Hegel Music Systems is a perfect example of a company driven by good ideas, rational decisions, and putting the most important thing first - the sound. The Norwegians can boast of many interesting technical solutions, but neither care for selecting the right components for each model, nor hours spent on designing circuit boards or pursuit of functionality distracted them from that universal goal. Although it may seem improbable to those who know the hi-fi market very well, Hegel's team consists of only seven people. We can add professionals working for external subcontractors, but on a daily basis, you'll find four, maybe five people at the company's headquarters in Oslo. Nevertheless, we are talking about a brand that has won probably all the most important awards in the industry and whose actions have been watched closely for many years even by more successful and experienced competitors. What is so special about Hegel then? Maybe it is the simplicity typical for Scandinavian manufacturers? Maybe it's a specific mixture of proprietary technologies, love for music, and business sense, thanks to which the factory founded by Bent Holter got on a roll when all the others were hiding in corners, fearing economic crisis? Maybe the secret is the progressive approach of Norwegian designers, who were introduced to the subject of files and converters ten years ago, and today streaming and connecting audio equipment with smart home systems is something normal for them? Or maybe all these things come together during the listening session, when we place the gear on the table, turn it on, play our favorite music and...
Well, it's usually either very good or phenomenal. And there are good reasons for that. Each device in Hegel's catalog is not just a pile of components in a metal enclosure, but most of all it's a result of long-term listening tests using various loudspeakers, sources, and accessories, comparing several prototypes differing in the tiniest details, making corrections and preparing one, master copy, which will become the basis for serial production. Wait, wait... But shouldn't it be like that for all manufacturers of audiophile equipment? Yes, it should. But it is not always like that. Even raising the price bar does not guarantee that we will buy a product that someone really cared about and that was tested with a wide range of equipment, music genres, and recordings representing different quality levels. Many enthusiasts still approach the matter in such an uncompromising manner, but every company makes money when it sells new devices, not when a discerning audiophile sits for weeks in a listening room, comparing three amplifiers that differ by a few capacitors. From an accountant's point of view, the listening phase could last even five minutes. And if the equipment will not have enough bass or midrange will be harsh and unpleasant? That will be judged by reviewers, then dealers, and ultimately the customers themselves. Some will like the sound, others won't. And it will always be like that, regardless of whether the designers put their minds to it or put the first working prototype into production. Professionals and extremely experienced audiophiles will still have some kind of comparison, but the rest will probably not know whether this time the amplifier was successful or not. In a year or so, a new model will be released and tested again on customers.
With Hegel, it looks completely different. I know it because I know the man responsible for this key, from the audiophile's point of view, stage of design work. Anders Ertzeid is officially responsible for sales and marketing. He establishes contacts, represents the company at various exhibitions, prepares information about new products, makes presentations, gives interviews - basically, he is the face of Hegel. I am sure that on a map of the world he could show every single place where you can listen to and buy Hegel products. He probably visited most of them. His presentations are focused on a variety of music. Anders is also not afraid to experiment and doesn't shy away from any questions. Few people know that talking about Hegel products and organizing such auditions is a reflection of his second function, as he is the first person in Oslo responsible for auditioning prototype devices. And no wonder. Although no member of the Hegel team was brought in by accident, Anders really knows what this game is all about. He has repeatedly surprised me with his accuracy. He's able to find even small imperfections and carries on listening until everything sounds just right. All this work remains unseen until the customer decides to listen to what Hegel has achieved. We take one, two, or three amps and usually come to the conclusion that each has a different set of pros and cons. One is pleasant but sluggish, the second is dynamic but too harsh, and the third is quite neutral but not crazy about stereophony. We can plug in another three models and the situation will probably turn out the same. And then we reach for the Hegel and it turns out that everything is just fine. It sounds as it should and works well with any music. The same can be said about the equipment you use with Hegel. These components can be seen in so many systems, with so many different speakers, sources, and cables, that it is hard to give a better recommendation. The group of Hegel owners is also diverse. Beginners praise its versatility and functionality, while those who are deeply involved in the audiophile hobby see it as a fulfillment of the high fidelity idea. Looking for a good amplifier, but don't know what to buy? Try Hegel. Want neutrality and transparency? Get a Hegel. Don't like Hegel? Then change your speakers or do some room acoustics. In any case, look for the problem somewhere else.
Design and functionality
Let's be clear - I am completely biased when it comes to Hegel, and the H20 ended up in my reference system. So if you expect this test to be objective - it probably won't. Earlier I stated that particular models come out of Norway either very well or phenomenally. From the current catalog, I would include H90, H120, and H190 among the former. These are decent stoves that have virtually everything we could expect for the price. In the second group, I'd put the HD30 DAC, the top H390, and H590 integrators, and the flagship split system consisting of the P30 preamplifier and two H30 power amplifiers. I have not listened to the C53, C54, and C55 multichannel amplifiers, which will interest only complete installations or bi-amping enthusiasts (in this configuration the C54 seems a tempting proposition even for stereo fans). I've also never been interested in the Mohican. Supposedly he can do it, but I wouldn't even have anything to feed him anymore. In my drawer, I left a few copies of the albums we covered with media patronage. I don't know why, but I've never dealt with the P20 preamp and H20 power amp before. It turns out that this is a big mistake. It is the only pure analog Hegel kit that will not drain your wallet to the bottom.
The P30 and H30 are quite expensive, especially when you consider a full dual-mono configuration with one power amp driving each speaker. To put it mildly, this is not a proposal for everyone. A solution could be to purchase the H390 or H590 integrated amplifiers. True, but they are no longer amplifiers but all-in-one systems. Hegel has already gone so far in the direction of DACs and networking features that buying its integrations makes virtually no sense from the point of view of an audiophile with a high-end source. And yet this is not surprising. Most of us complete a system gradually, dividing it into three, maybe four main components - speakers, amplifier, source, and accessories. If we have a high-end streamer, buying a stove with a DAC and network functions will only be spending money to duplicate the player's functions. It is possible that the H390 as a classic amplifier without DAC and streaming functions could cost $5000 rather than $7000. However, we will never find out because the Norwegian company's integrators are not modular. Either we take the full package, or we look further.
At this point, our eyes should turn to the P20 preamplifier and H20 power amplifier. The former costs $2900, the latter $5750. That's not much more than the H390, with which the H20 seems very, very closely related. However, if we have a streamer with adjustable output, we will not need the P20 for anything (at least in theory). We eliminate one link from the system, shortening the signal path and saving $2900. If the output of your player is poor, you probably won't experience audiophile ecstasy, but high-end streamers can surprise you. Practice shows that you can really transfer the duties of a preamplifier to them - not even losing sound quality but actually increasing it. In the past, such a combination was considered a compromise. The lack of a good preamp meant trouble because the adjustable outputs on compact disc players were not that great. Today, equipment manufacturers are well aware that there may be many, many more users of such a solution and therefore they pay more attention to this element. Systems that ten years ago would have been regarded as extremely eccentric, now do not surprise anyone. A computer, a DAC with adjustable output, and active speakers? Great. A streamer with a built-in preamp and two monoblocks? Yummy. In any case, it makes more sense than a system with two or three DACs, none of which is good enough, and the power amplifier is in fact a ready-made module. If we are to get out of this mess, we need to use the full potential of the streamer, and instead of an integrated amplifier, we need a decent, large power amp that only does what it's supposed to do.
Some say a lot, but it's easy to cross the line beyond which the audiophile hobby becomes at least ridiculous. How many gigantic speakers do you need to provide sound in even a 100-meter long living room? What kind of speakers needs an amplifier capable of delivering 1100 watts per channel? I know that it's not about using the full power during every audition, but I still can't convince myself to go for high-end in this extreme version. If I am going to spend a weekend with my friends, I would like to sail on a sailboat, or maybe a small yacht, and not watch the Symphony of the Seas cruise ship circling around a small lake, demolishing everything around. Size, weight, price, and performance aside, the H20 has one more advantage over the H30. Hegel's flagship power amplifier was built using discontinued transistors. Bent Holter is really crazy about them. He can talk for hours about what happens inside that tiny, silicon cube. The point is that there are still a dozen or so, maybe a few dozen sets of these transistors left in the company's warehouse. Hegel will keep enough of them to provide customers with a possible replacement and that is that. Such a verdict is not imposed on the "20". Different prices, different sizes, and unlimited availability. And yet we are still talking about a large, hi-end amplifier with 200 W per channel into 8 ohms. For me, it is the bomb. That is enough.
H20 arrives in a heavily oversized double carton. Norwegians ship their amplifiers to 55 countries around the world, so they know exactly how to protect them during transport. The device rests between two thick pieces of foam. The kit includes only the user manual and a standard power cable, which has been attached to the carton with adhesive tape so that nothing bumps against even the bottom part of our stove's casing. Speaking of which, the underside of the H20 is quite interesting. The base of the amplifier is a thick steel plate with cutouts for heat sinks. You can also clearly see the place where the toroidal transformer is mounted. A large screw does not enter directly into the chassis but is in contact with a large piece of material that feels like hard rubber. I think this is some kind of transformer silencing system. Some toroids are extremely sensitive to the quality of current, and under unfavorable conditions they can vibrate, producing an unpleasant buzz. Hegel pays great attention to this element. In the company's headquarters in Oslo, there are at least several dozen of such transformers. These are obviously transformers that were rejected for one reason or another. Some because of their parameters, others because of questionable workmanship, and still others because of their tendency to vibrate uncontrollably. Norwegians also never shield their transformers, which in their opinion degrade the sound, and in addition can vibrate, which would not please anyone.
If you look at the bottom of this unit, you'll notice four tall feet. Interestingly, they are not lined with rubber or other soft material, so H20 rides freely on the surface. To be honest, I have no idea why that is. Perhaps it is so that the user can easily move his amplifier when, for example, wiping dust off it. But H20 is not a colossus that cannot be moved without the help of another person. It weighs 25 kg. That's a lot, but let's not exaggerate - it's still no record. The lack of rubber pads may surprise us when connecting cables. Bananas, XLRs, power cord - each time you have to hold the amplifier in front of the table so it doesn't fall off. That's why I solved this problem in my amplifier quickly, effectively, and cheaply. A set of self-adhesive rubber pads cost me $2. Fans of more audiophile accessories can opt for Vibrapods or the quite effective Tonar No Rumble pads, and if even that is not enough, inside each of the feet you can see the head of a screw, which can probably be removed and high-quality anti-vibration feet or spikes can be installed there. Just make sure that they are high enough. The Norwegians certainly did not decide on such high feet for fun, but to provide the amplifier with adequate ventilation.
The front panel of the H20 is a solid block of aluminum finished in matte black lacquer. In the central area, the front is thicker, which has already become a Hegel trademark. The user has only a large, round button with a blue LED and a white logo of the company above it. It is worth adding that this giant switch works in a very pleasant way - with a perceptible, but quiet click. The blue LED glows too brightly in my opinion. It's not so bad if you place the amplifier on the bottom shelf of a table, but if you put it at eye level you certainly won't be able to take your eyes off its glow. Hegel envied McIntosh or what? Not counting the feet, this is the only element I would improve here. But I guess that in most systems the described amplifier will be placed quite low, and then the blue LED will not be so annoying. Another thing is that after the listening session it is hard to forget about the amplifier being on. The H20 does not require a lengthy warm-up after each start-up. A factory-new unit played out after a few days and needs no more than ten minutes to burn in after switching it on. As such, it's not worth keeping it plugged in all the time. The presence of a large main switch on the front panel is itself a clear indication from the manufacturer. So let's move to the rear panel. What can I say - this is what an audiophile power amplifier should look like. Perfect symmetry and high-quality sockets spaced in such a way that no one will have any problems with connecting even the thickest and most disobedient cables.
In the center of the rear panel is a power socket. On the sides, there are RCA and XLR inputs. The selection is done via small switches, one for each channel. Halfway between the inputs and the power socket, there are double gold-plated speaker terminals embedded in transparent plastic. Plus and minus terminals could be more widely spaced, but if we want to use a fork, nothing stands in the way of connecting them diagonally. The only potentially dangerous situation would be connecting two pairs of cables terminated with thick spades. I guess, however, that not every owner of a "20" will encounter such a problem. By the way, for owners of speakers with double sockets bi-wiring may be an interesting option. Many audiophiles believe that one set of better cables is better than two sets of worse cables, but this configuration gives us the ability to choose different cables for the midrange/treble section and different ones for the woofer section. We also eliminate jumpers in the speakers, the quality of which is usually highly questionable. The Norwegians could certainly stay with one pair of terminals, but they decided to give the users of the tested amplifier more options. When it comes to the RCA and XLR sockets I have no reservations. Every connection is secure. Anyway, take a look at the pictures. It is good.
I didn't want to like this amp. I hoped I wouldn't like it. After all, this is one of the oldest designs in the current Hegel catalog. I don't even know how old it is exactly, but ten for sure. Perhaps that is why in many respects it is an uncompromising design. We are not dealing with a toy built based on off-the-shelf Hypex modules running in class D, but a decent power amplifier designed to achieve the best possible parameters and the highest possible sound quality. Many audiophiles believe that amplifiers are no longer built this way, and if they are, it's on a case-by-case basis or as high end as a new car. H20 fits between these two worlds. It is an "old-fashioned" device, but it does not weigh fifty kilograms, it does not have a chassis fifty centimeters deep, and it does not cost half a million dollars. It is a device that is extremely easy to get along with, but that does not change the fact that we get 200 watts per channel from 20 bipolar transistors, a dual-mono circuit, and SoundEngine technology, thanks to which the amplifier is characterized not only by low distortion but also an incredibly high damping factor. In other words, any normal speaker should be driven by the H20 quite easily. Hegel enthusiasts will probably also notice one very important detail - the way the cabinet of this model is made. The Norwegian company's components look very similar when viewed from the front, but for me, audio equipment is not just about the front panel, but about the whole, which in Hegel's case is basically divided into two types. Cheaper devices have an ordinary, U-shaped, lacquered cover, while the hi-end models are made of several aluminum plates screwed together, with a completely flat cover. Interestingly, among the integrated amplifiers only one model - H590 - received a "better" enclosure. We will also see it in the P20 and P30 preamplifiers, the H30 power amplifier, the HD30 converter, and the Mohican compact disc player. Even the H390 proved unworthy of such treatment. The H20 has no DAC, no network functions, no preamplifier, no knobs, no display, and no remote control, so even though it's cheaper than the H390, a better chassis fit the budget.
The downsides? I've already mentioned the overly bright LED on the front one, so I won't repeat myself. In my free time, I'll try to deal with it in some simple, homemade way. From a technical point of view, the biggest, or maybe even the only drawback is the lack of possibility to bridge the stove in such a way that you can buy another unit. Most manufacturers allow such combinations. Switching the amplifier to mono mode is done either with a button or by connecting the speaker cables in a non-standard way. The H20 would then deliver at least 400 watts per channel, which would make it possible to drive even speakers with concrete cones. But there is no button, so there is no temptation to start saving up for a second amplifier and build yourself a power plant that only the most demanding loudspeakers need. A small disadvantage for some audiophiles will be the lack of a silver color version. The Norwegians once produced such a product, but customer interest was so low that they finally gave up. Currently, some integrated amplifiers (H120 and H190) are also offered in white, but I don't think that this fashion will ever reach the hi-end models, especially preamplifiers and power amplifiers. The third drawback is the single toroidal transformer, which can easily cope, but there is enough space in the chassis to accommodate two smaller ones. Maybe the Norwegian engineers decided (or experimented) that it would not improve anything. It is worth mentioning that the H20 is closely related to the H300 model that once made quite a stir in the market. In fact, H300 was built on the basis of the H20, which opened the way for the Norwegian company to produce truly high-end integrated amplifiers. Just compare the interior of both devices and it turns out that there is no big philosophy here - Hegel designed a great amp that was made available to customers in several variations. The integrals were later improved. DAC and preamp circuits were improved, network connectivity was added, and the chassis design was changed. In the case of the H20, there was no such need, so it was never modified.
One last thing that is of interest to some music lovers, and about which there have already been so many unbelievable stories on the Internet that it seems necessary to write it again - the H20, like other Hegel products, is assembled in China. This means that everything other than assembling the parts supplied by the company into a single unit takes place in Oslo - designing, selecting components, and even ordering the components needed to build a given number of units of a given model. Hegel is therefore not "Chinese", although if someone thinks so, that's their business and I will not forcefully correct their worldview. Unfortunately, the cost of labor, as well as construction, equipment, and maintenance of a factory in Scandinavia would be so high that H20 would probably cost nearly twice as much. So if Hegel decided to take such a step, would you pay extra? Well... I do not think that even the greatest defenders of European production would be willing to take 25% of the value of such an amplifier out of their wallets and spend it on something you cannot see. I also don't understand how you can write such comments from a phone that was also assembled in China and whose build quality everyone raves about. The real problems may occur only in two cases - when the parent company does not control the quality, or when it does not do anything more than place orders and does not even design the equipment. Many European and American manufacturers move everything but the office to China after a while, to keep the mailing address and hire a few people to visit dealers, telling them about new products in a charming British accent. The Norwegians didn't go for that. Normal work goes on at Hegel's Oslo headquarters, from PCB design and software development to listening, testing, and even customer service. China is treated purely as an assembly plant, which - despite the extra shipping costs - saves a lot of cash on each unit, which translates into more favorable retail prices. However, since we are not talking about cheap electronics anyway, some audiophiles have set their sights on Hegel, forgetting that amplifiers made by Krell, Primare, Audiolab, Quad, Creek, Musical Fidelity, and many other companies that we consider to be 100% American, British, Swedish, Italian or German are also made in China.
The H20 is certainly not the only power amp in this price range worth considering. Of the competition, Pass XA25, Copland CTA 506, ATC P2, Naim NAP 250 DR, or Atoll AM400 are certainly worth considering. I was also very interested in listening to Bryston 3B3. I have great respect for the Canadian brand and I know that such a purchase would be a very good investment. Unfortunately, due to the much greater popularity of the more expensive 4B3, the 3B3 is simply not available in Poland. It can be ordered blind, which I would do if it was the fourth or fifth amp in my collection. I was also interested in the Primare A35.2, which I will still try to hear. It was supposed to appear in the review at about the same time as the Hegel, but someone bought it and now we have to wait for the next delivery. Within the price range of $5000, there are still a few interesting power amplifiers to be found. If you'd like to go further, you'd be heading for amounts in the range of $10000 and beyond. Real competition from Hegel is therefore not very numerous. The ATC looks great. It is not a huge amplifier either, although two toroids weigh a lot. Atoll is similar. The Copland is a tube amplifier - it's probably one of the few tube amps you can get for that money. It's tempting, but I already have a tube integration and I'll stick to that. The Naim is a one-way ticket. For that to make sense you need to assemble an entire system with Naim components. As the Americans say, been there, done that, got the T-shirt. It is possible that one day I will have a full Naim system at home because I like the company's uncompromising approach to many things, but to do that I would have to give up reviewing audiophile gear. I make no secret that I sometimes think about it. So if one day you enter StereoLife Magazine and all you see is a big "Now, dear children, kiss Mr. Karasiński's XLR" message, it will be a sign that I've changed my profession or I've hit the jackpot and maybe I'm already at the Naim distributor, sipping coffee and buying ten devices at once. Until then I need an amplifier that can drive any normal speakers, will play with any equipment, will not convince me to its vision of sound, and most of all will allow me to both listen to music for pleasure, and reliably do my job (in that order). As you already know, that amplifier turned out to be the Hegel H20. Why?
Simply put - because it does everything I expected of it. The hopes placed in it were more than fulfilled in every single aspect that can be objectively analyzed. Its sound is powerful, dynamic, fast, neutral, blunt, spacious, deep, resolving, and very, very convincing. But it does not end there. I did not decide on a marriage of convenience because I know that in matters of music and audio equipment it does not lead to anything good. I am not a proponent of the theory that an audiophile should at all costs strive to achieve a sound that corresponds to what can be heard at a live concert. I do not intend to undermine the idea of hi-fi, but when it comes to choosing speakers, an amplifier, a source, or cabling, it often turns out that it is better to opt for a device that may do something with the sound, but can draw us into listening than one that sounds linearly, reliably and transparently. Leveling the bandwidth with a road roller and making sure not to add anything to the music or take anything away from it (this is probably one of the most hackneyed slogans in the audio industry) may end up in a situation where listening will not give us any, but not any emotions. The sound will be correct in all respects, but pale, gray, flat, bland, and boring. Fulfilling the sacred duty of every audiophile and blindly following the noble slogans ends up with us yawning, looking around the room, and praying that something finally starts to happen. Fortunately, this is not the only possible scenario. Some manufacturers know that it is possible to combine fire with water - to achieve audiophile sound without flushing it out of emotions, tangibility, space, micro-details, and dynamics. Then something extraordinary happens. We discover that such neutrality does not lead to boredom but to even greater realism. The music is alive, pulsating, and coming out to meet us, and the equipment does not color it or change its message but makes sure that it reaches us in the truest, refined, original form. This is how the Hegel H20 sounds.
Audiophiles who have eaten their bread from more than one oven will certainly appreciate H20's neutrality and transparency, and also pay attention to clarity, speed, and space. Hegel can, however, reach not only such people but also music lovers who are completely new to audio equipment. You do not need to be a great expert to know that this amplifier sounds exceptionally well. It is enough to have good hearing, any comparative scale, and a bit of musical sensitivity. Many people believe, quite wrongly, that they will not be able to evaluate the sound of hi-end equipment - just as some guests of fine restaurants fear that they will not appreciate the taste of fine wine because they are not familiar with all the varietals, slopes, vintages, and acidities, let alone the notes of white flowers, honeyed almonds, and acacia. And in fact, you don't have to think about it at all. If you like it and have bitten into it, you can, but basically, you just have to look, smell, drink and make an assessment in the simplest possible way - I like it, or I don't like it. Amplifiers from a Norwegian company are liked by the majority of listeners. And this does not depend on their level of listening experience, nor on their money. I know people, whose first serious amplifier in their life was H390 or H590. It is enviable, but no wonder. This equipment simply sounds as it should. You can subject it to various tests, pull out difficult recordings and compare it with any similarly priced competitor's product, and it will still stand up for itself. Because the truth defends itself best, and in addition is the only truly timeless aesthetics.
When testing a 200-watt solid-state amplifier, what we expect above all is power. We do not want to see it on tables but to feel it under the skin. In this respect, Hegel does not disappoint us. But we soon realize that this powerful reserve of current is not present here solo, but is inextricably linked with other aspects of the presentation. It is not only the ability to crank up the volume to a concert level. It's also the micro dynamics, the ability to differentiate small impulses, the constant readiness to attack, and the sense that H20 always has a reserve on hand that can be tapped if needed. Powering speakers with such a power plant also affects the speed and transparency of the resulting sound. These things are almost never stated separately. Maybe in some tube amplifiers, but only if we provide them with loudspeakers of sufficiently high efficiency. We may not be able to run a discotheque with such a set, but with normal listening, this transparency is clearly audible. With Hegel, too. Even when it plays quietly, the sound does not lose its nutritional value. We do not have to turn it up to the max to hear what it can do. But... If we want to, we always have that option. With speakers of standard efficiency, it is easy to reach the level where we start to worry about the safety and health of the speakers, and Hegel does not care about that. Its sound does not show any signs of fatigue, there is no clutter or mess. You have to watch out because the situation is like driving a sports limousine on a highway - you press the gas, feel comfortable, cruise along observing the horizon, nothing alarming happens, but the meter already indicates 210 km/h and at that moment you realize that you can lose your license for such driving. Just in case, I've poked around in the Auralic's menu and set the volume limit to 50 (the maximum is 100). On most recordings, you would be able to turn the potentiometer up to 60, but there are somewhere half scale is an insurmountable barrier. During normal, everyday listening the Auralic is set to 20-25 percent and I do not need more power. Then you can hear everything that is best about Hegel - the simplicity of its sound philosophy and the complexity of the music resulting from its realization.
If there is one area where the H20 adds something of its own, I would point to its presentation of the lowest frequencies. The bass of the Norwegian stove is atomic - deep, saturated, dense, massive, willing to venture even into subwoofer regions, but also well-controlled and free of strange irregularities. I had the impression, however, that Hegel encourages the speakers to stretch the frequency response downward. As if it liked it much more than boosting the midrange when they produce that lowest, floor-gliding, gut-massaging bass. This can be particularly well heard at higher volume levels. The sound then takes on even more of a concert-like, cinematic, slightly American character. After a while, I began to wonder if it was the H20 spicing up the bass with an extra dose of subsonic murmurs, or if other amplifiers are too quick to give up, to let go of the asterisk task, and do not reproduce these frequencies with sufficient, proper intensity. If we were to limit ourselves only to different amplifiers and loudspeakers, we might come to the conclusion that this gentle boost is not needed. Most amplifiers have a decidedly shorter bass response. The problem is that for many audiophiles and professionals the real reference level is headphones. Not to mention hi-end models, even with the Sennheisers HD 600 it only takes fifteen minutes of listening for the change to speakers to be difficult to accept. The sound may be easier to digest because of the correct space and the sense of distance between us and the music, but it is already so literal and direct, it does not have the speed and resolution, and the lows almost always seem to us flat and slim. With Hegel, this gap narrows. Not only that the sound is saturated with details, full of various textures, shapes, and complex structures, but also that nothing, but nothing disappears from the wide, headphone bandwidth. With monitors, it looks even more favorable than with floorstanding speakers, which by nature are more eager to penetrate the lowest frequencies. We have less mid-bass and more of a true, thick, purring bottom end that can shake glasses in the kitchen. Experiences with headphones convinced me that Hegel is right. Although the initial impression is that he adds something from himself and probably many listeners will perceive it that way as well. The sooner you trust him, the more time you will save.
If someone asked me to describe the sound of the "20" in three words, I would probably choose the terms that seem most important to me in this whole composition - neutrality, transparency, and unconstrained power. But it is difficult to describe those qualities separately. Neutrality goes so far here, and at the same time, dynamics and resolution are maintained at such a high level, that I'm surprised Hegel stoves have not attracted the interest of professionals. They should. I am convinced that the H20, in a version designed to be mounted in a studio rack, would do the job no worse than the ATC P2 Pro or Bryston 4B3. The biggest problem would probably be the mentality of professionals and the prevailing belief that audiophile equipment is just nice toys for little boys. But if they could be persuaded to try the studio version of the described amplifier, they might be surprised. It would be enough to modify the size and shape of the front panel, using what was developed for the C5 series multichannel amplifiers. By the way, the H20 sounds a bit like it looks. Simple and honest, no fiddling, but very, very good. And it's so... Unshakeable. There is no way to throw him off balance. With the repertoire, no way. Patricia Barber suits him just as well as Rage Against the Machine. He squeezes out what he can from the master recordings, and shows the weaker ones as they are - neither mistreating them nor correcting the producers' mistakes. The accompanying equipment cannot do the job. If you decide to connect Hegel to a budget streamer and speakers assembled in your garage on the basis of the cheapest available speakers, you will certainly not use its full potential. But if you use a minimum of common sense, it should not matter whether the H20 drives Dynaudio, B&W, KEF, Harbeth, Focal, or Audiovector systems. It can be driven by an Auralic streamer or a McIntosh vacuum-tube preamplifier. Everything depends on our preferences. With cables and accessories - I don't think so either. During the review, I used Cardas, Equilibrium, and Albedo cables as well as an Enerr power supply. Hegel can repay me for such gifts, and show the differences between different cables, but it is not a matter of life or death for him. With cheaper cables, it will certainly do its job, and with more expensive ones it will just do it a bit better. The ball is again in the user's court.
In fact, this is very, very often the case. H20 is so objective that all our attention is directed toward the music, and then toward all the other components of the system. So it is natural that after some time we start to have not only respect for it but also exceptional trust. I even have the impression that Hegel infects other blocks with its approach to music. Suddenly, everything in this sound agrees with us. And it does not have to be that way even with the best amplifier in the world... After switching from the tube-based Unison Triode 25 to the "20" I was afraid that the Audiovectory QR5 would sound hard, dry, and impassive, and that its treble would start to yammer and bite the ears. My fears turned out to be unfounded. The Danish speakers have their own character, but Hegel brought out the best from them. The other thing is that the Triode 25 is not some clunky, sluggish little thing that offers an exaggeratedly warm sound. The H20 has a different approach to sound, but it is not a cold, solid-state bastard that does not know what musicality is. It confirmed its class with the less expensive DALI Menuet SE, AudioSolutions Figaro B and ELAC Debut Reference 62 monitors, and a few other designs whose reviews you will read in the near future.
The broadly defined neutrality also includes space. It is such as a given recording allows. Sometimes very impressive and three-dimensional, sometimes tight and focused on the foreground, and in most recordings simply good. I know amps that can show better depth with perfectly black backgrounds. I know amplifiers that sound a bit flat, but in terms of width, they spread the sound on stage like we would spread a jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces on the floor. I also know devices, which in terms of stereophony focus on one, chosen thing, such as the closeness of vocals or spectacular width, which creates the impression of the listener being surrounded by sound. Hegel, on the other hand, tries to build space in such a way that we have the impression that it is not there at all. There is no single leitmotif here. Instead, there is a mixture of many different elements, each of which is maintained at a good or very good level. If I had to wish for something, I would extend the soundstage another half meter deeper and increase the distance between the foreground and the rest-as the outstanding tube amplifiers can do. The H20 does not do this, and I don't even know whether it can't or simply doesn't want to, because it would be too much of an interference in the reproduced material.
The same can be said of treble. They are just there. Some would prefer them to be more sonorous, rounded, and polished. Yes, they can show us such brilliance, but only when we reach for the right material. Then we will hear full brightness, resonance, freshness, and crystal clarity in this range. On most discs treble is just as it should be. Further listening to this range is like trying to judge the taste of water. Still, the depth of the stereo stage and almost complete lack of treble character are, in my opinion, the only, if I may say so, weaker points of the Norwegian amplifier. Some would prefer space to be more condensed and treble to be more ethereal and airy. And they will certainly find a stove that offers such sound. You can also always reach for a tube preamp and bring a bit of that unique character into the equation. Many people think that this combination is pure synergy and the end of the search. But I, at least for now, cannot resist the dynamics, purity, and neutrality provided by the direct combination of the Hegel with the Auralic streamer. And I already have a plan for an external preamplifier.
So is H20 the ideal amplifier? Certainly not. If I had an unlimited budget, I would certainly keep looking. Perhaps I'd order two H30 monoblocks right away? Perhaps I'd end up with a Gryphon, McIntosh, MBL, Bryston, PS Audio, Luxman, Classé, Pass, Audia, Pathos, T+A, BAT, or Vitus Audio amplifier? Maybe out of my innate laziness I would follow the line of least resistance and put a Statement with Grande Utopias EM in my new, big house? It's a proven combination. There's no need to try anything different. Or maybe I'd buy myself a luxury yacht and a JBL loudspeaker, and get rid of all this audiophilism... For now, I try to combine things to make the best use of the money I can spend on my hobby, and Hegel allowed me to make a huge step forward in this regard. It is unobtrusive, functional, well made, and sounds in such a way that after just a few minutes you know there will be nothing to complain about. Out of journalistic duty, I even tried, but it is a waste of life. Better to listen to some new album. What puzzles me most is that the "20" did not achieve any great commercial success, while the amplifiers built on its basis did. This is probably a clear indication that preamplifiers and power amplifiers are no longer treated with the reverence they once were. There is a distinct lack of people who see sense in it. Customers are choosing a simple and convenient solution in the form of an integrator that can also be a DAC or even a streamer. H390, high-quality speakers and cabling, stable network, Roon and that's how we get a hi-end system ready to go in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. It seems to me, however, that the interest in power amplifiers will grow proportionally to the popularity of streamers that can take on the function of a preamplifier and perform this task really well. Then why would anyone need another preamplifier, let alone another converter in the circuit? It is possible that we will start to see this in two or three years. Then the perception that the power amplifier is an extremely audiophile product that is harder to sell on the secondary market would start to disappear. But maybe it will never happen - just as we never saw a sudden explosion of interest in active loudspeakers. I personally have never been a fan of them. But a decent power amplifier, preferably with a high-end source or tube preamp? It makes sense.
Build quality and technical parameters
The Hegel H20 is a stereo power amplifier using the most important solution from the company's technological arsenal - SoundEngine. This is a dynamic distortion cancellation system that works a bit like the noise cancellation systems in modern wireless headphones. Figuratively speaking, the amplifier catches its own distortion, inverts it in phase, and then adds it to the signal in such a way that it is de facto canceled. In addition to significantly reducing distortion, the solution developed by Bent Holter allows for an incredibly high damping factor, which is the ratio of the rated impedance of the speaker to the output impedance of the amplifier. It is assumed that 100 is already a good result, 200 - very good. If we are to believe the manufacturer's data, in H20 this ratio is more than 1000, which speaks for itself. Hegel claims that this translates into excellent bass control and overall command of the speakers, which was confirmed during listening. In addition to the SoundEngine system, the reviewed model received the DualAmp (separate current and voltage amplifier sections) and DualPower (power supply divided into two main sections tailored to the needs of systems with different current demands) technologies. The interior of the "20" - like the front and rear panel - is perfectly symmetrical. It is dominated by a solid toroidal transformer with a capacity of 1000 VA, surrounded by filtering capacitors with a total capacity of 90000 μF. The transformer has multiple secondary windings - separately for the left and right channels as well as for the positive and negative branches of the supply voltage. Perhaps that is why the designers decided that there is no need to install two smaller toroids in the enclosure. One, but so richly "staffed" is enough. Looking at the amplifier from the top, we can say that practically its entire floor is a huge power supply. The boards with key electronic circuits are placed vertically on the sides - the input circuits just behind the RCA and XLR sockets, and the power amplifiers in the front, at the level of the transformer. Five pairs of Toshiba bipolar transistors are screwed to aluminum heat sinks that almost touch the aluminum front panel, which is also quite nice. This thickened in the middle part, sandblasted and black anodized lump of metal weighs as much as 1.5 kg. The rest of the chassis is made in a similar way, although from slightly less massive elements. Norwegians claim that H20 shares many technical solutions with the top model H30. Interestingly, both power amplifiers and their dedicated P20 and P30 preamplifiers come with the same manual, and the information about this model could easily fit on two pages. Most attention was paid to ventilation. It is recommended to place the amplifier on a flat, hard surface in such a way that it can dissipate heat to the environment without hindrance. Even a carpet is out of the question, not to mention a closed cabinet. No audiophile would ever think of doing that, but Hegel decided that it was better to be safe, and just in case placed the amplifier on four high feet. Returning to the interior, the quality of the components used in the H20 is good, though not the gold-dipped capacitors and other components that smile at us with "for audio," "super-duper," and "turbo hi-end" slogans. They were used in a few critical places, but certainly not everywhere, without thinking and checking if it really makes sense. I do know, however, that the transistors for each amplifier are selected by hand based on measurements. Apparently, to complete 20 pieces, you have to flip through more than 100, and sometimes 200. The quality of assembly is not objectionable. There is not a single loose wire inside H20. They've all been neatly trimmed and clipped together with zip ties, and in a few places attached to heatsinks or adhesive hooks glued to the base of the case. Beautiful work.
Audiovector QR5, DALI Menuet SE, AudioSolutions Figaro B, ELAC Debut Reference 62, Auralic Vega G1, Unison Research Triode 25, Clearaudio Concept, Cambridge Audio CP2, Cardas Clear Reflection, Albedo Geo, Enerr One 6S DCB, Enerr Transcenda Ultra, Enerr Transcenda Ultimate, Custom Design RS 202, Norstone Esse.
There are amplifiers that have nothing in their sound, but there are also those that have everything. To some people, it may seem that it is one and the same thing, because we should strive for perfect neutrality, no device in the circuit, sound consistent with the original, and so on. In fact, one can be severely misled by those platitudes. There is no way to achieve that goal if, step by step, we eliminate and level to the ground the things that contain musical emotions. So is the only way to succeed to buy a turntable, a tube amplifier, and weird speakers with horns? No. You can find an amplifier that does its job very honestly, reliably, and conscientiously, but knows that reducing everything to a common denominator and boasting of sound as boring as mushroom picking in November is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The Hegel H20 has mastered this art to perfection. In its even, neutral, and universal sound the music is not lost. On the contrary, its high realism draws us into it even more. For me, this amplifier is a real killer, and I am even a little angry with myself that I have already tested so many Hegel devices and only got interested in the "20" now. I should have listened to it much earlier.
Output power: 2 x 200 W/8 Ω
Inputs: 1 x RCA, 1 x XLR
Input Impedance: 50 kΩ (RCA), 10 kΩ (XLR)
Distortion: < 0,006 %
Signal to noise ratio: > 100 dB
Damping factor: > 1000
Frequency response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz (+/- 0,2 dB)
Dimensions (H/W/D): 12/43/37 cm
Weight: 25 kg
Manufacturer: Hegel Music Systems