Hegel Music Systems, of Oslo, Norway, has developed yet another fantastic-sounding integrated amplifier/DAC. Hegel also makes preamps, power amps, and digital products, but it is its continually evolving line of integrated amps that, in a way, represents the heart of the company. Bent Holter, the founder and chief engineer behind all things Hegel, truly believes in bringing as much sonic performance, versatility, and reliability to the music-appreciating public as possible for a reasonable price. He applies his considerable engineering skills—he holds a Master’s Degree in Semiconductor Physics from Norway’s principal technical institute Trondheim University—to designing high-performing audio products that will work in real-world situations and can be purchased by ordinary citizens, not just well-heeled aficionados.
Background and Description
I have reviewed three other Hegel integrated amps over the past few years, so I can understand that it may seem like I am “Mr. Hegel” at the TAS table. Although other TAS writers (including Robert Harley, Neil Gader, and Jacob Heilbrunn) have also reported on Hegel gear—all positively—I am happy to review yet another Hegel integrated amp because, among other things, Hegel makes good products in general, and the company has really pulled out all the stops with the H360 in particular. It is, to give you my overall assessment upfront, a truly excellent amp. I believe it can readily compete with separates costing more than its $5700 asking price.
With 250Wpc into eight ohms (420Wpc into four) and a damping factor of 4000, the H360 will drive a wide range of speakers with ease. The H360 is equipped with two line-level inputs, one RCA and one XLR, although a home-theater bypass can be configured to function as a third unbalanced (RCA) line-level input. In addition, the H360 has a very good, on-board DAC, capable of supporting 24/192 PCM files and native mode DSD64 and DSD128. The unit also supports Apple’s wireless AirPlay, and can function as a DLNA digital-media streamer/renderer so you can connect a UPnP/DLNA-compatible Network Attached Storage device (NAS) through your local router and, voîlà, you have an amplifier that will play a lot of different sources.
To my mind, the most important aspects of the H360’s performance come from the analog sections of its preamp and power amp. After all, a fantastic DAC can fall completely short if the analog amplification is less than first-rate. For this reason, I put the H360 through its paces primarily as a standard line-level integrated amp, and only evaluated its very capable DAC once I had established what the analog sections could do. (Fortunately for me, it was through my listening to the H360’s NAS streaming capability that I began to reevaluate my previously less-than-stellar impressions of digital-file playback. The DAC can do more tricks, but I will cover them further on.)
The H360 represents some of the latest engineering and manufacturing acumen at Hegel. The company’s patented SoundEngine technology has been further updated, and some of the rigorous parts-matching protocols, once only applied to Hegel’s top power amp (H30), are now also apparently applied to the H360. To recap, one of the main aspects of SoundEngine is a feed-forward technique that reduces noise and also specifically addresses the crossover distortion commonly found in typical Class AB amplifiers when one half of the output section hands off the waveform to the other. SoundEngine adjusts the output transistors’ biasing to accommodate ever-changing temperature conditions—depending on signal fluctuations—rather than setting a fixed bias for average conditions. The H360’s preamp section has its own transformer to keep power-supply noise in the current-supplying power amp section from interfering with the more delicate signals in the voltage-gain preamp section. The DAC has also been completely updated from the on-board DAC in the H360’s predecessor, the well-regarded H300 (reviewed by Neil Gader in Issue 233). I will compare the newer H360 to the older H300 in greater detail later. While the H360 does not run hot, it uses no switching power supplies or any mix of Class D technology. It is a 45-pound Class AB amplifier all the way. The cosmetics remain classic Hegel: simple, pleasant, subtle, functionally proficient…Scandinavian.
The commanding, clean 250W output and variety of analog and digital inputs would almost be enough to recommend the H360 from the start, but Hegel offers much more than mere competency. The real boon here comes from the H360’s revealing, refined, and—best of all—musically compelling character. I could hear more deeply into recordings than I had any reason to expect from a $5700 solid-state integrated amplifier. Details like singers’ lip sounds, guitarists’ fingers on strings, or drummers’ sticks on cymbals came through with clarity, and did so without sounding hyped or forced. The ease with which these sorts of musical cues flowed, coupled with stable solidity of imaging, lent the sound a liquidity and body reminiscent of a well-balanced tube amp. Likewise, the H360’s dynamic sure-footed rhythmic drive underpinned the music in a way that propelled it along and made all sorts of music interesting—also somewhat like a good tube amplifier.
The H360’s tonal balance is not, however, traditionally tube-like (as in a bit more weighted toward the midbass and midrange with a softening of the extreme upper frequencies and perhaps a slight reduction of definition and control in the low end). On the contrary, another strong suit of the H360 is its apparent neutral tonal balance—achieved without the price of sounding clinical or characterless, as too many products with neutral ambitions do. Hegel has a talent for delivering both tonal accuracy and musicality; all four integrated amps, as well as its top P30 preamp and H30 power amp combo with which I have direct experience, have this satisfying combination of fundamentally correct tonal balance and musical verve. Hegel’s VP of Sales and Marketing Anders Ertzeid told me, when I visited Hegel in Oslo in 2012, that Hegel does not “voice” its products as such; rather, it pursues accuracy and noise-reduction through engineering and leaves tonal-shaping out of the design process. Of course, designer Bent Holter and his colleagues also listen carefully to various iterations of a given design, but they seek technology-improvement solutions rather than tonal adjustments. The results reveal a recording’s own character as well as the music’s inherent thrust—a confluence of positive attributes I more readily find in much more expensive electronics.
The H360’s midrange and treble openness really help flesh out the leading edges and trailing tails of notes, as well as their overall timbral character. This fine resolution and accurate timbre, taken together, help make images properly positioned and proportioned in the soundscape. Spatial cues add up to a reasonable approximation of 3-D imaging and soundstaging—in as much as this is possible for solid-state electronics under $10,000. For example, instrumental images do not sound recessed; indeed, leading-edge sounds indicate a distinctly closer perspective, without making instruments seem disassociated from the ensemble and the hall. Other Hegel integrateds have this pleasant “greater context” presentation as well, although the H360 portrays images better than any of the others I have listened to extensively in my system (H80, H100, H200, and H300). The H360’s apparent listener perspective is basically mid-hall, and the overall soundstage is quite wide, tall, and deep. Soundstaging is one of the areas of audiophilia where separate amplification components—especially monoblock power amps—seem to hold sway. An integrated amp can match or surpass some separates in areas of resolution, tonal and timbral truthfulness, power, and dynamic control, but the expansiveness of the outer reach of the soundscape seems to be aided by the separation of the primary amplification blocks—all other things being similar. I will say, the H360 portrays images and a soundstage better than any other sub-$10,000 solid-state integrated I have heard in a familiar system.
Owing to robust power supplies and—as I believe Hegel would suggest—other aspects of its designs, Hegel amps tend to sound more powerful than their nominal power ratings would suggest. The H360 did not disappoint. It drove all speakers I had on hand with ease: YG Sonja 1.2, GamuT RS3, and Dynaudio C1 II. (I would hazard a guess that the H360 will even match up well with power-hungry Maggies.) Like other powerful amplifiers, the H360 conferred serenity to music listening, perhaps because it doesn’t distort or strain on crescendos, as is often the case with less powerful and clean-sounding amplifiers. Bass and dynamics are well served, too. The H360’s bass always sounded deep-reaching and articulate, never weak or flabby. Macro-dynamic swings could, in fact, be startlingly powerful and the power region had plenty of slam.
Even though the H360 is powerful, with lots of commanding grip and control, it still sounds beguilingly delicate and detailed. An example of this “play big” and “play refined” ability came through when I listened to the second movement of “Three Meditations from Mass” on Bernstein [Oue, Minnesota, RR]. The opening cello solo was rendered with fine detail and emotional intensity, but when the orchestra joined in and welled up, the weight and force of the ensemble was reproduced realistically and with dimensional verisimilitude. No raggedness crept in, and the soundscape did not congeal.
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.
Could the H360 be better? Sure, at least one more analog input would be nice. The home-theater bypass input should probably be left as a single-purpose input, rather than allowing it to be configured as another line-level analog input. The display doesn’t bother me, but some folks might like an improved screen, in which characters are nicer to look at, rather than the mix of somewhat crude upper- and lower-case characters Hegel currently offers. I realize there are probably good reasons why Hegel has not done this already—increased cost, possibly lower reliability, and maybe added noise. (I can almost hear designer Bent Holter grumbling.)
The Hegel H360 is simply a marvelous piece of audio kit. Its neutral tonal balance, articulate and lovely rendering of details, commanding power reserves, spacious soundstaging, and natural imaging are laudable. At $5700, as solely a linestage integrated amp of its quality and power output, it is a bargain; the included nice-sounding and versatile DAC makes it a real winner. I absolutely loved listening to the H360. I never tired of its low noise, dynamic liveliness, and winning musicality. A very easy recommendation.
SPECS & PRICING
Power output: 250Wpc into 8 ohms, 420Wpc into 4 ohms
Analog inputs: Two RCA (one switchable to HT bypass), one XLR
Digital inputs: One coaxial, three optical, one USB, one Ethernet (RJ45)
Outputs: One fixed line level (RCA), one variable line level (RCA); one digital coax (from digital inputs only); speaker terminals
Frequency response: 5Hz–180kHz
Damping factor: More than 4000 (main power output stage)
Dimensions: 16.93″ x 5.9″ x 16.93″
Weight: 45.2 lbs.
HEGEL MUSIC SYSTEMS USA
East Long Meadow, MA
Analog source: Basis Debut V turntable & Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S cartridge
Digital sources: Ayre C-5xeMP universal player, HP Envy 15t /JRiver MC-20, Hegel HD12 DAC
Phonostage: Ayre P-5xe
Linestages: Ayre K-1xe, Hegel P30
Power amplifiers: Gamut M250i, Hegel H30
Speakers: Dynaudio Confidence C1 Signature, GamuT RS3, YG Sonja 1.2
Cables: Shunyata Anaconda ZiTron signal cables, Cardas Clear Reflection, Nordost Heimdall 2 USB, Audioquest Coffee USB and Hawk Eye S/PDIF, Shunyata Anaconda S/PDIF, Shunyata Anaconda and Alpha ZiTron power cords
A/C power: Two 20-amp dedicated lines, Shunyata SR-Z1 receptacles, Shunyata Triton/Typhon power conditioners
Accessories: Stillpoints Ultra SS and Mini footers, Shunyata Research DFE V2 cable elevators
Room treatments: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels and DIY panels
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