The Hegel P20 arrived in a solid but modestly sized corrugated box within another box, the preamplifier comfortably cushioned by foam inserts. Included is a clearly written owner’s manual, along with a very heavy, all-metal remote control that will also work with most of Hegel’s other products. I much prefer the “bespoke” feel of such a remote to the generic plastic models that accompany many audio components at or below the P20’s price of $2900 USD. The P20 feels solidly built, and is surprisingly heavy -- 22 pounds -- for a preamplifier measuring 17"W x 3.2"H x 12"D. The front and side panels are of nicely contoured aluminum, with no sharp edges. The removable top panel feels to be heavy-gauge sheet metal when rapped on. The build quality is high, and the smoothly operating controls have a nice feel. The review sample was black; the P20 is also available in silver.
On the front panel are two large, round, metal knobs, one to either side of the large, centered, flush-mounted power button, which is surmounted by a large blue LED. The left knob is the input selector, the right the volume control; both have a light, smooth feel. Although the volume level is indicated by a small depression in the face of the knob, I couldn’t see this when seated, or tell where the volume was set unless I looked very closely at it when standing near the faceplate. Only the remote has a Mute button; the power LED flashes to indicate when the P20 is muted. If you like to leave your preamp on and engage Mute when not listening, this may be distracting.
Like most preamplifiers, the P20 can be easily set up by someone with only modest experience without reference to the manual. The P20 has only three feet, which guarantees that it will sit stable on any surface. It has five single-ended inputs, one of them designed for home-theater integration, and a single balanced input. One pair each of balanced and single-ended outputs are provided, which will be welcomed by those who, like me, run outdoor and other speakers from an aging receiver attached to the preamp. I used both the balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs, but did my listening primarily via the balanced ins and outs. Hegel states that the P20’s circuit design is balanced from input to output.
The Hegel P20 arrived on the day of a planned family gathering. My brother Hans Wetzel, also a SoundStage! Network reviewer, arrived early and helped insert the Hegel in my system, where it replaced my Audio Research LS15 preamp. I first experienced the P20’s sound when I walked into a house full of family, including loud young nieces and nephews who competed in volume with the stereo. Ultimately, the kids won, but in the battle, the Hegel demonstrated some of its best skills.
I was surprised by the P20’s bass response. Even amid the din and distraction of a house full of conversation and play, I could hear deep, solid bass, and details in the low end of which I’d previously perceived only suggestions. I also heard a striking clarity, but I knew I would need to wait for a more tranquil time to settle into the sound.
I’d planned to run the P20 in the background over the next few weeks, but ended up giving it a larger share of my concentrated attention -- the sound was alluringly natural. The many other obligations and distractions in my house and life can keep me from focusing on the music, but with the Hegel in the system I was drawn into the sounds coming from my system. My other responsibilities were sufficiently moderated to keep my interaction with my music going.
The P20 peeled away some haze from the sound I’m used to with my reference ARC LS15. The comparison was the auditory equivalent of an image presented first as slightly blurred, then in sharp focus. The clarity of each sound captivated my ears -- each instrument stood on its own, and rarely felt blended with the sound of adjacent instruments, literally or sonically. Each voice had its space in the overall sound. The sound was not sparse, but it was absolutely not run together or jumbled into a space.
With the Hegel P20, I could hear everything, and it was all very clear. The details expected by those who prefer higher-resolution recordings were presented very naturally. A great example of this was the flute in J.S. Bach’s Sonata for Flute and Basso Continuo in E Minor, BWV 1034, performed by Vytautas Sriubikis (24/96 AIFF, Lessloss), with bassoonist Povilas Bingelis and harpsichordist María González Calvo. A flautist myself, I reveled in being able to hear Sriubikis’s breathing and sense his embouchure, as well as the sound of the air around his mouth and the mechanics of his instrument. I hadn’t gotten a full sense of this from any recording until the arrival of the P20. I’d heard it, but it was never entirely convincing.
The P20’s ability to reproduce the acoustics of the venues of live recordings was also precise. With the Bach recording, the Hegel presented with ease the acoustic of St. Martin’s Church, in Basel, Switzerland. When I compared the sound with photos from the recording session and my broad experience of the sounds of church sanctuaries, it sounded accurate. Listening in dim lighting or with my eyes closed fostered the illusion that I was in the church with the musicians. But even with the physical reality of my own room clearly in front of me, the illusion of hearing a larger space detached from the speakers and flowing back away from the seating position seemed very real. The soundstage didn’t sound confined to the space between the speakers. With recordings of higher resolution and/or quality, the soundstages presented were those of the space where the recording was made.
With multitrack studio recordings and electronically created music, the P20 presented appropriate widths and separations, from left to right. Pete Townshend’s White City: A Novel (16/44.1 AIFF, Atco) is a cleanly recorded studio album with good separation among instruments. Townshend’s voice and acoustic guitar were clear, and had proper feel, in “I Am Secure.” The P20 wasn’t forward in its presentation of this track; rather, it was neutral to slightly laid-back. If there was depth or space in a recording, I heard it through the P20.
Any conversation about deep bass from a stereo system oftentimes revolves around the strengths of gargantuan, solid-state class-A amplifiers with their imposing physical size and prodigious power output and consumption. My reference power amp, a solid-state Audio Research D300, is a solid performer, but with only 160Wpc into 8 ohms, in no way is it likely to win a high-strength competition. Adding the P20 to the system made me question just how dependent good bass is on high-powered amps. The Hegel’s low end was very detailed and strong. Kick drums were much more prominent than I’m used to. In “Crucify,” from Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes (16/44.1 AIFF, Atlantic), I felt the deep drums much more viscerally. They weren’t more forward -- rather, they were more accurately represented and much more tactile, as drums are in person.
All deep sounds were very well resolved by the P20. There was no smearing of low pitches, which often makes music feel more muffled and gives the impression that low-pitched instruments are being played from behind a heavy curtain. The actual physicalities of big sounds of low pitch were evident through the P20. Rather than hearing that these sounds were deep, I actually felt them in the rest of my body. This experience felt natural and not electronically generated, as you’d expect to hear at a concert of acoustic or PA-reinforced music. The big, deep, electronic drum and bass-pedal sections of “Nova,” from VNV Nation’s Automatic (16/44.1 AIFF, Anachron America), were very well reproduced, and at high volumes struck me in the chest, as they would at a very loud concert with an extremely clean and clear PA system. I’ve always been able to play my system loudly; with the Hegel P20, the sound and the physical feeling of the low bass were more authentic.
During the time I had the Hegel P20 in my system, two other preamplifiers were available to me. My longtime reference preamp, an Audio Research LS15 ($2995, long discontinued), did a bit of time in and out of the system feeding its amplifier cousin, the D300. The LS15’s sound had the usual tube nuances: a little plump in the midrange, in a beautiful way, as is often the case with tube gear. I was surprised by the P20’s midrange -- it outperformed the LS15 in the sweetest range of the LS15's capabilities. The Hegel was more accurate than the ARC, but without sounding thinner. The LS15’s bass performance has been a point of modest concern to me over the years -- assuming that the D300 was doing its job properly. My B&W 801 speakers, with their 12” woofers and big cabinets, should have considerable punch, but really didn’t until the P20 joined the system. The LS15 sounded thinner and definitely weaker than the P20 in the deep bass.
I’ve owned the LS15 for many years, and am very familiar and have been very happy with its sound in that time. However, the P20 immediately displaced it to second chair. I’m so satisfied with the improvement in sound that I anticipate replacing the LS15 with a P20. The P20 represents for me an advancement in technology and sound, at a price similar to the LS15’s. I imagine that the newer technologies of silicon-germanium transistors and “high frequency components that were not originally designed for audio” mentioned on Hegel’s website play a role in the quality of sound relative to the LS15.
Another comparison was made possible by my recent purchase of Benchmark Media Systems’ excellent DAC2 HGC DAC-preamplifier ($1995). The DAC2 HGC was recently reviewed on GoodSound! by Hans, who had many kind words for it. I agree with his assessment, and heartily recommend the Benchmark to anyone who needs a reasonably priced DAC, and even more heartily to anyone on a budget who’s looking to move to separates. Comparing the P20 and the DAC2 HGC brings up the issue of whether or not one needs a standalone preamp when many of today’s DACs can run direct into an amplifier without audible loss of digital resolution. Keep in mind that the DAC2 HGC has analog as well as digital inputs -- it’s a true preamp in the traditional sense, not just a DAC with volume control.
When I compared the P20 with the Benchmark’s preamp section, the Hegel’s larger soundstages and greater accuracy bested the Benchmark. The P20’s sound was bigger, and tonally more natural than the DAC2 HGC’s. The sound of the Benchmark was in proportion with its physically smaller size -- it sounded a bit flatter and created smaller soundstages than the Hegel. Higher-pitched sounds and transients sounded slightly more sharp-edged and less natural through the Benchmark when compared to the full size, natural sound of the P20. Adding cost to the debate does not make for a more difficult choice. The P20 has a beautiful, natural sound that I feel justifies its place in a system built around separates, and is a reason to consider that step if you are able.
I recently wrote about the value of integrated equipment and some things to be considered in moving in that direction. By outperforming a superb integrated DAC-preamplifier, the Hegel P20 provides a strong argument against integration, despite the proliferation of cables and added circuit interfaces it requires. I take for granted here that the Hegel’s preamp section costs significantly more to make than the Benchmark’s. Being a device that serves one purpose rather than two is partially why the P20 sounds superior.
Quality audio equipment requires substantial knowledge, design, and manufacturing prowess. Hegel Music Systems demonstrates all of these with their recently released P20 preamplifier, which continues their tradition of high-quality sound from well-built equipment at reasonable prices.
I tend not to read an audio component’s promotional materials until I’ve finished assessing its sound, so that I’m not predisposed to hear what the manufacturer wants me to hear. But as I finished listening to the P20, I took a look at www.hegel.com and found the following description of the P20: “an open and natural sounding preamplifier at a very competitive price.”
I’ve used the words real and natural interchangeably here, and have discovered that I agree with Hegel’s description of the P20. I like that there’s no hyperbole on their website. Self-aggrandizement is not becoming.
The Hegel P20 was neutral in its sound. It allowed for beautifully clear separation of sounds, voices, and instruments; and the vivid depth of its bass was a revelation. This preamplifier allowed singers and instruments on the best recordings to sound natural and almost fully real. The buyer gets far better sound than the P20’s price of $2900 suggests.
. . . Erich Wetzel
- Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 801 Series 2
- Preamplifier -- Audio Research LS15
- Preamplifier-DAC -- Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC
- Amplifier -- Audio Research D300
- Sources -- Apple iMac and Mini computers running iTunes; Audio Research CD2 CD player
- Digital-to-analog converter -- California Audio Labs Sigma II
- Speaker cables -- Transparent MusicWave Ultra
- Interconnects -- Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR, AudioQuest King Cobra XLR, Transparent MusicLink Super RCA, AudioQuest Ruby RCA, generic TosLink, Ridgestreet Audio Designs Poiema USB, generic USB
Hegel Music Systems P20 Preamplifier
Price: $2900 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems
PO Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56
North American distributors:
Hegel Music Systems USA
Hampden, MA 01036
Phone: (641) 209-3210
Fax: (641) 209-3076
CP 8, 1217 Greene Ave.
Montreal, Quebec H3Z 2T1
Phone: (541) 931-1880
Fax: (541) 931-8891