I remember my first experience of a Hegel Music Systems component. It was seven years ago, at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I’d never heard of the Norwegian outfit before curiously wandering into their exhibition room, but I left mightily impressed by what I’d heard: Hegel’s entry-level H70 integrated amplifier ($2000 USD) was driving a pair of power-hungry Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond speakers ($15,000 pair) to uncomfortably loud SPLs and making sweet, sweet music.
Impressive as that demo was, I was even more impressed by the fact that the H70 included an internal digital-to-analog converter. In those days, audiophile integrateds simply didn’t come with onboard DACs; that Hegel had seen fit to include one now seems prescient, given how common computer- and server-based music systems have become. Seven years later, Hegel still leads the charge of DAC-enabled integrated amps. But the company has departed from its practice of numerical model names by releasing a $3000 integrated called, simply, Röst.
According to Hegel, Röst means voice; it’s also the name of “one of the most beautiful islands in Norway.” But it’s not only the name that’s new: A smooth, bone-white finish replaces Hegel’s usual black; the blue segment display has given way to invitingly soft-white OLED characters; and networking capabilities, courtesy UPnP/DLNA or AirPlay, are included along with the internal DAC. The Röst also comes preloaded with Control4 drivers, for integration with a home automation system. As far as I’m aware, this alone makes the Röst unique among perfectionist two-channel integrated amps. Add in a good dose of familiar design touches -- a gently curved faceplate, a milled-from-solid-aluminum remote-control handset and control knobs -- and the Röst is a formidable combination of the new and tried-and-true Hegel elements.
What’s not new is Hegel’s unwavering emphasis on sound quality. The Röst includes the company’s SoundEngine2 technology, a patented error-correction circuit designed to eliminate signal nonlinearities in an amplifier’s gain stages. A cursory examination of Hegel’s patent reveals several simple yet cleverly designed circuit configurations that make this technology possible. One example shows a series of cascaded gain stages in which each stage feeds only the nonlinear portion of the music signal to a threshold sensor and adder circuit loop, instead of a traditional localized feedback circuit. Thus, error correction is activated only when nonlinearities are present in the signal; otherwise, the circuit behaves like a conventionally configured, multistage gain network with only small amounts of local feedback. The circuit is therefore claimed to offer the advantages of traditional feedback circuits and none of their drawbacks, and to result in a damping factor of greater than 2000, high signal linearity, and vanishingly low distortion. Clever. Though the Röst’s power output is specified as a modest 75Wpc into 8 ohms, it’s capable of driving 2-ohm loads, and the high damping factor should result in iron-fisted control of any speaker’s bass bin.
The inputs on the rear panel comprise: two pairs of single-ended (RCA) and one pair of balanced (XLR), analog; one coaxial (RCA), three optical (S/PDIF), and one network (RJ45), all able to receive digital signals of resolutions up through 24-bit/192kHz; and one 24/96 digital (USB). There are also a pair of variable line-level outputs (RCA), two high-quality speaker terminals, an IEC power inlet, and a main power rocker switch.
Even with its unique blend of features, the Röst was a cinch to set up. It comes preloaded with USB drivers for Apple and Android devices -- on my MacBook Pro, I was able to select the Hegel as an audio output device straight out of the box. The Röst also picked up AirPlay signals from my iPhone 5S smartphone without requiring any setup on my part.
I gave the Röst sufficient run-in before spinning one of my go-to discs, Joe Henderson’s Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (SACD/CD, Verve B000138136). The Röst quickly endeared itself to me for what it didn’t do, which was not call undue attention to itself. This is a good thing: I’ve often found that the most impressive hi-fi gear doesn’t smack you over the head with sonic fireworks, but instead slowly draws you into its sound. And so it went with the unassumingly small (16.93”W x 3.15”H x 12.20”D) but hefty (around 20 pounds) Hegel Röst: It made it easy for me to listen into the music first, and simply enjoy its communicative, nonfatiguing way with sound.
Then, listening even deeper, I could hear that the Röst kept excellent time, with fine pacing and temporal precision. With Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group),” for example, the rhythm section sounded in sync and well organized, and the Hegel delivered the tune’s rhythmic complexities with poise and clarity. Ditto “Drawing Room Blues.” Through the Röst, it was easy to hear how the interplay of Stephen Scott’s piano and Christian McBride’s double bass gently swung the tune with toe-tapping verve and good note-to-note flow, even with no drummer keeping time.
Though good rhythm’n’pace aren’t terribly rare qualities in audiophile solid-state amps, good tone sometimes is. Thankfully, the Röst had fine tonality, as revealed by Beck’s Sea Change (SACD/CD, Geffen 493537). Play this album through the wrong amp and Beck’s voice can sound muddy, mumbled, or indistinct. Not through the Röst -- it brought out all the texture, timbre, and nuance of Beck’s complex singing, putting it front and center in the mix with realistic presence and solidity. In “Paper Tiger,” listen to how he subtly shifts from a steady, resonant baritone to, toward the end of the song, a more delicate voice with heavy vocal fry. The Röst reproduced this with a level of musical expressiveness that kept me rapt and compelled me to listen through to the end.
The Hegel’s midrange was just as good sonically as it was musically. In “Where Seagulls Fly,” from Noah Preminger’s Dry Bridge Road (CD, Nowt 002), Preminger’s tenor sax sounded distinctly clean and rounded without losing any of its bracing clarity. And the opening passage for solo bassoon in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in the recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (SACD/CD, Deutsche Grammophon 002894776198), sounded smooth, fluid, and appropriately reedy. Through the Röst, horns, woodwinds, and all manner of midrange instruments sounded open, clear, and transparent, yet wholly natural and devoid of any fatiguing hardness, grain, or glare.
That clean, transparent quality extended into the lower reaches as well, where the Röst could really pack a wallop when asked to. In The Rite of Spring, bombastic timpani strokes thundered throughout my listening room with explosive power, depth, and visceral impact. And with electronic bass -- as in Massive Attack’s “Man Next Door” and “Black Milk,” from Mezzanine (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, Virgin) -- the Röst was weighty, punchy, and articulate, delivering ostinato lines on both synth and guitar bass with appropriate amounts of purr. Regardless of musical genre, partnering speaker, or volume level, the Röst produced some of the best bass I’ve experienced from a reasonably priced amplifier.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that grand, sweeping, highly dynamic music, such as Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie as performed by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Takashi Harada on Ondes Martenot, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Riccardo Chailly (16/44.1 WAV, Decca), sounded thrilling and highly dramatic, thanks largely to the Hegel’s seemingly limitless and virtually bottomless bass.
The treble wasn’t far behind. There was a natural, unhyped rightness to the way the Röst did the highs, even if they did seem a touch emphasized. With Dry Bridge Road and “Lost Cause,” from Beck’s Sea Change, cymbals stood out from the mix more than usual but still sparkled with pellucid, crystalline extension. However, this was so well integrated with the rest of the audioband that I can’t imagine anyone quibbling about it: It was seldom noticeable, and never off-putting. Pressed, I’d say that it even added some airiness to the highs, and spaciousness to the imaging and soundstaging.
Speaking of imaging and soundstaging, the Röst acquitted itself admirably in those regards with the Turangalîla-Symphonie, conveying a good dose of the Royal Concertgebouw concert hall’s scale and warmth. Musicians were well distributed across a wide soundstage, even if that stage didn’t seem quite as deep or as cavernous as might be expected. Nevertheless, soloists and the various orchestral sections were cleanly and distinctly rendered in space, with good presence and solidity. The Hegel did, however, excel at reproducing smaller-scale images, such as Thibaudet’s piano solo in Developpement de l’Amour, in which the outlines of instruments had a convincing sharpness and three-dimensionality.
Note that all music files referenced thus far were played through my MacBook Pro feeding the Röst’s internal DAC section, as I never felt compelled to switch to my own DAC. In fact, the more I listened, the more I realized that the Röst’s DAC was just as open, clear, and refined as its amp section, and endowed with the same natural musicality and temporal precision. When I focused on “Nord Perdu,” from Alexandre Côté’s Portraits d’Ici (24/96 FLAC, Effendi), snare-drum strokes snapped with clean attack and transients, while the cacophony of cymbal and hi-hat strokes shimmered with textural detail and sufficient decay. Though the Röst’s overall character might be described as ever so slightly dry in absolute terms, it never sounded cardboardy or one-dimensional. It’s often easy for a DAC that sounds this clean and clear to also sound threadbare or etched, but the Röst’s level of smoothness was counterbalanced by its incisiveness.
I was now ready to compare the Röst with my reference integrated amplifier, Audio Note’s Level 3 EL84 (est. $6000). On the surface, the comparison may seem unfair: My sample of the tubed Level 3 features a whole slew of exceptional upgrades, including silver internal wiring, a resistive stepped attenuator, C-core transformers, and more boutique parts than I can shake a stick at -- all of which brings its retail price to well over twice the Röst’s. Still, I felt I was familiar enough with the sound of both amps to make meaningful and conclusive comparisons. Since the Audio Note has no internal DAC, I compared the Röst’s DAC section with my outboard unit, Arcam’s irDAC-II ($799), which, similar to the Röst, offers multiple input options and AirPlay connectivity.
Comparing the DACs was an ear opener -- it was easy to hear the differences. On its own, the Arcam sounds warm, rich, and highly listenable, even with poor-sounding or low-resolution files. When I listened to those same files through the Röst, however, it became apparent that the Arcam achieves its listenability by subduing the upper mids and lower treble. When both DACs were fed good-sounding hi-rez files, such as the Côté album, the Röst was the undisputed winner. Its sound was more fleshed out through the upper midrange and lower treble, with more realistic texture and presence to horns, pianos, strings, or anything with a strong midrange presence. Through the Arcam, Côté’s alto sax sounded muted and lacked bite, while John Roney’s piano was mildly recessed and closed in, making the music seem slightly congested and laid-back. With the Hegel, those instruments were more open and transparent. The Röst also reproduced cymbals and hi-hats with more nuanced microdynamics, sharper attacks, and clearer transients; those transients’ leading edges also shimmered with more detail, articulation, and definition.
The Hegel did a better job of lining up beats and rhythmic accents in time, propelling the music with more insistence and force; the Arcam seemed less energetic, even mildly sluggish in comparison. “One Dance,” from Drake’s Views (WAV, Universal), made the Röst’s more groove-friendly rhythm’n’pace apparent, as did Majid Jordan’s A Place Like This (16/44.1 WAV, OVO Sound) -- the pulsing bass line of the dance-friendly “Forever” hit with greater tautness and control. The Hegel Röst made upbeat music sound more so, in the process uncorking more dance vibes.
When I compare the Röst’s amp section against the mighty Audio Note Level 3 EL84, the differences were smaller across the board but were most notable in a few respects. With Harry Connick Jr.’s We Are In Love (SACD/CD, Columbia CS 46146), the Hegel sounded more reticent and a bit thin through the upper bass and lower midrange. In “Just a Boy,” Connick’s voice sounded smaller, with less warmth and solidity. Textural details, such as his root bass note “hum” near the end of the tune, didn’t resonate with the same power and presence as through the tubed Audio Note, which made this hum sound more tonally rich and convincing. But unless I specifically listened for it, I noticed this thinness and lack of warmth only in direct comparisons and at high volumes; in daily use, it was fairly innocuous.
Comparative listening also highlighted how the Hegel Röst couldn’t match the Audio Note in fluidity and palpable presence. Through the tubed amp, harmonically rich and complex instruments, such as John Roney’s piano, or Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch (LP, Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84163), sounded organically smooth, liquid, and whole, with full harmonic development and believable attack, sustain, and decay. The Hegel’s harmonic envelope seemed smaller in comparison, particularly in terms of sustain and decay, which resulted in a mildly coarser sound. But again, this was audible only in a head-to-head comparison with the twice-the-price Audio Note; the Hegel outdid many other good solid-state amps in listenability, tone, and texture.
The Hegel’s dynamic range swung from pianissimo to fortissimo as quickly and effortlessly as the music required, and in this regard it bettered the Audio Note when paired with speakers of average sensitivity. The Röst’s fantastic bass also helped with macrodynamic power by making the thunderous timpani rolls in Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain (also on the Rite of Spring disc) sound deeper, tauter, and more impactful than through the Audio Note. The Röst wasn’t quite as deft as the Level 3 in microdynamics, slightly smoothing over pianist Roney’s smaller-scale crescendos and decrescendos in his quieter passages in “Nord Perdu.”
Even with the unfair comparison, the Hegel Röst’s sound was very satisfying. Its DAC section unquestionably bettered the very good irDAC-II in nearly every respect, and its amplifier more than held its own against much more expensive competition. Of course, the Audio Note Level 3 EL84 is undeniably better -- even in its own price range, few amps can match its fluid and nearly tangible sound, let alone its sheer musicality. But the Hegel Röst compared favorably with it in many respects, and even eclipsed the Level 3 in bass quality and macrodynamics. Given its seemingly limitless damping factor and low-end control, I doubt that the Röst would be anything but stellar with insensitive or current-hungry speakers. Considering the Hegel Röst as a versatile, digital-friendly, one-box integrated amplifier, it’s hard not to think of it as the winner in this comparison.
Overall, I quite enjoyed my time with the Hegel Music Systems Röst. Few reasonably priced, solid-state integrated amplifiers keep my interest for long, but the Röst delivered clear, clean, cohesive musical experiences that made it effortless to listen to it for hours on end. What’s more, its temporal precision, powerful and authoritative bass, and macrodynamic capabilities make it a class leader in these areas.
Add in that fantastic DAC and you’ve got a thoroughly modern and modern-sounding amplifier that performs impressively with every genre of music, and any kind of source you’d care to play through it. Amps with built-in DACs are becoming ever more popular, and Hegel was one of the first to do it -- which shows in the level of sound quality, user-friendliness, and ergonomic refinement built into the Röst. If you think you might like to explore versatile source connectivity and networking capabilities without compromising your system’s sound, the Hegel Röst should be at the top of your audition list.
. . . Oliver Amnuayphol
Hegel Music Systems Röst DAC-Integrated Amplifier
Price: $3000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems AS
PO Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56