Norway is not the first country you think of when looking for manufacturers of great audio equipment. But it is home to companies that are well known all over the world. Some will remember Tandberg, famous in the seventies and eighties for tape recorders and receivers, these days they only make pro gear. Of course Electrocompaniet is Norwegian, just like drive unit manufacturer SEAS which has been in the business for longer than I can remember. Hegel is a name we should definitely add to this list because Hegel Music Systems AS has been around for over 25 years and they build very fine equipment. The H80 amplifier in front of me is a good example from a company that only makes electronics, designing and manufacturing pre-, power-, headphone and integrated amplifiers plus (SA)CD-players and DACs.
The Hegel H80 is an integrated amplifier with a built-in digital to analogue converter (DAC), and a selection of inputs that show that digital sources are now the most important ones. Analogue inputs are available via RCA and XLR connections and one input can be configured for home theatre bypass by means of moving a jumper inside the box. On the digital side there are two coaxial and two optical S/PDIF inputs next to a USB connector. All digital inputs handle signals up to 24bits/192kHz, except for USB which is limited to 96 kHz. The dimmable display shows source and volume level, it’s a pity that sample rate is not shown, this is particularly useful with computer sources. A credit card size remote is part of the deal.
Under the lid a 265 VA toroidal transformer feeds a power supply with 40,000 µF of capacitor buffering. Hegel uses only three printed circuit boards, the main board, the display board and one for the DAC. All the PCBs are populated with small SMD (surface mount devices), the converter chip is a Burr Brown PCM1754. The advantage of USB inputs that are limited to 96 kHz is that they don’t need drivers in the partnering computer, so the Hegel locked onto my Linux based music centre immediately. The analogue amplifier circuit contains the company’s patented SoundEngine, a design that eliminates the disadvantages of a class A amplifier (energy waste through heat) and at the same time overcomes the main disadvantage of class AB; crossover distortion. Hegel makes no use of overall feedback. The documentation of the H80 does not make clear how the SoundEngine works, but my guess is that the eight driver transistors in the power stage are part of the secret, they only serve one bipolar power transistor for each channel. Last but not least a Zobel network and a relay couple to the loudspeakers as soon as the H80 is turned on and stabilized. Available power is 75 Watts per channel on 8 Ohm speakers, combined with a damping factor of over 1,000, so this amplifier will drive most speakers to decent levels in the average living room.
For this review I am using PMC Twenty.23 floorstanding loudspeakers, connected with Chord Company Epic Super Twin speaker cables. Sources are a Linux/Vortexbox server with AudioQuest Carbon USB cable directly connected to the Hegel, my Naim UnitiQute serves as streamer for the Hegel over a Stereovox digital interlink. I can also use the Hegel in bypass mode as a power amp behind the analogue output of the UnitiQute. Some nice power cords and AudioQuest Carbon and Vodka Ethernet cables complete the system.
From the first note the Hegel H80 and I became friends. It’s a very fine amplifier that reminds me of a full class A amp and one that achieves maximum sound quality using conventional and proven techniques. But first a note on the Hegel USB input. The route over USB is a lot more direct than from my NAS, over Ethernet to the UnitiQute and thence via digital cable into the Hegel, but still I find that USB cannot match the coax input for sound quality. USB is on the dark side and less sparkling compared to coax. Stereo image over USB is a bit better while detail levels are equal. And no, this is not dependent on the sample rate of the music file. USB is not too bad, but neither is it my cup of tea. So, what you will read is based solely on music played over S/PDIF connections.
Allan Taylor presents his Beat Hotel with a deep and warm voice alongside a heavy bass fighting for attention over guitar and percussion. The stereo image does not cling to the speakers, it’s totally free in height and width but could be better in terms of depth. But that is a bit of hair splitting I suppose. The sum of the parts shows how much power the H80 has in reserve for driving the loudspeakers. The internal digital to analogue converter is fine, I know standalone DACs that perform even better, but only at a higher price level and in additional boxes. The sun shines for Stacey Kent and her CD The Changing Lights, the excellent recording and her clear voice give me a lot of pleasure. Her voice is placed at the correct height, a result I noticed with Allan Taylor, and I find that surprising. Not many amplifiers will place voices correctly in the soundstage, especially not at this price level. Rhythm is also one of the strengths of the H80, it reminds me of the performance of my Naim NAP 100 power amp. The low end of the H80 is strong and present, but this is not a dark sounding amplifier. It has a noticeable class A signature, the wonderful combination of ease and liveliness that the H80 can deliver turns listening into a real pleasure. It makes room for voices to be expressive, without colouration, at the same time it is neither dry nor colourless. Hegel produces a very nice sound balance in my eyes, or better in my ears. Recently I bought the CD Merci Serge Reggiani by Isabelle Boulay in a French supermarket. The opening track shows how easily the Hegel delivers high performance levels with acoustic instruments. But as soon as the band joins the soloist things get a bit cloudy in the lower bass registers because of the bass energy of the Hegel and the way my speakers couple to the room. My Naim NAP 100 has less bass energy and avoids this, on the other hand the bass weight is one of the virtues of the Hegel. Take for instance Avratz by Infected Mushroom, pure electronic music, that lets you know exactly how much power is available from your speakers. A nice ending for this listening session is Norwegian Mood by Kari Bremnes.
It’s time to find the difference between the internal Hegel DAC/preamp and that of my UnitiQute connected to the HT bypass input. It soon becomes clear that it is the Hegel electronics that take care of the deep, low end. The Naim DAC/pre is voiced with a lighter tone, neither more expressive nor better. Also the stereo image changes slightly. Another bonus point for Hegel, the power stage in the integrated amplifier is neutral and transparent to internal or external sources and amplifier stages. Personally I prefer the Hegel as a whole in this set-up, the built-in DAC, the line amplifier and the power amp are truly catalysts for each other.
It must be clear to you that I really like the Hegel H80 in my smaller system. It distinguishes itself in its price range because of sound quality that reminds me of a full class A amplifier. Which is IMHO one of the best ways to build amplifiers for the purpose of enjoying music at home. That Hegel realizes this without the disadvantage of energy waste is worth some extra bonus points. As you can see, inventive solutions come from Norway too. The H80 is flexible enough to snugly fit in a modern audio system with analogue or digital sources of any kind. The USB input with a maximum sample rate of 96 kHz might upset hi res enthusiasts, but for normal use it is good enough in combination with a laptop or music server. Operation is straightforward, although I would prefer a larger remote control. Criticisms that do not really count compared to the excellent results when playing music. This is simply a very fine amplifier that will serve and please you for a long time.
Note: this review was originally published in the Dutch Music Emotion magazine No. 9-2014