Hegel H120 Integrated Amplifier Review
David Price sounds out this ergonomically appealing mid-price integrated…
H120 Integrated Amplifier
AUD $3,995 RRP
Is this the end of the road for the integrated amplifier, or a new golden age? In my mind, talk of its demise is very premature – but it’s true to say that the breed is changing fast. We can now see the market dividing up between stripped-down, minimalist, analogue-only designs like Naim’s ($8,000) SuperNait 3, and products such as Hegel Music Systems’ new H120 that you see here, which offer network-attached digital streaming and DAC functionality as standard. Factor in the rise in popularity of highly capable, user-friendly tube amps like PrimaLuna’s ($4,295) EVO200 – and we’re well past the ‘one size fits all’ ethos that once held sway for so long…
Hegel’s Anders Ertzeid doesn’t want his company to be pigeonholed, though – arguing that it’s all about utility. “I would go so far as to say that the typical Hegel customer is a person – but I can’t go further than that”, he tells me in his characteristically wry way. He doesn’t think along particular demographic lines. “I remember a hi-fi manufacturer once told me that their buyers typically listen to rock’n’roll and drink whiskey late at night. I thought WTF! I still have it etched in my mind years later. Post-traumatic shock disorder is I think what I am still going through. Instead, we approach things differently and simply ask, how do people use sound systems – and then try and make them work as well as we can.”
BEHIND THE MASK
The H120 then, is a high quality affordable streaming-capable integrated, aimed at whomsoever wants such a thing – it’s not trying to be tribal, or to live up to any particular market expectations. It offers pleasing aesthetic and ergonomic design, an excellent finish and a welter of facilities – but not at the expense of the audio engineering side. Indeed, it’s distinguished by the use of Hegel’s own proprietary power amplifier technology. The SoundEngine amplifier platform was created by company founder and chief designer Bent Holter in the early nineties and has been intensively refined ever since. An adaptive feed-forward system, it dynamically cancels out distortion in real-time by comparing the output of the amplifier with the input, and reverse-phase cancelling any distortion. Anders adds, “it runs in Class AB, but with Class A levels of crossover distortion”. Those seeking a more detailed technical briefing can watch the video below. The result is a claimed output power of 75W RMS per channel into 8 ohms, 120W into 4 ohms and 175W into 2 ohms. It delivers a claimed damping factor of 2,000, together with extremely low stated distortion levels.
Whereas many of the H120’s rivals that have streaming built-in, and use the Stream Unlimited platform, Hegel has chosen Libre to be its network technology framework of choice. “We believe it is a fast and cost-efficient solution that also allows us to maintain sound performance”, says Anders. The internal DAC is another interesting decision that’s different to many of its rivals. “We have fitted an AKM AK4490 because we think this company makes the best sounding DAC chips – no more, no less. It’s true that they can be a bit more difficult to implement than ESS for example, but the ceiling of performance is so much higher…”
The H120 is designed in Norway, but assembly is outsourced to China to keep costs keen. “All research and development are done here,” says Anders, “with all critical components sourced here too for reasons of reliability – and we also solder some critical boards where we don’t want to ‘share’ our technology with others.” Component selection is painstaking, he says. “All the parts in our amplifiers have been specially chosen, although we endeavour to avoid over-priced so-called audiophile components. Instead, we try to develop technology that obviates the need for these in the first place. For example, the volume attenuator isn’t really one at all – it’s actually a chip more usually employed for highly sensitive detectors in scientific applications. It’s far less expensive than an ALPS potentiometer, but we think it works better. Creativity here is key, I think!”
My review sample came in a lovely subtle white finish. Being a neutral colour, this made the amplifier dissolve into its surroundings and look smaller than its already modest 100x430x310mm dimensions would suggest. And with just two main fascia controls, it doesn’t draw attention to itself – a facet of which many including myself wholeheartedly approve. There’s a crispness to its front fascia design that’s hard not to like, aided and abetted by a large fine-pitch central display. The main power switch is not at the back where you can’t reach it – as with so many such products – but on the amp’s underside at the front. Indeed it’s all so low key that the Hegel doesn’t really stand out or elicit any attention until you remember how visually and ergonomically fussy some of its price rivals are.
If all the H120 had to offer was a source selector and volume control, we’d be back in nineteen eighties ‘flat earth’ minimalist territory – but actually, the amp has a host of features. Some are only accessible via the supplied Hegel HC8 remote, which itself is a nice thing to hold. This offers another way to work the unit, and also facilitates procedures such as network setup. The latter is done via a configuration webpage; you get the amp’s network IP settings by pressing and holding the ‘Computer Play’ button and enter it into your browser. Software updates are offered, and the switch-on volume setting can be changed. All inputs are configurable for volume bypass if you’re integrating it with home theatre, Bluesound or Sonos.
Round the back, there are two pairs of unbalanced RCA inputs, and one pair of balanced XLRs, plus a network input, three TOSLINK optical digital inputs, one coaxial and one USB. The amp has Apple Airplay, Spotify Connect, IP Control, Control4 and uPnP streaming functionality, and is firmware-upgradable for future updates. A handy preamp output completes the picture, plus the usual IEC mains in and loudspeaker outputs. Overall, the unit feels a quality item with its not inconsiderable 12kg weight, metal fascia and casework. It confers a sense of understated class, even if it’s not as self-consciously ‘swish’ as some Japanese products around this price.
So this sleek lifestyle-oriented Scandinavian sounds like a sort of latter-day Bang & Olufsen, right? Wrong. Actually, I was most impressed by the H120’s price/performance ratio offering, as it sounds far more confident and mature than its relatively modest cost suggests. This is no US high-end super-amp of course, but the Hegel delivers a good deal of power plus lots of detail – and strings it altogether in a musically coherent way. More than just a pretty face, then.
Its combination of power and poise is key. Having a detached house in the Wiltshire countryside, I love listening to music at high volumes in my largish room. Many £2,000 integrated amps start to get quite breathless when asked to play pounding nineties electronic music at high volumes, especially when driving tricky loads, but I had no such problem here. Yet the H120 isn’t a big-boned bruiser of an amplifier – indeed it’s quite the reverse. It has a smooth and sophisticated sound that’s not edgy in the least. It achieves its sonic impact by delivering large tracts of clean power rather than machine-gunning a metallic upper midband or brittle treble at the listener. An iron fist in a velvet glove, one might say.
Regardless of the source selected – be it streaming, DAC (via my Cyrus CD Xt Signature silver disc spinning transport) or analogue in – the Hegel presented a consistently refined yet gutsy sound. I tried it with a range of speakers, from Quad 989 electrostatics, and Spendor A1s to Neat Ministras and Yamaha NS-1000Ms, and found it admirably tonally neutral. It steps out of the way of the music and lets the recording do the talking. Indeed, I was struck by its handling of The Beatles on CD. Being an analogue addict – and something of a stick-in-the-mud – I’m still quietly resentful of the very concept of the Fab Four on silver disc, and have always tut-tutted about the sound compared to my well-worn LPs. Yet Mother Nature’s Son from the White Album was a treat. It’s a sweet sumptuous ear-caresser on vinyl, but on CD can sound thin. Not here though – the H120 gave a believable tone to Paul McCartney’s vocals. It’s not rich as PrimaLuna EVO200 tube amp price rival, but wasn’t as dry as its solid-state Naim SuperNait 3 competitor.
Don’t think the Hegel airbrushes the music though; it’s insightful for a product of this price. Spin up a complex prog-rock recording like Going for the One by Yes, and this integrated amp gets a good stronghold on the proceedings and doesn’t let go. In this song, bass guitarist Chris Squire serves up a counter melody to vocalist Jon Anderson that slides between the main theme and then into a harmony. It’s pretty dramatic stuff at times and quite an obstacle course for an amplifier of modest means – yet this one hung on tightly and delivered the track in a coherent and easily digestible way. Those operatic vocals never sounded shrill, and syncopated well with the musical backing, making me enjoy things more than expected.
This amplifier’s ability to let the music keep time is another one of its fine attributes. Although it doesn’t sound self-consciously ‘razor-sharp’ like some integrateds, it’s still very good at handling the music’s natural rhythms. The sweet sound of Life’s Mood by Isaac Hayes perfectly illustrated this; the track builds to a crescendo from just a bass drum track, with multi-layered rhythm guitars and then piano pads joining in. The idea is to create dramatic tension, but mediocre amplifiers fall flat here and make it sound like a random collection of beats. Yet things really gelled with the Hegel, and it kept my interest until (and beyond) when that lovely synth glide joined in. This amplifier worked well dynamically too; although the track is a fairly compressed modern recording, it conveyed the subtle accents that gave a great sense of energy to the playing.
So it’s a do-everything miracle worker, right? Well not quite – nothing is at this price. In absolute terms, against significantly pricier products, you can detect a slight lack of dimensionality to the soundstaging. Cue up some classic Kraftwerk in the shape of Metropolis, and you don’t get the front-to-back stage depth of some of the more exotic amplifiers on sale – or indeed tube rivals such as the aforementioned PrimaLuna. That’s not to say the H120 sounds small, because it pushes out wide stage left and stage right; elements of the mix are boldly delineated and tightly positioned in space within the overall recording. This, allied to the amplifier’s solid, barrel-chested bass handling capability, makes for a big-bodied sound. Only the slight flattening of depth perspective gives away the fact that you’re listening to an affordable amplifier.
Its frequency extremes are very nice. Bass isn’t by any means overpowering, but still maintains plenty of presence in the music whatever you chose to play. The H120’s rendition of Japan’s Swing, a quite warm sounding slice of late seventies electro-pop, was most authentic. This amplifier didn’t sugarcoat the recording, instead staying sufficiently clean and neutral to tell the listener all about its actual sound balance. It was able to accurately convey the fulsome timbre of Mick Karn’s slide bass guitar playing, without making it appear overly stodgy or rounded. At the other end of the scale, it has a clean treble that’s more open and spacious than one has a right to expect, doing better than the Naim SuperNait 3 in this respect, for example. Hi-hat cymbals had a nice metallic ring to them, serving up a natural sparkle that never veered towards harshness.
Hegel’s H120 offers an excellent level of all-round ability, at its price. Others like the PrimaLuna and Naim mentioned above offer highly credible alternatives in terms of sound – depending on taste – but lack its flexibility and functionality, as well as its sheer loudspeaker driving power. What’s particularly pleasing is that its sophisticated sonic character matches the user experience – it’s satisfying yet easy to live with.
Indeed, if anything, the H120 is a rather self-effacing product. It’s something of a stealthy design that doesn’t draw attention to itself in the home, and its sound has no particular obvious quirks. It never puts a foot wrong, so all that’s left is the music that you choose to play through it. Overall then, this is a smart and savvy answer to the question of what makes a modern mid-price integrated amplifier great. If you’re in the market for one, it’s an essential audition.
For more information, visit Hegel.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.