Review: Hegel Viking

Best at one thing

Just when we think it's over for good, Hegel launches a new CD player. And a good thing that they did.

Published 2023-10-23 - 8:00 am
Hegel Viking
Lasse Svendsen

New CD players are not commonplace, but surprisingly, there is a demand for CDs that makes it necessary to offer players. Add to that the millions of CDs sold since 1982, and it starts to make sense to offer your customers a CD player or two.

Hegel’s decision to do so doesn’t seem so strange from this perspective. They’ve always had a player to offer, but when they launched the Mohican in 2016, they promised that it would be the very last player they’d ever offer. Makes sense, we thought, and the name suited the last of its kind.

And when Mohican disappeared from the range because DAC supplier Asahi Kasei Microdevices had a massive factory fire that destroyed the DAC chip production line, most people thought that this was it. The Mohican player would finally live up to its name.

But the market moves in mysterious ways. When customers were dismayed that Hegel could no longer offer a CD player for its amplifiers, the message must have reached the Hegel team in Oslo.

Simply slide the CD into the letterbox, press play and exhale. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

With Mohican out of the range, they had to start from scratch. But not quite. Hegel’s inventive founder and chief engineer Bent Holter wanted to build a new player of the same type as Mohican. A player that was best at doing what it was made for: playing Red Book CDs.

Just that. Nothing else.

That’s why the new Hegel Viking has no digital inputs or streaming. Because as Hegel’s Anders Ertzeid wrote in the press release:   

In a world full of music download options, audio formats, compression methods and streaming services, putting on some music can feel overwhelming. What should be simple and enjoyable suddenly becomes complex and stressful. Playing a CD on Viking is not.”   

And it isn’t. By the way, it can’t play SACDs either, and I don’t think anyone at Hegel has heard of DVD Audio.

Don’t come here with your SACDs. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

So what we have here is a direct successor to the Mohican. In a slightly refreshed design that harmonises well with Hegel’s new product range. Inside, everything is new. The drawer is gone and replaced by a slot with mechanical CD insertion for a laser and a drive they handpicked for Viking.

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Noise-free OLED display

There’s no eight-channel DAC or 24-bit/384 kHz upsampling here. With Hegel’s SynchroDAC technology, the digital converter, based on an AKM 4493SEQ, operates at 16-bit and 44.1 kHz and uses synchronous upsampling to increase resolution while keeping distortion down.

The player uses Hegel’s own master clock – Direct MasterClock – for optimal timing of the signal. Hegel’s SoundEngine, which we know from amplifiers, is also used here, and together with a quartz crystal, it should reduce the dreaded jitter noise, which according to Hegel is well below 10 picoseconds.

The analogue signal passes through Hegel’s linear low-pass filter, which removes high-frequency noise, and Hegel’s Linear Phase LineDriver sends a low-impedance signal with higher current to the balanced and unbalanced outputs on the back. There is only one digital output here in the form of a 75 Ohm BNC connector.

A special OLED display, with lower-than-normal noise for the circuits that drive the OLEDs, has been hand-picked for the player.

Noise-free OLED display? Of course it is. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

Black hole

Those who remember the Mohican will remember the tight, dynamic and resolved sound of what was a pure Red Book CD player. At a time when many of its competitors provided players that could handle SACD and had digital inputs, Mohican stood rock solid as a pure CD player.

The new Viking player, like its predecessor the odd man out, is a pure CD player with no connections other than the outputs. It doesn’t even have a headphone output.

But what it does have is a soundstage with some qualities we don’t often hear from CD players in the lower price range – and from few in the higher price range. It’s easy to compare it to the Marantz Model SACD 30n, even though it’s cheaper, or the Primare CD35 Prisma for that matter. Both have streaming and DAC inputs, but they don’t have Viking’s dynamic contrast or potent bass reproduction.

Only outputs, no inputs. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

The sole purpose of the Hegel player is to play CDs as well as possible. And it does just that. Take, for example, Sade’s album Soldier of Love and the opening track The Moon And the Sky. Here the bass is presented with a gentle punctuality and the drums with a dynamic authority and depth that we’ve only heard from expensive McIntosh and Esoteric players.

The mood of Sade’s tranquil Morning Bird is clearly present in a soundstage that doesn’t hesitate to move details forward in the soundscape. It never sounds harsh or sharp, but the player reproduces the music with laser precision. The muted sound of maracas on the recording is more sharply focussed than from the Marantz player, and you can feel the resin in the bowing across the strings.

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It’s not that the player is obsessed with details, but you can hear more of them, for example on Keith Jarrett Trio’s Up For It. Here, the piano sound is particularly prominent and you can immediately hear how rock-solid the stereo perspective is on the live recording. Fingers gliding across the thick strings of the double bass, tiny rim beats on the snare drum, a pinky finger on the top octave, the kind of little things you don’t notice until you listen for them, come through loud and clear here.

The last Viking? Photo: Lasse Svendsen

The guitar tone on McKinley Black’s My Diamond Mine has a depth and warmth that sounds frighteningly lifelike, glowing from the vocals that sound crystal clear and airy in the space in front of the speakers. The sound can come across as a little dry at times, but there’s no lack of air or space. Rather, it’s the precision and extremely low distortion of the Hegel player that removes noise from the background and presents the music in front of a black hole of nothingness. Not until the first note pours out of the speakers. Then you quickly realise why Hegel claims the Viking is the best CD player they’ve ever made.

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Conclusion

It’s not at all certain that Viking is Hegel’s last CD player. Even if they say it is. They said the same thing about Mohican, and look what happened. The market demanded a Hegel CD player and they got one. Whether the Viking is Hegel’s CD swan song or not, there’s no doubt that it’s one of the best CD players we’ve ever tested. The market has asked and received an answer that I believe exceeds expectations.

Karakter
Hegel Viking
High End

We think

Plays Red Book CDs better than most. Tremendous dynamic range. Highly resolved and sharply focussed sound image. No digital inputs, no support for SACD.

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