A relatively new kid on the block, Hegel is making waves in audio markets around the globe by thinking outside the box, as Trevor Butler discovered when auditioning their latest integrated amp with on-board DAC.
Taking the smartly-branded white carton from Editor Kennedy I was staggered at the weight, after all this is just an integrated amp, isn’t it? Well, no. Hegel, who are already making a name for themselves outside their native Norway, believe in high-quality engineering, build and sound. I had an immediate feeling that the Röst amplifier wasn’t going to disappoint.
A solid-looking and heavyweight unit, with glimpses of typical Scandinavian minimalism, gives the feeling of value-for-money before anything is even plugged in. Siting the 12kg amp on its three vibration-absorbing feet, the glossy bright-white fascia is a lovely contrast to the slightly creamy and matt-like top and sides; while that curve to the front panel with its bowed centre is rather pleasing to the eye. Hegel have cast something of a niche for thinking outside the box with all aspects of hi-fi design. That, for instance, is why hand-matching of certain key components takes place in Oslo before main assembly in the Far East. It is also why Hegel’s owner/chief designer Bent Holter opts for the less-commonly used adaptive, non-asynchronous USB connection.
As the brand’s marketing chief Anders Ertzeid puts it, “some users have a tendency of giving too much weight to a manufacturer’s component selection when it is really the combination of the components and their implementation that creates the magic”. How right he is, conferring that “very often the most expensive ones are not the best, if you make a good design”, citing the case of DAC chips. “ESS DAC-chips were the ‘best’ if you had no real clue about designing a DAC ground-up, and they were therefore hyped a lot: everyone could launch an ESS DAC and it would sound a certain way. But [and it’s a big but] if you did know how to design a DAC, you would use completely different chip sets, as you knew that deep down the ESS was a disaster.”
One thing I like about Hegel is that while too many manufacturers resort to boring brown packing cases, for Hegel the outer carton is removed by the retailer to to present a glossy white box to the end-user. Little touches like this can go a long way to gain consumer confidence. That attention-to-detail continues throughout the product, as we shall discover.
I had heard an early pre-production sample last year in Hegel’s headquarters at the university park in Oslo. But it was the company’s first week in their new, premises and the massive Magico S5 speakers had merely been plonked in position at one end of the dedicated listening room. Even so, the sound quality was such that I was keen to get my hands on a production unit as soon as I could.
Having a DAC, preamp and power amp in one box aids convenience even if the purists will moan. But Hegel have catered for that with enough inputs to permit an external DAC if required, and variable outputs which fed my German-made Trigon monoblocks perfectly. These outputs actually are intended for a home theatre system with an auxiliary decoder and amp for the rest of the 5.1 or 7.1 surround speakers for those who revel in such excesses.
Sticking with two-channels I decided it was the ideal time to give my trusty Harbeth M30.1 Anniversary Edition monitors an airing. They proved the perfect accompaniment for the Röst although I had wondered if these speakers’ relative inefficiency would prove too much for the Norwegian integrated. Not a bit of it. Rated at 2x75W (into 8 ohms) the Röst is simply bristling with connectors, something to my mind you can never have enough of these days. Digital inputs comprise one coaxial and no fewer than three optical alongside a USB port and Ethernet connection. This was enough even for my demands. Analogue inputs are a balanced pair of XLRs and two pairs of unbalanced RCAs; all are really solid in feel as are the chunky speaker cable connections.
There’s a headphone socket along with central display and two control knobs on the front panel for those who eschew the remote or control via iPad or iPhone, for the Röst is incredibly Apple friendly once set up. That remote was rather good, as well. Just the right size to fit in the hand so that every control can be reached with the fingers and, I was delighted to see, each button is labelled in English – no squiggles or icons here leaving the operator wondering what on earth each control will do. The only slight anomaly is that ‘Eco’ is in fact ‘Stand-by’. Within a few minutes inputs were connected, Apple Airplay paring complete and it was time to switch-on. A healthy clunk of relays is followed by a slight delay as circuits stabilise and then it’s all systems go.
Although I spent most of the review period predominately using two sources, my Apple music library via the Ethernet connection and the output of my satellite receiver via optical S/PDIF, I did dabble with a disk source (Panasonic Blu-Ray player) using both the analogue and another optical input.
After just a few moments of listening I had that joyous feeling that here was a competent product, one that enticed me to listen not just for the review purposes but for pleasure. So much so that my intended hour’s listening session turned into a four-hour marathon as I was tempted to discover more of my long-forgotten recordings. That’s probably as much praise as I can give any piece of equipment in all honesty, but to some detail…
It was with the analogue input from the CD source that I began, selecting a disk from one of the piles which I confess I leave largely undisturbed now that the vast majority of source material is so easy to stream. First to be loaded was an old favourite, the Tallis Scholars presenting John Browne’s Stabat mater directed by Peter Phillips, a wonderful recording on Gimell. A jewel of polyphonic composition from Tudor times, the piece was much admired by members of the royal family. A vivid presentation emerged with the full force of the wonder contained in the recording’s first few bars really set the emotional scene which follows. Within seconds I was immersed in a performance that really came to life. Switching to one of the Röst’s optical digital inputs produced an immediate improvement in audible resolution and openness of the soundstage. Greater nuances of the material came to light as bass lines became firmer, the noise floor lowered and distortion lessened in a quite remarkable way as to become something of a chalk and cheese comparison, echoing Bent’s remarkable ability to create such efficient on-board DACs in his designs.
Just a few bars into Marriner’s masterful delivery of Mozart’s Requiem [ASMF on Philips] and one has to marvel at the way this all-transistor circuit is able to produce such a neutral rendition of well-known and oft-played pieces with a new, upbeat presentation which appears to extract new levels of detail and increased dynamics that one seemed oblivious to before. I was hugely impressed by the silky-smooth and transparent delivery of even complex material without any hint of coloration. I know the Harbeth coupling was helping here, it’s a speaker which adds nothing, but that is just an added endorsement for the Röst’s many abilities.
Switching genre to the re-mastering of Supertramp’s Live in Paris was no less magical. An enormously wide soundstage ensued with a real boogie-factor from a full but never over-blown bass. This is almost certainly attributable to Hegel’s desire for an incredibly high damping-factor; once the be-all of amplifier design it went out of fashion but ensures the electronics have a real grip on the transducers from its impedance and not simply from power. A useful analogy I’ve heard quoted is the difference between torque and horse-power in combustion engines for creating a record-beating 0-60 figure.
Staying with our English rock, but switching to the amp’s coax input there’s a hint of increased inner detail, notably around HF peaks yet retaining a sweet treble that becomes quite morish as one enjoys the sheer fluidity of the performance. The more I listened the greater I understood the rationale behind this product as bass lines came through in a way that doesn’t often happen with the mid-sized Harbeths, speakers noted instead for their exquisite midrange.
Regular readers will know that my satellite receiver provides me with hours of satisfaction, and connecting its optical output to the Röst really brought home the mastery of Bent’s circuit design. Throughout the final episode of the BBC’s dramatization of Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, lower registers remained realistic while the all-important presence region for accurate speech rendition was crisp and, above all, believably natural.
Finally, I had to use my BBC speech recordings of the late Ian Carmichael as Dorothy L Sayer’s amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey as a litmus test for the Hegel. This is material I know intimately and happily recall being present at some of the recording sessions when I worked in Broadcasting House during the eighties. The mellifluous vocals were portrayed with aplomb; the subtleties of some of the characters’ speech rendered with an uncanny degree of realism such that the small hairs on the back of my neck tingled. This is a sure sign that something is instinctively ‘right’. Upper midband details were precisely as I remember them and the overall register of the various deliveries a delight to listen to. Indeed, on a couple of occasions I became aware of background details like off-mic sound effects and atmosphere that I hadn’t previously noticed to such an extent. The overall acoustic also became much more apparent, from the studio’s dead-end to illustrate indoor scenes and the live-end for outdoors, as though the Röst was able to go deeper into the recording to retrieve this micro-detail and increased dynamics. The whole effect was not only most pleasing, but also most convincing as far as a radio drama goes.
Winding up the wick to discover that the Hegel will entice the relatively inefficient Harbeth monitors into producing some serious SPLs to fill the room with sound, it’s time to tackle my large Apple music repository. I blast the neighbours by streaming some classics including Genesis, Phil Collins, Queen, The Police and Yello. Wow – not only is it just so easy to use an iPhone or iPad to negotiate the Röst’s controls, be it to change track or volume control, but this is a wholly effortless way to enjoy music. The resultant multi-layered soundstage had not only incredible width but amazing depth. Imaging was among the best I have heard at any price-point, and clearly a class-leader, creating a wholly lifelike performance. People like to hear comment about the speed of a system, well … the Röst is clearly no slouch: swift and punchy are the watchwords here.
The natural warm-sounding Harbeths seem to really enjoy the partnership whereas some amplifiers seem to provide bass that is overblown and intensely warm. Here, I would suggest, is a really good combo for those seeking reproduction that’s as accurate as possible. I have heard systems played at shows costing ten-times, no a hundred-times the price of the Röst which were not only less pleasing on the ear, but less able to create a meaningful and realistic presentation (steady on! –Ed).
The surprising thing is that this is seen as an entry-level product in the Hegel line-up when I would herald it as something of a digital breakthrough. Used every day as my main listening amplification for nearly a month, it seems incredible value for money and a cinch to use. The degree of sonic transparency is to be congratulated while it has the ability to completely involve the listener in the performance. Bass-lines are tight and punchy, the midrange natural and combined with a sweet treble of extreme finesse. It’s almost as if much-more expensive electronics are in use, such is the level of competence it delivers. The name Röst appears to translate most accurately as ‘praised’: there’s no better word to describe it, other than perhaps high-praise. Here is a package from the Norwegians encapsulating modern design, up-to-date functionality and competent electronics.
I had a chance to try the Röst prior to Trevor and largely used the USB input, the impression I got was very positive but with PMC Fact8 speakers it had a more flavoursome sound than might be strictly considered neutral. But the USB performance was certainl on a par with the more popular asynchronous input variety, so what they say about it's not what you use, it's the way that you use it would seem to be true. It’s colourful and juicy with a charm that's very appealing when combined with a good sense of timing, and as Trevor points out it does encourage long term musical indulgence. I also used it with an external phono stage and various turntables and found it to be revealing and entertaining in equal measure.