Here’s how upgrading your hi-fi used to work: In the early 1980s, when I got into the hobby, a separate preamp and power amp were what you bought if you were serious about sound. But if, like me, you couldn’t afford separates, you bought an integrated amplifier as an interim measure. That’s why, back then, you rarely if ever saw a truly “high end” integrated amp -- the “high end” was all about separates. I first had an NAD integrated, then a Denon, before I finally sprang for my first separates: models from Forte, a subbrand of Threshold Audio. I never looked very seriously at integrated amps again.
Until now. Times have changed. Separates are still for serious audiophiles, but now so are integrated amps -- and some of the latter are as expensive as the equivalent separates would be. Some of the change has to do with people wanting more compact systems comprising fewer boxes, and having a preamp and power amp in a single case does that -- and it does that even more if that single case also contains a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and/or phono stage. But some are also choosing integrateds for reasons of sound quality -- fewer and fewer people assume that separates automatically outperform integrateds.
I began paying attention to the recent trend toward high-end integrateds in 2016, when Philip Beaudette, after reviewing Hegel Music Systems’ H360 integrated amplifier for this site, dropped off his review sample at my house. Because it contained a built-in DAC, I found it really convenient to use for my reviews -- there wasn’t as much gear to hook up. Most important, I never felt that the H360 seriously compromised the sound. I can’t say it was better than every pair of separates I’ve listened to over the years, but it was far from the worst of those pairings. In short, the H360 held its own. So when Hegel introduced the H360’s successor, the H390, without raising the price of $6000 USD, it was easy to accept one for review.
Give the Hegel H390 a passing glance and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the H360. Not only does neither bear its model name on the front panel, but the dimensions of their cases are identical (17.32”H x 5.71”H x 16.93”D), their weights are nearly so (44 pounds for the H390, 45.2 pounds for the H360), and their curved faceplates of solid aluminum have the same shape (though the H390’s looks a bit more nicely finished, with a little more texture). The front panels of both have only an input selector to the left of the display, a volume knob on the right, and, hidden away at the front center of the bottom panel, directly under the display, a large Standby/On button. Hegel’s minimalist aesthetic remains unchanged.
The analog inputs on the H390’s rear panel are also unchanged from the H360 -- one set of balanced (XLR) and two sets of unbalanced (RCA) -- and both have two sets of unbalanced analog outputs (RCA): one pair fixed, for use with, e.g., an external processor; and the other variable, to hook up to a power amp or subwoofer. And both models come with Hegel’s RS8 remote control -- it’s nothing fancy, but it is made of metal for long life. It not only does the jobs of input selection and volume control, it can be used to program into the H390 some useful features; e.g., maximum and start-up volume settings (the default for the latter is “20”). The remote can also be used to turn off the display, or to update the software via the onscreen menu, which I did once. (For this, the H390 must have access to the Internet via its rear-panel Ethernet jack.)
Similarities aside, there are a few small external differences. The H390’s knobs are slightly bigger than the H360’s, and feel heavier. The screen has been improved -- I don’t know what sort of screen the H360 had, but it was kind of dull compared to the H390’s brighter OLED display. On the rear panel, both have a USB, an Ethernet, and three TosLink digital inputs -- but whereas the H360 had one digital input and one digital output, each coaxial on RCAs, the H390 has two coaxial digital inputs, one each on RCA and BNC, and one coaxial digital output on BNC.
Although both amps are specified to output 250Wpc into 8 ohms, the H390’s power-amp section -- like the H360’s, it includes Hegel’s patented SoundEngine, a feed-forward approach to distortion reduction (see our October 2017 video about this) -- is based on their flagship H590 integrated amplifier-DAC (301Wpc into 8 ohms, $11,000). The H590 was launched in 2018 to acclaim from a number of critics, including our own Hans Wetzel, who praised it so highly that we recognized it as a Reviewers’ Choice when his review was published in October 2018, and two months later as a Recommended Reference Component. At about that time Hans sold his H360 and bought an H590 to use as his reference integrated-DAC, which he does to this day. Hegel doesn’t say what they’ve changed electrically in the H590 or the H390 from the H360, but whatever they did, I found, as Hans did, that it’s different from the Hegel house sound we’ve come to know.
The H390’s DAC board isn’t just based on the H590’s board -- it’s the same board, with one added feature: MQA decoding is supported by all of the H390’s digital inputs except Ethernet. (On the H590, MQA is available only via the USB input.) The maximum file resolutions accepted are the same on both models (with the USB input): 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256.
About MQA: People who regularly read my editorials and social-media posts know that I’m not only a skeptic about MQA decoding, I’ve criticized how the technology has been described and, in some instances, implemented. For example, MQA uses a proprietary digital filter that some DAC makers have used for MQA and PCM playback, even though it might not be the best filter for PCM. So I cringed when Hegel first offered MQA, in the H590 -- until I learned that Hegel’s founder and chief designer, Bent Holter, wasn’t using the MQA filter for PCM signals. Instead, in the H590 as in the H390, there are separate filters for MQA and PCM signals, to better serve each format. I’ve heard the H590 only in demonstrations at audio shows; but in using the H390, I found that, functionally, you wouldn’t know it had two discrete filter paths. Listening to music from Tidal, which streams both formats, the only indication that the H390 has switched from PCM to MQA or vice versa is on the OLED screen, which displays the currently streaming signal’s format and resolution. Nothing “glitchy” happens when switching.
The H590’s and H390’s DAC technology is based on the 4493 chip from Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM), but I know from the many discussions I’ve had with Bent Holter that he considers the DAC chip to be only part of the equation. Holter pays a lot of attention to the timing of the digital signal (i.e., jitter) and reducing noise. Part of keeping this noise down means not adding two features that are increasingly found in integrated-DACs but that Holter will have no part of: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Earlier this year, he told me that in tests he’s done with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, their potential to add noise to circuits rendered them unacceptable to him -- no Hegel product includes them.
The streaming capabilities of Hegel integrated-DACs are as minimalist as their front panels. The H390 supports Apple AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and UPnP, and can function as a Roon endpoint. When I connected a computer running Roon to the H390 via USB, Roon recognized the Hegel as a compatible device. IP control and Control4 are supported for whole-house systems, but that’s it -- no full-fledged, software-based streaming system is built into the H390. There’s no BluOS, as is found in some NAD models (NAD and BluOS are both owned by the Lenbrook Group), or anything like Simaudio’s MiND. Therefore, there’s no Hegel app to install on your smartphone. Instead, Hegel has chosen to limit the software in their components to the essentials, to avoid the problems many manufacturers have in developing in-house software or using third-party software, then finding out from user complaints that it’s not full-featured or competitive enough. Hegel claims that their approach lets them make what code they do have in their electronics highly responsive: when the user pushes Play, the component reacts quickly.
The source component I used for my serious listening for this review was my Asus UX303U laptop computer, connected to the H390 with a 10’-long AmazonBasics USB link. The Asus runs Windows 10 and Roon, and gives me access to Tidal and my music collection stored on an SSD. My speakers were first the Monitor Audio Gold 100 minimonitors that Diego Estan recently reviewed on SoundStage! Access, perched atop 24”-high Foundation stands, followed by Vivid Audio’s Giya G2 Series 2 floorstanders (review in the works). The Gold 100 is a high-quality two-way speaker priced at $2100/pair, the Giya G2 a large, statement-model four-way for $50,000/pair. With both pairs of speakers I used QED Supremus speaker cables. The H390 was fed juice by a Shunyata Research Venom HC power cord, in turn plugged into a Shunyata Venom PS8 power distributor.
Because I don’t have a Spotify account or any AirPlay devices, I didn’t use those features in the H390. Ditto the home-automation stuff -- I’m a two-channel minimalist. I did, however, test the H390’s Ethernet input by running a 100’-long Ethernet interconnect from my router to my listening room, and using the Bubble UPnP app on my Samsung S10 smartphone, which Hegel recommends, and which I’d used with other Hegel gear.
As soon as I opened Bubble UPnP, it “saw” the H390 on my network and identified it as an available renderer. I selected it. Then, after choosing Tidal with Bubble UPnP, I streamed Michael Bublé’s Bublé! (Reprise/Tidal), a live recording I’ve been using for evaluations this year because its sound is so good. It streamed seamlessly, and also showed me that, as Hegel claims, the H390’s Ethernet port does not fully unfold MQA signals -- instead of the full 24/48 FLAC MQA stream, I got 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC. No biggie -- it didn’t sound compromised from what I’m used to hearing from the full MQA version. Besides, you can stream up to 24/192 PCM via UPnP, and that matters more to me.
However, Bublé! wasn’t being played gaplessly -- I heard longer pauses between tracks than I know this album contains. To be sure of this, I played the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA/Tidal), which was edited to sound like a single unbroken session, all tracks linked by a steady, unbroken ambience or room sound. Sure enough -- between tracks I heard a second or two of absolute digital silence -- zero room sound.
Was Bubble UPnP or the UPnP protocol to blame for these gaps? I’m no UPnP expert -- I don’t know whether UPnP doesn’t support gapless playback at all, or if it’s only Bubble UPnP that doesn’t. (I searched the app but couldn’t find a Gapless Playback option.) Nor did I want to try an endless assortment of UPnP players to find out. As our own Gordon Brockhouse has often pointed out on SoundStage! Simplifi, gapless playback is nice to have, but for me it wasn’t a deal-breaker -- the individual songs themselves played fine. For me, it was a nonissue because I used the H390 as most audiophiles will -- connected via USB to a computer, which does support gapless playback.
I began my listening with the Monitor Gold 100s and some albums I know well, and was immediately struck by how different they sounded through the H390 than through the H360 -- the adjectives that came to mind were smooth, rich, and velvety. Words I’ve often used to describe the H360’s sound are visceral, immediate, upfront, and, occasionally, coarse -- it can sound just a bit aggressive with certain kinds of music. So, despite their similarities of appearance and model name, these amps sounded very different. Nor was I alone in thinking this. When I reread Hans Wetzel’s review of the H590, I found this: “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.” This leads me to believe that what Bent Holter has done in the H590 and H390, whether in their power-amp or DAC sections or both, has significantly changed what I’d come to think of as Hegel’s house sound. But it’s a good change . . .
To suss things out a bit more, I put on my favorite new album of 2019, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! (16/44.1 FLAC, Interscope/Tidal), and its soft, intoxicating, California surf-rock vibe. I was consistently presented with very wide soundstages, and was thoroughly smitten with Del Rey’s sultry, smooth singing, her voice always mixed smack in the middle of the soundstage and impossible not to focus on. Any track from this album illustrated the H390’s strengths, but perhaps the best was “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have -- But I Have It.” It begins with Del Rey’s voice at center, accompanied by a piano to the right. Voice and piano sounded so smooth and clean -- things that I began to recognize as hallmarks of the H390’s sound -- that I had trouble believing I was hearing a complete electronics rig priced well south of ten grand.
And as smooth as the sound was, the images weren’t in the least soft-focus -- Del Rey and the piano were positioned starkly on the stage, easy to discern in terms of position and size, each surrounded by an acoustic space, then spreading way, way out. Nor were details glossed over -- the H390’s resolving powers seemed high. Furthermore, while no track on NFR! is the last word in soundstage depth -- as on so many highly produced pop albums, all of the instruments and voices seemed to stand somewhere between the plane described by my speakers’ front baffles and about 5’ behind that, a few feet short of my front wall -- the depth that was there was so vividly delineated that I felt I could “see” the musicians in front of me, all sharing that space.
Bublé! revealed similar things. Michael Bublé’s voice was planted rock-solidly at the center of the stage, always sounding very present yet exceedingly smooth, and the detail was all I could ask for -- the sounds of the instruments, their positions, the delineation of the stage from front to back and from left to right and everywhere between, were all reproduced in bold relief. With Bublé!, however, the soundstage thrown by the H390 was deeper than with the Del Rey -- from the speakers’ baffles to slightly beyond the front wall.
The big-band sound of Bublé! also proved a pretty good test of the H390’s power. Our measurements of the Monitor Gold 100 reveal a low sensitivity of 83.23dB/2.83V/m, which is about 4dB below what we consider the average of 87-88dB. The speaker’s impedance isn’t too low, staying mostly above 4 ohms, but it does dip to about 3 ohms at around 3500Hz, the frequency at which its tweeter is crossed over to its midrange-woofer, and that might challenge some amps. All in all, a pair of Gold 100s needs a bit of power to really get going, and the H390 easily supplied it. In fact, at times it supplied too much power. When I played Bublé’s medley of “It’s a Beautiful Day” / “Haven’t Met You Yet” / “Home” at a pretty high volume (which is how it sounds best to me), the Gold 100s didn’t distort on peaks -- the new AMT tweeter Monitor uses in the Gold series fails less aggressively than did their old ribbon tweeters, which sounded hard and brittle when overdriven -- but they were still obviously compressing: the dynamics were flattened out like roadkill. But the sound remained clean, so I knew the H390 wasn’t straining.
The Vivid Giya G2s provided a better test of the H390’s power. We haven’t yet measured the Vivids, but our measurement of the original G2’s sensitivity was about 86dB -- closer to average than the Monitor Gold 100. What this speaker really has going for it, for the purposes of this test, is that it can take loads of power and play loud while sounding utterly clean.
I ran the first high-output test with fellow-reviewer Diego Estan, who helped me uncrate and set up the Giya G2s. He asked if they were as delicate as they looked. “Just listen to this,” I said -- and played April Wine’s “Roller,” an ultra-hard-rockin’, bass-guitar-driven 1978 hit from The April Wine Collection (16/44.1 FLAC, Unidisc/Tidal), a track I’d used to test the original G2. I began at a normal volume, to get us accustomed to the sound, then cranked it up to a level most people wouldn’t dare try, for fear of blowing the drivers. But the Giya G2 Series 2s went as loud as I wanted them to, without flattening the dynamics -- nor did the Hegel H390 show any signs of strain.
Next I played “No Landing (Lucknow),” from Greg Keelor’s Gone (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros./Tidal), at what I consider a lifelike volume level -- as if Keelor were standing 8’ in front of me, belting it out in my room. It’s a good test track because it’s easy to tell if or when Keelor’s voice, which is recorded very cleanly and with minimal compression, begins to distort as you increase the volume. Again, at higher volumes than most would dare try, the sound remained clean, with no evidence of strain from speakers or amp.
More recently, when fellow-reviewer Roger Kanno visited for a day, I ran a similar test. Roger was so impressed with the lifelike reproduction of “No Landing (Lucknow)” that he wrote down the album’s artist and title. He also liked “Roller,” but halfway through the track he told me to stop, then put on “White Wedding,” from Billy Idol (16/44.1 FLAC, Chrysalis). At home, Roger plays this one at high volumes. We might have reached the Hegel’s limit at my place -- a bit of crustiness appeared atop Idol’s voice, indicating that the Hegel was clipping (i.e., distorting). However, the volume level was extraordinarily, ear-ringingly loud. For this distortion I finger the Hegel, not the Vivids -- I played the original Giya G2s even louder when I was driving them with a 300Wpc Bryston 4B SST2 power amp, and I suspect the new version can do the same. Yet though we may have pushed the Hegel as far as it could go, Roger said that he’d never heard the bass on this track sound so tight and clean at anywhere near that SPL.
Hearing that kind of clarity from the Hegel-Vivid combo inspired Roger to ask me to play “Homesick,” from Dua Lipa’s eponymous debut album (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros./Tidal) -- this time at a sensible volume level. Afterward, Roger said he’d never heard it reproduced so clearly anywhere. I wasn’t familiar with the track, but I wasn’t surprised -- because the next thing we played was “Love Is,” from Adam Cohen’s We Go Home (16/44.1 FLAC, Cooking Vinyl/Tidal), which I know very well indeed. The astounding clarity made it possible for me to hear details in this track better than I’d ever heard them -- the subtlest inflections in Cohen’s voice, the texture of the bass, even some sort of electronic buzz from an instrument or other device in the recording studio. Obviously, the Giya G2s should get a lot of credit for such transparency of sound -- but at just 12% of the speakers’ price, Hegel’s $6000 integrated-DAC deserves as much praise.
Those who think expensive speakers should be paired only with equally expensive electronics might balk at the idea of driving a $50,000 pair of speakers with a $6000 integrated-DAC. But if you could hear what Diego, Roger, and I heard in my room, you wouldn’t think such a pairing outlandish at all.
External vs. internal DACs -- Hegel vs. Hegel
Wanting to hear how the H390’s internal DAC would compare with a more expensive standalone DAC-- and to assess the H390’s sound quality through its analog inputs -- I brought out Hegel’s own HD30 DAC ($4800), which I reviewed exactly four years ago. I connected the HD30 to the H390’s left and right balanced inputs with Crystal Cable Standard Diamond balanced interconnects. The highly resolving character of the Giya G2 Series 2s made them, again, the obvious choice of speakers. The HD30 supports 24/192 PCM and DSD64, and MQA not at all. But the HD30 is still a champ at detail and clarity, and in comparison to the HD390’s internal DAC it didn’t disappoint.
Before Roger arrived that day, and using various tracks from Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, I ran some A/B comparisons of the HD30 and the H390’s internal DAC, and found that through the HD30 the sound was consistently clearer, and images on the soundstage were more precisely outlined, almost as if carved in space. I also found the HD30 a bit more forward in the treble. These differences, though never huge, were always audible. But the widths and depths of soundstages remained roughly the same.
Still, it wasn’t a clean sweep for the HD30. The H390’s internal DAC sounded a bit richer through the midrange, and subtly more robust and fleshed-out in the bass, all of which I liked. I also found the H390’s DAC a little easier on the ears -- it didn’t sound as precise as the HD30, but its richness made the sound more relaxed and pleasurable, particularly with voices. When I then listened to Bublé!, my impressions didn’t change.
When Roger came over, I played a sequence of recordings I knew he was familiar with, but without telling him any of my own impressions. Afterward, what he said mirrored my own thoughts: that the HD30 sounded clearer, with a more prominent treble, while the H390’s internal DAC sounded slightly richer through the midrange, and the bass was fuller. When I then played Adam Cohen’s “Love Is,” he said that he thought the HD30’s bass was tighter, but that the bass through the H390’s internal DAC, though slightly looser, seemed to go lower in frequency, and was also more seamlessly integrated with the midrange. He thought that the HD30’s more visceral bass sounded a bit detached from the higher frequencies.
In short, Hegel’s HD30 standalone DAC revealed more detail and sounded clearer. But which DAC sounded better? I call it a draw -- the sound of the H390’s DAC was every bit as enjoyable as that of the HD30. It’s just that those two sounds were different. If you prefer the sound of the H390’s DAC, call it a bonus for this fantastic integrated -- the H390 would be worth $6000 even without its DAC. With it, the H390 is even more of a bargain.
With Hegel Music Systems’ H390 integrated-DAC having so much in common with their H590 at so much lower a price, I couldn’t help wondering, after having finished listening to the H390, if Hans Wetzel had jumped the gun by buying the H590. After all, regardless of the H590’s high quality -- it does seem like a killer product -- $11,000 is a lot of money, and Hans is no big spender. In fact, he’s such a cheapskate that at times it gets him in trouble, as he admitted in September 2018 in “The High Cost of Cheap.” Plus, the speakers he uses don’t need all that much power -- does he really need more than the H390’s 250Wpc?
So after finishing my evaluation I phoned him, told him what I thought of the H390, then asked if he’d wished he’d waited for it. He told me that he’s happy with his purchase of the H590, but that, yes, had he known how good the H390 would turn out to be, he probably would have waited for it -- if only because it costs a lot less. Well, who wouldn’t want to get the most sound quality for the least cost?
After living with the Hegel H390, I think it’s a worthy successor to their H360 -- not only for its smoother, cleaner, more resolving sound, but also because its combination of price, power, and sound quality make it the sweet spot of Hegel’s current line of integrated amplifier-DACs. If I were in the market to buy a Hegel integrated-DAC -- regardless of how much I had to spend -- the H390 would be my first choice.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Monitor Audio Gold 100, Vivid Audio Giya G2 Series 2
- Integrated amplifier-DAC -- Hegel Music Systems H360
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Hegel Music Systems HD30
- Computer -- Asus UX303U running Windows 10, JRiver Media Center 20, Roon, Tidal
- Digital links -- AmazonBasics (USB), generic Ethernet
- Analog interconnects -- Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond
- Speaker cables -- QED Supremus
- Power cords -- Shunyata Research Venom HC
- Power distributor/conditioner -- Shunyata Research Venom PS8 with Defender (2)
Hegel Music Systems H390 Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Price: $6000 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