In case you haven’t heard of this CD-only player, you have surmised correctly: “Mohican” is a reference to the James Fenimore Cooper novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Given the current ascendancy of computer audio, Norway’s Hegel Music Systems believes the Mohican is most likely the last CD player it will release—and just might also be the last such player many music lovers will own. Computer audio can sound really good, but—at the risk of being labeled a Luddite—when it comes to listening to my own home system, I actually prefer spinning discs. I like the simplicity and the absence of underlying computer-induced anxiety when I just stick with discs. I work with computers for a living (maintaining a data-test automation system for an aerospace company), so I welcome the opportunity to reduce my screen time.
Plenty of high-end audio enthusiasts still play CDs. Associate Editor Neil Gader has also noted the ongoing validity of the format. In his CES 2016 report, he wrote, “Call me nuts but I’m predicting a comeback for the CD along the lines of the LP. The so-called cloud may be the future but for my money you just can’t keep a good physical medium down.” Besides, I find it a bit frustrating to try to keep up with the latest and greatest developments in computer audio. A few discs (including some vinyl), an hour or two of otherwise unscheduled time, and I am good to go.
Why did Hegel make the $5000 Mohican a CD-only player? Why not add high-resolution PCM and DSD file playback via digital inputs and include SACD to take advantage of wider market appeal? Well, Hegel’s chief designer Bent Holter found that implementing an all-purpose unit not only resulted in unacceptable performance compromises in one or more of the assorted formats, but also introduced excessive noise and distortion across all formats. I assume that these problems could be significantly mitigated by extensive and costly efforts, but the Mohican was specifically designed to maximize CD performance at a reasonably affordable price. I have heard some multi-format disc/DAC units from the likes of MSB, dCS, EMM Labs, and T+A that can play CDs remarkably well; however, all of them cost at least four times more than the Mohican. I would guess a new dedicated CD player priced considerably higher than $5000 entering the market at a time when streamers and DACs are all the rage would probably greatly limit its saleability.
Don’t be fooled by its rather whimsical name into thinking the Mohican is merely a marketing gambit to attract the last remaining CD player buyers’ attention. Hegel has developed some unique engineering for this product, some of which is outlined below, and has taken some risk by devoting resources to a format widely deemed to be in decline. Keep in mind, many Scandinavians seem to downplay their accomplishments with a touch of lighthearted humor.
Technology and Use
Here is a summary of a few of the measures Hegel has taken to make the Mohican the most musical, analog-like, and tonally full-bodied sub-$20,000 CD player I have heard. First, it uses no upsampling or oversampling. Such processing apparently generates excess noise. Also, the digital filtering can be fully optimized for the 44.1kHz sample rate. Second, it uses only a 44.1kHz master clock. This induces less jitter by reducing high-frequency noise (including on the reference ground plane) that would otherwise be generated by additional clocks running at other frequencies. Third, Hegel’s patented feed-forward technology (called SoundEngine) is used to lower the crossover phase distortion in the master clock’s oscillator amplifier. Fourth, the disc drive is a CD-dedicated Sanyo unit rather than a multipurpose CD-ROM drive. Hegel’s Anders Ertzeid told me the Sanyo CD drives “simply read better from the CD and better maintain the signal after reading. The digital signal is actually a very weak analog light pulse right after reading. Much of what goes wrong happens in this stage.” Fifth, the transport mechanism uses an in-house-designed laser-tracking servo-control board. This apparently reduces initial read errors by keeping the laser pickup more precisely focused in its target track. It also keeps the noise generated by the servos from interfering with the very low-level laser-light signals. Sixth, the Mohican uses the AKM AK4490 DAC chip. Even though it is capable of processing 32-bit words, Hegel says the AK4490 processes 16/44 PCM in native mode better than any other chip it knows of.
Hegel has loaded up on parts for future production runs and for servicing existing units. It anticipates at least a 10-year spare-parts stock—including the Sanyo CD drive—and about 98 years (no kidding) on the laser pickups. Hegel leveraged much of the knowledge it gained from developing its new HD30 stand-alone DAC, thereby reducing the Mohican’s development period to about two years.
The Mohican shares the same styling and casework as Hegel’s reference line, a cut above its integrated amps and DAC. The disc drawer does not extend and retract with the kind of smooth mechanical precision that some more expensive units have. It’s more prosaic, shall we say. The controls are straightforward and easy to use on both the front panel and remote handset. The two multipurpose front-panel push knobs (they don’t turn) feel a bit stiff; they take more pressure than usual to actuate. To keep the remote uncluttered, Hegel does not include individual buttons for accessing music tracks directly. At first I objected to their absence but quickly favored Hegel’s approach. Once I learned the easy-to-remember button layout, I could operate the unit very quickly solely by feel—an advantage when one listens in the dark. The Scandinavians have a knack for simplicity done well.