by Garrett Hongo | 01 Jan 2017
Call me old school, retro, and just a stubborn kind of fellow, but I flat love playing plain old Red Book CDs on a dedicated CD player. Through the years, I’ve auditioned and owned a few multiformat players — models capable of playing CDs, SACDs, and DVDs — but I’ve felt disappointed enough in their playback of CDs that I’ve always let them go. I have a library of approximately 2500 CDs, only about 20 SACD/CDs, and DVDs I spin via computer. So, what most matters to me is a unit’s playback of 16-bit/44.1kHz signals. And while I now also have a perfectly fine computer-DAC combo, CDs still sound to me more liquid and flowing and less sterile than files played from a computer.
Now, when high-resolution digital sound is all the rage, when DACs from the supremely expensive to the affordable dominate sales, and when most manufacturers barely mention that their new DAC-player combos even have CD drawers, Hegel Music Systems has released what even they call a “sunset product”: the Mohican, which can play CDs and only CDs ($5000 USD). It’s as if it was made just for me.
I first read about the Mohican (as in “Last of the . . .” in a borrowing from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic of American literature) in “The Best of High End 2016,” Doug Schneider’s recent report on the Munich show on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. More than intrigued by Hegel’s claim that, with 16/44.1 recordings, the Mohican sounded even better than their own HD30 DAC, I wrote to editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz, who contacted Anders Ertzeid, Hegel’s VP of sales and marketing, and we quickly arranged to have a review sample sent to me.
Background and development
Founded in Norway in 1988, Hegel Music Systems is a small company with just six full-time employees. For many years, they mainly focused on developing various amplifier and digital technologies that they then licensed to other companies. In 2000, however, founder and chief designer Bent Holter bought out his partners, purchased the rights to Hegel’s technologies and patents, and began making Hegel-branded retail products. The Mohican is Holter’s first solo product in some time — the design is entirely his own.
“The idea was actually conceived late [at] night in a bar back in 2010,” Ertzeid e-mailed in response to my questions about the Mohican’s origins. “It was Bent Holter who wanted to make a standalone CD player, as he felt he could really make a great product. But we never dared to spend so many resources until this winter when we decided, screw it, let us try.”
Ertzeid went on to explain that the main advantage of creating a dedicated CD instead of a multiformat player is that its digital clock can be optimized for 16/44.1, achieving far lower levels of the jitter that causes distortion. “Running native” in 16/44.1, as Ertzeid put it, results in other, smaller benefits over upsampling and also makes possible the use of digital filters fixed for 16/44.1 that otherwise couldn’t be used. Think of it as a fixed-blade hunting knife as opposed to a Leatherman multi-tool — it can’t do everything, but what it’s designed to do it does extremely well.
The Mohican uses all of the same chips and components as Hegel’s HD30 DAC ($4800), except that it’s not dual mono and lacks the HD30’s upsampling capability. But the Mohican’s clock is even more precise than the HD30’s and uses Hegel’s SoundEngine technology to further improve the performance of the analog amplifier that powers the Mohican’s clock crystal. This lowers jitter even more and results in a far more fluid sound, said Ertzeid.
“There is more silence around the instruments and it simply feels more natural,” he said. “Our motivation was quite simply to see how good we could do it, and the fact that there are hardly any CD players that specialize on playing CD left, only multiformat players that sacrifice CD quality. The Mohican is a true work of passion.”
Description and setup
Late this past summer, just as the plums on my backyard tree began to ripen and bend the boughs lower, the Mohican arrived via UPS tidily double-boxed, the inner carton snug to the sides of the outer. The player, tightly wrapped in a plastic bag, rested on two frames of cut polystyrene. Below it were a metal-cased remote, two AAA batteries, a power cord, and a handsome user’s manual. Its warranty is two years, parts and labor.
The Mohican is fairly compact, about the size of a briefcase — 16.93”W x 3.14”H x 11.42”D — and weighs only 14.3 pounds, making it very easy to handle and place on a rack. At the center of its front panel are the CD drawer and, below it, a backlit digital display, these flanked by two silver-dollar-sized, multifunction buttons. On the rear panel are a three-pronged inlet for a power cord, a coaxial digital output, and pairs of balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) output jacks. The player sits on three hemispherical feet of compliant material secured in metal housings. My sample was finished in matte black; silver is available.
Each of the two big buttons on the front panel tilts three ways: at 7:30, 12, and 4:30 o’clock. In that order, the rim of the left button can be pressed at those points to access the Previous Track, turn the Mohican On or Off, or access the Next Track; the rim of the right button can be pressed to Stop play, Open or Close the drawer, and Play or Pause. It took some getting used to, but it felt neat to operate a CD player this way. When pressed, the buttons move deliberately, with a nice resistance.
After a while, though, I preferred controlling the Mohican via its remote, which is about the size of an eyeglass case and fits easily in the hand. It has several small plastic buttons: Play/Pause, Stop/Open/Close, Forward, Back, Repeat, Previous (Track), and Next (Track). It took me only a short while to get used to the various combinations of functions. There are also buttons for (I assume) controlling a Hegel power amp and preamp: Volume Up/Down, Mute, and Balance. What the remote lacks are individual numeric buttons to quickly access any track. I had to keep pressing Next or Previous to navigate among tracks, while keeping an eye on the front-panel display to know which track I’d got to — a bit of tedium amid otherwise pleasing operation.
Setup involved almost nothing. I placed the Mohican in my rack atop the three fo.Q Modrate footers that usually support my reference player, plugged in my balanced interconnects and Audience Au24 SE powerChord MP power cord, and was ready to go.
Although my review sample looked brand new, the Mohican seemed to need no run-in time. Nonetheless, I played it constantly for about two weeks before taking any listening notes.
The first thing that struck me about the Mohican was its extraordinary ability to reproduce music of rhythmic and tonal complexity. It excelled at timing, tonal textures and differentiation, and varied instrumental colors. To test this I played orchestral music, of course, but the Mohican was also terrific with rock, jazz, and vocal music. It got a blaring trumpet’s lustrous, brassy colors amid a welter of other horns and rhythm instruments. It got a horn section in variegated support of the percussive phlumpherings of a solo trombone. It got orchestral depth and layering, the subtle but critical dynamic tensions of string sections edging toward a climax, and quivering strings and burbling bassoons and brass fanfares in a large canvas of manifold instrumental textures. It rendered the delicacy of attacks of piano and vibraphone notes, their lingering decay trails like softly whipped aches of sound. In short, the Mohican was itself a superb musical instrument, rich and lush when the music called for it, producing saturated notes of weight and detailed textures — but also agile with rhythm and percussion instruments and great with the complicated soundfields of orchestral and big-band music.
For instance, I played the title track of Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10517) and the Mohican really delivered. It’s a piece for big band: the standard rock trio (guitar, bass, and drums), plus six woodwinds, four brass, a Mini-Moog, and two percussionists playing xylophone, timbales, and a sackful of other rhythm instruments. If I wanted, I could pick out a cowbell, rattleclap, and claves rising and falling in the mix of insistent rhythms, the brew of percolating percussion. In terms of air, image, and textural separation among instruments, a mediocre or even good CD player can dynamically flatten this supremely articulate music until it sounds like an eccentric, baffling, often cacophonous noise understandable only when it feels roughly like the blues. Yet Zappa’s composition might owe as much to modernist composer Edgard Varèse as to any Southern archive of soul. The Hegel Mohican got all of this right — I was able to hear the horn section in all its varied tonal colors, Zappa’s Fender Stratocaster in his wah-wah solo clear against the tight rhythm section laying down a thumping groove, the rich and complex texture of Aynsley Dunbar’s drum and cymbal impacts, and the entire musical statement of a rock concerto that combines the funk of the blues with the grandeur and sweep of sonata-allegro form, a symphonic rhythm section, and bridge-like changes borrowed from soul.
With orchestral recordings, the Mohican consistently produced a gorgeous string sound and superb dynamic contrasts. Listening to the CD layer of Sibelius’s Symphony No.3, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra led by Osmo Vänskä (SACD/CD, BIS 2006), I heard, rising from a quiet background in the Allegro moderato, lush viola and cello sections, sprightly violins, and grave, authoritative double basses. Flute, oboe, and piccolo were all clear and distinct, and the clarinet sounded rich and woody. All of it showcased the Mohican’s superbly varied tonal palette. Not only that, the scaling and resolution were extraordinary, the Hegel reproducing a great sense of space while clearly positioning aural images, particularly of woodwinds, on a wide soundstage of great depth. Listening to such a work your hearing becomes more alert to the sounds of strings playing together, and you’re able to hear the distinctions among all the orchestral sections, the swelling accelerandos, the precise and isolated sound of a solo wind instrument rising from the middle of the orchestra above a coalescing, pianissimo scrim of exquisitely played violins. This sort of experience is possible only when the source component can provide the necessary degree of contrast and full palette of tones that can distinguish the delicate, single thing from the great and generous beauty of the collective while being true to both. The Hegel Mohican could do that.
One of my favorite tests of tone, weight, and texture is the tenor-sax playing of jazz great Stan Getz. In “Soul Eyes,” from Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions (CD, Verve B0000525-02), Getz explores his tenor’s upper register, blowing with more punch and emphasis than does John Coltrane in his own recording of his composition (though I feel positively heretical saying so). Getz lingers over the top notes, sustaining them at longer peaks of more languid arches of development that make for a startling interpretation and a freshened lyricism. The performance feels at once more accessible and even more esoteric than Coltrane’s, and thus in some ways cleaner and more brilliant. The Mohican brought out Getz’s piercing top, his midrange richness, and his blasts and growlings in the lower registers. Around him, the rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums consistently sounded dense, weighty, and complementary. Kenny Barron’s piano solo was particularly rich, populated by whole, full notes up and down the scale, treble trills, and midrange arpeggios. George Mraz’s bass playing was deft and tasteful, with soft impacts I could sometimes feel in my chest. And Victor Lewis’s drums pushed a clever momentum in his lightly swinging drive. Sonic images were strong and stable, the soundstage as wide and deep as the small ocean of space on the far side of my listening room.
Voices? Well, the Mohican was no slouch here either. Emmylou Harris’s contralto can sound overdriven, peaky, and hard-edged through inferior playback gear, but the Mohican captured her breathy top in “Where Will I Be,” from Wrecking Ball (CD, Asylum/Elektra 61854-2), as well as her smoky, dulcet, emotive midrange. By contrast, operatic tenor Rolando Villazón’s rich voice can clog up the sound, some systems producing a murky middle register and a hashy top. But with the Mohican playing Villazón’s performances of Bellini and Verdi arias on Treasures of Bel Canto (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 479 4959), I heard deep, chocolatey midrange tones and a penetrating, gleaming top. There was easy movement from note to note, a clean sound without distortion, and the Hegel had no problems with the Mexican tenor’s robust voice in his powerfully sustained notes. Finally, soul diva Rachel Price’s voice, in the title track of Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits (CD, SIG 2061), had real weight and punch; the Mohican revealed sensuous timbral shadings and changes in vocal texture and showed off her powerful, gospel-like wails and hollers.
For years now, I’ve stuck with the same dedicated CD player — a Cary Audio 303/300 with both tubed and solid-state output and six different sampling rates (44.1, 96, 192, 384, 512, or 768kHz). In 2005, when the 303/300 was released, it retailed for $4000, or $1000 less than the Hegel — though in real dollars, the Cary’s price then might arguably be higher than the Mohican’s today. It uses what Cary calls its Resolution Enhancement DSP to provide five choices of upsampling rate, applied after the player’s circuitry first expands the CD’s 16 bits to 24. I tend to play it in 16/44.1, 24/384, or 24/768, depending on the music: the lower rates for rock and jazz, the higher for choral, opera, and classical. And the Cary is a behemoth, measuring 18″W x 4″H x 15″D and weighing 38 pounds — more than twice the weight of the much smaller Mohican. Though I bought my Cary in 2006, I’ve kept it because, compared to multiformat players, it sounds better with “Red Book” CDs. And although I now have a completely capable computer-DAC system, I dislike how every playback software I’ve tried manages to regularly misorder and shuffle tracks, or split the tracks of discrete albums into separate lists (which is another reason I still love to play CDs).
To level the playing field, I removed my Zanden 120 phono stage from the second shelf of my five-shelf rack, slipped the Hegel Mohican in atop three fo.Q Modrate brass footers, and connected it to my VAC Renaissance Mk.3 preamp with a pair of Audience SX balanced interconnects. I then slid the Cary 303/300 onto the rack’s third shelf, also atop three fo.Q Modrates, and connected it to the preamp with another pair of Audience SX balanced interconnects. I used Audience Au24 SE powerChord MP power cords for both players, plugged into the same duplex outlet of my Audience aR6-TSSOX line conditioner: Hegel in the upper outlet, Cary in the lower. I ran the Cary only in 16/44.1, using none of its upsampling settings. The one concession I made was to use the Cary’s tubed output. To make up for the difference in RMS voltage output between the Hegel (2.6V) and Cary (3.0V), I set the Cary’s volume output to “60” (the maximum setting is “63”), which about equalized the two players’ output levels. I could then easily flip back and forth between them (using the VAC preamp’s input selector) to make A/B comparisons as fair and direct as possible.
With most music, the Hegel Mohican sounded more liquid and flowing than the Cary 303/300, smoother and more natural. The Cary sounded a touch thinner with classical, but had more detail and sparkle and was capable of more definition in fine-grained tonal textures, such as those of violins. In the Allegro moderato of Vänskä-Minnesota’s recording of Sibelius’s Symphony No.3, the Mohican produced more gorgeous midrange tones, more overall sweetness, and quieter backgrounds than the 303/300 — which, though it sounded much less rich, presented a refined, more open string sound. The players’ were comparable, but the Mohican had better momentum, weight, soundstage depth, and a higher level of imagistic “realism” and dynamic contrasts. Though the Cary was no slouch at it, the Hegel was also more adept at sorting out the rhythmic complexity of Zappa’s “The Grand Wazoo.” The xylophone sounded tastier, more forward in the mix, and handheld percussion instruments rose out of otherwise cacophonous passages to thrill me with polyrhythms and syncopations and provide filigree around the beat. The music had more swagger through the Mohican than through the 303/300. With vocal music, though, the Cary was often clearer, with a finer top than the Hegel, and revealed more inner detail in the textural shadings in the recordings by Rolando Villazón, Emmylou Harris, and Rachel Price. With jazz, I preferred the Hegel, which provided more solid images, more colorful horns with more sock and squawk, finer colors, and more weight and push. The Mohican consistently swung harder with more punch.
Though this bout didn’t end with a knockout, the Hegel Mohican won on points.
Hegel Music Systems has produced fine-sounding audio equipment at fairly moderate prices for many years now, and their new Mohican is no exception. It’s a wonderful player of Compact Discs that should be seriously considered by anyone with a large library of them who’s in the market for a dedicated player. The Mohican is compact, a joy to operate, and sounded terrific with all kinds of music. It rocked hard, threw a big soundstage, sang sweetly, and had pace, rhythm, and timing to beat the band. For two months, I found its rich, involving sound an absolute pleasure to listen to. If there’s a better dedicated CD player in its price range, I haven’t found it.