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.
As I mentioned already, the Mohican sounds more analog-like than any other CD player I have heard at anywhere near its asking price. It has very little of the hardness, glare, and extra “fizz” around image borders that I typically associate with 16/44—and even some higher-resolution digital playback. Rather, the Mohican sounds more supple and colorful, with finer-edged images. There is also considerably more density to instruments and voices than usual, another characteristic I associate more with analog than digital. I am not an engineer, but I think that some of Red Book’s slight image outline fuzziness has to do with noise-induced timing errors occurring elsewhere in the digital processing chain. Those errors lead to elements in the signal being slightly misaligned and manifest themselves more readily in smeared or slightly jagged image outlines. I believe the Mohican addresses these typical timing errors well enough to produce a more natural sound overall and particularly in its rendering of finer image boundaries.
While the Mohican sounds full, rich, and weighty, it does not have a ponderous, bottom-up tonal balance. Its presentation is rhythmically lithe and fluid, with plenty of accompanying midrange and upper-frequency content. Its tonal balance is somewhat similar to listening to an orchestra at mid-hall as opposed to the first few rows. You hear more of the stringed instruments’ burnished body or the wind and brass’ rounded bell and a bit less of the rosined bow or breathy embouchure. I attribute some of the Mohican’s sonic heft and warmth to its ability to greatly reduce typical digital artifacts that emphasize a splashier, hyped-up treble. The Mohican rendered timbre and tone in ways I recognized right away as sounding more lifelike than most Red Book and even some higher-resolution digital.
The Mohican’s lovely tonal balance, coupled with its clean overall presentation, imbued all music with an ease and clarity that I found deeply rewarding. I think this gets to the heart of its greatest attribute: natural-sounding musicality, the sort one recognizes with a “That’s it!” impression. I don’t mean to suggest that the Mohican is perfect. Rather, it simply comes across as making Red Book sound less artificial, which, in turn, allows the inherent dynamic verve and lilt of music to come through more readily. The Mohican can make some music that falls below the “worth listening to” threshold rise above it and become very much worth a listen. Some of the odd and moody songs on the ECM label from the likes of Tord Gustavsen and Bobo Stenson can seem so sparse and aimless as to sound empty on some systems. In the deft hands of the Mohican, Bobo Stenson’s 13:40 minute-long “Pages” on Cantando, with its slow intro and a few subsequent free-jazz-like sections, sounded intriguing and artistically fulfilling. The quirky percussion clicks and scrapes on drum rims, cymbals, and (presumably) found objects conveyed meaning rather than sounding obscure or even pretentious because they don’t “sound like real music.” I returned to this track a few times, such was the musical difference the Mohican made. Similarly, music that can sound merely quaint took on new significance. On the indie-folk duo Kings of Convenience’s Declaration of Independence [Virgin], Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe’s lovely singing and acoustic guitar playing (usually one nylon-stringed and one steel) were made compelling enough to merit close listening rather than being relegated to nice background, mood-setting fare. The song “My Ship Isn’t Pretty” was achingly beautiful.
Conversely, music that could sometimes challenge my tolerance for hard-driving, forceful sound like the heavy-metal-leaning cuts on Jitterbug by Bushman’s Revenge [Rune Grammafon] piqued my interest because the sensation of being confronted by the music was largely replaced by a feeling of exhilaration. The Mohican cleared up much of the clangy harshness I thought was part and parcel of the way this genre is often produced. So, on the whole, subtle music became more evocative, and aggressive music became more accessible. The Mohican did not homogenize music. On the contrary, I heard illuminating musical qualities that are usually slightly obscured by typical Red Book’s harshness and glare. Readily compelling pop, rock, and classical just skipped along as fleet-footed as ever. Sure, I could hear lots of information through other good players, but the Mohican had a particular knack for stringing musical elements together in a way that simply made more sense. A nifty talent.
More expensive players like the Esoteric X-01 D2 CD/SACD player (around $19k in 2009) and Ayre Acoustics C5-xeMP universal player (around $7000 when last available, 2009) both conveyed more spatial information, including soundscape cues, as well as individual image information, but with a significant caveat: Both of these players sounded more digital, more electronic, and more “forced” overall in direct comparison to the Mohican. The subtler soundstaging and more rounded images of the Hegel sounded more natural to me, even if some spatial cues were a little clearer through the Esoteric and Ayre. All the players conjured a similarly sized soundscape for Red Book—in all directions. Depth layering was notably good with the Esoteric, but the Mohican kept up quite well, given its much lower price.
So, while the Esoteric and Ayre players revealed more spatial details, they also exacted a price in the form of greater listener fatigue and apparent electronic artifice. On the side of tonal and timbral accuracy, the Hegel just sounded more true-to-life than either the Esoteric or Ayre.
Which player would satisfy “fidelity to mastertapes” listeners, or “absolute sound” or “as you like it” ones, to follow Executive Editor Jonathan Valin’s listener groupings? I would say that the Esoteric would appeal to “fidelity” folks. The Hegel would probably appeal to both “absolute” and “as you like it” listeners. The Ayre would likely split its adherents between “fidelity” and “absolute.”
The Hegel Mohican CD player allows the listener to gain insights into the music—its various moods, its flow, its thrust—at a level I have not encountered in CD playback for less than four times its price. It has very low levels of Red Book’s typical hardness and edginess. The Mohican has analog-like ease, tonal density, and rhythmic fluidity that make it a solid choice for the long haul. While its somewhat humorous name and format may make it easy to dismiss as a novelty or legacy item, it has some legitimate, original engineering on board. As noted, Hegel has stocked up on the component parts, so it is prepared to honor its tacit commitment to support the product for years to come. I could easily live out my CD days with the Mohican. Highly recommended.
Specs & Pricing
Formats: CD audio, CD-R
Analog outputs: One fixed line-level (RCA), one fixed line-level (balanced XLR)
Digital outputs: One BNC 75 ohm
Dimensions: 16.93″ x 3.93″ x 11.42″
Weight: 14.3 lbs.
Price: $5000 (includes remote handset)
HEGEL MUSIC SYSTEMS USA
East Long Meadow, MA
Analog source: Basis Debut V turntable and Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S MR cartridge
Digital sources: Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal disc player, Esoteric X-01 D2, HP Envy 15t running JRiver MC-20, Hegel HD12 DAC
Phonostage: Moon by Simaudio 610LP
Linestages: Ayre K-1xe, Hegel P30
Integrated amplifier: Hegel H360
Power amplifiers: Gamut M250i, Hegel H30
Speakers: Dynaudio Confidence C1 Signature, YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2
Cables: Shunyata ZiTron Anaconda signal cables, Nordost Heimdall 2 USB, AudioQuest Coffee USB and Hawk Eye SPDIF, Shunyata Anaconda SPDIF, Shunyata ZiTron Sigma power cords
A/C Power: Two 20-amp dedicated lines, Shunyata SR-Z1 receptacles, Shunyata Triton v2, and Typhon power conditioners
Room treatments: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels and DIY panels
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