Any British audiophile with a long memory knows Richard Hay. Back in the 1980's, there was a wonderful little amp called the Nytech, which begat the Ion Systems Obelisk. Things went a bit off the rails in the early 1990's financial wobbliness, but Ion was reborn a few years ago as Heed, and transposed about a thousand miles eastward, to Hungary. Heed – run by Ion distributor and designer Zsolt Husztl - started with a reworked Obelisk integrated, followed swiftly by a few useful boxes (like a headphone amp and a turntable power supply), all priced sensibly.
The company’s first digital product was the deliciously named – but with just a Toslink and a coax input, underpopulated – Dactilus DAC. Priced at under £400, this striking little DAC showed what can be done without titanic expenditure. Enter the company’s first CD transport and DAC combination, the Obelisk DT and DA. Once again reasonably priced (in today’s world, that means under £1,400 a piece), the DT is a fine quality disc transport and the DA is a fine DAC with more inputs and outputs on offer. Both conform to Hay’s unchanging goal of value-driven, valve-like simplicity (no feedback) and powerful buffers wherever possible, and this is perhaps why the output stage of the DA has more in common with the Heed amp than a CD player.
If beauty is skin deep, then Heed is built inside out. Because the product – on the inside – is built exactly the way you would want a modern digital product made; solidly, with the minimum of fuss and the best possible sound in mind. It’s this top-quality circuit-first approach that means while the outside panel is finished in powder coat, the circuit sports a Wolfson/Cirrus chip combo that delivers the goods up to 24bit/192kHz and expensive Mundorf caps in all the sonically significant places. While both transport and DAC come with a good black Perspex front panel, the idea that they can both be upgraded (in theory at this time) is a sign of good things.
Of the two, the DT is the easiest one to dispense with. It uses what looks like a standard Sanyo transport mechanism, can support HDCD (remember that?) has six buttons to the right hand side and a display beneath the transport mech on the left and has a Toslink and coax input. That’s it.
Or so you might think. Actually, the DT sports an oversize toroidal transformer with separate taps for transport logic and DSP. It also features a very precise 27MHz clock and a 32MB buffer, and the datastream’s amplitude is given an order of magnitude increase before it leaves on its journey to the DAC. This is claimed to have benefits aside from being able to run extra-long interconnects, although it’s hard to separate benefits from this and benefits from the low-jitter design.
The DAC too has its buffered output, this time to allow the Heed to work with a wider range of amps and preamps; low headroom and passive preamp stages should consider the 2.5V buffered output. The DA has a total of five digital inputs (identified in blue LED on the front panel) and includes a pair of S/PDIF connections (one with BNC), two Toslinks and an isochronous USB input. Most significantly, the output of the DA – like the Obelisk amp itself – is capacitor coupled, rather than DC coupled. This acts rather like the transformer coupling of many good valve amps. Both devices are designed not to be powered off, with only rear-mounted switches. They come out of standby quickly and don’t draw much power when taken off the boil, so you aren’t killing too many polar bears by leaving the things powered up continually. I used an Audioquest VDM5 coax cable to good effect between the two.
Heed’s digital design seems to strike a good balance between audiophile craziness and good, solid electronic engineering. And this is borne out in the sound quality; not so left-field to make it incompatible with all bar about one per cent of discs and amps on the planet, not so rooted in electronics as to make the combo bland. There’s a tightly focused sound from the disc to the DAC that snaps music into sharp focus. It takes a few seconds for that 32MB buffer to fill with digital data, so don’t expect an immediate start-up, but music that emanates from the transport is every bit as precise as it is enjoyable, combining the two usually unconnected traits of vocal articulation with near perfect rhythmic qualities. Playing about with an Arcam rDAC confirmed these qualities are a function of the DT.
Moving across to the DA, there’s less of those sharply-defined musical edges that often define good – but not great – digital audio. Instead, the overall sound is very ‘analogue-y’ with an extended but never harsh treble, an open midrange and a clear, well-defined and deep bass. This puts it in the realms of ‘great’ digital audio. Just how ‘great’ is ‘great’? Well, it keeps sonic company with a host of very illustrious digital audio brands. The little Heeds might lack the battleship build of the big Meridians and Wadias of this world, but in sonic terms, the gap is nowhere near as wide as the price differential suggests.
As a pairing, it seems to be excellent at not making its presence felt. It’s extremely detailed, articulate, precise, dynamic and possessed of excellent imagery. But like all top-notch CD players, none of this is drawn to your attention. Instead, what comes across first and foremost is the cohesive way music just hangs together. And it’s this tying the music together that makes the Obelisk duo fight well above their weight class. Rosalyn Turek’s statuesque mono renditions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier shows this off perfectly. There is a tendency for modern stereo equipment to make this early 1950's recording sound as if there are three elements at play – a left hand, a right hand and tape hiss. One the Heed duo, there is always a sense of a pianist at an instrument and the tape hiss – though not suppressed – simply gets out of the way. Only top-flight players can do that, in my opinion.
In order of preference, coaxial sounded best, USB sounded worse and if I had a player with BNC connections, I would imagine it would be even better still. The difference between best and worse was not great, though. With the DT in place, the distance between coaxial digital and USB got a lot more noticeable; I suspect this could be down to isochronous USB, because the addition of a Musical Fidelity V-Link (with asynchronous USB) improved the computer-based option significantly, in exactly the same ‘snap to attention’ way the DT does to coaxial.
There’s a delicious quirkiness that is slowly being ironed out of the Heed products. In most cases, this is a good thing. By the time this review goes to print for example, Heed will be using better metalworking, so the tiny holes in the back panel will have proper shut-lines. And the credit card remotes are expected to be more readable by the remote eyes of the transport and DAC. There may even be a manual. But not everything will change; those who use Virgin Media remotes can still look forward to having the up/down controls not only change channels, but switch sources on the DA. Then there’s the understandable, but occasionally frustrating, 10 second wait while the buffer fills up on the DT. And finally, that blue LED read-out is best described as ‘basic’; functional, yes… but basic.
None of this matters though, because the Heed combo cuts through all the quirkiness thanks to delivering a really good sound at a really fair price. In writing this review, I found myself scratching my head twice; once to speculate why someone might consider buying a CD transport in 2011 and once more to try and place this combination in the great CD player hierarchy. In fact, both questions resolved themselves in seconds, for precisely the same reason. The sound quality – the closest I can get to the Heed sound is probably an Audio Research CD player. The two have the same tight focus and effortless musicality. You can see where the extra money goes on an ARC, but sonically it’s more of a close run thing than might be expected. As to the ‘why CD in 2011’ question, the same thing applies; it sounds bloody good, and you would be hard pressed to find a file-based solution that will put a smile on your face as quickly as the DT.
Although these two can be separated, they work so well together in combination you would have to struggle to justify splitting up the band. The DT and DA alone are good, the DT and DA together are remarkable. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
SPECS & PRICING
Heed Obelisk DT
Sanyo drive and servo (supports HDCD)
Digital outputs: 1x RCA, 1x toslink
Dimensions (WxHxD): 22x8.5x32.3cm
Heed Obelisk DA
192/24bit Wolfson DAC.
Digital inputs: 1 x BNC, 1 x RCA, 2 optical and 1 USB digital inputs.
The inputs can be switched via the Pre or CD remote control.
Analogue outputs: 2.5V buffered and 1.25V unbuffered RCA single ended stereo
Dimensions (WxHxD): 22x8.5x32.3cm
Manufactured by Heed Audio
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