Upscaled HQPlayer vs. Roon Direct Upscaled TT 2 & DAVE
Now for the real test. Does the $260 HQPlayer upscaling performance compete with a $5,000 Hugo M Scaler?
For setup simplification, I’m using a straight BNC connection from the HMS to the DACs. If you want better isolation, check out the Audiowise OPTO-DX.
With the DAVE I did dual-BNC connections with maximum upscale to 768 kHz on both the HMS and HQPlayer. For the TT 2, I used a single BNC connection for a 384 kHz maximum. The beauty of the TT 2 is the built-in filters (I use 3 and 4). This is something I hope Chord Electronics includes in the next DAVE.
As some of you know, I think 4x upsampling is a good balance between tone and transparency. The more upscaling you do, the more of that warm-blooded sound you lose. This is the case for all upscalers I’ve heard so far. In fact, many HMS owners I know keep it to 4-8X max (blue and white in single BNC mode). Classical listeners tend to max it out to 16X, however. Personal preference.
- The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco
- Adele – 21/25
- Alicia Keys – Unplugged
- Damien Rice – 9
- Dr. Dre – 2001
- Eva Cassidy – Live at Blues Alley
- Banks – Goddess
- Lindsey Stirling
- Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
- Monica – The Boy is Mine
- Nirvana – Unplugged in New York
- Paramore – The Final Riot!
- Rodrigo y Gabriela
- Yo-Yo Ma – Plays Ennio Morricone
- Taylor Swift – 1989
The Moment of Truth
So after extensive listening sessions, it was obvious the strengths and weaknesses of both upscalers. With the TT 2 and DAVE, the HQPlayer presented a full-bodied and analog-smooth sound. With the LNS15 shaper, it’s almost to a fault. You’ll get more variations in tonality from the NS9 dither but you’ll lose depth and body.
On the DAVE, the DSPlayer with sinc-M provides more heft in the low end and a more congealed midrange. Everything is shaped in more defined boundaries. So with a thicker phantom center, there’s more of an impression of mass with performers. It actually kind of reminds me of what the WAVE High Fidelity STORM cables do. With the HMS, the boundaries aren’t as “rounded off” but offer more insight instead. One thing I noticed is that the HMS takes away the “warmness” quicker as you step up the upscaling tree. It didn’t make much difference in the end but it was interesting to note.
The fact a ($260) piece of software upscaler could improve sound quality in this way is incredibly impressive. Also, the ability for the user to adjust filters to taste is invaluable. After hours of listening, I feel the sinc-M/NS9 combination is fantastic for both DACs.
Unfortunately (for my wallet), I still feel the Hugo M Scaler is still the better-sounding upscaler. The main reasons are depth, tone, and texture. Across both the TT 2 and DAVE with the HMS, there’s just more “music going on.” Holistically, there’s more rhythm and pacing. Although HQPlayer’s implementation does sound slicker and more “analog”, it comes at the price of having many of the lower-level details being masked.
“Smoothed over” was a descriptor that I used many times in my notes. This is especially the case with LNS15. These are the textural cues that tell our ears that the voice or instrument is coming from something organic. How those gradations are presented contributes to accurate timbre. There’s more acoustic material (wood, metal, string). With HQPlayer it’s more difficult to hear these distinctions in timbre. I can’t hear the chest and throat nearly as clearly as I do with the HMS. In comparison, HQPlayer is a bit more glazed and colorless. It paints the music with a thicker and broader brush – with a few colors. In comparison, HMS works with the entire palette.
In addition, with HQPlayer, I found myself switching between NS9 and LNS15 to gain tonality and smoothness respectively. This urge doesn’t exist with the HMS. What’s interesting is that if I use pass-through on the HMS attached to DAVE while using NS9 + sinc-M, the tone is actually better (at the expense of body and resolution). But it goes away when I connect directly to the DAVE…so the HMS has to be in the chain anyway. Which kind of defeats the purpose.
A Natural Sound
To be frank, the Hugo M Scaler has a much more faithful reproduction of vocal and instrumental timbre. This is especially the case with the push and release of piano keys or mechanical valves of a trumpet. With organs, the HQPlayer had grunt, but not the proper color. It seems to coats all voices and instruments with this thick and smooth blanket. There’s not a whole lot of tonal variation – or texture. In a way, it does make lyrics more intelligible and gravitational, however.
On top of that, the Hugo M Scalar layers and separates more granularly. HQPlayer articulates in a more “generic” way. It’s more relaxed, calm, and mellow. If I can’t be convinced of what I’m listening to is a piano or saxophone, it doesn’t matter how smooth, “analog,” or clean it sounds. On the other hand, the HMS unconsciously reminds me of listening to live music. There’s just more lifelike variation in the sound.
Aside from tone and delineation, I still feel there are more transparency and energy with the HMS. It consistently presents a larger and more rhythmically aligned sound. There’s more air, drama, and emotion. HQPlayer plays more in front of you – as if you’re sitting towards the middle of the concert hall. HMS is more intimate and seems to project the entire distance without hitting a wall.
But yes, we’re talking about $260 versus over $5,000 here. But for a reference system, I prioritize tonality…and so the law of diminishing returns is mostly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how cheap something is if it’s not what you’re looking for. As much as I wanted an ultra-affordable replacement, I feel like the HQPlayer’s upscaling is missing too much of that musical fabric – especially when it came to vocal and acoustic performances. But for a non-reference system…it’s a no-brainer. It still significantly elevates the performance of a DAC for not a lot of money.
Bottomline: Take HQPlayer’s upscaler, add a bit more depth, image size, tone, and texture and you have a Hugo M Scaler.
Addendum (3/19/2021): A Note about DSD output
Some of you have mentioned in the comments the superior DSD output of HQPlayer. Since I’m a curious soul I gave some of those filters and shapers a shot. In short, it was a bit of a pain. Some would take more than 30 seconds to play, some would crash HQP, and I’d experience dropouts. This is Audio Bacon, not Beta Tester Bacon. One time I actually had to reboot my PC.
This could be specific to the DACs I’m using or my PC but none of the “EC” modes worked without hiccups or dropouts. All sinc-L combos with x512 didn’t work. Maybe I’m missing something here (maybe I should RTFM). As mentioned, this is a $5,000+ very high-performance PC.
HQPlayer is supposedly better with specific DS or R2R DACs with specific inputs. But I could only speak on Chord Electronic DACs. Once I get more DACs in for the listening room, I’ll revisit.
Many of you raving about the sinc-L filter with either AMSDM7 512 +fs or ASDM7. You guys must be saints because it takes 26-30 seconds to play tracks on this beefy system. Bruh, it’s 2021. I ain’t waiting 30 seconds to listen to a single track. Also, it only works (at least for me) in 44.1k x256 and not x512. Interestingly enough, the sinc-M filters play in less than 2 seconds (which is faster than PCM output).
- sinc-L, AMSDM7 512 +fs, 44.1 x256.
- sinc-L, ASDM7, x256
- sinc-M AMSDM7 512 +fs, 44.1 x512
- sinc-M ASDM7, 44.1 x 512
I think the sinc-M ASDM7 (x512) combo sounded better than both the sinc-L ones (and all PCM outputs). This takes up about 8% CPU and 25-50% GPU (which is pretty crazy). Better tone and detail.
Cutting to the chase, in comparison to the TT 2 in dual-BNC mode at 16x, the HMS + TT 2 combo still sounded better (to me). And for the same reasons above. There are more “twang and clang” with percussive instruments. You could hear more between and within the notes. The underlying bass resonances also have more presence. In addition, the room is just more energized and filled with music. And of course, tone and texture are much better represented.
The thing HQPlayer with DSD output does better is solidifying and giving mass to the sound. It’s a really tight but broad image. It rounds off and defines the 3D boundaries very clearly. A “grounded” and weighted sound – but not refined or colorful.
From my experience, this type of sound will typically tradeoff texture and tone. It might be one of those “law of the land” types of things. To this day, I have not heard a full-bodied, perfectly contoured sound, with perfect texture and tonal color. That would be the holy grail.
So, once again…personal preference. Do you want the illusion of colorless, smooth 3D objects performing in front of you or do you prefer a bright OLED screen with 36-bit color and 3D glasses that refresh at 240 Hz? From my listening so far (on these DACs), if diversification and variation in the tonal color matter to you, the HQPlayer won’t give you that.