It seems as if Hegel Music Systems, the Norwegian electronics manufacturer, can do no wrong these days. Kirk Midtskog has written glowing reviews of the Hegel H100 and H200 integrated amplifiers (in Issues 206 and 211). And when Editor- in-Chief Robert Harley evaluated the H30 Reference stereo amplifier, he characterized the 350Wpc behemoth as a contender for any well-heeled audiophile’s short list (in Issue 223). So, when the opportunity for me to review the H300, Hegel’s latest and most powerful integrated amplifier, presented itself, I figured, “Okay. Let’s see what all the excitement is about.”
Even before I started delving into what makes the H300 tick I cued up “Georgia Lee” from Tom Waits’ Mule Variations [Anti- Epitaph]. It’s a favorite track of mine—a raw performance, underscored by Waits’ gravelly, chesty voice. With the mbl Corona C31 CD player handling front-end duties, I could already hear straight through the H300 to the tattered felt hammers of his old upright sounding uncertain pitches, the noisy sustain pedal thumping along with the piano, the song’s tempo shortening and lengthening with the shifts in the tune’s emotional landscape. It’s a track adorned with low-level found-sound ambient clatter and birdcalls. I felt that I was hearing and feeling this performance at its deepest levels.
I then turned to the Jimmy Cobb Quartet’s bossa-nova- accented cover “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Jazz in the Key of Blue [Chesky]. The easy ensemble playing was captured in a stunning display of discrete imaging, micro-dynamic gradients, and hi-hat detailing—and of course trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s tasteful playing and carefully measured dynamics. Even after just a couple tracks I was beginning to understand what all the Hegel brouhaha was about.
The H300 is a high-power, line-level integrated amplifier that outputs a generous 250Wpc into 8 ohms (430Wpc into 4 ohms). Visually, the flat black exterior is seriously Spartan with merely a pushbutton on/off, and rotary knobs for input and volume selection plus a large blue-lit display, easily legible from afar. Paired with the H300 is a beautifully machined aluminum, full-function remote control that makes front-panel visitations essentially irrelevant. The back panel houses ample analog and digital connectivity and one big plus. The H300 joins a new and relatively select segment of electronics, the DAC/integrated amplifier—new in the sense that amplifiers and DACs, though not novel in themselves, have mostly been marketed as independent components. However, in recent issues I’ve reviewed DAC/integrateds from Simaudio and Perreaux, and more are either currently available or coming to market. Given the ever-expanding popularity of digital media the trend is logical and not unlike the built-in phono/RIAA inputs that were commonplace when vinyl was dominant.
The H300 represents a ground-up redesign, which Hegel characterizes as a Hegel 2 amplifier platform; improvements are geared to increase channel separation and decrease noise levels. The H300 evolved during the design phase of the P30 Reference preamp and the H30 Reference monoblocks. The most significant change, according to Hegel chief designer Bent Holter, is in the preamp section—a dual-mono design with new advancements in circuitry, optimized board layout, improved components, hand-matched FET transistors, and, perhaps most significant of all, a newly devised precision volume attenuator that’s based largely on the P30. The amplifier stage features a robust dual-mono 1000VA power supply with 90,000uF capacitors and an output stage formed by twenty 15A 150W high-speed bipolar transistors. Hegel’s newest generation core technology, SoundEngine, was also spawned during the H30 project. It’s based on a proprietary topology and highly selective transistor-matching that is said to eliminate dynamic crossover distortion in Class AB amplification. (See RH’s H30 review in Issue 223 for Holter’s thorough explanation of the SoundEngine technology.)
The 32-bit DAC stage is built around the AKM AK4399 chipset. For Hegel it’s AKM’s best pro audio chip and capable of 24-bit/192kHz resolution. For USB throughput, resolution tops out at 24-bit/96kHz, but extends to 192kHz through either the optical or coaxial SPDIF inputs. Hegel notes that the new DAC improves over the HD11 with more robust and cleaner power supplies and newly designed, higher-precision clocking. Like the HD11 it features proprietary reclocking circuitry and a Hegel designed clock.