Hegel Music Systems has been on a roll. Since my review of the H100 integrated amplifier in September 2010, the Norwegian company has released three DACs, a preamp, a headphone amp/DAC, a power amp, and two integrateds, as well as updating a power amp already in the line. Hegel strikes me as a company driven by original engineering aimed at offering the highest possible sound quality at reasonable prices. The company’s $15,000 H30 may raise some eyebrows on that score. It is worth noting, though, that given the H30’s high performance level, Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley said in his Issue 223 review, “The Hegel H30 is not just a great-sounding amplifier; it’s also a tremendous bargain.” Elsewhere in TAS, Associate Editor Neil Gader had some very nice things to say about the 250Wpc H300 integrated in Issue 233. Hegel’s H200 integrated amp, which I reviewed in 2011, won Product of the Year, and the H300 received two Golden Ear Awards in 2013. Hegel has been busy indeed, and its efforts have been well received by consumers and the audio press.
In general, Hegel products are user-friendly, offer good value, and hew toward understated cosmetics, as if to say, “We let the music do the talking.” The 75Wpc, solid-state H80 integrated amplifier with onboard DAC is a case in point; it allows a lot more of the music to “do the talking” than I thought possible for $2000. On the nuts-and-bolts side, it has three analog inputs (one balanced, two unbalanced—one of which can be configured as a home-theater bypass), and five digital inputs (two coax, two optical—both types supporting 24/192—and one 24/96 USB. The small supplied plastic remote operates normal preamp functions and also includes buttons to skip, go back, play, and pause through the attached computer’s playlist—with most media players and only via the USB port. A much nicer metal remote is available as an upgrade for $180. I recommend it.
In a way, the H80 is a perfectly ordinary-looking, average-sized, minimalist integrated amp. Closer inspection reveals a nicely finished product, weighing about 24 pounds with a gently curved, glass-blasted faceplate and control knobs—input and volume. In a departure from other Hegel integrateds, the H80’s power switch is located on the bottom of the chassis in the front left corner instead of in the center of the faceplate just below the display. This makes more room on the H80’s faceplate for a larger display which, by the way, can be easily read from across a fairly large listening room.
The sound of the H80 is not ordinary at all, though. It delivers a nice measure of musical verve, accompanied by a lack of listener fatigue that one rarely encounters in $3000 integrateds—let alone in one priced at $2000. Conversely, many integrated amps near its price with a low listener-fatigue factor too often also sound overly polite or reserved. The H80 is musically involving, well balanced, and surprisingly powerful for its power rating. While I realize that an amp’s nominal output figure doesn’t necessary tell the whole story when it comes to its ability to drive real-world speakers, I really wasn’t quite prepared for the sense of power the H80 can deliver—even while driving the 85dB-sensitivity, 4-ohm Dynaudio C1 II. In a word, it sounded more “commanding” than I expected. It imparted commendable bass extension and control, maintained its baseline tonal balance during difficult music passages, and served up plenty of rhythmic drive. Some of my sense of its outsized power delivery may be the result of a greater-than-1000 damping factor. (Damping factor represents a measure of an amplifier’s ability to control a connected woofer and is related to the amp’s output impedance.) When pushed beyond its output power envelope—and at fairly loud volume levels, mind you—the bass-heavy synth lines in Bjork’s Greatest Hits version of “All is Full of Love” [Elecktra] or the dense climaxes in various movements of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring [RR] could become grainy and unstable. Even so, the H80 sounded considerably more composed than I had a right to expect from a 75Wpc, solid-state integrated amp.
The overall tonal balance of the H80 is very similar to all the other Hegel amplifiers I have used in my own system: H100, H200, H300 integrateds, and H30 power amp. That is to say, the H80 sounds neutral without glare, harshness, or graininess—unless, as already noted, the amp is pushed beyond its over-achieving power limit. In general, Hegel amps have a marvelously clear and smooth quality but do not realize that smoothness by sounding rolled-off or veiled. The H80 is no exception. It sounds tonally even-handed and texturally smooth while transmitting enough resolution to allow a wide selection of musical nuances to come through with their “essence” intact. Predictably, you will notice better resolution, refinement, power output, and soundstaging— especially the rendering of depth—as you move up the Hegel amplifier line. As such, the H80 still offers a commendable level of the company’s characteristic neutrality and smoothness at a relatively low price.