The Latest Features
- Written by Hans Wetzel Hans Wetzel
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 October 2018 15 October 2018
Note: Measurements can be found through this link.
My relationship with Hegel Music Systems has now spanned six years -- almost all of my admittedly brief reviewing career. While the Norwegian company has been around since 1997, its dramatic uptick in popularity seems to have coincided with my own introduction to the brand in 2012, through their H300 integrated amplifier-DAC ($5500 USD, discontinued). Integrated amplifiers with built-in digital-to-analog converters are now commonplace, but it’s fair to say that in 2012 Hegel was one of the first to make one. At the time, $5500 was no more chump change than it is now -- but cramming a top-shelf DAC, a high-quality preamp, and a 250Wpc (into 8 ohms) amplifier into a minimalist box of standard size (17”W x 4.7”H x 15”D) and including a nice, all-metal remote control was genuinely good value -- so much value that I bought one for myself.
Hegel followed up the H300 with a couple more affordable integrated-DACs, in the process carving out for themselves a pretty little niche in the hi-fi market. Their second-generation integrated-DACs, led by the H360 (now $6000), built on the success of the first with power amps that now included the second generation of Hegel’s patented SoundEngine2 error-correction circuit, tweaked preamps, and notably improved DACs with streaming functionality. I bought an H360 as well, and found that Hegel had refined and improved their integrated-DAC recipe without significantly deviating from the original.
I’ve loved every second of my six years with Hegels. My H300 and H360 have been reliable, sounding terrific and speaking to me on philosophical and emotional levels that have kept my eyes and ears from wandering -- even after reviewing Devialet’s state-of-the-art Expert 130 Pro.
Nonetheless, things went a bit sideways for me when, at Munich’s High End show in May 2018, Hegel announced their new flagship integrated amplifier-DAC, the H590, for $11,000 -- nearly twice the price of the H360, while looking like not much more than a taller H360 with a bit more power. I struggled to see any value in the H590. If $6000 is a lot of money, $11,000 is a hell of a lot of money. For the first time, I found myself wondering if Hegel had lost the plot.
In the literature accompanying the H590, Hegel is keen to point out that it’s a reference-level product. But in my e-mail exchanges with Anders Ertzeid, Hegel’s VP of marketing, he noted that their newest amp isn’t Hegel’s moonshot: “It is not the best we can do. It is definitively not a ‘cost-no-object’ product. Such products are not our style anyway. But we considered it slightly less price-sensitive.” Ertzeid went on to explain that the H590 was instead a project that allowed Hegel’s engineers to actually do most of the things they’d dismissed out of hand as too costly when designing their other integrateds. “I understand that this sounds like we just made a vanity project and expect consumers to pay for it. It most certainly is not.”
The H590 began as a stereo power amplifier. Hegel is slowly running out of the esoteric Toshiba transistors on which have been based their higher-end separates, such as the H30 power amplifier and P30 preamplifier, and were exploring what a smaller modern power amp might look like. As their research progressed, the power amp morphed into a large, reference integrated amp. “We were really thinking of what those big super speakers could do with an even better integrated solution than the H360,” Ertzeid wrote. “We pictured KEF Blade owners and others that would now often be stuck with preamp/power amp/DAC solutions that are much less user-friendly. Wouldn’t they love a unit that the whole family could use, and that was just as good as their existing electronics?”
Laudable, but there’s a problem. At $11,000, the H590 must compete with such products as Gryphon Audio Designs’ Diablo 120 ($11,200; optional DAC module, $4250) and Devialet’s Expert 220 Pro ($9995). While neither offers even half the Hegel’s specified power output into 8 or 4 ohms, each has a premium look and feel that the Hegel can’t match. Would someone who owns $30,000/pair speakers be OK with a modest-looking black box manufactured in China, as Hegel products are? Yet I think Hegel is more than OK with the fact that the H590 looks like a bigger H360 at almost twice the price -- it’s allowed them to dedicate the extra kroner in the amp’s budget to maximizing sound quality. This value-oriented guy can certainly appreciate that.
The H590 really does look like a taller H360. With dimensions of 17”W x 6.8”H x 17.6”D and weighing just shy of 49 pounds, Hegel’s new reference integrated-DAC is only 1.1” taller and 0.6” deeper than the H360, and weighs not quite four pounds more. Build-wise, the H590 looks slightly more upscale, with separate, bolted-together side and top panels of aluminum, as opposed to the single sheet of folded steel that encloses the H360. The binding posts are bigger and more robust than the H360’s, and Hegel’s logo on the front panel is almost comically bigger and brighter. Finally, the OLED screen on the front panel is an improvement over the H360’s older, blue alphanumeric display. But that’s it. For $5000 more than the H360, the H590 is operated with the same RC8 remote control that Hegel’s been using since 2012. To be fair, I like the all-metal RC8 -- it’s super responsive, feels weighty and solid in the hand, and offers some clever functionality. Still . . . $11,000!
Dig inside this big box, however, and things get far more interesting, with every circuit board unique to the H590. The dual-mono amplifier has independent gain stages and power supplies for each channel, has 12 transistors per channel to the H360’s eight, and has a toroidal power supply that’s 50% bigger than the H360’s. Hegel’s SoundEngine2 system of feed-forward error correction effectively eliminates the crossover distortion inherent to class-AB amplifier designs, and has been used to great effect in each of Hegel’s current integrated-DACs. SoundEngine2 reduces all types of distortion by factors of up to 100, improving dynamic range by 30-40dB. Byproducts of this are a high damping factor and a low output impedance, both good qualities for an amp to have. The output transistors, multiple pre-driver transistors, the power supply, and many other small details have been improved on. It also produces a mammoth 301Wpc into 8 ohms, and about 580Wpc into 4 ohms (though Hegel doesn’t officially specify the H590’s output into 4 ohms), while remaining stable into 2 ohms. This should be enough power and current to satisfy almost any loudspeaker out there. Distortion is specified as less than 0.005% at 50W into 8 ohms at 1kHz, and the signal/noise ratio as greater than 100dB.
The H590’s analog preamplifier also includes improvements over the H360’s, especially in its power supply. In terms of analog inputs, Hegel offers two pairs balanced (XLR) and three pairs unbalanced (RCA), one of the latter configurable as a home-theater input, as well as separate fixed and variable outputs (RCA). However, Hegel continues to eschew a dedicated phono input. Vinyl lovers will have to provide their own phono preamp to use with the H590.
There are no fewer than eight digital inputs to consider: three optical (TosLink), one coaxial digital (RCA), one BNC, one USB, a network connection for streaming audio (Ethernet), and Apple AirPlay. AirPlay is inherently limited to 16-bit/48kHz, but the other inputs can handle up to 24/192 PCM, and the USB up to 32/384 PCM and DSD 64/128/256. There’s also a digital output (BNC). Fancy.
Rather than use Linux, Hegel has written their own proprietary operating system for their integrated amps, to maximize their stability and responsiveness. Nothing off the shelf here. Same goes for the H590’s AirPlay input, which Hegel claims has been improved over the implementation of AirPlay in the H360. The H590’s streaming engine -- the same one used in the H190 ($4000) -- is far more powerful than the one in my H360. Special attention has been lavished on the H590’s Ethernet input: I’m told that 16/44.1 over UPnP got the “special treatment.” The USB input is also new, compared to the one used in the H360 and in Hegel’s flagship standalone DAC, the HD30 ($4800). In fact, Hegel’s founder, Bent Holter, considers the H590’s network and USB inputs to be superior to the HD30’s. Finally, there’s built-in Control4 compatibility, and two-way IP control for other home-control systems.
It’s the H590’s digital-to-analog converter that is this “reference” integrated-DAC’s calling card: Hegel’s first entirely new DAC design since 2010. They use a single Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM) 4493 chip -- the benefits of a dual-mono DAC are “microscopic,” per Hegel. This is Hegel’s first DAC to natively decode and render MQA. The lazy way to implement MQA would have been to route all incoming signals, including PCM and DSD, through the MQA engine. But because doing so is suboptimal for non-MQA content, Hegel’s new DAC has separate signal paths for MQA and non-MQA signals. Furthermore, unlike Hegel’s previous DACs, the H590 does not upsample the incoming signal.
One disappointment: the H590 is warrantied for only two years.
The H590’s large, simple volume and input knobs are slightly larger than those on the H360. The white OLED screen displays the incoming sample rate (but not the bit rate) for all digital inputs but AirPlay, and indicates native processing of MQA, if applicable. The Power button hidden under the front panel is also carried over from the H360; it would have been nice to be able to turn the H590 on and off from the remote, but alas. A brief, stylish manual is included, as are a generic IEC-terminated power cord and the remote. All in all, it’s familiar territory for anyone who’s experienced Hegel’s integrated amps of the last six years.
I plugged the H590’s power cord into an Emotiva CMX-2 power strip, which helps to eliminate DC hum in my older, inner-city home. I hooked up my 4K Apple TV and Microsoft Xbox One to one of the Hegel’s optical TosLink inputs, and my bush-league Intel NUC computer, which I use as a Roon Core, into the Hegel’s USB input via a DH Labs SilverSonic USB link. I made occasional use of the Hegel’s AirPlay input by hardwiring an Ethernet cable from the Hegel’s network input into my Wi-Fi router. Note that the AirPlay input can be used only if the H590 is physically wired into your home network.
I also made use of the Hegel’s XLR analog inputs by connecting Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC3 HGC and Hegel’s HD30 DAC via Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects. Finally, I used DH Labs Q-10 Signature speaker cables with a wide range of speaker pairs, including: KEF LS50 and R700, Q Acoustics 3050i, Scansonic M-40, and Technics SB-G90. I installed the Windows 7-specific drivers from Hegel’s website in my NUC and was up and running, streaming Roon and Tidal HiFi via the Roon app on my iPhone.
I fretted about the H590 from the time it was announced to the moment I began streaming music to it over its AirPlay input. I had doubts that Hegel could make their $11,000 reference integrated-DAC sound dramatically better than their $6000 H360. And yet, after a couple minutes of listening to music streamed through its circuit boards, it clicked: why they’d made it, why it costs what it does. It wasn’t exactly a moment of clarity, but there was certainly a calming reassurance that Hegel has been faithful to its principles and to its customers.
The H360, like the H300 before it, would never be mistaken for a tube amp. Their sounds were too clean and crystalline, with a slight mechanical quality that, while superior to the sounds of many competing products, fell shy of the effortlessness offered by tubed and class-A amplification. Even Hegel’s flagship HD30 DAC, whose powers of resolution are stunning, still sounds inherently digital.
The H590 trod new territory. Its sound had a genuinely lifelike quality that places it in the company of some of the finest amplifiers I’ve ever heard. It provided an unusual combination of transparency and liquidity that I haven’t heard outside of one of Devialet’s Expert amplifiers -- which cost far more than $11,000 when you’re on the prowl for a 300+Wpc French integrated. Take “Rolling in the Deep (Jamie XX Shuffle),” a 24/192 ALAC file of Adele’s monster hit ripped from vinyl that I grabbed from a manufacturer at a Consumer Electronics Show a few years back. Through my KEF LS50 minimonitors I heard incredible presence from Adele, with exceptionally high palpability. What particularly struck me was how unflappable the Hegel sounded. From the rock-solid stereo image to the bass line to this track’s expansive soundstage, the H590 didn’t sound like a brute that was manhandling my music. On the contrary, it felt as if it was expending nary an ounce of effort -- the wide-open sound, with massive dynamics at play, appeared like an apparition out of the ether.
So compelling a midrange so often arrives hand in hand with a sense of warmth or richness. And yet such colorations are anathema to the Hegel philosophy of stripping away all distortion and noise in the signal chain, to deliver what’s left in as unfettered a manner as possible. Something like Gryphon Audio Designs’ Diablo 300, which I reviewed in 2016 and, including built-in DAC option, costs about twice as much as the Hegel H590 for the same 300Wpc into 8 ohms, has a similar mandate, but reproduces voices with greater richness and bloom. The Gryphon’s midrange is not quite dead neutral -- it leans to the warm side -- and its treble has a sweetness that I found enchanting. The Hegel’s sound was elusive. I could never finger any identifying characteristic or idiosyncrasy that stood out from the sound of the rest of the signal chain. Thinking I’d at last heard a distinct sonic signature, I’d swap out one pair of speakers for another -- only to hear that signature disappear. I swapped out speakers a lot.
With Haerts’s “Hemiplegia,” from Haerts (16/44.1 ALAC, Columbia), the Hegel exercised supreme control over lead singer Nini Fabi’s wispy voice. Her sibilants were delicate yet precise, and the H590’s ability to cast a huge soundstage was readily displayed. Most noteworthy was how dynamic the amp sounded. Fabi sounded vibrant and eager, seemingly unshackled from the rectilinear KEF LS50s from which she was being propelled. There was no edginess or hash to the sound of her voice, and none of the forwardness I’ve heard from past Hegel amps -- just uncompromised control and articulation. What the H590 did with well-recorded women’s voices was damn near intoxicating. From Haerts to Madonna to Amy Winehouse to Adele, I was smitten by this amp’s stunning midrange.
I swapped out my KEF LS50s for Technics’ SB-G90s -- full-size, three-way floorstanders with two 6.5” woofers each -- and rocked out. On went “The Battle,” from Hans Zimmer’s original score for the film Gladiator, with the AIR Lyndhurst Orchestra (16/44.1 ALAC, Decca), and up up up went the volume. This track, arguably the most challenging in my entire collection, was a feast for the ears as the Hegel exerted exemplary control over the thunderous bass lines in the first 90 seconds. Only one other amp I’ve heard matches the Hegel’s bass control below 80Hz -- Devialet’s Expert 130 Pro -- but the H590 offers more than three times as much power; it really is a howitzer. The seismic bass line tees up an acoustic guitar to lightly strum Zimmer’s main theme, the guitar’s delicacy and texture, right at the front of the soundstage, belying the orchestral violence to follow. The Hegel was relentless in its grip through the Technics speakers. The brass and string sections, the drums -- all were easy to parse, and the track scaled perfectly, regardless of volume setting. I got nowhere near exploring the H590’s limits in my medium-size room.
With “What’s the Difference?,” from Dr. Dre’s 2001 (16/44.1 FLAC, Aftermath/Tidal), I noted that I didn’t need audiophile-grade recordings to appreciate the H590’s many qualities. Between the pace and decay of the drum thwacks and the bleats from the tuba, I was impressed with how composed the Hegel was, especially as the volume scaled up; the sound never turned harsh. And my, was the bass line addictive. Some amps have powerful, robust bass that’s more the result of bass volume than bass quality. Few possess the iron-fisted control needed for proper slam, that concussive quality that yields bass so tight it almost transcends a listening room’s bass modes and poor acoustics to hammer low-frequency energy right into my chest -- but the H590 was one of them. It was seriously athletic, producing copious drive and impact from my favorite Dre track.
The H590’s native support of MQA worked flawlessly. I threw on Ólafur Arnalds’s re:member (24/96 MQA, Mercury KX/Tidal), the Icelander’s recent foray into AI-assisted composition, and was happy to see the Hegel’s OLED screen read “MQA 96kHz,” even as Roon confirmed that the H590 was performing all MQA unfolding, authentication, and rendering. In the title track I heard a sweetness and soft glow in Arnalds’s piano that I found alluringly welcoming. I also enjoyed the foundational, rapid-fire synthesizer that appears toward the end -- even with its subdued role in Arnalds’s composition, and even at low volume, I was impressed by how taut this track sounded. MQA content didn’t sound fundamentally different from PCM through the big Hegel, which was a good thing. When streaming Tidal HiFi the Hegel’s execution was flawless.
Comparing the Hegel’s handling of MQA files to that of Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC3 HGC DAC-preamp-headphone amp ($2195) was interesting. I fixed the Benchmark’s output to maximum via its HT mode (+24dBu at 0dBFS), and hooked it up to the Hegel’s XLR inputs with balanced Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects. The Hegel-Benchmark tandem sounded quite different -- “re:member” was now more treble-forward, with greater immediacy and bite, but perhaps less refinement and absolute control, the bass synth sounding a touch looser. This tandem provided a more fulsome, sparkling interpretation of the Arnalds track, though it didn’t sound as coherent as the full Hegel experience. This spoke to the H590’s native MQA support, something the Benchmark doesn’t provide, as well as the competence of Hegel’s newest DAC architecture. The Benchmark is highly regarded among both audiophiles (me included) and studio engineers, so full credit to Hegel.
I had no problem pulling up the H590 on my wife’s Spotify Premium account; the amp was responsive and reliable, with no dropouts while listening for several hours one Saturday afternoon. The Hegel’s AirPlay input, meanwhile, is a big step up from the implementation used in the H360. The H360’s AirPlay input sounded a little tetchy, with occasional high-frequency transients, and a lack of rhythm compared to the USB input. I also had some difficulties with dropouts. The H590’s AirPlay input proved more reliable and easier on the ears. I still preferred the USB input, but I concede that that might be on psychosomatic grounds; I’d have no problem listening to the H590 via AirPlay for the long term. As with the big amp’s operating system, Hegel’s engineers developed their own implementation of AirPlay rather than use an off-the-shelf solution.
After the Hegel H590 had spent some six uninterrupted weeks in my system, I swapped it out for my H360, which had been sitting idly by. What I heard surprised me: The H360 sounded more like the combo of H590 and Benchmark DAC3 HGC than the H590 on its own. This confirmed a suspicion I’d had: Whatever improvements Hegel has made to its preamp, amp, and power supplies in the H590, they collectively pale in comparison to their all-new DAC. In Arnalds’s re:member, I heard the composer’s orchestration propelled farther forward in my room. His piano sounded a little airier, while his violin seemed to exhibit greater zest as bow attacked strings. While this was still eminently enjoyable, I came to perceive it as unnatural. It wasn’t coloration or exaggerated detail, simply a difference in presentation of the same source signal. The H360, like the H590-DAC3 HGC combo, sounded artificial, mechanical, digital. By contrast, the H590 effectively eliminated the marionette strings between the speakers and the resulting sound. With a bill of materials that roughly doubles what it costs Hegel to build an H360, the H590 didn’t blow my hair back. What it did do, particularly through its digital inputs, was bring me far closer to the intent of the original musical performance than I would have thought possible.
Comparing it to other high-quality integrateds I’ve reviewed in the last few years, the Hegel can hold its chin high. T+A Elektroakustik’s PA 2000 R ($8500, 100Wpc into 8 ohms) is an excellent integrated: sleek, nearly silent, and with an immaculately clean sound. The H590’s power supply wasn’t as quiet -- I could hear white noise from roughly 6” away from a KEF 700’s tweeter, whereas I practically had to put my ear atop a KEF’s tangerine waveguide to hear the T+A’s idle chatter. The T+A is also built to a higher standard, with an attractive case of brushed aluminum and more tactile front controls. But that’s where the T+A’s advantages end -- for $2500 more, the Hegel offers three times the power into 8 ohms, reference-level sound, and a top-flight DAC.
Gryphon Audio Designs’ Diablo 300 is a different proposition. The Danish demon produces roughly the same power outputs as the H590 -- 300/600/950Wpc into 8/4/2 ohms, respectively -- but pairs these with inimitable aesthetic design and incomparable build quality, and weighs 35 pounds more than the Hegel. Like the T+A PA 2000 R, the Diablo 300 is incredibly quiet, but sets itself apart with a stunning midrange marked by a warm, golden quality, due in no small part to its class-A bias for the first 10W or so. It is, across the board, a reference-level integrated amp, with a price tag to match: $16,000. And if you want the built-in DAC option, the total comes to a whopping $22,000. You could buy two H590s for the price of a similarly configured Diablo 300. Still, there’s no question that the Gryphon has a luxury look and feel that the Hegel can’t touch. It’s supercool, and if I had a Warren Buffet level of cash lying around, I’d probably own one. But its sound isn’t appreciably better than the Hegel H590’s -- it’s just different. If you want a beguiling midrange marked by touches of warmth and richness, and a seriously smooth treble, go for the Gryphon. If you prefer sterling neutrality and nigh-on telepathic bass control, opt for the Hegel . . . and an extra $11,000 in your pocket.
Finally, Devialet’s Expert Pro line of integrated-DACs: I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Devialet’s offerings. Their Expert 130 Pro (now replaced by Expert 140 Pro, $6490) was the state of the art, with a ton of clever functionality and peerless sound. Hegel’s H590 approaches the Devialet’s performance envelope but never quite matches it. The Devialet offers subtly more liquidity and ease through the all-important midrange, with even more holographic stereo imaging. And yet the margins are narrow. Further, you’d need to lay out $18,900, for the Expert 440 Pro Dual, to get a Devialet with power output to match the H590’s. The value proposition for Hegel’s flagship integrated is substantial.
I was dubious about Hegel Music Systems’ H590 integrated amplifier-DAC. Charging $11,000 for an integrated amp-DAC that looks a lot like your $6000 model is a bold move, especially for a company that’s built its reputation on financially accessible models. Yet the H590 delivers, and then some. Its massive power output makes it an unflappable partner for just about any loudspeaker, past or present, and it has a wealth of digital and analog inputs, including BNC and dual XLR. But most impressive is its magnificent D/A converter. Through its USB input, I enjoyed some of the finest reproduction of music ever to grace my listening room. Considered along with its excellent native support of MQA, improved AirPlay performance, and compatibility with Spotify Connect, there’s something here for every listener to love. The H590 may be expensive for a Hegel, but in the rarefied atmosphere of reference-level integrated amplifier-DACs, it’s a bargain. I’ve never encountered another amplifier that blends power, grace, and honesty with such consummate ease.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF LS50 and R700, Q Acoustics 3050i, Scansonic M-40, Technics SB-G90
- Earphones and headphones -- NAD Viso HP50, PSB M4U 4
- Integrated amplifier -- Hegel Music Systems H360
- Digital-to-analog converters -- Benchmark Media Systems DAC3 HGC, Hegel Music Systems HD30
- DAC-headphone amplifier -- Oppo Digital HA-2SE
- Sources -- Intel NUC computer running Roon with Tidal HiFi, iPhone 7
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow RCA, Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR
- Digital interconnect -- DH Labs Silversonic USB
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
Hegel Music Systems H590 Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Price: $11,000 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems AS
PO Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56