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To hear new music, I frequently turn to Lala.com – an online music library of some 8 million songs. I particularly like Lala because it allows users to listen to a complete track or album all the way through one time, instead of offering 30-second samples. Lala's digital files are MP3s of variable bit-rates, so compression is inevitable, but I was impressed by how much the music filled out through the HD10. It's not CD quality sound but certainly far closer to the real thing. Think of the USB input as a sound card that blows away existing computer sound cards. The HD10 effectively turns a computer's hard drive into a high-end digital player. If you've got a desktop or laptop computer loaded with music, it's going to sound much better through the Hegel.
I was curious, however, to hear what the HD10 could do with two records whose music I like but whose recordings are so compressed and dry to be nearly unlistenable: Metallica's And Justice For All and Rush's Vapor Trails. On top of the original studio compression, the Hegel had to deal with the MP3 compression – a tale of two compressions, so to speak. I wasn't expecting much, but tracks such as “Blackened,” “Eye Of The Beholder” and “The Shortened Straw” retained their grit but had far less of the “hollow” character of the original digital mix. Alas, though, not even the HD10 could save Vapor Trails, one of the most curiously over-compressed and noisy recordings I've heard. The opening track “One Little Victory” sounded even worse, with the echo-laden drums and vocals made further wretched by accuracy. Oh well...
Next, I ran a Squeezebox Duet through the HD10. The Duet features its own 24/192 DAC, but after running the signal through the Hegel it's quickly evident that not all 24/192 DACs are equal. Whether streaming Internet radio or music from iTunes, the Hegel made for better listening every time. Obviously the HD10 is a more robust unit than the Duet, but I was still blown away by the improvement.
Lastly, I connected the HD10 to my Yamaha DV-S5770 - a universal player that's served me well over the years for forays into SACD and DVD-Audio. I chose Neil Young's Live At Massey Hall for a test, going with the DVD side that contains 24-bit/96kHz PCM stereo tracks. With the HD10 in place, the sound improvement was startling – cleaner, more open, better soundstage. Young's voice and guitar had such convincing in-room presence to make me look back at the speakers to center myself.
Revisiting the Black Crowes' 2005 concert film, Freak '' Roll …Into The Fog, again brought out the “live” in this performance. It's not just great stage footage but a fantastic live recording. It would be difficult to go back to my non-HD10 days. Hearing both DVDs through the Hegel made me realize how stodgy the Yamaha sounds on its own – or, rather, how much better it can sound.
The HD10 is a first-rate digital-to-analog converter whose versatility makes it a multi-tool component. Pair it with a CD, DVD or Blu-ray player; network it and stream the best music you've ever heard. Neutral, quiet and superb tonal balance, the HD10 doesn't impart its personality on the music; instead, it draws out the music's own personality. Sounds good to me.
Apple Mac mini
Hegel HD10 DAC
Hegel H100 integrated amplifier
Role Audio Sampan mini-tower loudspeakers
Marantz SR 6004 A/V receiver
Yamaha DV-S5770 SACD/DVD-Audio player
Logitech Squeezebox Duet
Axiom Audio M80 v2 loudspeakers
Better Cables Silver Serpent Anniversary Edition Interconnects
Better Cables Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables (3 meter/bananas)