The pleasures of reviewing a new CD player reside in its light weight, compact dimensions, and, most of all, its ABC-simple installation: no cartridge to mount, no stylus to break, no step-up trans formers or cartridge-load values to explore. No server, no Ethernet switches, no digital processor or outboard clock, no NOS, OS, filter choices, or upsampling (usually), no DSD or DXD, no specialized cables, and-especially-no garish, billboard-sized LCD menu to trigger anxiety. Just plug the player in, connect it to a preamp, and choose a CD to play first.
Yes, folks, digital audio was once that simple.
Streamed digital presents audiophiles with a morass of format choices, streaming-company choices, and recording-provenance uncertainties. When I stream an album from Tidal or Qobuz, I never know where that version came from or how many mysterious black boxes it has passed through on its way to me and my system. Streaming has forced me to lower certain expectations. Streaming can sound amazing, but when it does, I look up and point a finger at the sky.
The #1 worst thing about streaming is, I never know when my internet will shut down or a glitch in someone’s software will end my subscription, dissolve my playlists, and leave me wishing for a CD player. Where’s the joy in that?
I’m pleased to be reviewing a new CD player, the Viking from Hegel Music Systems, in part because Hegel’s founder and chief engineer Bent Holter appears to feel the same way I do. “In a world full of options for downloading music, sound formats, compression methods, and streaming services, putting on some music can feel overwhelming. What should be easy and enjoyable suddenly becomes complex and stressful. Playing a CD on the Viking is not stressful. It is only joy. The Viking is a true-native 16/44.1 CD player developed from the ground up for optimal performance on standard (‘Red Book’) CDs.”
Today’s audiophile digital is caught in a vicious cycle wherein every company is vying for consumer attention by inventing new engineering strategies and declaring them more advanced than their competitors’. I tell my friends that we’re living in the era of “designer digital,” when every new DAC is a tech-fashion statement, employing the latest in math-based filtering and trendy engineering to make digital sound ever more refined and luxurious but only rarely more real or exciting.
“The Viking does not upsample or tamper with the signal in any way. Because by leaving the signal as it is on the disc, the Viking’s already excellent DAC can be optimized to perform at its absolute best.”
When I asked Holter why he chose the AKM4493SEQ DAC chip, he replied, “We chose this chip because, in our eyes, it is the best integrated circuit for a 16-bit CD player, where we have 100% control over the master clock. When the master clock is of extremely high quality, it is even more important that the DAC chip is bit perfect and does not resample or modify the audio data. With our discrete, ultralow-phase noise master clock, this AKM is what gives the Viking its racehorse performance.”
When the Viking CD player arrived, I decided to find out right away how “absolute best”how racehorse-likeits performance is by playing some beautiful, artful music that was beautifully and artfully recorded, with no processing, editing, or dynamic range compression. I chose the ensemble Rubato Appassionato playing Le Temple du Goût, an anthology of 18th century music from Italy and France recorded in 2005 at Capella de la Mare de Deu de L’Esperança Barri Gòtic Barcelona, Spain (MA Recordings M075A). It was afternoon, the time the French call quatre-heures, and I thought Le Temple du Goût would launch this review from a good place and make a flavorful tea-time amusement.
And it did. The Viking played this venerable Todd Garfinkle recording beautifully, with heaping measures of accurate tone, spatial acuity, and fine detail. What I didn’t expect was how strikingly the Viking player presented dynamics, rhythm, and momentum, three traits I rarely notice while streaming.
Hegel Music Systems’ new Viking CD player costs the same ($5000) and looks almost the same as the now-discontinued Mohican CD player, which I reviewed in 2017. The Viking is designed to match Hegel’s latest pre- and power amplifiers, the P30A and H30A; in contrast to the Mohican’s white-letter logo on the face of the CD drawer, the Hegel logo is now situated in a palmwide chamfer at the top-center of the chassis front, just above the narrow slot used to load CDs. To me, this slash-chamfer feels like just the right amount of cosmetic change to make Hegel’s new chassis look better dressed without compromising the company’s signature, old-school serious look.
I felt genuinely bad when, in 2020, Eileen Gosvig, general manager of Hegel America, and Anders Ertzeid, Hegel’s Norway-based VP of sales and marketing, told me that the 32-bit AKM AK4490 DAC chip used in the Mohican had been discontinued, and consequently, so was the Mohican. I was sad because the Mohican was a sturdy, honest-sounding, fun-to-use machine with the courage to be a “Red Book”only player.
The Mohican had a fat drawer for loading CDs; the Viking has a skinny slot. The Mohican used a transport made by Sanyo. Hegel is not naming the manufacturer for the new Viking’s transport: Ertzeid says the company sources the Viking’s transport “from a major supplier of car stereo. It is quite good and measurably more precise than the one in the Mohican.”
When TEAC and Philips announced they would stop making their highly regarded transports, it felt like the end of days for CD players. And it still does, because the transport mechanism broke in every CD player I owned except one, my first, a TEAC VRDS-10. These fails sent the rest on a sad journey, first to the curb then to the landfill.
Right now, I know of only five companies that make CD transports: Sanyo, which Hegel used in the Mohican; D&M (Denon/Marantz), whose CD/SACD-capable mechanism is used in several of today’s most expensive CD players; TEAC, which makes the 5020A-AT used in Primare products and the new VRDS mechanism developed for use in its own VRDS-701 CD player and -701T CD transport; and the one made by StreamUnlimited, which is used in the new Schiit Urd. There is also a company in Lithuania that even my manufacturer-friend who uses it in his products refused to name. “Plague and war have seriously impacted CD player manufacturing,” he told me.
A few companies use NOS transport mechanisms from peak-CD. Apparently there are quite a few of those still around.
Like the drawer-loaded Mohican, the slot-loaded Viking only plays “Red Book” CDs-not HDCDs, SACDs, or MQA-CDs. It has two 2.5V fixed-level analog outputs, one unbalanced (RCA) and one balanced (XLR), and a true, 75 ohm digital output on a BNC connector. And no digital inputs! It comes only in black, measures 3.5″ × 17″ × 12″, and weighs 16lb.
Throughout my auditions, the difference in sound quality between streaming via my reference DAC and playing CDs through the Viking was mostly a matter of contrast: CDs exhibited more crystallized forms than similar recordings played back from Tidal at CD resolution. The Viking projected images with more-distinct outlines than Tidal’s 16/44.1 tracks. Those more-distinct forms felt more relaxed and less edge-sharpened than similar recordings of the same program at higher sampling rates on Qobuz (footnote 1). I kept thinking that detail, contrast, and resolution-wise, Hegel’s Viking sat naturally in the middle between 16/44.1 Tidal and high-rez Qobuz (footnote 2). Unfortunately, this CD-vs-streaming observation is less than a click above meaningless, because any sound-quality differences I noticed are most likely the result of sound-character differences between the Viking’s DAC and my reference Denafrips Terminator Plus R-2R converter. Still, examining those differences closely might be the only way to get a feel for the quality of the Viking’s DAC. To that end, I made a point of listening to CDs first through the Viking’s analog output and then, when the recording seemed deserving, through its BNC digital output into the Denafrips DAC.
The timeless poetics of Claude Debussy’s compositions for piano have been a decades-long inspiration for my own visual art. I aspire to make contemplation-inducing paintings that feel as deep and sensual as the Debussy creations that ushered in the modern era. I want my atmospheres to be as evanescent as his and my colors to float as insubstantially as Debussy’s notes.
To my taste, no pianist projects Claude’s notes or channels his poetic intentions better than Walter Gieseking. When playing Debussy, Gieseking sometimes used the pedals to paint tones and overtones so translucent, so ephemeral, so “impressionistic” that his piano seemed hammerless. Moments later, he would pound out a progression of clear, unpedaled notes, reminding everyone why Debussy is now considered a pioneering Modernist, not a late Impressionist. Gieseking evinces a preternatural feel for tempo and propulsion, and his expressive range of soft-to-hard, earth-to-heaven dynamics is exceeded only by Samson François and Debussy himself.
Footnote 1: I say “similar recordings” because I have no way of knowing whether a streamed recording of the same performance shares any provenance with my CD.
Footnote 2: Tidal is currently in transition mode, apparently moving away from MQA and toward hi-rez FLAC. So far, though, all the (non-MQA) FLAC files I’ve encountered on Tidal have been CD-rez.
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Hegel Music Systems
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