but the Hegel’s images were more fleshed out, which I found quite engaging. As for their ability to create space, I found the DACs more alike than different. One might assume that, with its more forward sound, the Hegel would give the impression of having a deeper stage, but that wasn’t the case. If a recording contains the sound of a nice, deep stage, the 650D can re-create it as clearly as anything I’ve ever heard.
Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport and Hegel’s HD20 DAC are both reference products. But while their sounds share some traits, they’re sufficiently different to appeal to specific tastes. If I had to choose one, I would definitely pick the Hegel, and not only because it costs $7000 less. I preferred the HD20’s more upfront sound, which to me was more involving and drew me in closer. While I admired the tightness of the Simaudio’s sound, the Hegel’s fullness felt more musical and more immersive.
In the introduction, I wondered why anyone would bother to buy an expensive CD player when there are DACs that can perform just as well or better for a fraction of the cost. Hegel’s HD20 is one more product that offers another example of why many people are abandoning CDs and CD players in favor of hard drives. I store music on a hard drive, but still regularly listen to CDs -- my wireless audio setup has never matched the sound of the same recordings on CD. But even for someone who prefers CDs, the HD20 makes a compelling argument for buying a basic transport with a digital output and investing in a topnotch DAC. With the HD20, I was rewarded with CD playback that was as good as I’ve ever heard in my system, even in comparison with CD players that sell for multiples of its price.
Regardless of how it compares with even pricier competition, Hegel Music Systems’ HD20 is hardly cheap at $2000 -- which is probably why Hegel offers two less expensive DAC models. But if you’ve got the money to even consider buying the HD20, you should do just that: consider it. Its simple, unassuming appearance conceals a veritable tour de force of DAC design whose unerring musicality may elevate the sound of your system. Unless I’m missing something, the CD player is almost dead. Digital-to-analog converters such as Hegel’s HD20 are helping to drive the last nail in its coffin.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Amphion Argon3L
- Integrated amplifiers -- Bryston B100 SST, Simaudio Moon Evolution 700i
- Sources -- NAD C 542 CD player; Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport; Apple iMac computer, Apple AirPort Extreme, Apple AirPort Express; Thorens TD-160HD turntable, Rega Research RB250 tonearm, Dynavector DV-10X5 moving-coil cartridge
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Type 4
- Interconnects -- AudioQuest Copperhead, AMX Optimum AVC 31 coaxial, Nordost MoonGlo (single-ended), Nordost Quattro Fil (balanced), XtremeMac XtremeHD TosLink, i2Digital X-60 digital coax
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Hegel Music Systems HD20 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $2000 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems
P.O. Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56
North American distributors:
Hegel Music Systems USA
Phone: (641) 209-3210
Fax: (641) 209-3076
CP 8, 1217 Greene Ave.
Montreal, Quebec H3Z 2T1
Phone: (514) 931-1880
Fax: (514) 931-8891