Hegel is something of an overlooked audio hero in the UK. In practically every other region on the planet, the Norwegian company is well respected for its range of excellent amplifiers, CD players and especially its DACs. In the UK however, the brand is almost unknown…which is a shame, because based on the HD11 32bit, we Brits are missing a trick.
The DAC is relatively basic (it’s a DAC after all, and has little need of knobs or buttons in its day-to-day operation), but source selection is performed from a credit-card sized remote. The HD11 has an ace up its sleeve, as it can send messages back down the USB line – if you are using a computer – and control your music server software at a distance. It even works with software like Pandora and Spotify…excellent! And under the hood is a fruity toroidal transformer, the likes of which any passing audiophile would nod at in approval.
Hegel has a long history of DAC engineering, with its first converter dating back more than 20 years. This latest one sports a 32bit precision AKM DAC. It includes a pair of S/PDIF coaxial and a single Toslink optical inputs, as well as both balanced and single-ended audio outputs and a Type B USB input. The Hegel HD11 32-bit supports USB, in adaptive mode. Not asynchronous USB; the darling of the computer audiophile is, according to Hegel designer Anders Ertzeid, has more to do with clever marketing than it is good engineering smarts. He’s not that much more impressed with apodizing filters either, preferring just good old linear phase instead.
Fortunately, Hegel doesn’t just randomly dislike things without having its own distinct pathway to improve the sound of digital audio. The HD11 32-bit has its own custom re-clocking system instead, as well as a special impedance matching circuit (on COAX 1) to reduce any cable-interface jitter problems in their own right. Although these coaxial inputs can process music up to 24/192 precision, Ertzeid prefers to keep USB sound at or below 24/96 quality, because he feels the extra processing going on in the computer to parse a 24/192 file creates more problems than it solves. Although this is a minority view among hi-rezzers (there has to be a better term than that), it’s one that’s gaining ground.
The problem with any electronic claim – unless it’s a real fruit-cake one like ‘elephant dung is a better conductor than copper’ – is it often comes down to differences of opinion. Designers can make an elegant argument to support their case while undermining the argument of rivals, and vice versa. So, like most audio devices, Hegel’s claims to the path of digital rightness stand or fall on their sound quality.
So, no problems there, then!
It’s odd, this DAC is kind of the absolute opposite to the sort of product I normally go for. This is the kind of device that favours the frequency extremes and I often go all British about getting the midrange right. But here, that seems less of a concern. The DAC does have a distinctly clean, shiny top-end that could be misread as brightness in the wrong system and it has a big, powerful bass, which is highly attractive. But these elements are not on the aggressive ‘boom-tizz’ side of things; they bring out the energy in the music well.
In fact, the Hegel HD11 is a very balanced performer, and not merely through its XLR sockets. It manages to tow a fine line between the plinky-plonky beautiful, but musically bankrupt sound of some DACs, and the more musically integral, but considerably less refined sound of products in or around this price.
Piano is an especially crushing instrument for digital (it’s an especially difficult instrument to get right, which is why you so rarely hear played on its own in hi-fi demonstrations…these guys know how to hide their failings). It can ring, zing, clang, boing, tizz, reverberate, sound like it’s being played underwater, practically everything except sound like a piano should. Out came Glenn Gould playing the Goldbergs (both ’55 and ’82 vintages), then Uchida and Brendel each taking their turn playing Beethoven’s piano sonatas. And perhaps this is why I feel so warm toward the Hegel DAC; it plays those notes at the far left and right of the keyboard well, but not at the expense of the middle registers. And it also ties all this together so well. The piano sounds like a piano again. And, as you expand out from just a piano, so you discover that natural sound applies universally.
The HD11 is also smooth sounding, so much so you’d almost expect it to have a valve output stage. Or even be a record player. And yet, it’s not smoothed over or a faked vinyl sound; the detail is still there and if the music needs to go to the Mastodon place (or for that matter the Mahler place) it does it with all the energy needed to replay this music properly. But it does that with an underlying satisfying sound quality, and a big soundstage.