Note: Measurements performed by BHK Labs can be found through this link.
Editor Jeff Fritz was making sure that the audio gear coming my way would hold my interest and enthusiasm, so I looked forward to my next assignment. When he offered me the H20 power amplifier from Norwegian manufacturer Hegel Music Systems, my face said "That’s great!" even as I thought "What did he say?" I had to think -- where had I heard of Hegel? I pulled out photos I’d taken at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, found the images of their room, and remembered my experience there. There was nothing particularly memorable about the demo -- Hegel had a very basic room with a stand, a source, an amplifier, a preamplifier, and a couple pairs of speakers. Not that their demo was bad or unmusical -- it’s just that nothing about it stood out. But I figured I’d see where the experience took me. Soon, after an exchange of e-mails with Ben Gosvig, Hegel’s National Sales Manager for North America, an H20 arrived and my Hegel experience began.
Inside and outside
The Hegel H20 is a 200Wpc, fully balanced, solid-state amplifier ($5750 USD). It came securely double-boxed, and wrapped in an oversize plastic bag to keep its finish safe. Also included were an owner’s manual and power cord. The easy-to-follow manual is pretty basic, as is the cord -- thick and black, it’s about what you’d expect to accompany a power amp. The first thing I noticed about the H20 were its top and side panels of bead-blasted, anodized aluminum in Pearl Silver. They felt silky-smooth yet solid, and the amp had some weight to it -- not the impression given by the photos on Hegel’s website. The H20 looked and felt a lot more impressive in real life than, for instance, Parasound’s Halo JC 1, with which I seem to compare every similarly colored amplifier. The H20’s front panel, as smooth as its top and sides, contains 3.3 pounds of aluminum, which adds to the H20’s rigidity.
That front panel is basic and understated. There’s a large On/Off pushbutton, above it a small blue LED that lights up when the amplifier is powered up. Other than the Hegel logo above that, that’s all she wrote -- nothing busy or audacious. Likewise, the rear panel is populated with only the basics: at the far left and right are left and right sets of inputs, each set including one single-ended and one balanced, with a toggle for switching between them. On the inner sides of these are the left and right sets of speaker connectors. One nice touch comprised the small plastic inserts filling the space where banana plugs would normally go, to prevent dust from getting inside the connectors. At the center of the rear panel is an IEC inlet -- you can use your choice of AC cord. The H20 lacks external heatsinks; to dissipate heat, the top and bottom plates are perforated along the edges from front to back. The H20 rarely got more than lukewarm during use, and that was only after prolonged listening sessions during which I drove it hard.
The first thing that caught my attention about the H20’s interior was the large transformer sitting in the middle. There seems to be a lot of technology crammed into the H20, some of which I was able to get Bent Holter, one of the engineers who worked on the design, to explain to me:
"The H20 is not just another amplifier, cooked from the common recipe," he said. "It incorporates specific technology, where the SoundEngine is the most important. The SoundEngine holds a US patent and does two specific things: 1) It reduces all types of distortion. Distortion blurs the soundstage and hides the details. It can even make amps sound harsh and unpleasant. 2) It increases damping factor. Damping factor describes the amplifier’s ability to start and stop bass drivers in loudspeakers. Good damping factor equals well defined and rhythmic bass. The H20’s damping factor is about ten times the industry average."
Another design feature is the H20’s FET-technology input stages. Hegel uses carefully hand-matched FET transistors in a push-pull configuration. Unusually, they use only two devices per phase. Reportedly, this completely eliminates higher-order harmonic distortion. The claimed audible result is more detail in the higher frequencies and, at the same time, a smoother, more pleasant sound.
Hegel designs their components to include advanced technology to reduce the need for very expensive, specialized components that might not otherwise improve the sound but would dramatically increase the price. In other words, they make design decisions based on the outcome, not just because of a fancy part with a famous name. Whether or not they’ve succeeded in the H20 would be revealed in the listening. One thing is for sure: If, at the H20’s price of $5750, Hegel came even close to what they were trying to achieve, it would be a real victory.
As I normally do with electronic components, I set my CD player on repeat, turned the volume down low, and let the H20 break in for a few days before doing any serious listening. That done, I immediately noticed that the H20 sounded coherent, tonally neutral, and seamless -- no part of its sound drew more attention to itself than another. The H20’s ability to replicate musical information and reveal inner details made my listening much more enjoyable. Whether the music sounded warm and sweet or lean and detailed was not determined by H20, but rather by the equipment up the chain from it or by the recording itself.
The H20’s upper-frequency performance was quite revealing -- as if I were listening through a window that had been thrown open. As I sat by the sash, I could hear all the sounds from my neighborhood. All of the detail and air was obvious, but it never sounded etched or bright. Transient response was quite fast and lifelike. The strumming of guitar strings or the popping of chords on an upright bass, for instance, sounded realistic. Voices sounded tonally natural and nonfatiguing throughout the review period. Both micro- and macrodynamics were delivered realistically scaled. The H20’s handlings of bass depth and dynamic range were truly awe-inspiring. The lower frequencies appeared to have more extension and power than I’m used to hearing, while music with wide dynamic range was impactful and grabbed my attention. The H20 had a solid grip on the woofers of my Meadowlark Heron i’s, and gave me some of the better bass performance I’ve heard from these speakers. Performers were rendered with a great sense of presence and liveliness. The H20 reproduced a wide, spacious soundstage with good height and depth, and images were solid and three-dimensional.
The Kenny Werner Trio’s Live at Visiones (CD, Concorde Jazz 4675) is a wonderfully recorded album of good performances, with all of the jazz-club ambience you could want. The H20 did a wonderful job of giving me the feeling of being in Visiones that night, with all of the hall ambience and patrons’ sounds being easy to hear and follow. Pianist Werner, bassist Ratzo Harris, and drummer Tom Rainey perform intensely on this disc, making such standards as "Fall" and "Blue Train" all their own -- the club was charged with excitement, and the H20 allowed me to feel the energy as if I were present.
The same happened with Diana Krall’s Live in Paris (CD, Verve 440065), a wonderful album not only for her singing and pianism, but also for the supporting musicians, headliners in their own rights. The H20 did a first-rate job of conveying the joyous mood and vigor of the audience, who demonstrated their obvious appreciation of Krall’s efforts with thunderous applause. With the H20 in the system, that applause came over me in waves and seemed to energize my entire listening room. More important was the Hegel’s effortless ability to place Krall in my room with a feeling of palpability, particularly with "Maybe You’ll Be There" and "’S Wonderful."
With In Full Swing, by Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio (CD, Odyssey 87880), the H20 rendered the music with a lot of naturalness and realism. My favorite tracks on this disc feature female singers, and Jane Monheit’s voice in "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Misty" came through as lush and sweet. The amazing speed and articulation of Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet playing in "Tiger Rag" sounded lively, inspired, and involving. Another treat here was how the H20 allowed me to enjoy O’Connor’s violin tone, and the intensity with which he plays.
Danny Caron’s Good Hands (CD, Danny Caron Music) is full of Caron’s jazzy, bluesy guitar strumming and plucking, which the H20 put across with speed and accuracy and no softening of attack. I could distinctly hear Caron popping the strings -- they came through with realistic transients. Another memorable treat from this album is Jim Pugh playing the organ. It may be Caron’s disc, but Pugh puts his stamp on the piece with his strong, driving bass performance. The H20’s considerable low-end performance was on display here -- the bass was tight, extended, and tuneful.
The Tin Hat Trio’s eclectic and very enjoyable The Rodeo Eroded (CD, Ropeadope 93134) is a well-recorded mix of instrumental styles and textures. The interplay among the guitar, violin, accordion, and a smattering of harmonica, in the flavors of Parisian, Southwestern, and bluegrass, makes for an interesting mix of sounds. With "Willow Weep for Me" and "Manmoth," the H20 did an exemplary job of allowing this grab-bag of sounds and styles to remain tonally unique, the players’ timbres rich and full. Being able to follow the individual instrumental lines without having to strain to keep up with which instruments were being played adding to my enjoyment, and was one of the Hegel’s strong points.
The H20 also did a good job with classical piano music. One of my favorite discs for hearing how well the intricacies of the piano can be reproduced is Earl Wild performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, with Anatole Fistoulari conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (CD, Chesky CD013). With the H20 in the system, Wild had me captivated, the music coming across as rich and resonant. I could clearly hear the attack on the keys and the decay of the notes. The H20 also did a good job of conveying the emotion of the piece. The orchestral accompaniment was strong and powerful at the end of the first movement, then became light and more relaxed toward the middle of the work before coming to a powerful conclusion that ended on a gentle note. The H20 had no difficulty reproducing the dynamic swings of the orchestra, going from laid-back and quiet to loud and forceful. All the while, the low-end performance was exhilarating, being simultaneously impactful and deep.
Compared to some of the other amplifiers I had on hand, the Hegel H20 was not only one of the better-sounding models but also the least expensive. The Mactone MH-300B, a 30Wpc tube amplifier ($10,000), has a very nice midrange with the ability to flesh out the performers on a wide, deep soundstage. The H20 was every bit as good, and in many respects bettered the Mactone in those parameters, which it’s known to be strong in. Not only that, the H20 had noticeably more extension at the frequency extremes, and enough power to make dynamics sound natural and realistic. I felt that the Hegel’s build quality was much higher, too.
A bit closer in performance to the H20 were Audio Valve’s Baldur 70s. These 70W tubed monoblocks are very well made, pleasant to look at, and mate well with my Meadowlark Heron i’s. The Baldurs possess all the strengths associated with tubes, but also have an extended, airy top end. Overall, the Baldur 70s are very musical sounding, and for $9000/pair provide good performance, especially for their power range. The Baldurs were slightly airier up top than the H20, but didn’t have as much detail or as fast a transient response. The H20, with its 200Wpc, was able to do a better job of driving the Meadowlarks at different volume levels and with different types of music. Other than in the bass, the Baldur 70s and H20 weren’t that far apart, especially with jazz and some light classical music. But when I switched to pop music with heavily synthesized bass, and full-scale orchestral works, the H20 proved its mettle with ample bass control, impact, and extension, and was much more fulfilling to listen to.
Next, I compared the Hegel H20 to the XLH M-2000 600W monoblocks ($25,000/pair). This comparison was sonically the closest of the three because of the M-2000s’ sheer power. Amazingly, I found that the H20 gave up nothing to the XLHs in terms of power and control, especially in light of the Meadowlarks’ 92dB sensitivity and 6-ohm impedance. The Hegel and XLHs were comparable in bass power and extension, but the H20 had an uncanny ability to reveal pitch definition at the lower registers. And the Hegel sounded faster, with more liquidity in the midrange. Wow!
When I began to listen to the Hegel H20, I smiled -- this was going to be fun. I’d listened to amps that I’d borrowed or reviewed that cost several times the H20’s price but couldn’t touch it in terms of overall performance. I was becoming jaded by the escalating costs of audio gear.
But here is a real-world component at an honest price that seems to offer a level of performance that exceeds what you expect to get at the price. This was so refreshing. In the time it spent in my system the H20 gave me no trouble, and was well behaved and completely reliable. There was no humming, no ticks or pops or turn-on/off thumps. Its build quality and finish have understated elegance. And its 200Wpc drew the very best from my speakers without breaking a sweat.
It’s refreshing to come across a company that makes affordable gear that competes head-to-head with the expensive offerings from better-known names. I recommend it as highly as almost anything else I’ve ever reviewed.
. . . Michael Wright
- Speakers -- Meadowlark Heron i
- Source -- Esoteric DV-50S DVD/SACD/CD player
- Preamplifiers -- Klyne 7LX3.5B, Herron VTSP-3, XLH SL-11XS
- Amplifiers -- XLH M2000 monoblocks, Audio Valve Baldur 70 monoblocks, Mactone MH-300B
- Interconnects -- Dynamic Design Lotus Mk.2 and THB
- Speaker cables -- Dynamic Design Lotus
- Power cables -- Dynamic Design Lotus and Spirit
- Power conditioner -- IsoClean 60A3
- Accessories -- Epiphany Stand Systems Celeste Reference
Hegel Music Systems H20 Stereo Amplifier
Price: $5750 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems
P.O. Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56