Understated elegance. Quality over quantity. Substance over style. If the underlying sentiments expressed in those phrases appeals to you, an integrated amplifier could be the solution to a straightforward yet beautiful system. The prospect of fewer chassis and cables afforded by an integrated, compared to separates, appeals to my inherited mix of Quaker and European sensibilities. The Hegel H100 integrated amplifier's pure sound and it subtle form embodies the less is more ethos beautifully. In this case, the less is cost and the more is performance.
Hegel has been manufacturing specialty audio products in Norway since the late 1980s. By 2000, it was exporting CD players, DACs, integrateds, and separates to European and Asian/Pacific markets. Hegel is entering the U.S. market at a challenging time. Discretionary spending is down for most of us, but Hegel has an approach that I think serves it well under the circumstances: Use unique engineering solutions executed with cost-effective parts and pass on the resulting savings on to the consumer. The $3000 asking price is not cheap, but the H100 delivers sound quality above its price range.
The H100's appearance is not completely utilitarian. It is actually quite nice looking in an understated, self-assured way. It has a subtly curved faceplate and two matching knobs that are made of glass-blasted and then anodized aluminum. The input and volume knobs flank a blue LED display (which cannot be dimmed) and an on/off button. The top and sides are made of an anodized aluminum sheet that has ample ventilation slots through which several small LEDs inside the amplifier can be seen when the unit is on.
For $3000 you get an easy-to-use, fairly powerful 120-watt integrated amplifier with a fully balanced XLR input and sufficient additional analog connections to make it useful but not complicated (all RCA): four more inputs, two preamp output pairs, a home theater by-pass input (or power amp input). It also has an on-board USB DAC that will process 16-bit audio files at 32-, 44.1-, and 48kHz sampling rates. The metal handset, also made of glass-blasted aluminum, controls all functions of the H100 (plus any Hegel CD player) and feels quite nice in the hand. The finish gives the H100 and its remote a silky feel, and since it isn’t shiny, finger smudges are not a problem. Nice touch. You are paying for sound quality that is above its price point, not necessarily stunning casework or a feature-ladened interface. That is just the kind of priority set that appeals to me.
Using the H100 is straightforward. When the unit powers up, it defaults to the balanced input and a volume setting of 30 (out of 99). This allows you to select your desired input and confirm that there is some signal without assaulting your speakers and ears. If the mute function is activated, upon resumption it will ramp up the volume from 30 to the previous volume setting, thus similarly avoiding a sudden blast if you happen to be playing a loud passage. The display shows two-characters (upper and lower case) to indicate the active input. The characters representing DVD and Tuner are, however, somewhat cryptic.
Hegel uses a patented circuit called the SoundEngine that represents its primary claim to improved performance through engineering. The SoundEngine is said to reduce the crossover distortion that occurs in typical Class AB designs as the positive- and negative-phase devices turn off and on when the signal is handed from one to the other. By using a “feed-forward” technique, the SoundEngine yields both Class A-like fluidity and a reduction in higher-order distortion effects without the necessity of having to bias the output devices at anywhere near Class A levels. This also avoids the resulting heat dissipation and power consumption of typical Class A designs. The H100 is barely tepid to the touch after several hours of play. Hegel also separates the low-voltage portion of the power amplifier's input section from the high-current portion of the output section with different power supplies. According to Bent Holter, Hegel's chief designer, this reduces distortion brought about by large, simultaneous voltage and current swings in the two respective gain stages.
We all have read about various companies' “special” circuits and the marketing names associated with them, and we all can be forgiven for regarding such talk with healthy skepticism. I adopt a polite, but pragmatic attitude: “Very interesting, but how does it sound?” In the case of the Hegel H100, it sounds very good. That it is made in Norway (where labor is expensive) and is reasonably priced does seem to verify Hegel's claims of providing effective engineering solutions at reasonable cost.
Hearing the H100 at its fullest takes some patience. It needs at least 200 hours of break in time, after which it opens up and quickens, revealing levels of detail and sonic refinement that I haven’t come across at this price point before. The H100 has a liquid, sophisticated sound that adds up to musically rewarding, fatigue-free listening over the long term. It invites you into the music through its unforced, natural portrayal of details, rather than commanding your attention through audio fireworks. The lip sounds of the chorus on Morten Lauridsen's “O nata lux” [Lux aeturna, Layton/Hyperion], for example, were closely connected to the sound of the singers' throats and chests through the H100 rather than being pushed out in front and seemingly disembodied in a larger-than-life way, as was the case with the April Music Stello Ai500 integrated amplifier (150W, $3500). Live music sounds both light airy as well as rich and weighty. The H100 pleasantly tilts just a bit to the lighter side. There is no brightness or harshness, just less emphasis on the rich and weighty.
I was initially concerned that the H100 would not be powerful enough to convincingly drive my Dynaudio Confidence C1 loudspeaker, which can present difficulties to some amplifiers. My concerns were unfounded. While the C1 benefits from even more power feeding it, the H100 has good bass extension and speed, and can handle sudden dynamic bursts with an ease that came as a pleasant surprise. In general, the H100 sounded more powerful and dug deeper in the bass than the 150Wpc Stello Ai500. True “power music” like various passages from Pomp and Pipes [Fennell/Dallas Wind Symphony, RR] caused the H100 to clip, but this aspect of performance was only marginally bettered by the H100's bigger brother, the H200 (200W, $4400), and improved upon a just bit further by my Gamut M200 mono amplifier (200W, $12,000). Of course, more power behind a speaker generally brings a lot more to the equation than merely the higher onset of clipping.
Recording permitting, the H100 places individual performers in a spatial context that includes the sound of the hall. This sounds more reminiscent of live performances to me than a strong focus on images at the expense of the larger context. The H100 tends to throw a slightly narrower soundstage than that of the Stello Ai500 or my pre-power combo, but the H100's soundstage is quite deep and continuously layered from front to back. Images are fairly solid with good physical presence, but they’re not as weighty as some amps can muster. The H100 gives a commendable feeling of continuousness that is not unlike that of good tube amplifiers.
Some listeners may hear the H100's image outlines as soft. I hear them as more natural, and consider the H100's presentation to be much closer to that of far more expensive electronics than to the exaggerated razor-cut image outlines of some gear. The H100 certainly does not sound restricted in the frequency extremes or lacking in resolution. In fact, notes seem to start a little sooner and trail off a little longer than they did with the Stello Ai500. I did an informal test of subtle information retrieval by level, setting the volume of the H100 and Stello Ai500 with a 1kHz test tone and a volt meter, and then played the The Song of the Nightingale [Stravinsky, Oue/Minnesota, RR] movement from the musical work of the same name on both amplifiers in succession. Just after 27 seconds into the cut (Track 10), there is a quick, faint, rising bloop sound just as the opening flute solo finishes. The H100 rendered this sound a little more clearly than the Ai500.
The H100 sounded wonderfully clean and musically organized on several studio pop recordings. The usual clanging, ragged qualities we just accept as normal when electric guitars and cymbals combine at high volume levels do not necessarily have to be irritating to an extent that causes us to turn down the volume. The H100 proves that we can listen into the mix of very aggressive music comfortably. I turned up the volume and rocked out without strain to Tool's “Rosetta Stoned” on 10,000 Days [Sony]. Very fun.
Turning up the volume is something I found myself doing more than usual, mostly for the sheer pleasure of it. The H100 can boogie just fine. It made me flail my arms like a fool because the drama of the music came through so well on both driving rock and stirring classical works. Nevertheless, I could never quite shake the feeling that the H100 lacked the last bit of immediacy compared to live music or my reference rig—admittedly a ridiculously tall order. As much as I love the H100's clean, fatigue-free sound, I have to mention its ever-so-slight lack of presence—a quality not unlike a few full Class A solid-stage amplifiers, such as the Esoteric A-03 (50W, $12,000). Luckily, turning up the volume does not drastically increase the electronic haze and attendant fatigue that come with most amps anywhere near the H100's price induce.
Please keep in mind that I use speaker cables that cost more than the H100 itself ($5000 per 2.5m pair). I use amplification gear that retails for over $21,000 as my reference—hardly likely to be equipment associated with the H100 or to make for fair comparisons. In the context of other systems in which I inserted the H100, I heard no such reticence. In fact, when it replaced a Marantz PM 11S1 integrated ($4000) in a system also comprising a Marantz SA 11S1 SACD player and Silverline Panatella III ($2500) speakers, it shone like a beautiful, low-noise amp that could easily be mistaken for $6000 separates. The H100 also charged up a NAD-Axiom-based system and brought out details very well, accompanied by a sense of forward momentum that had my friend and me bobbing our heads to the beat.
I can verify that the on-board USB DAC sounds quite good, comparable to that of the Stello Ai500 on 16-bit files. I suspect that most users will probably use an external DAC that will leverage server technology more fully than the H100 can—processing 24-bit files at 96kHz and 192kHz. The separate preamp and power amp sections perform quite well on their own. Together, the two sections are well balanced. Hegel has done a good job of making the H100 flexible by adding pre-out and amp-in connections, but the real lure to consumers here is using it as an integrated amplifier. The problems of matching separate pre amps and power amplifier and combining them with a myriad of possible interconnect cables are solved in one elegant package.
I believe the qualities that make the H100 such a pleasure to listen to all fundamentally point to its relatively low levels of noise. If you value sonic purity, natural imaging, and low listener-fatigue, and do not necessarily insist on wall-to-wall soundstaging or a commanding sonic personality, the H100 could very well be the integrated amplifier for you. At its price point it allows you to put some of the funds you saved by forgoing more expensive separates into the highest quality cabling and surrounding gear you can put together. The H100 deserves to be paired with much higher-quality gear than one would normally consider for a $3000 integrated amplifier. Beautiful. Simply beautiful.
Specs & Pricing
Power output: 120Wpc
Inputs: Four unbalanced (RCA), one balanced (XLR), one HT/power-amp (RCA), and one USB
Outputs: Two preamp (RCA), one record (RCA), speaker terminals
Dimensions: 17" x 4" x 14.5"
Weight: 35.2 lbs.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor
HEGEL MUSIC SYSTEM USA
Analog source: Basis Debut V turntable with Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S cartridge
Digital source: Ayre C-5xeMP universal player
Phonostage preamp: Ayre P-5xe
Linestage preamp: Ayre K-1xe
Integrated amplifiers: Stello Ai500, Hegel H200
Power amplifier: Gamut M-200 monos
Speaker: Dynaudio Confidence C1
Cables: Shunyata Antares interconnects and Orion speaker wire, Wegrzyn power cords
A/C Power: Two 20-amp dedicated lines, FIM receptacles
Room treatments: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels