So how does the H360 compare to its progenitor, the award-winning H300? Both are rated at 250Wpc, but H360 has a damping factor of 4000 where the H300’s is 1000. Thus the H360 will, theoretically, offer even greater control over difficult speaker loads. The newer model also boasts 50 percent higher current capacity. The computer-controlled analog volume attenuators remain the same, but Hegel says its new individual voltage regulators reduce high-frequency noise. The new DAC has been extensively re-designed, and much of it is actually based on Hegel’s top HD30 DAC. The USB input, according to Hegel, has a new receiver chip, which supports DSD128, has better voltage regulators, and has a superior “first-level” jitter-reducing layout. The new DAC chipset is the AKM 4490 instead of the 4399 in the H300. Both models sound very similar overall, but two performance areas add up to significant improvements in the newer model: First, the H360 sounds smoother and more transparent, especially in the treble; and second, the H360 is just plain more musically enjoyable. The boogie or sadness or tension in the music registered more easily—especially when the amp was mated to the wonderfully revealing and involving GamuT RS3 speakers (review forthcoming).
What about going up in the Hegel line? The top-level P30 preamp and H30 power amp (reviewed by Robert Harley in Issue 223) sounded even more solid and commanding, and the soundscape expanded in all directions. The pre/power amp combo also sounded more revealing, direct, and immediate—quicker, so to speak. The H360 did, however, have a more liquid and musically enticing presentation—at least when it was paired with either the Gamut RS3 or Dynaudio C1 II speakers. To my mind, the H360’s ability to perform so well when stacked up against Hegel’s own $21k combo is highly commendable. Hegel will probably cringe, here, but I am not at all sure the roughly additional $15k for the P30/H30 would be worth it to a lot of customers, even though the combo is technically more accomplished from an audiophile perspective.
I compared the H360’s DAC to Hegel’s very nice sounding HD12 DAC ($1200) on its respective USB ports, and also listened to the H360’s renderer/NAS functionality. On USB, I don’t believe I could consistently tell which DAC was engaged if someone else were operating the system. If I had to really seek out (or project, some might assert) sonic differences, I would favor the sound of the H360. It seemed to have a little less grain and sounded a bit more natural overall. Mind you, the HD12 had compared favorably against an Oppo HA-1 DAC (also $1200) in my system; so, one could think of the H360’s DAC as equaling or surpassing a $1200 separate DAC. BTW, since I have been listening to more digital audio files in the last few months, I’ve discovered—like many others have—that the quality of the USB cable can make a substantial difference in sound. (Please see the sidebar about Nordost’s excellent Heimdall 2 USB cable.)
The H360 also supports Apple’s wireless AirPlay, but the user has to supply the wireless router. Hegel did not include an on-board wireless receiver because it claims that would introduce too much noise. Besides—from my own perspective—as wireless technology advances, consumers can more easily advance with it by upgrading the external wireless router. AirPlay works but is probably more appropriate for casual listening than serious audiophile sessions at this point, sounding, in my opinion, a bit muffled and thin. It will most likely appeal to many consumers, though, because they can easily stream their music from familiar Apple devices to their home system with the H360 as the main hub.
As I mentioned earlier, the real surprise on the digital side was the H360’s streamer/renderer functionality. Using BubbleUPnP software on an Android tablet, I could control the H360’s renderer to play the files on the attached QNAP TS-251 dual drive (configured and pre-loaded by Hegel). Digital files sounded much more lifelike through the H360/NAS than through my HP Envy 15t laptop running JRiver MC-20 and a HD12 DAC—even when this setup was tricked out with a good power cord, power conditioning, and aftermarket footers. The H360/NAS playback was truly musically rewarding. It sounded like a hybrid between my turntable rig and my regular universal-format disc player, and all in good ways: clarity, musical fluidity, focus, and lack of underlying graininess. Soundstaging and imaging also were more fleshed out, and timbres sounded more natural. The renderer/NAS method has the potential to turn this reluctant computer-audio guy into a more receptive digital explorer. Hegel has yet another trick in its digital repertoire, though.
If you already own a good stand-alone DAC (with a coax input), and you want to make use of it to improve performance, Hegel offers a neat DAC-loop feature on both the H300 and H360. You can route any digital input’s signal (up to 24/192, no DSD) on the H360 through its coax output to your outboard DAC’s coax input, and then route the converted analog signal from the external DAC back to the H360 through its balanced analog XLR inputs. A couple of activation button selections on the remote, and you now have cleaner, re-clocked, jitter-reduced digital-file playback. I used it with both my computer and with the NAS drive as sources, and it worked with both like a charm. Everything sounded cleaner and more continuous through the DAC-loop, with less interstitial haze, greater transparency, and more 3-D depth.