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3rd opinion from Frederic Beudot: Typically when three reviewers listen to the same piece of equipment in vastly different systems, the results rarely overlap completely. Components express their strengths and weaknesses differently depending on context. Couple this with significantly different music preferences and listener biases and the reader will be lucky to find a few common threads from one opinion to the next. Nonetheless opinions sometimes converge to focus on dominant qualities a component will express regardless of environment. We ran into this a few years ago when three of us described the effects of ASI Liveline cables in almost identical terms. With Metrum's Hex we now have a rerun of sorts.

My current system begins with a dedicated Mac mini running either PureMusic or Audirvana+ into a Burson Conductor as DAC/preamplifier driving a First Watt F5 into a pair of Ocellia Calliope .21 Twin Signature review speakers  All cabling is Ocellia including USB. With the Hex not offering variable outputs I use the Conductor as preamp in its lowest gain setting when listening to the Hex mostly via USB. The modified OEM USB module is incompatible with Audirvana's Direct mode. I initially experienced the same issues John and Srajan did when A+ 1.3.10 refused to play ball with the M2tech driver even with Direct mode disengaged. Reverting to an older version pre Direct mode or updating to A+ 1.4 then disengaging Direct solved the issue. Yet I never felt that the combination of Hex and Audirvana gave the best results or provided the fullest expression of what the Hex could do on tonal rightness and flow. Unlike with the Burson Conductor where A+ with restored Integer mode remains my absolute reference for microdynamics, I consistently preferred PureMusic for the Hex.

One small issue arose the first night. The Hex's USB processing involves an about 1-second delay to where playing a movie from the Mac mini has the sound arrive about a second behind the image. This wasn't exactly a crowd pleaser at casa Beudot. My family was headed into an all Batman night to force me to reconnect the Burson urgently as that suffers no such delays via USB. For video-less systems there's no issue without any visual reference. With video the USB input's generous buffer to better manage computer-induced jitter makes said latency a non-starter however. Thankfully there's a relatively easy workaround for somebody like me who insists on using the Hex also for video: connect the computer via optical and USB. In OSX Lion it's easy to then set up the optical output as default for movies and PureMusic or Audirvana+ to short-cut optical in favor of USB for music. All this gets done upfront once and from that point forward you only have to select the appropriate input on the Hex—Toslink for video, USB for music—and voilà, the best of both worlds.

Back to the Hex for musical enjoyment, it became the DAC which thus far came closest to the full immersion I feel when listening to vinyl and actually many times exceeded it. With the Ocellia speakers on loan, it was very easy to lock into two very critical elements of music reproduction - tone accuracy followed by the balance of leading edge to decay. I typically find that the most engaging systems get those two things right. Other factors like microdynamics and realistic staging also matter to me but if the first two aren't spot on, the next two won't tip the scale. The Metrum Hex excels at the first two like no other DAC I've heard and throws an impressive sense of flow into the bargain.

Starting with Marc Minkowski's latest recording of Schubert's Symphonies with Les Musiciens du Louvre—a superb version on period instruments by one of the most dynamic period ensembles in Europe—the Hex simply eclipsed the Burson on the natural tonal qualities of the various instruments. Period instruments often sound shrill on digital but rarely so in vinyl. I believe it's because those instruments are more heavily weighted on the attack with less harmonic decay than their modern counterparts to often cause an off sound whose initial impulse is imperfectly reproduced. The Hex proved capable of lightning-fast transients with full tonal development and decay to provide these period instruments with their true musical signatures - neither aggressive nor mellow but sharp and complex.

This was never as obvious as on Fabio Biondi's Vivaldi Concertos for Mandolin which I never truly appreciated because the mandolins were excessively biting and completely missing in harmonic development like a poor harpsichord recording where the strings sound pinched without the vibrations of the soundboard. Through the Hex the mandolins came completely alive with actually more energetic initial dynamics than before but without missing the sonic body. I'm not saying that Burson's Conductor misses either but it does not succeed quite as well in merging these elements into a realistic instrument whereas the Hex does. It is a subtle difference but one that was consistent across all discs I listened to. The Burson sounds like two pieces very closely patched together and matched, the Hex sounds like one whole musical event as though there was no qualitative difference between leading edge—which is sharper and cleaner than any cartridge I own—and decay.

You can apply that description across the board from Alison Balsom's trumpet, Tchavolo Schmitt's guitar and Gustavo Leonhard's harpsichord to Bela Fleck's banjo. It held true in every situation. The initial impact or attack was cleaner and sharper than with any other source I've owned or reviewed (including the renowned Esoteric X03SE and P/D05) whilst providing more tonal followup than even the Burson and significantly more than the Esoterics. All this talk about leading-edge sharpness and transient dynamics could leave you thinking that the Hex is clinical and analytical. Not. The Hex sounds extremely rich and organic without any kind of voicing artifice. Its top end is actually more extended and refined than the Conductor which already was a huge improvement over the HA160D.

The other area where the Hex surprised and delighted was its ability to accurately recreate the recorded environment. I can usually point to one or two features a source does well—width, some level of ambient retrieval or even depth—but the Hex did it all to a quite exalted level: width, depth, hall ambiance, layering of instruments and holographic presentation of soloists. When I earlier pointed at certain aspects where the Hex bested my vinyl setup, that's exactly what I was talking about. Listening to Harnoncourt's recording of Mozart's Dominiscus Messe K66, the Arnold Schönberg Choir simply spread in front of me as wide and deep as my room allowed.

John and Srajan reported on how the Hex fared on modern music and electronica. I really focused on those details which should matter to folks who primarily enjoy acoustic music from early Baroque to large romantic orchestral pieces, from violins to soprano voices. Unless you're replacing a very advanced digital piece from the likes of MSB or Esoteric for example, I can't imagine that you wouldn't be completely seduced by the Hex. And even in those cases you may well find that the qualities of a superior NOS DAC like the Hex exceed the benefits of more traditional digital implementations even if I recently did hear the new MSB Analog DAC which may well challenge the Hex for most analog-sounding DAC at an obviously quite steeper price.

Speaking of the Hex's NOS status with its usually associated limitations, throw away most your preconceptions. The top end of the Hex is not rolled off but extended and very lively in a non-offensive undistorted fashion. I don't think I need to dwell further on its ability to resolve the finest nuances of the musical fabric which it does in spades but unlike the Esoterics and MSB without projecting or showcasing this ultra-high resolution. It simply exists as part of the music.

The Hex is less impressive or showy—pick your perspective by whether you enjoy this reinforcement of textures or not— but to my ears more natural. Like all other NOS designs I have heard, the Hex excels at flow so that compared to filtered Delta-Sigma DACs all sense of digital 'edginess' is eradicated. It's a phenomenon that has always baffled me given that NOS designs in theory can't reproduce a perfect sine wave to create stair steps instead. Yet they sound more free-flowing to many folks including me. This reminds us again that the factors impacting music perception are not yet fully understood and that dynamic behavior and pre/post ringing may play a far greater role than initially believed. One area where the Hex may not be quite as good as the very best is bass heft. It does go deep with great texture; indeed bass sounds very organic and natural but the Ocellia speakers being a little short in upper bass impact and power reveal restraint in that range where the Hex was clearly less gutsy than Burson's Conductor. Primarily kettle drums sounded a little more shy over the Hex. You could well challenge me as the Ocellias being less endowed in said range might indicate the Burson to be somewhat over-zealous whilst the Hex could be perfectly balanced.

Personally I'm still debating whether the Hex will stay or not. It is superior to the Burson in almost every single way that makes the difference between very good playback and suspension of disbelief but also comes at a steeper price (though still reasonable in the grand scheme) and at the cost of limited functionality. That's probably the only area where I would fault it. I know that its designer targets people who mean to upgrade the digital section of their CD player or digital front end but a growing portion of audiophiles are going to 'integrated' front ends which combine digital and preamp functions without giving up on analog attenuation. That's where the Burson Conductor, Eximus DP1, AMR DP777 and MSB Analog DAC come to the fore to name a few which morph from just DAC to main control center. The Hex doesn't fit such a setup. I thus hope that one day it will become available with an optional analog section providing analog inputs and volume. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy its exceptional musicality and burn through as many discs as I can while I can.