Hq9038 Tube DAC in 6moons.com

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27″ iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1 & H1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi LaScala MkII & Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Wyred4Sound STP-SE MkII, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; Bakoon AMP-12R; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics One SE Up NC500MB monos; LinnenberG Audio Allegro monos
Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Codex; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo; Ocellia OCC Silver
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, Titan Audio Eros cords on conditioners and amp/s
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring
Review component retail: $2’589 fully assembled

Another email, another brand. Before you yawn in blaséphemy, this sender was Danish, this brand Vietnamese. “HQ Audio are a small company in Vietnam owned by Mr. Quang Hao. He asked me to request a review of our newest DAC.” Signed and delivered by Morton Becker Saul to eliminate the language barrier, this email included many professional photos and a web link. With 6moons HQ in Ireland and HQ Audio’s second project engineer from Italy—Andrea Ciuffoli with his own site—multi kulti was in full swing. Equally swingin’ was the HQ9038 flagship DAC. Let’s walk through it. Very informative display. Latest-gen Sabre 9038Pro 8-channel converter. 2x12AU7 I/V conversion, 2x6DJ7 fully balanced outputs. Raspberry Pi3 server. SD card slot for Moode Audio or Runeaudio music player software. Italian power transformer. Italian Amanero USB transceiver. 100MHz Crystek CCHD-575 master clock with <0.5ps jitter. Silicon Labs Si866x digital ground isolator for USB. Linear Technology LT3042 ultra-low noise voltage regulators throughout. MKP and ClariCaps. WiFi. Metal remote. Amp-direct drive via Sabre’s on-chip 32-bit attenuator. Thick aluminium enclosure, no bent sheet metal. Rotary infinity controls. 12-month warranty.

Andrea, QuangHao, Morton.
And then the grand prize. $2’589. Direct.

What’s a gal like you doing in a place like this? Getting noticed she sez. And with such attributes, who wouldn’t be delighted to give notice? On paper and in photos, the HQ9038 seems loaded. Just the thing to balance out €5’000 power cords and their bilking ilk. Perusing various websites of the wider HQ team, one quickly spots DIY enthusiasm, candid schematics and things like group buys to launch sundry projects. Quang Hao and his support network still feel like enthusiasts more driven by sharing than the hardened pro’s single-minded profiteering instinct.

Needless to say, I accepted their solicitation. After explaining that I’d need a fully pre-conditioned loaner, I was told I’d hear back in about three months. That was August 27th. By October 12th, I was informed that a unit was breaking in and would be ready to ship in two weeks. So two not three months. Hey, this type of expectation management is rarer than you’d think. Usually it’s overpromises and underdeliveries. HQ were clearly QC.
In fact, this assignment didn’t begin balanced. Originally I was presented a 3x12AU7 single-ended design replete with actual photos not renderings. User feedback for true balanced outputs simply prompted a very early redesign for the above 4-tube circuit; just in time for my review. With all final testing performed in Denmark, my contact Morton would also be the dispatcher from 2100 København just as is the case for all paying customers. From that angle, this machine behaves very much like a European not Asian product. Here’s the owner’s manual for those who don’t drive automatic.

The innards spread out over three bigger circuit boards and, for the Raspberry server module and its dedicated voltage regulator, two small ones behind a metal partition. The USB 2.0 Amanero module did its usual small double-decker float. With the four bottles tucked inside spring-loaded metal canisters, what vied for attention instead were the four adjacent MCap tin-foil capacitors and the two bigger 15µF ClarityCap jobs with their very Gryphon-esque red winged lion branding on the power supply board.

Breaking out the guts across multiple PCB makes this DAC a modular affair. Hence a potential repair or major update wouldn’t involve replacing one lone motherboard but just the relevant module.

Looking inside also showed a preference for traditional rather than computer-ribbon flying leads.

Reseating the cover to redo the bolts showed some hole misalignment for the front three fasteners as a reminder that this wasn’t Swiss made. And it is obviously priced accordingly. Morton explained this was due to being unit #1 from their 0 series, hence not quite final production which would have such items licked.
The classy metal wand wasn’t entirely self-explanatory because some buttons have more than one function depending on preceding command. To learn the secret handshakes requires the manual. And ‘DSP’ isn’t short for ‘display’. There’s no ‘dim’ or ‘extinguish’ command. Or so I thought. “New software released includes display on/off when pushing the DSP button on the remote.”
Whilst the 99-step volume control worked flawlessly mechanically, a stout 6V output on XLR combined with our 55-watt LinnenberG Allegro monos and 89dB/4Ω Audio Physic Codex speakers meant that standard levels occurred at 48dB(!) down. A quick swap to our Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II demonstrated undeniably superior sonics when the 9038Pro’s on-chip attenuators were bypassed. For listeners with low system gain and very inefficient speakers, Sabre’s scheme might well become attractive. In our hardware context, it simply threw far too much under the bus, Again, that’s no general indictment of digital volume. It simply depends on how much you need to use. That said, the promoted direct connection even in 3V RCA mode should still provide far too much gain for amps that reach full output well below 1V to get unnecessarily heavy handed on bit-depth truncation. It’s why LinnenberG’s Telemann DAC with the same 9038Pro chips uses a gold-contact switched precision resistor array in the analog domain instead. And yes, that costs significantly more and lacks the server functionality. Horses for courses? “This DAC includes 32-bit digital volume so set to lower than about -30dB, it will reduce bit depth. Given your experience, we have decided to lower our circuit gain so that serious listening will occur only between -30dB and 0dB and not at -48dB as in your case.” Talk about responsive action!
Looking inside also showed a preference for traditional rather than computer-ribbon flying leads.

Reseating the cover to redo the bolts showed some hole misalignment for the front three fasteners as a reminder that this wasn’t Swiss made. And it is obviously priced accordingly. Morton explained this was due to being unit #1 from their 0 series, hence not quite final production which would have such items licked.

The classy metal wand wasn’t entirely self-explanatory because some buttons have more than one function depending on preceding command. To learn the secret handshakes requires the manual. And ‘DSP’ isn’t short for ‘display’. There’s no ‘dim’ or ‘extinguish’ command. Or so I thought. “New software released includes display on/off when pushing the DSP button on the remote.”

Whilst the 99-step volume control worked flawlessly mechanically, a stout 6V output on XLR combined with our 55-watt LinnenberG Allegro monos and 89dB/4Ω Audio Physic Codex speakers meant that standard levels occurred at 48dB(!) down. A quick swap to our Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II demonstrated undeniably superior sonics when the 9038Pro’s on-chip attenuators were bypassed. For listeners with low system gain and very inefficient speakers, Sabre’s scheme might well become attractive. In our hardware context, it simply threw far too much under the bus, Again, that’s no general indictment of digital volume. It simply depends on how much you need to use. That said, the promoted direct connection even in 3V RCA mode should still provide far too much gain for amps that reach full output well below 1V to get unnecessarily heavy handed on bit-depth truncation. It’s why LinnenberG’s Telemann DAC with the same 9038Pro chips uses a gold-contact switched precision resistor array in the analog domain instead. And yes, that costs significantly more and lacks the server functionality. Horses for courses? “This DAC includes 32-bit digital volume so set to lower than about -30dB, it will reduce bit depth. Given your experience, we have decided to lower our circuit gain so that serious listening will occur only between -30dB and 0dB and not at -48dB as in your case.” Talk about responsive action!
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