When I was preparing for my trip to Japan to see the 2013 Tokyo International Audio Show, I realized that I was missing two key elements from my headphone rig to make it a true audiophile-grade setup: an external headphone amp and a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Not that I really needed them to simply listen to headphones, since every computer has a headphone amp and DAC of sorts built in. The problem is, what's in a computer isn't usually any good, so for serious listening you need more.
That's when I remembered the Super portable headphone amp-DAC that Hegel, which is based in Norway, introduced at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The Super retails for $399 in Canada and the United States, a price that certainly isn't inexpensive, but isn't outlandish either, since Hegel is known for their top-performing DACs, amps, and preamps. As a result, a headphone amp-DAC from them is likely to be a serious effort -- so I decided to take a serious look at it. The problem was that it was too late to get one in for my trip to Japan, but it wasn't too late to get it for my vacation in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, which is where I'm typing this. Early every morning, I set up a makeshift office in the corner of the lobby to wade through e-mails and articles, as well as listen to some music with my PSB M4U 2 headphones, which the Super is now driving.
The Super arrived a couple weeks before I left, but I didn't unpack it from its black cardboard box until I got here. When I did, I discovered an attractive, compact block (1.6"W x 3.2"L x 0.6"H) with a big Hegel logo engraved in the top. Frankly, when I first saw it, it reminded me of a mid-sized bar of soap, except that it is made entirely of aluminum, which gives it a real quality feel and super durability, something that's not insignificant when you're traveling and things get tossed about. The upper portion, including the sides, appears to be carved from a solid aluminum block, while a flat, separate aluminum bottom panel, which presumably is what the main circuit board inside is attached to, finishes the underside.
Hegel designed the Super to be purpose-specific and simple to use, so features are minimal -- there are no buttons and you must use the computer to change volume. On one end of the block is a minijack that acts not only as the analog headphone output, but also as an optical digital output if you want to use the Super as a USB-to-S/PDIF converter and reclocker. On the other end is a Micro-USB jack, which is where I discovered the only issue with this fine instrument. When I unboxed the Super, I couldn't find a cable that's Micro-USB on one end and standard USB on the other, which is what's needed to hook it up. At first, I figured that I lost it. Then I figured that I might've missed packing it, since the Super arrived from Hegel in a much larger box. But then I wrote Hegel and learned that the Super doesn't come with any cable at all. Luckily, I had a cable like that on hand that I use for something else, so it turned out to be a nonissue for me, but I think Hegel should supply one if only because of the price they're asking for the Super.
The Super is USB-powered, so you only have to plug the USB cable into your computer to make it work -- I plugged it in and my laptop recognized it instantly. Since the Super supports resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, but no higher, Windows-based computers will support it without the need for any additional drivers (Apple's OS X supports up to 24/192 natively, but all versions of Windows, including 7 and 8, top out at 24/96). The only caveat is that the Super doesn't support 88.2kHz, but you can easily work around that with playback software. For example, JRiver's Media Center, which is what I use on my Windows-based laptop, can be set to either up- or downsample various input frequencies to match what your DAC can handle. So I set Media Center to downsample 88.2kHz to 44.1kHz (I prefer integer-based up- or downsampling whenever I have to resort to using it) for the Super. Likewise, I also set Media Center to downsample 176.4kHz to 44.1kHz, and 192kHz to 96kHz. I also changed Media Center's Output Mode. By default, it sets the Output Mode to Direct Sound, which works, but sends the outgoing stream through the Windows sound mixer. Instead, I changed it to WASAPI, which provides a direct path to the USB port and, to my ears, sounds markedly superior. Finally, I turned off the built-in amplifiers for my PSB M4U 2 headphones, making them like any other passive headphones, since it makes no sense to have them turned on when you have a dedicated amplifier.
The first song I played through this setup was Marc Anthony's "Vivir Mi Vida," which is a newly released salsa-themed remake of Algerian singer Khaled's "C'est la vie," which was released in 2012 and was a hit overseas. "Vivir Mi Vida," like "C'est la vie," is a really fun, seriously catchy song that's been playing here over the resort's PA system almost nonstop, likely to support the concert that he had at Punta Cana's Hard Rock Hotel the other night. But I didn't have access to a downloaded version -- 16/44.1 or even MP3 -- so I listened from YouTube, which meant it didn't even stream through Media Center at all. To my surprise, it still sounded impressively clean, quite detailed, and very refined. I encourage you to listen for yourself and see if you agree. Many audiophiles criticize the sound quality of compressed formats such as MP3 and think that young people today are listening to nothing but inferior-sounding recordings, yet the stream coming from YouTube, whatever format that might be, sounded quite a bit better than AM or FM radio stations I was listening to when I was growing up.
But for real listening, I turned to the small music library I maintain on my laptop, which is mostly 16/44.1 and higher-resolution FLAC files, and played it using Media Center. It's the same music I listened to when I traveled to Japan. With this selection list, I was truly taken aback by how much better the Super made the M4U 2s sound compared to when they were driven directly from the headphone jack on my computer (even with their own amps on, which is the way they sound best direct from the computer or from, say, an airliner armrest). First off, the Super maintained an iron-grip control over the M4U 2 drivers, which made them sound fast, lively, and exciting. Then there was the not-insignificant increase in clarity, with vocals popping decisively from the mix and individual instruments sounding far more distinct than they were before. All told, everything was more visceral, impactful, and precise.
The sound with the Super in place was also much smoother, which was particularly noticeable with vocals -- Sade's voice sounded as sultry and silky as it does through the great speakers I have at home. I could also hear more detail in the recordings. For example, the echo on Jim Croce's voice in "I Got a Name," from his triple-disc The Way We Used to Be, stood out more obviously and lasted far longer than straight out of the headphone jack. Air around instruments on Van Morrison's "Someone Like You," from Poetic Champions Compose, was also superior, and the size of the soundstage was considerably larger. The Super was also much quieter -- much! -- than the laptop's circuitry, as well as the M4U 2 headphones' built-in amps, which are a little noisier than they should be (the only flaw in this otherwise outstanding headphone design). That lack of self-noise allowed me to hear far deeper into recordings and ensured musical subtleties didn't get lost.
All in all, the step up in sound quality with the Super was significant. And while I hate to try to quantify these things, in this case I think it's important just so there's no mistaking that the improvement that the Super wrought was subtle. All things considered, I would peg the across-the-board increase in sound quality at 30 to 40 percent, if not a bit higher. That's not insignificant -- even a non-audiophile would be able to hear the improvements without trying.
When I first spotted the Super at RMAF 2013, I was definitely intrigued by it, but I also wondered just how much of a difference to the sound quality it could make. And when I received it, I questioned the notion of adding an amp that's the same price as my headphones, basically turning a $400 investment into an $800 one (PSB also offers the M4U 1 model, which has no built-in amplification, costs $100 less, and sounds similar to the M4U 2 design, so that could be an option for the Super). But there was no denying the significant increase in sound quality by using this amp and DAC -- control, detail, and clarity, among other things, were all notably improved. And I do mean notably, since the improvements were anything but small, turning already good-sounding headphones into truly great ones. Suffice it to say that the soap-bar-shaped Super is not a one-time traveling companion, but one that I now plan to take on future trips as well. Next stop for it: Las Vegas in January for CES 2014.
Publisher, The SoundStage! Network