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A ‘Sounding Amp’ over a ‘Pretty Boy’ Amp?

A film about the Hegel H390 Integrated Streaming Amp

Judging by the way amps like Naim’s Uniti Atom / Nova or NAD’s M33 Masters are raved about online, especially by many reviewers, it’s not hard to envisage why they are so popular. The combination of amped sonic astuteness, streaming, and a great interface and display – an all in one ‘takeaway’. Roon Readiness too, with no need for any cheaper audio peripherals, perhaps counting as the cheap wine thrown in from your ‘local’. This all leads to my film of Hegel’s H390 Integrated Streaming Amp, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves…

We can see prevalence of using Class D amps in all in one music amps like the NAD M10, for the steadfastness that this type of amp gives. High damping factor and great control of drivers, running cool meaning designers can fit amplifiers anywhere with no worry your amp will be doubling up as a slow cooker.

minimalist design
Hegel H390 Film Review
Hegel H390 Film Review

And whilst these brands are at it, blinged cases appeal to some tastes. The Nova and Atom from Naim look tremendous with the different use of metals, case form factor, and dark contrasting tones. That’s part of the allure, since who has many HiFi boxes nowadays amongst the general population, let alone consolidating Audiophiles? For instance, having pre and power amps for better sound is far from a consideration any more.

But we do this primarily because of sound quality, not so much features. To say otherwise is disingenuous, at this level of investiture. We do want decent functionality AND good case quality though. But what do I care for MQA, DSD or whatever when that largely means diddly squat against the quality of the amplification and the ability to drive the speakers to, as UK comedian Kenny Everett would have said; ‘best possible taste’. My point is, have it with features, but not at any cost to SQ!

Hegel H390 Film Review - insides case
Hegel H390 Film Review

Watt’s law tells us that power output is a function of voltage and current and resistance, so more than one way to achieve best possible dynamics. The damping factor of a really great amp means the driver can start and stop quickly – one reason for using class D which has high damping factor. The power to deal with great speakers means more dynamic headroom and not only more realistic bass, but because the speakers are working with improved efficiency, greater detail and depth into music, is on point. All this is equally, if not more important, than a great DAC for ‘eat as much as you like’ streaming lovers buying these types of amps.

But is there another way to thick aluminium cases, fully developed own apps, and countering an amplifier cum streaming ‘one boxer’ in this way. It seems to go hand in hand that people think something fastidiously built like the Naim’s mentioned, are better sonically. But are they?

Hegel H390 DAC board
Hegel H390 Film Review

This is the premise to this article and a big big nod to the Hegel Integrated amp range, a brand whose products I particularly rate. Not least, no class D, but a hybrid class AB type design with Hegel’s patented ‘SoundEngine2’ technology. All the benefits of class AB but with SoundEngine2, designed to have very high damping factor too, but no high frequency treble edge that sometimes pervades the Class D sound. This, I should say, has all but gone in modern Class D amplifiers, however ‘remnants’ can sometimes be heard if you listen hard. It might be a deal breaker.

It’s not an over-inflamed thing to suggest that what sounds good or best is an economic reality to the design and costs of design and materials used. I can feel some on hifi forums twitching to such notions, that ‘what we own individually is the best’ as one guy put it to me on a HiFi forum and that it’s only personal views with nothing objective in HiFi. Really?

Size is everything? easily gives away model of Hegel Integrated
Hegel Integrated Amp range
Hegel H390 Film Review

I don’t sit here thinking that just because I like the Hegel’s sonic signature, everyone else does or will or should. But I do sit thinking that the Hegel’s qualitative sound quality advantage is significant enough in dynamics, detail, scale and authority over music, to probably make more people than not think an amp like Hegel’s H390 will be a fairly obvious step up to the other amps mentioned here. Certainly step ups that Audiophiles will want. If your thing is for all the inbuilt streaming features and amplification into a luxury aluminium slabbed box, then be prepared to concede a relative compromise on sonics to Hegel’s H390 competition here, if you are spending around the Hegel’s $6000 / £4900 price point. I’ve tried two Hegel’s – the smaller H120 and this beefier H390.

Hegel from Oslo, Norway
Parliament building in Oslo – where Hegel Amps are assembled

You do loose a little on Streaming features with Hegel but streaming apps are inexpensive, and talking generously, Hegel say the functionality to use your own streamers allows tailoring. This is right, because back to my previous point, you buy the H390 to sound best – it’s a ‘Sounding Amp’ and this is why the film is titled as such…..what could we say; breaking on through or the evergreen bang for buck.

Roon is in the pipeline for Hegel’s Integrated amps as a firmware update, including H390. This will make even more of a case for a sounding amp over ‘pretty boy’ amps, as I facetiously tag in my film. Development of apps and interfaces is costly for relatively small HiFi firms and if they can let others do that for them, I’m all for it. This is one reason why the H390 and Hegel’s other Integrated amps make so much sense. Serious Audiophiles will see Roon as the grand-daddy of music interfaces anyway, another big bonus for Hegel because if you want best sonics, you probably want Roon’s best interface offering too.

H390 user manual is simplicity personified – shown with Hegel RC8 remote
Hegel H390 Film Review - manual and remote

The buzz that is emitted from the H390’s toroidal transformer is not a problem but has been mentioned in some online sites, lest other reviews. This is a natural tendency of large toroid’s where the alternating current causes the metals in the windings of the transformer to microscopically extend and contract, leading to sound waves. It isn’t a problem with the H390 because it starts on turning on – only if your ear is close to the case. Buzzing quickly diminishes to almost nothingness within a few seconds and particularly when stepping away playing music at any volume. It really is no biggie at all.

This is an extremely open and transparent amplifier, as I explain in my film. If you are an Audiophile with great speakers and want best possible drive, clichés abounding that it would be hard to think you can get better at this price, is so true. So much so, I put my money where my mouth is…..

Watch my film review here :

Manufacturer

Hegel Music Systems, PB26, Blindern, 0314 Oslo, Norway
Web : https://www.hegel.com/
Contact : [email protected]
Product description on Hegel website here

Specifications (from Hegel Website)

  • Power output: 2 x 250 W into 8 Ω, Dual Mono
  • Minimum load: 2 Ω
  • Analog Inputs: 1 x balanced (XLR), 2 x unbalanced (RCA)
  • Digital Outputs: 1 x coaxial (BNC)
  • Digital Inputs: 1 x coaxial (BNC), 1 x coaxial (RCA), 3 x optical, 1 x USB, 1 x Network
  • Line level Output: 1 x unbalanced fixed (RCA), 1 x unbalanced variable (RCA)
  • MQA supported inputs: USB, BNC, Optical and Coaxial
  • Frequency response: 5 Hz – 180 kHz
  • Signal-to-noise ratio: More than 100 dB
  • Crosstalk: Less than -100 dB
  • Distortion: Less than 0.005% @ 50 W/8 Ω/1 kHz
  • Intermodulation: Less than 0.01% (19 kHz + 20 kHz)
  • Damping factor: More than 4000 (main power output stage)
  • Dimensions incl feet: 14,5 cm x 43 cm x 44 cm (HxWxD), 20 kg unit weight
  • Dimensions (US): 5.71″ x 16.93″ x 17.32″ (HxWxD), 44 lbs unit weight
  • Special features: Set Startup volume | Set max volume | Software upgradable | Configure all inputs as fixed level inputs | IP control

Price

$6,000 / £4,900 / €5,995 (as at time of publication of article – 20/10/2020)

How to pronounce Hegel

3 Comments

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  1. Good review of the Hegel, nice to have the ‘otherside’ world as oppose to the Naim Novas. This particular amp has a very high damping factor (4000) so this could be an asset on difficult speakers, however question remains would this amp be an overkill on sensitive speakers (eg Monitor Audio) and would the sound suffer from over damping making the sound a little bit drier. Also maybe with Hegel amps bright speakers should be avoided as advised by a German review on a Hegel Amp. I also enjoyed very much your review of ATC SCM40A system which was spot on even though you trod a safe path (Consensus among most reviewers). For me you are a reviewer with a mission and sometimes you venture to be brave and speak your mind, which involves on your journey to be controversial. I for one always enjoy your input even if I disagree with you, you are never boring. Keep up the good work…!

    • Thank you for kind words. A mission to be, god forbid — wait for it – honest. Something the HiFi industry needs more of to get more entrants. The ATCs were good speakers if a little bit lacking in treble and needing good room acoustics, so I wasn’t treading safe their. They are still very good speakers. The HiFi forums are largely full of idiots that don’t really think about what they say.

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an audio lover who likes sharing experiences of faithfully reproduced audio in a CREDIBLE, BALANCED and ENGAGING way. I’m interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews keep technicalities easy, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

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