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.