Hegel Music Systems H200 Integrated Amplifier (TAS 211)

Equipment report
Categories:
Integrated amplifiers
|
Products:
Hegel Music Systems H200
Hegel Music Systems H200 Integrated Amplifier (TAS 211)

When I turned in my review of the smaller Hegel H100 integrated amp some time ago, I mentioned to Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley how much I also liked the H200. When Robert asked if I would like to write about the H200, I didn’t hesitate. The H200 is a piece of audio gear that I can approve wholeheartedly.

Integrated amplifiers embody the “get the job done with the least cost and fuss” approach, and that appeals to my practical side immensely. Yes, there are drawbacks, such as the close presence of stray magnetic fields of the power-amp section interfering with the delicate circuits of the input or preamp section. There is also the prospect that airborne acoustical vibrations from loudspeakers, which are usually located fairly close to an amplifier, will affect the preamp section. On the other hand, a fine integrated amp is a perfectly legitimate way to hear good music in your home—even if you can afford more expensive separates. If you don’t go the separates’ route, the added cost of additional chassis, power cords, and interconnects can be applied to better speakers and cables—which may, in fact, yield better overall performance than spending more for a separate preamplifier and power amplifier.

Like the H100, the H200 has just four items on its elegant, slightly curved faceplate: an input-selector knob, a volume knob, a power button, and a status window. Slightly taller than the H100, the H200 has the same understated look; the feel of its well-proportioned anodized-aluminum faceplate and knobs are in keeping with a theme of simplicity. Most users tend to intuitively feel more at ease with straightforward interfaces. Hegel seems to understand this. When the unit powers up, it automatically sets the volume to 30 (out of 99) and defaults to the balanced input. This allows you to confirm that there is some signal (after selecting your target input) without damaging your speakers or ears. If you activate the mute, upon resumption it will quickly ramp up the volume from 30 to the previous volume setting, thereby giving you a chance to reactivate the mute if you happen to be playing a passage that is too loud—again, saving your ears and speakers. The blue display shows the volume setting and two-characters (upper and lower case) to indicate the active input. Select input and volume, and you're ready to go.

Hegel designs and builds in Norway, a place not exactly known for manufacturing—although there is more than just small-scale industry and oil resource-related commerce there (Volvo makes extreme tolerance jet engine parts in Norway, for example). In this era of wealth shifting from the West to the East—mostly through high-volume, low-cost manufacturing in Asia—Norway-based Hegel has still managed to grow since the late 1980s. By 2000, it was exporting CD players, DACs, integrateds, and separates to European and Asian/Pacific markets, and has recently expanded into the U.S. by continuing to offer gear that provides plenty of bang for the U.S. buck. Hegel pulls this off by using effective technologies, executed with cost-effective parts, to keep prices down.

For your hard-earned $4400, you get a clean-sounding, powerful 200-watt (350W into 4 ohms), remote-controlled integrated amplifier with just enough input and output pairs to be useful but not cluttered: one fully balanced XLR input, two single-ended RCA inputs, a power-amp input (or home theater bypass), a tape-loop output, two preamp outputs for external amplifiers, and heavy-duty, gold-plated multiway speaker-cable binding posts. The H200 does not have an onboard DAC like the smaller H100. The H200 has beefier power supplies and higher-quality parts, and it electrically and physically separates the two channels (dual-mono) more completely. The H200 is more of a purist integrated whose emphasis is on optimal sonic performance and power reserves rather than on many different inputs and features. When I met Hegel's chief designer Bent Holter at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, 2010, he said, “The H200 is the cornerstone of the whole Hegel product line.” Apparently, it is Hegel's best selling product.

Hegel uses a patented circuit called the SoundEngine that is its primary claim to improved performance through engineering. The SoundEngine is said to reduce distortion by isolating noise between various gain stages before it is passed on and amplified by subsequent stages. This is done by a “feed-forward” technique that compares the in-phase input of a given stage with the corresponding out-of-phase output and rejects what is determined to be noise, and so it goes on down the line with each stage. The SoundEngine is different enough in its particulars to qualify as a patentable solution and is not, apparently, like a traditional fully-differential balanced circuit. The preamp section and the input of the power amp provide the voltage gain and have their own power supplies. The main gain stages of the power-amp section increase the current, and also have their own power supplies. Keeping things separate, according to Holter, also reduces distortion brought about by large, simultaneous voltage and current swings in the two respective stages. By reducing interstage distortion and isolating voltage and current stages as much as possible, Hegel claims it is able to deliver Class A-like fluidity without having to bias the output devices at Class A levels—which would draw lots of AC power and dissipate lots of heat as wasted energy. The H200 becomes only mildly warm to the touch after several hours of play.

We have all heard manufacturers' marketing claims about new technologies, or superior parts quality, or better mechanical isolation, or maniacal attention to detail, but we just have to listen to the component in question get an idea of what the results might be. In this case, Hegel has every right to be proud of its accomplishments. The H200 sounds clear, pure, relaxed, well-balanced, and extended at both frequency extremes. In performance areas that could lead some listeners to at least consider alternatives to the smaller H100—such as a less-than-cavernous soundstage width, an emphasis on airiness instead of fullness, and a buttery Class A quality—the H200 pretty much does away with all reservations. The H200 casts a wider and deeper soundstage—one that is populated with even clearer details—and it balances the qualities of light and airiness with rich fullness just beautifully. The H200 also has better bass extension and precision than the H100. (I use eight-gauge Wegrzyn power cords on my amplifiers; so I just transferred one of the Wegrzyns to the H200. Mileage will vary according to many factors.) While the H200 still has just a hint of that pure Class A creaminess, it only comes across as such when compared to my $20,000 Ayre and GamuT combo. On its own, I am not convinced I would notice it.

The odd thing about a lot of what the Hegel does is that it may actually not grab your immediate attention. Many of us have learned to listen for particular electronic artifacts as signifiers of elevated performance. A listener who heard my system a few years ago commented that he could not hear some of the background tape hiss in the recording that he was pretty sure he should hear more clearly. I later heard his system. To me, it had an overly processed, exaggerated top end. This echoes the “different strokes for different folks” principle when it comes to listening priorities, but it also illustrates what I would call a focus on artifacts rather than listening simply for an unadulterated reproduction of music. I hear the H200's clean, relaxed quality very much as a positive. Absent are the slightly ragged edges around images and that little bit of extra zip on details that some listeners may mistake for “heightened resolution.” The H200 does not reduce some of those electronic artifacts by covering them up through veiling or rolling off the high frequencies, nor is listening to it a boring or uninvolving experience. On the contrary, it is actually quite resolving and very musically engaging with plenty of dynamic drive at the same time. It just seems to reduce noise and allow more of the signal to come through without sounding stressed or forced.

How this all translates into a listening experience with the H200 is that musical details are always integrated into a larger picture rather than being hyped up so that your attention is unduly drawn to them. Via the H200, I tended to listen to music as a whole experience, the flow of the tune, the drama of the piece, the artistry of the musicians rather than listening to imaging, extension, dynamics, and so forth. Those elements are more than satisfactorily covered—large soundstage, lots of space, fine images, etc. But the great bonus here is that H200 actually plays music in a way that allows you to forget about audio evaluation and get involved as you might in a live concert. This is not to suggest that the H200 gets you close to live music in all aspects (that would be a tall order); it just seemed to shift my listening priorities away from “system listening” and more toward the musical performances.

Images boundaries are clear with a sense of solidity behind them, but they don't exist on their own; they are part of the space in which the music was recorded—recording permitting, or course. I don't think about image boundaries or pinpoint location when I attend live performances. Not just because I can literally see the musicians at a live concert, but also because the overall sound of musicians combining to make music generally includes a wash of direct and reflected sounds. I have heard a solo oboe playing in the middle of an orchestra and found it somewhat difficult to actually pick the musician out, even when looking directly at the wind section. Similarly, the Hegel H200 balances individual image information within the soundstage very well.

To transpose this “greater whole” aspect to non-acoustic music, studio pop and rock recordings are rendered a bit more clearly and less fatiguingly than one would expect at the H200's price level. It allows you to listen into the recording without a sense of discomfort when aggressive sections kick in. I could actually rock out with Tool's “The Grudge” [Lateralus, Volcano] even as Danny Carey's crushing cymbals and Adam Jones' gritty guitar really ramped it up toward the end. Similarly, on Alanis Morissette's “A Man” [Under Rug Swept, Maverick], not only was her voice not as shrill as it can be on some systems, but also when drummer Gary Novak switched from his high-hat to keeping the beat on his ride cymbal for the rest of the song (about 03:24 mark), the song gained more momentum and became more exhilarating with sounding stressful. Again, I had no sense that things were made more listenable because of some obvious content omission; rather, recordings were rendered in a less harsh, noise-ladened way.

Compared to the April Music Stello Ai500 (150W, $3500), the H200 sounded more refined and had better bass control and extension. The Ai500 had good soundstage width but could not equal the H200's portrayal of depth and soundstage continuousness in all directions. In this regard, and in its touch of Class A-like liquidity, the H200 performs more like a good tubed amplifier than a typical solid-state integrated amp. Compared to my own Ayre K-1xe preamp and GamuT M200 mono amplifiers, the H200 holds its own fairly well. The Ayre/GamuT combo ($20k) has more solid, more commanding presence than the H200. The Ayre/GamuT combo also expands the soundstage a bit and has better overall resolution. My separates have quick immediate presence, whereas the H200 has a more relaxed quality. In some ways, the H200 comes across as a bit more consistent in the way it tracks notes as they start, propagate, and decay than the pre/power combo. The combo tended to render the leading edges and then propagate steady-state tone just right, but doesn't quite hang on to the decay as well. Again, the H200 was somewhat reminiscent of a fine tubed amp in this regard. Could the H200 be even clearer, quicker, more expansive? Yes. Would I give up my separates for the H200? No, but I could easily live with it. It plays all kinds of music fundamentally well enough for me to not worry about the “could be better here and there” stuff.

That sums it up well: I could live with the H200...happily. I submit that, on a limited budget, you are better off buying the H200 for $4400 and having more left over for speaker and cable upgrades (and maybe some room treatments) than stretching your budget to get into more expensive separates whose purchase would greatly restrict your speaker and cabling choices. The H200 strikes me as a fantastic performer, one that delivers sonic quality far beyond its price level. Nicely done, very nicely done.

SPECS & PRICING

Power output: 200Wpc
Inputs: Two unbalanced (RCA), one balanced (XLR), and one HT/power-amp (RCA)
Outputs: Two preamp (RCA), one record (RCA), speaker terminals
Dimensions: 17” x 4.7” x 14.5”
Weight: 55 lbs.
Price: $4400 (includes RC2 remote control)

HEGEL MUSIC SYSTEM (U.S. Distributor)
(641) 209-3210
ben@hegel.com

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
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
Line stage preamp: Ayre K-1xe
Integrated amplifiers: Stello Ai500, Hegel H100
Power amplifier: Gamut M-200 monos
Speakers: Klipsch RF-82 II,, B&W 805 Diamond, Definitive Technologies BP 8060 ST
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