Ever heard a Naim amplifier? Hegel reminds me of amplifiers by Naim and the Roksan Caspian. But does that mean this charming amplifier with all sorts of modern connections is nothing more than high-end, boring Bose sound? Is the Hegel H160 stereo integrated amplifier with DAC merely a loaded McDonald's burger? The $3500 Hegel H160 amplifier is the typical black box electronic component. It has elegantly simple black knobs and an oodle of possible connections on the back. The H160 is a flat black case, with smooth matte rounded edge on its face. The amplifier came double-boxed, with a plastic moisture-barrier bag. It also came with the requisite 1.5 to 3 inches of Styrofoam necessary to survive a UPS bounce. The foam however was strawberry pink, like Owens Corning fiberglass, or the cartoon Pink Panther! Inexplicably, the power switch is located on the bottom of the amplifier. Perhaps this is some form of security measure, as only owners will know where it is. I didn't like this awkward placement on the big round Delta Studio tube amplifier, but the secret switch is more convenient that reaching around the back... once you know where it is. The eight-page manual is very nice, with a special section on using Apple's Airplay.
Otherwise, first impression of the Hegel H160 stereo integrated amplifier with DAC is very favorable – a good sonic feel for the price! I listened to the Hegel with dozens of tracks on several different systems. On the Focal towers, there isn't a sense of awesome power waiting in the wings, but there isn't a sense of anything missing either. The sound is very smooth and polished, much like the Roksan Caspian I reviewed a century ago. Greg Weaver reviewed their DAC in January 2015 and loved it. Looks don't matter to me in audio, the sound quality is far more important. I love an ugly pair of Big Ole Horn loudspeakers, as long as I hear a 3D sonic holograph of a beautiful voice when I close my eyes. Yet there is something simply elegant about this simple black box.
Silk Of Softness
"On the H160," though Ertzeid said this was "definitively not the case." He said the main reason the 160 sounded smooth and soft is the lack of higher order harmonic distortion, "due to the careful hand matching of FET-transistors. And also a general lack of distortion." The Hegel is rated at 0.005% Distortion at 50-watts, though the amplifier is capable of 250-watts into four-Ohms. Most tweaking audiophile loudspeakers have an average efficiency of 85 dB/w/m. This means musical peaks in mid-90 decibel levels, at a 10' listening distance, will be at some of the Hegel's lowest distortion levels. No wonder it sounds so good.
The 160 incorporates Hegel's SoundEngine technology. This is a local error cancelling system to prevent distortion in the circuit stages. Hegel says this circuit preserves the original details and dynamic range of the original music. The result is a much cleaner music signal with a larger dynamic range and lower distortion. Both of these are qualities shared by Big Ole Horn loudspeakers. It may explain why I felt this was such a charming amplifier. The SoundEngine technology cancels crossover distortion found in all types of Class A/B amplifiers. Hegel says "the human ear is very sensitive to high frequency distortion components in the music signal. The Hegel SoundEngine technology will cancel high frequency distortion components found in normal types of audio amplifiers." Yet Ertzeid said this circuit is not negative feedback, which can create its own problems.
I also asked about the rounded edge of the front panel, which seems to match the looks of the amplifier to its sound. When an amplifier designer decides to choose one rounded bevel faceplate over another less round, less beveled, what does that do to the cost of the amplifier? Is it more expensive? How does that extra cost affect the final price? Are we talking pennies on the dollar? Or do electronic manufacturers charge double the retail price when the good looks cost them 5% more? "When you make a whole lot of panels (we make thousands on every run)," Ertzeid said, "the curve is not a major factor. We have it because we like it. It is so little more that we haven't really done the math."
More than any other integrated amplifier I have reviewed, the H160 seems very well suited for a modern, streaming future of music and movies. The 160 has balanced XLR, unbalanced RCA, home theatre, fixed line level RCA, variable line level RCA, coaxial, optical, USB and Ethernet connections! They excluded wireless as the company claims it has significant noise issues within their designs. So you need a wired network connection.
Hegel is a Norwegian company, since 1988, but I lump the sound of their amplifier in with the politely European genre. Ertzeid said several designers were involved in the 160. Hardware was designed by founder Bent Holter. The founder did his college thesis on an original amplifier design. The software was by Joakim Jacobsen and mechanical engineering was done by Magnus Holhjem. "Listening was mainly done by me, although we combine listening/measuring and go back/forth between them." I have only seriously auditioned, in my own home, with the same music and equipment, only a few above average solid-state amplifiers. One was the amazing Nelson Pass Class A X-250 monster amplifier. Another was Pass' equally amazing 10-watt, First Watt SIT-2. So consider me a Pass fan.
I keep describing as softness what might actually be a lack of distortion I expect from other, lesser quality amplifiers. There is a warmth and glow to the Hegel and the Roksan amplifiers, but it is not like the tubey or bloom of tube amplifiers. It is not a sparkly edge, but a gentle sound. Capable bass? Yes. Charming treble tinkles? Yes. Where the SIT-2 wowed me by not sounding like a solid-state amplifier. Alas, the Hegel never fooled me into thinking I was listening to tubes. Yet it was one of the easiest listening solid-state amplifiers I have ever auditioned. Like single driver loudspeakers, such as the Omegas, the smooth coherency is addicting, while other sonic parts are still present. The Hegel gentles and repairs harsh artifacts, which other amplifiers simply blindly reproduce.
Okay, they didn't have the awesome woofer control of the superlative Pass X250. They did come very close to the same enjoyable performance, unless pushed hard, but without the massive construction and cost of the Pass benchmark. Nor did they exhibit the transparent flatness of the SIT-2. No front-end component gets by the unrelenting exposure of 104-dB ultra-sensitivity of my Big Ole Horn loudspeakers. The Hegel passed this test better than almost solid-state amplifier. Somehow, when cranked up to teenage dance party levels, it didn't just scream, like other amplifiers do, it just merely didn't provide more volume. European manners; it stayed polite while being insulted. Like the Roksan, it didn't exhibit harshness until the dial was cranked far past midnight.
This is not a deep-bass thumper or shimmering, sparklingly highs amplifier. It neither growls, nor shines. The tone is gentle, as I said, polite and never overbearing. The impression is one of quiet competence, like the Pass X250, but then not like it either. The Pass X250 confidence comes from muscles made by working out at the gym. The Hegel confidence comes from sophisticated distinction. It handles bad guy bass like James Bond, not Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Unlike the other loudspeakers, the Hegel 160 was quite a different experience on the NEAR 50me towers. Founded in 1988, New England Audio Resource (N.E.A.R.) made low-cost, three-way NEAR 50me loudspeakers in the 1990s. Their metal 1.1" tweeter joins a 4" midrange and 8.25" woofer in a rear-ported enclosure, with warm bass to below 30-Hz. The leaning transmission line, like the gentle Supra Carlas, is 90dB/W/m efficient, crossed-over at 235 and 4000 Hz. Nice small towers, if you can find them.
Up against a vintage NAD C amplifier (~40 wpc) receiver, within a narrow room, the difference between the two amplifiers was both audible and visible. It was like tube versus solid-state, night versus day, chocolate versus... well you get the idea. On the free SPL Spectrum Android app, you could see the Hegel amplifier drive the NEAR loudspeakers with both bass and treble that simply didn't exist on the even softer-sounding NAD. The Hegel pushed the little NEARs to their limit. Aging circuits buzzed. The warmth of the vocals disappeared behind more bass and treble than the NAD ever displayed. The Hegel was more complete, yet not as soft or gentle. It was more clear and open. I felt bass where I only heard it before.
Unlike the other loudspeakers, the Hegel was not the soft sounding amplifier of choice on this NEAR speakers. The ancient NAD was a better match! This was the exception that proves the rule. On all the other loudspeakers, the Hegel was always the more charming host. On my other loudspeakers, the Hegel H160 is not zealous, strident, pushy, forceful, bright, or hard. It is neither mushy, bloomy, tubby or so polished and refined as to be dull or boring. It could be captivating and colorful. Neither was the Hegel dark, somber or told rude jokes. I don't think of it as thin or bloated either. I'm hearing things as very well balanced and certainly deserving of its reputation. The Hegel attack is not startlingly fast nor its decay lingering slow or quick. The Hegel did not seem to add its own rhythm or tempo. But it felt relaxed, natural and always enjoyable. For some tweaking audiophiles, first impression may seem weak. The unit does not have dramatic slam or sizzle. Yet it is long-term, easy-to-listen-to amplifier. It has pleasant tonal balance. I don't think its slam or sizzle will wear out your ears.
When a stereo reviewer says "neutral," you often think "boring" or "transparent." Switzerland was "neutral" during WWII, while laundering money for the Nazis and harboring Jews! So that is not boring or transparent. But neutral in audio terms can also mean balanced, without adding its own colorations. Pass Labs, Naim, Roksan and Hegel amplifiers I've reviewed were not quite fully neutral. Their sound was distinctive, adding to the texture and tone, shaping the notes their own way. They stand on one side of the sonic wars, not in the middle. Not invisible either. These amplifiers take part and give assistance to the sound. They "align with or support" a certain flavor to the notes. They have a particular kind of sound, with certain characteristics. They do not sound "gray; without hue; of zero chroma; achromatic."
Spyro Gyra is a 1970s American jazz fusion band. The band's name is a misspelling of Spirogyra, a genus of green algae, which the sax-playing leader wrote about in college. Their music combines jazz with elements of R&B, funk and pop music. The band sold over 10 million copies of more than 30 albums. On the Spanish samba "Impressions Of Madrid," the Hegel is smooth, with relaxed confidence, reminding me of Yves Bernard André's French YBA amplifiers. There is a polite patience to the casual edge of notes. Less Spanish snappiness, but major differences between the two amplifiers are quite hard to discern. There was no readily attributable color or feel to the amplifier.
Yet the Halo is a very different sounding amplifier compared to the Hegel. It is harder, sharper, brighter, thinner, and lighter, with more of the solid-state feel. The Halo has very good dimensionality, but it is missing the warm fullness of the Hegel along the entire frequency response spectrum. The Hegel has clear, high treble on horns and rattle. On Tom Scott's "Them Changes," for example, horns on the Hegel sound organic – subtle, like tubes – yet also imminently and immediately listenable.
On my own category, Enjoyment, the Hegel is certainly above average, four stars, bested only by Don Garber's award winning one-watt, thousand-dollar Fi X4 tube amplifier. For uber-sensitive Big Ole Horn loudspeakers, if you must go solid-state, I still prefer the amazing value of Outlaw classic receiver, because of its smooth sound at such a low price. At 10 times the Outlaw price, I love the Pass SIT-2 on Big Ole Horn loudspeakers for not sounding like a solid-state amplifier. I would have to hear the more expensive Hegel back-to-back against the less-expensive Roksan Caspian though to be able to choose between them. Over all though, the Hegel H160 is just a wonderful sounding and thoughtfully designed European style amplifier, which really lets you enjoy the music. It is not boring Bose burger.
Hegel Music Systems USA
Voice: (413) 224-2480