Hegel is the surprise company I told you about in the last month editorial. Since mid October it has an official dealer in Poland, Hegel Polska, founded especially for this goal. There is also a beautiful, very good Polish web page (a bit of privacy cannot hurt, does it? – the web page was designed by Piksel Studio, the same company that maintains “High Fidelity” pages ).
Hegel is a Norwegian company, rather small if we look at the amount of people employed, but consistently, step by step, building its position first in Scandinavian countries then in the world (beginning in – please note that – Japan). Engineers, being at the same time music lovers, are the company moving force. This is why we will not find in their devices any blown-up theories, quasi-inventive solutions, only real patents, in which Hegel resembles another company I admire, the Swiss Soulution. I use their model 710 amplifier in my reference system.
Hegel allowed itself only one exception from correctness, when choosing names for their patents: SoundEngine, DualPower or DualAmp, just to stay close to the amplification technology. Those aren’t things we would not know before: the technologies are (respectively) about minimizing cross-over distortion, consistently using separate power supplies for the right and left channel, and something special – separating the voltage and current stages, not only electrical (without negative feedback circuitry and with separate power supplies) but also physical (separate PCBs). But as I said – this is no mumbo-jumbo, but clever usage of tools provided by engineering.
The reviewed system is one of the manufacturer newest offerings and – to date – the most technologically advanced one. The company calls this group of devices NextGen, obviously referring to the famous WBT wire terminals (it is a pity that these were not used here…), but also underlining a certain change, something new in the company. The devices introduced on the market in November and December 2010 are reference units of this manufacturer.
Recordings used for the listening session:
- Abba, Gold. Complete Edition, Polar Music International AB/Universal Music [Japan], UICY-91318/9, 2008, 2 x SHM-CD (2008).
- Audiofeels, Uncovered, Penguin Records, 5865033, CD (2009).
- Clifford Brown, Memorial, Prestige/JVC, VICJ-41562, K2 CD (1999).
- Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis, Verve/Lasting Impression Music, LIM UHD 045, UltraHD CD (2010).
- Glen Gould, Bach: The Art Of The Fugue, Sony Music/Sony Classical, SMK 52 595, The Glen Gould Edition, SBM CD (1997).
- Jean Michel Jarre, Magnetic Fields,Epic/Sony Music, 488138 2, CD (1997).
- John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound, Atlantic/Rhino, R2 75588, CD (1999).
- Miles Davis, Seven Steps To Heaven, Columbia/Sony Music/Analogue Productions, CAPJ-8851, SACD/CD (2010).
- Nat “King” Cole, Love is the Thing, Capitol/Analogue Productions, CAPP 824 SA, SACD/CD (2010).
- Peter Gabriel, So, RealWorld/Virgin, SAPGCD 5, SACD/CD (2003).
- Pink Floyd, The Wall, EMI Records/EMI Music Japan, TOCP-71142-43, 2 x CD (2011).
- Radiohead, The King of Limbs, Ticker Tape Ltd., TICK-001CDJ, Blu-spec CD (2011).
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out, Columbia/Sony Music/Sony Entertainment Hong Kong, 8835321, No. 0055, K2HD CD (2011).
- Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, Riverside/Universal Music Japan, UCCO-9220, CD (2007).
Japanese versions of the discs are available on CD Japan.
The Hegel system offers such an advanced, mature sound that it is not so easy to “dismantle” it during the first or second approach. It can be assessed fairly quickly and you can immediately hear what we deal with. But to answer the question why and how it fares against the reference system and other good amplifiers was – at least for me – much more difficult.
This is not a one-dimensional sound, or even a “characteristic” one. Of course you can find certain aspects that are special for and can only be attributed to it, but it is more about a set of characteristics, the way they are combined, and not the individual assets/shortcomings.
The reviewed amplifier is an example of how close the solid state technology came to the tube technology in terms of timbre, engagement and transparency. I already said that before, talking about amplifiers from Vitus, Lavardin or BFA, but here it is even more significant, because evidently it is not the result of making it sound “similar” to the tube sound. It can be heard, at least for me, that some actions, techniques and technologies, when properly applied, taking into account “hard” engineering knowledge corrected with the music lover’s sensitivity and audio practice, result in effects very similar to what people achieved using tubes, to what tube technology has had from the beginning. It is as if the characteristics of the solid state technology, traditionally regarded as their flaws, were not the problems of the technology itself, but rather of the designers and their certain incompetence or lack of experience.
Because the Hegel system sounds slightly warm. It is warmer than my reference system with the Soulution 710, but not as warm as the three amplifiers I mentioned above: Vitus SS-101, Lavardin IT-15 and Beyond Frontiers Audio (BFA) Tulip. I would add to this lineup an even warmer device - ASR Emitter II. Most other solid state amplifiers will sound brighter compared to Hegel, in a more aggressive way. The “tubeness” I am talking about is not thoughtlessly written into this sound, it is not something very characteristic for the tested amplifier; it will manifest differently in the bass region than in the medium and treble ranges.
I will start with the first one. Looking at the H30, reading its technical specification, and most of all trying to move it, subconsciously we expect bass fireworks, hellish bass passages and massive thumps. I already expressed it somewhere, maybe reviewing the Soulution 710 for the “Audio” magazine, but this is a stereotype, often repeated mechanically and coming from a few high power amplifiers from the 90-ties. Now, when everything is in place, things happen completely differently.
The bass from Hegel is deep and fleshy. There is no doubt about it. But it is very natural and in good proportion to the rest of the frequency range. Looking at this subrange we can say that there is the same amount of bass as from the reference ‘710’. Similarly weighted Vitus had a stronger bass; it accented the attack, details and edges more robustly. This will please many music lovers for sure. Hegel seems to be more similar to my Soulution in this aspect. And the bass is more coherent, more controlled and has a much better definition than in the Lavardin or BFA. Knowing their construction it will be easy to answer why this is the case. But it is harder to “get” why the Hegel midbass range, the predominant region of the bass guitar and, partly, of the contrabass, is so special, even compared to such highly praised competition. This is a very important component, because it controls that sound range to a large extent. And I must say that such well controlled bass, so fluently connected to the midrange (not the whole bass range but I will come back to that later) I only heard once at home, except for my Soulution – with the Krell system, the EVO 222 preamplifier and EVO 402 power amplifier (test HERE). I remember well my excitation while listening to Lars Danielsson and Leszek Możdżer’s Pasodoble - it was almost a mystical event.
The Norwegian tandem repeats that, adding integration with the rest of the frequency range to it. This was confirmed with the new re-master Take Five by The Dave Brubeck Quartet and with recordings like Peter Gabriel’s So or The King of Limbs by Radiohead – that was IT!
As I say, this is a slightly, but in a natural way, soft bass, splendidly controlled. The things that seemingly exclude each other. Its lowest extension was not as readable as with the Soulution 710, or so “physical” and clear, but to date I have not met an amplifier that could mimic that. When we talk about its higher part, then the Hegel is among the absolute top amplifiers I know, regardless of their technology and costs.
While the bass was quite similar to what I know from the Soulution 710, although not completely and not in all aspects but still spectacular, it is the midrange that brings the Hegel closer to the other amplifiers I mentioned. Its character does not change, this is a very consistent sound, but for example the treble seems quite strong and active.
At the same time it is slightly sweet and not bright. There is a significant amount of it, because the Hegel amplifier can extract further planes, chords and harmonics in a way that we would not expect from a solid state amplifier, attributing this ability to the tubes. The cymbals from the back of the stage, electronically generated details, etc, had a slightly better definition than with the Soulution. They were more saturated and had more “substance”. Interestingly, when the cymbals and other details that I describe were close to us, on the first plane, they were not so spectacular, and the much higher resolution of my amplifier allowed them to shine stronger and surer, while keeping the right proportions to the rest of the sound spectrum. The Hegel treated the first plane in a more conservative way, at least compared to the reference.
This discrepancy intrigued me and after giving it some thought I think that it results from a slight upping of the back planes and splendid vividness. The Soulution, one of the two amplifiers comparable without second thoughts to the Hegel (the other one is the Vitus), seems a little drier in this one aspect, a bit more withdrawn. While it shows the sound more precisely, closer to naturalness, we cannot but appreciate what the engineers from Norway achieved.
The sound of the reviewed system is very coherent, clean and dynamic. The amplifier reacts quite nervously to compression, like on discs from Abba or Peter Gabriel, because it slows down the sound a bit, and does not allow it to develop. On the other hand, this is one of the very few amplifiers where the disc So sounded really nice. Most of all it was the result of filling the evident holes between the sounds on that disc, and neutralizing the dryness of that recording. The lowest bass is not that “palpable”, physical, as in the Soulution. Yet its upper range is very colorful and alive.
The Hegel is a system of many faces, which it shows depending on the recordings. But above all there is something that dominates like a fingerprint of good technology – fullness and maturity. Despite its enormous power the result is not a wild, ruthless sound. The bass is here a part of the whole, of the recording, and not running on its own. I think that there are no loudspeakers it couldn’t power – starting from the Ktêma Franco Serblin, through German Physiks HRS 120 Carbon, Ascendo System ZF3 S.E. and the Avalons, ending with Sonus Faber Elipsa and Stradivari.
Interestingly, warmer loudspeakers such as my Harbeths will sound incredibly, simply brilliantly well, despite the fact that their character mimics a bit the way the Hegel sounds. This is not the eight world wonder, there are things that can be done better, and the best SETs will have an even more nuanced sound.
But we are talking here about an amplifier that costs half or one third of what I compared it with, and the loudspeakers that may sound well with it. It is hard for me not to share with you my emotions I had during this review.
The Hegel amplifier was placed on thick plywood and that on the Cerapuc Finite Elemente feet standing on the floor. The preamplifier was placed on the Acoustic Revive RAF-48 air platform. Differently to the usual setting, to connect the power amplifier to the loudspeakers I did not use the Tara Labs Omega but another wonderful item from Norway, the Skogrand Cables SC Air Markarian 421, which turned out to be incredibly coherent with the Hegel sound. The connections between the individual devices were made with the balanced cables Acrolink 7N-AD5100 and Oyaide Tunami Terzo. Again, similar to the loudspeaker cables, the result was better with the cheaper set, Oyaide. Well, this is just how things are, we have to try many combinations to find the best one. And it does not always have to be the most expensive one.
Besides my Ancient Audio Air V-edition CD player I also used an analog source – the Transrotor ZET1 turntable with the Miyajima Labs Kansui cartridge and the RCM Audio preamplifier. The latter has balanced XLR outputs. This is important, because the Hegel seems to sound better using balanced signals. I am not a fan of balanced connections, because most devices do not handle pairing of the positive and negative halves of the signal well. But here everything was just fine. And the analog sounded even deeper, closer to the heart of things than the digital source…
The preamplifier is relatively small – it has classic fascia, but is not especially deep. More surprising is its substantial weight. This comes from the internal setup (transformer) as well as from the very solid, thick chassis. It was black in the reviewed unit. The front has a special shape – it is bulged in the middle part, softly running out to the sides. The rest of the chassis is made of aluminum components bolted together. The whole stands on three aluminum feet with rubber, half-round washers.
The remote is small, made of metal with small but well working buttons. However, it would be nice to better mark out the volume buttons, because now they are not ergonomically placed and need to be searched for each time. Except for changing the volume and muting the sound we can also change the input and operate the CD player.
In the front we have only two knobs and a big power button with a blue LED above. The right knob, with medium sized blue LEDs around it, changes inputs. The knob has no beginning and end points, so it probably operates a kind of switch. The other knob controls volume – this one has a beginning and ending setting, so it is probably connected to a standard potentiometer. The whole looks very solid and elegant.
Looking at the back plate we can assume that the unit is balanced – besides three line RCA inputs and two such outputs we have two balanced XLR inputs and two outputs of that kind. The RCA sockets are medium class, and are placed quite narrowly. The XLRs are very nice – coming from Neutrik.
Besides the mentioned sockets there is a pass-through input, designed to attach an AV processor and including the Hegel in a home cinema system. There are also two mini-jack sockets to control the Hegel units in a system and an IEC power socket.
The circuitry is mounted on three PCBs – one big, occupying almost the whole chassis, and two smaller ones. This is a quite simple concept but very complicated in execution, with a very worked out power supply and extended logic. The signal from the inputs reaches the sealed Omron relays, where the active source is selected. The same kind of relays is mounted at the outputs, protecting the power amplifier.
The signal in the Hegel follows an ultra-short path. The company writes that the signal in the preamplifier runs only through two transistors and one to three resistors. But first the signal goes to a smaller PCB, mounted above the main one, where the volume is controlled. As it turns out, the nice black Alps potentiometer is not in the sound path, but only controls an array of resistors, keyed with transistors. This circuit is surface mounted and has a dedicated secondary winding in the power transformer.
After attenuation the signal goes to the amplification section, placed close to the back panel. It uses only hand paired medium power transistors, which points to a significant current reserve of the circuit. This section was made according to the SoundEngine concept designed by Hegel. Two complimentary pairs of MOSFET 2SK2013 and 2SJ313 were used (it is a balanced circuit!), designed to be used in audio amplifiers. This part of the circuit is made in a traditional way, so very good components can be used, like precise, metalized resistors with low tolerance.
One of the RCA outputs has jumpers to select between a variable and a fixed level output, used for recording or an external headphone amplifier.
As I said, the power supply section is extremely well worked out. It consists of many branches, multiply stabilized and filtered. It sports a medium sized toroidal transformer, made by Hegel. It has three secondary windings. Next to it we can see many filtering capacitors – smaller and bigger, including ones made by the company Nover of the “Audio Grade” type. There are six of them, 10 000 μF each, and I counted 14 smaller Rubycon capacitors. And there are smaller ones. The power supply diodes are nicely decoupled using polypropylene capacitors.
This is a very solid, nice construction. Attention is drawn to the big power supply, discrete volume control circuit and MOSFET based buffering and amplification section. The RCA sockets are not gold plated, and the circuit is fully balanced – we can clearly see that the designers put their emphasis on balanced connections.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
Inputs: 2 x balanced XLR, 3 x unbalanced RCA and home cinema input
Outputs: 1 x balanced XLR, 2 x unbalanced RCA
IR input: 3.5mm
Trigger: 12V output
SNR: above 130 dB in balanced mode
Crosstalk: less than -100dB
Distortion: less than 0.005%
Intermodulation distortion: less than 0.01%
Dimensions: 6cm x 43cm x 30cm (HxWxD)
H30 is a mighty unit, weighing 55kg. Its enclosure is made of aluminum – including the front panel, which shape mimics the one from the preamplifier.
In the middle there is only one, big, mechanical power switch with a LED above and a milled Hegel logo.
On the back we have beautiful, big and very comfortable, screwed loudspeaker terminals (gold plated). There are also inputs – RCA and XLR for the left and right channel as well as separate mono inputs – the H30 can work as a stereo amplifier or a bridged monoblock. The RCA sockets are much better than the ones in the preamplifier.
The circuitry is split between a few PCBs. However in the middle there are two mighty, placed one above the other, toroidal transformers with a power of 1000W each. This allows the amplifier to output 1.1kW power at 8Ω (bridged mode). Each transformer has two main secondary windings for the power stages and two more (also from each of the transformers) for the power stage driver and input section.
The circuitry is split into the voltage and current section (DualPower). In the input and control sections there are low power J-FET transistors, in a specific application designed to minimize harmonic distortion. In the power supply there are stabilizers. On the PCB we also see a high class polypropylene capacitor Auricap from Audience, but I do not know its purpose. There is only one such capacitor per channel, so it does not belong to the amplification section.
In the current section we have two separate amplifiers per channel, bridged, and due to that balanced from the beginning to the end. Each channel uses seven pairs of complimentary bipolar transistors per branch, which means 14 pairs per channel. Those are 15 ampere transistors from Motorola MJL1302 and MJL3281. Together with them there are sixteen, per channel, big filtering capacitors from Nover with a total capacity of 320,000μF. Close to the fascia we have four integrated rectifying bridges for those transistors – we can clearly see that we are talking about four independent amplifiers in one enclosure – two of them in each channel, creating a bridged balanced amplifier.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
Output power: more than 1 x 1100W at 8Ω
Minimum load impedance: 1Ω
Inputs: 1 unbalanced RCA and 1 balanced XLR
Input impedance: 20kΩ XLR | 10kΩ RCA
SNR: > 100dB
Crosstalk: < -100dB
Distortion: < 0.003% (at 100W and 8Ω)
Intermodulation distortion: < 0.01%
Damping factor: > 500
Power supply: 2000 W, 320 000μF capacity
Output stage: 56 quick bipolar transistors, 15A/200W
Power consumption: 120W idle, 30W ECO mode
Dimensions: 21cm x 43cm x 55cm (HxWxD)
Weight: 55 kg
Distribution in Poland:Hegel Polska