HQPlayer – Better Than a $5,000 Upscaler?

Intro

I received many emails requesting a review of HQPlayer: A $260 piece of software that is potentially better than the $5,000 Chord Electronics Hugo M Scaler. I’m setting up a new listening room so I figured this was worth looking into. If I could save a ton of money and have one less box, power supply, and cable to worry about…why the hell not. I’ve tried Roon’s upsampling feature and it wasn’t great (sounds better without it).

So is HQPlayer too good to be true? Let’s find out.

Setup

I’ll be testing HQPlayer 4.10.3 and Roon Core/Remote 1.8 Build 764 (64 bit). HQPlayer’s trial allows you to use the software for 30 minutes at a time for 30 days.

Since those interested in HQPlayer will probably have their own music server, I installed Roon Remote, Core, and HQPlayer on one of the fastest PCs on this planet. I also used the Roon phone app as a remote. This is not optimal from a noise perspective, but it’ll ensure no bottlenecks.

I also copied all my FLAC files to this PC. Streaming the same files over the network to my 50TB Unraid server didn’t sound as good (sharper). I also tried to run Roon Core in a Docker container on the Unraid server and it didn’t sound great either.

PC Specs:

  • 24-core AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X (water-cooled)
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090
  • 64GB of DDR4 RAM
  • All NVMe drives
  • ROG Zenith II Extreme Alpha motherboard

Gear

Process

Note: DSD output impressions added to “The Battle” section.

My reference DACs are the Chord Electronics DAVE and TT 2. I’ll be focusing on PCM output via ASIO. To be as thorough as I can, these were the steps I took:

  1. Music Player: Find out which player sounds best. Roon, Foobar, or HQPlayer. The chosen player will be used for the rest of the test.
  2. Direct Playback: Perform “baseline” listening tests without any upscaling with a direct USB connection to the DACs. The reason using the pass-through feature of the Hugo M Scaler for testing doesn’t make sense is because these DACs sound better with the HMS attached – even in pass-through. This is much more the case with the DAVE than the TT 2. It could due to the HDPlex power supply, BNC cables, galvanic isolation, etc. Since we’re trying to figure out if we could replace an HMS with HQPlayer, it also made more sense to use a direct connection.
  3. Optimal HQPlayer Settings: Find the best HQPlayer upscaling configuration while connected directly to the PC via USB.
  4. The Battle: Take the best HQPlayer configuration and pit it against a Hugo M Scaler.

Chord Electronics TT 2 & DAVE

Some of you asked what were the main differences between these DACs. I actually think some may prefer one over the other. Since I’ve been doing a lot of swapping between the two recently, here are my thoughts:

  • There’s a huge drop in depth and resolution with the TT 2. You don’t get to the same level of goosebump-inducing levels of detail, air, and transparency. Energy and dynamic drive is also better with DAVE. On TT 2, there’s always a bit of “fuzz” and bloom that takes away the illusion of “they’re there.”
  • With DAVE isolation and separation are at another level. The boundaries and placement of instruments and performers are clearly outlined. TT 2, there’s more “clumping” which yields a more intimate listening experience.
  • While the DAVE is much more resolving, the TT 2 is warm and inviting. Vocal recordings sound beautiful. Although the built-in filters are “artificial,” 3 and 4 actually sound very natural to my ears. A few local dealers and guys I listen with agree.
  • In 2020, I actually had the TT 2 as my main listening DAC for months. The DAVE just sat on the shelf for a while. It was tougher times, and the TT 2 was just more comforting. When I swapped back to DAVE my first thought was “OK, the DAVE has to be part of the reference system since it provides the best foundation for resolving everything.” My hairs stood up more, my brain believed what it was hearing, and it did take me closer to what I experienced from live performances from familiar artists. The only thing that was missing was more warmth – which the TT 2 does beautifully. I feel it infuses more soul into vocalists. But I never really feel “they’re performing in front of me” as I do with DAVE.

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Jay Luong

Mr. Audio Bacon himself. An open-minded electrical engineer and software developer by trade. I have an obsession with the enjoyment of all things media - specifically in the realm of music and film. So much heart and soul (and money) go into the creation of this artistry. My aim is to find out which products get me closer to what the musicians and directors intended.

View Comments

    • I'll have to load in some DSD files (as mentioned, I rarely listen to them). But after a quick listen on the TT 2 with sync-L and LNS15 (Cannonball's Spontaneous Combustion), HQPlayer sounds a bit stretched horizontally and vertically (the snaps are further off to the left and the ceiling seems lower). It sounds a bit off. In addition, HMS is far more tonally variant and layers out the performers better. You could actually hear the organics of the finger snap and the finger plucking the bass. There are more reverb and resonance overall to give you an idea of the acoustic space. The dips, curves, and flair of each instrument are clearly in view. But not so much on HQPlayer. It's more bundled together and "gel-ed." Everything has the same tone.

      • Hi Jay. First, thanks for the time and effort here- great review, especially your perceived differences across the wide range of PCM settings. In response to this specific comment, it looks like you have not tried the DSD settings because you rarely used DSD / have DSD native files? If that is the case, you and your readers might be missing out on a great feature of HQP - which is playing PCM files via the DSD settings, which is how I use it, either redbook rips or my own rips from vinyl at 96/24. In all cases, this was better than any PCM setting (and anecdotally, my preferred settings were the same as yours for PCM). The 'EC' shapers that were added only recently to HQP are a big step, in my opinion, over any PCM setting, and definitely worth trying. Whether this narrows the gap to M-Scaler (or exceeds it) i dont know, but as a chord DAC user myself, I no longer feel a need to add the M-Scaler to my system, and am looking instead at upgrading my AMD PC to a chip that will manage the DSD settings at a higher bitrate than my current limit of 128k

        • VERY intriguing. I'll give it a shot. Which filter are you using? Seems like most people are using sinc-L? If this PC can't do EC 512...I'd be surprised. lol

          • I am restricted to the more straightforward filters if I want to use the more CPU-Hungry shapers, and as I think the 7EC is the best for my taste I use poly-sinc-mp for DSD, and Sinc-m for PCM (although I never really use PCM these days). Like you, the linear filters were not so much to my taste. Yes, that's one powerful machine you have there, so 256 would be a breeze and I hope you get 512 as well - very interested in what you think one you get a chance to try it out (set aside a while day- 2 mins to change the filters and the rest to just listen and enjoy :-)

      • Thanks for the detailed review, Jay. Very useful. Comments: (1) IMHO, the biggest gain of HQP is upscaling to DSD256 using EC Modulators on Delta Sigma DACs (I highly recommend the inexpensive RME ADI-2 DAC FS (Version 2) as that is the one that Jussi, the HQP developer, uses. Don’t forget to enable DSD direct on the DAC (2) There have been quite a few posts online of sellers of MScaler / Dave because they found optimally used HQP to be better (3) A $800 M1 Mac Mini is fantastic host for HQP desktop as with that, I can upscale to DSD256 with ASDM7EC modulator with poly-sinc-ext2 filter without any issues at all on my RME ADI-2 DAC FS. Try it - it might save you a whole lot of money in the long run.

  • Great write-up. Would love to see this type of thoughtful assessment of HQ player applied to a "regular"
    non-Chord DAC. Since Chord uses a highly unique method of DA conversion its not that surprising that a computer specifically optimized for this process (M-scaler) will beat a non-optimized computer.

  • Fantastic comparative review, and as an HQ Player user I really enjoyed you assessment of the various filters and op[tions, These were incredibly concordant with my impressions as well after months of use, well-done!. I do think you may be a bit unfairly off putting potential HQ Player users with the statement "If I can’t be convinced of what I’m listening to is a piano or saxophone..." as it relates to HQ Player's articulation of instruments. Surely that is hyperbolic and whatever smoothing of tonal variation the software produces is far more subtle and discriminating then would hinder that distinction.

    In any case, thank you for this excellent read!

    • The sound of a hammer hitting a string on a piano and the "brassy" sound of a trumpet or saxophone just wasn't there for me. I don't hear the fiber or the inherent resonances of the bass plucks or drum skin flex. It just sounds like HQPlayer is more heavy-handed. You don't hear how the sound comes out of the instrument with HQPlayer (IMO) - which leaves me unconvinced. But you could feel the mass and strength of that voice or instrument. That's what I meant.

  • The value proposition laid out in detail that so many of us have been waiting for...
    Very nicely done.

  • You're connecting the PC running Roon Core (ROCK) directly to your DAC with one of the standard USB ports on the PC?

    • I'm connecting one of the USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports to the Innuos Phoenix USB reclocker (FTA usb cable), then from reclocker to DAC (Danacable TruStream USB). As you probably know, the chosen USB port on a motherboard does matter.

  • At first, great review!

    You said:

    sinc-L: By far the most resolving filter on this list. It digs DEEP but remains very analog sounding. I could start to hear the individual members of the audience. Cymbals and hi-hats have more “clang” and material to them. There’s an organic weight and presence to all instruments and performers. Very transparent and separation is uncanny. Amazing filter if you enjoy an uncolored sound. Personally, I prefer a more warm-blooded tone.

    Why didn't you test sinc-L with LNS15?

    And about DSD options, what is your opinion?

    • Keep in mind those filter impressions are BEFORE comparison to HMS. Everything is relative.

      "I prefer a warm-blooded tone." Just did another test (Alicia Key's Falling and Woman's Worth from Unplugged album) at 4x upscale. The tone on the HMS is far more accurate IMO. You hear more definitions from low-end as well. Cymbals have more metal to it and vocal overlays are sweeter. I still think the HMS performs better overall vs sinc-L and LNS15. The HQPlayer is smoother, zero grain...but doesn't color the voices and instruments properly. It also doesn't breathe into the room like the HMS. Also, the background of the HMS is quieter which helps with separation. I've stood 4 ft away while she was performing a few years back...the HMS reminds me of her stage presence...the HQPlayer does not.

      I've replied to your earlier comment. I'll have to test DSD files later.

  • There is a lot to unpack and a lot of value in this review. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that HQPlayer has the least to add to the Chord set of DACs because they effectively limit upscaling to PCM input and the TT Scaler is optimized for that. For those with ESS ES9038PRO or AKM AK4490 chipset-based DACs or R-2-R ladder Dacs (Holo Audio or Denafrips) using HQPlayer to upsample to DSD256 or DSD512 seems to offer a greater level of improvement than is possible using it to upsample PCM for Chord. That then begs the question: Is there a HQPlayer/DSD512 non Chord DAC combo that sounds as good or better tban the TTScaler/Dave combination at a similar price?

    • Which DACs would be good candidates for such an experiment? I'm curious and willing to hear them out.

      • A Chord TT Scaler/Dave versus Denafrips Terminator II + Gaia + HQPlayer comparison would be pretty interesting. My guess is that the Gaia might add some of the timbre accuracy you noticed in your Terminator review and the right HQP filter at DSD512 would add even more delicacy.

        • Hi - just saw this as I was writing an earlier post - I suspect you are right about Chord DAC's not being the best fit, as I believe any DSD inut is turned to PCM and then back into DSD (no idea how that is done, but I'm think that is broadly right?). however, with my Chord Qutest I definitely get some benefit of using HQP in DSD mode, and so while its certainly possible that some DACS respond better to this, Chrid still seems to get some of the effect, and as a user who was considering adding an M-Scaler, a review looking at comparing DSD via HQP to the M-Scaler is very much of interest to me (as is whether other DAC's respind better :-))

          • Can someone confirm whether HQP converts DSD to PCM first? I'll try DSD via HQP the Chord DACs in the meantime.

          • I've added more info in "The Battle" section. TLDR the HMS is still better to my ears but that specific mode is better than PCM output.

        • I no longer have the Denafrips but yeah, that would be interesting. I have not heard the Gaia DDC.

          • I think you should do a full review of HQPlayer and mscaler with the Schiit Yggdrasil DAC. As many have that DAC and would love to see how it performs under these conditions.

  • Great write up—really nicely done. Question: did you have the Phoenix USB reclocker in your chain for these tests? If you did, I assume it was before the M Scaler, and for HQ Player, right before the DAVE?

    • It was between the PC and DAC. FTA Callisto USB from PC to Phoenix and Danacable TruStream from Phoenix to DAC. I love this USB reclocker.

      • Great review Jay! I was considering using HQP but now not so much, you answered that question quite well... I have an HMS and Dave used via Roon and a couple of questions come to mind: How does the Phoenix USB reclocker with the HMS/Dave combo compare to using something like a Sonore opticalRendu (that's what I use - fed via a SonicTransporter i9 server) which then sources the MScaler going to the Dave with Black Cat Tron BNC cables and a few ferrites. The optical Rendu is way better sounding than USB direct from the server to the HMS. Also, have you experimented with an LPS for Dave? I just got a Sean Jacobs DC4 LPS (it's a kit so easy to install, but not cheap). Not a subtle change to say the least! Hopefully this LPS can be a potential future review by you. Again thanks for your great review!

        • I'm sure HQP will sell well regardless. For a non-hardware solution, it's pretty nice. I honestly can't tell you because I don't have the opticalRendu or SonicTransporter. Black Cat also didn't want to send in a BNC cable lol. I have not experimented with an LPS with the DAVE but I've heard one (A bespoke by Sean Jacobs). Crazy improvements in transparency, depth, and texture...but I felt like (the one I heard at least) it took away too much warmth. I don't think it's the DC4 LPS but I'll have to check. $7,400 is quite hefty! lol. Maybe he'll send one in for review...........

          As for the Innuos Phoenix, once I heard it...it was difficult not to buy it. It wasn't a planned purchase - but damn...it sounds good.

          • I agree with Nick's comment below that the LPS (in our cases the Sean Jacobs DC4) is a huge improvement and doesn't take way warmth but it doesn't add any either, but in all other respects is crazy good. Perhaps you heard a DC3 Sean Jacobs or some other variant.

            I agree with your comment in the review that it would be great if Dave could have a "warm" filter like the TT2 does.

            I'll likely be trying Nick's Wave cables soon, perhaps that's the added touch of warmth I'd like.

            It would be great if at some point you could review the opticalRendu. It was a 100% positive improvement in my system (and I source the data to the opticalRendu directly from my SonicTransporter i9 server via optical fiber - it never goes out to the ethernet switch at all). Always something to try!

  • As Mr. Dolezalek notes "For those with ESS ES9038PRO or AKM AK4490 chipset-based DACs or R-2-R ladder Dacs (Holo Audio or Denafrips) using HQPlayer to upsample to DSD256 or DSD512 seems to offer a greater level of improvement". I output HQ Player almost exclusively to DSD with HQPlayer. My modest Win10 PC comfortably runs HQPlayer with FLAC files output to DSD128 9or DSD256 with ASDMEC modulator, Sinc-L filter into a Singxer DDC, then I2S to an ESS-9038 based Matrrix X-Sabre DAC. The sound quality for my preference is far superior to HQ Player's PCM to PCM upsampling, and I agree it would be terrific to hear your impressions of HQPlayer DSD output versus HMS with Chord DAC. Thanks again, Audi Bacon, for helping those of us without HMS to gain insight into it's performance versus HQP Player. Great stuff!

    • Superior in what way? OK, I'll start doing some DSD output tests. Also, are there any specific top-tier DACs that are popular with HQPlayer's DSD upsampling?

      • sinc-L and EC modulators are PC killers!
        There is no capable PC to run sinc-L with EC modes DSD512!

      • {Think my previous comment did not show up, so I’ll try again here}. First: thanks for the detailed review. (1) Online reports indicate that HQP used OPTIMALLY beats Dave + MScaler. (2) A recommended optimal combo: the inexpensive RME ADI-2 DAC FS (version 2) (Jussi, the HQP developer, uses this too) connected via USB to the $800 M1 Mac Mini (8GB RAM is sufficient) hosting HQP desktop. Upsample to DSD256 using ASDM7EC modulator and poly-sinc-ext2 filter. You should get little to no latency with the M1 Mac Mini. This might save you a bunch of money in the long run and we might find your MScaler / Dave / TT2 in a ‘for sale’ listing online. Performance improves a bit when you use a good NAA in between the HQP and the DAC (like the ultraRendu or the SoTM SMS-200Ultra).

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