March was Hegel month in the Kelly household, not only did I spend many happy hours with their excellent V10 phono stage but I also enjoyed some quality time with its stablemate, the Hegel H390 integrated amplifier, which was here at my request, as the obvious companion. Actually, calling the H390 an integrated amplifier sells it short, given that enclosed within its unpretentious casework there is an extremely capable DAC with built in streamer, but we shall return to that later.
Physically, the H390 follows Hegel’s well established design ethos, with a symmetrical fascia containing a central monochrome display, flanked to the left by a source selector and to the right by a volume control. The on/off switch is hidden below the screen on the underside of the unit. On the back we find two pairs of loudspeaker sockets at either end, and between them a power inlet, output sockets marked fixed and variable, and inputs for one pair of XLRs and two pairs of RCA cables. Below those are the digital sockets – a digital output on BNC and an array of S/PDIF inputs on the usual connectors plus an atypical BNC (the best coaxial connection available), alongside which sits an ethernet input marked network.
The supplied Hegel remote is reassuringly hefty in the hand, thanks to its metal construction, and was very pleasant to use, with no unnecessary buttons and those that were there clearly marked as to their purpose. The heart of the H390 is undoubtedly its amplifier section, which Hegel quotes as giving 250 watts of output into 8 ohms. It’s a dual mono design and uses Hegel’s proprietary SoundEngine2 technology, which is said to eliminate distortion with on-board computer wizardry.
I connected my Linn Sondek LP12/Ittok/Dynavector XX2 via the Hegel V10 phono stage’s balanced XLR outputs, my Yamaha CD-S3000 player via RCA, my Lyngdorf CD2 transport via coaxial and my television to one of the optical inputs. During the review period I used two different pairs of loudspeakers, both stand-mount models, the Dynaudio Special Forty and my own Harbeth C7ES XDs. In the last few days of the H390’s residency on my rack I received a pair of Kudos Cardea C20 floor-standers for review so these were also brought into the system.
The H390 was not new so only needed a short time to warm up before it started to show its capabilities, I started with a Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs pressing of Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks. I use Tangled Up in Blue as one of my standard test tracks and as soon as the stylus found the music I was pinned to my seat. The sense of realism was intense, with Dylan’s voice projected well into the room and all the accompanying musicians very clearly defined and occupying their own space, yet collectively sounding like a real band playing real instruments.
The synergy between the Hegel and the Dynaudio speakers was extraordinary, with levels of tuneful bass which I had not previously realised could be summoned from the diminutive enclosures. From those first few moments of listening I realised that this was a very special pairing. Over the next part of the review period nothing happened to change my mind from those first impressions. When my music choice required subtlety rather than muscularity, the H390 was more than happy to oblige, but when needed it could produce drive and energy that defied any attempt on my part to sit still and passively listen (flailing air guitar alert).
Switching to SACD replay via the Yamaha, the H390 continued to demand my full attention. Even with the volume scaled back this was never going to be a background listening type of system – it commands, and you listen. And that I did, for days on end, with never a hint of fatigue on my part. When I switched to CD replay, using the Lyngdorf transport, the H390 gave a most engaging performance. The DAC has clearly been carefully crafted. Hegel describe it as a bit-perfect converter, and have put a lot of design effort into the clocking system. Whatever magic they have wrought, the net result is that CD replay sounds very close to analogue through their own phono stage. I played the ubiquitous Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl followed by the most recent CD version and I think I might have struggled to tell which was which in a proper blind listening test – and the analogue replay through this system is exceptional.
I then started to consider the H390’s digital capabilities. Although Hegel eschew imposing their own user-interface/app on the listener (which is also a canny way of saving a very large R&D investment), the H390 is a fully UPnP/DLNA capable streamer and it also Apple AirPlay equipped too. I used Bubble UPnP and MConnect HD apps with it, and was able to stream Spotify Connect. Playing ripped CDs from my Naim UnitiServe showed that nothing was lost in the Ethernet transfer. I know I’m not down with all you youngsters on this, but I still prefer to use a physical replay medium for a serious listening session but if I didn’t I would pair the H390 with a good external music server and live happily ever after.
When I switched out the Dynaudio loudspeakers for my own Harbeths, the H390 took no time to help me fall back in love with them. This was music reproduction at the very highest level. The gorgeous Harbeth midband was of course present and correct, but the H390 seemed to help them to gain a little more bass, to project an even more immersive soundstage and to bless the higher frequencies with an added aura of airiness and finesse. Listening to music is never a chore for me and it forms a central part of my life, but sometimes the listening experience can be so enveloping that it banishes all external thought and induces a state approaching transcendental bliss.
These moments can be fleeting, or interrupted by the realities of life – a courier ringing the doorbell, a telephone call – but when it happens it is spontaneous and sublime. This happened quite regularly when I was listening to the Hegel powered system.
Living with a piece of audio equipment can be very different from hearing it in a dealer’s demonstration room for an hour or two. I don’t doubt that the H390 would impress in such circumstances – it has power and musicality that are easily appreciated early in a listening session. However, beyond that superficial introduction I came to appreciate and take for granted the ease of use, the way the display showed me changes to input as executed on the remote as I sat at the other end of the room, as well as showing exactly how the volume was set. When used to reproduced two channel sound from the television it gave terrific realism to dialogue as well as to sound effects and music.
Ultimately though, any amplifier must execute its primary task properly day in and day out, and in this the H390 never failed. It has more than enough power and delivers more than enough current to drive most domestic loudspeakers, to levels beyond anything that a Health and Safety Executive might approve. It has enough inputs, both analogue and digital, to meet the needs of most users, and it replays every source with verve and musicality and simply urges you to play one more thing before you break the spell and get on with real life.
Hegel’s website describe the H390 as a rebel and as Robin Hood, and explains why, stating that the H390 offers much of the performance of their, and indeed everybody else’s, high end products. Given that their own H590 sits above the model under review here but costs almost twice as much, I think they have a valid point. In the UK, the H390 retails for nearly £5,000, which is certainly not pocket change, and at that price there are plenty of options available to the discerning buyer. However, the H390 will win a lot of hearts and wallet-share, because it is just so good at what it does. If your fun fund has grown in the absence of the opportunity to spend on more ephemeral pleasures like holidays, or if you just fancy moving your listening experience to another level, you owe it to yourself to shortlist the H390. I will be very surprised if you don’t love it as much as I have.